To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.
©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010
A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.
Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)
(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)
While exploring this idea of risky journeys, I discovered Mary Dyer, giving her life willingly for the right to practice Quakerism in the stultifying air of puritan New England. She insisted on the right of all to follow their inner lights. She rejected oaths of any kinds, taught that gender had no bearing on the gift of prophesy, and fought for equal rights for women and men in worship and church organization. Her statue in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston honors her witness, paradoxically as is often true, bringing truth to bear at the site of a great mistake.
Dyer’s words ring true today, even tho immersed in that period’s locutions, from her:
Once more the General Court, assembled in Boston, speaks Mary Dyar, even as before: My life is not accepted, neither availeth me, in comparison of the lives and liberty of the truth and servants of the living god, for which in the bowels of love and meekness I sought you; yet nevertheless, with wicked hands have you put two of them [other Quakers] to death, which makes me to feel, that the mercies of the wicked is cruelty.
From an early illustration
Early Friends—often labeled “blasphemous heretics”—suffered many punishments for practicing their faith: fines and jail time, ears cut off, tongues bored, whipping, and finally hanging.
A particularly vivid description from a contemporary student and admirer of Mary Dyer, Sam Behling:
Capt John Webb signaled to Edward Wanton, officer of the gallows, who adjusted the noose. Mary needed no assistance in mounting the scaffold and a small smile lighted her face. Pastor Wilson had his large handkerchief ready to place over her head so no one would have to see that look of rapture twisted to distortion—only the dangling body. As her neck snapped, the crowd stood paralyzed in the silence of death until a spring breeze lifted her limp skirt and set it to billowing. “She hangs there as a flag for others to take example by,” remarked an unsympathetic bystander. That was indeed Mary Dyer’s intention—to be an example, a “witness” in the Quaker sense, for freedom of conscience.
And her purported last words:
Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent.
Defiant to the end, Mary Dyer died because she supported—and this is true support, going beyond mere words, more than that sometimes lame Quakerese phrase “hold you in the light” conveys—Ann Hutchinson who was excommunicated by the Puritan church for her Quakerly convictions. At the risk of her own death, Dyer had reentered the Boston region, primarily to uphold other imprisoned Quakers and to oppose laws restricting freedom of religion.
As Quakers we have many examples of lives given willingly as evidence of conviction, of living fully the testimonies of our tradition.
Mary Dyer statue in front of Massachusetts State House, Boston
Another example—many can be drawn from early Quakers, and this might be one of our problems, that we come to believe that once done, always done. We have our cloud of witnesses, that’s done and finished, now I can rest on their achievements, a peculiarly seductive attitude that might account for some of what I believe is contemporary Quaker quietism. Another example I’ll bring to you is one of our founders, George Fox. He was one of the Valiant Sixty, which included his wife. Here he writes about an incident in Tickhill:
When Friends were in the meeting, and fresh and full of the life and power of God, I was moved to go out of the meeting to the steeple house…So I went up to them and began to speak; but they immediately fell upon me; and the clerk up with his Bible, as I was speaking, and struck me on the face with it so that it gushed out with blood, and I bled exceedingly in the steeple house Then the people cried: ‘Let us have him out of the church!” and when they had got me out, they beat me sore with books, fists, and sticks, and threw me down and over a hedge into a close, and there beat me and threw me over again…After a while I got into the meeting again amongst Friends, and the priest and the people coming by the house, I went forth with Friends into the yard, and there I spake to the priest and people…My spirit was revived again by the power of God, for…I was almost mazed [bewildered] and my body sore bruised but by the power of the Lord I was refreshed again, to him be the glory.
—Fox’s Journal, chapter 3, 1651-52
One view of how Fox may have appeared
Quoting The Missing Cross to Purity:
In the time of the restored King Charles II alone, 13,562 Quakers were imprisoned; 338 died from injuries inflicted in meetings or imprisonment, and 198 were sent into slavery over the seas. Under all the kings, Besse’s Sufferings counts 869 Quakers who died in prison. They were viciously persecuted by Independent Calvinist Puritans [Congregationalists], Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians. Per Fox’s Journal: “Friends never feared their acts, prisons, jails, houses of correction, banishment, nor seizure of personal property; no, nor the loss of life itself; nor was there ever any persecution that came, but we saw how it would result in good; nor were there ever any prisons that I was in, or sufferings, except it was for the bringing multitudes out of prison; though they who imprisoned the truth, and quenched the spirit in themselves, would imprison and quench it without them; so that there was a time when so many were in prison, that it became as a by-word, ‘truth is scarce any where to be found but in jails.’”
A more likely appearance
Bunhill Fields Quaker Burial Ground next to Bunhill Fields Meeting House, photo by Mark Barker
And his wife, Margaret Fell, writes to King Charles in 1666:
And now I may say unto thee, For which of these things hast thou kept me in Prison three long Winters, in a place not fit for People to lie in; sometime for Wind, and Storm, and Rain, and sometime for Smoke; so that it is much that I am alive, but that the Power and Goodness of God hat been with me. I was kept a Year and Seven Months in this Prison, before I was suffered to see the House that was mine, or Children or Family, except they came to me over two dangerous Sands in the Cold Winter, when they came with much danger of their Lives…And in all this I am very well satisfied; and praises the Lord, who counts me worthy to suffer for his sake.
—Hidden in Plain Sight, Quaker Women’s Writings, 1650-1700
A contemporary observer, Richard Baxter, no friend of the Friends, wrote:
Abundance of them died in prison, and yet they continued their assemblies still—yea many turned Quaker because the Quakers kept their meeting openly and went to prison for it cheerfully.
Home of Margaret Fell and George Fox and early meeting house of Friends
The Valiant Sixty
The Valiant Sixty—a small portion of the estimated one thousand—suffered many years in prison, loss of wealth, illness and death. To what was their witness, and what carried them? They believed in equality, truth, and nonviolence, and walked their talk by not doffing their hats to so called betters or addressing them with the language of deference of the time. If in business, they expected to receive the prices they asked for, not engaging in haggling. They were intensely concerned with the disadvantaged, including slaves, prisoners, and inmates of asylums. Later, they advocated for abolition of slavery and bettering prison conditions. In fact, we can credit them with solitary confinement, thought initially to be an opportunity to reflect on one’s life, to seek and find and offer penance, hence the word penitentiary.
They refused participation in the military, they did not pay tithes to established churches, in short, they lived what they believed was a life true to the teachings of their key mentor, Jesus Christ. For this they willingly, even joyfully at times, suffered.
They not only suffered, but they preached, they outreached, they went into the streets and proclaimed their truths. And they suffered, their suffering becoming part of their testimony. During the second half of the 17th century, over 3000 Quakers were incarcerated in English jails and prisons, many hundreds died there. Oh, where are the Valiant Sixty among us now?
All this historic heroism puts me in mind of Bil’in, a small village near Ramallah in Occupied Palestine. I’ve joined the villagers and others to defy the Israel occupation army. It protects the Separation Fence which denies farmers access to their land. At the risk of imprisonment or death, courageous Palestinians advocate for their basic human rights. May my Quaker colleagues (and others) join me and put to the lie a sometimes heard claim about contemporary Quakers: quick to stand to be counted, equally quick to sit down to not be noticed.
TO BE CONTINUED