Friends as a "Chosen People"

By Chuck Fager

[Adapted from presentations given at Canadian Yearly Meeting,
Eighth Month (August), 1997]

I. People and Peoplehood

I want to explore the idea, the concept, the Quaker experience of being something called a "people." In this exploration, I’ll make extensive use of the Bible.

A "People" – that’s a self-description you don’t hear much among Friends nowadays, except in occasional mildly self-mocking references to ourselves as a "peculiar people," peculiar here generally meaning somewhat odd, idiosyncratic, weird, or even a bit bizarre, but quietly so. Looking through a number of current books of Faith and Practice, from the various branches, I found the term almost nowhere outside a few stray quotes from a long time ago.

Instead I found many references to the "Society" of Friends; our groups were described as "communities" or "families" (in the Quaker Tapestry there’s a panel on the "worldwide ‘family’ of Friends)"; several refer, as Elton Trueblood also liked to do, to the Friends "movement"; and the evangelical handbooks described Quakerism as a "revival" or a "renewal" in Christianity.

Yet as late as 1806, the widely-copied Philadelphia YM Discipline opened with a very different kind of self-identification, namely that,

"As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men...these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver...."

It may seem at first blush that these terms are all synonyms, and to be sure, they overlap to some extent. But they are not identical.

A "Society," for instance, in my Webster’s is: "A voluntary association of individuals for common ends."

A "Community" is "A body of people having common organization or interest."

A "Family" is "Those descended from a common progenitor; the body of persons who live in one house, and under one head; a household."

A "Movement" is a series of acts and events tending toward some definite end; a trend. We’ll come back to these terms.

A "Revival" is Renewed interest in religion, after indifference and decline, a regeneration.

What I want to do is to suggest that these other terms are distinct from the idea of being a "people," and that the distinction makes a difference.

I’ve done a lot of wondering and reflecting on why I was led to this topic. An "opening" about it came when I was crossing the Canadian border at Ft. Erie, near Buffalo, New York, on my way to Canadian Yearly Meeting in August of 1997. I didn’t realize it til I saw the road sign, but to get to Ft. Erie, you go across what’s called the Peace Bridge. I was delighted to see that span, because it took me back 30 years to a breezy spring day in 1967.

That day I joined a bunch of other Quakers, mostly from New York, and together we walked across that Peace Bridge, to the Canadian side. The weather was quite something that day: we started out bundled up against the cold; but halfway across the bridge, the sky cleared up and the sun started beating down and before you knew it we were all hot and sweaty.

But the weather didn’t bother us all that much. What we walkers were really worried about was that we might all get arrested by the Customs cops or the Border Patrol, or some group of federal cops. We were worried about arrest because we were all carrying medical supplies, which we were taking to the Canadian Friends Service Committee, to send to civilian victims on all sides in the Vietnam War, and doing that was against an American law called the Trading With the Enemy Act.

Actually, all I had was a little box of Band-Aids in my pocket; but it was enough to make the point. And we announced our intention to defy this law and commit this civil disobedience to the border folks and anybody else who would listen. The guys at the toll booth kept us waiting for about an our while they talked on the phone, probably to Washington, and then they just let us go ahead undisturbed.

Well, I must say the Peace Bridge looked rather the worse for wear in 1997; I guess 30 Buffalo winters and the decline of federal funding have been pretty hard on it–and that’s not to mention the vicissitudes any symbol of peace has experienced in those years. But I smiled all the way across the bridge, and I remembered especially the warm greetings of the Canadian Friends who met us.

That was a very special moment in my young Quaker journey. And in reflecting on what made it so special, this word "peoplehood" came back to mind. That walk over the bridge, and the reception we got from Canadian Friends, was the act of a self-conscious people, a group with an identity and a mission; and that day, these realities were clearly in focus for me, if not yet articulated.

Nor was that walk an isolated event. There was a regular Quaker smuggling ring operating for awhile, Friends bringing medical supplies and money over the border individually, without the hoopla of our public demonstration, but at greater personal risk. They too did it because they were led, as part of the life among this peculiar people.

Now the recollection of that trek across the Peace Bridge was a recent opening about the value of this idea. My initial interest in it, some months earlier, was very much strengthened by a more remote piece of Quaker history: an unsigned early Quaker pamphlet, part of the title of which is as follows: "A Visitation of Love Unto the King, and Those called Royalists."

It was published in London in 1660, right after the monarchy was restored and Charles II was put on the throne. I found it quite by accident one day when browsing among the stacks of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College.

The pamphlet is–as you might expect–a defense of Friends against persecution. But most Quaker writings of that time dealt with persecution to some extent, so that is not why it caught my attention. Rather, permit me to cite a few brief passages from the very first paragraph which will show why it seemed synchronistic that I should have picked it up:

As concerning the Quakers, that are scornfully so called, we are at this day, and have been ever since we were a people, a poor, despised and contemptible People, in the eyes of the world, and deep sufferers under the injustice, and cruelties, and oppressions both of rulers and teachers and people...
and this hath been ever since the Lord raised us up to be a people, though we have not been offensive to any just law...
and what we are as unto the Lord, if I should declare, it could not be believed by many: but we are his people, and he hath chosen us...
and though we have been and may be clouded with the Reproaches and persecutions of an uncircumcised Generation, yet in the Lord’s season it shall be manifest even to the world, and to our very enemies, that we are his people and chosen of him, and he is in the midst of us, whom we serve and worship in spirit, in truth and in righteousness....

I hope it will not be too obvious to say that I was very struck by the fact that Quakers were very assertively described as a "people" no less than five times in this opening paragraph. I’m aware that early Quaker writers were given to repetition, but there’s more than that here.

When Margaret Fell wrote to the king the same year, she used similar language, speaking on behalf of "the People of God called Quakers," adding that "we have been a Suffering People under every Power and Change...in the Nation these Twelve years, since we were a People...."

This reminded me of one of the key early experiences of George Fox–when he climbed Pendle Hill, the vision he saw there was where there God had "a great people to be gathered" in those parts.

What was the experience of this "gathering" or "raising up" like? The most eloquent evocation of the experience that I have seen was that of Francis Howgill (Trueblood, p.12):

The kingdom of heaven did gather us and catch us all as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart, ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men...?’ And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being....And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.

Not long thereafter, I picked up an 1875 edition of Robert Barclay’s great theological defense of Quakerism, The Apology. I am most familiar with the Modern English version of The Apology, as edited by Dean Freiday, and it has been very useful to me over the years. But in the beginning of this very non-modern edition was a dedicatory letter to King Charles II, which Freiday leaves out. And in it I found Barclay protesting the way governments had persecuted God’s prophets, "and persecuted his people, whom he had called and gathered out from among them...but He raised them up, and armed them with spiritual weapons, even with his own spirit and power...."

By 1694, William Penn published a book confidently titled The Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers.

But if being a "people" is not the same as being a community, a family or a society, what exactly is it? My Oxford English Dictionary was not very helpful, at least on the first try. In it a "people" is simply " A body of persons, composing a community, tribe, race or nation."

The light dawned, though, when I returned to Quaker jargon and looked up "peculiar." And there it was: "Peculiar people." But it had nothing whatever to do with the odd or the eccentric; or with Quakers, for that matter. Rather, it stated baldly that it was, "A name applied to the Jews as God’s own chosen people; hence transferable in a religious sense."

So. Being a "peculiar people" meant being a people chosen, called, and formed by God. Early Friends claimed to be God’s own chosen people.

Which, of course, gets us to the Bible. And initially, to a passage in the First Epistle of Peter, specifically chapter 2, verses 9-10:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."

This letter was written, my commentaries tell me, to communities of faith which were likely to face persecution from the Roman authorities. And thus it is not coincidental that Fox cited and paraphrased this passage often in his epistles to Friends, as in this one in 1674(#313):

"And so the whole Church of Christ...the believers in the Light, children of the light..all such...men and women, ‘are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people,’ that they should show forth the virtue of Christ, ‘that has called them out of darkness into his marvelous light." (T. Canby Jones, The Power of the Lord is over All,p. 313)

Like most such texts, the writer of Peter’s Epistle is quoting and reinterpreting a motif or theme from the Hebrew scriptures. And for that matter, George Fox is reinterpreting Peter (especially on the issue of male-female equality, which is mentioned several time in Fox’s epistle, in contrast to Peter.)

So the point of calling Friends a "people" is not a matter of lexicography, etymology or philology (or I might add psychology or astrology too...), but rather theology, or rather, the burning convictions from which theological work arises. And of course, when you start talking about a group as "God’s chosen people," you’re using terminology that is freighted with significance and difficulty. We’ll get into that next.


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