Meaning in silence and the Quaker tradition.
Article Type:
Quakers (Social aspects)
Quakers (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Silence (Analysis)
Silence (Social aspects)
General semantics (Analysis)
Plugh, Michael H.
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Name: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Publisher: Institute of General Semantics Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Languages and linguistics Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Institute of General Semantics ISSN: 0014-164X
Date: April, 2012 Source Volume: 69 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Howard Brinton stands as one of the most important Quaker thinkers of i l the twentieth century. Educated at a small Friends school in Pennsylvania as a young man at the turn of the twentieth century, Brinton proceeded to Haverford to study philosophy under Rufus Jones, one of Quakerism's most influential philosophers and humanitarians A career of service, both in education and social outreach, was punctuated by influential lectures and publications, including the text "Friends for 300 Years," to this day a foundational work in the field of Quaker scholarship. He served for twenty years as the director of Pendle Hill, a center for adult education in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and saw the endeavor flourish as a result of his leadership (Brinton, 2002).

Brinton offers a view of Quaker belief and practice that is at once simple and brilliant, establishing a vocabulary for both practitioners and outsiders to approach the common bonds of the Quaker community. Through Brinton, we learn that the fundamental unit of Quaker community is the meeting, be it of the weekly, monthly, or yearly variety. We learn the value placed on consensus among Quakers and the role of the meeting for worship in bonding members of the community for collective work. Brinton's scholarship also tells of the cherished beliefs of the Quaker community, commonly referred to as testimonies. These testimonies include notions of peace or non-violence, equality, truth or integrity, and simplicity, to name a few.

Perhaps, no passage demonstrates the insightfulness of Howard Brinton as this note from the Foreword of his pamphlet entitled "Guide to Quaker Practice."

It is unclear whether Brinton was influenced by the works of his contemporary, Lewis Mumford, but Brinton's astute observations about the organic quality of Quaker communities, in stark contrast to the mechanical and industrial society springing up around him at the time of his work, echo the sentiments expressed by Mumford. The biological metaphor, an ecological perspective, is quite useful in examining Quaker practices. It is useful in the context of this examination to explain the underlying processes at play in Quaker meeting for worship. It is also useful when evaluating the Quaker practice of silent worship as a form of mental, or spiritual, hygiene not dissimilar to the principles of general semantics. The history of Quakerism and the practice of worship among its followers provide some context for this examination.

A Brief History of Quakerism

The Quaker community at large is more formally known as The Religious Society of Friends and was founded during the middle part of the seventeenth century in England. At that period of history, many English churchgoers had become disenchanted with the emphasis of ceremony and creeds in the established practices of The Church of England and the dissenting fellowships of the Baptist and Presbyterian communities alike. The formality of Biblical doctrine and the use of creeds as mechanisms of authority reinforcement within church hierarchies had become points of contention with many people of faith. The move toward direct communion with God and the forgoing of traditional modes of Christian worship had taken hold across the English countryside.

Most historical accounts of Quakerism attribute the rise of a coherent Quaker community to the charismatic preaching and organizing of George Fox. It is noteworthy in this context to mention that Fox was himself a Biblical scholar and a man of letters. His journals and published works influenced the shape and direction of the early Quaker movement in England and continue to do so today. As an icon of this religious society, Fox's own deep understanding of faith came directly out of English Christian tradition and Biblical accounts of God's work. Although his adoption of direct communion went against the grain of the formalized and hierarchical English church tradition, the basic foundation of his own system of belief was rooted in the boundaries and definitions of faith that had evolved over centuries of Christian thought. Fox and his followers were frequently persecuted and sometimes imprisoned for their controversial belief that seekers of Divine communion could do so without the hierarchy of the church interceding.

Further, one of the most important early works published by Quakers was the "Apology," written by Robert Barclay in 1676 as a defense of Quaker beliefs in the face of terrible persecution by the establishment church. This important piece of literature proved to be empowering for the embattled Quaker community of that period, but certainly has not been without it critics within the subsequent generations of followers. Without a distinct theology and without the binding power of creeds to unify the practitioners of Quaker faith, growth of the larger community occurred in fits and starts, often marred by difficult and intractable schisms.

As the testimonies of Quakerism's founding members began to take hold and the number of worshippers counting themselves among the movement's members grew, the reach of this new philosophy also spread its wings geographically. Quakers began to move to the new colonies in the West, settling in New England and Pennsylvania. Throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Quakers impacted the culture and religious life of the colonial New World. At the same time, practitioners became intent on consolidating, and indeed in some cases codifying, the beliefs and behaviors of followers. Several pieces published by influential Quakers during the eighteenth century worked to this effect, however just beneath the surface of this newfound desire for consolidation was a long-simmering undercurrent of conflict that would come to a head at the start of the nineteenth century.

Even during the height of George Fox's early campaign, some Quaker ministers quickly turned away from the tenants of direct communion. These ministers believed strongly in the primacy of the Bible, and in fact held to the belief that defending the more literal interpretation of the Divine Word required the appointment of deacons and the administration of creeds. Their dissent was foreshadowing to similar, if less rigid, evangelical streams within the Quaker community in the Americas that emerged during the nineteenth century. These evangelicals, or Orthodox Friends as they would later be called, placed emphasis in worship on the biblical Christ. Their voices were powerful and influential in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the largest and most influential among Quaker communities in the United States. The first major schism within the Religious Society of Friends emerged in the year 1827 when a member of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Elias Hicks, openly pushed his belief in the experience of the Inward Christ over that of the biblical. While certainly the factors contributing to this schism were complex and evolved over a long period of time, it was the movement away from the Orthodox view, prominent in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and toward Hicks' interpretation of worship that pitted the Orthodox against the Hicksite for the better part of the next century.

Although the twentieth century saw significant reconciliation and cooperation between these distinct groups of worshippers, it is still the difference in their view of worship that provides intrigue, and in fact that drives this exploration. With an admittedly inadequate and highly oversimplified look at Quaker history now complete, the attention of this examination can finally turn toward the significant attributes of the unprogrammed worship favored by Hicksite Quakers and its implications for our understanding o' general semantics with regard to religious belief and practice.

The Unprogrammed Meeting for Worship

Again, our attention turns to Howard Brinton to understand the relationship of Quaker worship to, perhaps, more familiar forms of Christian observance. In his own distinct and illustrative way, Brinton (2002) writes:

The typical Friends Meeting House is a simple structure. Quakers gather to meet in a meeting room, in which pews, or other similarly unadorned seats, are arranged to form a perimeter around an empty center. At the scheduled hour, worshippers gather in this room, with the meeting for worship said to begin as soon as the first person arrives to sit in silence. For the duration of the meeting members sit, co-present in silence, only breaking for vocal testimony should a member be moved to do so by a revelation of some kind. Following vocal testimony, the room returns to silence until a senior member of the meeting shakes hands with a neighbor. Members follow suit, greeting and shaking hands with other fellow worshippers, and the meeting is adjourned. Brinton likens this experience to a laboratory, as contrasted to the lecture style worship favored in the aforementioned Catholic and Protestant traditions. Thus, meetings of this kind are called unprogrammed, unlike the programmed meetings of other Christian denominations and, in fact, the meetings of Orthodox Quakers, who incorporate biblical readings, the singing of hymns, and often the sermonizing of a minister in addition to the practice of silence as one part of a more formalized ceremony.

There is no universal, agreed upon, way to worship in silence for members of the Friends community. Some meditate, whereas others remember passages from the Bible. Some reflect on happenings in the world or in their lives, whereas others seek forgiveness. Generally speaking, the time of silent worship is referred to in terms of "centering," and often among the vocabulary Quakers use to describe this experience are words like "still" and "listening." Brinton's organic metaphor is important in understanding the collective nature of this silent worship when it has been described in terms of music thus, "It is like the luminous unity and individual fulfillment that arise when musicians, responding to the music before them, offer up their separate gifts in concert" (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2002, p. 19).

In fact, Brinton (2002) points us directly to Matthew 18:20, which says, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (p. 4). He further goes on to describe this collective silence, this "wait[ing] upon the Lord," as a dynamo drawing on a Power beyond itself (Brinton, 2002, p. 7). Much of this understanding of the Quakers' silent worship is reminiscent of McLuhan's notion of the resonant interval, a point worth further exploring.

The Resonant Interval and Acoustic Space

McLuhan & Powers (1989) tell us that the resonant interval is "an invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space" (p. 4). It is his contention that the sequential, quantitative, left-brain orientation of Western societies, with its visual bias shaping perception, has suppressed the qualitative orientation of the right brain and its tendencies toward the holistic. This critique was made in the context of the electronic age and its retrieval of right-brain orientation, however the broader point, has some appeal here. Examining the evolution of the Quaker separation from the literal, the codified, and the visual, it is striking that an embrace of the holistic, the unprogrammed, and the acoustic seems to have been made. It would be a mistake, however, to say that the Society of Friends made a complete break from the older, more biblically traditional Christian societies. In fact, it is the ability of the Friends community to live and worship somewhere between the established history and belief of biblical Christian doctrine and the mystic practices of an even older society that define its identity. One might argue that Quakers are worshipping at the invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space.

McLuhan was no stranger to the application of his theories to the metaphysical. In a 1970s interview with Father Patrick Murphy of the Catholic television network EWTN, he described the resonant interval in terms of faith, saying:

This harkens to Ong's (1967) explanation that the visual orientation of literate cultures moves the individual out of acoustic space and into what he describes as a Copernican space, where the visual tactile sensibility overtakes the oral--aural and neutralizes one's centrality in "reality" or "actuality," as he prefers to call it. This has a de-personalizing effect, transforming the visually observable into the preferred state of understanding and positioning the world as a collection of fragmented things.

In the period leading up to the seventeenth century, emergence of Quaker thought that the emphasis on literal, doctrinaire belief in Biblical writing and the association of those beliefs with creeds intended to solidify the power of the Bible aligned the church with a de-personalized, visual organization of the sensorium, thereby alienating man from his God. It would seem that the form of worship favored by Quakers, in effect, retrieves acoustic space putting members of each meeting, as McLuhan would put it, always at the center, and the center is everywhere, and the margins are nowhere. This acts as an important mechanism for the meeting to maintain the perspective of community as the basic unit of the Quaker organization, especially considering the importance placed on consensus.

To further understand the complexity of the Quaker philosophical orientation, it is important to look back at the specific traditions that influenced its evolution over time, in particular to position them with respect to general semantics.

Logical Inconsistency and Growth

Brinton (2002) once again offers some perspective on the philosophical orientation of Quaker thought by placing it in the midst of Greek mysticism, the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, and the Hebraic modes of thought favored by biblical prophets. For Brinton, it is important to see the distinction present in the Greek belief that God and man are bound as one, an eternal condition of existence, and the Hebrew belief in the separation between God and man, which is defined relationally. For the Greeks, man must seek out the eternal Truth innate in the universe. That Truth will be revealed to the seeker, unless the seeker turns away from the notion of innate oneness with God and toward sin. For the Hebrew, God acts independently of man and chooses to reveal himself at unpredictable times. It is man's duty to obey God, to take visitation as a call to right action. Truth is found in these revelations, and evil is found when man chooses to ignore or oppose them. Brinton's clearest and most succinct point in this description is the notion that, "In the Hebrew conception man is saved by doing; in the Greek, he is saved by being" (p. 68).

Brinton contends that Quaker worship, the centering and deep contemplation of the meeting for worship, is in fact a search for revelation in the Greek tradition. Quakers practicing silence in the midst of their fellow community members are on a quest for Truth or Light as they prefer to call it. There is certainly a sense that within each of us is an innate soul, within which Truth can be found. The strength of that belief varies within meetings and communities, and it bears further examination as to how prevalent it is among Quakers today. The Quakers, according to Brinton, have always considered themselves closer to the Hebrew prophets in philosophy, however, emphasizing action as a necessary consequence of Divine revelation. He notes, "Quakers today are known more for their works than for the depth of their spiritual life; more for doing than for being. For many, Quakers worship and contemplation are valuable, not in themselves, but as the means to right action" (Brinton, 2002, p. 70).

It is the duality of Quaker philosophy in this respect, or rather the lack of a consistent system of theology, that helps to put its practice into perspective. Brinton (2002) notes that logical consistency produces stasis and rigidity, leading religious communities toward formalization of membership. Logical inconsistency, of the type attributed to Quakers, tends toward growth, according to Brinton, and new revelations whether sought after or revealed emphasize process and action over dogma or creeds. Inconsistency of thought with respect to the established traditions of Christian philosophical roots squarely places emphasis on experience for Quakers, giving them particular sensitivity to what general semanticists would call lower levels of abstraction, in as far as they pertain to Divine Truth or Light.

The Non-Verbal Level and Oneness

Bois (1996) notes that as humans have extended themselves and their awareness outward across the planet and into the space that lies beyond, the search for bonding has also grown and as such we make our ideas and emotions common via language and other codes of communication. He writes:

Bois calls human beings observer-participants in the world, but chooses to focus on the aspects of participation, rather than observation, that occur below the verbal level. He likens perception below the verbal level to the metabolic processes that occur below the flesh and suggests that these perceptions are the stuff of living life-in-depth. Although the verbal level is useful in binding human beings together in important and concrete ways, Bois also notes that:

When it comes to the Quaker tradition, the initial split from the Anglican Church can be characterized by the desire to return to the spirit of Christian worship in rejection of the letter of Christian worship found in codification, ritual, and creed. Likewise, during the most turbulent periods in Quaker history, the spirit of Quaker philosophy is what held the various factions together even as the letter began to intercede in its practice. The practice of collective silence in many ways illustrates the movement of Quaker philosophy and practice along an evolutionary path not dissimilar to Bois' (1996) hierarchy of knowing, which is broken into five phases, ranging from primitive realism to the unifying or participating stage. Simply put, the Quaker tradition, in terms of Bois' hierarchy can be shown to exist in the transition from stage-4, the postulating stage, characterized by the development of freedom from dogmas and theories, and stage-5, which is characterized by acceptance of "the non-verbal experience of oneness with a situation and with its undefinable implications" (p. 341).

Bois sees oneness at odds with subject versus object culture and notes that the experiencing silence at the objective level offers a unifying process that lifts the veil of culture through "participation in the energy process that sustains the existence of the whole universe" (p. 341). This is reminiscent of Brinton (2002) in his description of Quakers' practice of collective silence, in "wait[ing] upon the Lord," as a dynamo drawing on a Power beyond itself (p. 7).

Quaker Silence and the Ecological Mind

In writing about oneness and experiencing the world at a non-verbal level, an obvious connection can be made to Bateson's (1972) notions of mind, in the ecological sense. In the film Ecology of Mind: A Daughter's Portrait of Gregory Bateson, Bateson can be seen remarking, "Sometimes I catch myself believing that there's such a thing as something that is distinct from everything else" (

In fact, this sentiment gets at the heart of his definition of mind, in the cybernetic sense. Mind, according to Bateson (1972), in its simplest form can be seen as a cybernetic system with messages in circuit, with an idea being the transformation of difference traveling within. The example he employs to make this concept plain is of a blind man carrying his walking stick, tapping along the surface of the road in front of him. Mind, in this sense, is not only immanent in the body of the man but also in the pathways and the messages outside his body. Mind is constituted by the signals generated in the kinetic energy produced in the tapping of the stick, in the impulses traveling up the stick and sensed by the hand, and in the processing of those images in the brain. It is present in the perceptions produced by those impulses, the ways we categorize and attempt to understand them, and the reactions that are produced that prompt further probing and manipulation of the stick. In fact, the individual circuit, or mind, in question is simply a subsystem of the larger system around it, and the definition of mind can be applied equally to the complex environment around the man and his stick, ad infinitum.

The silent meeting in the Quaker tradition, seen from this point of view, makes mind immanent in the collection of individuals seated in silence together. It creates a circuit of awareness that extends between and through silent worshippers, each listening independently for communion with God. The key is the collectivity of the experience in silent meetings, for other religious practices offer a path toward silence at the objective level in isolated meditation. The Quaker practice strips away the verbal level and puts the community in a state of collective being, where each member's physicality and biological rhythms become points of perception. The content of this medium is existence. It is being. It is unity. The idea present is a difference traveling in circuit that separates members from their isolated notions of self and raises their awareness of oneness.

For a culture so dependent on consensus and community for the foundation of its continued existence, this practice, whatever the metaphysical implications, serves a very practical, cultural function in its establishment and reinforcement of unity. Bateson (1972) also noted that the larger mind present in the environment surrounding individual minds "is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by 'God,' but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology" (p. 467). He compared the Freudian epistemology of mind, looking inward, to the ecological epistemology, which turns outward in prior modes of thought, God stood vis-a-vis His creation and offered man domination of everything under the sun, as humans were created in His image. Bateson sees this perspective as destructive and offers the ecological mind as a mode of thought about man's relationship with nature, in oneness, that is essential to sustaining existence on this fragile planet.

Quakers, as a Religious Society of Friends, would hardly surrender the traditional notion of God to Bateson's cybernetic model, but at least in practice one can observe how Quaker silence, in promoting an ecological form of worship and representing the unifying stage described by Bois, transform the Christian form of worship in an important and progressive way. When God is a matter of symbols on the printed page, He exists as something separate and distinct. When He is found in the exploration of the larger mind, Quakers find that God is, in fact, what takes place as individual minds let go and intuitively sense the interconnectedness that blurs the lines between "you" and "me" and "God," bringing the collective into existence as the holiest of entities.


If we take to heart the Brinton's suggestion that Quaker communities, and indeed all communities, are akin to organisms (we might call them systems), then Bateson's notions of ecology and mind begin to take on greater relevance. If the Quaker philosophy of community is rooted in consensus and unity, it only makes perfect sense that the mechanisms of cultural construction in Quaker communities would serve the purpose of negotiating and reinforcing those values. In silence, Quakers achieve an awareness of the cybernetic perspective that says, "I am not separate from you, nor are you from I." In an age when electronic media have begun to reshape culture in a way that tears down the traditional boundaries of earlier, print-oriented people, chaos and confusion can be expected. Redefining our collective experience on Earth will require the formation of new modes of living, negotiating, defining, and connecting.

Quaker silent worship offers one practical model of cultural practice that works, to ease the tensions of competing cultural values, and in its overlap with general semantics finds greater significance than at any time before. As an integrated practice, alongside general semantics and media ecology, Quaker silent meeting offers an awareness of systems of thought, experience, and meaning making that could provide vital for future generations as they struggle to make sense of it all.


Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bois, J. S. (1996). The art of awareness (4th ed.). Santa Monica, CA: Continuum Press & Productions.

Brinton, H. H. (2002). Friends for 350 years. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications.

Brinton, H. H. (2006). Guide to Quaker practice [Pamphlet]. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications.

Cooper, W. (1991). The testimony of integrity in the religious society of friends [Pamphlet]. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications.

Gillman, H. (2003). A light that is shining: An introduction to the Quakers. London, United Kingdom: Quaker Books.

Korzybski, A. (1994). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics (5th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics.

McLuhan, M., & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of media: The new science. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M., & Powers, B. R. (1989). The global village: Transformations in world life and media in the 21st century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ong, W. J. (1967). The presence of the word: Some prolegomena for cultural and religious history. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Peck, G. T. (1988) What is Quakerism: A primer [Pamphlet]. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. (2002). Faith and Practice, Philadelphia, PA: Publications Service Group, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (author).

Steere, D. (1984). Quaker spirituality: Selected writings. New York: Paulist Press.

Michael H. Plugh is a doctoral student in Temple University's Mass Media and Communication program, and a lecturer at Akita International University in northern Japan. His research interests include language, technology and socio-cultural change, with particular emphasis on learning and education.
In calm and cool silence, once again
  I find my old accustomed place among
  brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
  Shall utter words; where hymn is never sung,
  Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung;
  Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!
  There, syllabled by silence, let me hear
  The still, small voice which reached the prophet's ear.
  --John Greenleaf Whittier

Brinton explained the process of building community through
  a biological metaphor. He looked at healthy Quaker communities
  as organisms. This meant that the meeting community as a
  whole was responsible for collective spiritual health and that
  establishing this health would ensure the spiritual growth and
  well-being of individual members. This model depended on a
  balanced and reciprocal relationship between the individual
  members' gifts and the needs of the meeting. He contrasted this
  idea of organic unity with the mechanical unity of the industrial
  revolution in North America. In mechanical organizations like
  factories and armies, each individual functioned as a replaceable
  part of a rigidly defined structure. (Brinton, 2006, p. 5)

As Catholic worship is centered in the altar and Protestant worship
  in the sermon, worship for the Society of Friends attempts to
  realize as its center the divine Presence revealed within. In a
  Catholic church the altar is placed so as to become the focus of
  adoration; in a typical Protestant church the
  pulpit localized attention; while in a Friends Meeting House there
  is no visible point of concentration, worship being here directed
  neither toward the actions nor the words of others, but toward the
  inward experience of the gathered group. (p. 73)

[I]n fact it was the old philosophers who pointed out the world
  of resonance, acoustic space, is a complete sphere whose center
  is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere. And in the world of
  faith you have that experience of being always at the center,
  and the center is everywhere, and the margins are nowhere. This
  is the amazing structure about the resonant world of hearing,
  as compared to the visual world with its sharp boundaries, its
  rigid points of view, its antagonisms, differences, contrasts,
  and so on... (

This world of mine is distinct from the world that you create and
  of which you are the center. Our words may overlap to some extent,
  as they do now as I write and you read, but they never coincide
  exactly in their space-time totality, and seldom do they fuse into
  a common experience. When fusion occurs, however, it is an
  unutterable experience, clearly beyond words, at a level of
  existence that words cannot reach. There is the total surrender and
  the ecstasy of reciprocated love, and less spectacular degrees of
  unity in living are experienced when a common insight makes two or
  more persons share in a discovery of a notion that reaches deep into
  their world of values. (p. 150)

Yielding to love instead of holding on to the rules of discursive
  logic is what makes vie-a-deux (life-of-two-for-two) possible,
  enjoyable and fruitful. A common dedication to a core of values is
  what holds 'movements,' institutions, and organizations together
  during periods of intensive and difficult growth. Later, the values
  may harden into sets of rules and procedures, the interpretation of
  which gradually assumes a 'logical' character. When this goes too far,
  we speck of the letter of the law' versus the 'spirit of the law.'
  (p. 151)
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