“We are living in the midst of an intellectual and social revolution. Neither the Churches nor the ministry can remain what they were. Instead of a cultivated class, we are creating a cultivated people – a people educated by the best literature, the latest science, and an ever-expanding social life.” – Dr. John Clifford
Following naturally upon the subjects touched upon in my last letter, comes that of the opportunities existing amongst us for carrying forward education in Biblical and theological literature beyond the point usually reached in our boarding schools. It has long been a favourite thought with Friends in this country that, seeing we do not know who amongst the pupils in our schools may in after life be called into the service of the Gospel, it is desirable to give them all as thorough a grounding as possible in Bible truth. It is probable that, with all the efforts of teachers, in the limited time that can be devoted to one branch of study, when so many are claiming attention, not much can be accomplished during the years of school life beyond a general acquaintance with the facts of the Bible history, the history of the Bible itself, and the committal to memory of selected scripture passages.
And it may well be doubted whether, even if time admitted of it, the attention of the young student during the school age could profitably be directed to those theological question and phases of belief which he is sure to encounter in after years.
With the exception of the Flounders Institute for training teachers, I am not aware of any institution among Friends in this country at which instruction in the higher branches of these departments of learning can be obtained. It follows, therefore, that young Friends desiring such instruction must seek it at one or other of the public colleges and universities.
Our brethren in North America have long had their well-known Bible schools in connection with many of their meetings for worship. These had their origin in a deficiency of Scripture knowledge recognised about sixty years ago as producing some sorrowful results; and they doubtless afford opportunities for the valuable exercise of spiritual gifts in Bible teaching, and for the diffusion of sound Scriptural knowledge amongst both young and old.
Besides these schools or Bible classes, our friends in some of the States of the American Union – quick to perceive existing needs, and to devise remedies – have opened in their colleges what are known as “Biblical Institutes,” of which the one at Earlham, Indiana, may be taken as an example. This is under the direction of a “Professor of Biblical Exegesis and of Church History,” and is declared to be “for ministers, Bible-school teachers, missionaries, and other Christian workers.” The courses of study include Greek, Latin, and English literature, and Old and New Testament history; and extend to English composition, elocution, Christian evidences, psychology, higher catechism of theology, homiletics and pastoral theology, and so forth; including probably some reference to what is termed the “Higher Criticism” of the present day.
Another effort of American Friends in promoting the extension of education amongst those called to the ministry consists, I believe, of the provision of courses of reading for their ministers at their homes; the books being selected by a committee, and perhaps supplied to the readers on easy terms as to expense.
In a country where a large proportion of the Friends are engaged in agriculture, and live in small communities, remote from the opportunities of culture existing in large towns, it is probable that this arrangement has considerable value. In some of our cities the existing Friends’ Institutes possess well-selected libraries of general literature which afford materials for self-education; but the collections of books stores at many of our country meeting-houses are of little interest except to the antiquarian. These might be rendered much more serviceable by the addition of a few well chosen volumes, on the level of modern education and intelligence.
None of us can be too well acquainted either with the Bible itself, or with the facts relating to its history; and none can be too well furnished with that which makes “ready to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you”; and whatever tends to the advancement both of our ministers and others, in sound practical knowledge of that kind would be of inestimable value to us as a community.
As regards the so-called “Higher Criticism” which appears to be devoting itself to the examination from a purely intellectual standpoint of the Bible records and other Christian evidences, and to the attempt to weaken if not destroy the grounds of religious belief, I confess to the conviction that it will suffice if only a few amongst us are concerned to follow these currents of thought through the mazes of speculation into which they flow; especially if they can bring us word, as some good men have done and are doing, that the foundation stands unshaken, that many of the bold assertions of the critics are mere assumptions of their own, and that they have succeeded in little more than giving new evidence of the old truth that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto Him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually judged.”
The waves of human thought may ruffle the surface for a season, but far down in the mighty ocean of God’s love there is eternal calm. The soul that dwells but upon the outer face of things may indeed be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”; but he that has his dwelling in those fathomless ocean deeps is beyond the influence of boiling surges or of stormy winds. After all, we may not forget that into the service of God “not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called”; and excellent as are learning and eloquence when truly sanctified for the work, it is but too possible that the ear and the taste may be satisfied while the heart is hungry still.
The simple preaching of the Cross of Christ, even from homely lips, continues (as many of us can testify from grateful experience) to bring food to the hungry soul, healing the wounded, liberty to the captive, joy to the mourner, and rest to the weary and heavy laden.
Upon this subject of education, then, I have no striking new development to propose. In our circumstances as a body, and in this land, I believe it is to be more a matter for personal effort than for systematic provision; and as such I shall have to recur to it hereafter. Meantime it will be well for us to begin by more fully utilizing the material we already possess. Those who are able and willing to teach should be encouraged and stimulated in the employment of their gifts. If possible, increased attention should be devoted at our schools to Biblical and other religious instruction. Those who give evidence of having received a call to the public ministry of the word should be assisted in their private studies if needful, and in such courses of reading as may the better fit them for effective work.
For the present at any rate it appears to me that the pursuit of those higher branches of learning for which we have no denominational provision may be carried on in the public institutions of the country.
Before closing this letter I would express the desire I have often felt for some work of the nature of a Scripture Commentary, written from the simple spiritual standpoint of the Society of Friends. It is but right to acknowledge instances of candour in some existing Commentaries, even when the admissions made are opposed to the writer’s own sectional views; but none of these works (so far as my observation has gone) are free from bias in favour of sacramentarian ideas, or thoroughly candid on points affecting Church government.
The only existing work on the New Testament that I am acquainted with from the pen of a Friend, is the late Dr. Ash’s notes, in three small volumes; but these are too concise to be thoroughly useful. The late J. Tindall Harris’ essays on the writings of the Apostle John are a valuable fragmentary contribution; and one turns with interest at times to “The Book of Praises,” in which the late W. H. Alexander has recorded his comments upon the Psalms. But is there no living Friend who will give us a New Testament Exposition upon a thoroughly Quaker basis?
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, July, 1892
Part 8 of this series is here.