« Waiting to surrender | Main | Orthodox salvation »

An embarrassing enthusiasm?

George Fox spent a substantial part of his early career facing down blasphemy charges. Perhaps more important, later Quakers (including Fox, to some extent) played down some of the things Fox said that got him into this trouble in the first place. Perhaps the strongest example, which was left out of the original Journal, is this in Carlisle:

And one sware one thing and another sware another thing against me. And they asked if I were the son of God. I said "Yes."

They asked me if I had seen God's face. I said "Yes."

They asked me whether I had the spirit of discernment. I said "Yes, I discerned him that spoke to me."

They asked me whether the scripture was the word of God. I said, "God was the word, and the scriptures were writings, and the word was before writings were, which word did fulfill them."

And so they sent me to prison. (Braithwaite, Beginnings of Quakerism, 117.)

Braithwaite, writing of an earlier but similar case, says that Fox's words are "open to misconstruction:"

Fox replies to the more serious charges, as he had done at the quarter sessions, by denying that he had ever made such statements in the sense that George Fox was equal with God or George Fox was Christ, but he insists that the new life, the spiritual man, is the Lord from heaven and that Christ is one in all His saints. Fox's words, even in this answer, are open to misconstruction. The following especially was laid hold of:

Where He [that is, Christ Jesus] is made manifest, the works of the devil are destroyed and there He speaks and is king, and is the way, and is the truth, and is the life... and he that hath the same spirit that raised up Jesus Christ is equal with God. And the scripture saith that God will dwell in man and walk in man. As Jesus Christ, which is the mystery, hath passed before, so the same spirit takes upon it the same seed and is the same where it is made manifest. According to the flesh I am the son of Abraham, according to the the Spirit the Son of God, saith Christ.

Fox, and others of the early Friends, had a vivid sense of personal union with their living Lord, but they coupled this experience of the indwelling Christ with a doctrine of perfection that betrayed them, during the first exhiliration of the experience, into extremes of identification with the Divine. They believed that inspiration gave infallibility, a belief that men have often held with respect to the writers of scripture, and they had to learn, with the help of some painful lessons, what we are learning to-day about the writers of scripture, that the inspired servant of God remains a man, liable to much of human error and weakness. (109)

One especially interesting edit of these stories comes in the Quaker Reader, which leaps on page 77 from Fox's telling in the Journal of these events to a citation in The Great Mystery which makes similar claims in somewhat more cautious language:

Object. 1. 'That he did affirm that he had the divinity essentially inside him.'

Answer. For the word essential, it is an expression of their own: but that the saints are the temples of God, and God doth dwell in them, that the scriptures do witness, 2 Cor. vi. 1. Eph. iv. 6. 2 Pet. i. 4. And if God dwell in them, then the divinity dwells in them; and the scripture saith, ye shall be partakers of the divine nature; and this I witness: but where this is not, they cannot witness it.

...O. 4. 'That he was equal with God.'

A. That was not so spoken; but that 'He that sanctifieth, and they that are sanctified, are of one,' Heb. ii. 11. and the saints are all one in the Father and the son, of his flesh and of his bone; this the scripture doth witness. And 'ye are the sons of God,' and the Father and the Son are one; and 'they that are joined to the Lord, are one spirit, and they that are joined to a harlot are one flesh.'

...O. 'That he was the judge of the world.'

A. That 'the saints shall judge the world,' the scripture witnesseth it, 1 Cor. vi. 2, 3. wherefore I am one, and I witness the scripture fulfilled.

O. 'That he was as upright as Christ.'

A. Those words were not so spoken by me; but that 'as he is so are we in this present world.' 1 John iv. 17. That the saints are made 'the righteousness of God;' that the saints are one in the Father and the son; that we shall be like him, 1 John iii. 2. and that all teaching which is given forth by Christ, is to bring the saints to perfection, even to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: this the scripture doth witness, and this I witness. Where Christ dwells, must not he speak in his temple? (594-5)

Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" comes with more to it than people standing on a hillside and listening to Christ - it's more a matter of being possessed by Christ. Richard Bailey, in his essay in New Light on George Fox, writes of "celestial inhabitation," and writes:

The belief that the ordinary person became Christ, in some sense, was fundamental to early Quakerism. It explains Fox's high language, and the charismatic deportment of his followers appears less excessive and immature. His opponents accused him of claiming to be a god while his followers actually called him one. What is remarkable is that these were not isolated cases on either side, and we are able to determine this even though much of the exalted language directed toward Fox has been heavily censored. (113)

Bailey finds this hard for modern readers to deal with, and Braithwaite's comments on the writers of scripture suggest that it was hard in 1912 as well. I don't think it was all that much easier for most people in 1650s England, either, and the Nayler trial doubtless brought the question to an unpleasant head. Quakers backed away from the more extreme statements, though they certainly retained the idea of direct contact with an Inner Light.

However, that doesn't mean that this is genuinely unorthodox, and I've found some fascinating reflections on other aspects of Christian tradition that take these questions very seriously. I'll have more on that in future posts.


I'm wondering if this isn't such a hot-button issue anymore. The relatively-recent "that of God in all" concept beloved of modern Friends can easily be interpreted in us becoming God-like when we follow the Light. Maybe we can reclaim some of the more radical theology that Friends quickly toned down?

Oh, that we should be so given up and so filled with Christ, the Holy Spirit and Yahweh, that we fully know and live and understand the reality behind the words of Fox and the apostles and the saints through all the ages and that we live and speak the truth as given by God to speak. So given up and so filled we suffer the same fate and faith as those who have walked before. Lord, fill us.

I don't have a problem criticizing some of the things that Fox and other early Quakers did and said, as I believe that only the Scriptures in their original manuscripts are without error.

I've found that there are certain things that resonate with me about Fox and the early Friends and other things that don't.

Enthusiasm is sometimes good, but it isn't always so. When standing on the Bible's teaching, and humbly exalting Christ and His righteousness, enthusiasm is directed appropriately. But, we sometimes (unfortunately) speak authoritatively to help ourselves feel better about ourselves.

Fox was inhaling, exhaling, breathing the "Lord within." His continual ruminating on the revelation "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition," only motivated him further to share this information with the world. He was so darned sincere, so openly enthusiastic, he was human. Just as Braithwaite said, "...they had to learn... that the inspired servant of God remains a man, liable to much of human error and weakness." Surely some things he said were not as intended, and if they were, they possibly were the result of giddy religious enthusiasm, regardless of consequence. Sometimes I think George Fox rather liked imprisonment. *shrug* :)

Based on Laurie's comment, I can't help but say I know a Catholic priest who likes being arrested, as long as it's for the cause of peace and justice: Fr. Louie Vitale, OFM. In fact, here's a link to his current prison contact from the Pace e Bene, the Franciscan nonviolence organization:

-- Chris M.