The birthplace of the modern prison system, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, was the first institution in the United States designed to both punish and rehabilitate criminals. It was built by Quakers in 1773. When expanded in 1790 each cell block had 16 one-person cells. In the wing known as the “Penitentiary House,” inmates spent all day every day in their cells. Felons would serve their entire sentences in isolation, not just as punishment, but as an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God. It was a revolutionary idea—no penal method had ever before considered that criminals might be reformed. … Solitary confinement was conceived by Quakers as a humane and evangelical alternative to the penal system of the day with its overcrowded jails, squalid conditions, brutal labor chain gangs, stockades, public humiliation, and systemic hopelessness. Instead, it drove many men mad.
Spending the whole month of January being regaled with great stories about how Quakers have demonstrated our testimonies of Simplicity and Stewardship, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality I found myself needing to confront the consequences of Friends following leadings that were not properly seasoned.
A couple of years ago Mother Jones magazine had a fascinating report on prisons. Every Quaker knows of the prison ministry of Margaret Fell and her own ultimate imprisonment. Early Quakers couldn’t avoid caring for those in prison simply because, for conscience sake, many Quakers were incarcerated. We know of the work of Elizabeth Fry who later, dedicated her life to prison work.
The birthplace of the modern prison system, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, was the first institution in the United States designed to both punish and rehabilitate criminals. It was built by Quakers in 1773. When expanded in 1790 each cell block had 16 one-person cells. In the wing known as the “Penitentiary House,” inmates spent all day every day in their cells. Felons would serve their entire sentences in isolation, not just as punishment, but as an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God. It was a revolutionary idea—no penal method had ever before considered that criminals might be reformed. By 1829, Quakers and the Anglicans expanded on the idea born at Walnut Street and constructed Eastern State Penitentiary which was made up entirely of solitary cells along corridors that radiated out from a central guard area. At Eastern State, every day of every sentence was carried out primarily in solitude, though the law required the warden to visit each prisoner daily and prisoners were able to see chaplains and guards. The theory had it that the solitude would bring penitence giving our language the term “penitentiary.”
Solitary confinement was conceived by Quakers as a humane and evangelical alternative to the penal system of the day with its overcrowded jails, squalid conditions, brutal labor chain gangs, stockades, public humiliation, and systemic hopelessness. Instead, it drove many men mad. When Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentary he was shocked at the state of the sensory-deprived, ashen inmates with wild eyes. He wrote that they were “dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair…The first man…answered…with a strange kind of pause…fell into a strange stare as if he had forgotten something…” Of another prisoner, Dickens wrote, “Why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open…and raise his eyes for an instant…to those bare walls?” “The system here, is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement,” Dickens concluded. “I believe it…to be cruel and wrong…I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
In 1890, the Supreme Court condemned the use of long-term solitary confinement. Unfortunately that didn’t end its use. The torturous effects of solitary confinement made the practice attractive to those more interested in retribution than rehabilitation. In the 20th century the practice became a purely punitive tool used to break the spirits of inmates, especially those considered disruptive, violent, or disobedient. Absent the grand redemptive theories that guided the “Philadelphia system”, the last quarter century has seen the penal pendulum swing back toward these brutal practices. We no longer seem to have faith in the “penitent” part of “penitentiary.” Our “corrections” system no longer “correct” but inevitably breeds anti-social behavior. Today, almost all maximum-security prisoners are kept in a kind of solitary for a large portion of their sentences. Many of the newer prisons enforce the solitary aspect by keeping some prisoners in soundproof cells, so they cannot even talk or shout at one another. The lack of regular human contact is inhumane. Ironically, one of the loudest advocate groups is the National Coalition to Stop Control Unit Prisons—a project of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group.
Second only to George Fox, James Nayler had been the most effective voice in sharing the Quaker message. In 1656, urged on by a number of adoring women followers, James Nayler road into Bristol with his companions singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Israel” all the while flinging their cloaks in the mire for his horse to walk on, a re-enactment of the coming of Christ into Jerusalem. Nayler was arrested, imprisoned and charged with blasphemy. After a long trial in Parliament he was found guilty of blasphemy and his punishment included two brutal whippings across the city of London with over 300 whip strokes each and having his tongue bored through with a hot iron and his forehead branded with a B. In the course of his punishment he repented utterly and publicly of this incident and its effect in blunting the witness to his experience of Christ within to which he had given years of his life to proclaim. The incident seemed to confirm the accusation of instabillity and fanaticism of the swiftly spreading Quaker movement.
We prefer to tell the other kinds of stories, spiritualized David and Goliath stories of profound service and ministry by Friends. One such story of Quakers feeding a starving Russian population seventy years ago seems to be holding doors open for ministry there today. But it is sheer foolishness to ignore the wisdom earned from embarassment and failure. There is a powerful warning beyond humility attached to what one may preceive as a concern that pleads for action.
Britain Yearly Meeting reminds their folks that a true concern emerges as a gift from God, a leading of God’s spirit which may not be denied. Its sanction is not that on investigation it proves to be the intelligent thing to do—though it usually is; it is that the individual … knows, as a matter of inward experience, that there is something that the Lord would have done, however obscure the way, however uncertain the means to human observation. Sometimes proposals for action are made which have every appearance of good sense, but as the meeting waits before God it becomes clear that the proposition falls short of ‘concern’. When a Meeting has considered a concern brought to it, it must be clear that it is religiously valid, that the Meeting itself is committed to support the concern and accept responsibility for moving it forward.
Being personally convinced of the correctness of one’s own leading without the prayerful council of others can find you, as early Quakers put it, ‘running ahead of one’s Guide’. While you may have begun within the Truth of what Christ was calling you to do or say it is quite easy to go beyond the guidance you have. John Woolman told that “One day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up and said some words in meeting; but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me.” It’s an all too common occurrence.
And it’s not just that we might find ourselves embarassed, or that we’ve embarassed someone else. It comes from the image of Jesus as the good shepherd who leads, not drives his flock. It comes from the image of the lamb who leaves the safety of the fold to explore new places to graze. Yes, it’s a humbling notion that we need the community of the faithful to more fully understand that to which we feel called – but you see, it is never our call – it must become the calling of the whole meeting.
I’m not sure just how trustworthy is this Quaker yarn but it’s worth the telling. The Erie Canal, an engineering marvel when it was built, was proposed as early as 1768 but wasn’t begun until 1817. Completed in 1825, the canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east, some called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. Friends of the era were much involved. So the story is told that during a session of Monthly Meeting a Friend shared that he was laboring with the concern of whether or not to invest in the building of the Erie Canal. An other Friend spoke in opposition to the project it being of a speculative nature and beside said that “if God had wished canals, he would have made them”. After yet more waiting another Friend rose up and simply said “And Jacob digged a well’.
In his early Epistles George Fox wrote: “…mind the steadfast guide to the Lord, where we do all meet in the eternal Spirit in oneness. All being baptized by it into one body, having one food, the eternal bread of Life…and all made to drink into one Spirit, which is the cup of the communion of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which makes perfect and redeems from all that is vain, fleshly and earthly, up to God, who is holy, pure, spiritual and eternal. Let not any of you in your desires wander from that which is pure in you. Then your conditions will be kept clear and pure to see all things as they are. A clear separation will be made from that, which is of man…and that which is of God. There will be a growing up in that which is pure. And so, be low in your minds waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in you all… to be Lord over all in you. And so the Lord God of power keep you all!”
Isaac Penington in 1665 encouraged Friends by saying that “The rest is at noonday; but the travels begin at the breaking of day, wherein are but glimmerings or little light, wherein the discovery of good and evil are not so manifest and certain; yet there must the traveler begin and travel; and in his faithful travels … the light will break in upon him more and more. We can become so concerned about failure that we will never take the risks to obedience to Christ’s call to engage in ministry. That’s not the moral of this story. The story is that we desperately need each other within the community of faith to provide genuine spiritual guidance. That suggests that it is the responsibility of each of us, our responsibility to our own selves and to others within our community, to commit to developing a strong, consistent and disciplined spiritual life. Otherwise what council we would bring to one seeking guidance comes from sources other than Christ’s spirit. Travels begin at the breaking of day wherein are but glimmerings or little light Penington says. Without all the information we might like to know about the challenges and consequences that might be ahead, we still must be willing to live into the leading we have. The wisdom is to have shared the concern Christ has laid upon our hearts and to listen to the council of those who will become partners in a ministry.