from Chapter 4
FACING THE LAST TABOO: WHY DID THE QUAKERS STOP QUAKING AND THE SHAKERS STOP SHAKING?
Why did the Quakers stop quaking and the Shakers stop shaking? Is it related to why the majority of technologically developed cultures all but eliminated shaking bodies from public performance, worship, and healing encounters? I believe that ecstatic shaking is the last great taboo for the technologically developed (but spiritually underdeveloped) world. Studying what happened to the shake and quake in Europe and North America shows that the greatest fear about the body does not necessarily concern sexual expression, but liberation of the body into full-flight ecstatic expression.
Seeing shaking, quaking, and sometimes convulsing bodies calls forth the social labels of “madness,” “neurological disorder,” “psychological dissociation,” and “possession by evil spirits.” Most of us, along with the quieted Shakers and Quakers, have stopped shaking because what we fear most is being out of control or being seen by others as sick, bad, or mad. Yet the paradox of human experience is that we seek the transcendent experience that requires us to surrender control. Examining what happened to the Quakers and Shakers may help us understand how to overcome this fear and taboo, opening the door for shaking medicine to return in a good way.
There was tremendous religious and political upheaval in England during the middle of the seventeenth century. It was a time of horrible imprisonment, irrational cruelty, and great social tension. In that time of suffering, people, particularly those among the poor, began proclaiming miracles, prophecies, and shaking ecstasy. One of the main spiritual figures to arise was George Fox, credited with the formation of the Quaker religion.
Originally called “The Children of the Light,” Fox’s followers were later called Quakers because of the violent trembling that came upon them when they worshipped. As people experienced the “inner light of the spirit,” they realized and professed that all human beings, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, were equal. Furthermore, they asserted that the true Christian had an “indwelling life of Christ” that was more important than the scriptures. It was the inner spirit that could reveal the truth of the Bible, not a socially anointed religious authority.
It didn’t take long for the ecstatic Quakers, or Friends, as they called themselves, to be called witches and heretics. It didn’t matter that the Quakers quoted the Bible to defend their quaking, pointing out that Moses “quaked,” David “roared,” and Jeremiah “trembled.” They were still found guilty of harboring evil ways. Some were dunked, bridled, whipped, bored through the tongue with a hot iron, branded on the forehead with the letter B (for blasphemer), and sent to jail. As persecution continued over the years, the Quakers gave up their ecstatic and prophetic role in society and changed to being calm advocates of education and organized meetings. The quaking stopped along with their persecution. The taboo against quaking and shaking had been maintained.
Today, there are fewer than seventeen thousand Quakers in all of Great Britain. And all Quakers throughout the world have essentially stopped quaking. I believe that the Quakers stopped quaking because they were persecuted, even imprisoned, for their wild ecstatic experiences. When they were obedient to the truth of ecstatic expression, they were unable to stop quaking. Quaker and syndicated columnist David Yount wrote an essay in 2002 asking the question, “Why Did Quakers Stop Quaking?” Yount ended his essay by quoting an elder Quaker in his eighties who gave this response: “I know why I don’t quake. I don’t ask God the hard questions about what he requires me to do with my Why Did the Quakers Stop Quaking and the Shakers Stop Shaking 5 life. I’m afraid that if I ask him, God will tell me something difficult that I’m unwilling to do. But if I was willing to listen to him, and do what he demands, then I’d start quaking.”
The taboo against full ecstatic expression of the human body is nothing mysterious or difficult to understand. When people enter into wild experience, they feel and look out of control. In this space, the socially established laws, rules, mores, and officiating hierarchies have no authority. It should be no surprise that most shaking and quaking has historically been associated with the oppressed, whether they are the sons and daughters of shoe cobblers and blacksmiths, or slaves and sharecroppers. The oppressed find that shaking is a medicine for the suffering of the human spirit. It sets them free and opens the doors to the kingdoms of bliss. When people feel and express their deepest freedom, the surrounding social institutions will do everything they can to suppress the liberating spirit, covering it with an institutional shell and setting up explanations, routines, and monitors to bring everyone back into control.
What we learn from the Shakers and Quakers is that when we remove ourselves from outside constraints, doing so in a structure-free space, anything can happen. If there is a faithful expectation that the spirit will manifest itself, ecstatic body expression is almost certain to follow. As the body and imagination learn to be free in expressing spirited delight, there is a wide array of movements and vocalizations that may be spontaneously performed.
For a while, the Quakers and Shakers quaked and shook forth a spiritual freedom that transformed anyone whose heart was open to receive their ecstatic gifts. In spite of their subsequent shortcomings and the eventual loss of their ecstatic expression, they showed the world that the gods await our being filled with a holy fire that can heal and recast our lives. These quaking and shaking devotees demonstrated that anyone--child, adult, or elder--can be shaken into the ecstasies that inspire and transform. Their very names--Shakers and Quakers--give testimony to the presence of shaking medicine.