Stan's message in worship this week gave a powerful sense of permission for people to listen to God and to speak what they hear prophetically. He began from the story of Moses first receiving a call to go to Pharaoh and ask for the release of the Israelites from Egypt, highlighting the fact that Moses wasn't exactly a member of high standing in the Hebrew community. He'd been raised as an Egyptian, he killed a man, and then he spent a number of years in Midian as an obscure shepherd. So really, Moses was probably more afraid of presuming to be the spokesperson for the Israelites than he was to go before Pharaoh. This was in some ways a recurring story throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: the people cried out, God heard them and, in God's own timing, sent a prophet to speak out about the situation, to call out against injustice and to restore Israel to attendance to God. Generally prophets speak not only against “the enemy,” whomever that might be, but they also note that something must change among the chosen people as well—which is never an easy message to give.
After discussing Moses and the role of prophets for a little while, Stan connected this with Friends: in the seventeenth century, Quakers felt called to call Christians away from empty, self-serving rituals into authentic worship—worship that expects to hear from God, and worshipers who expect to act on what they hear. They also felt called to mitigate suffering: to be obedient to God by helping those in need. This called into question the value system of the culture in which they lived, and also the “church” of their day. Christians had become enslaved to the system that oppressed people, and in many instances oppressed them. And yet, most Christians weren't asking for an escape from the system—they were asking to be successful within it. Quakers lived in a way that called that system into question, in a way that emphasized radical equality and love for neighbors and enemies.
As Friends we've had our own problems historically, of course: many early Friends profited from slave labor, and Friends became at least as legalistic as the Anglicans and Puritans their forbears spoke against, with Books of Discipline, elders and overseers controlling people's dress codes and associations, and so forth. At times, prophets have arisen from our Quaker communities and after a time we have listened: John Woolman spoke out against slavery and Friends gave up their slaves.
Stan suggested that Friends lost their prophetic voice during the period of Quietism, so that in the nineteenth century when all the splits happened between Gurneyites, Wilburites, Hicksites, Beanites, and probably some other -ites I'm not thinking of right now, there was no one to speak prophetically and keep those splits from happening. He sees the twentieth century as a time of renewed prophetic voice among Friends, as people have called out against the splits and tried to heal those broken places through organizations such as FWCC.
I think this is true to some degree, except I think there were plenty of people who did speak out against the splits at the time but weren't listened to. I think also there were tons of people listening to God and speaking prophetically among Friends in the nineteenth century—they were perhaps so wrapped up in helping with the abolition and women's rights movements, among others, that they didn't have time or energy to keep the splits from happening internally. Most of those people ended up being Hicksites, which is curious to me.
So—brief explanation: a man named Elias Hicks started preaching, emphasizing the traditional Quaker belief that it is only through direct revelation from God that we can gain any spiritual insight. He did not, it seems, originally intend to get rid of the Bible or Christianity, but his point was that if we don't listen to the Present Spirit, the Bible is meaningless. He also downplayed the need to take a literal interpretation of the Bible. The first split in Quakerism ensued, where Hicks' followers were called the Hicksites, and the others called themselves Orthodox.
About 20 years later another split occurred between the Gurneyites and the Wilburites. Gurneyites came from Joseph John Gurney, who basically spoke the Evangelical message. He was an English Friend, and upon traveling in the United States, found that American Friends had too much focus on the Inner Light to the exclusion of belief in the Bible, the historical Christ, or the necessity of salvation through Christ alone. Then there were the Wilburites, named for John Wilbur, who felt that in emphasizing the Bible so much, Orthodox Friends had lost the sense of listening to the Present Christ, and their religion had become dry and based only on right belief, not on actual experience of God.
Of these the Hicksites were the most liberal, although the Beanites came along later in the century to take that title. It is probably here that Friends started to separate the ideas of evangelism from social action, and yet, Gurney—the most Evangelical and conservative of the crew—was also well-known for his work against capital punishment, for prison reform and for peace (along with his sister, Elizabeth Fry). But the social reformers in the American nineteenth century seem to have been mostly Hicksites.
My point is this: nineteenth-century Quakerism was not without its prophets. Some spoke internally, and one could probably call Hicks, Gurney and Wilbur prophets in this way. These words all needed to be spoken, in my opinion. But there were also numerous prophets who spoke both within and outside the Quaker community, calling the world to act justly toward one another, and taking great personal time, energy and risks to see that reform occurred. Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Levi Coffin, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and many others spoke the truth regarding abolition and women's rights, and put their money and their lives where their mouth was. Others worked for prison reform, mental health care reform, temperance (a domestic violence issue) and other areas. And most of these people were Hicksites.
Our Yearly Meeting is a descendant of the Orthodox-Gurneyite tradition with a strong focus on the Bible and right belief. Perhaps we lost the ability to listen to the prophets among us for a while, but I don't think Quakerism as a whole did so. The question is, how can we have a strong focus on remaining true to historical Christianity while at the same time living in ways that reflect the present calling of Christ on our lives? Is it possible for us Gurneyites to not get so bogged down in our precious doctrines and declarations (Richmond Declaration) that we actually still listen to Christ speaking?
And if we listen to Christ, are we willing to break away from mainstream Christianity in the United States and live out that calling in more radical ways? Are we willing to be different, to not just be another Protestant denomination with a few quirks, like not taking communion? This is where I come back into agreement with Stan. We definitely need to make space to listen to prophets rising in our midst, and be willing to do the hard things that we hear. If we believe in the Bible and the historical Christ, is this something that actually makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those we come in contact with?