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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IV. The Early Quakers

§ 2. The Purpose of Early Quaker Writings not Literary

That is only what would naturally be expected, when we look at the forces that gave birth to these writings and at the conditions under which they were poured forth. The purpose of these numerous authors was not intellectual, and not (primarily at least) theological, but experimental. They felt an inward compulsion to make known to the world “what God had done for them,” that they might draw others into the same experience, and into the kind of life to which it led. Moreover, the sense of direct Divine communion and guidance, in which they lived, found expression in terms that too often seemed to deny to the Christian soul any place for the artistic faculty, and even for the development of the intellectual powers. In striving to set forth what they had discovered, they used, without transcending it, the philosophical dualism of their day, which divided the world of experience into water-tight compartments, the natural and the spiritual, the human and the Divine. The terminology of the seventeenth century, even if it served well enough to set forth the “religions of authority,” broke down when the quakers tried to use it to expound their “religion of the Spirit.” The conception of the Divine immanence, in the light of which alone they could have found adequate expression for their experience, had been well-nigh lost. The Power which they felt working within them was set forth by them in language representing it as wholly transcendental. It was only (they believed) when “the creature” and all his works were laid in the dust that the light of “the Creator” could shine undimmed within their souls. In the quakers, as often in other mystics, the ascetic impulse, which a dualistic theory has usually aroused in the minds of those who take religion seriously, tended to aesthetic and intellectual poverty. Hence, it is only a few of these multitudionous works that, rising above the general level, either in thought or style, deserve attention in a history of English literature.

  • The most characteristic form into which the literary impulse of the mystic has thrown itself, from Augustine’s Confessions to Madame Guyon, is that of the attempt to “testify to the workings of God” in his soul. And in no group of mystics has that impulse found more general expression than in the early quakers. Their Journals, though written without pretensions to literary art, maintain a high level of sincere and often naïve self-portraiture, and the best of them contain a rich store of material for the student of the “varieties of religious experience.” But they are seldom unhealthily introspective; they contain moving accounts of persecution and suffering, borne with unflinching fortitude, in obedience to what it was believed the will of God required; of passive resistance to injustice and oppression, recounted often with humour and rarely with bitterness; of adventures by land and sea, in which the guiding hand and providential arm of God are magnified. The quaint individuality of these men and women is seldom lost, though the stamp of their leader Fox is upon them, and their inward experiences clothe themselves in the forms of expression which he first chose, and which soon became current coin in the body which he founded. “I was moved of the Lord” to go here and there; “weighty exercise came upon me”; “my mind was retired to the Lord” in the midst of outward tumult, and so forth.