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A study by Howard Alexander found that the most common used phrase in the Journal of George Fox was "Power of the Lord", when you include similar phrases such as "Power of God" and "The Lord's Power". There are many aspects to the meaning of this phrase used so frequently by early Friends. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all aspects, or to discuss it in great depth.
The immediate prompting for writing an article this month on this theme was an article by Scott Martin on "Quaking and the Rediscovery of Primitive Quakerism" in the May 2001 Friends Journal. While I am uneasy with some of the directions that article took, I thank him for highlighting some key questions that have long interested me. He notes about early Friends' experience of the power of the Lord:
Friends would experience this power surrounding them or flowing through their bodies under a variety of conditions, but most often at the point of convincement, when facing a trial, or during meeting for worship. An experience of the power was often associated with some kind of involuntary physical or mental phenomenon. When seized by the power, some Friends quaked, vocalized, or fell unconscious to the floor, while other Friends saw brilliant light, had visions, experienced healing, or felt a force emanating from them that was capable of subduing an angry and hostile mob.We really do not know a lot about the typical early Quaker meetings for worship, but we do know that Friends were dubbed "Quakers" because they were said to tremble with the power of the Lord. We do not how common the various phenomena Martin mentioned were, and Martin notes that "Not all 17th-century Friends were of one mind regarding this power..." It is possible, even likely, that many references to such phenomena in early Quaker writings were edited out for fear they would be taken the wrong way by readers.
The question that particularly interests me is why such phenomena appear to be so uncommon among contemporary North American Friends. I limit my comments to North America because my knowledge of Friends elsewhere is not great enough to generalize my comments to include them.
I unite with Scott Martin in the feeling that the early Friends' practices of daily personal "times of retirement" and of worship that continued for several hours contributed substantially to them being in a condition to experience the power of the Lord in these ways. It is easy for contemporary Friends who live rather comfortable lifestyles in a political setting where they do not face the persecution that early Friends did to be much less serious about their spiritual lives. How many contemporary North American Friends have substantial daily times of devotion? We know that their worship, whether of the unprogrammed or pastorally-led variety, is usually limited to an hour.
Many spiritual movements which are on fire at the beginning lose much of their fire over the generations. For Friends, the 18th century was a period of consolidation which included the establishment of a variety of common expectations, some as matters of written discipline and some more informally enforced with the help of the elders. By the end of that century, discontent was arising with the quietist atmosphere and seeming lack of freedom to fully express the moving of the Spirit. Since then, there have been several movements among Friends which, among other things, led to schisms as differences became too large to bridge.
Many Friends are very suspicous of emotionalism in worship. There are real dangers of artificially creating an emotional environment in which the feelings might in considerable respect not be genuine ones of a relationship with Jesus Christ. But it seems to me that our faith is experiential, centered in a relationship. Emotional expression would seem to naturally spring forth from such a relationship. If emotional expression is proper (in fact, good) in the love relationship between a husband and wife (and I would expect that most Friends would think it is), why is not in our relationship with the divine lover?
Today, North American Quakerism is very diverse. But it seems to me that there are many individuals and meetings/churches in all of what we now call the branches of Quakerism which lack a real sense of the power of the Lord operating in worship and in their daily lives.
There are also a variety of efforts to renew and revitalize Friends, and some fruits of these are evident. In addition to purely internal efforts, perhaps Friends can also seek inspiration and renewal from sources outside North American Quakerism. Two which occur to me are:
In all your meetings know and feel the Power and the Seed the heir of the promise of the Lord God amongst you and in you; then in that you will feel the presence of the Lord God dwelling in the midst of you...
-from George Fox's Epistle 104, 1655
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