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Reading Fox in the light of deification

I've been speculating about what seems to me a likely connection between Early Quakers' perspectives on salvation and the Eastern Orthodox description of deification. It seems to explain some of Fox and Nayler's harder-to-comprehend moments, and may also correspond to what their followers believed of them, but it's less clear that Fox and Nayler specifically saw deification as the path to salvation.

I've been reading Volume I of Fox's Epistles (Volume 7 of the Works). It's interesting to see how much of Fox's prose seems to me to fit beautifully with the framework of deification - though at the same time these same phrasings have been interpreted by Quakers for centuries without considering that framework.

Here, for example, is a letter from 1653. I've highlighted the language that seems potentially to refer to deification.

XLII.-- To Friends, concerning the light, in which they may see their saviour, and the deceivers.

To all Friends every where, scattered abroad: in the light dwell which comes from Christ, that with it ye may see Christ your saviour; that ye may grow up in him. For they who are in him, are new creatures; and ‘old things are passed away, and all things are become new.’ And who are in him, are led by the spirit, to them there is no condemnation; but they dwell in that which doth condemn the world, and with the light see the deceivers, and the antichrists, which are entered into the world. And such teachers as bear rule by their means; and such as seek for the fleece, and make a prey upon the people, and are hirelings, and such as go in the way of Cain, and run greedily after the error of Balaam; and such as are called of men master, and stand praying in the synagogues, and have the chief seats in the assemblies, all which are in the world, who by those that dwelt in the light, were cried against; for it did them condemn, and all such as speak a divination of their own brain, and are filthy dreamers, who use their tongues, and steal the words from their neighbours; with the light, the world and all these aforesaid are comprehended, and all that is in it; and all they that hate it, and all the antichrists that oppose it, and all the false prophets and deceivers, that are turned from it, with the light are comprehended, and with the light are condemned, and all that are turned from it and hate it.

‘I am the light of the world,’ saith Christ, and he doth enlighten every one that cometh into the world; and he that loves the light, and walks in the light, receives the light of life: and the other, he hates the light, because his deeds are evil, and the light doth reprove him. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, in which light, they that love it, walk; which is the condemnation of him that hates it. And all the antichrists, and all the false prophets, and all the deceivers, the beast, and the well-favoured harlot, all these are seen with the light to be in that nature, acting contrary to the light; and with the light are they comprehended, and by the light condemned.

For he is not an antichrist, that walks in the light that comes from Christ; he is no deceiver, that walks in the light that comes from Christ. Many deceivers are entered into the world. The world hates the light, and deceivers are turned from the light, and the antichrists they are turned from the light, therefore they oppose it, and some of them call it a natural conscience, a natural light; and such put the letter for the light. But with the light, which never changes, (which was before the world was,) are these deceivers seen, where they enter into the world. For many deceivers are entered into the world, and the false prophets are entered into the world; the world hates the light, and if it were possible, they would deceive the elect. But in the light the elect do dwell, which the antichrists, deceivers, and false prophets are turned from, into the world, that hate the light: that light which they do hate, the children of light dwell in, the elect. So it is not possible, that the antichrists and deceivers, that are entered into the world, that hate the light, should deceive the elect, who dwell in the light which they hate; which light doth them all comprehend, and the world; which light was before the world was, and is the world’s condemnation; in which light the elect walk. And here it is not possible, that they that dwell in the light should be deceived, which comprehends the world, and is the world’s condemnation. Which light shall bring every tongue to confess, and every knee to bow: when the judgments of God come upon them, it shall make them confess, that the judgments of God are just.

G. F. (50-1, 1653)

It all depends, however, on how we read "dwell in the light". If "dwelling in the light" is being a nice person, following God's commands, and otherwise being respectful of a power that is completely separate from us (though found inwardly) - then this is not a text about deification.

This light seems, however, to be transforming - which suggests great change inside of us, 'the elect', we who "may grow up in him," "be in him", as "new creatures."

There are many many more of these possibly relevant epistles, but for now, I'll pause here.


Might not we use the word "sanctification"? Is that what you mean when you say, "deification"?

To my ear, the word "deification" gives the impression that we are "becoming gods" or "becoming God," while the word "sanctification," would indicate a process of being molded into who we are created to be, by God. Perhaps it's just semantics, but I think the distinction is worth noting.

We could - and generally do - use the word 'sanctification' rather than the word 'deification'.

The reason that I'm using 'deification' here is that I don't think 'sanctification' is strong enough to explain the intense pull of early Quakerism, or the many moments later Quakers preferred to forget.

It's a little tricky to sort out what happened, but my current hypothesis is that Quakerism's early power grew from a much stronger interpretation of the action of God upon us than was acceptable to their Protestant fellows, and they stepped back from that position more and more after Nayler's arrest.

(You might also look at the end of this for more on how Fox and Nayler were perceived/worshipped by their followers.)

The distinction is worth noting - and questioning.

Certainly early Friends thought that walking in the Light was something more than "being nice." They were often led to be confront people very directly about their perceived shortcomings. Certainly they expected the Light to shake them and change them. Walking in the Light meant living a transformed life.

But even dwelling in Christ and Christ dwelling in us is at least a step short of deification. Friends were also quite distrustful of pride and of the need to stay low. I don't know how much of that was a response to the Naylor incident but it certainly is a constant theme among Friends writings.

The experience of having your life turned upside down is enough to release significant spiritual power. Friends belief that one could be spiritually perfected in this life was certainly scandalous enough. The power of early Friends, I think, was not derived from a desire to become gods, or even that this was possible. It came instead from the experience of God reaching in and transforming their lives. In their communities, this was the norm. Among modern Friends, it is the rare person who can testify to that kind of experience.

Will -

I'm not sure if you've read the earlier entries on Orthodox views on deification, but it's very clearly not a matter that should inspire pride. I don't think it's about "a desire to become gods", either - that phrasing reminds me more of the story of Simon Magus than of early Friends.

The "need to stay low" is part of this process, certainly - accepting that it's not us but God who is important here, and accepting that transformation rather than resisting.

Even in the deification conversation (and I think in Fox's and Nayler's), we remain human - God works within us, but we remain distinct.

I share your concern that "among modern Friends, it is the rare person who can testify to... the experience of God reaching in and transforming their lives."

I worry, though, that part of the reason that that is so rare is that early Friends stepped back from these stronger claims about God's work within us, and later Friends have continuously (if slowly) stepped back further and further.

Insightful comment, Simon.

There is an increasing "protestant-ization" of the Friends movement I see (perhaps turning it into what we now know as "Quakerism") that began with that "second generation" including Barclay and Penn.

My understanding is that Fox's writings were "edited"--often with his approval, apparently--to make them less annoying to those who persecuted Friends.

The result is that all that strife and hatred that Friends absorbed seems hard to understand except as a manifestation of stupidity or misunderstanding, and the steadfastness in absorbing it is equally baffling.

(In the words of a contemporary prophet: "Long ago, and far away, it's a good thing that stuff don't happen no more nowadays.")

I have thought often how few Friends today seem comfortable with the idea of "transformation"--aside from the transformation of others, of course, into what we believe (far too often without any basis except our own conceit) we are.

In the liberal domain of the movement today I find so many of us who think things would be fine if everyone would just recycle, drive a Pious and listen to NPR. Oh, also vote for the current Democratic political candidates.

If Gwyn is anywhere near the mark in his work on the role of the book of Revelation in Fox's Light most of us would be darned uncomfortable with the implications of his teachings.

I don't see deification in Fox's words. In an evangelical sense, "the light" seems to be what shows people their sins and reveals Jesus as Savior for them. Then, the light leads them in their service to God.

I got a kick out of your reference to NPR and the types of activities you mentioned. I personally don't appreciate NPR's green moralism and the government's funding of religious pluralism on NPR or the New Age (i.e., Wayne Dyer on public television).

There's a basis in the Friends tradition for opposing this type of thing. Early Friends rejected the payment of taxes to the Church of England and the Congregationalists in the colonies.

Simon said:
"I share your concern that "among modern Friends, it is the rare person who can testify to... the experience of God reaching in and transforming their lives.
"I worry, though, that part of the reason that that is so rare is that early Friends stepped back from these stronger claims about God's work within us, and later Friends have continuously (if slowly) stepped back further and further."

I agree. If you look at how Quakerism started and compare it to today, it is clear that it began very radical and has since watered down. (The same could be said of Christianity in general, and actually most other religions.) I wish this was not so, and I wish I could be as passionate as Fox and Nayler.