Something a little different this week. A bit of personal family history. I call it a meditation on my “theological DNA.”
A reader of my blog suggested that I am probably a “closet Protestant.” Not really. But From the time I was an adolescent, I have been an inquisitive Catholic. It started when I was about thirteen in my 8th grade class in southern Michigan. One day, our parish priest, Fr. Linus, told my class we should avoid contact with Protestants because they belong to a “false religion.” I stood up and in front of the class I told Fr. Linus I did not agree with him. I said that my father was a Protestant and that there was absolutely nothing false about him. Fr. Linus did not react but my teacher practically killed me with her angry-nun stare.
As I grew older I remained inquisitive but became an even more critical Catholic. I am not anti-Catholic. I am a constructively critical Catholic. I also appreciate my Protestant family roots.
My mother’s family, on her father’s and her mother’s side, came from the Alsace, near Strasbourg. They were well anchored in the Catholic tradition. My paternal grandfather, however, had English Quaker roots, and my paternal grandmother had French Huguenot roots.
The Huguenots, starting in the mid-16th century, were a religious group of French Protestants who held to the Reformed, or Calvinist, tradition of Protestantism. They argued that the Catholic Church needed a radical cleansing of its impurities and that the pope represented more of a powerful and wealthy kingdom than the Reign of God. Due to strong Catholic anti-Protestant persecution, in the 17th century, the Huguenots were either forced to leave France or become Catholic. When the French king, Louis XIV (1638 – 1715), revoked all Protestant rights in his 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, my grandmother’s family left southern France, via Marseille. They escaped first to England and then on to the Province of Pennsylvania in colonial America.
I have always wondered about my Quaker roots. Quakers rejected ornate religious ceremonies and had no official clergy. Quakers also played key roles in abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Quaker missionaries first arrived in North America in the mid-1650s. My Quaker ancestors arrived in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1684. They had come from Chester, England.
The founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, was George Fox (1624 – 1691) born near Leicester, England. Driven by his “inner voice,” Fox left his home in 1643 and began his spiritual quest. The English Civil War (1642 – 1651) had begun and troops were stationed in many towns through which he passed. The Civil War was actually a series of civil wars and political maneuvers about the form of England’s governance and issues of religious freedom.
In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly, wherever people would listen to him. Initially he had no desire to found a new religious movement, but he saw a need for Christianity to rediscover its original simplicity.
There was of course much political and religious turmoil in England in the 17th century. The execution of King Charles I (1600 – 1649) saw Puritanism take hold and the monarchy end. Puritans believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church and should be purified by eliminating ceremonies and practices not rooted in the Bible. After the King’s execution, a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England.
After King Charles II’s (1630 – 1685) restoration to the throne in 1660, a new period of religious and political turmoil began. Charles II was Anglican but open to other Christian traditions. Charles’s English parliament, however, enacted laws known as the Clarendon Code, designed to strengthen the position of the re-established Church of England
George Fox travelled throughout Britain as a dissenting preacher, and he was often persecuted by the disapproving English authorities. He was searching for a more direct spiritual experience and came to believe that the presence of God was found more within people than institutional churches. In 1669, he married, Margaret Fell, the widow of a wealthy supporter. She is often called the “mother of Quakerism.” Fox’s ministry expanded and he made tours of North America and the Low Countries. He was arrested and jailed numerous times for his beliefs, as was his wife.
Fox spent his final decade working in London organizing, with his wife’s strong support, the expanding Quaker movement. Despite disdain from some Anglicans and Puritans, George Fox was viewed with respect by his Quaker convert William Penn. Two days after preaching as usual at the Gracechurch Street Meeting House in London, Fox died on January 13, 1691. He was interred three days later in the Quaker Burying Ground, known today as Quaker Gardens a small public garden in the extreme south of the London Borough of Islington.
The term “Quaker” began as a derisive nickname for Fox and others who shared his belief in the biblical passage that people should “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” In Quaker prayer services people did occasionally tremble or “quake” with religious fervor. The group eventually embraced the term “Quaker” although their official name remained the Religious Society of Friends. Members are still referred to as “Friends” or “Quakers.”
By 1660 there were around 50,000 Quakers. Among them my ancestors who knew Fox quite well. In 1681, King Charles II in England gave William Penn, a wealthy English Quaker, a large land grant in America to pay off a debt he owed to Penn’s father, the admiral and politician Sir William Penn (1621 – 1670). The colony of Pennsylvania was then founded by William Penn junior in 1682, as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith. Within just a few years, several thousand Friends had moved to Pennsylvania, among them my ancestors, who were friends of Penn and purchased from him a parcel of land near Chester, Pennsylvania.
Many Quakers were actively involved in Pennsylvania’s new government and held leadership positions in the first half of the 18th century. They later realized that their political participation forced them to compromise some of their beliefs, including pacifism. Quakers were also early abolitionists. One of my ancestors was a strong abolitionist who spent much of his time promoting abolition from Georgia to New Hampshire. By the 1780s, all Quakers were barred from owning slaves.
Quakers seek religious truth through inner experience. They stress a direct experience of God rather than via rituals and ceremonies. Trying to integrate religion and everyday life, they believe God can be found in the middle of life and human relationships as much as during a gathering for worship. Quakers call their worship events “a meeting for worship” rather than services. At least once a week, the members of a Quaker meeting gather for silent worship.
In a Quaker meeting for worship people sit in a circle or opposite each other in silence for an hour. From time to time someone may speak briefly, but sometimes the entire hour may pass without a word being spoken. Quaker meetings for worship are open to everyone and they take place in “meeting houses” not churches. These are simple buildings or rooms. Quaker worship is very different from the worship of most Christian churches. It doesn’t follow a set ceremonial ritual. A Quaker service has no structure and no one leads it.
Many of my paternal ancestors, particularly in Pennsylvania, were what today we could call Quaker “pastors.” From what I have found in historical documents they were compassionate ministers in touch with their people. They believed that faith is something that is always developing and not something frozen at a particular moment in history.In their own ways, I would say they were probably very good theological thinkers.
No. I am not ready to become a Quaker. I am still a Catholic, but I was thinking about my Catholic, Huguenot, and Quaker ancestors this past week. Maybe my religious chromosomes were interacting? I pictured them sitting around a table, praying and discussing contemporary belief. I could almost hear them speaking: “What does it mean to belong to a church today? What doctrines and institutional structures need to be changed? How do we come to religious truth? How do we listen to contemporary people searching for meaning and purpose in their lives? How do we hand on values to the next generation?”
Yes indeed. We live in a time of widespread uncertainty about the future. Considering the current crises our world faces, we urgently need to find a new way of living together in this world. A way of shared life that bridges differences and embodies the reality of all life as sacred and connected. We need a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking with each other, and friendly and supportive collaboration. We need honest and good information. But life-giving ministry is more than passing-on good information. Life-giving ministry is a process of traveling with people in their spiritual development wherever they are in their life journey.
Ok. Enough about my “theological DNA.”