Edward Hicks was a Pennsylvania Quaker who supported his family by his self-taught painting of signs and decorative pieces. He painted pictures for friends and family too. Most of us have seen at least one of Edward Hick’s versions of his painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” A number of them can be found online or on Christmas cards, and they have some common features, but no two are quite alike. He constantly turned to a theme from Isaiah 11:1-10.
I keep wondering what was going on in his spirit that drew him back to paint something on this same theme over and over again for almost 30 years until he died with another one, unfinished, on his easel. (Some people think he drew it over 100 times, though I think there are but 61 that we can find.)
It doesn’t seem that he was so much unsatisfied with his own work as he kept thinking about what difference it makes to have a vision of something that seems so far-fetched as Isaiah describes:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord…
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Eventually, Hicks started including details in his paintings about the world as he knew it living in Pennsylvania about a generation or so before the Civil War, a time of brewing unrest and political conflict. He was distressed on many levels with the disruption of relationships, by injustice, by problems within his church. Quakers were experiencing a schism among themselves, and he felt they were becoming too distracted by materialistic desires and secular anxieties. His world, including his church-world, was anything but peaceable.
Sometimes he included a scene of what he thought a movement toward peace in his world might look like, William Penn and his companions signing a treaty of respect and peace with an Indian tribe. In the foreground is always the sign of the child who is promised.
And the hope of peace was also for each person individually. He sometimes talked about a kind of wildness that is within us that threatened our own inner harmony and peace. Wild animals mixing comfortably with domestic ones was an image of each person being transformed within, of being one who could really walk the walk of peace as well as preach it or march for it or petition for it.
Even over a century later, these paintings challenge me to meditate on Isaiah’s imagery. I wonder where to look to see the peaceable kingdom breaking through around us? And how important it was to him to keep imagining it, thinking about it, longing for it, waiting for it. As William Arthur Ward is often quoted, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.”