Friends wrote their dreams down in journals, minutes, letters, pamphlets and commonplace books. George Fox (“A People Rescued”) and John Woolman (“The Sunworm”) both included dreams in their journals. A variety of dreams were written down by other Friends: anti-slavery (Katherine Evans, Sarah Cheevers, Elizabeth Webb), ministry (William Edmundson, Isaac Jackson, Elizabeth Shipley), peace (Ann Emlen), anti-art (Ruth Ritter), gender roles (Elizabeth Wilkman), etc. “Remarkable Dream”, a dream about simplicity, was widely copied and distributed. Quakers also collected other Friends’ dreams in “vision books”.
Quakers used dreams for their spiritual growth. They felt that God guided them with dreams, just as He did with the Inner Light.
A process of discernment was employed. A powerful, spirit-led dream might be dreamed only once or twice in a lifetime. But if such a dream was dreamed, it was interpreted by the Friend. When necessary, it was shared with other Friends and given more interpretation. Sometimes it was brought to the Meeting as a whole for further interpretation. Then it might be acted on. (Some abolitionists, for example, began their work after a dream about the horrors of slavery). The last stage was rarely reached and mostly only by recorded ministers.
According to George Fox, dreams came from daily life, Satan or God. The last of these were the ones to which attention should be paid. Symbols like silence, patient waiting, plainness and light were often featured in the dreams. Some of the dreams were prophetic, prefiguring events. Dreams, lucid dreams and visions were felt to be the same.
In the 1600’s Quaker dreams were apocalyptic, reflecting the struggle through which Friends were going. In the 1700’s dreams were often dreamed by women, who challenged gender roles, and abolitionists, who opposed slavery. In the 1800’s, with Friends becoming more settled, dreams focused on simplicity, moderation, etc. In the 1900’s dreams mostly ceased to be used by Friends. The reason is unclear, though a belief in science and psychoanalysis probably caused it.
Quaker dream writings are unlike any other Friendly literature. They have an other-worldly feel to them, by their very nature. The best of them, like “John Woolman is dead….” are haunting.
(Image from Bruno Jimenez at https://www.artstation.com/artwork/0zY1Y