Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Quakers: William Penn
Although Ben Franklin gets more ink lately, William Penn deserves at least equal rank among the most remarkable men who ever lived.

William Penn, Robert Barclay and the Ranters

The 15th-century printing press allowed the laity to read the Bible for themselves. The 16th-century scientific method (continually testing a theory, then revising it, then testing the revision) let loose a Reformation of the Church, on the one hand, and of English Common Law on the other. These disruptions of 17th century English society carried religious dissention to the point of civil war. Eventually, many defined Protestant religions emerged from the mass of dissenters. At one extreme, the Quakers and the Ranters rejected all miraculous teachings and ceremonies, but the Ranters carried onward to a rejection of any religious idea at all except individual meditation, the "inner light." To the governing establishment, this was not religion, it was anarchy. Although there was cross-over between the two religious groups, the Quakers eventually drew away from the Ranter position. In a series of pamphlets, Robert Barclay, William Penn and Joseph Pike laid out principles which separated Quakerism from Ranterism and thus brought Quakers within the mainstream of Protestantism. Echoes of this 17th-century episode can perhaps be seen in the "Summer of Love" upheavals of the 1960s. Even at the beginning, however, the Quakers demonstrated self-restraint in speaking their minds, as the term plainly describes, and as ranting does not.

{top quote} Before ranting, try to quake a little. {bottom quote}

In both the 17th and 20th centuries, rejection of the rules of organized society was really a demand to have rules of behavior re-examined. Behind that, lay suspicion the world itself had greatly changed and needed new rules, or perhaps no rules. But in both cases, such restlessness eventually subsided after recognition that many minds had already faced the same issues, and had left a logical trail back to the same old conclusions. Oliver Wendell Holmes stated the matter effectively by intoning that "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience." In the case of science, experiments are discontinued when results are always the same. In the case of the common law, society's experiments in court are conducted by adversaries, so consensus takes longer. Both processes state the apparent logic, test it, and revise the logic to test it further; the goal is to reach a point where further questioning can subside. And the world can go on about its other business.


Although Barclay, Penn and Pike mixed their conclusions together in several tracts, it seems likely that Barclay established the need for a gathered Quaker meeting, as contrasted with solitary meditation. A religion with no fixed dogma, except perhaps reliance on an inner light found in every man, and one which rejects appointing professional clergy, has difficulty preserving shared conclusions; it cannot grow. Reliance on the Bible, as one weighty Quaker gently put it, is to rely too heavily on faulty translations. The Catholic Church appointed priests. But in Protestant opinion, the Catholic tradition gradually wandered into the ceremony and inflexibly resisted going back to first principles. Barclay's identification of the sense of the gathered Meeting could begin with a blank slate. It would however constantly generate default positions, maintaining experiences that others had deeply contemplated. Without a meeting, even if not a word is spoken at it, Quakerism cannot thrive. Sitting at home alone is not the same as sitting in a silent meeting. Sooner or later, Quakers must sit together in a gathered community.

Some Quakers believe Barclay sometimes carried this reasoning too far. In his day, it was necessary to reject Catholic doctrines, while continuing to adhere to Protestant moral teachings. In a way, his position was similar to the American founding fathers just after ratifying the Constitution. It was essential for stability to maintain English common law until the new Republic had time to revise it, a process which took American courts several decades. The solution for Barclay was to go back to the writings of the Apostles prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This helped manage the controversies of the 17th century, but has since raised uncertainty about how authentic the early records were, how inviolate they should now be considered.

William Penn, another close friend of the King, was also in a position quite unlike other Quakers. Whether from lack of concern for theology, or for more practical reasons, his position was as follows:

" is the root of Ranter-ism to assert, that nothing is a Duty incumbent upon thee, but what thou art persuaded is thy Duty...Although thou art not to conform to a thing ignorantly, yet thou art seriously to consider, why thou art then must needs to be in thyself, who has not yet received a sense for or against the matter, about which thou art in doubt."
Penn's position seemed to be: before dissenting, examine the logic behind conformity.

Originally published: Thursday, July 23, 2009; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019