Sanctification, deification, and Quakers old and new
The responses to my last piece on deification make me think that it's time to back up a bit, and look at how and why I came to be telling this story. It's been a long journey, and the individual pieces lack some of the background that makes the story as a whole fit together.
I first started writing about gradual sanctification - as distinct from salvation followed by sanctification - last August, citing this from Thomas Hamm:
For generations, Friends had embraced a view of the nature of religious life that was peculiar to them. In this vision, all people possessed a certain divine seed or Light. Obedience to this Light and to other revelations from God, through Scripture and directly, nurtured it and caused it to grow. As it grew, it gradually sanctified the believer. Ultimately, it would bring the believer to a state of holiness that justified and fitted him or her for heaven. Thus in Quaker eyes, justification and sanctification were inseparable and gradual.
But Gurney, like many contemporary non-Quaker evangelicals, argued that Friends had this wrong.... Justification, or salvation, came through a simple act of faith, believing in the efficacy of the Atoning Blood of Christ shed on the Cross. Thus it could come instantaneously. Sanctification followed as a second experience, also the fruit of faith, but gradually, probably lifelong after conversion. (56)
The Quaker gradualist view seems closer to the Orthodox views I've been discussing, even before we get to the question of deification or sanctification. Right after posting that piece on sanctification, though, I posted this lengthy piece of Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.
12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.
13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.
20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
24 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?
25 But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
I've bolded the text where it seems to clearly point to humans becoming one with the spirit, "children of God", "joint-heirs with Christ" - language that people read regularly but don't necessarily take literally. (Update: I forgot to add a link to a collection of similar citations from the New Testament.)
Early Quakers did, I think, take these sections very literally. (Given that much of Fox's prose is an extended selection and repetition of King James Bible quotes, assembled to emphasize particular themes, it's not surprising.) Calling themselves "Children of Light", Quakers were regularly accused by their contemporaries of confusing themselves with God, and it seems clear (from both Larry Ingle's writing and Richard Bailey's), that it wasn't just James Nayler receiving Christ-like tribute from his followers:
For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)
My current best guess is that George Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" was not just apocalyptic, but about the nature of salvation: Christ comes not just as a visitor, but as a permanent and growing part of us. This message cuts through the despair of Puritans questioning whether or not they were elected by a distant God, energizes groups of people who were drifting in mystical directions anyway, and describes a partnership between God and humans that fits well with the often titanic internal struggles of those coming to be with God.
While it's hard - perhaps impossible - to prove conclusively (or at least to the satisfaction of historians) that this was the core message of early Quakerism, the fire that fueled its stupendous rise and its followers' willingness to suffer persecution, it can explain a lot. It certainly explains the regular accusations by the persecutors that the Quakers blurred the boundaries between God and humans, it explains why the Inner Light is something much more powerful than mere human conscience, and it explains why, even after early Quakers toned themselves down, they still found themselves in a theological position very different from most of the Protestant world.
Eventually I think I'll have to go look at the original manuscripts. Larry Ingle reported that he had to cut the pages on a huge number of previously unread pamphlets, and it seems clear that even the censored correspondence can teach about when and where these dangerous sentiments were uttered. I'm also very curious to see what Quaker Heritage Press has in its Works of James Nayler, as they're attempting to be more complete than earlier editions. (They seem to have found only a little censorship, though some may be connected to these questions.)
Finally, there's an important question that I haven't previously attempted to answer. Why does this matter? It's an interesting football for historians, but does it have immediate relevance for modern Quakerism?
The "Inner Light" has remained at the heart of most varieties of Quakerism, and its transforming power is the story we tell. Even though the Light is found inside of us, though, many descriptions still hold it merely as a guide to something distant. Even though the Light is a guide to something more than us, many descriptions hold it merely as a part of us. The deification story, despite the overwhelming name, manages to bring both of those stories together. The Light is inside of us, a connection to God that is itself divine, uniting us with God.