One charitable excuse given by a modern commentator for being overtaken by sleep is that 'Drowsiness at these meetings may have arisen from people who led physically active lives, usually outdoors or in unheated rooms, having an opportunity to sit at ease in a room which was probably heated by a fireplace'. Perhaps another reason was that they, like the young Samuel Bownas in the late 1690s, were at meeting because it was expected of them rather than because of their own conviction.
Throughout the 18th century travelling ministers and other 'weighty Friends' urged Quakers to guard against sleep both for their own sake and to avoid giving a bad impression to others. A letter written to New Jersey Friends in 1704 advises 'Friends all take heed of sleeping, sottishness and dullness in Meetings for it is an illsavoury thing to see one sit nodding in a Meeting,and so to lose the sense of the Lord and shamefacedness both; and it grieveth the upright and watchful, that wait upon the Lord, to see such things, and for the Priests, people and others that come into your Meetings, to see you that come together to worship God and wait upon him, to have fellowship in His Spirit, for you to sit nodding is a shame and unseemly thing.’
In 1776 Catherine Payton Phillips, writing to Friends in Ireland after travelling among them, condemns drowsiness in meeting in no uncertain terms but also suggests a remedy. 'It is not improbable that the drowsiness beforementioned may, in some, proceed from eating and drinking more than nature requires; this most certainly unfits the mind for spiritual exercises; for, when the body is still, the mind sinks into rest. Under this consideration, it becomes the duty of all to watch, lest their table becomes a snare to them, and wine and strong drink be so indulged in their feasts, as to unfit them for Communion with God, and the participation of the New Wine of his Kingdom. And, young People should, especially, be careful not to indulge themselves in the use of much wine, etc. lest the prevelance of custom grow upon them as they advance in years.'
Is sleeping in meeting something which we should still worry about today? It certainly still happens as we relax in our usually well-heated meeting rooms. Indeed Ben Pink Dandelion in his 1986 book The Quakers; a Very Short Introduction states ‘In terms of the inward, studies show that Friends are engaged in many different kinds of activity, often in parallel or tandem in any one Meeting. They may be praying or praising or seeking communion or guidance, thinking or sleeping.'
So is sleep just one of our options or should we guard against it? Perhaps if we look upon this drowsiness as a metaphor as well as an actuality it might help us to address the question. As Jacob Ritter, a 19th century minister, put it, 'Friends, we must try to keep one another awake, or else we shall lose the life. To lose the life would be losing everything; the life is more than meat, and the body than raiment.'