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Quaker Spirituality and the Sacraments

by Irene Ní Mháille

About the Author

Irene ní Mháille of Monkstown Meeting entered an Irish missionary order in 1952 and served as a missionary sister from 1959 to 1980, mostly in Africa but also for a five year period in a black community in North Central Philadelphia, then after 10 years working in Religious Education in Ireland she returned to Africa as a lay person 1991 to 1996.  This article is based on a talk she gave in January 2011 in a series on Quaker Spirituality at Eustace Street Meeting House in Dublin.

First Impressions

When I first visited a Quaker service of Worship in 2003, I was filled with many emotions of delight and wonder. There was no sacrament of the Eucharist! Way was made, instead, for the presence of God’s Spirit!

For much of my life, I was required to believe that in the sacrament of the Eucharist, I received the body and blood of Jesus who is God. This doctrine distorted both my understanding of Jesus, and of God. Release from this distortion brought great joy!

These emotions of delight and wonder grew as I attended discussions – between 2003 and 2006 – in preparation for the revised draft of the Irish Quaker book Christian Experience (1962). During these discussions I learnt how Quakerism, while letting go of sacraments as external rites, had preserved the many treasures of Christian spirituality that lie hidden in the deeper, mystical notion of sacramental. For Quakers, the word sacramental seemed to me to refer to the throbbing heart of the whole of creation as it carries the imprint of the sacred, in the whole of the secular.

Roman Catholicism and the Sacraments

I had participated, for well over three decades before that, in the often very inspiring, but ultimately, as I see it, unsuccessful, efforts of Roman Catholicism, to revive Christian spirituality. The finding again of the sacred, not in a separate supernatural world, but in the heart of the secular, was the method used to bring the external rites of the Seven Sacraments into line with what people really believed. This involved a re-look at the development of the practice and theology of sacraments throughout the centuries, not only in Catholicism, but also in all the other Christian churches. It also involved getting down to the business of re-creating Christian communities. It was a most exhilarating time, full of promise!

I cannot speak with authority of Quakerism as I am a ‘blow-in’ of only eight years experience. I can, however, speak out of the inspiration and blessing that my encounter with Quakerism was and continues to be for me, on my own personal journey of Faith. I hope to be excused for interpreting Quakerism through the eyes of my former Roman Catholicism, the only eyes I have!

Reformation in Roman Catholicism really started in 1943 with the publication of Pope Pius 12’s encyclical, “Divino Afflante Spiritu” (With the Holy Spirit Blowing ) This encyclical marked the acceptance by Roman Catholicism of the historical/critical study of the Bible that took place, at first, among Protestant scholars, from the 18th century onwards. From then on, a literary interpretation of the Bible was impossible without belittling human scholarship. The teaching that Jesus founded the sacraments of the church, was seen to be very unclear from Scripture and so it became possible for Roman Catholics to discuss sacraments, from all angles.

In trying to refashion the sacraments, Catholics turned to the model of the Adult Catechumenate (community of adult Faith) of the early Christian church. As the early church developed, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist were received at the end of 1-3 years of Christian living. For early Christians, what was important was Christian living. Sacraments did not cause or effect this, they were simply celebrations of it.

Sacraments understood in this way, were part of the living adult community of Faith and were not divorced from the sacredness of all of life.

Theology of Redemption

Gradually, however, as the image of Jesus, as Redeemer, took over from the image of Jesus as teacher, a theology of Redemption started to underpin the sacraments. Christianity taught that a sinful, passive humanity, unable, of itself, to approach God, was bought back into God’s favour by the merits of the death of Jesus. As Saviour, this Jesus, we were taught, washed our sins away. A deposit of the merits won for us by Jesus, enabled the Church to distribute these merits through the sacraments. Gradually, Christians, in the modern world, were starting to question this doctrine, so a discrepancy between faith and practice was a constant threat.

Sacraments, underpinned by Redemption theology, became separated from the sacredness of life and lent themselves to being perceived as magical, supernatural acts. Clergy, who actively administered, were separated from laity who passively received the benefits of Christ’s Redemption, made available through the sacraments.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was a very serious attempt to deal with this growing crisis. It had goals very similar to the reformations of Vatican Council 2, in Roman Catholicism, in late 20th century. Both represented a huge attempt to bring outward rites into line with inward experience.

Outward Rites, Inward Experience

But in both Protestant and Catholic churches, it seems to me, this struggle took place, only at the tactical level of structures and institutional conformity. Only gradually, in the 20th century, did more strategic questions, such as why Redemption theology, who is Jesus, what other doors are open to a vibrant Christian Faith, begin to surface for Catholics. Then, as strategic questions about people’s real beliefs surfaced, these were often crushed by clerical authority. And, alas for Catholicism, the hoped for reformation only happened in areas where clerical authority allowed it. That did not include Ireland!

The Difference with Quakers

Quakerism was different. Away back in the 17th century, it had asked, and answered, the most strategic question of all, do we need sacraments! But Christian history barely recognised this event! Was this strategic question too big a threat throughout past centuries? Is it still a threat today? Should it not be, today, at the heart of ecumenical discussion?

As part of the radical Protestant Reformation, the Swiss reformer Zwingli marked, it seems to me, an important milestone between institutional Christianity and Quakerism. He returned to the original meaning of the word “sacrament”.

The original Latin word “sacramentum” had a military use. It indicated the oath of allegiance that soldiers of the Roman army swore to the Emperor, before going to battle. This is hardly a word that would delight the heart of George Fox! But, wishing to rid the sacraments of their magical elements, Zwingli recommended bringing back this original idea of oath of allegiance.

Zwingli’s idea was that this oath should now be made, by a Christian, as a pledge of his faith in God. Thus, the reception of a sacrament would no longer be a passive act but an active renewal of an oath of fidelity to Christian Faith. Maybe, this is close to the idea of the early Christian catechumenate that stressed Christian living over sacramental rites. In the renewal of the oath of fidelity, Zwingli sought to deal with the problem of sacraments as merely outward rites, that lacked inward experience: over a century later, early Quakers claimed the inward experience without the external rite!

The Inward Experience

At the heart of Quaker spirituality is the inward experience, the inner light, the inner Christ, the eternal Shekinah of which the sacraments are but a sign. Living in tune with this inner Spirit is what constitutes religious life for Quakers. As long as one can have this inner experience of God, directly, of what use are the rites of the sacraments? Quakers ask. They are, therefore inessential.

Quaker worship is the place and time, par excellence, when Quakers seek the inner spirit but they, then, carry this dependence on the guidance of the spirit into all their activities. Worship in spirit and in truth replaces the Eucharist, the Mass or the Holy Communion services in other Christian churches. Quakers believe that human beings are capable of access to the divine without external intermediaries. They seek to find the divine within themselves first, and then in each other, and to live their lives in obedience to this belief.

This does not mean that access to the divine is seen as easy. George Fox taught that each human being must deal with this challenge of seeking and finding the divine life within themselves. He wrote:

“This worship in the spirit and in the truth, touches every man and woman: they each have to come to the spirit in themselves, and come to the truth of their own inner being. And this is public worship we are talking about, not private. If they are really to worship God in spirit and in truth, they have to surrender in spirit and truth and enter into them personally….They have to come to the truth in the heart, to the hidden self in the heart and to a humble and quiet heart.” (Epistle 222)
Finding the spiritual reality of which the sacraments are but a sign, requires a huge surrender, and is a constant sacrifice and challenge for each of us, as Quakers. I think the implication of what Fox means by, “the hidden self in the heart” is, that part of ourselves is hidden from ourselves but can be awakened by God’s spirit, particularly when we are gathered in communion of spirit, with others. Quakers use the lovely expression, “a gathered meeting” to express the outpouring of the spirit as it flows through the gathered group. This happens, not by receiving external rites, but by listening attentively to what our own being and that of others is saying in the silence, whether this is outwardly expressed or not.

A Bold and Colossal Claim

The Quaker book of Christian Experience (1962) carries this great quote (p.39), from A. Barratt Brown (1887-1947):

“It is a bold and colossal claim that we put forward – that the whole of life is sacramental, that there are innumerable “means of grace” by which life is revealed and communicated – through nature and through human fellowship and through a thousand things that may become, “the outward and visible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace.”
In this quote, Barratt Brown does something wonderful for me. He takes the theological terms of sacraments as rites such as “means of grace”, “the outward and visible sign”, “inward and spiritual grace” out of the prison of theological discourse and releases them into the cosmos of God’s creation. Thus, the “bold and colossal claim that we put forward – that the whole of life is sacramental.”

There is further evidence of this movement from theology (sacramental rite) – to creation (life as sacramental) – in a beautiful passage from “Essays and Addresses” by John Wilhelm Rowntree(1868-1905), quoted in Christian Experience, p 40:

“To the soul that feeds upon the bread of life, the outward conventions of religion are no longer needful. Hid with Christ in God, there is for him but small place for outward rites, for all experience is a holy baptism, a perpetual supper with the Lord and all life is a sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This hidden life, this hidden vision, this immediate and intimate union between the soul and God, this, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is the basis of the Quaker Faith.

“We do not make use of the outward rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper but we do lay stress on the inward experiences they symbolise. Our testimony is to the reality of this experience without the external act”
As an example of the inward experience, without the outward act, D. Elton Trueblood (1968) is quoted in the two revised draft copies of Christian Experience as describing baptism by fire as, “one loving heart setting another on fire”.

When I first met these quotations during discussions on the new draft of Christian Experience, I realised the full significance of Quakerism for Christianity. Jesus, the Jew, has for me the same message that early Quakers re-discovered; years of theological accretions have hidden its awesomeness.

Knowledge of the Heart

Knowledge, for Quakers, is knowledge of the heart. It is the gift of God’s Spirit and is born in the “inner light”. When we read Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, not literally, but through its eternal images, we find it full of this invocation to inner knowledge. When the Hebrew psalmist sings “deep calls unto deep”, it is of this knowledge of the heart that he speaks.

Yet in the course of the centuries this ability was weakened, as head knowledge, prevailed over heart knowledge and the message of Jesus was packaged for “fallen man”. How come that George Fox could allow full sway to the presence of God’s Spirit, at a time in England when Anglicans, Puritans and Roman Catholics saw Christianity in terms of the redemption of “fallen man”.

There is a mystical passage in George Fox’s Journal (p 27 ff, Nickalls) that helps me to understand this a little:

“Now was I come up in the spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new and all the creation gave a different smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness and innocency and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell.”
Fox never denies darkness or evil but he does not see them as primary. This is evident in several of his Epistles, for example in Epistle 240, Fox refers to the power of God that “goes over the fall to the beginning, where all things are blest”. For Fox original blessing preceded original sin. In this extract from his Journal, it’s clear that he sees the state of innocence as primary, “the state of Adam which he was before he fell.”
The struggle between darkness and light leaves us always in a state of humble striving. But a return to a state of “pureness and innocency” beyond “the flaming sword” that guards paradise, is, rather, a mystical vision that we strive for and need to keep constantly before us as the goal towards which God’s Spirit is guiding us.

I am making the claim here, for 17th century Quakerism, that it moved Christianity forward, out of an image of Christ as redeemer and mankind as sinful, into a new paradigm change that took Christianity out of the Roman Empire and back into the simple teachings of the human Jesus. Jesus lived so intensely with God that he became known as the Christ, the one who is anointed by God’s spirit. This is how I understand Fox’s “inner Christ”. This opens up a very difficult, but a very dignified way to live as a human being. Though elderly now, I feel ever new on this road and am aware that I have a lot to learn every day!


Eco-Quakerism is today a new, yet old, way of expressing a hymn of joy for God’s creation that makes “springs gush forth in the valleys, giving drink to every wild animal”! (Psalm 104). The colossal claim of Quakerism that all of life is sacramental, infuses our world and all that inhabits it, with immeasurable value! It gives rise to a Christian vision that can address the present ecological crisis. It allows human beings to, once again, walk with God in the Garden of Eden and even, perhaps, share this privilege with the creatures of planets yet to be found!

Does inner experience ever need external rites and could that be the sacrament of silence?

IYM Public Lecture 2010

The Public Lecture is a regular feature of Ireland Yearly Meeting and is usually presented as an evening session in the course of the meeting.  The lecture in 2010 was given by ANNE BENNETT


I should like to thank Ireland Yearly Meeting for giving me this opportunity to give the Public Lecture for 2010.  I was asked to talk about building peace through my work at Quaker House Belfast and elsewhere.  This is not an academic exploration of the issues.  It’s about my experiences and stories of some of the people I have met during my work who have taught me so much. Towards the end of my talk I will explore some of the issues facing us today and in the future – the challenges for Quakers.

Continue reading IYM Public Lecture 2010

Ireland Yearly Meeting Epistle – April 2010

The Yearly Meeting Epistle is a traditional greeting, written in the course of each country’s Yearly Meeting and agreed to by all the participants.  The Epistle is sent to Yearly Meetings throughout the world.



Quaker House Dublin, Stocking Lane, Dublin 16
Fax/Phone/Answering – 01 4956889
e-mail –

To Friends everywhere

Dear Friends

We send loving greetings from Ireland Yearly Meeting met in spring sunshine from 8-11 April 2010 in Lisburn.  The underlying theme which emerged was one of being true to our vision.  Our Testimonies are a vision of a way of living.  They express our beliefs in words which leads to action. Jesus taught us to think positively and to live our lives in God’s enabling love.

Continue reading Ireland Yearly Meeting Epistle – April 2010

Darwin and the Divine

Christopher Moriarty

This article is based on a talk arranged by Monkstown Meeting in the Darwin bicentenary year.  It was first published in The Friendly Word January-February 2010.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Continue reading Darwin and the Divine

Mary Leadbeater and the Annals of Ballitore

Article first published in The Friendly Word November-December 2009


Christopher Moriarty

This year saw the triumphant conclusion of years of work by Mario Corrigan and his colleagues at the Kildare County Library in the publication of the definitive edition of a very remarkable 19th century book. Of particular interest to Friends because of the Quaker life of its author, The annals of Ballitore is also a vital source work in social history.

Continue reading Mary Leadbeater and the Annals of Ballitore

From Experience, What Can I Say?

Helen Haughton, Churchtown Meeting

Public Lecture, delivered at Ireland Yearly Meeting, April 22, 2006

In choosing what I wanted to say this evening, I am returning to an important early event in Quakerism.

On one occasion, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, attended a church service at which he was permitted to speak from the pulpit. He pointed out that the prophets, including Jesus, and his apostles, spoke from what they understood God to be saying to them, – not from readings or from the scriptures. This spiritual individualism and the acceptance of diversity, is at the core of Quakerism. So, from my experience, what can I say?

Continue reading From Experience, What Can I Say?

Reflections on a Home-coming

Doreen E Dowd

Address to Ministry and Oversight at Yearly Meeting, 2005

Good Evening, Friends;

For those of you who do not know me, I am a life-long member of Ireland Yearly Meeting, Dublin Monthly Meeting and attend Eustace St. Meeting. In 1992 I left my job as a respiratory physician in Dublin, and went to work in a Salvation Army hospital in Zambia. My work permit described me as a missionary. In 1998 I moved to Lesotho, which is a tiny mountainous kingdom, completely land-locked by the Republic of South Africa, and worked for six years as the Flying Doctor. I was officially a civil servant, but as I was flown several times a week to various remote mountain clinics by the pilots of Mission Aviation Fellowship, I was close to the missionary community in that country.

Continue reading Reflections on a Home-coming

In and Out the Meeting House

David Butler, Britain Yearly Meeting

A talk delivered at Ireland Yearly Meeting 2004. David is the author and illustrator of the definitive book on Quaker Meeting Houses in Ireland, past and present, which is about to be published.

These remarks are lightly-connected incidents in Quaker life, mostly from Ireland, gleaned from a life-time spent looking at meeting houses and reading about them, and from a mere five years enjoying Irish meeting houses. They include many small events, few of which one would wish to make permanent, but which I thought you might like to hear before they sink back into the sands.

Continue reading In and Out the Meeting House

‘All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny’

by Christopher Moriarty

This article was published in Teaching Religious Education Issue 3 December 2008

Christopher Moriarty is Clerk of the Historical Committee of the Religious Society of  Friends in Ireland and a member of a group of volunteers who care for the archives and library of the Society at its headquarters in Ireland: Quaker House Dublin, Stocking Lane, Dublin 16. The library is open to the public on Thursday mornings from 10.30 am to 1 pm.

The Religious Society of Friends was founded by the 17 century Christian visionary George Fox.  Its members came to be known as ‘Quakers’.  Their beliefs were based firmly on the doctrine revealed in the Bible, and particularly on the teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Four Gospels. They adopted a belief, in distinct opposition to the feelings of the times, that the meaning of the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was unequivocal.  Even more important was the instruction of Jesus to ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’.  As early as 1651, Fox was jailed for refusing to fight in the English Civil War.  William Edmundson, who established the Society’s first meeting for worship in Ireland in 1654, had served as a Cromwellian soldier but renounced violence soon after the end of hostilities in 1651.

In 1660, following the Restoration of King Charles II, Quakers put their views on non-violence in a formal declaration addressed to the king in person.  Known over the centuries as ‘The Peace Testimony’ its first paragraph reads as follows:

Our principle is and our practices have always been, to seek peace, and ensue it, and to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God, seeking the good and the welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all.  All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fighting with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.  That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ which leads us all into all Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

The declaration was prompted in part from a legalistic angle. Loyalty to the king was required from all his subjects – disloyalty was treason and punishable by death.  To refuse to enlist in an army and fight for the king could be construed as treasonable.  Quakers were not engaged in any subversion of the legal status quo and insisted on the truth of their claim that they were loyal and law-abiding subjects.  The reasoning behind their refusal to bear arms therefore needed to be expressed very clearly.  For this and for a number of other points of principle, many Quakers suffered imprisonment.

The Williamite warfare in Ireland in the 1690s saw the first serious test of the peace testimony and the great majority of Quakers acquitted themselves honourably.  Four took part in the fighting and they were disowned by the Society.  Of far greater importance was the fact that Quakers gave help to people on both sides in the conflict.  This seems to have led to a recognition and respect rather than to any attempt at revenge by the victorious Williamites.

A hundred years later, the impending rising of 1798 brought about a vigorous campaign within the Society to take practical steps to ensure that its members would both privately and publicly renounce violence.  The all-Ireland National Meeting in 1797 agreed:

The Subject of some in profession with us having guns in their houses, which might be made use of for the destruction of mankind, as well as other instruments of a like nature, having come weightily under the consideration of Friends in the three provinces, this meeting, under a solid feeling, is of the judgement that all such should be destroyed, the more fully to support our peaceable and Christian testimony in these perilous times…..

A committee was appointed to visit Quakers around the country and make sure that they had destroyed their firearms.  At least one of them made a public display of his voluntary disarmament.  Joseph Haughton, a member of the committee, took his fowling piece to the main street in Ferns and broke it up.  Once again, the more positive – and extremely hazardous – practice of giving help to people on both sides of the conflict was followed in 1798.  But, with few exceptions, it seems that the reputation of Quakers was so well established that their communities survived the hostilities without reprisals being taken.

The 20th century, with two world wars, the War of Independence in Ireland and the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ imposed a succession of major challenges.  During and after both world wars, Quakers, amongst them a number of Irish members of the Society, were involved in two international movements.  The first was the Friends Ambulance Unit in which young men enlisted.  While they would not take up arms to fight any enemy, they were equally determined not to shelter from danger by staying away from the fighting.  The Ambulance Unit, serving only to give help to the wounded – without discrimination as to whether friend or enemy – was a solution to the dilemma.  The second came after the wars, when Quakers played an active role in bringing relief to those who suffered in the conquered countries – putting into practice the ideal of loving their enemies and establishing a reputation for their humanity.  They continue to lobby the United Nations and the European Union, through Quaker offices in new York and Brussels.

In Northern Ireland, from 1969 onwards, Quakers became deeply involved in a variety of efforts to achieve reconciliation between the parties in sectarian strife.  Quaker Cottage, on the outskirts of Belfast, was established to provide holiday breaks for families from both sides of the divide.  The essential was that adults and children who, in the normal course of things, would avoid each other, were brought together.  They discovered that the differences between them were remarkably few.  As with the broader thrust of a world-wide renunciation of violence, Quakers have not been so na�ve as to believe either their international work or the example of Quaker Cottage would convince a majority of people within a short time.  The point is that their devotion to the cause of non-violence has changed the thinking of many individuals, actually saved the lives of others and is an essential step in spreading the message of peace.

The Quaker House project in Belfast city was –and still is – a centre giving fulltime employment to a small number of Quakers with skills in bringing national and local political figures together and, in an uncounted number of cases, defusing difficult and dangerous situations.  It is easy to count the numbers of people who died during the Troubles.  While it is impossible to enumerate the numbers saved by behind-the-scenes actions, there is no doubt that Quaker House was instrumental in averting countless tragedies.  The need for unpublicised handling of such situations has meant that the institution rarely achieved public recognition for its achievements.

Another seminal activity in Ulster was the establishment of visitor centres, initially at the Maze and later at Long Kesh prisons.  The abhorrence felt by the involved Quakers towards the violent actions that had led to the imprisonment of the inmates, was equalled by their belief in the humanity of each and every one of them. The ideal had been expressed poetically by George Fox in the 17th century; ‘Walk cheerfully over the world, answering to that of God in every man’ and it continues to be a core belief of Quakers everywhere.  The visitor centres were places where the families who came to visit the prisoners could find shelter, relax over a cup of tea and, if they wanted, find someone willing to listen them.  The work of  the centres developed from an outside fringe activity to being accepted by the authorities who understood their value, not only in supporting people in great difficulties, but also in helping to keep families together and rehabilitate the prisoners when their eventual release came.

Meanwhile, in the Republic, individual Quakers, with official support from the Society, have been active in parallel activities to those of their northern counterparts in attempting to nurture a spirit of peace, even amongst people who are undergoing punishment for violent behaviour, often of an extreme nature.  Quakers, with other religious groups, have been active in establishing and staffing visitor centres in prisons.  At a more direct level, Quakers have been in the forefront of implanting AVP, the Alternatives to Violence Programme, which involves practical training sessions with prisoners.

This article gives some examples of the work undertaken by Irish Quakers towards sowing the seeds of peace and nurturing the rather delicate flowers that spring up.  Similar projects are taking place in all countries in which there are Quaker communities.  The Mission Statement of South Africa Quaker Peace Centre in Capetown gives an excellent summary of essentials that are applied throughout the world:

Our mission is to build a non-violent society where diversity is celebrated, the energies of conflict are turned into a positive transforming power and where the democratic rights of every individual are respected, protected and pursued.

Further Reading (more obtainable from ‘’)
Maurice J Wigham (2nd Edition 2006) The Irish Quakers, a short history of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland Dublin: Historical Committee of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland.

Richard S Harrison (1986) Irish Anti-war Movements 1824-1974. Dublin: Irish Peace Publications.

Glynn Douglas (1998) Friends and 1798: Quaker witness to non-violence in 18th century Ireland. Dublin: Historical Committee of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland.