I will be talking about how Quakers experienced God or Truth through an inward voice, or vision, or dreams. More than most mainstream Christians, Quakers placed great emphasis upon visions and dreams as a way of finding guidance for one's personal life and also for one's religious community.
George Fox, the founder of Quakers, distinguished between three types of dreams: those inspired by our daily business, those that came from the devil, and those that came from God. Daily life dreams simply process what has happened during the day and were not seen as particularly significant. Satanic dreams deal with our desires and fears in ways that are disturbing and not helpful. Dreams from God give us insight into our lives and help us to find guidance.
In his Journal George Fox described a significant dream vision he had in which he went underground and found people in vaults and graves and he liberated them. He did this repeatedly until he went to a very deep place in which he found a beautiful woman in white guarding a treasure. This woman told him that he was not to touch the treasure.
In this dream, Fox is describing both his inner work and his public ministry. Through the practice of silent worship, he not only found liberation for himself, but also for others. But the dream suggests that there is a deeper dimension to the spiritual life that is beyond words. The mysterious woman with the treasure is what Jung would call his anima, his soul essence. This is the place that "cannot be touched." It must remain inviolate.
Howard Brinton gives a Freudian interpretation of this dream: he notes that Fox had married a widow named Margaret Fell two years before this dream occured, and the dream may have had something to do with their sex life. I personally prefer the Jungian to the Freudian interpretation, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Dreams can have many meanings on different levels!
Quakers recorded dreams like this in their journals and often provide their own interpretations. Brinton devotes an entire chapter of his book on Quaker journals to dreams. By the way, Quakers use the word "journal" to mean "spiritual autobiographies." These journals were an extremely important aspect of Quaker ministry. It has been said that Quakers prefer biographies to theology because biography is based upon real experiences, not upon theories and ideas.
Some Quakers had encounters with deceased loved ones in dreams, much like the ones described in Raymond Moody's book. Others had prophetic dreams that foretold the future or a new direction in a person's life.
For example, when John Woolman, an 18th century anti-slavery activist, became very sick and nearly died, he dreamed that he was in the silver mines of Petosi in Bolivia where the natives were being treated horribly. They were crying out and damning those who called themselves Christians. Woolman then heard a voice that said, "John Woolman is dead." When he got over his illness, he interpreted this to mean that his ego was dead, and that he had become a new person. He never again used silver utensils and he became an outspoken defender of the poor and downtrodden.
Early Friends saw God-inspired dreams as something inspirational to be shared with the community. They weren't simply personal; they were collective. In the early 19th century Francis Hoag, for example, had a dream vision which predicted the schisms that took place in the Quaker community in the 1820s and also the Civil War. He traveled all around to various Quaker meetings telling people about his vision and was given the name "Vision Hoag."
Recently Carla Gerona wrote a book about Quaker dreams and visions called "Night Journey: The Power of Dreams in Transatlantic Quaker Culture." In this book she talks about the role that dreams played in the public lives of Quakers---how individual Friends shared their dreams with their community to help shape attitudes.
It is the collective quality of dream interpretation that truly distinguishes Quaker dreaming during this period. By contrast, most people today sees dreams as a private experience (though sometimes shared with friends, relatives, dream groups, or analysts).. Most people do not normally pronounce dreams in more public forums to instruct the entire society. Quakers did. And they applied the knowledge gained from dreams to the most important issues of their time; for example, African slavery, Indian relatiations, changing gender roles, and shifting economic systems. Their dreams moreover helped them to expand their church and ideals across the Atlantic and to sustain a coherent vision of community when their worlds seemed to fall apart, as when Americans revolted against Great Britain. In short, Quaker dream interpretations provided future fantasies, of utopia and dystopia. Quakers could share their desires and fears in this creative manner because they collectively understood that dreams were signals from God and because they were on a mission to transform both the landscapes and the people of the world.
Many Quakers today consider themselves mystics and take their dreams seriously. Today's Quakers have been deeply influenced by Jung and to a lesser extent by Freud, but we also see dreams an expression of the Divine.
Dreams have played a very important role in my life, often through poetry which arise from dream states, e.g, the "Dream Dance." See http://laquaker.blogspot.com/2011/02/dream-dance.html
I also have had a significant dream during the past year which I occasionally share with friends. For many years I have dreamed of flying, which is strange because in so-called real life I am acrophobic. But in my dreams I glide upward effortlessly and fly over cities and mountains and have a wonderful time. For me, this symbolized the freedom of spiritual life. But last year, after the death of my wife, I had a slightly different flying dream. As I flew upward and glided about in a plaza full of people, some of them were rather surprised at what I was doing. "It isn't hard," I told them. "Anyone can do this with a little practice." So I began showing the people how to fly.
I interpret this dream to mean that I am supposed to do more spiritual teaching--encouraging others to fly.
I hope this dream comes true!