Why don’t Quakers take communion? Why don’t they baptize? Early Quakers believed that the church was full of empty forms, and they sought the real substance of being filled by the Holy Spirit. Quaker professor Michael Birkel of Earlham College explains.
There’s a phrase that goes through both the gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of the Acts, and that phrase is, “being filled with the Spirit.” “Filled with the Holy Spirit.”
There are moments in stories in that book where they say, “and so-and-so, being filled with the Spirit, goes off and does something wonderful.” And Early Quakers I think felt that they themselves were filled with that same Spirit. So it was really that experience. Some of it was structure and so forth – or lack thereof – but I think the fundamental thing was that experience of being filled and led by the Holy Spirit.
Early Quakers yearned for a revival of primitive Christianity because – in their experience – the life of the established church around them was one of form without substance. You could have a ritual, you could have a program, you could have a structure, but it could be there with no electricity running through the wires.
So imagine going to a church service. Ok, you’re supposed to say some prayers whether those prayers speak what you’re feeling at that moment or not. You’re supposed to recite a creed that contains someone else’s theological reflections that you may or may not agree with. You’re supposed to sing some hymns. You know, there’s the old joke, “why aren’t Quaker good at singing hymns?” “Because they’re always looking ahead to see whether or not they agree with the words.” Well that’s where that comes from.
You know, you can force someone in a sense – in that circumstance – to sing something that is dishonest for them. And then you listen to a sermon and a good puritan sermon has been crafted for days by the preacher who has given a lot of thought to it. But if it’s all up in your head but not in your heart – if it’s all in your book but it’s not led by an immediate sense of Divine presence, it’s form without substance.
The same thing for the sacraments – there was a lot of debate going on about communion and about baptism – what they ought to look like, how such rituals should be performed, what the theological and spiritual meaning of these experiences ought to be. If communion meant union with God, you can have the formal elements of communion but no real unity, no sense of union with God happening.
And so form without substance was their experience of the organized churches and they said, “we’re going to get together and let the Spirit guide us, and that may lead us in radical directions.” Like, even women ministering, which was shocking. Perhaps one of the most shocking parts of their message to those around them.