Here's a little test. What do you think of when you hear the word "Quaker"? Perhaps you picture a jolly white haired man in front of an oatmeal box or you think of someone driving a buggy (actually that is Amish). The word "pacifist" might come to mind since Quakers do not fight in wars. You may even think of the term "holy roller" and you would be right, since the original Quakers (who referred to themselves as "friends") were given their name as a derogatory term because they would "Quake" under the power of the Holy Spirit (sound familiar Pentecostals?).
Let me give you a few other words to add to your database- womens' rights, prison reform, abolition of slavery, democracy, religious freedom, equality-all of these words should be the first to come into your mind when you hear the word "Quaker" because the Quakers were the people that pioneered these concepts for the human race.
Earlier this year I read the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the story (which takes place in the 1850's), author Harriet Beecher Stowe describes the Quakers as those who were helping Negro slaves escape to freedom. In a time of hatred and oppression, that is remarkable in and of itself. But what is even more remarkable is that the Quakers would allow the "Negroes" to eat with them as if they were their equals. Shocking! Where did these crazy holy rollers get such a revolutionary idea? After all, even Thomas Jefferson didn't exactly have black people in mind when he penned the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."
I'll tell you where they got the idea. They got it from the Bible. They had the audacity to believe a tiny little verse in the gospel of John which says that Christ is the "true light which lighteth every man coming into the world"(John 1:9). Quakers believed that since every human being has the light of Christ within (they used the term "inner light"), then every human being is equal in value. The theological term for this idea is prevenient grace, and it is a beautiful concept. Quakers believed that the inner light in every human being can be accepted or rejected, but never ignored. Instead of seeing the world as "us" verses "them", they saw each human being as a bearer of the Christ image, regardless of how the individual may or may not have responded to the light.
I would like to believe that if I were living in the 1850's in North America, that I would be affirming the equality of negro slaves by inviting them to dine with me in my home. I would like to think that I would have stood up for them and thrown all of my energies into fulfilling the Biblical mandate to "set the captives free". But, deep down, I don't really know if that would have been me. Perhaps I would have swallowed the conventional theology of the day which said that slavery was a God-ordained institution. If I wanted to justify it, I could have twisted many verses of the Bible to justify white superiority. I hope that my heart would have made it hard for me to do that. I hope that I would have been like the Quakers who believed that every human being they met was a child of God equal in dignity and value. Hope is the key word. Perhaps I should rename this post "Why I wish I would have been a Quaker."
Wishful thinking may be nice, but it is never really helpful in the long run. Perhaps a better question is this- what needs to change in my thinking today to make into the kind of person that would have done what the Quakers did yesterday? I'm going to make a bold statement here. Please don't burn me at the stake. Here goes. If my current theology does not produce in me a goodness to the degree of 19th century Quakers, then whatever theological concept that is preventing this from happening needs to be flushed down the toilet.