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Quaker dispensations

I normally think of dispensationalists as premillenialist Left Behind folks who jump back and forth between Revelation and Daniel with quotes from whatever other books they need to build an argument about who exactly is going to attack Israel and trigger the second coming.

The general notion of dispensations - different periods in God's relationship with humanity - is useful outside of that context, however. William Penn, in his introduction to Fox's Journal, talks about a number of different dispensations. (It's worth noting that this use of "dispensation" is different from the notion of dispensations granted by a bishop, and has nothing to do with the idea that the present age is some kind of parenthesis.)

At first I was inclined to skip this kind of thing, but the more I've read of Fox and the early Quakers, the clearer it becomes that their perspective on biblical dispensations and then church history (which I'll discuss later) are critical components of the way they look at key questions, not to mention defining components of the language they speak. This isn't Barclay's more formal theology, but rather a retelling of the Bible story that provides the foundation for Quaker perspectives.

(I think, though I'm not certain, that this telling works well both for the early enthusiastic Quaker writings of the 1650s and the later works of Fox, Penn, Barclay, and others in the more toned-down post-Restoration world.)

The first word, in a modern spelling, would be "diverse":

Divers have been the dispensations of God since the creation of the world, unto the sons of men; but the great end of all of them has been the renown of his own excellent name in the creation and restoration of man: man, the emblem of himself, as a god on earth, and the glory of all his works.

The world began with innocency: all was then good that the good God had made; and as he blessed the works of his hands, so their natures and harmony magnified him their Creator. Then the morning stars sang together for joy, and all parts of his works said Amen to his law. Not a jar in the whole frame, but man in paradise, the beasts in the field, the fowl in the air, the fish in the sea, the lights in the heavens, the fruits of the earth; yea, the air, the earth, the water, and fire worshipped, praised, and exalted his power, wisdom, and goodness. O holy sabbath! O holy day to the Lord!

Penn, like most others, opens with Eden, and innocence, before describing the paths that God offers back toward that state.

But this happy state lasted not long: for man, the crown and glory of the whole, being tempted to aspire above his place, unhappily yielded against command and duty, as well as interest and felicity; and so fell below it, lost the divine image, the wisdom, power, and purity he was made in. By which, being no longer fit for paradise, he was expelled that garden of God, his proper dwelling and residence, and was driven out, as a poor vagabond, from the presence of the Lord, to wander in the earth, the habitation of beasts.

Yet God, that made him, had pity on him; for he seeing man was deceived, and that it was not of malice, or an original presumption in him, but through the subtlety of the serpent, (that had first fallen from his own state, and by the mediation of the woman, man's own nature and companion, whom the serpent had first deluded,) in his infinite goodness and wisdom found out a way to repair the breach, recover the loss, and restore fallen man again by a nobler and more excellent Adam, promised to be born of a woman; that as by means of a woman the evil one had prevailed upon man, by a woman also he should come into the world, who would prevail against him, and bruise his head, and deliver man from his power: and which, in a signal manner, by the dispensation of the son of God in the flesh, in the fulness of time, was personally and fully accomplished by him, and in him, as man's saviour and redeemer.

Here Penn uses the original story of the Fall to point toward redemption through a "second Adam", using one of Fox's favorite stories, about "bruising the serpent's head," from Genesis 3:15. (So far as I know, Quakers don't have a general thing against snakes, but reading Fox, one could get other ideas.)

But his power was not limited, in the manifestation of it, to that time; for both before and since his blessed manifestation in the flesh, he has been the light and life, the rock and strength of all that ever feared God: present with them in their temptations, followed them in their travels and afflictions, and supported and carried them through and over the difficulties that have attended them in their earthly pilgrimage. By this, Abel's heart excelled Cain's, and Seth obtained the pre-eminence, and Enoch walked with God. It was this that strove with the old world, and which they rebelled against, and which sanctified and instructed Noah to salvation.

But the outward dispensation that followed the benighted state of man, after his fall, especially among the patriarchs, was generally that of angels; as the scriptures of the Old Testament do in many places express, as, to Abraham, Jacob, &c.

In this patriarchal dispensation, Penn sees angels guiding the leaders, walking with them in the world, and leading them out of the darkness. The next dispensation broadens God's guidance, but not in a way that Penn sees favorably:

The next was that of the law by Moses, which was also delivered by angels, as the apostle tells us. This dispensation was much outward, and suited to a low and servile state; called therefore, by the apostle Paul, that of a schoolmaster, to point out and prepare that people to look and long for the Messiah, who would deliver them from the servitude of a ceremonious and imperfect dispensation, by knowing the realities of those mysterious representations in themselves. In this time the law was written on stone, the temple built with hands, attended with an outward priesthood, and external rites and ceremonies, that were shadows of the good things that were to come, and were only to serve till the seed came, or the more excellent and general manifestation of Christ, to whom was the promise, and to all men only in him, in whom it was yea and amen; even life from death, immortality and eternal life.

Here Penn largely follows Paul in criticizing the law, though there is a shift of emphasis that is distinctively Quaker. Note the "outwardness" of "the law was written on stone, the temple built with hands, attended with an outward priesthood, and external rites and ceremonies," and all of these were merely "shadows of the good things that were to come." By including these outward things in his criticism of that dispensation, Penn lays the groundwork for later arguments that they don't belong in the current, Christian, dispensation.

This the prophets foresaw, and comforted the believing Jews in the certainty of it; which was the top of the Mosaical dispensation, and which ended in John's ministry, the forerunner of the Messiah, as John's was finished in him, the fulness of all.

Here Penn argues that during that dispensation of the Mosaic Law, the prophets had foretold Christ's appearance as the messiah.

And then God, that at sundry times, and in divers manners, had spoken to the fathers by his servants the prophets, spoke to men by his son Christ Jesus, 'who is heir of all things;' being the gospel day, which is the dispensation of sonship: bringing in thereby a nearer testament, and a better hope, even the beginning of the glory of the latter days, and of the restitution of all things; yea, the restoration of the kingdom unto Israel.

Christ appears here, starting the new dispensation, "of sonship". There is no discussion here of how Christ "restor[es] the kingdom unto Israel," but rather that suggestion leads into discussion of a new kind of life.

Now the spirit, that was more sparingly communicated in former dispensations, began to be 'poured forth upon all flesh,' according to the prophet Joel, and the light that shined in darkness, or but dimly before, the most gracious God caused to shine out of darkness, and the day star began to arise in the hearts of believers, giving unto them the knowledge of God in the face (or appearance) of his son Christ Jesus.

Here Penn argues that the Spirit or Light spreads widely - "the day star began to arise in the hearts of believers, giving unto them the knowledge of God in the face (or appearance) of his son Christ Jesus." In this telling, Quaker precepts have held since the day of the Apostles, this knowledge of God available to everyone. (Angels, perhaps, are no longer needed for this communication.)

Now the poor in spirit, the meek, the true mourners, the hungry and thirsty after righteousness, the peace makers, the pure in heart, the merciful, and the persecuted, came more especially in remembrance before the Lord, and were sought out and blessed by Israel's true shepherd. Old Jerusalem with her children grew out of date, and the new Jerusalem into request, the mother of the sons of the gospel day. Wherefore, no more at old Jerusalem, nor at the mountain of Samaria, will God be worshipped above other places; for, behold, he is, by his own son, declared and preached a spirit, and he will be known as such, and worshipped in the spirit and in the truth. He will come nearer than of old time, and he will write his law in the heart, and put his fear and spirit in the inward parts, according to his promise. Then signs, types, and shadows flew away, the day having discovered their insufficiency, in not reaching to the inside of the cup, to the cleansing of the conscience; and all elementary services were expired in and by him that is the substance of all.

Here Penn is clear that this Light signals the end of the old practices, ending the need for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem (or Samaria), and signaling that God is actually closer, more available in this new dispensation than he was in the previous one. That latter part is a direct challenge to those who claim the age of prophecy and direct insight is over, and who would make the scriptures alone the new Law.

And to this great and blessed end of the dispensation of the son of God, did the apostles testify, whom he had chosen and anointed by his spirit, to turn the Jews from their prejudice and superstition, and the Gentiles from their vanity and idolatry, to Christ's light and spirit that shined in them; that they might be quickened from the sins and trespasses in which they were dead, to serve the living God in the newness of the spirit of life, and walk as children of the light, and of the day, even the day of holiness: for such ‘put on Christ,’ the light of the world, ‘and make no more provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.’ So that the light, spirit, and grace that come by Christ, and appear in man, were that divine principle the apostles ministered from, and turned people's minds unto, and in which they gathered and built up the churches of Christ in their day. For which cause they advised them not to quench the spirit, but wait for the spirit, and speak by the spirit, and pray by the spirit, and walk in the spirit too, as that which approved them the truly begotten children of God, 'born not of flesh and blood, nor of the will of man, but of the will of God;' by doing his will, and denying their own; by drinking of Christ's cup, and being baptized with his baptism of self-denial: the way and path that all the heirs of life have ever trod to blessedness. (iii-v)

And here, in the last part of his positive telling of this story, Penn tells of the early Christians' direct communion with the Spirit, "drinking of Christ's cup" spiritually, and of a different kind of baptism: "being baptized with his baptism of self-denial: the way and path that all the heirs of life have ever trod to blessedness."


Not a jar in the whole frame, but man in paradise, the beasts in the field, the fowl in the air, the fish in the sea, the lights in the heavens, the fruits of the earth;

Thank you for posting that. Penn has me finally understand, why the fall had to happen and why Eve of the two were so much more succeptible to Satan's lies: Adam and Eve were in a garden, and there were plenty of fruits arround, but there was not a single jar. Eve must have spent most of the time worrying where to store all the jam made from the fruits.

I'd been thinking that the 17th century English wasn't all that different from current usage, but it seems Penn here said perhaps more than he intended.

I'm guessing Eve ran into the serpent while looking for a place to store the fruit... perhaps covetousness getting its start?

I am looking forward to your further unfolding of this matter in your future posts. Early Friends' use of the idea of "dispensation" has always struck me as fairly unsystematic; in some places, for example, they say that each individual human has her or his own dispensation. Any patterns you can pick out would be welcome!