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The Inward Teacher: Excerpts from Black Fire

Acting in Faith  |  By Madeline Schaefer, Feb 27, 2014

Tree by Lucy Duncan

Photo: AFSC

Often when Quakers speak of the Divine, they are referring to a deeply internal experience, an experience of being filled with Truth and Love. Often they witness the Divine when sitting together in silent worship.  But many times they do not.  The inward experience is one of being guided, of being transformed from a place of shadow to a place of light; of bondage to freedom; of despair to hope. The presence of the Divine is not merely a passive force, but it is active in our lives, guiding our actions, emotions and thoughts, offering support and clarity at all times. 

Both of these excerpts from Black Fire: African American Quakers on spirituality and human rights, speak to the awareness of an inward teacher and its power for transformation.  For William Boen (1735-1824), a farmer and who had been enslaved, the “Inward Teacher” appeared in a response to his fear of being attacked while cutting down trees for the man who called himself his "master." His powerful recognition of his “true master” would transform his life, and he would go on to become good friends with Quaker abolitionist, John Woolman.

N. Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was born in Washington, DC and was an influential participant in the Harlem Renaissance. While he may have aexperienced a similarly shocking insight of the Divine as that of William Boen, his writing speaks to the weekly practice of sitting in silent worship, waiting for guidance from that “Inward Teacher” so that our lives become the outgrowths of the Divine’s insights and promptings. In both of these reflections, the writers speak of a Divine presence that is both all-powerful and intimately personal, empowering us all to sit, wait and to be transformed.  - Madeline

The Basis of Friends Worship and Other Inward Practices

by N. Jean Toomer

By our own efforts we can subdue the body-mind to some extent. Few of us, by our efforts alone, can activate our spiritual natures in a vital and creative way. We need God’s help. We need the help of one another. But God’s help may not come at once. Our help to each other, Angel by Lucy Duncaneven though we are gathered in a meeting for worship or actively serving our fellow men outside of the meeting, may and often is delayed as regards our kindling one another spiritually. What are we to do in this case?  There is only one thing we can do—wait. Having done our part to overcome the separated self, we can but waiting for the spiritual self to arise and take command of our lives. Having brought ourselves as close as we can to God, we can but hold ourselves in an attitude of waiting for Him to work His will in us, to draw us fully into His presence.

So the early Friends engaged in silent waiting, humble yet expectant waiting, reverent waiting upon the Lord, that they might be empowered by Him to help one another and to render to Him the honor and adoration which, as Robert Barclay said, characterizes true worship; that His power might come over them and cover the meeting; that He might bring about the death of the old, the birth of the new man.

Anecdotes and Memoirs

by William Boen

A thought then came into my mind, whether I was fit to die. It was showed me, and I saw plain enough, that I was not fit to die. Then it troubled me very much, that I was not fit to die; and I felt very desirous—very anxious that I might be made fit to die. So I stood still, in great amazement; and it seemed as if a flaming sword passed through me. And when it passed over, and I recollected myself (for I stood so, some time) it was showed me how I should be made fit to die: and I was willing to do anything, so I might be made fit to die.

Painting by Lucy DuncanThus I was brought to mind and follow that, that has been the guide and rule of my life—that within me, that inclined me to good, and showed and condemned evil. Now I considered I had a new master—I had two masters; and it was showed me (in my mind) by my new Master, a certain tree on the hill-side, that I must not cut down. I knowed the tree well enough.  I had not come to it yet. But I did not know what I should do; for my old master had told me to cut all the trees down, on that hill-side. My new master forbids me to cut a certain one. So I thought a good deal about it. I cut on; and by and by I came to the tree. I cut on by it, and let it stand. But I expected, every day, my old master would come, and see that tree standing, and say, ‘What did thee leave that tree standing for?  Did I not tell thee to cut all the trees down, as thee went?  Go, cut that tree down.’ Then, I didn’t know what I should do.  But he never said anything to me about it. I cut on, and got some distance by it; and one day my old master brought out his axe, and cut the tree down himself; and never said, William, why didn’t thee cut that tree down? Never said anything to me about it. Then I thought, surely my new Master will make way for me, and take care of me, if I love him, and mind him, and am attentive to this my guide, and rule of life. And this seemed an evidence and proof of it, and strengthened me much in love and confidence in my Guide.



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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan and Greg Elliott work together and with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Greg is the Friends Relations Associate. He grew attending North Branch Monthly Meeting in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Greg currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.