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Ask Tom: How did early Friends take care of each other?

“Community” was not a word that before the year 1700 Friends generally used to describe the religious movement they had created, but from the vantage point of 2013, early Quakerism had a strong communal orientation, if we understand “community” to mean a group of believers united by a shared religious vision and a commitment to care for each other.

In my mind, three ways of how early Friends cared for each other stand out. The first was aiding those who found themselves in situations of suffering. Early Friends often found themselves running afoul of the English legal system, whether it was for worshiping outside the established churches, or for refusing to pay tithes (church taxes), or for declining to swear legal oaths. Imprisonment deprived families of their means of support, and vengeful vicars, in their zeal to collect tithes, might even carry away a family’s last bed. Early Friends set up a formal body, the Meeting for Sufferings, to aid in such situations. The historian Craig Horle has shown how Friends were quite willing to split legal hairs to try to have indictments dismissed or fines remitted. More directly, Friends would provide money, shelter and aid for sufferers who needed such aid. The same was true of the Quaker poor. Among the duties of monthly meetings was ensuring that “the necessities of the poor” were relieved.

Friends also cared for each other by “watching over each other for good.” Quakerism entailed a commitment to a strictly moral and ethical life. When Friends perceived members somehow being led astray, they showed their care by confronting them and trying to bring them back to the right path. But Quaker patience was finite. If attempts to bring the erring to reconcile themselves with Truth failed, then Friends were willing to cut ties through disowning the offender. Disownment did not bring shunning, however. Even disowned Friends were welcome to attend worship.

Finally, Friends took care of each other through providing spiritual counsel and guidance. A standard feature of Quaker autobiographical accounts after 1660 is that Friends were sensitive to those they perceived to be in spiritual turmoil, or struggling with a call to public ministry. Such Friends were “nursing elders,” who, in striking imagery, are often described as both spiritual fathers and mothers to Friends in need of care.

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