Quakers have a long history of dream journals

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Summary essay by Jay O’Brien, Oct. 2012


Early Quakers recorded dreams in their journals and often provide their own interpretations. Howard 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.

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 damming 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 1820’s 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.”

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.

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. www.laquaker.blogspot.com/2011/02what-quaker-dreams-are-made-of-radio (LA Quaker: What Quaker Dreams Are Made of: A Radio Interview).


The tune for “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream.

I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, ‘That’s great, I wonder what that is?’ There was an upright piano next to me, to the right of the bed by the window. I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F sharp minor 7th – and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to E. It all leads forward logically. I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it I couldn’t believe I’d written it. I thought, ‘No, I’ve never written anything like this before.’ But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing!

Otto Loewi (1873-1961), a German born physiologist, won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936 for this work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. In 1903, Loewi had the idea that there might be a chemical transmission of the nervous impulse rather than an electrical one, which was the common held belief, but he was at a loss on how to prove it. He let the idea slip to the back of his mind until 17 years later he had the following dream. According to Loewi:

The night before Easter Sunday of that year I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of paper. Then I fell asleep again. I occurred to me at 6 o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at 3 o’clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered 17 years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a single experiment on a frog’s heart according to the nocturnal design.

It took Loewi a decade to carry out a decisive series of tests to satisfy his critics, but ultimately the result of his initial dream induced experiment became the foundation for the theory of chemical transmission of the nervous impulse and led to a Nobel Prize!

Dr. Loewi noted: “Most so called ‘intuitive’ discoveries are such associations made in the subconscious.”

Louis Agassiz (1807-1883) was a Swiss born naturalist, zoologist, geologist, and teacher who emigrated to the US in 1846. He trained and influenced a generation of American zoologists and paleontologists and is one of the founding fathers of the modern American scientific tradition.

While Agassiz was working on his vast work “Poissons Fossiles” a list of all known fossil fish, he came across a specimen in a stone slab which he was, at first, unable to figure out. He hesitated to classify it and extract it since an incorrect approach could ruin the specimen. At that time, Agassiz reports having a dream three nights in a row in which he saw the fish in perfect original condition. The first two nights –being unprepared – he did not record his image.

By the third night he was ready with pen and paper, and when the fish appeared again in the dream he drew it in the dark, still half asleep. The next day he looked at his drawing which had remarkably different features from the ones he had been working out, hastened to his laboratory and extracting the fossil realized it corresponded exactly to his dream.

Agassiz’ creative dream of the fossilized fish may have been induced by having perceived unconsciously a clue in the stone slab which he had ignored while awake. www.mindpowernews.com/BrilliantDreams.htm

I have heard music in my dreams, but my conscious mind is not trained in music so I could not write it down. As a teenager I received a poem in my dreams and I wrote it on a tablet. The poem was ten pages, handwritten on a standard tablet. I regret I did not keep the poem. The conscious mind limits the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is far greater than the conscious mind. Learn to use it.

In August of 2012 I had an appointment with a friend of mine, Will, at 5 pm. I lay down that afternoon to take a nap and had a dream. I dreamed Will tried to call me, but I did not receive the message. I tried to call him back on my cell phone (I do not have a cell phone) but I could not get through. Later when I arrived at his house he told me he was sick and had to cancel the appointment. He said he had tried to call, but there was no answer. I asked him when he had called and Will said about 4:15 pm. That was the time I woke up with the dream.


Keep a dream journal as the early Quakers did. Keep it by your bed and record even a dream fragment. After a few attempts you will begin to harness your subconscious mind. Commit your problems to your subconscious mind. If the dream is not clear, then ask yourself to dream about the problem again. Clarity comes from repetition. A series of dreams may have the same meaning. Science cannot explain the process, but there is enough testimony to convince even scientists that dreams are effective in creativity and invention.

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