December 28, 2007

Sanctification, deification, and Quakers old and new

The responses to my last piece on deification make me think that it's time to back up a bit, and look at how and why I came to be telling this story. It's been a long journey, and the individual pieces lack some of the background that makes the story as a whole fit together.

I first started writing about gradual sanctification - as distinct from salvation followed by sanctification - last August, citing this from Thomas Hamm:

For generations, Friends had embraced a view of the nature of religious life that was peculiar to them. In this vision, all people possessed a certain divine seed or Light. Obedience to this Light and to other revelations from God, through Scripture and directly, nurtured it and caused it to grow. As it grew, it gradually sanctified the believer. Ultimately, it would bring the believer to a state of holiness that justified and fitted him or her for heaven. Thus in Quaker eyes, justification and sanctification were inseparable and gradual.

But Gurney, like many contemporary non-Quaker evangelicals, argued that Friends had this wrong.... Justification, or salvation, came through a simple act of faith, believing in the efficacy of the Atoning Blood of Christ shed on the Cross. Thus it could come instantaneously. Sanctification followed as a second experience, also the fruit of faith, but gradually, probably lifelong after conversion. (56)

The Quaker gradualist view seems closer to the Orthodox views I've been discussing, even before we get to the question of deification or sanctification. Right after posting that piece on sanctification, though, I posted this lengthy piece of Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.

12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.
13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.

20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
24 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?
25 But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

I've bolded the text where it seems to clearly point to humans becoming one with the spirit, "children of God", "joint-heirs with Christ" - language that people read regularly but don't necessarily take literally. (Update: I forgot to add a link to a collection of similar citations from the New Testament.)

Early Quakers did, I think, take these sections very literally. (Given that much of Fox's prose is an extended selection and repetition of King James Bible quotes, assembled to emphasize particular themes, it's not surprising.) Calling themselves "Children of Light", Quakers were regularly accused by their contemporaries of confusing themselves with God, and it seems clear (from both Larry Ingle's writing and Richard Bailey's), that it wasn't just James Nayler receiving Christ-like tribute from his followers:

For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)

My current best guess is that George Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" was not just apocalyptic, but about the nature of salvation: Christ comes not just as a visitor, but as a permanent and growing part of us. This message cuts through the despair of Puritans questioning whether or not they were elected by a distant God, energizes groups of people who were drifting in mystical directions anyway, and describes a partnership between God and humans that fits well with the often titanic internal struggles of those coming to be with God.

While it's hard - perhaps impossible - to prove conclusively (or at least to the satisfaction of historians) that this was the core message of early Quakerism, the fire that fueled its stupendous rise and its followers' willingness to suffer persecution, it can explain a lot. It certainly explains the regular accusations by the persecutors that the Quakers blurred the boundaries between God and humans, it explains why the Inner Light is something much more powerful than mere human conscience, and it explains why, even after early Quakers toned themselves down, they still found themselves in a theological position very different from most of the Protestant world.

Eventually I think I'll have to go look at the original manuscripts. Larry Ingle reported that he had to cut the pages on a huge number of previously unread pamphlets, and it seems clear that even the censored correspondence can teach about when and where these dangerous sentiments were uttered. I'm also very curious to see what Quaker Heritage Press has in its Works of James Nayler, as they're attempting to be more complete than earlier editions. (They seem to have found only a little censorship, though some may be connected to these questions.)

Finally, there's an important question that I haven't previously attempted to answer. Why does this matter? It's an interesting football for historians, but does it have immediate relevance for modern Quakerism?

The "Inner Light" has remained at the heart of most varieties of Quakerism, and its transforming power is the story we tell. Even though the Light is found inside of us, though, many descriptions still hold it merely as a guide to something distant. Even though the Light is a guide to something more than us, many descriptions hold it merely as a part of us. The deification story, despite the overwhelming name, manages to bring both of those stories together. The Light is inside of us, a connection to God that is itself divine, uniting us with God.

April 12, 2007

Present parousia

While Apocalypse of the Word is a rare non-fiction book, one with suspense built into it, it's not because Douglas Gwyn keeps the ending a surprise. After talking a bit about the problem of the parousia, Christ's return, that is always to come soon in the New Testament but for which we still wait, Gwyn argues that Fox's preaching changes the entire shape of such discussion:

In preaching Christ's return as a presently unfolding reality, Fox recovers the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith, shattering the perceived problem of a "delay" or "non-occurrence" of the parousia. He does this as he witnesses to the second advent of Christ in the same terms that the gospels use to witness to the first advent. The problem in both cases is with the expectation and perception of the people, together with the vested interests of human authority. The "messianic secret", the scandal that Jesus was not recognized as Messiah by the Jews, is relived in the drama of Christian disbelief in his return and his present power to save from sin, rather than in sin. In his first advent, Christ was revealed in a carpenter's son from Nazareth; in his second advent, he is revealed in a universally bestowed light. In both cases, his commonness is a stumbling block to the pious. (xxii)

This casts the Puritans more or less in the position of the Jews of the New Testament, whose beliefs about the coming Messiah didn't mesh with what they saw. (For more on those Jews' point of view, I strongly recommend Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. In this context, it might lead to more sympathy for Fox's Puritan opponents.) This telling makes me think I need to reread a lot of Fox's challenges to the Puritans; while I saw the parallel Fox draws, this adds layers of meaning to it.

Meanwhile, this return to "the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith" combines the "Primitive Christianity Revived" story with the Second Coming story, making it easier to see how this approach includes much more of the New Testament than Revelation. As later generations took a less eschatological approach, they might well find different messages in the same statements. This combination makes it easier to read a lot of Fox's statements in a de-eschatologized way.

Fox's use of revelation also changes the way we look at that word, bringing it back to its original meaning in Greek:

Fox's preaching that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" therefore connects the hope of the parousia with the question of Christian knowledge. In other words, apocalypse and revelation are reunited in the basic sense of the Greek word apokalupsis as it is used in the New Testament. For example, the Apocalypse of John is the revelation of the end given him by Christ. Apocalypse as revelation itself leads us to conclude that Christian apocalyptic is most basically a matter of present experience, rather than speculation upon the future, as scholars have often assumed. (xxii)

This is a theme Gwyn will repeat throughout the book, structuring chapters around particular 'apocalypses', revelations Fox reported and preached. At the same time, he ties that preaching to Fox's distinctive eschatology and specifically (at times) to Revelation.

Before I move into the main body of the book, there's one more paragraph in the preface I'd like to highlight, as it suggests something of where this approach leads, and how it differs from Puritan and other traditionally Protestant perspectives:

Justification and sanctification become one continuous work of God in Fox's preaching that "Jesus Christ is come to teach his people himself." There is neither a retreat to metaphysics nor a resort to the interim ethic and government of the institutional church. Christ is come by his Spirit to judge, to empower, to war against Satan, and to rule among his people. The kingdom of God is revealed concretely on earth now. Fox comes to these conclusions without falling into the trap of spiritual enthusiasm or privatism. Unlike Paul's opponents at Corinth and Philippi, Fox by no means underestimates the problem of sin, but witnesses to the greater power of the risen Lord to save and gather his people. The cross relentlessly maintains its central position in Fox's writings. (xxi-xxii)

I've written a bit about the earlier Quaker position on justification (and later rejection of that position by the Gurneyite Orthodox), but hadn't thought deeply about where it came from, though I did test it against Romans 8. This piece (which I had read before I wrote all that, but apparently forgotten) fits that space of the Quaker puzzle neatly. It explains a divergence from other Protestants well.

As I noted before, there's still a dramatic tension in Gwyn's book. How much explanatory power does this perspective have? The preface is promising, the thesis interesting, but the bulk of the book will fill it out.

April 9, 2007

Negativity around the Apocalypse

Yes, that's a strange title. However, there a couple of questions I'd like to clear away before getting deeper into the core of Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word. One involves a set of historical views Gwyn is trying to move past, while the other is a criticism of Gwyn's book from a fellow historian of Quakerism.

First, Gwyn's concerns. While it is clear throughout that he values the work others have done in researching and interpreting Quakerism, there are two primary streams of Quaker history he would like to escape: the mystical interpretation of Rufus Jones, and the Protestant interpretation of Geoffrey Nuttall, Hugh Barbour, and others. In my other Quaker history readings, it seems that Jones is out of favor anyway, while the Protestant interpretation is more or less dominant, but Gwyn seeks a different path:

Jones' sense of the universal is tied to an understanding of human reason as a divine, saving faculty. But we shall see repeatedly in this study that Fox understands the light as inward but fundamentally alien to human nature. Far from being optimistic about human capacity, Fox sees our nature as utterly dark; human reason may be creative, but it is ultimately unable to save. When we understand this, we see that the early Quaker conflict with Puritanism was hardly the chance collision of two different thought-worlds Jones imagined, but a struggle within the same world....

The philosophical liberalism of Rufus Jones' mystical interpretation of Quakerism therefore contains the same problem that the liberal theological interpretation of the New Testament created. It ignores the structural integrity of the message itself, finding a "buried treasure" at the core which, in fact, has been projected there by the investigator. There is too much in Fox's writings that Jones had to ignore in order to reach his conclusions. Fox's approach may perhaps be accurately called mystical, but not by the definition Jones gave to that word.... (xv-xvi)

The contributions of Nuttall and Barbour have provided a much-needed corrective to the liberal assumptions of Rufus Jones' mystical reading of Fox. Far from being incidental to Quakerism, the language early Friends used can be seen as partaking in an evolving theological debate, as research into the Puritanism of the day has shown....

Nevertheless, historical analysis can easily fall prey to the problem of reductionism; themes shared by different movements may be emphasized at the expense of their originality.... as we have already suggested with regard to Nuttall's work, the Protestant interpretation views early Quakerism too much through a Reformation theological framework; the Christian experience unfolds within the context of Christ's return, instead of scripture's record...

The Protestant interpretation of early Quakerism has dominated Church historical scholarship in recent decades. Yet while it corrected Jones' view of Quakerism operating in an alien thought world, it has overdrawn its image of the Quaker-Puritan debate as a filial squabble within Protestantism. (xviii-xix)

Gwyn doesn't say it explicitly, but it seems that both of these readings reflect efforts to make 1650s Quakerism more palatable to particular kinds of audiences at the times these writers were working. The mystical approach was aimed both at Quakers and at a particular group of religious scholars at the time Jones was writing, and the Protestant approach made Quakerism seem more reasonable to scholars of the Reformation and the English Reformation in particular. I don't think that's a particularly surprising problem, as it affects all retellings of the past, but it tends to leave tales of the past eroded by the needs of the present.

In my next installment, I'll look at the alternative vision Gwyn presents in his efforts to go beyond these two approaches.

Finally, one last caution before I go further. H. Larry Ingle complains in George Fox's Legacy of the dangers of looking at early Quaker work without careful attention to when things were written:

Moreover, as in the other traditions, there are different emphases at different times, meaning that over time there is a lack of consistency. I might add that this evolution in the Quaker message demands that those seeking to understand it can hardly avoid a historical approach, lest they distort their findings. (68)

[footnote] The most recent example of this tendency was Douglas Gwyn in his revised doctoral dissertation, Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (Richmond, Ind: Friends United Press, 1986.) See my earlier criticism of Gwyn's method in "On the Folly of Seeking the Quaker Holy Grail," Quaker Religious Thought 25 (May 1991), 17-29. Let it be noted that in his later works Gwyn has successfully moved away from what was an ahistorical approach. (78)

Curious, I ordered the QRT back issue - $4 seems like a wise investment before I proceed into explaining a book that supposedly has major flaws - and I don't think Ingle's case is particularly damaging. If Apocalypse of the Word had been written as a historical work, then yes, it might be devastating - but it's much more a theological work written about someone who thought long ago. Yes, Gwyn mixes 1650s Fox with 1680s Fox, and there's a case that can be made that they're different perspectives - but not so different that they aren't worth considering together.

Ingle's other complaint about Gwyn's approach seems to be that Gwyn dove deeply into Fox's Works, which are an edited subset of his actual writings, and didn't spend much time with other primary or secondary sources. Again, in a strictly historical setting, this would be a huge problem; in a theological setting, completeness is rarely a virtue.

Ingle also complains that Fox was not a theologian, and attempts to make him into one run counter to his message:

But at least we can avoid turning a person into a theologian whose thinking and writing was erratic and inconsistent, so "off the top of his head", that his greatest legacy may well have been his considered refusal to follow the gleam of a nonexistent holy grail.

While I didn't find Ingle's objections convincing, I'll certainly consider Ingle's kinds of concerns as I encounter them. While I share Ingle's sense that Quakerism itself changed over time, Fox's own views and their motivations seem to me to have changed less than those of the people around him, and while he was certainly not perfectly consistent, his inconsistencies do seem to gravitate in particular directions.

When I finish with Apocalypse of the Word, I'll also look at Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming, where Gwyn restates (and simplifies) much of his core thesis but does so in a way that's more precise about timeline.

April 5, 2007

Looking to the Alpha and the Omega

I first read Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word a couple of years ago, and it dramatically deepened my interest in early Quakerism. I've been very cautious in writing about it, however. It's not an easy book to excerpt without losing critical context and meaning, and even the title can be read in multiple meanings, which resolve over the course of the book. (Is Apocalypse the end of the world, or revelation? Is the Word "In the beginning was the Word", or scripture, or something else?)

Gwyn's book was a surprise to me, because up until I found it I was much more accustomed to thinking of Quakerism as Primitive Christianity Revived, to use William Penn's classic title. Quakers (at least in my experience) often described themselves as going back to the beginnings of Christianity, when the message was clear but hadn't been codified into hierarchies and scriptures. George Fox was difficult to understand in this context, as he doesn't seem like, well, a church historian. Fox's classic message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" sounds somewhat like a return to those early days when Christ taught in person, but also raises all the questions inherent in discussions of the second coming.

Gwyn focuses squarely on the eschatological aspects of Fox's writings, finding motivation there for Quaker beliefs and practices. At the same time, however, he differentiates them from other approaches to the same issues - approaches I think may have made Quakers less eager to acknowledge the importance of these angles on early Quakerism:

The key issue... which will dominate my investigation will be that of eschatology - the belief in end-times, the return of Christ, the coming of the kingdom of God. End-time language and expectation shaped and gave a particular energy to the socio-political struggles of both Puritans and Quakers.

In the case of Puritanism, this line of thought tended to be mainly a speculative, political ideology, based on apocalyptic books of the BIble, such as Daniel and Revelation. Texts were employed in order to identify certain political figures with the antichrist, to calculate the end of the world, or to make messianic claims for political agendas. Such speculation mobilized great political and military energies.

On the other hand, Quaker preaching, while sharing some of these characteristics, will be seen to lay primary emphasis on apocalypse in its literal sense of revelation. Geo-political speculation gave way to a knowledge of Christ's return in personal experience. This approach created much less political ideology... yet it generated a movement with dynamic social and economic reordering and a powerful political witness that far outdistanced the Puritan efforts. What we find in Fox's preaching are the same hopes shared by his Puritan contemporaries, yet a new basis for these hopes in a radically personal spirituality. It is an experience of apocalypse like that described in John 3:19 - "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world...." (3)

It seems that Fox captured the spiritual side of earlier eschatology without getting trapped in the challenges of setting dates for the end of the world. Fox's eschatology isn't speculation about the future - it's present eschatology, and Christ is here, with us, now.

I'll have a lot more to say about this book, though I don't plan to go through it page by page. I'm certainly not going to explain it any better than Gwyn already does. Still, I hope to bring forward some pieces that raise questions worth exploring, and see where they lead. This book already had a profound influence on my experience and views of Quakerism, and has been a quiet undercurrent in the writing of this weblog.

Next, I'll be looking at some criticisms of this book and its eschatological perspective. Was this Fox's view consistently? Which other early Quakers shared it? How necessary is it to an understanding of Quakerism then and today? (I don't promise answers on that last one.)

January 28, 2007

History and us

A lot of religious writing describes how overemphasis on history is a sign of trouble. Some of this is because of the dangers of, say, churches taking too much pride in their past accomplishments, and (perhaps) neglecting the present. Another component is Protestantism's distrust for tradition, perhaps lingering echoes of the break with Catholicism.

Quakerism has a complicated relationship with its history. That history is itself complicated, with incredible early inspirational fire, a period of relative calm few historians seem to defend, and then a variety of schisms. There is deliberately no central creed Quakers subscribe to. Historic documents sometimes fill that gap, often pulled, like biblical proof-texts, out of their original historical and textual contexts.

There is a bigger problem, however: Quakerism is a religion based on experience, an experience many people don't think they've had. What does contact with the Light accomplish? How have Quakers been changed by their faith? What might make a skeptic think that there's something different going on in Meeting for Worship than a very quiet meeting of a Society for Ethical Culture chapter?

Frequently, the easiest way to answer these questions is to point to past Quaker experience. Not just what people say they've found or felt, but what they've done and how it connects to their account of what they've found or felt. Early Quakers' perseverance under persecution, dying for their cause while feeling they were working for the Lord, is one example. John Woolman's combination of Quietist faith and his ministry against slavery is another, as is Elizabeth Gurney Fry's work on prison reform, the efforts of conscientious objectors, and the work of Quakers up to the present, including Tom Fox.

This rich past informs our present, promising more than an hour of peaceful contemplation at Meeting. Different branches of Quakerism emphasize different aspects of that rich past, and there is certainly more than enough material for them to find parallel but different tellings of the same story.

There's still a pull, though, toward the idea that Quakerism's past should not determine its present. Early Quakers felt that Christianity, itself a break with the Jewish telling of the past, had accumulated its own problems from which Quakers were freeing themselves. Arguments over the degree to which Quakerism should be Christian (Evangelical, Trinitarian, Unitarian, or...) or not seem to explode especially well over which aspects of the history are relevant to modern Quakerism and which should be left as of value only to their participants.

Some of that, as in other churches, be about thinking positive, avoiding issues that might not be such fun to discuss, or which might break an important argument. Some of that may be because the issues involved make us doubt our predecessors, forcing us to sift through perhaps unsightly past context. And some of that comes from the concern that Quaker history, while fascinating and inspiring, shouldn't be used to limit the possibilities of Quakerism might become.

Personally, I find reading Quaker history to be inspiring even when - maybe especially when - I find Quakers behaving in ways that might not live up to the perfection we hope of our predecessors. We can remember that like us, they were humans grappling with the Light, with the challenge of building relationships where we ourselves are in this world outwardly while communing inwardly with a holiness transcending our humanity. Powerful inspiration leads to deep questioning and uncertainty, and often to amazing deeds performed not simply because of personal conviction but because of humility - this is what has to be done, not just what I think is right.

Quaker history is not an appropriate stick to use against people who claim the name "Quaker" while breaking with the past, in whatever direction. I do think, however, that reading Quaker history with a mind open to the possibilities of finding the experiences of the past once again in the present can lead to new (yet old) opportunities. We live in times where we're taught to doubt claims of experience beyond the five senses, or claims that can't be proven in the laboratory or the marketplace. Looking to the past may help us reclaim what many of us have lost.

January 18, 2007

Religious combatants

I was wandering through Braithwaite's Beginnings of Quakerism last night when I found this brief description of religious combat:

This general knowledge of the Bible was now diffused, and accordingly when the era passed in which the State repressed schisms and sects, it was at once succeeded by an age of controversial warfare between conflicting opinions. Polemic replaced persecution, and its virulence was at least better than the fires of Smithfield.

In the keen doctrinal atmosphere of the time, a day's dispute in public between opposing combatants was the most delightful and improving of pastimes. A Puritan divine, for example, at Henley-in-Arden, would take up the cudgels against preaching without a call and argue his case with five private preachers - a nailer, a baker, a plough-wright, a weaver, and a baker's boy.

When Thomas Taylor, who afterwards became a Friend, disputed at Kendal in 1650 on the subject of infant-baptism in the parish church against three other ministers, and had got the better of them, his hearers ran up Kendal Street crying "Mr. Taylor hath got the day! Mr. Taylor hath got the day!" with an enthusiasm now reserved for the result of a game of football. (17-18)

Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down presents similar stories. Braithwaite is right that times have changed. The explosion of religious interest in England (and its former colonies) burst out, eventually created a new tolerant world, and then faded back.

Religious discussion continues, of course, but public combat? Could it find a similar audience today?

January 13, 2007

The Braithwaite books

The more I've read about Quaker history, the clearer it's become how many of the amazing nuggets of Quaker history come from William C. Braithwaite's two volume history of early Quakerism. The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660 was originally published in 1912, with a second edition in 1955, while The Second Period of Quakerism was published in 1919 with a second edition in 1961. Like Friends for 350 Years, it includes asterisks which lead to updates, provided in this case by Henry J. Cadbury.

Braithwaite built on earlier research, as L. Hugh Doncaster's Foreword explains:

At the time of his death in 1905, John Wilhelm Rowntree had collected much material to enable him to write a history of the Society of Friends "which should adequately exhibit Quakerism as a great experiment in spiritual religion, and should be abreast of the requirements of modern research." Subsequently his friends Rufus M. Jones and William Charles Braithwaite agreed to carry out this task, and the Rowntree Series of Quaker Histories, edited by Rufus M. Jones, was published during the next sixteen years...

Few books of historical study stand the test of being reprinted forty years later [now ninety], but those responsible for the Rowntree Series have no doubt about the rightness of making The Beginnings of Quakerism once more available..

But while there is room for fresh interpretation in the light of recent research, the main body of The Beginnings of Quakerism remains by far the most adequate study of its subject, and no further valid interpretation is likely to be made without building on this foundation.

Both books have had their introductions by Rufus Jones dropped, "on the ground that recent studies have, in the minds of a number of scholars, put Quakerism in a rather different light."

Both books include long quotes at the start of every chapter, along with excerpts of original materials throughout. While the language and the perspective may well date to 1912, the story-telling is excellent. Braithwaite's voice is present throughout, but in the first book I didn't notice much of his own opinion. (It's there, of course, just not obtrusive.) In the second book, where he thinks things sometimes went wrong, his own opinions surface more frequently, especially in the chapter on Formulation of Faith.

While the interpretation might not be quite as sensational as more recent tellings, there's an incredible amount of information here, not all of it flattering. The books are large and dense (607 pages for the first volume, 735 for the second), but fortunately well-indexed. I'd love to follow the footnotes further.

The two books are available in a hardcover reprint by Sessions of York, though the only place I've found selling them new is They'd certainly be worth tracking down in a library, and I hope meetings have them in their libraries, but they're also one of those resources that you'll want to return to again and again if you do much reading in Quaker history.

(I could probably write this blog as a series of reflections on Braithwaite and have material for the next fifty years.)

December 7, 2006

His hat was gone his religion was gone

I've been enjoying William C. Braithwaite's The Beginnings Of Quakerism To 1660, and I'm almost through. It'll be enriching this site soon enough, on multiple levels. Braithwaite provides an incredible (if dense) foundation, loaded with excellent quotes and amazing stories. The contrast between his perspective and that of later writers is more than a matter of style, but I think it's fair to say that his work is necessary reading for anyone who wants to pursue early Quaker history in depth.

I'm almost through the book, and nearly used to stories of Quakers being beaten, stoned by mobs, thrown into fiendish jails, mocked, put in the stocks, and occasionally executed. Still, this story of Ellis Hookes, who wrote (among other things) a Speller with George Fox, is stunning for its violent attempt at a conversion away from Quakerism:

The case of Ellis Hookes, who seems to have come from Odiham, in Hampshire, and became the official clerk to Friends, illustrates vividly the domestic persecution which befell them.

In 1657 he went with a letter to his mother, who was at Sir William Waller's house at Stanton Harcourt, in Oxfordshire. Lady Waller, a high religious professor, thought to convert him from his Quaker notions, and had him into her chamber. She took his hat off his head, locked the door, and rated him soundly.

He remained silent until she cried that now his hat was gone his religion was gone, and he could not speak, but only hum. Then he angered her still more by saying unceremoniously, "Woman, shew thyself a sober woman." She fell to beating him about the head and pulling his hair, saying that she was never called Woman before.

When she had wearied herself, the young man spoke a second time, "Woman, I deny thy religion that cannot bridle thy tongue nor thy hands," a speech that only added fuel to her passion. She commanded her man and her son to stand before Hookes and keep him up in a corner of the room, where she continued to beat him, and called for a stick, as her fists were sore.

After a time he said, "Instead of showing thyself a sober woman, thou hast shown thyself more like a beast." At this insult to his wife, Sir William Waller, who had hitherto taken no part, struck the Quaker down with a blow on his head, and they all cried, "Out of the doors with him."

He was thrust out and sent off, bare-headed, and deaf for a weak with the blows which he had received. Moreover, his father was written to the next day to have nothing to do with his son, but to turn him out of doors, which he did, though he must afterwards have relented, for on his death in 1672 he left him a considerable fortune.

So, there's something of a happy ending.

Still, let's look at some of the odder moments here:

  • 350 years later, we may be too cynical to expect that a lady would take this man into her chamber, take off his hat, and lock the door for the sake of a religious conversation.

  • Removing his hat is supposed to remove his religion. I think some shouting was involved, if 'rating' is like 'berating'.

  • Hookes offends with plain language on two levels, with "Woman" and the use of "thy" and "thou" rather than the more courteous language Lady Waller no doubt expected.

  • Apart from three sentences, Hookes barely responds to these provocations.

  • She beats him up and pulls his hair, and calls for a stick to keep beating him, with the help of her son and husband to "keep him up".

  • Hookes' final comment - which could fairly be taken as an insult for its (apparently well-deserved) use of "beast" - earns him a final blow from Sir Waller and ejection to the outdoors.

  • The beating isn't enough - they write his parents as well.

It's hard to imagine this situation today. I suspect that a large part of why is that there are relatively few people who feel they can safely beat up those they disagree with, but even so, it seems that even the angriest religious conversations don't reach this level any longer. That calmer conversational temperature may in part be the result of Quaker calls for and implementation of religious liberty. Maybe we learned a bit from moments like this.

December 2, 2006

More on the North and West

I'm a little surprised by the positive response my look at English geography and Quakerism received, but I suspect there may be others like me wondering in what conditions Quakerism can thrive, and perhaps also about that question of change around 1660.

While Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down doesn't suggest that Quakerism changed when it headed south, it does spend some time looking at conditions in the North and West of England which may have helped Quakerism thrive:

The North and West were regarded by Parliamentarians as the 'dark corners of the land', in which preaching was totally inadequate, despite the efforts of many Puritans to subsidize it. In 1641 Lord Brooke observed that there was 'scarce any minister in Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland, and especially in Wales.'...

Yet one of the paradoxes of the period is that, of the most radical sectarian groups, the Quakers started almost exclusively in the North of England.... The light of God risen in the North, Burroughs said, discovers the abomination of England's teachers and worship, and shall not only shine throughout the nation but 'shall spread over the kingdom'... When the Quakers turned south in 1654 they made great progress among 'that dark people' of the dark county of Cornwall, as well as in Wales, and among weavers generally, notably in Gloucestershire.

The paradox is increased by the fact that such Puritan ministers as there were in the North had mostly been cleared out by Archbishop Neile in the 1630s. Others had fled from their parishes in the North and in Wales during the civil war, when royalist forces occupied their areas.... In fact as early as 1646 the sharp eye of Thomas Edwards noted that 'emissaries out of the sectaries' churches are sent to infect and poison... Yorkshire and those northern parts,... Bristol and Wales.'...

We therefore have to look for other explanations than the influence of southern Puritanism for the sudden burgeoning of radical religious ideas in the outlying areas of the North, West, and South-west of England, and in Wales. Traditional southern English middle-class Puritanims of the Presbyterian variety had a hold only in isolated areas of the North (Lancashire, Newcastle, the West Riding) and hardly at all in Wales... But this absence of traditional Presbyterianism does not mean that there were no popular religious movements in these parts, still less that there were no traditions of popular revolt. (73-77)

Hill goes on to talk about the Lollards, the Pilgrimage of Grace, Antinomians, and Familists and Grindletonians. (Grindleton was even right at the foot of Pendle Hill.) He then explores the promising conditions Quakers found in the 1650s and the converts they made:

The defeat of the royalist armies in the civil war, the bankruptcy of the traditional clergy, created an even greater spiritual void than in the more traditional Puritan centres of the South and East. Yet the period was one of much greater prosperity in the pasture and farming areas...

The Quakers, whose original leaders were almost exclusively northern yeomen and craftsmen, came from this background. Lancashire Quakers included former victims and opponents of oppressive royalist landlords, who had gained experience of cooperative action in resisting increases in rents, labour-services, and tithe payments. Levellers were active in Lancashire throughout 1649.

But such men could also draw on pre-existing underground traditions which were suddenly enabled to flourish after Parliament's victory. When George Fox rode into the North in 1651 he found congregations of Seekers or 'shattered Baptists' waiting for him everywhere among the yeomen farmers of the Yorkshire dales, the Lancashire and Cumberland pastoral-industrial areas. By 1656 Quakerism 'began to spread mightily' in the south-western counties of England. (78-9)

I don't want to suggest that religious belief is a matter of social circumstance, but it does seem clear that early Quakerism benefited from and developed in response to a particular set of conditions that provided fertile soil for the beliefs of Fox and other preachers, but not necessarily for the beliefs of the more Presbyterian Puritans whose strength was further south.

Social dislocation is only a partial explanation for why the Quaker seed could sprout so vigorously, as the entire country, and indeed much of Europe, had seen traumatic changes over the past few century or so. The lifting of censorship certainly permitted an enormous variety of religious perspectives to present themselves, but Quakerism and Baptism seem to be the two survivors of the many options that appeared then, the two whose roots set deeply enough for them to continue after the Restoration.

Looking at Quakerism today, it again seems that there are places - sometimes countries, sometimes university towns, sometimes part of the midwest where earlier generations of Quakers settled - that are eager to hear of the Inward Light. There are lots of places where that message is not so welcome. And of course, some places are better tuned to one or another version of that message.

It's easy to look at the early Quakers and focus on their message rather than their audience. In fact, it's practically expected in religious writing. I wonder, though, if there's an opportunity for Quakers to think about who is interested in our message, both in the past and in the present. To me, it seems like Quakerism really should have swept the world - but obviously, it hasn't.

November 30, 2006

From the North to the South

A month or so ago I stumbled on Cedric Cowing's The Saving Remnant: Religion and the Settling of New England in a used bookstore. I'd been thinking for a while about how religion seemed to shift when it crossed the Atlantic, but this book - which argues that there is less shift than I thought - actually had a greater effect on my thoughts about early Quaker history in England.

Cowing's basic premise is that:

A division in religiosity in England antedated settlement of New England. It was intensified by the spread of the textile industry from the Low Countries to East Anglia and the West Country and by the Reformation. A new rationalism was emerging in Southeast England while the Northwest retained its potential for evangelism and pietism. Using data on ancestry and religious responses of clergy and communities in New England, a cultural dividing line can be drawn across the homeland from the Wash to Exeter, via Bristol. Of course, beyond this line in the Northwest were some outposts of Southeast sympathy, such as Manchester and the English colony in Pembroke, Wales. On the other hand, southeast of the line, there were outposts of evangelical-pietistic influence in London, Norwich, the Isles of Ely and Wight, and some wealds and fens. (297)

While Cowing is most interested in how this played out in New England, as people from these parts of England migrated to a new continent and there had to grow together - or apart - his early chapters have a lot to say about Quakerism.

George Fox's hometown of Fenny Drayton has a prominent place on Cowing's map, just west of the boundary he draws for the Southeast. The North, where Quakerism first burst into a movement, and Bristol, where James Nayler made the entry that condemned him for blasphemy, are both on the Northwest side of the line. Cowing uses Quakers as markers of Northwest tendencies in New England, and writes briefly about Quakerism's roaring success in the 1650s in the North, contrasted with its less dramatic results in the South:

When Fox again traveled North from Fenny Drayton and crossed the Humber River, he found many people ripe for his message. Because the fields were "white for the harvest," he and his first converts, "the Publishers of Truth," were able to convince many groups and individuals in a short time. In this environment, Quakers were able to draw converts from several social classes. Even some younger sons of the lesser gentry felt the Inner Light. Young women were conspicuous when they witnessed in public or traveled unescorted. Itinerating was for the young and unattached but more mature converts and sympathizers offered hospitality to these young travelers....

The Quaker Galilee was in the North, chiefly Cheshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmorland, some of the highest ground in England. Quakerism found special favor with small farmers or shepherds descended from Vikings. The Norse custom was individual land-ownership, so they felt alienated from the Norman-French governing class, its political institutions, and lingering Catholicism. Fox's Quaker ideas and simplicity reinforced evangelical Protestantism in this region's pastoral people.....

The Society of Friends, as the Quakers called themselves, conducted missionary efforts in the Southeast during the Restoration, and Quakerism spread through the trading classes in towns, becoming more and more identified with a few strata of the population. Quakers turned inward, using less evangelism and seeking instead the small, still voice, retreating from a movement with universal claims to a sect. Quietism brought not only respectability and conservatism but sometimes a touch of deism. The followers of George Fox were still a peculiar people. Despite their inroads in the English Southeast there continued to be many more Puritans than Quakers, with the greatest disparity in East Anglia. Metropolitan London, however, remained a melting pot for religious belief as it had been earlier in the century.

The Quakers were the most successful survivors of the Civil War era. Yet in 1660, when the Quaker Seventy in the North went south to carry the Truth to the whole country, neither the time nor the place, the Southeast, was anywhere near as responsive as Westmorland had been in the 1650s. (120-2)

This adds a perspective that I hadn't thought hard about to the difficult question - if you accept it as a question - of why Quakerism changed after 1660. Politics changed, and Quakerism was seen as a threat to the re-established order, but something else changed: Quakerism itself moved south.

Using London as a center, even though it was a mix of everything going on in the country, took Quakerism out of the more pastoral upland settings where it had flourished, and brought it to the homeland of a more rationalist (often Ramist) Puritanism. Appealing to the Southeast meant recasting Quakerism in a style more appealing to those who lived there, and wild ecstasy was less welcome than cautious rationalism.

Cowing carefully avoids simple determinism, pointing out exceptions to his interpretations regularly and accepting that his line isn't a clear demarcation. I suspect there will still be people annoyed about being asked to consider the impact of geography on religious style and beliefs. Nevertheless, this seems like one piece of an ever richer story worth pursuing.

October 3, 2006

Nayler's shift

I've written a few times of James Nayler's blasphemy trial being a moment - along with the Restoration of the Stuart kings - that led to changes from early Quakerism. I hadn't noticed, however, a passage in Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down that describes that change within James Nayler himself after his conviction and punishment:

Nayler himself in the depth of his humiliation rejected the support of 'many wild spirits, Ranters and such like', who refused to accept the hostile verdict of Friends. You have belied the Lord, Nayler told these Ranters in 1659, and said that 'sin and righteousness is all one to God', whom many Ranters openly deny. Their 'light answers' and 'mockings' 'have made heavy the burden of the meek and lowly, against whom you have sported.'

Nayler's experience, and still more his repentance, helped to restore a sense of sin to the Quaker movement. Nayler had believed that it was possible for a man to achieve Christ's perfection and perform Christ's works: his entry into Bristol was made in that spirit. But after his terrible punishment he was convinced that he had been in error, that 'the motions of sin did still work from the old ground and root'. So he rebuked his Ranter defenders:

do not say, All things are lawful, all things are pure, etc.; and so sit down and say you are redeemed and have right to all; but first pass through all things, one after another, as the light learneth you; and with a true measure see if you be from under the power of any. When you have proved this throughout all things, and found your freedom, then you may say, All things are lawful, and know what is expedient, and what edifies yourselves and others and the rest to reign over, without bondage thereto.

Nayler had the right to say that, arrived at through his great suffering and shame. ('I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship there with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth.') But those phrases, 'what is expedient', 'what edifies', closed the door on much that had been courageous and life-giving to the Quaker movement. (251-2)

Hill goes on to talk about the changes in the larger movement after Nayler, but it seems worthwhile to me to pause for a moment and think about Nayler's reflections on his own historic arc, from seeking and acting out perfection to a more doubtful position.

'With a true measure see if you be from under the power of any' is a difficult challenge, one easier to test for an individual among a group.

(Hill's book is unfortunately out of print but still available through libraries and used bookstores. Fortunately, Quaker Heritage Press is halfway through publishing a collection of Nayler's works.)

September 20, 2006

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.)

September 19, 2006

Early Quakers, Version II

Yesterday I looked at the classic "early Quakers created this, and then we've..." story of Quakerism, with its varied conclusions explaining why modern Quakerism isn't quite like early Quakerism.

For this second telling, I'm going to change one key point in the story: when that change happened. Instead of early Quakers forming a single story up through Fox's and Penn's death, this version tells of dramatic change in the late 1650s and early 1660s, in which 'genuinely early Quakerism' is changed, or even betrayed, to become something more respectable.

In the late 1640s and early 1650s, the English Civil War had shattered people's expectations of an orderly world and collapsed their hopes for a rule of Puritan saints. Many sects developed in this chaotic period, some with prophets, some tied to continental Anabaptist radicals, and some denying the value of law entirely. Some Puritans became Baptists and then became Seekers or Ranters, losing layers of trust in their earlier, usually Calvinist, belief structure.

Out of this chaos, the early Quakers emerged. They evangelized, arguing that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," not as a luminous second coming (as groups like the Fifth Monarchists thought) but rather as a Light available to everyone. Christ's guidance wasn't limited to the Church, but was available to everyone, of whatever station, so long as they were willing to listen.

"Put yourself aside, and listen for the Light and where it leads," (to paraphrase) was a powerful message. This message built Quakerism even as persecutors imprisoned its members for their refusal to recognize rank or take oaths and their continued holding of open meetings.

Even as this powerful message was transforming thousands, however, both the growing persecution and splits within the ranks of Quakers led to a dramatic pullback from the original message. The split between James Nayler and George Fox demonstrated how Fox insisted on being in control of the movement (telling Nayler to kiss his boot?). Nayler's blasphemy trial left Fox in greater control. It also drove Fox away from the open individual embrace of Christ and the Light within to a more controlled approach, in which elders could control the meeting's direction and keep members in line.

As the Civil War came to a conclusion and the Restoration approached, Quakers tried one last round of radical politics, reaching out for allies and some even joining the army, but when it became clear that the King was returning, Quakers retreated. The issuance of the letter establishing the Peace Testimony, while a key document in the pacifism of Quakerism, was simultaneously a retreat from the promise Quakerism had shown in leading England in a new direction.

As the Restoration continued to persecute Quakers, Quakers shifted their message and reorganized their group. It become less of a movement and more of a sect, with Fox and his supporters ejecting those they saw as dangerously individualist (notably John Perrot and the participants in the Wilkinson-Story separation). They took greater care in aligning their rhetoric and their theology with more orthodox perspectives, especially when Fox was traveling in places where Quakers might be seen as a threat to order, like Barbados.

The later Fox, who outlived so many of the other early Quakers, and the more aristocratic second generation of Quaker writers - particularly William Penn and Robert Barclay - described Quakerism in terms more amenable to the Christian perspectives Quakers had discarded early on. Their quest for respectability and an end to persecution meant that the more extreme claims of early Quakerism had to be watered down, especially those relating to perfection and a direct line of communication between individuals and God.

In service of this Fox (and his wife Margaret Fell) censored his letters, removing language that referred to him in language normally reserved for Christ. (Fox and Nayler both had supporters who saw them as Christ-figures.) Fox's Journal tells the story of the 1640s and 1650s from a much later perspective, though the earlier inspiration still comes through at times (and despite further censorship from Quakers of the day). Similarly, Quaker publishers edited tracts from the 1650s when they later reprinted them, something historians didn't realize until recently. Barclay's codification and Penn's writings took Quakerism away from enthusiasm and toward a more settled and respectable state.

By the time of Fox's death, then, Quakerism had lost its original power. Rather than evangelizing the countryside, Quakers were organizing meetings that controlled who could and could not minister. Death and schisms had taken away a number of Quakers whose early energy had propelled the movement furthest toward emphasis on the individual's relationship with the Light, and what was left was a quiet echo of the origins.

This is a fairly recent perspective, though it reflects many of the tensions that Quakers have struggled with in the centuries since. It's a strong telling of various threads in New Light on George Fox (especially Richard Bailey's contribution) and George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years. It recognizes that most of the early splits (Nayler, Perrot, and Wilkinson-Story) reflected Friends who weren't inclined to accept Fox's claims of leadership or efforts to institutionalize leadership.

It also reflects, in my own reading, the differences between Fox's early letters and writings like 1659's The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded; and Antichrist's Kingdom Revealed Unto Destruction and his later work, especially the Journal.

Is it the right telling, though? I agree that there's clearly a change between the 1650s and the 1660s and later, but I don't find the quest for respectability or generational change enough of a motivating force. I'm sure there are Quakers who would argue that the problems of Quakerism stem from these changes in the late 1650s and 1660s, and that the earlier individualistic enthusiasm needs to return for the movement to revive.

Still, there's another way to tell this same story, which will be the next installment, and maybe help explain some of why I'm writing this strange and frequently difficult weblog.

September 18, 2006

Early Quakers, Version I

Early Quaker history is rich enough for its tellers to find different things in it with every telling. Quakers did all kinds of things and left behind all kinds of writing, and it's not all perfectly cohesive.

As an experiment, I'm going to tell the story three times. I believe that all of these tellings are close enough to what happened to be properly 'historical', and none of them are so terribly far off the mark that they can be dismissed immediately. The stories they tell and the ways in which they would have us relate to the early Quakers' experience are quite different, however.

The first story is the story I've seen most frequently when a brief explanation of early Quakerism is needed, and it's usually the conclusion that shifts to match the teller's perspective.


In the 1640s and 1650s, amid the tumult of the English Civil War, a small group of dedicated religious seekers came together to listen to the Inward Light because "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

Their claims that this Light gave them direct communication with God and that this Light was to be held above Scripture or rituals like baptism and communion led to persecution. They were accused of quaking before God, hence the name Quaker, which was not intended to be flattering. Their persecution continued from the first meetings through the Restoration all the way up to the Act of Toleration passed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Despite the persecution, Quakers held together. Quakers died in jails and more went to take their place. Unlike other sects who met privately to avoid persecution, Quakers continued to meet openly, and made themselves obvious targets with their use of 'thee' and 'thou', their refusal to doff their hats to those of higher rank, and their plain attire.

While many Quaker leaders died in prison (or of plague, war, or the other troubles of the time), one of the strongest, George Fox, survived into the 1690s, writing his famous Journal and organizing the structure of meetings that continues to this day. Other notable Quakers included William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers while writing regularly on Quakerism, and Robert Barclay, whose Apology is a classic statement of early Quaker belief.

After Fox's death, Quakerism settled down. It was no longer a movement claiming to reignite Christianity in general, but rather a sect that built walls against outside influence. Members prospered, but the energy of the sect declined, settling into a long quiet.

Familiar? I hope so, since this is the general story I heard for a long time before looking into early Quakerism more generally. Depending on the storyteller's perpective, the next parts of the story are usually about how later generations lost the thread because they:

  • Weren't Christian enough.

  • Spent too much time reading Scripture and not enough with individual Spirit.

  • Insisted that (or rejected that) the Light is reason or conscience.

  • Lacked the fire to continue spreading their message.

  • Weren't disciplined enough.

  • Focused too little on the life of the spirit rather than money or politics.

  • Lacked knowledge of their own history to know what the early Quakers had really said.

  • Were corrupted by outside influences, whether Catholic-derived Quietism or Wesleyan revivalism.

(Yes, I'm sure I've forgotten a few.)

As you've probably guessed, this isn't the way I think the story should be told. The next two versions will present less common - and likely more challenging - tellings, though there's still plenty of room to discuss which of these is right. None of them are wildly wrong.

September 7, 2006

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.

Continue reading "Quaker dispensations" »

July 27, 2006

Quaker predecessors

While Quaker history often starts in the 1640s with George Fox's concerns - probably led that way by his Journal - Fox was far from the first with the components of his message. He also benefited tremendously from the chaotic conditions of the English Civil War, which had produced huge numbers of Seekers and others listening for a new message. Fox's tremendous personality made its imprint on these people, but he wasn't always a completely new revelation.

I'm enjoying Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down precisely because it examines the conditions which fuelled Quakerism's rapid growth. These conditions didn't necessarily direct the path Quakerism took, but they certainly laid groundwork. Take, for instance, Familism, a long-standing heresy among the lower classes:

Familists, members of the Family of Love... were followers of Henry Niclaes, born in Münster in 1502, who taught that heaven and hell were to be found in this world. Niclaes was alleged to have been a collaborator of Thomas Münzer in insurrection at Amsterdam. The Puritan divine John Knewstub said of him: 'H.N. turns religion upside down. He buildeth heaven here upon earth; he maketh God man and man God.'

Like Francis Bacon, Familists believed that men and women might recapture on earth the state of innocence which existed before the Fall: their enemies said they claimed to attain the perfection of Christ. They held their property in common, believed that all things come by nature, and that only the spirit of God within the believer can properly understand Scripture. They turned the Bible into allegories, even the Fall of Man, complained William Perkins.

Familism was spread in England by Christopher Vittels, an itinerant joiner of Dutch origin. In the 1570s English Familists were noted to be wayfaring traders, or 'cowherds, clothiers and such-like mean people. They believed in principle that ministers should be itinerants, like the Apostles. (26-7)

Familism isn't Quakerism, but it's hard not to see similarities, especially on the relation of Spirit to Scripture and their itinerant ministry. Similarly, Hill writes on on how doctrines of stilling the self and listening for God's will - while practiced in later periods of Quietist Quakerism - were potentially explosive in this period of chaos:

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s when some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were again harmless when taught by Thomas Traherne or quietist post-restoration Quakers. But in between, as the Revolution seemed to open up infinite possibilties, the glowing embers flashed flame. (186-7)

The flashing flames led many directions, though:

Given then this breakdown of confidence on the one hand, and the prevalent millenarianism enthusiasm on the other, it is hardly surprising that men and women, faced with an unprecedented freedom of choice, passed rapidly from sect to sect, trying all things, finding all of them wanting. Again and again in spiritual autobiographies of the time we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency, and Anabaptistry before ending as Seekers..., and Ranters..., or as Quakers....

Controversies over church government or over baptism - infant, adult, self-, by dipping or not at all - split congregations, produced endless conscientious scruples, endless bickerings. All the leading protagonists seemed equally certain, all appeared to have backing from Biblical texts or from the authority of the spirit within. Many concluded by questioning the value of all ordinances, of all outward forms, of all churches even.

Since the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversy was one solution, a rejection of all sects, of all organized worship. Such men were called Seekers - Walwyn, though he rejected the label, Roger Williams, John Saltmarsh, John Milton, possibly Oliver Cromwell himself....

Many of these men had connections with the radicals, and were bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarianism enthusiasm. (190-2)

In an age where religious diversity is ordinary, and millenarianism seen as a subculture, it may be hard to project back just how unsettled this period was. Everything was open to question, and the experience of questioning was still new and revolutionary. A wide variety of ideas that had previously been considered heresies were brought back into consideration as censorship fell and printing presses stayed busy. Ideas that would form Quakerism were abroad, though seen as clearly radical.

July 25, 2006

Quakers, Ranters, and the present

Historian Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down looks at the chaos - political, economic, and religious - of the English Civil War, the period when Quakerism started in fiery proclamations. It's hard to imagine, in today's relatively settled yet relatively mobile society, how so much could explode so rapidly. It seems a time when the end of the world really did seem near. In talking about the peril of applying modern frameworks to the time, Hill writes:

From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends. (14)

Ranters were both Fox's blessing, a ready source of converts, and his curse, as Quakers were often labeled Ranters by their opponents while their own meetings were disrupted by Ranters. The history of the movement from about 1660 (or even 1656) to 1690 is largely the effort to move away from these groups' influence.

Quakerism emerged in a period of utter tumult - as Hill suggests, The World Turned Upside Down. As Hill notes later, "there is [not] any great theological novelty in Fox's works of the 1650s, any more than in the Journal" (232). Quakerism's success - with ideas that had often previously been suppressed - was in finding strong leaders in a time of chaos, people who could both communicate their ideals and exemplify them. "Christ has come to teach his people himself" was an incredibly powerful message and a difficult one to deliver to an audience often seeking stability in Scripture during a period of chaos.

Quakerism in 1652 is a tremendous flame, burning across the countryside. 1659 is probably the peak of political radicalism for Quakerism as a movement. By 1690, those flames are cooling to embers, embers which have sustained Quakerism to the present, through a long list of additional shifts. (There was an amazing message at Bridge City Friends Meeting Sunday about flames and embers that I keep hearing repeat in my mind.)

In my own obsession with history, I'm amazed by those early flames. It's hard not to be mesmerized by the incredible talent and perseverance of the early Quakers. It's also hard not to notice how quickly Quakerism had to change, and how the talent and perserverance applied in those new contexts as well. It has continued to change for 350 years - and perhaps some modern Friends aren't as far from 1650s Ranterism as Christopher Hill suggests.

How would Quakers deal with another period like the one that formed it?