« The importance of apocalypse | Main | Negativity around the Apocalypse »

Looking to the Alpha and the Omega

I first read Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word a couple of years ago, and it dramatically deepened my interest in early Quakerism. I've been very cautious in writing about it, however. It's not an easy book to excerpt without losing critical context and meaning, and even the title can be read in multiple meanings, which resolve over the course of the book. (Is Apocalypse the end of the world, or revelation? Is the Word "In the beginning was the Word", or scripture, or something else?)

Gwyn's book was a surprise to me, because up until I found it I was much more accustomed to thinking of Quakerism as Primitive Christianity Revived, to use William Penn's classic title. Quakers (at least in my experience) often described themselves as going back to the beginnings of Christianity, when the message was clear but hadn't been codified into hierarchies and scriptures. George Fox was difficult to understand in this context, as he doesn't seem like, well, a church historian. Fox's classic message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" sounds somewhat like a return to those early days when Christ taught in person, but also raises all the questions inherent in discussions of the second coming.

Gwyn focuses squarely on the eschatological aspects of Fox's writings, finding motivation there for Quaker beliefs and practices. At the same time, however, he differentiates them from other approaches to the same issues - approaches I think may have made Quakers less eager to acknowledge the importance of these angles on early Quakerism:

The key issue... which will dominate my investigation will be that of eschatology - the belief in end-times, the return of Christ, the coming of the kingdom of God. End-time language and expectation shaped and gave a particular energy to the socio-political struggles of both Puritans and Quakers.

In the case of Puritanism, this line of thought tended to be mainly a speculative, political ideology, based on apocalyptic books of the BIble, such as Daniel and Revelation. Texts were employed in order to identify certain political figures with the antichrist, to calculate the end of the world, or to make messianic claims for political agendas. Such speculation mobilized great political and military energies.

On the other hand, Quaker preaching, while sharing some of these characteristics, will be seen to lay primary emphasis on apocalypse in its literal sense of revelation. Geo-political speculation gave way to a knowledge of Christ's return in personal experience. This approach created much less political ideology... yet it generated a movement with dynamic social and economic reordering and a powerful political witness that far outdistanced the Puritan efforts. What we find in Fox's preaching are the same hopes shared by his Puritan contemporaries, yet a new basis for these hopes in a radically personal spirituality. It is an experience of apocalypse like that described in John 3:19 - "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world...." (3)

It seems that Fox captured the spiritual side of earlier eschatology without getting trapped in the challenges of setting dates for the end of the world. Fox's eschatology isn't speculation about the future - it's present eschatology, and Christ is here, with us, now.

I'll have a lot more to say about this book, though I don't plan to go through it page by page. I'm certainly not going to explain it any better than Gwyn already does. Still, I hope to bring forward some pieces that raise questions worth exploring, and see where they lead. This book already had a profound influence on my experience and views of Quakerism, and has been a quiet undercurrent in the writing of this weblog.

Next, I'll be looking at some criticisms of this book and its eschatological perspective. Was this Fox's view consistently? Which other early Quakers shared it? How necessary is it to an understanding of Quakerism then and today? (I don't promise answers on that last one.)


Geo-political speculation gave way to a knowledge of Christ's return in personal experience.

This sounds interesting, could you explain that a bit more?

It's easy to describe the "geo-political speculation" that gave way: Fox doesn't spend his time describing which ruler is which beast, or what the seven seals mean in the 1600s.

A lot of other Puritans were into that, most notably the Fifth Monarchists, and (for example) identifying Rome with Revelation's Babylon and the English Civil War with the end times was common.

The second part, indicating the direction Fox is heading, is most of the rest of the book, and I think I'll have to explain that over time!

You wrote: "Fox's eschatology isn't speculation about the future - it's present eschatology, and Christ is here, with us, now."

Yes, I think that sounds right. It's interesting to hear how this has influenced your thinking and writing. Thank you.

And I just have to say, Presbyterian Girlfriend's handle amuses me every time!

[& by the way, we _need_ people over at http://kwakerskripturestudy.blogspot.com/
to keep the ball moving, please!]

I liked Gwyn's stuff, precisely as a challenge to the tepid a-theology of the LiberalFriendism of my own meeting, but haven't read him lately. I think apocalypse as "end of world" is a worthwhile perspective in such forms as in 'The Apocalyptic Witness' (PH Pamphlet #279, William Durland), William Stringfellow's writings, etc.

not merely as a spur to political activism (which can be as much a dangerous idolatry as is respectability) but primarily as a release from the illusions of The World. ie "All this is temporary; the true power here is God at work--& don't mistake putting a new hat on The Beast for finding The Kingdom."

I look forward to seeing where you go with Gwynn's book. I really found this book helpful and challenging. It's not the kind of title and topic that is received well (or much understood) in most meetings so I have not found many Friend's with whom I could discuss it. I appreciate that you are taking it on in this forum. I will check back in.

Drawn in by its title, I started in the middle of Gwynn's trilogy with The Covenant Crucified: Quakerism and the Rise of Capitalism and enjoyed it very much; it was very dense and full of information and concepts that it was like chewing a 7-grain bread sandwich -- slow going, but incredibly nourishing.

I believe Apocalypse was the first, and I hope to get to it soon. I look forward to your periodic summaries.