Quakerism as a Charismatic Tradition

by Hye Sung Francis Gehring.

What is the Charismatic Movement?

Many people make sweeping statements about the Charismatic Movement without much comprehension of the diversity among Charismatics, as evidenced by the multitude of books cautioning believers of this broad movement. In 2013, neo-reformed Baptist preacher and author John MacArthur held a conference that attracted thousands of participants that was dedicated to villifying the excesses of Pentecostals and Charismatics. This conference, “Strange Fire”, assumed Charismatics to be at least gravely deceived, if not hell-boundand blasphemers.

Thankfully, this sort of rhetoric is not as commonplace as it once was in the Church and is progressively losing its steam, as about 26% of the global Church is considered charismatic, and as different charismatic practices have been normalized and adopted by non-charismatic traditions (such as “listening prayer”, “prayer teams”, raising arms in worship, and even speaking in tongues, or the more sanitized “prayer languages”.) That said, people still have strange assumptions about what charismatic spirituality is, and many often are shocked when I claim that Quakerism is actually a thoroughly charismatic tradition.

The Charismatic Movement was initially a renewal movement across the Church rather than a distinct denominational tradition. In many ways it was influenced and informed by its predecessor, the Pentecostal Movement, but was distinct from Pentecostalism because its malleability and its desire to not start a new religious group but instead renew the participants’ respective churches in the power of the Holy Spirit. Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and virtually every Church tradition was impacted by this movement.

Charismatic Catholics in New Orleans, 1979
Charismatic Catholics in New Orleans, 1979

The Charismatic Movement introduced many Christians to the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”, an experience theologically nuanced in different ways throughout the Movement but could be summed up as a “stirring” or “activation” of the Spirit within. This experience is often ecstatic or euphoric, and those who have received such an experience often claim to have felt God’s love and/or power in those moments as well as have manifested the gift of tongues or, to a lesser extent, prophecy.

The Renewal was not simply for the sake of a personal mysticism but was always meant to revitalize and bless Christian fellowship. The Charismatic Movement touched whole churches, bringing forth the corporate use of the charismata (a Greek word used by Paul that is roughly translated as “grace-expression” or , more commonly, “spiritual gifts”) Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, which include prophecy, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so on, to denominations that were not associated with such phenomena.

The use of these “supernatural” gifts and these “charismatic” experiences are not at all foreign to the Church. This charismatic thread has been an aspect of the Church since Christ’s ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons. Though the use of these gifts have waned throughout Church history, there have been several resurgences of charismatic phenomena, such as the healing revivals St. Augustine witnessed (Augustine, Book XXI, City of God), the ecstatic and miraculous experiences among medieval mystics (such as with Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen), the modern Pentecostal movement, and countless other movements that believed the Spirit’s miraculous and emboldening power is a timeless gift for the Church.

The charismatic conviction that every individual may access God’s power and hear God’s voice, whether it be for the sake of building up and encouraging the Church, or the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel, or even for an individual’s edification, is at the heart of Quakerism and, in my opinion, qualifies it as a charismatic tradition.

Gracechurch Street Meeting, London ca.1779.
Gracechurch Street Meeting, London ca.1779.

The charismatic thread in Quakerism

Quakerism follows this thread seen throughout the Church history where disciples sought the Spirit’s power for their lives and ministries so ardently that the intervention of God became expected. This is evident in Friends history from the very beginning with George Fox. Miracles placed a huge role in Fox’s ministry, giving him the reputation of being a healer. Fox’s own ministry was sparked by a revelatory experience where God spoke to him that only Christ could speak to his condition, revealing that there was no need for earthly mediators to connect to God.

Fox was not the only early Friend who experienced the power of the Spirit in such a spectacular manner, as meeting was widely experienced as a space for the Spirit to dramatically touch lives and empower the body of believers, and visions and rapturous experiences were frequent in the early days of the Society.

Even after the initial ecstatic period had long passed, revelations remained vital to Quaker spirituality. John Woolman, a Quaker minister and early abolitionist, wrote about an “opening” experience in his journal where he saw the Light manifest and God speak to his spirit. He wrote, “I awoke; it was yet dark, and no appearance of day or moonshine, and as I opened mine eyes I saw a light in my chamber, at the apparent distance of five feet, about nine inches in diameter, of a clear, easy brightness, and near its centre the most radiant. As I lay still looking upon it without any surprise, words were spoken to my inward ear, which filled my whole inward man. They were not the effect of thought, nor any conclusion in relation to the appearance, but as the language of the Holy One spoken in my mind. The words were, CERTAIN EVIDENCE OF DIVINE TRUTH. They were again repeated exactly in the same manner, and then the light disappeared.”

Even today, Quaker meetings continue to host the presence of God (though with perhaps a deeper contemplative edge) and the gift of prophecy often manifests among us during worship, often referred to as “vocal ministry”. The model of unprogrammed Quaker meeting, where all can equally be vessels of the Spirit, is in line with what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, where all gathered may be used to manifest the power of God.

Quaker meeting also fully embraces what God granted the Church on the day of Pentecost, which was when the Spirit of God was poured out on the Church to empower the her and grant her the ability to hear God and prophesy. This event is the foundation of the Pentecostal Movement and at the heart of charismatic spirituality. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached as soon as the Spirit was poured out and recounted Joel’s prophecy,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.”

hye-sungIn Quaker meeting, we see this prophecy fulfilled week after week, as we corporately experience the baptism of the Spirit and hear the voice of God from whomever God chooses to minister. We may not be a tongue-talking, holy-rolling bunch of folks, though I wouldn’t mind a little more of that, but one thing we Quakers know is the powerand voice of the Spirit. As the Society of Friends, we have a glorious heritage as a people of the Spirit and I’m thankful that even today we continue to reap the gifts of Pentecost in our profoundly charismatic worship.

Hye Sung Francis Gehring is an amateur pneumatologist, a pentecostal Quaker, and a friend of God & man.

2 thoughts on “Quakerism as a Charismatic Tradition”

  1. A number of those who have looked at the outpourings of the Spirit over the centuries have found Quakers to be among the forebears of the modern pentecostal-charismatic movement. For example, Charles P. Schmitt in Floods Upon the Dry Ground, devotes 3 pages to “The Mystical George Fox and the Quakers (1624-1691)”. And early documents of the Assemblies of God refer to Quakers as their ancestors.

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  2. When I experienced the new birth on March 26, 1964 and the baptism in the Holy Spirit just two weeks later I came into the life that Fox and others knew and wrote about 300 years before. I have been using the gift of tongues in my prayers ever since. I agree with the author about the pentecostal roots of Quakerism. Of more importance than the experience of pentecostalism, however, is that we center our lives and fellowship in Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus is at the center then we can have true fellowship with the Father and with each other.

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