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Listening and Speaking from the Heart: An Anthology

Listening, speaking, reading, and writing from the heart are ways Friends interact in diverse families, meetings, and organizations. This can take place during worship and in conversations. It is a way to be individuals and a community at the same time.

In this practice we each speak in our own characteristic way, and as we listen we interpret in our own terms. Our replies are guided by where words we hear are coming from and going to, and by the main point of the message rather than the accompanying beliefs.

Elements of this approach are in many Quaker writings. Here are examples arranged in four groups: (a) listening from the heart, (b) speaking from the heart, (c) variety of language and belief among Friends, and (d) unity based on practices and testimonies.

Listening from the heart

On the evening of the 18th I was at their meeting, where pure gospel love was felt, to the tendering of some of our hearts. The interpreters endeavored to acquaint the people with what I said, in short sentences, but found some difficulty, as none of them were quite perfect in the English and Delaware tongues, so they helped one another, and we labored along, Divine love attending. Afterwards, feeling my mind covered with the spirit of prayer, I told the interpreters that I found it in my heart to pray to God, and believed, if I prayed aright, he would hear me; and I expressed my willingness for them to omit interpreting; so our meeting ended with a degree of Divine love. Before the people went out, I observed Papunehang . . . speaking to one of the interpreters, and I was afterwards told that he said in substance as follows: “I love to feel where words come from.” John Woolman[1]

Holy listening—to “listen” another’s soul into life, into a condition of disclosure and discovery, may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. Douglas Steere[2]

Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually, you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you. Rachel Naomi Remen[3]

The second chapter of Acts tells the familiar story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the early church in the form of a roaring wind and “tongues of fire”. What happened next is often referred to as “speaking in tongues”: the apostles were able to preach the gospel in such a way that everyone understood their words, even if they did not speak the same language. But implied in the story is that those who heard were able to “listen in tongues”, able to hear and understand, even though the language spoken was unknown to them. Pentecostals consider speaking in tongues to be a charism, a gift of the Spirit. Perhaps we Quakers have been given the charism of “listening in tongues.” Sometimes what we interpret as conflict is really just a longing to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be understood, to be listened to. If we can respond to that longing, then sometimes the hard edge of our differences can be considerably softened. Tom Gates[4]

We must listen and listen and listen. We must listen for the Truth in our opponent, and we must acknowledge it. After we have listened long enough, openly enough, and with the desire to really hear, we may be given the opportunity to speak our truth. We may even have the opportunity to be heard. For no one and no one side is the sole repository of Truth. But each of us has a spark of it within. Gene Knudsen Hoffman[5]

Quakers join other mystical traditions in knowing that spiritual union happens more through listening than talking, more through experiencing than formulating, more through surrender than control. George Lakey[6]

Speaking from the heart

 [W]e  wait, in silence of the fleshly part, to hear with the new ear what God shall please to speak inwardly in our own hearts, or outwardly through others, who speak with the new tongue which he unlooseth and teacheth to speak; and we pray in the spirit, and with a new understanding, as God pleaseth to quicken, draw forth, and open our hearts towards himself. Isaac Penington[7]

We [Congregational Friends] allow the utmost liberty of speech. . . . We do not TOLERATE but INVITE and ENCOURAGE the free expression of thought and opinion. We love this freedom and rejoice therein as our most precious jewel. And why should not those who differ from each other in doctrine come together, not to wrangle and dispute, but to compare views in the spirit of love, and aid one another in the search for truth? Oliver Johnson[8]

There is a way of life so hid with Christ in God that in the midst of the day’s business one is inwardly lifting brief prayers, short ejaculations of praise, subdued whispers of adoration and of tender love to the Beyond that is within. No one need know about it. I only speak to you because it is a sacred trust, not mine but to be given to others. One can live in a well–nigh continuous state of unworded prayer, directed toward God, directed toward people and enterprises we have on our heart. . . . Now out from this holy Center come the commissions of life. Our fellowship with God issues in world–concern. We cannot keep the love of God to ourselves. It spills over. It quickens us. It makes us see the world’s needs anew. We love people and we grieve to see them blind when they might be seeing, asleep with all the world’s comforts when they ought to be awake and living sacrificially, accepting the world’s good as their right when they really hold them only in temporary trust. It is because from this holy Center we relove people, relove our neighbors as ourselves, that we are bestirred to be means of their awakening. Thomas R. Kelly[9]

We seek to access and convey our own deep truth from as close to our own heart as we can get. The language we choose reflects a healing intention rather than words of blame or judgment that may trigger another’s defenses. If we seek more information, it is out of genuine curiosity rather than to disprove the other person’s point of view. We reframe issues to get at the essence of underlying needs and feelings. We courageously choose to give voice to what has truth and meaning—and do all of this for the sake of promoting healing. Andrea S. Cohen, Leah Green, and Susan Partnow [10]

Do not take offence because others disagree with you. Be chary of ascribing, even in your mind, unworthy motives to others. Try not to take things personally. Promote the spirit of friendship in the meeting so that Friends may speak their minds freely, confident that they will not be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain[11]

Variety of language and belief among Friends

And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning, and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master . . . For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and Life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk. Isaac Penington[12]

We cannot make the world more beautiful by trying to paint it all of one hue; we must learn to see that variety is the characteristic of a universe of endless originality of form. Instead of being pained and shocked, it is better to listen patiently and say our own wisest thoughts as well as we can. Joseph B. Forster[13]

Quakers do not share a fixed set of beliefs. Our unity is based on shared understanding and a shared practice of worship, not on our beliefs all being the same. There is no need to be in unity with Quakers on every issue in order to be part of our meetings. There is a great diversity within the Quakers on conceptions of God, and we use different kinds of language to describe religious experience. Some Quakers have a conception of God which is similar to that of orthodox Christians, and would use similar language. Others are happy to use God–centred language, but would conceive of God in very different terms to the traditional Christian trinity. Some describe themselves as agnostics, or humanists, or non–theists and describe their experiences in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely. Quaker faith is built on experience and Quakers would generally hold that it is the spiritual experience which is central to Quaker worship, and not the use of a particular form of words (whether that be “God” or anything else). The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain [14]

Are you comfortable with a Society whose unity of spirit coexists with a diversity of beliefs? Are you prepared to join a Meeting family which includes people whose perspectives may differ considerably from yours? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting[15]

The silence of the Quaker meeting for worship can be an experience of unity. I am an orthodox, garden variety Christian; I find the image of God first in Jesus the Christ. But it is my joy in the silent meeting to seek with those who find different ways to express the inexpressible truths of religious experience. Words can divide us, but the silence can bring us together. Whatever kinds of community the world needs, it surely needs the kind that embraces human diversity. Parker J. Palmer[16]

In the original sense of the word we should be evangelists, carriers of the good news. And what is the “good news”? Is it not that we are brothers and sisters, with an equality of status in our search for a good way of life, and that none of us can claim to have “the only true faith” which others must accept in order to enter into that fellowship of life and hope? It seems to me that the term “quietism” would be more appropriate to those who would withdraw or remain withdrawn in limited associations of belief while the world is anxiously searching for the grounds of unity. Should Quakers receive the Good Samaritan into membership? Yes, if his or her life is consistent with the action in the parable. And in many cases the life is consistent, whether it be the life of Samaritan, Moslem, Buddhist, Confucian or “pagan” animist in Africa. Arthur Morgan[17]

[S]lowly, and agonizingly, over the past three hundred years we have had to learn how to live with uncertainty: with the realization that we may be mistaken and that, though there may be contingent truths and untruths, there is no absolute, unchanging truth, no Truth with a capital T. Truth, we have learnt, is itself diverse, and is to be made, not found. Whatever seems to speak to our condition, to ring true, that is our truth for the time being, and will remain so until our condition changes, until new bells ring out new truths. We have discovered, in the arts, the sciences, in politics and in theology, that no one view is absolutely “right”, even the view we most cherish. Truth is relative. Of course it is. We now wonder how it could ever have been thought to be anything else. David Boulton[18]

A particular strength of Quakerism has been its ability to adapt to changing times without losing the insights which it has gained from the past. One of the striking changes that has taken place over the last century is that there is now vastly more opportunity for people with different backgrounds to meet and exchange ideas; and, this being so, it would be sad if those brought up in Jewish, Buddhist, Moslem or other traditions—and indeed those with no religious upbringing of any kind—were excluded at the outset from full participation in the affairs of the Society. I would suggest that further thought be given to ways of ensuring that such people are positively welcomed into the Society. No one is being asked to give up any cherished conviction: those who wish to retain traditional Christian beliefs are in no way being discouraged from doing so; and, indeed, for many people this may be the right and only road to travel. I hope, however, that such people will be willing to worship alongside those who—if they break the silence at all—might choose to use somewhat different forms of language. One could perhaps say that, in an important sense, universalism comes “not to destroy . . . but to fulfil.” [Matthew 5:17] Tim Miles[19]

I suppose that to be completely honest, the amount of Christianity that you have, and the amount of Quakerism, in the last resort is your own selection out of those two orbits of what has come to appeal to you. Nobody can put down in writing either for a Christian or a Quaker what he has to be. He can put down in writing some of the things he can honestly attribute to those two groups; and we select from them, unconsciously I’m sure, those features which are congenial to us. I guess you know that in the Society of Friends people select very different things. Henry J. Cadbury[20]

(P)resent–day Quakerism owes a special debt to those interpreters who do justice to more than one of its multiple strands, the mystical, the evangelical, the rational and the social. . . . It would be a pity if the natural variety in Quakerism were artificially restrained. Even unconsciously we are subject to powerful tendencies to conform to a single standard in religion as well as in other ideologies and practices. If the role of Quakerism among the denominations is precisely one of enriching the variety and challenging their standards of uniformity, we ought by the same token to welcome variety within our own small body and ought to object to the impoverishing effect of attempting to get ourselves and our fellow Quakers into one mould. Henry J. Cadbury[21]

Perhaps it is given to us to show how a great people can be gathered into a unified and loving community while respecting, and even celebrating, its individual members’ distinctiveness. But one thing is certain—we Friends cannot preach reconciliation in the world at large unless we ourselves are reconciled. Daniel A. Seeger[22]

The Multwood Group helped me frame some queries for ourselves as we expand and reach outward, and for any others who would seek to enter into a similar experiment: Are we willing to approach one another without expectations, waiting on the Holy Spirit as long as necessary? Are we willing to accept the limitless and surprising ways God can work in the world? Are we willing to speak with integrity from our own experience and honor the authenticity of another’s experience? Are we willing to be present to one another despite the discomfort of differing beliefs, language, or culture, and continue to be open as long as it takes for the group to find its own center in God? Are we willing to listen with an open heart and be vulnerable to being changed as well as to the potential of changing others? Margery Post Abbott[23]

Unity based on practices and testimonies

In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way. The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain[24]

We do not have a creed. . . . Rather, we are held together by the way in which we are a religious group, what I have called a “behavioral creed”: the way we worship and do business and areas of testimony. Ben Pink Dandelion[25]

The history of all religions indicates that religion is more what it does than what it thinks. People who differ in their thinking can worship together in harmony, if the manner of worship is congenial to all. At the time of Christ, for example, a Jew might be an atheist; he might be a Platonist; he might have one of many types of religious philosophy. But as a Jew his membership was defined by his practices rather than by his opinions. This seems to be true in most religions. . . . Religion is more a matter of experience and practice than of thought. Religion begins in experience; systematic thought comes later. . . . So there is no need for us to feel baffled by the variety of opinions among us. Howard Brinton[26]

(T)he best way of advertising any ideal is to wrap it up in a person, to incarnate it. Vocal or verbal Quakerism cannot compete with incarnate Quakerism. Henry J. Cadbury[27]

I want to make a proposal. It will not provide us with all we need to say, but it will, I think, give us a starting point and it will point us in the right direction. My proposal is that we recover the meaning of our distinctive practices. If we have largely lost a distinctive way of speaking, we at least still have a distinctive set of practices. We still meet together in silence, we listen to one another without criticism, we wait for discernment in important decisions we make, we seek a common mind when we have decisions to make together, we act against violence without using violence ourselves, we refuse to give in to cynicism when we seek to make changes in the world. And we accept responsibility for one another. These are all disciplines, or rather, aspects of one discipline for the conduct of our lives. And as a discipline these practices indicate more clearly than anything else what distinguishes Quakers from other religious groups, and they suggest, though not very clearly, what Quakers are positively committed to. Our first task, I want to suggest, is to find a way of saying what those practices mean. This at least gives us a focus and a basis in experience for saying what we have to say. But it is not just a practical convenience to focus on our practice. It is clear from our history that Quakers have chosen to express their faith mainly in a way of life. Their spirituality has always been a practical discipline, one that can be lived in the everyday world. So we can be thankful that this practical discipline has survived, at least in its formal structure. This no doubt is what in practice holds our meetings and Society together. It is also—whether we recognize it or not—what gives us our identity. But of course, without an account of what the discipline means, it can only be a vague and confused identity. Rex Ambler[28]

What I am saying is this: The search for doctrinal unity, for Truth with a capital T, is pointless because it will be fruitless. If earlier Quaker generations cobbled together a one Truth they could witness to, it was a Truth which could be maintained only by discipline, and which changed subtly from generation to generation. Quakers today are, or should be, free from the tyranny of that kind of Truth: true doctrine. The spirit leads us in different directions, because our faith is experiential, and our experiences, backgrounds, temperaments, capacities differ widely. The spirit which leads us into all truths—there are a lot of them, and they never stay the same—has itself become diverse, experimental, exploratory, for we have begun to understand that this spirit is not some independent entity, external to ourselves, but one that lives and moves and has its being in the infinite diversity of our human consciousness. Does this mean, then that there can never be any basis whatever for any kind of Quaker unity? Surely not. It simply means that we do not need doctrinal unity or faith in a doctrinal Truth. Our unity, our group or subculture identity, depends on something different. I believe that the “something different” is the shared sense of belonging to a particular tradition, focused on the manner in which Quakers choose to meet for worship, meditation or contemplation—call it what we will. Quakers in Britain are people who choose to meet in this particular unprogrammed way, people whose current needs, preferences, temperaments lead them to get something out of, and hopefully put something into, this particular (and rather arcane) ritual. That, and nothing more (but nothing less), is the basis of our unity. That is our bottom line. David Boulton[29]

Given this history of divisiveness, I can see why Friends are wary about identifying themselves as Christian or non-Christian. It seems safer, and saner, to keep Christ and God talk to a minimum. I am glad that many Friends are willing to bring up these concerns, however. I think we can be better Quakers if we are honest and admit our differences and have respectful dialogues about theological issues. We can learn much from each other when we open up and share our beliefs and spiritual experiences. And I think we can communicate with those in the ecumenical and interfaith movement, as well as our neighbors of other faiths, when we feel comfortable talking about theology among ourselves in a Friendly non-exclusive way. . . . If Friends cannot unite around theology, could we instead unite around practices like peacemaking and social justice? George Fox said we need to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ . . . To be ‘salt and light,’ we need to transcend our differences. We need to share our stories, listen to those we disagree with, and be open to a change of heart. We also need to seek common ground wherein we can put our faith into practice. Anthony Manousos[30]

I’m sure the meaning of being a nontheist among Friends is different from nation to nation, from community to community, from person to person, but for me it starts with individual relationships, one on one. If being an openly Nontheist Friend was just about bringing in a set of ideas in hopes of influencing a religion, however true and important I might think those ideas are, I would have lost interest in the subject years ago.

Rather, it is about revealing our true selves to one another, and listening as others reveal their true selves to us. I think this revealing is the most genuine purpose of community, of religion. The fact that our true selves are different in important ways, and that those differences sometimes lead to disagreement and conflict, is a strength in our community, not a weakness. If we all believed the same things, what could we possibly learn from each other?

The love in our communities, if we are lucky enough to have it, is not theological or theoretical. It is not philosophical or right or wrong. It is real, human, messy, and conflicted. If we focus solely on our commonalities, our areas of agreement, there is only so deep we can go. I would like us to go deeper. I think we can handle it. James Riemermann[31]

[NOTE: this is a chapter from Quaker and Naturalist Too by Os Cresson, Iowa City, IA: Morning Walk Press, 2014, pp. 13-25, 159-161]



[1] John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1871), 201.

[2] Douglas Steere, Gleanings: A Random Harvest (Nashville TN: The Upper Room, 1986), 83.

[3] Rachel Naomi Remen, in Andrea S. Cohen, Leah Green and Susan Partnow, Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening (Indianola WA: The Compassionate Listening Project, 2011), 80.

[4] Tom Gates, “Seeing Beyond Our Differences: Meeting as ‘Covenant Community’,” May 2008, italics in the original, SITEdocs/CovenantRetreat.pdf.

[5] Gene Knudsen-Hoffman, “Speaking Truth to Power,” Friends Journal 27, no. 14 (October 1, 1981): 15.

[6] George Lakey, “Connecting through Conflict,” FGConnections (Summer 2007).

[7] Isaac Penington, A Treatise Concerning God’s Teaching, in The Works of Isaac Penington, vol. 4 (Glenside PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 1997), 261.

[8] Oliver Johnson, Message during yearly meeting in Waterloo NY, June 3, 1855, in the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of Friends of Human Progress (Syracuse NY: Evening Chronicle Print, 1855), 5. cdm/ref/collection/HC_QuakSlav/id/10200.

[9] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (NY: Harper Collins, 1996), 98.

[10] Andrea S. Cohen, Leah Green and Susan Partnow, Art of Compassionate Listening, 13.

[11] The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Quaker Faith and Practice, 4th Ed. (London: printed by author, 2008), #3.10.

[12] Isaac Penington, The Works of Isaac Penington: A Minister of the Gospel in the Society of Friends: Including His Collected Letters, Vol. 1 (Glenside PA: Quaker Heritage, 1995).

[13] Joseph B. Forster, editorial in The Manchester Friend 2, no. 12 (1873): 189.

[14] The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain,

[15] Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice (Philadelphia: printed by author, 2001),  36.

[16] Parker J. Palmer, A Place Called Community, pamphlet #212 (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1977), 27.

[17] Arthur Morgan, “Should Quakers Receive the Good Samaritan Into Their Membership?,” talk at Shrewsbury and Plainfield Half-Yearly Meeting, March 27, 1954 (Landenberg, PA: Quaker Universalist Fellowship, 1998).

[18] David Boulton, “The Diversity of Truth,” in Harvey Gillman and Alastair Heron, Searching the Depths: Essays on Being a Quaker Today by London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), 27–36.

[19] Tim Miles, Towards Universalism. pamphlet #7, (London: Quaker Universalist Group, 1985, reprinted 1994),

[20] Henry J. Cadbury, “Quakerism and/or Christianity,”Friends Bulletin 35, no. 4 (1966): 1–10.

[21] Henry J. Cadbury, Quakerism and Early Christianity, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957), 47–48.

[22] Daniel A. Seeger, Sharing Our Faith: Christian and Universalist Aspects of Friends Spiritual Experience, (Philadelphia: Friends General Conference, 1991), 7.

[23] Margery Post Abbott, An Experiment in Faith: Quaker Women Transcending Differences, pamphlet #323, (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1995), 25–26, italics in the original.

[24] The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Quaker Faith and Practice, (London: printed by author, 1995), 17.

[25] Ben Pink Dandelion, “Quaking with Confidence,” Friends Journal 55, no. 12 (December 2009). 12–17,

[26] Howard Brinton, “The Kind of Paper We Want”, The Friend (December 23, 1954): 197.

[27] Henry J. Cadbury, “Vital Issues for Friends Today,” Canadian Friend 60, no. 3 (1964): 3–4.

[28] Rex Ambler, “Quaker Identity: Anything Goes?,” The Friends Quarterly 31, no. 8 (1997): 371–80.

[29] David Boulton, The Diversity of Truth, 27–36.

[30] Anthony Manousos, “Are Quakers Christian, Non–Christian, or Both?,” Friends Journal 59, no. 2 (February 2013): 19–22, http://

[31] Riemermann, James. Revealing our True Selves. Paper presented at conference of Nontheist Friends Network UK, Birmingham UK, March 2012.


One response to “Listening and Speaking from the Heart: An Anthology”

  1. Wonderful! Thank you.

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