The Living Faith of the Dead

Image: Friends Burial Ground, Ballitore, Ireland

Dear Friends,
Three weeks ago, I was blessed to be with Quakers in Ireland. The day before the yearly meeting sessions began in Dublin, Irish Friends gave me a special gift—the opportunity to visit the burial place of Job Scott.

Job was a New England Quaker and traveling minister from Rhode Island whose preaching and writing were deeply cherished. He was a teacher, a war tax resister, and an opponent of slavery, exploitation and oppression in all of its forms. 

In 1793, he died of smallpox while traveling in ministry in Ireland. He has been described as the last Quaker minister to preach the original Quaker message, prior to the separations that divided North American Quakers in the 1800s. 

But there is no gravestone for Job Scott.

The story goes that the last living Quaker who knew where he was buried refused to reveal the location, because he was afraid of idolatry—he was concerned that people would set up a monument to this famous Friend, that people would come to mistake the one through whom the gift of ministry was given for the Giver

From the burial ground, the Friends hosting me brought me to the ancient meetinghouse nearby. There, in an upper room warmed by a fire, we found a group already gathered in worship together. 

The simple ministry we heard spoke deeply to my condition. And it was there that I found what I’d come all this way seeking. I came home again.    

A Friend spoke about our spiritual journeys being like children learning to walk: full of risk, frustration, and stumbling, but also of yearning, discovery, and becoming something new in relationship with everything. In our journeys of faith, we learn to “walk” together, held and sustained by Love. 

Those who’ve come before us are never really gone. I believe the ministry of Friends who have come before us can still find resonance in living communities open to receive it. But if these voices from the Quaker past continue to speak and inspire in relevant ways, it’s because there are communities of faith living now, opening in our own context to the same Life and Power those Friends knew.

We have a choice in how we tell our story, how we hold our history. Jaroslav Pelikan writes: “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.”

We can–and at times do—fall into worshipping Friends’ history, pining for a long-lost golden age of Quaker heroes, or believing that the way we’ve done things is sacred and therefore unchangeable. This can keep us from being open to the movement of the Spirit now

But if we listen with the ears of our hearts, the wisdom, humility, courage, and faith—as well as the mistakes, wounds, and shortcomings—of our spiritual ancestors can weave a cloud of witnesses that gather around us. Their testimony in their own time and context invites us to live faithfully together in our own.

This month, I’m grateful for all those—past and present—whose faithfulness has kindled new life in me. And I’m grateful for the communities of deep hope—in our Quaker tradition and in others—that offer the promise of rediscovering the Life and Power today. In this promise, I feel the echoes of the testimony of Friends’ faithfulness, from moment to moment, and from generation to generation.

May we be a community that receives and honors what has come before, drawing nourishment from the past to help us nurture the present and embrace the future. May we walk a path that opens our hearts to the Spirit’s continuing guidance for how we can live that same Truth in fresh ways today. That’s a path I want to follow, and a community I want to be part of. How about you?

in faith and service,

Noah Merrill
New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers)

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