A Quaker Exorcism: An Eyewitness Report
Until a lovely summer evening in 1995, I had heard about Ben Smith (name changed) but never seen him. I heard, and believed, he was the man who was single-handedly driving Philadelphia Quakers nuts.
I had learned the most about him several months earlier, when visiting a large Friends meeting in a leafy, prosperous Philly suburb. By the entrance at the rear of the large meeting room, I noticed a stack of newsletters on a small table nearby. Picking one up, I leafed through it. On the second page was a summary of a recent business meeting.
Most such summaries are dry and short. This one was neither. That’s because its main subject was Ben Smith, and what to do about him.
The account (which is from memory. so may miss some specifics) fit the vague stories I had heard: he began showing up on First Days (Quakerese for Sunday), sat unobtrusively in the silent group for some minutes, then rose to speak.
The opening thoughts varied, and sounded coherent enough, if perhaps a bit disjointed. But then they veered, every time, onto Smith’s favorite subject, or rather obsession: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
As obsessions go, one could do worse. After all, Eisenhower had a distinguished military career, then was president, and a benign elder statesman until his death in 1969. He had surely lived in “interesting times.” His reputation hadn’t been scarred by major or lurid scandal.
Of course, Ike wasn’t a Quaker, or even notably religious, but other non-Friends were frequently mentioned in spoken messages in these open meetings. The Philadelphia Quakers leaned on the Spirit for leadership rather than on appointed ministers; and it was not uncommon for the Spirit to produce musings on current public affairs.
So mentioning Eisenhower was not necessarily a faux pas. But Ben Smith didn’t just mention him. He launched into extended effusions of praise: Ike had been not merely a successful wartime commander, but the very greatest. His was not merely a successful presidency, but the acme of public governance and far-sighted statesmanship.
And so forth, with many repetitions, and evermore exalted encomiums. Was Smith trying to make Ike into a new savior, supplanting Jesus? Was he deifying the man?
When Smith finally sat down, the meeting struggled to regain its equilibrium. This was not impossible. Such distracted and distracting intrusions on their silence were not unknown, and a meeting’s first line of defense is to surround and enfold them in the silence, into which many sink like stones after having made their moment’s splashes on the surface.
That could work once. Or maybe twice. But Ben Smith had returned to this meeting week after week, with long variants on the same message. And soon enough, even as avuncular a figure as Dwight Eisenhower had become both bizarre and the mention of his name incendiary.
So the matter came before the business meeting, and quickly had the group tied up in knots. Speaking to Ben Smith privately, urging him to rein in his messages, did no good. More was needed. Not a few Friends demanded action!
But here the knots drew ever more tangled and tighter: there were those who urged more prayer and patience, that the visitor might see the light and join the silence willingly.
No! Insisted others. Such submission would send many longtime attenders fleeing the body, shredding the meeting, doing long-term damage.
A few of these urged that after a final warning, the police be called, to remove this obstruction firmly and finally.
But this left others gasping. Police? People with guns? Were to be summoned into a peaceable Friends house of worship? Against a visitor who might be difficult but was himself unarmed?
No, the business meeting summary in this homely newsletter was like none I had ever read before. I eagerly turned the page to find out how it all turned out.
But to my chagrin, there was no denouement: the deadlock and dismay was general, and as is usual in such cases, the meeting had agreed only to consider the matter further in the coming month. This could, I knew, go on indefinitely.
Events took me in different directions, and I did not get back to this meeting, and I don’t know how it was resolved. Or rather, I don’t know specifically; but overall, from other stray reports, the general outline came reasonably into view:
Because Friends founded Philadelphia, and for long the city encompassed the world’s largest Quaker community, there are still several dozen active meetings scattered across its metropolitan area. So Ben Smith, when opposition to his disquisitions became too vigorous in one meeting (there were other rumors about police being summoned), he simply moved on to another.
Since it typically took a meeting months to decide what to do, it was easy to imagine him building a long career around taking his message to them. And, if he was a Bible-quoting man, there was always Matthew 10:14-15 for consolation: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment.” It was also easy to imagine the havoc that would be left in his wake.
Evidently others had been pondering this too. In the summer of 1995, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decided to hold a summer session at a college about an hour north of Philadelphia. Because the weather was good, warm but not too hot, they set up a large tent, open on the sides and filled with rows of folding chairs, for their evening sessions of worship and business.
And the first evening was especially fine. Several hundred gathered there, basking in an extended golden sunset and twilight which perfectly complemented the silence.
I was enjoying it so much it almost felt sinful. When a latecomer passed down the aisle, looking for an open seat, I paid him no mind. He was neatly dressed, nondescript-looking, and sat down a few rows further up.
But then the woman next to me looked up, started, and whispered: “Oh! That’s Ben Smith!”
Well, well, I thought. Finally; in the flesh. I hadn’t heard about him in some weeks. Would he live up to the stories?
Indeed he did. After less than ten minutes (quite early in such a session), he stood up. As reported, his first comments were unremarkable, something about the lovely evening, I think.
But in a minute or so he segued into the subject of, yes, Dwight Eisenhower, and began a listing of the man’s many transcendent features and achievements.
As this was my first time, I admit that I sat back with some curiosity, wondering what would happen now, here amid this grand Quaker assembly. Would his message, however long, be simply enfolded and absorbed, or would there be confusion and alarm?
None of these. I was watching the back of Smith’s head, the mostly white, carefully combed hair, when across the aisle, several rows ahead, a woman stood up. She did not speak, but slowly turned toward Smith.
Then on our side, another woman stood, facing him without speaking.
Shortly there came a rustle from behind. Turning, I saw that two more women were standing.
Smith did not pause. I believe he raised one hand to add force to some particular Eisenhowerian distinction; then the women were moving. They smoothly made their way past the others in their rows, and proceeded toward him: two walked in the center aisle, the others along the outside aisle to my right, not hurrying, all in silence.
When they came even with his row, one on each end stepped into the row behind him, as the others moved in one row up. Slowly, deliberately they approached. In a moment they had formed a kind of square around him.
After another moment of standing, each raised their right hand, and placed it gently on his shoulder: two on the right, two on the left. In my memory their eyes were downcast, perhaps closed. Still they said nothing.
Smith had watched them approach without skipping a beat. But now he faltered. He paused, then started up again. And faltered once more.
Then he stopped. And in another moment, he was sinking slowly down onto his chair, seemingly unable to bear the weight of the four hands laid upon him.
The women stood there for another moment or two. Then each pivoted and went quietly back to her place. The meeting proceeded, through its silence and to business, as the dusk fell into starlight.
I never knew if the women had planned their response. I have looked, but have not found any other account of that evening, or how various local meetings handled his efforts, beyond the one newsletter summary.
Much later I was told that Ben Smith ultimately gave up his Eisenhowerian evangelistic crusade, perhaps from poor health, and had died.
I don’t recall much else from that yearly meeting gathering; were any weighty decisions made? Eloquent ministry spoken? I am of no value as a witness. But the exorcism of Ben Smith, in that open evening tent — now that, that has stuck with me.