03 November 2009

A Friendly persuasion

One of the odd things about coming back is that you tend to search things out to fill the void, sometimes bringing with you priorities you never thought you might have. I’ve been interested in my family history for awhile, but my interest was shown for mere dilettantism when I was in Qazaqstan. I was told it was common for Qazaq boys to be able to recite their lineage on their father’s side back six generations; indeed, when I was there everyone seemed to know everyone else’s ancestry, and a common question was what tribe you are from (‘Еліңіз не?’). Hence, my curiosity about where my family (the Coopers) came from.

As it turns out, the Coopers have been in what are now the United States for a long time – since 1699, when William Cooper (or Cowper, my great- x8 grandfather) of Low Ellington, Yorkshire came to the United States with his family on the disease-ridden passenger ship Britannia to escape religious persecution. He was born into the Church of England but became an English Dissenter, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (better known as the Quakers). The Act of Toleration had been signed ten years previous after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but the rights it accorded to English Dissenters were very limited – though according to The British Epic by Ricker et al., some Dissenters were given the right to worship and the right to vote (rights which Catholics would not yet have for some while in England), they were still barred from holding public office (Quakers were excluded from the Act probably because of their stance against oath-taking as per the Testimony of Integrity). After disembarking from the Britannia, William Cooper settled in Bucks County in southeastern Pennsylvania (a colony founded by a fellow Friend, William Penn), where they stayed for two generations or so before moving to South Carolina just before the War of American Independence – my direct ancestors were poor white sharecroppers there.

This led to a renewed interest for me in the doctrines and the beliefs of the Friends. Like the Anabaptists, they are an historic Peace Church, and many practise non-violence, following the Testimony of Peace (though not all Friends are absolute pacifists). They also espouse a Testimony of Equality (which led them historically to be early advocates for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery), a Testimony of Simplicity and a Testimony of Integrity. Most attractive to me is the Friends’ belief that Christ is the Word of God, and that all people are drawn to Christ by the Light Within (essentially what in other Christian traditions would be referred to as the Holy Spirit). George Fox himself posited that God ‘did not dwell in temples made with hands, not even in that which He had once commanded to be built, since He put an end to it; but that His people were His temple, and He dwelt in them’; and they practise this idea by using their worship services to listen to one another, keeping silence and speaking only as their inward Light moves them. It is a completion of the egalitarian ideal; each person has an opportunity to speak, to be heard, to be considered. This, to me, is the most attractive and most important aspect of my own Protestantism – the idea put into practice that the God represented to us in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is close to us, and that God is within and among us. This goes back to the kinship and equality values within Germanic Christendom which I explored in my series on the existential roots of Protestantism (parts I, II and III) earlier this year – what the Germans and the English got essentially right was that God is not set apart from us by a priestly hierarchy or by a temple that is off-limits to certain people.

This past Sunday, I visited Providence Friends Meeting for worship (and afterward for lunch). It was an interesting experience – though like most churches in Providence, most of the worshippers there were significantly older than me. I spoke with them until they began to leave; mostly they were curious about what I was doing and where I came from, and some shared their own experiences with the Friends with me. I am not sure yet whether I will stay, but it is worth going a couple more weeks, to see if I can fit there. History works in strange ways; or rather, it seems to be the human will in history that makes it strange.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, Matt. I'll be looking forward to reading more of your reflections on the Friends.