Early Quaker Trinity questions
I don't hear a lot of Quakers or Quaker blogs talking about the Trinity. I worry that perhaps I'm a bit unusual in finding it interesting, but then I've had some worship experiences that were definitely Trinitarian, though it's hard to describe. (As the Trinity is, frequently.)
Early Quakers seem to have been Trinitarian - or at least they didn't find the Unitarianism of their day an acceptable choice, and were generally willing to accept a Trinitarian view when pushed. William C. Braithwaite's The Second Period of Quakerism notes changes the Quakers managed to secure in the Toleration Act of 1688, which eased (if not completely ended) the persecution Quakers had faced. Originally, there was a declaration in the bill - to be made by those not willing to take an oath - which read:
I, A. B., profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, co-equal with the Father, and the Son, one God blessed for ever: and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the revealed Will and Word of God. (155-6; italics original)
With Quaker input, it became:
I, A. B., profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore: and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by Divine Inspiration. (155)
Braithwaite explains the process, and some biblical contingencies, that led to the changes:
Friends, at the risk of finding themselves excluded from the Bill, were put under the necessity, says George Whitehead, of offering some form of confession. The words were confined to scripture terms, though Whitehead bases his willingness to accept the Trinitarian formula, except the unscriptural phrase, "co-equal with the Father and the Son," upon the spurious insertion in I John v. 7, 8, which Erasmus had admitted into his third edition of the Greek Testament, in redemption of a rash promise. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened to Friends under the Toleration Act if this proof-text for the Trinity, on which they relied in many another doctrinal difficulty, had been absent from the Authorized Version.
Representative Friends were called before the Committee, and answered it clearly as to their owning the Deity and accepting the scriptures as given by Divine inspiration. The latter was the point most in doubt.... (156)
So Friends were willing to accept a description of the Trinity so far as it fit with their understanding of the Bible, which in this case included a likely insertion that supported the Trinity. They wouldn't go so far as the "co-equal", which wasn't supported directly even by that insertion, but they accepted the notion generally.
There is, of course, more to the question of early Quakers and the Trinity than that, and the second edition of the book includes Henry Cadbury's helpful update notes. One of those expands on this question of the Trinity in greater depth:
absent from the Authorized Version Isaac Penington also in 1659, in answer to the charges at Boston in New England that the Quakers denied the Trinity, had declared that on the contrary Friends "set their seal to the truth of that scripture I John v. 7 .... That these three are distinct, as three several beings or persons, this they read not" (Works 1681, i. 203).
In a somewhat later writing he says concerning the "God-Head, which we own as the Scriptures express it, and as we have the sensible, experimental knowledge of it," quoting again I John v. 7. "This I believe from my Heart and have infallible demonstrations of: for I know three and feel three in Spirit" (ibid. ii. 452).
Richard Claridge in an undated essay on the Trinity expressed doubt on the authenticity of the verse (Works, 1726, p. 414).
The exception of Penington is like that of Penn, Sandy Foundation Shaken (1668; Works, 1726, I. 252-4), to the notion of three distinct and separate persons. Thirty years later in his Defense of ... Gospel Truths (Works, 1726, ii. 885) Penn and others cite I John v. 7 as representing Quaker belief.
It was the words "trinity" and "person" to which Friends earlier, such as Fox, Burrough, and Howgill, took exception (cf. T. C. Jones in F. Q. 1959), as did such English fore-runners of Quakerism as Richard Coppin and William Erbury and later Friends, such as Job Scott. See The Later Periods of Quakerism, p. 291 (where on the last line "three external persons" should be corrected to read "three eternal persons").
There is evidence that after the Toleration Act of 1689, which excluded Unitarians from its benefits, Friends were more careful with their language. Cf. J.F.H.S. xlii. 76 (Whitehead); John Robertson's Rusticus ad Clericum, 1694, p. 261; "We own the Nicene Creed." (665-6; paragraph breaks added)
The questionable citation, I John 5:7-8, reads in the Authorized (King James) Version:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.
I'll be exploring more Quaker sources on the subject over time, but I'm especially interested in a few angles here:
First, perhaps most intriguing, is Isaac Penington's "infallible demonstrations of [the Trinity]: for I know three and feel three in Spirit." I'm clearly not the only one who has felt three.
The second angle that's interesting to me here is the reliance on Scripture: Quakers plainly weren't interested in "schoolmen's terms", and insisted on citing Scripture, without terms created later.
And the third angle - there have to be three - is the shift over time from these perspectives to the present, where I'm not used to hearing "Trinity" in a Quaker context.
Lots more to consider, as there always is.
Update: In the course of more searching, I did find some Quaker blogging on the trinity.