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Nayler's shift

I've written a few times of James Nayler's blasphemy trial being a moment - along with the Restoration of the Stuart kings - that led to changes from early Quakerism. I hadn't noticed, however, a passage in Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down that describes that change within James Nayler himself after his conviction and punishment:

Nayler himself in the depth of his humiliation rejected the support of 'many wild spirits, Ranters and such like', who refused to accept the hostile verdict of Friends. You have belied the Lord, Nayler told these Ranters in 1659, and said that 'sin and righteousness is all one to God', whom many Ranters openly deny. Their 'light answers' and 'mockings' 'have made heavy the burden of the meek and lowly, against whom you have sported.'

Nayler's experience, and still more his repentance, helped to restore a sense of sin to the Quaker movement. Nayler had believed that it was possible for a man to achieve Christ's perfection and perform Christ's works: his entry into Bristol was made in that spirit. But after his terrible punishment he was convinced that he had been in error, that 'the motions of sin did still work from the old ground and root'. So he rebuked his Ranter defenders:

do not say, All things are lawful, all things are pure, etc.; and so sit down and say you are redeemed and have right to all; but first pass through all things, one after another, as the light learneth you; and with a true measure see if you be from under the power of any. When you have proved this throughout all things, and found your freedom, then you may say, All things are lawful, and know what is expedient, and what edifies yourselves and others and the rest to reign over, without bondage thereto.

Nayler had the right to say that, arrived at through his great suffering and shame. ('I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship there with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth.') But those phrases, 'what is expedient', 'what edifies', closed the door on much that had been courageous and life-giving to the Quaker movement. (251-2)

Hill goes on to talk about the changes in the larger movement after Nayler, but it seems worthwhile to me to pause for a moment and think about Nayler's reflections on his own historic arc, from seeking and acting out perfection to a more doubtful position.

'With a true measure see if you be from under the power of any' is a difficult challenge, one easier to test for an individual among a group.

(Hill's book is unfortunately out of print but still available through libraries and used bookstores. Fortunately, Quaker Heritage Press is halfway through publishing a collection of Nayler's works.)