Nothing new under the sun

Last week, I read a speech by Rufus Jones that he gave to a group of young adult Friends, as the William Penn Lecture in 1941. It’s called “The Vital Cell.” (The whole text is available online, and with several print options, as part of the Quaker Pamphlets webpage. Thanks to the folks that uploaded it and to Martin for putting a link on QuakerQuaker where I could find it.)

Okay, here are some of the main points that Jones makes:

The Religious Society of Friends is not important because of our political leadership or our intellectual contributions to theology. It is our demonstration of a religion that reveals the life of God in the lives of human beings.

“The Gospel we proclaim and incarnate claims that God is forever humanly revealing Himself, loving, yearning, suffering, sacrificing, redeeming, working now, as of old in Galilee and Judea. … We stand for a religion of first hand conviction, a religion grounded in experience, a religion whose authority is as little endangered by science and higher criticism as is the authority of the multiplication table, or the truth that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles."

"This religion of life and of suffering love, this religion which makes a [human] a being of infinite worth, would be bound, if it is genuine, to flower out into human service, and to share the burden of human suffering, and to be concerned about the culture of the mind and soul of children and youth, and to take up the task of the peacemaker, as has been the case with the Quakers, but its central inner significance as a religious movement can come to light and does come to light at its best and highest in the practice of mutual and reciprocal correspondence of [human beings] with God.”

Importantly to me, he says that the laboratory for our faith is not large public gatherings or the kinds of things that attract reporters but our local meetings.

“It is in these vital cells that our life really centers, as life always does; it is here that the life-stream of our faith is fed, or fails to find its true supplies. These little islands of ours, surrounded by a secular world of drive and grind, are the real experiment stations of the spiritual life where it is being settled whether we are to be the purveyors of light and life and love and truth, or whether we are to end in sterility, like Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, which end in desert sand.”

He illustrates two problems of their times (and ours).
a: Great worship and ministry require preparation and expectancy.
b: Too many seekers go away hungry.
“… I have felt the sacramental power fuse the group into the communion of a united whole. But this does not happen unless at least some of the members go to meeting prepared for this supreme business of the soul and unless there is in the meeting a widespread attitude of expectancy.”

“All great ministry is ministry of interpretation of life. We are at the present moment weak in this ministry of interpretation, and weak in the lifting power of messages of illumination and inspiration. … But how is it in the range of possibility in most of our meetings to expect such ministry of interpretation and illumination? Well, one of the main difficulties is that it has not been expected, and very little has been done to encourage and foster this type of ministry, and to nurture and develop it in persons who revealed a potential gift. … Some of the students [at Haverford, where Jones taught] have become effective Quaker interpreters of life, but many more should have been and, I am convinced, would have been if they had received the right encouragement from their home meetings.”

This the part that gets me, from 1941:

“This is a new age of “seekers,” the world has turned to us with extraordinary expectation. Why is it so few join us? Why is it that some of our oldest meetings are slowly dying before our eyes? The answer is clear and plain. “Seekers” are often disillusioned when they visit our meetings. They look up too often and are not fed. In many cases, they do not find the answer; they do not have their condition spoken to. They go away sadly, and they wonder.”

He suggests some solutions: intervisitation, pastoral care, local community service, examination of routines and elimination of empty forms.

“… much could be accomplished by carefully planned intervisitation. There are highly gifted persons in a few meetings who ought to circulate much more than is now the case. Their absence occasionally from their own meeting would throw the sense of responsibility on other members of it, which would have a wholesome effect, and they would bring fresh life and inspiration where they visited.”

“The local cells would be vitalized if they took up in a corresponding manner and degree the work of ministering to the needs, or some aspects of the needs, of their local communities. … We have too easily assumed that a Quaker Meeting lives unto itself, is responsible only for its own worship and ministry, can then shake hands and go home to a good dinner. That is not enough. It is an eternal principle of life itself that it can be saved only through self-giving. … These little Quaker islands of ours, which dot the length and breadth of our country, would stir with new life if they found themselves awake to the tasks of life which lie ready to hand just there where they live.”

He exhorts Friends to focus on the spiritual nurture of children and youth: the importance of early training in “the significance of silent worship and communion.” He emphasizes that this training must begin in families’ homes, but that it is the direct duty of Meetings to teach the Quaker story in interesting and engaging ways, not necessarily the way the previous generation was taught. (Or today, umm, the way the previous generation was not taught.)

He says Friends especially must help young people to see the Peace Testimony as a heroic choice in time of war, a lifetime commitment, not just in times of war, and to express it in creative action.

“It must be a holy experiment with forces of the Spirit, an unceasing effort to put love and truth into circulation in the currents of human life. It involves an uncompromising faith in Christ’s way of overcoming the world, not by miracle, not by a legion of angels, but by self-giving, adventurous, sacrificial love, that never lets go, never fails, but bears and endures all things to the end. It is a lasting experiment year in and year out to do away with the causes and occasions for war, by removing, or aiming to remove, the fundamental grounds and evils from which war springs."

"Nobody much cares for what we do not think or believe or stand for, or refuse to do… In this building of kingdoms of truth or peace or love in the world, thou must act. The action must be as brave, as fearless, as sacrificial, as self-forgetful, as is the soldier’s. …When we say, “Here I stand. I cannot fight with weapons of destruction,” we are bound by our inward convictions to fling ourselves at some creative human task that will help to build or rebuild the kingdom of love in the world. … Our method of nurture must build this spirit, this way, into the inner fiber of our youth. We must aim to organize and sublimate natural instincts and make them the driving forces of deep-lying faiths and ideals of life.”

He closes with an reminder to take ourselves seriously, to be responsive to the Spirit of God and that early Quakerism was a youth movement – a bunch of 20-30 something’s – from Fox to Naylor to Barclay.

“If we are to have a revival of spiritual power, our youth must be at the front of it. And we must as Friends live in a world of reality, and adjust our lives to the vital issues of the present and the future. Never has this Society of ours been more needed in the world than in this critical period of human history, but we cannot be “matched with this hour” without fresh awakening and a deep renewal of heart and mind and vision. We need to feel the experience of which Isaac Penington wrote from his jail to Thomas Ellwood, who was also at the time in jail: “May the eye and heart in thee be kept open, and mayest thou be kept close to the feelings of life, and thy spirit be kept fresh n the midst of thy sufferings. Mayest thou find everything pared off which hindereth the bubblings of the everlasting spring, the breaking forth of the Pure Power.”

Golly gee. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Go read it for yourself and tell me how many of these things you have said yourself.

Why are we still working on these same things? Is this required every generation or so? Did Friends not handle it the last time this came up? What is different now?

Everything I read by Rufus Jones makes me wish that I had known him. For example, here is the foreword:

“I shall assume that those to whom I am speaking today are young, at least as young as I am. The age which the calendar reveals for each one of us is not very important, nor is the size of our bald spot; nor the grayness of our hair. The really important thing is the quality of freshness and elasticity in our spirits. There is no use talking to minds that have congealed and set, and whose windows are not open for new light to dawn, and expectant of it. This Lectureship is sponsored by young Friends. This is their hour and I am their spokesman. There is no use saying anything about the local Meeting as a vital cell unless the youth are to be in it and are to feel their share of responsibility for its life and its development. Much that I am saying today will call for courage and faith and adventure and newness of vision, which characteristically belong to youth.”

He gave this lecture when he was 78. What do you think? Do you know anyone who did know him? Was he a fun guy to hang out with?

P.S. The title of this post is another example of a semi-biblical allusion that I couldn’t give a proper citation for. Is that line really from the bible? This is an ongoing theme for me – the shallowness of my biblical literacy.

P.P.S Another post on the Quaker Pamphlets blog features Quaker Hubble Posters – amazingly beautiful photographs from the Hubble Space telescope matched with wonderful religious quotations. They gave me a new way to think about the phrase: “nothing new under the sun.”

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Blogger Patrick Ruth said...

Hello Robin Your allusion is very biblical-Ecclesiastes Chapter 1: Verse 9-"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun."(NRSV). It seems a sad fact that we didn't listen to Rufus Jones ( and a whole generation of early 20th Century Friends visionaries - Cadbury[My favorite],Steere,Kelly) the first time around and must learn it again-it is vital work to care, to reach out to both seeker and member, and most of all to change with an eye to where we have been before.Actually Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 would be good reflection along with Jones- the time is ripe. Later, Patrick Ruth

10/31/2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger kwattles said...

Patrick says "It's a sad fact that we didn't listen to Rufus Jones."

I think most of us were not around then to listen, in 1941. But more importantly, there were many who did listen!

So "we" (them, in our stead) did listen, and the Society of Friends went through a period of strong growth and renewal. The elderly Friends amongst us now were (I'm generalizing here) the product of that period.

That was then and this is now.

Ecclesiastes is a good reference for this, I think. Days, years, lifetimes -- an ongoing cycle.

11/01/2007 11:53 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, Patrick, for the citation. I will read Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 as well.

Kirk, yes, it seems to me that Friends in the 40's did do some good work, and some of their challenges and opportunities were different. The October 2007 Friends Journal has an interesting article about the reconciliation work that happened in the two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, coming out of some of the work that Rufus Jones helped facilitate earlier.

I think one of the things that I recognize about Jones's talk is that in his earlier years, there was much concern about the opposition between science and religion, and he was clear that they were not mutually exclusive. I tend to ignore the fact that this is still a controversy, but it is.

It is amazing to me that Jones was almost 80 when he gave this talk - not to his age peers, but to the "new generation" which was also my grandparents' generation! (Not that my grandparents were Quakers, mind you.)

11/01/2007 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing. Inspirational. Thank you.

Let's not let Rufus down . . . .

11/02/2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Rufus Jones, like Thomas Kelly and Douglas Steere, taught at Haverford College, at a time when the college's ties to Quakerism were more explicit (e.g. attending First Day and Fifth Day Meetings for Worship).

Though my non-Quaker father was an alum (Class of 1948), and I myself attended and graduated in 1985, Quakerism was not something that my father and I were curious about... despite my own voluntary attendance at MfW on First Days and Fifth Days throughout my college career.

Now, having read the littlest bit of Thomas Kelly, and a foreward here-and-there by Douglas Steere, I fear I have missed something rather significant. But I'm grateful to have their printed works available so I can at least, like you, ponder what these Friends had to offer in their lifetime, let alone in the decades after their passing.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

11/07/2007 2:58 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Ben, I should hope not!

Liz, I never heard of Haverford before or during the time I was in college. Not until several years after I became a Quaker, I think. But it must have been something in the 30's and 40's.

Is there no one left who knew Jones or at least has heard first hand stories about him who also reads my blog? Maybe I can track down Stephen Angell, who seems to be the expert these days. I want to know was he pompous or engaging? Was he as funny in person as in his writing?

11/07/2007 5:27 PM  
Blogger Tania said...

A member of my Meeting actually knew Rufus Jones. I was a bit flabbergasted when I found out.

Thanks for sharing this.

11/07/2007 6:30 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

I've heard enough stories to suspect I would be a bit exasperated by Rufus in the flesh. His histories were pretty revisionist, his vision took Friends in directions that some of us might now characterize as dead-ends and reports are that he gave regular prepared ministry at meeting. Still, he was trying to shake things up and get Quakers out of their ruts; he spoke to and for youth; he married witness and Quaker spirituality with an authenticity we rarely match today.

This speech is stirring and rings true to the eternal need of generations to reclaim Christ's message with direct experience. I think the needs of Friends and the 21st Century world has shifted since Rufus' time and we need to reclaim some of those forms he deemed empty but the exhortation to spread the message to new generations of seekers is right-on.

11/07/2007 6:37 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I knew there had to be some connections out there. Thanks, Tatiana and Martin.

I think there is the possibility that Rufus Jones started the Society down some great new roads but that later Friends went too far and missed the turn off to get back on the highway.

11/07/2007 11:44 PM  
Blogger Meg said...

Hi Robin,
Are you still running this blog? I found it when I was looking for short references to beauty by Rufus Jones. And I'm commenting in response to your question about anyone reading the blog who knew Rufus Jones. I knew him. I am a Jones relative, and his summer cottage on China Lake was next to my great grandfather's farm in Maine. His name was Richard Mott Jones and he was the (deaf) headmaster of Penn Charter School. He was a cousin of Rufus Jones. There are hundreds of Jones' descendants. Rufus Jones and his wife Elizabeth came to my parents' wedding, which was in the rose garden next to the barn, and he was the only speaker at their wedding. I saw him every summer when I was a child and my great pleasure was to run to the rock wall that separated our farm from his land, climb over the style, and sit in his lap while he rocked back and forth in the rocking chair on the porch of his cottage and looked beyond the field, the trees, and the lake with islands. My beloved older brother David died when he was 10 of a brain tumor, and my "Cousin Rufus" died shortly after David died. My mother told me that I told her "Cousin Rufus will take care of David in Heaven," and that gave me come comfort. Apparently my mother told this to Rufus' daughter Mary, because she quoted this comment in her biography of her father. Many years later I was telling the story of Rufus' life in South China at the little South China Library during their summer story hour, and I mentioned that I felt I was Cousin Rufus' "special little girl." Another cousin, about my age, came up to me afterwards and said, "But I was Cousin Rufus' special little girl!" We had a good laugh together because we realized that because of Cousin Rufus' great love for children, in fact for everyone, EVERYONE thought he or she was "Cousin Rufus' special little girl (or boy).

5/15/2016 1:09 PM  

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