Finding Religion Off the Coast of Maine
It’s maybe the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard of. In a couple of days, I’m going with Meg to the GSI Quaker Church. To make sure I didn’t hold my hymnal with the wrong hand or enter through the door reserved for the Bishop or something, I checked out a few books about Quakers from the GSI Library. Like any good journalist, I believe in doing a thorough job of background research. I learned a lot.
For one thing, I found out that Quakers aren’t really called “Quakers,” at least not officially. The proper term is the Religious Society of Friends, and they mainly call each other Friends. The “Quaker” term came about because they sometimes got so emotionally and spiritually charged during the service that they actually trembled. Maybe they still do. That would liven up the service a bit, having a religious elder explode on the pulpit.
Actually, there is no pulpit. A lot of Quaker churches don’t use pulpits because they don’t have anyone to stand at them and preach. No minister. No priest. No rabbi, no father, no guru, no padre. No one with the colorful costume and the really big Bible. Nothing. No one is in charge. No one leads the service. It’s not that they don’t have the money — they just don’t believe in letting anyone else speak to God on their behalf. They feel perfectly capable of doing it on their own.
Without anyone doing the sermon and leading the prayers, you might imagine that the entire service would be filled with the singing of the hymns. Perfectly reasonable — except that Quakers don’t sing.
So take your basic Methodist or Lutheran or Baptist church service. Now subtract out the minister, the hymns, the Bible readings, and the whole congregation pretending to pray exactly what the minister is praying. Erase any of the typical rituals — communion, baptism, whatever. Basically, you’re left with nothing but a church and an hour of total silence.
Oh, that’s another thing. There’s no church. The Quakers gather in a “Meeting House,” which on GSI is a very modest little cabin on a rocky peninsula with the sea crashing in on three sides. There’s no steeple, no fancy doors, no stained glass. No air conditioning, either, and only enough heat coming from an old wood stove to keep the whole flock from soaring into the Heavenly Embrace on a cold January morning.
So if you have nothing but silence and a church, and you delete the church, all you have left is silence. That’s it. That’s the service. Quakers totter into the cabin every Sunday morning and sit in absolute silence for an hour. Then they shake hands with each other, read off a few announcements about peace rallies and remembering to lock the cabin door when you leave, and then they head for home.
All this strangeness began almost 500 years ago, with a British guy named George Fox. (I know — he sounds like the color guy for a football broadcast. But he’s real.) George decided that the established churches, with their hierarchies and their trappings and their rituals and their singing, were getting in between him and God, and he found it quite annoying. Every time he tried to have a calm chat with the Creator about love or faith or goodness, he was interrupted by some baritone in a strange hat saying, “Let us pray. Oh, Heavenly Father, we beseech you today to consider the plight of the poor farmers in Upper Uxbridge.” And no matter how hard he tried, George found it tough to talk with God about love when the priest hogging the acoustic sweet-spot kept prattling on about other things.
So he bailed. He figured that if none of the existing religious organizations suited his needs, he would start one of his own. He went around from church to church, interrupting the sermons and encouraging people to develop their own personal relationships with God and to scrap the monstrous Organized Religions that had grossly overgrown their usefulness. For the most part, the charitable parishioners in the hills and dales of England placed their Bibles carefully on the velvet-cushioned pews, rose to their feet, took George out into the bushes, and beat him mercilessly with a stick. For much of his life, George was either in prison for disturbing the Moral Peace or in the homes of friends, being nursed back to health after a vigorous discussion with his fellow Christians.
But his ideas caught on with some people, and so the faith grew. Quakers were persecuted maliciously in England, but the sect persists to this day. Most of the Quaker Meetings in the U.S. are in the Northeast, especially in the Philadelphia, New York, and Boston areas. And here on GSI, on a rocky outcropping pounded by the sea in the spirit of George himself, a little cabin swells every Sunday morning with the Sounds of Silence.
Actually, it’s not total silence. The people sit there for a while, without saying anything, and when anyone feels moved by the Spirit to speak, he or she stands up and offers a few words to the rest of the congregation. Frankly, I’m wondering what happens if someone feels moved by the Spirit to pick up a banjo and sing “Oh, Susannah,” but I’m guessing that doesn’t happen very often. The Holy Spirit, after all, does have taste.
So on Sunday — excuse me, “First Day,” as the Quakers call it, because “Sunday” implies that the sun is a god, and “Monday” implies that the moon is a god, and so on — I will dress up in my First Day best and venture out to the cabin to join Meg and Henry and the Coffin Klatch.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — PeaceNick: Sounds cool : ) Quakers are known 4 peace & nonviolence — models for everyone!!!
Comment — Amber4295: Sounds bizarre, if you ask me.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.