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  • Pregnant Silence and Mystical Birth:Quaker Worship in the Seventeenth Century and the Subversive Practices of Silence
  • Ana M. Acosta

The excellency of this silent waiting upon God doth appear, in that it is impossible for the Enemy, viz, the Devil, to counterfeit it, so as for any Soul to be deceived or deluded by him, in the exercise thereof.

Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 16781

For early Quakers, as Robert Barclay claimed in the passage above, "Silent waiting upon God" ensured a condition in which God's truth can manifest itself without the possibility of distortion or falsity inherent to speech and sound. Unlike the potential for duplicity and mendacity that generally haunts words, silence cannot be faked: it is what it is. And yet, silence is not so simple. That it is what it is can only be avowed strictly speaking from the perspective of sound, since silence can have multiple meanings, and, of course, from a Quaker perspective, there can be no guarantee that "the enemy" is not already comfortably lodged in the mind of the pre-silence worshiper. This essay explores how the potentialities and ambiguities of silence were defined and experienced by Quakers in the second half of the seventeenth century, the meanings of silence as a religious practice, and how that experience and practice have resonated in later approaches to silence.

The essay is divided into three parts. The first part provides a social and historical context for silence in worship along with a brief description of other language-based early Quaker practices, as they have a bearing on the later discussion; it also includes some of the responses this silence elicited in non-Quakers. The second part analyzes [End Page 51] in depth how silence was experienced and verbally justified by male Friends in the late seventeenth century through the imagery of maternity: pregnant silence and mystical birth. The third part considers early Quaker silence alongside the mid-twentieth-century writings and musical compositions of John Cage in terms of their shared understanding of silence as a spiritual and, also, a political act. Where parts one and two study early Quaker silence in its specific social, historical and cultural contexts, the third part examines synchronically the formal affinities of two distinct moments of silence as oppositional practice. I argue that Cage's spiritually-inflected compositions indirectly reflect on and speak to the meaning of silence as an intentional practice which destabilizes social norms, including the ways it was experienced by Friends in the seventeenth century.

Friends' silent worship in the Restoration was perceived by non-Quakers as a subversive practice and in many respects was considered as more dangerous than words. In contrast to individual silence, communal silence negated accepted religious ritual and stemmed from an unshakeable belief in a direct bond between the worshiper and God. Most of the reformed sects adhered to the principle of sola scriptura, emphasizing the unmediated relationship of the believer with the revealed word of God while retaining an organized church structure and continuing to privilege the minister as spiritual guide. Friends, however, took unmediated religious practice further by replacing the designated ministry and all liturgy and ordinances with a belief in continuous revelation. The way in which silence and words were employed by Friends presents us not only with a newly redefined religious approach, but also baldly confronted non-Quakers with the unequal power structures of the time. These power structures encompassed unequal relationships between parents and children, men and women, rich and poor, and, not least, between God and believers.

In the early days of the Religious Society of Friends, the new sect attracted opprobrium because they called attention to themselves in a number of ways specifically through their practices around clothing and speech. Four fundamental and novel features of Friends religious practice were perceived as openly subversive by non-Quakers from the 1650s until the Act of Toleration in 1689: their sartorial choices, their pronominal usage, the possibility of vocal ministry for all believers including women, and the observance of silence during worship. Friends had strict rules about plain dress; the men refused to doff their hats or to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1941-952X
Print ISSN
0162-9905
Pages
pp. 51-72
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-19
Open Access
No
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