Quaker Grace

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]

Custom before meals—ancients formerly made an oblation to Vesta before their meals—Christians have substituted grace—Quakers agree with others in the necessity of grace or thankfulness-but do not adopt it as a devotional act, unless it comes from the heart—allow a silent pause for religious impressions on these occasions—observations on a Scotch grace.

There was a time in the early ages of Greece, when men apparently little better than beasts of prey, could not meet at entertainments, without quarrelling about the victuals before them. The memory of this circumstance is well preserved in the expressions of early writers. In process of time however, regulations began to be introduced, and quarrels to be prevented, by the institution of the office of a divider or distributor of the feast, who should carve the food into equal portions, and help every individual to his proper share. Hence the terms which so frequently occur in Homer, and which were in use in consequence of the division just mentioned, were made use of to show, that the feasts, then spoken of by him, were different from those of former times. When Homer wishes to describe persons as more civilized than others, he describes them as having this equal feast. That is, men did not appear at these feasts, like dogs and wolves, and instantly devour whatever they could come at, and tear each other to pieces in the end; but they waited till their different portions of meat had been assigned them, and then ate them in amity and peace.

At the time when we find the custom of one man carving for all his guests to have been in use, we find also that another had been introduced among the same people. The Greeks, in the heroic ages, thought it unlawful to eat, till they had first offered a part of their provision to the gods. Hence oblations to Vesta, and afterwards to others, whom their superstition had defied, came into general use, so that these were always made, before the victuals on the table were allowed to be tasted by any of the guests.

These two customs, since that time, have come regularly down to the present day. Every person helps his family and his friends at his own table. But as Christians can make no sacrifices to heathen deities, we usually find them substituting thanksgiving for oblation, and giving to the Creator of the universe instead of an offering of the first fruits from their tables, an offering of gratitude from their hearts.

This oblation, which is now usually denominated grace, consists of a form of words, which, being expressive either of praise or thankfulness to God for the blessings of food, with which he continues to supply them, is repeated by the master of the family, or by a minister of the gospel if present, before any one partakes of the victuals, that are set before him. These forms, however, differ, as used by Christians. They differ in length, in ideas, in expression. One Christian uses one form, another uses another. It may however be observed, that the same Christian generally uses the same form of words, or the same grace, on the same occasion.

The Quakers, as a religious body, agree in the propriety of grace before their meals, that is in the propriety of giving thanks to the author of every good gift for this particular bounty of his providence as to the articles of their daily subsistence, but they differ as to the manner and seasonableness of it on such occasions. They think that people who are in the habit of repeating a determined form of words, may cease to feel, as they pronounce them, in which case the grace becomes an oblation from the tongue, but not from the heart. They think also that, if grace is to be repeated regularly, just as the victuals come, or as regularly and as often as they come upon the table, it may be repeated unseasonably, that is unseasonably with the state of the heart of him, who is to pronounce it; that the heart of man is not to-day as it was yesterday, nor at this hour what it was at a former, nor on any given hour alike disposed; and that if this grace is to be said when the heart is gay, or light, or volatile, it ceases to be a devotional act, and becomes at least a superfluous and unmeaning, if not a censurable form.

The Quakers then to avoid the unprofitableness of such artificial graces on the one hand, and, on the other, to give an opportunity to the heart to accord with the tongue, whenever it is used in praise of the Creator, observe the following custom. When they are all seated at table, they sit in solemn silence, and in a thoughtful position, for some time. If the master of the family, during this silence, should feel any religious impression on his mind, whether of praise or thankfulness on the occasion, he gives utterance to his feelings. Such praise or thanksgiving in him is considered as a devotional act, and as the Quaker grace. But if, after having waited in silence for some time, he feels no such religious disposition, he utters no religious expression. The Quakers hold it better to say no grace, than to say that, which is not accompanied by the devotion of the heart. In this case he resumes his natural position, breaks the silence by means of natural discourse, and begins to carve for his family or his friends.

This is the ordinary way of proceeding in Quaker families, when alone, or in ordinary company. But if a minister happens to be at the table, the master of the family, conceiving such a man to be more in the habit of religious impressions than himself, or any ordinary person, looks up as it were to him, as to a channel, from whence it is possible, that such religious exercise may come. If the minister, during the solemn, silent pause, is impressed, he gives utterance as before: if not, he relieves himself from his grave and thoughtful position, and breaks the silence of the company by engaging in natural discourse. After this the company proceed to their meals.

If I were to be asked whether the graces of the Quakers were frequent, I should reply in the negative. I never heard any delivered, but when a minister was present. The ordinary grace therefore of private families consists in a solemn, silent, pause, between the time of sitting down to the table and the note of carving the victuals, during which an opportunity is given for the excitement of religious feelings. A person may dine fifty times at the tables of the Quakers, and see no other substitution for grace than this temporary silent pause.

Indeed no other grace than this can be consistent with Quaker-principles. It was coeval with the institution of the society, and must continue while it lasts. For thanksgiving is an act of devotion. Now no act, in the opinion of the Quakers, can be devotional or spiritual, except it originate from above. Men, in religious matters can do nothing of themselves, or without the divine aid. And they must therefore wait in silence for this spiritual help, as well in the case of grace, as in the case of any other kind of devotion, if they mean their praise or thanksgiving on such occasions to be an act of religion.

There is in the Quaker-grace, and its accompaniments, whenever it is uttered, an apparent beauty and an apparent solemnity, which are seldom conspicuous in those of others. How few are there, who repeat the common artificial graces feelingly, and with minds intent upon the subject!  Grace is usually said as a mere ceremony or custom. The Supreme Being is just thanked in so many words, while the thoughts are often rambling to other subjects. The Quaker-grace, on the other hand, whenever it is uttered; does not come out in any mechanical form of words which men have used before, but in expressions adapted to the feelings. It comes forth also warm from the heart. It comes after a solemn, silent, pause, and it becomes therefore, under all these circumstances, an act of real solemnity and genuine devotion.

It is astonishing how little even men of acknowledged piety seem to have their minds fixed upon the ideas contained in the mechanical graces they repeat. I was one afternoon at a friends house, where there happened to be a clergyman of the Scottish church. He was a man deservedly esteemed for his piety. The company was large. Politics had been discussed some time, when the tea-things were introduced. While the bread and butter were bringing in, the clergyman, who had taken an active part in the discussion, put a question to a gentleman, who was sitting in a corner of the room. The gentleman began to reply, and was proceeding in his answer, when of a sudden I heard a solemn voice. Being surprised, I looked round, and found it was the clergyman, who had suddenly started up, and was saying grace. The solemnity, with which he spoke, occasioned his voice to differ so much from its ordinary tone, that I did not, till I had looked about me, discover who the speaker was. I think he might be engaged from three or four minutes in the delivery of this grace. I could not help thinking, during the delivery of it, that I never knew any person say grace like this man. Nor was I ever so much moved with any grace, or thought I ever saw so dearly the propriety of saying grace, as on this occasion. But when I found that on the very instant the grace was over politics were resumed; when I found that, no sooner had the last word in the grace been pronounced, than the next, which came from the clergyman himself, began by desiring the gentleman before mentioned to go on with his reply to his own political question, I was so struck with the inconsistency of the thing, that the beauty and solemnity of his grace all vanished. This sudden transition from politics to grace, and from grace to politics, afforded a proof that artificial sentences might be so frequently repeated, as to fail to re-excite their first impressions, or that certain expressions, which might have constituted devotional acts under devotional feeling, might relapse into heartless forms.

I should not wish, by the relation of this anecdote, to be understood as reflecting in the slightest manner on the practice of the Scottish church. I know well the general sobriety, diligence, piety and religious example of its ministers. I mentioned it merely to show, that even where the religious character of a person was high, his mind, by the frequent repetition of the same forms of expression on the same occasions, might frequently lose sight of the meaning and force of the words as they were uttered, so that he might pronounce them without that spiritual feeling, which can alone constitute a religious exercise.


Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved