Chapter 19 » 19.60

A continuing story

Samuel Bownas (1676–1753) was one of these second-generation Friends. The incident he here recounts took place in 1696 when he was about twenty years old. He later became a travelling minister.

Now to return to my apprenticeship, I had a very kind, loving master and mistress, and I had meat enough and work enough but had little consideration about religion nor any taste thereof. On First-days I frequented meetings and the greater part of my time I slept, but took no account of preaching nor received any other benefit, than being there kept me out of bad company, which indeed is a very great service to youth … but one First-day, being at meeting [at Brigflatts, near Sedbergh], a young woman named Anne Wilson was there and preached: she was very zealous and fixing my eye upon her, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me uttering these words with much power, viz: ‘A traditional Quaker; thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and goes from it as thou came to it but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?’ This was so pat to my then condition that like Saul I was smitten to the ground as it might be said, but turning my thoughts inwards, in secret I cried, ‘Lord, what shall I do to help it?’ And a voice as it were spoke in my heart, saying ‘Look unto me, and I will help thee’…

I saw by experience wherein my shortness had been in being contented and easy with a form of truth and religion, which I had only by education, being brought up in plainness of both habit and speech; but all this though very good in its place, did not make me a true Christian; I was but a traditional Quaker, and that by education only and not from the Scriptures because they were a book sealed to me. And I now saw plainly that education though never so carefully administered would not do the work … there was no other way but this, viz by the Spirit of Christ alone (John 10:1–3), to attain to true faith, which works by love and gives victory over our infirmities and evil deeds, working such a change in us that we can in truth from experience say we are born from above.

By 1700 our yearly meeting had become a settled organisation, with established procedures and an expected way of life. Friends were able to worship freely, though still barred from the English universities and from political life. They were becoming ‘a peculiar people’, marked out by their dress and speech, yet their separateness from the surrounding culture may have helped them to preserve testimonies such as the practice of the equality of women with men.

The eighteenth century saw a ‘Quietist’ period, when completely silent meetings became normal. In the nineteenth century there was an evangelical revival, with a heavy dependence on the scriptures literally interpreted. Throughout these periods also there was a steady growth in social concern for the poor, for prisoners, for slaves; a steadfast adherence to testimonies against war and tithes; and many examples of individual and corporate faithfulness, of lives lived in the light of the gospel.

During the second half of the nineteenth century educational opportunities opened up for Friends, for women as well as men. Many of the outward marks of the testimonies, such as plain dress, began to fall into disuse. In the last decade of the century two major events occurred which shaped the yearly meeting as it now is. In 1895 the Manchester Conference introduced liberal theology into the yearly meeting’s thinking and led to mechanisms for educating the yearly meeting in its own tradition. In 1896 the Yearly Meeting decided that its men’s and women’s meetings should meet together and that women should be admitted into membership of Meeting for Sufferings.

Since then the yearly meeting has changed from comprising mostly those born into the Society to being largely made up of newcomers. For all of us there is still a need to be ‘convinced’, to make the tradition our own, so that we may know the same divine life and power, and open our lives to the same transforming Truth.

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