Friday, 27 November 2015

Richard Farnsworth

Richard Farnsworth (c.1630–1666) was one of the Valiant Sixty and an important early thinker though he gets no entry in Quaker Faith & Practice.   Douglas Gwyn (1995) tells us about his triology on religious freedom: Gospel Liberty, Christian Religious Meetings Allowed by the Liturgie and Christian Tolleration.  Gwyn tries to fit Farnsworth into the Marxist thesis that Quaker history represents the dialectic between the early, radical period of the covenant, where the people were united under the care of a transcendent God, and the later contractual period where they were united under a secular vision of self-interest.  I do not accept Gwyn's thesis, because I find that the strands of radicalism versus quietism, convenant v. contract were there from the first and indeed can still be found in Quakerism and, arguably, all religions.  Quakers do not exhibit a developmental history, of moving from one ideology to another, because the tension between self and others, between the community and the world, is there from the first and is necessarily so.  Gwyn is to be thanked, however, for giving a stimulating if contentious perspective on Quaker history.

What Gwyn has to say about Farnsworth is a case in point.  In his triology, Farnsworth argues that religious freedom is given by God to the religious community and is not a matter of an individual's secular freedom. Gwyn says Farnsworth's theocentric definition of religious freedom articulates the positive, covenantal dimension of freedom that is hidden from the liberal outlook.  At the same time, Gwyn says Farnsworth places the liberal settlement in the larger context of divine purpose in the world.  The latter seems to state the position more accurately.  I cannot see that the covenantal point adds to what Farnsworth said.  He had a far-sighted view that religious freedom is not just a political right or a human right narrowly conceived.  Rather, it is a requirement of God's order and goes to the freedom and equalities of souls in religious communion with each other.  This vision works not just to justify the early Quakers' call for toleration but to explain the importance of religious freedom and the role of religion in society today.  Wholesome religious practices enrich society and the wider domain; they are not just something that should be tolerated because they do no harm.  Farnsworth saw this because, as Gwyn says, he envisioned Friends being an unassimilated movement under the umbrella of the national Church and so playing a constructive role in the the stated purpose of the Church's liturgy which was, and remains, Christian spiritual renewal.  Farnsworth anticipated the role that Quakers fulfill today in their ecumenical and inter-faith work, which means identifying with all people of good will and of faith, or of no faith, and facilitating if not mutual love then at least mutual understanding and acceptance.

Gwyn goes on to discuss Farnsworth's Epistle on Corporate Authority, and in doing so helps address a puzzle for me, which is when corporate discipline started to emerge amongst Quakers.  I had assumed it began with Penn but it is clear from Gwyn that discipline was an issue from the outset and was consolidated by Farnsworth's Epistle in 1666.  The Epistle is a directive from a self-appointed group who used their weight to formulate a corporate spiritual authority exercised by a gerontocratic eldership.  A response to the Perrot schism, the Epistle represents an milestone (according to Braithwaite) in the narrowing of the Quaker movement into a religious society in which individual guidance is subordinate to the corporate sense of the church, which is treated as finding authoritative expression through elders who are deemed sound in faith.

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