January 25, 2008

More exalted language, to and from Fox

Last night, re-reading Douglas Gwyn's excellent Seekers Found, I found yet more "exalted language" about Fox and other early Quakers.

First, people writing to George Fox and Margaret Fell:

Dorothy Howgill (wife of Francis) wrote to Fox... She recalls Fox telling her that "a pure light was arising in me... yet I could not believe because I felt no such think... but now I know thou hast the anoynting of the Holy one and thou knowes all things... thou art my own heart and my soule lyes in thy bosom."

Exalted language like this was commonly directed by Friends toward those who had convinced them, and most of all toward George Fox and James Nayler. Shortly after her convicement, Fel and her children wrote to Fox as:

Our dear father in the Lord... We are your babes. Take pity on us, whom you have nursed up with the breasts of consolation... Oh, our dear nursing father, we hope you will not leave us comfortless, but will come again... My own dear heart... you know that we have received you into our hearts...

Mary Howgill addressed Fox as "Dear Life" in a 1656 letter. Such letters were also addressed to Fell. For example, John Audland wrote to Fell, exclaiming that she "inhabits eternity," finding her countenance "more bright than the sun." He went on to confess that his soul was refreshed by her and that by God's power he was "kept bold to declare the way of salvation." (240)

A few paragraphs later, Gwyn presents some of Fox's own claims. Some pieces of this story are familiar from the Journal and other letters, but Gwyn presents a letter (published earlier by Larry Ingle) that pushes the story a bit further.

Most disturbing to Puritan authorities were Fox's sporadic claims to be "the Son of God," which continued as late as 1661. This issue had arisen as early as his Derby arrest in 1650. During his interrogation, his claims to perfection led straight to his assertion of Christ's indwelling. Asked if he or his associates were themselves Christ, he answered "Nay, we are nothing, Christ is all." During a trial at Lancaster late in 1652, Fox was charged with claiming to be equal with God. He denied making such a claim, but countered that "he that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one in the Father and the Son and that ye are the sons of God. The Father and the Son are one, and we of his flesh and of his bone" (Heb. 2:11, Eph. 5:31). In 1653, Fox wrote a letter "to Margaret Fell and to every other friend who is raised to discerning." Apparently aiming to clarify his own words and speculations upon them, Fox did not back away from his earlier affirmations:

Accordinge to the spirit I am the sonne of God and according to the flesh I am the seed of Abraham which seed is Christ which seed is but one in all his saints.... Accordinge to the spirit I am the sonne of God before Abraham was... the same which doth descend, the same doth ascend and all the promises of God are yea come out of time from god, into time to that which is captivated in the earth in time, and to it the seed which is Christ, they are all yea and amen fetched up out of him, where there is noe time... and as many received the word, I say unto ye: yee are gods, as it is written in your law [John 10:34].... Now waite all to have these things fulfilled in ye, if it never be so little a measure waite in it, that ye may grow to a perfect man in Christ Jesus.

This passage is not terribly coherent. But it shows that Fox claimed sonship, though in a way that could be claimed by others who wait faithfully upon the Lord and grow into perfection in Christ. Those who had gone through the harrowing convincement process of death to the self had found a "measure" of freedom from captivity in earthly time and its realm of cause and effect. Thus, to be a child of God in the Spirit was to be "before Abraham was." To have Christ within was to be of Christ's flesh and bone, eating it and becoming the same substance with it. (241-2)

I'm guessing that such claims helped keep this letter from finding home in the Epistles that became part of Fox's Works.

This is strong reinforcement for the hypothesis that early Quakerism wasn't merely about following God, it was about uniting with God. The Inward Light, "Christ is come to teach his people himself", pointing toward union rather than reflection.

I wonder whether Fox himself ever abandoned that set of ideas, even if he did write much more cautiously after the 1650s, and edited earlier letters. I'm guessing that he didn't, though such a guess is hard to substantiate.

August 14, 2006

What canst thou hear?

Quakers are fond of "What canst thou say?", a question George Fox asked that was key to converting Margaret Fell, a powerful early Quaker and much later Fox's wife. It reminds us that we too are active participants, fitting tightly with Quakerism's abolition of the laity which makes us all ministers.

Sometimes I see it expanded further to:

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?

That seems to suggest an opening for anything, even potentially a rejection of the prior revelations on which early Quakers built their world. Going a step further, however, to explore the surrounding story in Fell's telling of her convincement, reveals that this is not a wholesale rejection. Instead, it is an enormous step toward inclusion and construction:

And so [Fox] went on, and said how that Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world, and that by this Light they might be gathered to God, etc. And I stood up in my pew, and I wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before.

And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord.

And said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a Child of Light, and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is inwardly from God, etc. ?"

This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart, and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly : and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have take the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves." (The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660, 101, from Margaret Fell's account.)

"And what thou speakest is inwardly from God" clarifies what is to be spoken, what thou canst say. Speaking in this instance requires learning from the inward Light, listening before speaking. What "thou" says here isn't coming directly from "thou", but from "thou" with assistance from God.

Margaret Fell's reaction to Fox telling her this isn't relief that she can say whatever she likes, but rather the painful realization that she has been following the wrong path, and she weeps in her pew.