A Quaker without knowing it

Portrait of James Boswell with photo of Lichfield Cathedral in the background. Quote on image "I have always loved the simplicity of manners of Quakers; and I observed that many a man was a Quaker without knowing it." James Boswell 1776

Lichfield was the home of many famous people: Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward, prompting Johnson to once describe it as “a city of philosophers”. In 1776 Johnson brought his friend and biographer Boswell to the city to show him “genuine civilised life in an English provincial town”. The description still rings true today, for although it has grown considerably, it still retains its charm and many of the fine buildings at its heart, including the house in which Johnson was born, have remained largely unchanged over the intervening centuries.

Boswell had a particular sympathy with the Quakers, observing in his Life of Johnson (22 March 1776) “ I have always loved the simplicity of manners of Quakers; and I observed that many a man was a Quaker without knowing it.” He was right: the sense of being “a Quaker without really knowing it” before attending a local group, is a common experience among Quakers. What all Quakers know as fundamental to their faith, but which is perhaps very little understood beyond is that there are no Quaker orthodoxies. There is only the conviction that each individual ineluctably follows a spiritual path through life, and that there is ‘something of God ‘ in everyone, even if the term God cannot easily be defined. Indeed we see no reason to define the divine, when personal experience counts for more than formulae drafted or inspired in other contexts; and we look to the teachings of Jesus for guidance, and maybe inspiration on how we should approach the issues of today.
True there are many Quakers who, while not expressing their beliefs in credal form, readily accept traditional Christian doctrine. Quaker faith is Christian in origin. Yet still there are those who are unhappy at being labelled ‘Christian’ because they feel it commits them to doctrines and dogmas, which they cannot accept. Despite this diversity of belief, all Quakers, as the name ‘Religious Society of Friends’ indicates share the belief that life should be lived in a spirit of active love and respect for one’s fellow men and women, and are firmly committed to the equality of the sexes. We share a conviction that each of us should follow our own spiritual path, committed to respecting the beliefs of others, but we are not conformists when faced by demands from the State with which we disagree. As pacifists, we have a tradition of conscientious objection to military service.
Quaker history goes back to the seventeenth century, and our traditional language reflects the Christian discourse of the time. Quakers believe that a positive sharing of experience and conviction can bring together, in true friendship even those of divergent views. It is this process of faith and reflection, sharing and friendship, which is essential to our Sunday meeting for worship. There is no set service, no ordained minister. We simply sit in silence, ‘a silent waiting upon God’, to use Quaker language. During the time of the meeting anyone, whether a member or not, is free to speak, and share his or her experience or thoughts. Shaking hand with each other brings the meeting to a close after an hour.
Each of us then tries to take back into our lives what we have gained in the meeting – for another fundamental belief shared by all Quakers is that a true faith must be realised in action, hence the commitment to service in the community. Quakers contributed to the abolition of slavery and the reform of prison conditions in the nineteenth century and in more recent times are closely involved in working for peace and reconciliation throughout the world. Many of us in Lichfield are actively involved with national and international organisations and with local organisations working to help the homeless or other disadvantaged people, and with artistic and cultural groups.
Are you a Quaker without knowing it? Why not find out? Many attenders who have come to enquire about the Quaker faith have stayed as valued friends, even without becoming members. Just as many of us feel that over the years we have been Quakers without knowing it, we have also often wished that we had discovered this earlier. It has made such a difference to our lives to share our hopes and concerns in a way that we now can.

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