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Early Quaker Trinity questions

I don't hear a lot of Quakers or Quaker blogs talking about the Trinity. I worry that perhaps I'm a bit unusual in finding it interesting, but then I've had some worship experiences that were definitely Trinitarian, though it's hard to describe. (As the Trinity is, frequently.)

Early Quakers seem to have been Trinitarian - or at least they didn't find the Unitarianism of their day an acceptable choice, and were generally willing to accept a Trinitarian view when pushed. William C. Braithwaite's The Second Period of Quakerism notes changes the Quakers managed to secure in the Toleration Act of 1688, which eased (if not completely ended) the persecution Quakers had faced. Originally, there was a declaration in the bill - to be made by those not willing to take an oath - which read:

I, A. B., profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, co-equal with the Father, and the Son, one God blessed for ever: and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the revealed Will and Word of God. (155-6; italics original)

With Quaker input, it became:

I, A. B., profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore: and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by Divine Inspiration. (155)

Braithwaite explains the process, and some biblical contingencies, that led to the changes:

Friends, at the risk of finding themselves excluded from the Bill, were put under the necessity, says George Whitehead, of offering some form of confession. The words were confined to scripture terms, though Whitehead bases his willingness to accept the Trinitarian formula, except the unscriptural phrase, "co-equal with the Father and the Son," upon the spurious insertion in I John v. 7, 8, which Erasmus had admitted into his third edition of the Greek Testament, in redemption of a rash promise. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened to Friends under the Toleration Act if this proof-text for the Trinity, on which they relied in many another doctrinal difficulty, had been absent from the Authorized Version.

Representative Friends were called before the Committee, and answered it clearly as to their owning the Deity and accepting the scriptures as given by Divine inspiration. The latter was the point most in doubt.... (156)

So Friends were willing to accept a description of the Trinity so far as it fit with their understanding of the Bible, which in this case included a likely insertion that supported the Trinity. They wouldn't go so far as the "co-equal", which wasn't supported directly even by that insertion, but they accepted the notion generally.

There is, of course, more to the question of early Quakers and the Trinity than that, and the second edition of the book includes Henry Cadbury's helpful update notes. One of those expands on this question of the Trinity in greater depth:

absent from the Authorized Version Isaac Penington also in 1659, in answer to the charges at Boston in New England that the Quakers denied the Trinity, had declared that on the contrary Friends "set their seal to the truth of that scripture I John v. 7 .... That these three are distinct, as three several beings or persons, this they read not" (Works 1681, i. 203).

In a somewhat later writing he says concerning the "God-Head, which we own as the Scriptures express it, and as we have the sensible, experimental knowledge of it," quoting again I John v. 7. "This I believe from my Heart and have infallible demonstrations of: for I know three and feel three in Spirit" (ibid. ii. 452).

Richard Claridge in an undated essay on the Trinity expressed doubt on the authenticity of the verse (Works, 1726, p. 414).

The exception of Penington is like that of Penn, Sandy Foundation Shaken (1668; Works, 1726, I. 252-4), to the notion of three distinct and separate persons. Thirty years later in his Defense of ... Gospel Truths (Works, 1726, ii. 885) Penn and others cite I John v. 7 as representing Quaker belief.

It was the words "trinity" and "person" to which Friends earlier, such as Fox, Burrough, and Howgill, took exception (cf. T. C. Jones in F. Q. 1959), as did such English fore-runners of Quakerism as Richard Coppin and William Erbury and later Friends, such as Job Scott. See The Later Periods of Quakerism, p. 291 (where on the last line "three external persons" should be corrected to read "three eternal persons").

There is evidence that after the Toleration Act of 1689, which excluded Unitarians from its benefits, Friends were more careful with their language. Cf. J.F.H.S. xlii. 76 (Whitehead); John Robertson's Rusticus ad Clericum, 1694, p. 261; "We own the Nicene Creed." (665-6; paragraph breaks added)

The questionable citation, I John 5:7-8, reads in the Authorized (King James) Version:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.

I'll be exploring more Quaker sources on the subject over time, but I'm especially interested in a few angles here:

  • First, perhaps most intriguing, is Isaac Penington's "infallible demonstrations of [the Trinity]: for I know three and feel three in Spirit." I'm clearly not the only one who has felt three.

  • The second angle that's interesting to me here is the reliance on Scripture: Quakers plainly weren't interested in "schoolmen's terms", and insisted on citing Scripture, without terms created later.

  • And the third angle - there have to be three - is the shift over time from these perspectives to the present, where I'm not used to hearing "Trinity" in a Quaker context.

Lots more to consider, as there always is.

Update: In the course of more searching, I did find some Quaker blogging on the trinity.


The most interesting thing for me in this issue is the way that early Friends, judged by orthodox Christian usage, seemed to confuse the second and third persons of the Trinity. When I've explained traditional Quaker theology to Protestants, they quite often say that the Inward Christ, etc. sounds like what they would call the Holy Spirit (a phrase I think they very rarely used).

I haven't studied the usage of these phrases (Light Within, Inward Light, Inward Teacher, Inward Christ, Spirit of Christ -- goodness) enough to know whether they're simply synonyms or not, and whether different writers use them differently. But they do seem to be partially (and perhaps unintentionally) collapsing "2" and "3." Perhaps they're binitarians?

I'm not so sure that early Friends exactly "confuse the second and third persons of the Trinity". That's mostly because I don't think they thought much about it, so it's not much of an argument, but...

A few different things come together to make Friends seem less orthodox:

  • Fox proclaims that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" in a period when millenarianism is rampant. It's not hard to read the earliest Friends as proclaiming the Second Coming, not just the (continuing) presence of the Holy Spirit. That vision of return fades as time passes and the Restoration arrives instead of King Jesus.
  • The Quaker vision of a return to Primitive Christianity meant that they weren't especially interested in terminology that came from a period later than the New Testament itself. The insertion into 1 John let them accept the Trinitarian formula, minus the co-equal bit, but it wasn't part of their definition of orthodoxy. (Early Baptists had similar issues.)
  • A lot of Quakers, at the beginning and throughout, definitely flirt with or move into Unitarianism of some sort. I don't see any considered move toward Binitarianism, though it's certainly something that could have happened.

I've found a few new pieces of Fox writing on the Trinity, so I should probably post a new entry on that.

Well, I'm a Quaker, and I have to agree- I think a lot of Friends don't really sit down and think about this particular idea. It's sort of skated around, because there are differing opinions. But I'd say that the majority of Friends that I know do lean more towards some concept of the Trinity.

For me, personally, I don't know what you'd classify me as. Probably more Trinitarian. I don't really think of Jesus as God's son, in the usual sense. He's an incarnation of God, really- he was created by God, and so God could be considered to be his "father", but not literally in any way. I imagine Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, to be sort of similar to the Hindu idea of avatars, a kind of manifestation, or translation, of God from heaven on to earth. So God basically put a piece of his essence, or soul (if God has a soul in the way that we do... or something better...) onto earth in a physical body to do what had to be done. And the Holy Spirit is just the same- God, but God in the form that lives in all of us.

I see it this way: God put a piece of himself on earth, and that's Jesus. Jesus brings us the Inner Light, which is the Holy Spirit (more of a feeling, or a sense of understanding, than an actual being in the way that God and Jesus are).

Anyway. That's just my take.


Please note this comment.

"Richard Claridge in an undated essay on the Trinity expressed doubt on the authenticity of the verse (Works, 1726, p. 414)."

Since Richard Claridge often affirmed the verse, I would appreciate very much knowing exactly how this doubt was expressed.

This books asserts they looked for any such doubts.

A defence of the Christian doctrines of the Society of Friends: (1825)

"After a careful examination of the writings of Kichard Clardige, we do not find he has declared that he ever entertained any such doubt."

Any help appreciated.

Steven Avery
Queens, NY

We should not take our Q's from our denominational forefather's (Psalm 45:10-11), but search the Scriptures prayerfully & diligently for ourselves, just as Paul said the Bereans were of more noble character than some others, as they tested what he said against Scripture and found it to be true.
If Jesus is not fully God, then His blood cannot save us. The only thing that satisfies a pure & holy God, is the pure & holy God Himself! His Creation cannot satisfy the penalty of sin. Jesus was "created" only inasmuch as He was "made flesh", but He is the Creator God from beginning to end, the Alpha & Omega, fully God, incarnate! The Bible says so all over the show! We cannot be saved without full faith that Jesus is fully God, as it is only the pure blood of God Himself that can wash away sin; anything or anybody less than the Creator of Life, would have died for his own imperfection only and have stayed dead! Jesus died for the sins of the world, and His resurrection from the dead proves that He is completely God, that He is the Author of Life since death could not hold Him (God) down. Read Revelation, read the whole Bible in the light of what I've said above!

Did anyone ever doubt that your body was fully you? Or your soul was fully you? Or that your spirit was fully you? 1 Thess.5:23. All three of these, though 3 distinct parts, are interwoven and individually, yet together, fully "you". Then why do you doubt that Jesus, God incarnate, is fully God? His name Emmanuel, speaks of this, as does Isaiah 9:6 which calls the child "Mighty God, Everlasting Father", John 14 where Jesus says, "Don't you see Me (the Father) yet, Philip?", 2 Cor.3:17 in context which tells us that the Lord Jesus is the Spirit, is God, etc. We are created a trinity in His image. So why shouldn't He be fully Tri-une?! He is Trinity. He is ONE God. God (Elohim: the Triune God) forbade worship of other gods, because He is only one, as the Bible says, "The LORD your God, the LORD is ONE". Just as Revelation speaks of the 7-fold Spirit of God, that does not mean 7 Spirits, but one Spirit with 7 facets. Does not just looking at your intricate DNA, made up of trillions of parts all "you", tell you that God is a mystery to be believed rather than understood. Why do you, o man, try fathom God as if He were to be understood? Just believe Him Who said that Jesus is the Word Who was God from the beginning (Jn.1:1), that Jesus is the author of Life just as God is the Author of Life (you cannot have two author's of Life!). Jesus fulfilled every reference to "the seed", the "Messiah/Christ", every "type", every prophecy of the OT. If He were not Who He claimed to be, He could never have fulfilled even 3 of them! Do not follow other "Christ's"... the enemy of our souls wants us to think there are other gods so that we can go down the slippery slope to Universalism (multi-god worship), then to no-god worship, and finally to Beast-worship and the one-world order under the Beast/Anti-Christ, with the aid of the Beauty (harlot / false church / Jezebel) who hates the prophets of God because they speak about the perfect Blood of Jesus sacrificed for our sins! The devil wants us to land in hell with him. The movie "Beauty (harlot) and the Beast" doesn't tell us the full truth, that the Beast will be thrown into the eternal lake of fire, and all those with him who bowed down to him or took the mark of his name!!! The Israelites didn't enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief, and nor will we if we do not believe! Seek Him diligently, for He is a rewarder of those who seek Him whole-heartedly (Heb.11:6). As Abraham was called out of the multi-god worship of His fathers, so: "Come out" and worship the One and only True God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit - One God, Whose ways are not our ways and Whose thoughts are way above our thoughts.

God bless!