October 3, 2006

A stable definition of Quakerism

Just before I left for vacation, Marshall Massey gave me something to contemplate:

As I see it, the world surrounding Quakerism changed, from the time of the Puritan upheavals to the Toleration Act 1689, and what Quakers did had to change accordingly. But this did not mean that Quakerism itself changed.

It would be convenient to discuss Quakerism as something stable, something that can be described once and reliably repeated. It is possible to develop a definition of Quakerism that holds from the beginning of Fox's ministry to the end of his life, and perhaps even to the present. William Penn gave it a try in 1696 in Primitive Christianity Revived:

That which the people call'd Quakers lay down, as a Main Fundamental in Religion, is this, That God, through Christ, hath placed a Principle in every Man, to inform him of his Duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that Live up to this Principle, are the People of God, and those that Live in Disobedience to it, are not God's People, whatever name they may bear, or Profession they may make of Religion. This is their Ancient, First, and Standing Testimony: With this they began, and this they bore, and do bear to the World. (Chapter 1)

Penn's definition does seem to hold from the origins of Quakerism, and holds for most Quakers today, though I'm sure there are exceptions. (Penn argued that his definition held from the origins of Christianity, a much broader conversation.)

That said, Penn's definition leaves out a tremendous collection of valuable aspects that are clearly Quaker as well, and includes many others. Penn's definition taken alone might well include many of the Spiritual Franciscans, the Familists, the Grindletonians, and a wide variety of other groups and individuals past and present.

It's possible to look for other definitions that define more of Quakerism, but as I'll write next time, many of Quakerism's distinctive features, including Meeting discipline and the Peace Testimony, developed after Quakerism had been around for a while. These affected more than "what Quakers did".

September 13, 2006

William Penn on salvation

Last week I started writing on early Quaker views of salvation, Thomas Hamm described differences between the earlier Quaker perspective and the more traditional Protestant view of Joseph John Gurney and Quakers who followed him, differences that aren't often described.

The early Quaker view is - rightly, I find - different, but it's also fascinating to see how Quakers came to that view while remaining within the framework of salvation by grace, with only Christ as saving. Direct access to the Inner Light changes the Quaker description of how salvation works while retaining the same recognition that Christ is saving.

In his introduction to Fox's Journal, William Penn gives a brief overview of how he saw this working in the 1690s:

Two things are to be briefly touched upon, the doctrine they taught, and the example they led among all people. I have already touched upon their fundamental principle, which is as the corner stone of their fabric; and indeed, to speak eminently and properly, their characteristic, or main distinguishing point or principle, viz. the light of Christ within, as God's gift for man's salvation. This, I say, is as the root of the goodly tree of doctrines that grew and branched out from it, which I shall now mention in their natural and experimental order.

The Light, unsurprisingly, is central to Penn's view of salvation. Next Penn describes the operation of that Light. Note the opening "repentance from dead works to serve the living God", clearly echoing Protestants since Luther, and "forgiveness of the sins that are past through Christ, the alone propitiation". Justification is here, but as a three-step process, with no statement that it happens just once as the believer accepts Christ.

First, repentance from dead works to serve the living God, which comprehends three operations. First, a sight of sin. Secondly, a sense and godly sorrow for it. Thirdly, an amendment for the time to come. This was the repentance they preached and pressed, and a natural result from the principle they turned all people unto. For of light came sight; and of sight came sense and sorrow; and of sense and sorrow came amendment of life. Which doctrine of repentance leads to justification; that is, forgiveness of the sins that are past through Christ, the alone propitiation; and the sanctification or purgation of the soul from the defiling nature and habits of sin present; which is justification in the complete sense of that word, comprehending both justification from the guilt of the sins that are past, as if they had never been committed, through the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus; and the creature's being made inwardly just through the cleansing and sanctifying power and spirit of Christ revealed in the soul, which is commonly called sanctification.

Sanctification, "being made inwardly just", is here connected to the process of justification. Sanctification for the early Quakers especially led to a further doctrine that didn't go over so well with their fellow Christians:

From hence sprang a second doctrine they were led to declare, as the mark of the prize of the high calling to all true christians, viz. perfection from sin, according to the scriptures of truth, which testify it to be the end of Christ's coming, and the nature of his kingdom, and for which his spirit was and is given. But they never held a perfection in wisdom and glory in this life, or from natural infirmities or death, as some have with a weak or ill mind imagined and insinuated against them.

This they called a redeemed state, regeneration, or the new birth, teaching every where, according to their foundation, that unless this work was known, there was no inheriting the kingdom of God.

A "born again" Quaker in this sense is not merely forgiven, but actually perfected, arriving in the kingdom of God, if not in this life. Penn's claim that "they never held a perfection in wisdom and glory in this life" probably doesn't stand up against Quaker claims in the 1650s, as Richard Bailey's "The Making and Unmaking of a God" in New Light on George Fox finds, but it does seem to accurately describe their position when Penn was writing.

Thirdly, this leads to an acknowledgment of eternal rewards and punishments, as they have good reason; for else of all people, certainly they must be the most miserable, who for above forty years have been exceeding great sufferers for their profession, and in some cases treated worse than the worst of men, yea, as the refuse and off-scouring of all things.

"Eternal rewards and punishments" aren't a common topic in Quaker discussions, but Penn acknowledges them here, without spending much time on it.

The last paragraph (before Penn starts describing doctrines more specific to the Quakers) makes clear that Penn sees this perspective as what Christians have believed to be true, but which was lost as they followed their own wills rather than the will of God or the mind of Christ.

This was the purport of their doctrine and ministry, which, for the most part, is what other professors of Christianity pretend to hold in words and forms, but not in the power of godliness, which, generally speaking, has been long lost by men's departing from that principle and seed of life that is in man, and which man has not regarded, but lost the sense of, and in and by which he can only be quickened in his mind to serve the living God in newness of life. For as the life of religion was lost, and the generality lived and worshipped God after their own wills, and not after the will of God, nor the mind of Christ, which stood in the works and fruits of the holy spirit; so that which they pressed was not notion but experience, nor formality but godliness; as being sensible in themselves, through the work of God's righteous judgments, that without holiness no man should ever see the Lord with comfort. (xiii-xiv)

That last phrase - "without holiness no man should ever see the Lord with comfort" - is an admonition both frightening and alluring. It's possible to read Penn here - like many of his Puritan contemporaries - as setting a high bar indeed for salvation. At the same time, though, I think his fellow Quakers, who had experienced the operation of the Light within themselves and its transforming power - would not likely be so worried.

September 8, 2006

From the Apostles to the Seekers

After telling of the dispensations and how God's interactions with humans have changed, William Penn's introduction to George Fox's Journal continues with a look at what has gone wrong in the current dispensation, the "falling away from the power of godliness."

The problems were seen almost from the beginning:

But alas! even in the apostles’ days, (those bright stars of the first magnitude of the gospel light,) some clouds (foretelling an eclipse of this primitive glory) began to appear, and several of them gave early caution of it to the Christians of their time; that even then there was, and yet would be, more and more, a falling away from the power of godliness, and the purity of that spiritual dispensation, by such as thought to make a fair show in the flesh, but with whom the offence of the cross ceased: yet with this comfortable conclusion, that they saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever, to the true church.

Though Penn isn't citing scripture explicitly here, but echoes warnings from the epistles of the New Testament, reflecting the challenges the church had even in Acts. The Apostles "saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever," after all of these problems were resolved, and the later parts of Penn's introductions suggest that Quakerism is bringing us closer to that time.

Next, Penn describes the deterioration, focusing (as he had in the dispensations on the substitution of outward observances for inward. From this stems worldliness, loss of contact with the spirit, strife, and opposition to the true church.

Continue reading "From the Apostles to the Seekers" »

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" »

August 28, 2006

George Fox's Legacy

Commenting on an earlier posting on New Light on George Fox, Martin Kelley suggested that I look into the more recent collection, George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years. The first was the result of a conference marking the 300th anniversary of Fox's death. The latter is the result of a conference marking 350 years since Quaker preaching took off.

While New Light on George Fox focused sharply on Fox himself and early Quakers, George Fox's Legacy explores the ways that Quakers have related to Fox. There are two excellent essays, one on Fox and Penn and another on Fox and Penington, that could probably have appeared in either volume, but overall the two collections are very complementary.

Running down the list of essays, here's a thumbnail sketch of my perspective on each:

George Fox and William Penn: Their Relationship and Their Roles within the Quaker Movement

Melvin Endy challenges the notion that William Penn took Quakerism in a very different direction than Fox had intended, exploring the relationship between Fox and Penn and concluding that differences are smaller than they are often described.

Liberal Friends (Re)Discover Fox

Chuck Fager looks at how far FGC Friends had drifted from Fox by the early 1900s and explores rising interest in Fox from the 1950s onward. There's some amazing stuff in here about what Quaker psychics reported Fox (and Jesse Holmes) as saying, as well as a general story that raises all kinds of questions about what it means to be a liberal Quaker.

"New Light on Old Ways": Gurneyites, Wilburites, and the Early Friends

Thomas Hamm, whose Transformation of American Quakerism I'll be visiting soon, examines the uses Orthodox Quakers made of early Friends' writings, especially the dwindling interest the Gurneyite wing had for them and the increasing interest of the Wilburites.

The Search for Seventeenth-Century Authority During the Hicksite Reformation

H. Larry Ingle examines the interest Hicksites took in the early Quakers, and how their perspective biases toward the early Fox and his companions, rather than the later more conservative Fox.

Early Friends and the Renewal of British Quakerism, 1890-1920

Thomas Kennedy examines a subject I know little about, British Quakerism's shift from the evangelical toward a more liberal approach, and how the early writings of Friends factored into that.

Isaac Penington and the Authority of George Fox

Rosemary Moore writes a provocative piece following Isaac Penington's shift from support for a more open, individualist approach to the more centralized, communitarian approach that Fox created after the Restoration. Penington's own journey illustrates many of the splits that Ingle describes as inspiration for the Hicksite split. Moore's final question - "Pope George Fox?" - is a difficult one.

"Come in at the Door!" - How Foxian Metaphors of Salvation Speak to Evangelical Friends

Arthur Roberts does something different here. In some ways he demonstrates what others are describing here, by reading Fox and excerpting Fox with an eye to reinforcing his own evangelical perspective. It's an excellent telling, but in the end it doesn't convince me that Fox would have agreed with Roberts or show me the path from Fox's perspective to Roberts'.

Holiness: The Quaker Way of Perfection

Carole D. Spencer here writes an essay that I'll keep coming back to. I like the whole book, but Spencer does an amazing job of connecting early Quakerism with the later holiness movement (citing Hannah Whitall Smith as a key example). The article ranges from Smith to Fox to Catholic and Orthodox perspectives on holiness, integrating Quaker perspectives with a broader Christian framework.

Jerry Frost's introduction helps tie them together and point out where they differ. It's an amazing collection, well worth the $10 for anyone who'd like to explore the diverse perspectives Quakers have taken toward their origins.