In liturgical Christian tradition, children enter into the faith through a formal, church-directed process such as catechism or confirmation. Among evangelicals, it is largely understood that one becomes a Christian by making a personal decision to believe in Jesus Christ. Historically, Quakers fit with neither group, relying instead on a process of “socialization” in which children were raised into faith by their families and by the larger community of believers.
Howard Brinton’s survey of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Quaker journals, published in 1972, demonstrates the process by which many young Friends first came to faith: a childhood experience of God’s presence, a period of youthful distraction, an “experience of a divided self,” and sharing publicly in open worship.
Of this first stage, William Penn wrote how it was when he was 12 years old that he first experienced “divine impressions” of the Lord’s presence. Mary Penington wrote that it was at the age of 10 or 11 that she first desired to know the nature of true prayer, later pouring out her soul “to the Lord in a very vehement manner.” John Crook decided at age 11 that he would “serve the Lord God of heaven and earth, whatsoever I suffer.”
But many of these young Quakers set faith aside in favor of “youthful frivolity,” investing their time in music, sports, fashion, friendships, humor – all activities we would deem normal. For these young Quakers, however, it wasn’t the activity itself that was wrong as much as it was the effect these activities had on them personally. They had become divided, tempted, as Margaret Lucas wrote, “to discharge myself of the worship due to God” in order “to attain happiness.” Job Scott wrote that he tried to “persuade (himself) there was no harm” in “frolicking and gaming.” Scott sometimes skipped meetings for worship in order to play cards with his friends. But he could not overcome a feeling that he was missing God’s best for his life, “returning home at night in condemnation, and sometimes sighing and crying.”
The point of change – the evidence of baptism by the Spirit into Christian community – frequently came through vocal ministry. John Yeardley, for instance, recorded that he spent 11 years of his life, resisting God’s nudging, refusing to share in open worship. But he finally came to a place in which he “could not doubt the time was fully come.” John Churchman wrote that it took him eight years to work up the courage to speak in meeting. But he finally stood, expressing “what was on my mind, and therein had peace.” Martha Routh first felt she should speak at age 14. But she did not speak in meeting until she was 29, and even then, she spoke but one sentence: “Be more willing to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”
Be more willing to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.