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From the Apostles to the Seekers

After telling of the dispensations and how God's interactions with humans have changed, William Penn's introduction to George Fox's Journal continues with a look at what has gone wrong in the current dispensation, the "falling away from the power of godliness."

The problems were seen almost from the beginning:

But alas! even in the apostles’ days, (those bright stars of the first magnitude of the gospel light,) some clouds (foretelling an eclipse of this primitive glory) began to appear, and several of them gave early caution of it to the Christians of their time; that even then there was, and yet would be, more and more, a falling away from the power of godliness, and the purity of that spiritual dispensation, by such as thought to make a fair show in the flesh, but with whom the offence of the cross ceased: yet with this comfortable conclusion, that they saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever, to the true church.

Though Penn isn't citing scripture explicitly here, but echoes warnings from the epistles of the New Testament, reflecting the challenges the church had even in Acts. The Apostles "saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever," after all of these problems were resolved, and the later parts of Penn's introductions suggest that Quakerism is bringing us closer to that time.

Next, Penn describes the deterioration, focusing (as he had in the dispensations on the substitution of outward observances for inward. From this stems worldliness, loss of contact with the spirit, strife, and opposition to the true church.

Their sight was true, and what they fore-told to the churches, gathered by them in the name and power of Jesus, came so to pass: for Christians degenerated apace into outsides, as days, and meats, and divers other ceremonies.

And which was worse, they fell into strife and contention about them, separating one from another, then envying, and, as they had power, persecuting one another, to the shame and scandal of their common christianity, and grievous stumbling and offence of the heathen, among whom the Lord had so long and so marvellously preserved them.

And having got at last the worldly power into their hands, by kings and emperors embracing the Christian profession, they changed what they could the kingdom of Christ, which is not of this world, into a worldly kingdom; or at least styled the worldly kingdom that was in their hands the kingdom of Christ, and so they became worldly, and not true Christians. Then human inventions and novelties, both in doctrine and worship, crowded fast into the church, a door being opened thereunto by the grossness and carnality that appeared then among the generality of Christians; who had long since left the guidance of God's meek and heavenly spirit, and given themselves up to superstition, will-worship, and voluntary humility.

And as superstition is blind, so it is heady and furious; for all must stoop to its blind and boundless zeal, or perish by it: in the name of the spirit, persecuting the very appearance of the spirit of God in others, and opposing that in others which they resisted in themselves, viz. the light, grace, and spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ; but always under the notion of innovation, heresy, schism, or some such plausible name. Though christianity allows of no name or pretence whatever for persecuting of any man for matters of mere religion; religion being in its very nature meek, gentle, and forbearing; and consists of faith, hope, and charity, which no persecutor can have, whilst he remains a persecutor; in that a man cannot believe well, or hope well, or have a charitable or tender regard to another, whilst he would violate his mind or persecute his body for matters of faith or worship towards his God.

Thus the false church sprang up, and mounted the chair. But though she lost her nature, she would needs keep her good name of the Lamb's bride, the true church and mother of the faithful; constraining all to receive her mark, either in their forehead or right hand, that is, publicly or privately. But in deed and in truth she was mystery Babylon, the mother of harlots; mother of those that with all their show and outside of religion, were adulterated and gone from the spirit, nature, and life of Christ, and grown vain, worldly, ambitious, covetous, cruel, &c. which are the fruits of the flesh, and not of the spirit.

The false church arises, but needs to "keep her good name," while "in deed and truth she was mystery Babylon." Thus Penn joins generations of Protestants in condemning the Catholic Church as a poor caretaker of Christian faith, finding it corrupted by worldly power and tempted too greatly by persecution.

Now it was that the true church fled into the wilderness, that is, from superstition and violence to a retired, solitary, and lonely state; hidden and as it were out of sight of men, though not out of the world, which shows that her wonted visibility was not essential to the being of a true church in the judgment of the Holy Ghost; she being as true a church in the wilderness, though not as visible and lustrous, as when she was in her former splendour of profession. In this state many attempts she made to return, but the waters were yet too high, and her way blocked up, and many of her excellent children, in several nations and centuries, fell by the cruelty of superstition, because they would not fall from their faithfulness to the truth.

This "true church" in "the wilderness" continues despite persecution. Penn isn't clear about who was in this true church, but many have suffered for their loyalty.

More recently, Penn sees the Reformation as having helped reopen the path for the true church, though it quickly fell into the same problems that earlier troubled the Catholic Church. He holds most of his fire from the reformers themselves, telling a similar story of a fall along generations leading away from the right path:

The last age did set some steps towards it, both as to doctrine, worship, and practice. But practice quickly failed, for wickedness flowed in a little time, as well among the professors of the reformation, as those they reformed from; so that by the fruits of conversation they were not to be distinguished.

And the children of the reformers, if not the reformers themselves, betook themselves very early to earthly policy and power, to uphold and carry on their reformation that had been begun with spiritual weapons; which, I have often thought, has been one of the greatest reasons the reformation made no better progress, as to the life and soul of religion. For whilst the reformers were lowly and spiritually minded, and trusted in God, and looked to him, and lived in his fear, and consulted not with flesh and blood, nor sought deliverance in their own way, there were daily added to the church such as, one might reasonably say, should be saved; for they were not so careful to be safe from persecution, as to be faithful and inoffensive under it.

Being more concerned to spread the truth by their faith and patience in tribulation, than to get the worldly power out of their hands that inflicted their sufferings upon them; and it will be well, if the Lord suffer them not to fall by the very same way they took to stand.

In doctrine they were in some things short; in other things, to avoid one extreme, they ran into another. And for worship, there was for the generality more of man in it than of God. They owned the spirit, inspiration, and revelation, indeed, and grounded their separation and reformation upon the sense and understanding they received from it, in the reading of the scriptures of truth; and this was their plea, the scripture is the text, the spirit the interpreter, and that to every one for himself.

But yet there was too much of human invention, tradition, and art, that remained both in praying and preaching, and of worldly authority and worldly greatness in their ministers, especially in this kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, and some parts of Germany. God was therefore pleased in England to shift us from vessel to vessel.

The reformers are a step forward, but their doctrine and worship have flaws, though they return the spirit closer to its proper place, letting each person participate. Worldiness continues to be a problem, and Penn now shifts his focus to England, where "God was pleased... to shift us from vessel to vessel", leading eventually to the Puritanization of the English churches, of which Penn writes:

And the next remove humbled the ministry, so that they were more strict in preaching, devout in praying, and zealous for keeping the Lord's day, and catechising of children and servants, and repeating at home in their families what they had heard in public.

But even as these grew into power, they were not only for whipping some out, but others into the temple.

The Puritans are more humble, more devout, and more zealous, but in becoming so they not only drive people out of the churches, but insist that others be forced into their churches, a key point of conflict between Quakers and the Presbyterians and Anglicans of the 17th century. Nonetheless, while there were problems, this period saw tremendous possibilities opening:

And they appeared rigid in their spirits, rather than severe in their lives, and more for a party, than for piety; which brought forth another people, that were yet more retired and select. They would not communicate at large, or in common with others; but formed churches among themselves of such as could give some account of their conversion, at least of very promising experiences of the work of God's grace upon their hearts, and under mutual agreements and covenants of fellowship they kept together. These people were somewhat of a softer temper, and seemed to recommend religion by the charms of its love, mercy, and goodness, rather than by the terrors of its judgments and punishments; by which the former party would have terrified people into religion.

They also allowed greater liberty to prophesy than those before them; for they admitted any member to speak or pray as well as their pastor, whom they always chose, and not the civil magistrate. If such found any thing pressing upon them to either duty, even without the distinction of clergy or laity, persons of any trade had their liberty, be it never so low and mechanical.

These people reject the Puritan model of enforced participation, coming together to worship in groups bonded by God's love rather than worldly concerns or constraints. They are likely those whom Fox and other early Quakers called "tender", ready to receive the Spirit, and seem to be particularly Baptists, though possibly other non-conformists. Even this group has its problems, though:

But, alas! even these people suffered great loss; for tasting of worldly empire, and the favour of princes, and the gain that ensued, they degenerated but too much. For though they had cried down national churches, and ministry, and maintainance too, some of them, when it was their own turn to be tried, fell under the weight of worldly honour and advantage, got into profitable parsonages too much, and outlived and contradicted their own principles; and, which was yet worse, turned some of them absolute persecutors of other men for God's sake, that but so lately came themselves out of the furnace; which drove many a step farther, and that was, into the water: another baptism, as believing they were not scripturally baptized, and hoping to find that presence and power of God, in submitting to this watery ordinance, which they desired and wanted.

These people made also profession of neglecting, if not renouncing and censuring, not only the necessity, but use of all human learning as to the ministry; and all other qualifications to it, besides the help, and gifts of the spirit of God, and those natural and common to men; and for a time they seemed, like John of old, a burning and a shining light, to other societies.

They were very diligent, plain, and serious, strong in scripture, and bold in profession, bearing much reproach and contradiction. But that which others fell by, proved their snare. For worldly power spoiled them too, who had enough of it to try them, what they would do if they had more; and they rested also too much upon their watery dispensation, instead of passing on more fully to that of the fire and holy ghost, which was his baptism who came with a 'fan in his hand, that he might thoroughly (and not in part only) purge his floor,' and take away the dross and the tin of his people, and make a man finer than gold.

Withal, they grew high, rough, and self-righteous, opposing further attainment, too much forgetting the day of their infancy and littleness, which gave them something of a real beauty;

The cycle of decay over time has reversed, however, and from the Baptists' self-righteousness springs a step closer to worship with the Spirit, as many of those 'shattered Baptists' step into new groups which will be ready to receive the message of the early Quakers.

insomuch that many left them, and all visible churches and societies, and wandered up and down as sheep without a shepherd, and as doves without their mates, seeking their beloved, but could not find him, as their souls desired to know him, whom their souls loved above their chiefest joy.

These people were called Seekers by some, and the Family of Love by others... (v-ix; paragraph breaks added)

And here Penn arrives at the origins of Quakerism, which he places in the hands of the Familists and Seekers. Their practices - especially waiting together in silence - will be joined with Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" to eventually produce the Religious Society of Friends.

(Penn's inclusion of the Family of Love, who had Anabaptist roots, and his discussion of the true church in the wilderness raise a lot of questions. Historians lately seem to think that Quakerism developed purely from extreme Puritanism, Protestantism taken to the limit, discounting Rufus Jones' suggestions of connections to earlier Christian mystical roots. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between, with Quakers reinventing some of those roots but learning from others.)