Monday, August 25, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - P for Penn's sword

Portrait of young William Penn
The story of Penn's sword is one of the best known Quaker myths. It does not appear in print until the American Quaker Samuel Janney wrote about it in 1852 and its inclusion in British books of discipline is excused in the following words - 'The following anecdote depends on oral tradition, but it has played so large a part in Quaker thinking that it is included here'.

There are different ways of looking at myth. Either myths are, as one Methodist writer calls them, 'weeds in the garden of history' which need to be rooted out in the interest of historical truth, or they can be appreciated as being memorable stories which serve to teach a moral lesson - almost akin to parables. For those who have not encountered this particular myth before I think it will bear another repetition, so here is Janney's version, taken from Quaker Faith and Practice 19.47.
Possible portrait of Fox by Lely

'When William Penn was convinced of the principles of Friends, and became a frequent attendant at their meetings, he did not immediately relinquish his gay apparel; it is even said that he wore a sword, as was then customary among men of rank and fashion. Being one day in company with George Fox, he asked his advice concerning it, saying that he might, perhaps, appear singular among Friends, but his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist, and moreover, that Christ had said, ‘He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’ George Fox answered, ‘I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.’ Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword, and George said to him, ‘William, where is thy sword?’ ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.’'
Samuel Janney

It is true that William Penn and George Fox knew one another so that it is feasible that such conversations might have taken place, even though there is no contemporary evidence for that. It is also true that Quaker convincement and the personal adoption of particular testimonies come from within, from the persuasion of God, the Inward Light or individual conscience rather than from the persuasion of another person. Another truth is that there are more examples of this kind of convincement in other, better attested, contemporary writings and I would like to share one example which I find particularly powerful.

When Edward Coxere was convinced in the 1680s by two unnamed Quakers in Dover, he was a sailor and gunner protecting merchant ships. In his spiritual autobiography he tells how he accepted the truth of Quakerism and then goes on - 'This was not all, but the Lord in his mercy followed me that very day and brought not peace but trouble; for the first remarkable opening I had before I slept from the Lord was concerning fighting and killing of enemies. The questioning the lawfulness or unlawfulness of it lay on me as a very great burden, because it struck at my very life.'

Illustration of fighting ships from Coxere's manuscript memoir

Looking for answers Edward went back to where the two men who told him about Quakerism were staying and asked them to put his mind at rest. He explained that he made his living as a seaman and asked whether, going to sea in wartime and meeting with an enemy, he was allowed as a Quaker to fight or not. Their reaction was not what he expected and echoes the response of George Fox in the story of Penn's sword.

'They, being very mild, used but few words, I being a stranger to them, but wished me to be faithful to what the Lord did make known to me, and words to that purpose, so did not encourage me to fight, but left me to the working of the power of the Lord in my own heart, which was more prevalent than words in the condition I then was in.'

Looking back Edward appreciates the rightness of their reaction, even though he remained troubled for some while. As he says 'I did not lay down fighting on other men's words, but the Lord taught me to love mine enemies in his own time.'

A little-known sailor and two nameless Friends cannot perhaps compete with the famous William Penn and George Fox but the two stories are equally good lessons and, I think, worth remembering whether myth or historical fact.

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