The Meetinghouse Library You Might Not Have Known About

“That which the people called Quakers lay down, as a main fundamental in religion, is this,” wrote William Penn: “That God, through Christ, has placed a principle in every man [sic] to inform him of his duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that live up to this principle, are the people of God” (Primitive Christianity Revived, 1696). Many newcomers to Quakerism in our time are delighted to discover a living faith tradition which, from its first origins, has grounded itself not in a set of theological doctrines to be believed, but in a shared trust that God wants us humans always to do the right thing and will show us how – and empower us – to do it: how to live without lying, or war, or oppression of group by group; how to love one another as ourselves, dwelling always in God’s presence. And the early Friends who bore this faith also walked in it, through persecutions, even martyrdoms, with a faithfulness that can strike the modern heart as superhuman. There is good reason why we treasure their written records: might they show us the secret of living in such purity, such strength, such intimacy with God?

But a problem many twenty-first-century Friends have is that early Quaker writers largely thought and wrote in a kind of “Bible-talk” that baffles us moderns: they all knew the King James Bible so well that one of them might write “run to and fro” fully expecting her reader to catch the allusion to Amos 8:12. James Nayler’s The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin clearly referenced (to many of his readers) the “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and the “war against the Lamb” prophesied in Revelation 17:14. The Quaker Bible Index (QBI, accessible at esr.earlham.edu/qbi/) was created to help modern readers “get” such references. Used in tandem with a biblical concordance (such as the University of Michigan’s searchable King James Bible (quod.lib.umich.edu/k/kjv/), the QBI allows the student to key in a Bible verse (such as 1 Thess. 5:19, “Quench not the Spirit”) and instantly call up a battery of early Quaker warnings against quenching the Spirit. As the QBI’s creator, Esther Greenleaf Mürer, acknowledges, it’s “a work in progress,” and doesn’t yet index every book of the Bible, but it’s still actively under construction, with no plans to lay it down before completion.

One of the QBI’s merits is that it’s a searchable resource, that is, if you can identify the needle you’re looking for, the QBI will find it in the haystack for you. Earlham School of Religion, which hosts the QBI, also hosts its own creation, the Digital Quaker Collection (DQC, accessible at esr.earlham.edu/dqc/). The DQC is a collection of hundreds of long-out-of-print works by over one hundred authors, searchable not only by Bible verse cited (e.g., Matthew 5:44) and word or phrase (e.g., “love your enemies”), but with “wild cards” allowed, so that keying in “love* * enem*” would call up all variant readings such as “love one’s enemy,” “love our enemies,” and “loveth not his enemy.”

The QBI and the DQC allow the searching of many early Quaker texts, the DQC preserving out-of-print ones, and the QBI targeting those in print today (although the eight-volume set of George Fox’s Works, reprinted by the New Foundation Fellowship in 1990 from the 1831 American Edition, has since gone out of print, it is still referenced by the QBI). However, some more recent publications of early works, such as William Shewen’s Counsel to the Christian-Traveller: Also Meditations & Experiences (1683, reissued by Inner Light Books in 2008), are not yet included in the QBI. Regrettably, neither is this treasure included in the DQC.

But the QBI and the DQC are by no means the only online resources available to the searcher of early Quaker texts. Many Quaker “classics” have been published, both in print and online, by the Quaker Heritage Press. Its website, http://www.qhpress.org/, prominently displays a link to a “Catalog of historic Quaker texts in print or online, regardless of source.” This includes, notably, (a) “Rosemary Moore’s very thorough bibliographies of Quaker and anti-Quaker publications from 1652-1666″ (http://www.qhpress.org/rmoore/index.html); (b) the Quaker Writings Home Page (http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/) and the Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology (http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qhoa/qhoa.htm), both created by Peter Sippel; and (c) the growing number of Quaker classics published by the New Foundation Fellowship (see nffquaker.org/ and http://www.foundationpublicationsnffusa.org/publications/).There are other resources, too. I, or the Quaker Information Center (http://www.quakerinfo.org/index), can help you find them.

The Quakers of those early years lived lives transformed by personal encounters with the Light and Person of the living Christ. They still speak to us today (as does He), showing the way into a contented life entirely surrendered to the will of God. What they wrote is now accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. It’s the virtual Quaker meetinghouse library you might not have known about, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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