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Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Quaker factor

7 September 2017

We’ve been meeting for our monthly literary coffee klatsch for more than a year now, having quite wide-ranging discussions on Christianity and literature. We have discussed a variety of authors and works, with quite deep discussions on G.K. Chesteron (first Anglican, then Roman Catholic), and several others, but Quakers haven’t figured much in our discussions, so today Janneke Weidema spoke a little about the history of the Society of Friends (Quakers). It was quite fascinating, and we stayed about twice as long was we usually do.

She began with vocabulary. Quakers, like most other groups, have some terms that have a special meaning for them, and there are some special uses. “Elder”, for example, is a verb, exemplified by a notice on a parking space reserved for the disabled, to the effect that anyone else who parked there would “be eldered”.

There is an emphasis on quietness and peacefulness, and the group discerning a proper course of action. This was in marked contrast with our TGIF meeting last Friday, where we were asked to share our vision of a new South Africa without the rubbish, and then to think of what we personally were going to do to bring it about. There was a great emphasis on action and activism, and Janneke contrasted this with the Quaker attitude of “Don’t just do something; sit there.”

In southern Africa, however, Quakers are quite active in giving training in nonviolence, especially in prisons.

She also mentioned a rabbi who meditated on the fact that most laws in Judaism were passive; the emphasis was on avoidance, things that one should not do. The one exception is peace. We are to “seek peace and pursue it”. And that is very familiar to us; it is from Psalm 33/34, which we sing every Sunday. Verse 15 reads: Shun evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it. It’s worth thinking about what that means.

But central to the Quaker approach is Light, with a capital L. This is God’s light in our hearts, and as she spoke about it I was struck by how familiar it sounded to me as an Orthodox Christian, because one of the central themes of Orthodoxy is the Uncreated Light, the light of the Transfiguration, and it seemed very similar to the Quaker approach. And a lot of the Quaker thinking seemed to have an affinity with Orthodox hesychasm.

So much for the general approach of Quakers, but what about literature?

Janneke specifically mentioned two books that are of the top of the Quaker reading list: The Journal of George Fox and The Journal of John Woolson. She read several extracts from them, and said that George Fox, in particular, assumed that people would be familiar with the Bible, not used for prooftexting, but in a more holistic way. John Woolson’s writing was more in line with Enlightenment thinking.

John Woolson became a lawyer, and when people asked him to draw up wills for them, he urged them not to bequeath slaves to their heirs, but to free them instead. If they would not do so, he declined to draw up their wills.

I had been under the impression that Hannah More was a Quaker, because, like John Wookson, she was concerned with the abolition of slavery, but apparently she was not Quaker, but Evangelical. She did, however, make her mark on literary history.

Quaker WitnessQuaker Witness by Irene Allen

In addition to books about Quaker beliefs and practices, there are also works of fiction by Quaker authors, including whodunits like this one. It is one of a series of four, described by one reviewer as a Quaker Miss Marple.

There is also a book written by Quakers in southern Africa, Living adventurously, a compilation of writings of Quakers in different parts of the subcontinent. Janneke said she would bring some copies along to our next meeting, in case anyone would like one.

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