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Early Quakers, Version III

The telling of Quaker history I presented yesterday, while maybe more interesting than "the early Quakers were great, but then..." story, is still a brilliance followed by decline story. I don't find that to be a fair appraisal.

While there was definitely a shift in Quaker views from the early enthusiasm to the developing sect, there's also a much larger perspective that needs to be considered, putting Quakerism into the context of Christian history, especially the Reformation that it was a late part of. Some of this reflects my earlier post on Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit, but it's worth considering how early Quakers achieved their unique synthesis.

So this version, which steps further back from the specifics of Quakerism, reads like:

Christianity in Western Europe had for centuries meant Catholicism, a single enormous Christian community that was organized around a strong Church. That Church mediated salvation for the many people under its care, managing their spiritual (and often other) parts of their lives. This large community included many strains of Christian thought, but the Church managed those strains, setting boundaries it deemed appropriate. The Church handled the processes leading to salvation, could grant exceptions, and dedicated parts of the community to a more holy lifestyle in order that these holy people could intercede for the rest.

As abuses of this system mounted, reformers shifted from wanting to remedy the abuses to questioning the entire system that had placed the human Church between people and their God. Luther, Calvin, and their many followers focused on a direct connection between the faith of the believer and his or her salvation by God's grace. Their churches were there to guide believers toward salvation, not to deliver holiness from cloistered groups or to manage sacraments that added up to salvation.

While the reformers described a very different approach to salvation, they weren't prepared to let go of the church's power and authority. Luther in particular held on to as much tradition as he could manage, but few (broadly successful) reformers were willing to discard the church as an organization, and replaced the authority of the hierarchy and tradition with the authority of Scripture. Luther and many of his fellow reformers were appalled by Anabaptists and others who took the call for reform more radically than most reformers, and Anabaptists remained outcasts even after the early violence settled.

England had had an especially slow reformation. Henry VIII cast off Rome, but largely so he could take control of the church's property and power. Succeeding monarchs oscillated between Catholic and Calvinist sympathies, though none of them went far enough for the English reformers to be happy until about 1688. Elizabeth I and James I fought to retain the powers of the hierarchy and the strength of central control, with the King James Version of the Bible a determined effort to rid the country of the Geneva Bible with its Calvinist commentary.

In the 1640s, this all came to a head in the English Civil War, and Charles I was executed by a Puritan parliament. Removing the king (and eventually replacing him with a Lord Protector) didn't take England along a clear path to a government of Saints, as many had hoped. Instead, it created a seething cauldron, a tremendous opening of divergent views and different practices. Anglicans became Presbyterians became Independents became Baptists became Seekers became...

Quakers. George Fox's message that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" completed the shift toward individual responsibility and away from a church that the reformers had started. It worked most powerfully with groups - Seekers, Ranters, "shattered Baptists" - who had already thrown off hope in institutions and their role in religion. Quakerism spoke powerfully to people who found ministers distant, who felt oppressed by tithes that forced them to support churches they couldn't in good faith attend, who knew that the old answers weren't working any more in this time of chaos.

Fox and his many supporters preached across the country, and were seen as a danger to both religious and civil order. Their message overthrew the many compromises reached by earlier reformers, challenging both doctrine and structure in the name of the Light, breaking that Light free of its limited use to validate Scripture. By rejecting the remaining "outward ordinances" of baptism and communion, and making them spiritual and inward, they removed the need for a formal church and its "hireling ministry" to administer them.

While these core views persisted for a few centuries with most Quakers, the costs of this approach became clear very early. Without a central authority or shared understanding of a writtten text (Scripture), pretty much anything could happen. Inspiration didn't strike everyone consistently, and power struggles ensued in disputes over whether particular views were inspired by the Light or were mere "Ranterism".

James Nayler's reenactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, staged in Bristol with himself as Christ, took early Quaker views of the relation of Christ and the believer to the breaking point. The many years of persecution required the group to hold together tightly, something that became more and more difficult as enthusiasts like John Perrot (who had gone to Rome to convert the Pope, after all!) insisted on a more individualist approach.

The genius of Quakerism lies not in its early enthusiasm, but rather in its having visited the brink of extreme religious individualism, gathering the fruits that lie there, and retreating to create a new system which encourages such gathering. The new system, meetings, supports its members in their communications with the Light, guiding the meeting to come together without establishing a formal creed and guidelines of right belief. Gathering as a group, and recognizing each other's varied capabilities for discernment helps everyone to distinguish what is the Light - which should be a shared, unified experience, even if individuals experience it differently - from false leadings and individual opinions.

Yes, Quakerism changed between 1656 and Fox's death, quite dramatically. Barclay and Penn reflect the later Quakerism more than the early Quakerism, the synthesis rather than the enthusiasm that led there. While I doubt Fox moderated his early beliefs substantially, he clearly changed his perspective on how to integrate them beyond the individual. He set up meeting structures designed both to nourish and contain the power of his core ideas, while managing to extract himself from their operation.

In this broader perspective, Quakerism completes the Reformation's stepping away from the power of the Church, more completely discarding traditional notions of the church and authority than other reformers. Rather than leading to complete anarchy, however, Quaker views on the importance of right discernment lead back into self-managing community.

That's probably too broad and sweeping, and certainly over-simplified, but it's a story that I think holds up pretty well, even when the synthesis breaks down and different branches of Quakerism emerge. The freedom Quakers gain from their direct individual connections to the Light lets them reconsider Christian doctrine in a way that isn't strictly Protestant or Catholic. This freedom is shared across a community, which reinforces both the possibilities of this approach and its boundaries.

The key word for me in all of this is discernment. Fox was renowned for his discernment, but a key question in making this work is our ability to discern the Light, to separate what it tells us from the many other voices leading us in other directions. Time and wisdom can help with discernment, but an active community sharing its strength can develop strength in discernment greater than that of its members. That seems to me to be at the heart of the Quaker approach to worship, respecting the contributions of its members but seeking for a whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

I'll have a lot more to say about this, but it feels right to have it out in summary form at least. (I doubt very much that I'm the first to say this, either.)


Nicely done, Simon! Thank you for the series. I look forward to your further exposition of the theme.

-- Chris M.

I've been holding this series in the Light for a bit. Maybe it's just me, but I don't really see any of your three versions as the true story.

As I see it, the world surrounding Quakerism changed, from the time of the Puritan upheavals to the Toleration Act 1689, and what Quakers did had to change accordingly. But this did not mean that Quakerism itself changed.

Yeah, Quakers! It's nice with the big picture perspective, but of course it gets tangled up into everyday life -- little things like raising a family, standing up for justice in the local community, keeping a rapport with divine spirit, etc.

The question becomes, what then happened in the following century and a half, say, if we track the story up into the 1800s? Version III slots Quakers into the History of Religion book and basically leaves them there.

I realize I'm coming late into this conversation, and I appreciate the effort of compiling the series. Marshall isn't sure that Quakerism itself changed, and I also like to try to keep an eye toward "that which is eternal," but I personally want a story that sees Quakerism as continuing to evolve, and maybe even devolve, in the context of changes in the wider society.

For information John Weskley (in his collected works " To a person lately joined with the people called Quakers")has an interesting analysis of Barclay's views, in which he Wesley exposes this late 17th century quakerism to his own Anglican theology.
Secondly,the importance given to scriptural authority by the early Quakers has not often been treated of. I note that in their meetings, they did\do not break bread not do\did they baptise believers despite these being clear biblical practices. Here I think lies the answer to their change. In their commitment to inward things, they avoided even legitimate outward forms. Some outward forms should have been retained to remind them of their part with the universal church and keep them from an over emphasis on the onnuminous amd mystical. They were too Johannine and not enough Pauline. The seeds of their weakening were sown early. I have read somwhere that Fox imbued something of Behmenism though I have not found such except in the language of the day