‘Quaker’ is just a nickname. The real name of Quakers is ‘Friends’, collectively called members of the Society of Friends. George Fox founded this movement in 1650 in England. He experienced enlightenment after persistent, quiet contemplation and taught his followers that they did not need organized church or priests between them and God, for He was within all of us. Quakers meet on Sundays for silent worship in what they call the Meeting House, or in homes of members.
After Fox’s example, a huge number - nearly a third of the population of Britain - experienced spiritual awakening in some degree and became Friends. As this movement expanded, it faced opposition and persecution. Since this was a powerful, direct experience, they felt gripped by its fervor and often trembled in courts or other places where they were tried and forced to prove themselves. Hence they began derisively to be called ‘Quakers.” If you were to join a group of peace or social justice activists in England or America, you would find that many of its members are either Quakers or have strong Quaker influence.
‘That of God in every man’ is one of the central pillars of Quaker beliefs. So they treat all people with respect and refuse to kill or knowingly hurt anyone. Similarly, they take their beliefs seriously and try to live by them. I must add that all Quakers are not saints, but they do still have a strong ethical-moral streak inherited from their past. It was the humility and humanity of a Quaker that helped me shed my negative impression of the British, for I had seen them only as arrogant rulers. From other Friends I learned to recognize the good in others, regardless of their socio-economic status.
I first came to know them in 1949 in Punjab. My association with them grew over the years and continues to this day. Many times, for long and short spells, I worked in Quaker projects in India and America. In 1966, I formally joined the Society of Friends in Hamilton, NY and became a Hindu Quaker. I find great similarity in the two traditions and feel comfortable in both.
I think a good brief way to introduce Quakers would be to tell a story. For, a true story, as an example of Quaker behavior, will tell you more about them than a lecture on their belief system.
The story below dates back 200 years but it is believed to be true. Undoubtedly, with innumerable tellings, it may have changed. I read it in a book called the ‘Friendly Story Caravan’, published by Pendle Hill. I have made many small changes to make it shorter and crisper.
The Silver Tankard
Daniel Gordon backed his horse Jerry into the buggy shafts and rapidly buckled the harness. It was Sunday morning and he and his wife were getting late for the meeting. Their two boys had left a half-hour ago on their horse Dobbin. Their nine-year-old daughter Hetty, was to stay home.
As they were about to leave, a neighbor, John Perkins, arrived with disturbing news. “I don’t think it’s safe for you all to go to Meeting today,” he said.
Daniel told him that the boys had already gone and he and his wife were in a hurry to leave. Hetty would stay home.
“The girl mustn’t stay home alone. Bandit Tom Smith has been seen with two men. They know of your silver tankard and plates and Tom is reported to have sworn to relieve you of them before the summer is over. You know what that means.”
Daniel knew enough of Tom and his gang of desperate men who robbed lonely farmhouses in the area. There was no effective police force in Maine those days, and escape from the law was easy. Everyone knew of his silver valuables, and pirates like Tom could pounce on them any time. Daniel stood in deep thought. He believed with his whole soul that God would take care of those who did their duty and put their trust absolutely in Him. He had all his life lived with this faith. Here was a severe test. Nothing might happen, but the risk in leaving Hetty alone at home was real. Yet he would do it- for to take his daughter in this situation would mean to teach her fear. He would leave her in God’s hands. ‘That of God in every man’ is one of the central pillars of Quaker beliefs. So they treat all people with respect and refuse to kill or knowingly hurt anyone.
As Daniel bent to kiss his daughter he said to her, “Hetty, if any strangers come while we are gone, treat them well. We can spare of our abundance to feed the poor. What is gold and silver compared to God’s words of love.” The girl was puzzled to read anxiety on her father’s face for she had never seen him so troubled.
After making the kitchen tidy, Hetty sat down by the window with a book. It was quiet and she felt a little lonely. Only an hour had passed and the family would be away for a long time. She looked out of the window and was overjoyed to see three men walking rapidly up the road, toward the house. Her father might have been expecting them, she thought. This was why he told her to treat them well. She ran down the path to meet them.
“Won’t you please come in? Father will be so sorry not to see you, but he bade me serve you in any way I could.”
“Are you alone here?” asked the youngest man, who was Tom Smith.
“Oh, yes I am quite alone. If mother were here she would do more for you, but I’ll do all I can.” The men stared at each other in silence, and entered the neat, comfortable kitchen. The silver jug and plates sat visible in the cupboard.
“Please be seated and allow me to prepare a meal for you?” said Hetty, in a panic, lest her guests not feel at home and leave her alone again all too soon.
Smith propped into a chair as though his knees had suddenly given way under him and said, “Yes we will, thank you, my child, for we are all hungry.”
For several minutes Hetty flitted in and out, while the men watched in silence. She dragged forward the table that stood against the wall, and Smith sprang forward to help her. While he was doing this she asked him to kindly lift down the silver jug and three of the best silver plates. She had brought cold cider from the cellar and filled the jug with it to the brim. She had also brought home made butter from the springhouse, and a huge loaf of bread. She paused a moment, her little forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. “Would you prefer to have some cold roast meat or wait while I cook chickens?”
“We cannot wait. Give us what you have,” said one of the older men. Soon all was ready and Hetty, the hostess, invited them to be seated. She was amazed at the way they ate: picking up the meat with their fingers, gulping it down as if they had not eaten for many days. They finished several helpings of food and drank up three jugs of cider. Hetty kept offering more until they said they were full.
When the meal was over, Tom got up and told his companions to leave with him. One protested, “What, leave empty handed with all this silver here?” and he tried to grab the jug. Hetty felt a chill of fear. “Oh, please,” she cried, “It is my father’s.”
Smith leaned across and clutched the man roughly by the arm. “Put that down”, he shouted. “I’ll shoot the man who takes a single thing from this house.” Hetty looked in terror from one to the other as they glared across the table. Then she ran to Smith’s side and pressed close against his arm. The men turned and walked sullenly out of the house, muttering. Smith looked down at Hetty’s trusting, upturned face and a strange softness came into his eyes. He turned abruptly after the others, and Hetty, very much puzzled, watched the three men stalk down the road and out of sight.
When Daniel and his wife drove in that afternoon, an hour earlier than usual, Hetty greeted them with: “Your strangers came, Father, and I treated them well, but they forgot to thank me.”
Partap was an anthropology professor at Colgate University in upstate New York for a good part of his active working life. He is now retired and lives in Whitefield, Bangalore, and at Navadarshanam in Tamil Nadu. For about 16 years he has been writing a weekly story – ‘The Harvest’ (upto 2006), which has been published in 4 volumes.