The Double Priority

In the course of studying the history of the people called Quakers, two major contributions come into prominence. On the one hand, Friends are known for their active social concern. Since their beginning, the story of Friends attacking a series of social evils has been a thrilling one. The most notable of these are the recognition of the evil of human slavery, the effort to care for the mentally challenged without cruelty, the work for a more humane penal system, and the continuous work to find peaceful solutions to problems between individuals, groups, and nations.

At the same time that Quakers have been known for their attacks upon various forms of oppression, they have been equally known for their cultivation of the inner life of devotion. No other religious group has been as much given to the keeping of journals or writing books where the authors share their encounters with the Living Light. Compared to their size, Quakers have produced a disproportionate number of writings on the inner life. Here are just a few:

  • Fruits of Solitude by William Penn. Like No Cross, No Crown, which was Penn's first major piece of writing, Fruits of Solitude can be considered an affiliate to the many formidable volumes which can be classified under the genre of prison literature, since he was under house arrest when it was produced. In the preface he writes, "There is nothing of which we are apt to be so lavish as of time, and about which we ought to be more solicitous...Time is what we want most, but what, alas, we use worst!" A bit further on he writes, "Turn in, turn in, I beseech you; where there is the poison there is the antidote. There you want Christ and there you must find Him. And blessed be God there you may find Him."
  • The Journal of John Woolman and A Plea for the Poor. I have spoken many times about John Woolman, whom I consider one of my spiritual heroes. Here is a sample of what one will find in his Journal: As he considered why he took a mission trip to western Pennsylvania to meet with some First Americans, he wrote, "Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them." In A Plea for the Poor, he writes, "Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship, and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the Creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest, from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives."
  • A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. This classic volume consists of essays that Kelly wrote for the magazine The Friend and were compiled and edited after his death by his dear friend, Douglas Steere. Kelly writes, "Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking voice to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself..." Later he writes, "Out in front of us is the drama of persons and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring and dying...But within the silences of the souls of persons an eternal drama is ever being enacted...And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history."

This is just a sample of the numerous devotional writings that Friends have produced. A classic is born when it withstands the vagaries of vogue and shares truth regardless of time. The Quaker classics have withstood the challenges of time, and have taken their rightful place on the shelf reserved for the classics of religious literature.

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