The question remains: just when did the Society of Friends begin using the phrase, “Inner Light,” now commonly seen as the unique and defining quality of Quaker faith? The term, as such, has not been found in the writings of James Nayler, Edward Burrough, George Fox, Margaret Fell, Richard Farnworth, or any other originating Quaker leader during the English Revolution of the mid 1600s. Nor, close on their heels during the English Restoration, has it shown up in Isaac Penington, William Penn, or Robert Barclay. What they and successive generations of Friends appearing in Quaker ministry did voice was a range of variations of “Inward Light,” including the “Light Within” or the “Universal Light” (as John Woolman did) – often in conjunction with “Seed” or the “Seed of Christ” – expressions that conveyed a much different teaching than modern Friends understand in the phrase “Inner Light.” Variations on the Inward Light and Seed metaphors sustain the original meaning through Job Scott and Elias Hicks until the American schisms culminated in 1827. Sometime after that, the metaphors of Light and Seed dropped out of one branch of Friends altogether, while being inverted and compressed in another branch into what is now known as “Inner Light.”
Seemingly authoritative attribution of “Inner Light” to early Friends turns out, on close examination, to be a misreading based on later interpretations of their writings. For instance, Encyclopedia Britannica has attributed its first appearance to Barclay’s 1676 Apology: “The Inner Light is never separated from God nor Christ, but wherever it is, God and Christ are wrapped up therein”; going to the source, Proposition 6:XIII, however, finds no mention of Inner Light – the word is it, and the antecedents are “seed,” “grace,” “word of God,” “light,” “a spiritual, celestial, and invisible principle, a principle in which God dwells as Father, Son, and Spirit.” This is, in short, something quite different from what modern Friends would understand as “Inner Light.” Even when the quotation appears in Dean Freiday’s Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, it is abridged to eliminate the second half of the sentence and no “Inner Light” is interposed.
Similarly, the term has achieved such acceptance today that historians such as Thomas D. Hamm and Bliss Forbush, or even official Friends documents such as Britain Yearly Meeting’s Christian Faith and Practice and Quaker Faith and Practice speak confidently of the Inner Light when discussing ideas advanced by important historical Friends – even when their sources state otherwise. One measure of their care comes, in fact, in seeing how a volume indexes the topic – as “Light,” “Light, Inward,” “Light Within,” and so forth, on the one hand, or as “Inner Light” on the other.
I suspect that until Rosemary Moore’s The Light in Their Consciences, The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666 was published in 2000, the general assumption held that somewhere, Fox and other Friends must have used the phrase “Inner Light.” Her systematic, exhaustive search of early published material, however, throws this modern perspective entirely off kilter. Pioneering Friends spoke of Light, all right, but always connected in some way with Christ – and never independent of that source.
Even on the rare early occasions when this Light is linked to an apparently autonomous unit, such as a candle in the soul, traditional Friends were careful to keep it dependent on God, rather than the human. For example, in The Light Within, Penington asks, “How doth the mind come to be enlightened, and the candle of the Lord come to be set up in the soul?” Robert Barclay, meanwhile, states in the Apology: “As many candles lighted and put in one place do greatly augment the light and make it more to shine forth, so when many are gathered together in the same life there is more of the glory of God, and His power appears to the refreshment of each individual, for that he partakes not only of the light and life raised in himself but in all the rest.” (11:XVII)
After the Hicksite Separations of 1827-28, however, the linkage of Christ and Light breaks down. For most Orthodox Friends, “Christ” came increasingly to mean “Jesus,” with Meetings emphasizing Scripture as a referent for authority. Hicksites, understandably, grew increasingly uneasy with Scriptural references, and apparently became more and more reserved in their expressions of faith. Only the Wilburites – splitting from New England in 1845 and the Ohio Orthodox in 1854, and later from several other Yearly Meetings, including North Carolina and Iowa – attempted to hold a more traditional middle ground regarding the Light of Christ.
Although Hamm observes a decline in the usage of Light imagery among Friends during the 19th century, he fails to note whether this trend is within the Orthodox Friends, the focus of his research, or applies to American Quakerism in general: “Partly because of the increasing emphasis given to evangelical doctrines, the concept of the Inner Light was declining in importance among Friends by 1860. Renewal Friends occasionally alluded to it, and when they wrote about the essential doctrines of Quakers, they always included it. At times they harked back to the original understanding, but more often they cast it in terms not offensive to other evangelicals.”
The lessening usage of Light imagery among the Orthodox, however, accompanied an increased emphasis on the Holy Spirit. As John Punshon explains in Portrait in Grey, discussing the influence of eloquent, prestigious English Friend Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847): “Friends had traditionally spoken about the light in an imprecise way as some divine spiritual energy or operative power that they knew they had experienced. It was terrible and gentle by turns but it was a safe guide through life. Gurney knew this power, of course, but in his mind he did not know how it was different from what he read in scripture about the Holy Spirit. So he tended to assimilate the two, and thus raised the whole question of whether it was possible to distinguish them. Was he right?”
Right or not, Punshon finds that Gurney’s “clear and powerful exposition of evangelical Quakerism … was revolutionary. … It proved attractive because its emphasis on the authority of scripture provided an ideology for Quakerism that the educated could defend and the simple could understand. It was both puzzling and threatening because it used a different terminology from that of traditional Quakerism and caused Friends like John Wilbur to argue that it had thereby lost its substance …”
David Hinshaw (Rufus Jones: Master Quaker) reflects on this dimension. “Gurney’s Journals indicate that although he put strong emphasis on the direct and immediate work of the Holy Spirit, he considered it in ways familiar with the evangelical writers rather than in the manner peculiar to Quaker interpreters. ‘The perfection of religion,’ he wrote to his friend, William Foster, in 1831, ‘appears to me to be consistent Quakerism on an evangelical foundation and I believe it will be well for us to carefully guard both the basis and the building.’”
Examining justification and sanctification, theological points where Gurney tried to meld traditional Quaker thinking (expressed along the lines of Light and Seed) with the evangelical thrust of his own time, Punshon reports: “Traditionally, Friends have taught that justification is the forgiveness of sins through the intercession of Christ subsequent to repentance, or turning to the light. Sanctification is the process of being moulded into the likeness of Christ that comes with growth in the spiritual life. Since the common denominator of both experiences is the light, they are both aspects of the same process. Gurney, however, taught the full evangelical doctrine of the atonement in which sanctification is logically entirely dependent on justification. Christ’s death frees you, but the Holy Spirit sanctifies you. Here Gurney insisted on the distinction. Again, was he right?”
This time, right or not, the tension proved too great: some Orthodox Yearly Meetings split into a Gurneyite faction, embracing his positions, and a Wilburite camp, named for John Wilbur of Rhode Island, holding to tradition.
In equating Light with the Holy Spirit, Gurney lost much of the Logos understanding. Light was no longer synonymous with “Word,” meaning “Christ” or the “power of Christ.” Nor did this include the Greek philosophical stream meaning “reason,” “plan,” or “agent of reconciliation,” among other possibilities. The meanings of Light, both as nouns and as verbs, from the Gospel of John – life, illuminates, power, glory, fullness, grace, truth – now became attributes of the person of Jesus. And the Holy Spirit and Christ lost their parallels the first chapter of Genesis, where God says, “Let there be light,” along with the refrain, “And God saw that the light was good.” Unintentionally, Gurney reduced Light from a rich metaphor for Christ to an agent of the person of Jesus, and tried to fit Light into the third person of Trinity, where the metaphor would not hold. Where Light once expressed a direct experience of union and unity, often linked with Seed metaphor, Friends in the evangelical Orthodox branch were now pointed elsewhere.
During this period, it is difficult to determine, precisely, what was happening in terms of theology among the Hicksites. “A weakness of the Hicksites was their heterogeneous nature,” Bliss Forbush observes (A History of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends). “Many members had no settled convictions concerning Quakerism. Most were birthright members and, out of habit, conformed to the customs and traditions of the Quietist period. They were united in desiring to maintain these customs, recoiled from what seemed to them to be the intolerance of all orthodoxies, and held to the doctrine of the Inner Light.” Our question, of course, is whether they were expressing this as “Inner Light” by now, or whether Forbush is, as he does in his biography of Elias Hicks, interposing a later term in place of the words they actually used. Regardless, “They more slowly moved away from many Quietist ways, enlarged their previous religious and philanthropic activities, but, being less aggressive, did not grow in numbers until modern times.”
Furthermore, with the weight of London Yearly Meeting behind them, the English evangelicals successfully isolated Hicksite Friends from the mainstream. Even if the Hicksites had articulated a unique Quaker line of thinking, they could not circulate it among the larger Society of Friends. Their most prominent recorded minister, Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), “went to the general conference of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London in 1840, but was excluded from its proceedings, largely because of her sex, but also because of the intolerance shown towards Hicksite Friends by the authorities in London Yearly Meeting,” Punshon notes. Like other prominent Hicksites, Mott is best known for her work on behalf of social reform, rather than theology – her work in the cause of the abolition of slavery led into women’s rights, as well.
It is possible the term “Inner Light” was appearing somewhere within the Hicksite strand or some other, smaller separated body of Friends. But a thorough examination of Quaker literature after the Hicksite Separations remains particularly elusive; American Quakerism through most of the 19th century fragments not just along theological lines, but also by locale. For example, unlike other Yearly Meetings, Ohio underwent both a Hicksite and a subsequent major Wilburite Separation. In the second division, the Gurneyites wound up as the numerical minority and, without the ballast of more traditional-style Quakers, were freed them to venture more boldly into Holiness practice, adopting both water baptism and the Lord’s supper despite Robert Barclay’s arguments to the contrary.
The earliest appearance of the term “Inner Light” I’ve be able to find in official, public usage by Friends does not come until 1878, when Ohio Yearly Meeting (Gurneyite) issued a minute that “repudiated the so-called doctrine of the inner light, or the gift of a portion of the Holy Spirit in the soul of every man, as dangerous, unsound, and unscriptural.”
The Oxford English Dictionary does cite an 1856 usage in a volume on mysticism, where the author is summarizing the teaching of George Fox; this work, however, does not appear to be from a Quaker perspective.
Mitchell Santine Gould, in “Walt Whitman’s Quaker Paradox” (Quaker History, Spring 2007), quotes a November 1855 review of Leaves of Grass published in the seminal Criterion magazine. There, Rufus Griswold observed, “Unless we admit this exhibition to be beautiful, we are at once set down for non-progressive conservatives, destitute of the ‘inner light.’” Gould perceives that “Griswold connected the dots between Whitman’s forbidden sexuality emerging from the darkness of the closet, the shocking liberalism of the Friends of Human Progress, and the Quaker notion of ‘inner light.’” Gould describes the Friends of Human Progress as an “’ultra’ radical Hicksite offshoot” with ties among western New York Quakers.
If the Ohio Gurneyite denunciation is harsh – and troubling in its denial of traditional Quaker teachings of the Holy Spirit or Christ dwelling in human hearts – perhaps it arises in reaction to rumors they had heard about apparent moral decadence in some Hicksite circles. For now, I am left assuming that the expression “Inner Light” circulated in spoken messages and conversations in the Yearly Meetings of Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore Hicksite, arising in a misinterpretation of the earlier Quaker Inward Light formulations, without circulating in published form. Gould, for instance, speaks of a double-edged working of a Quaker concept of living behind a “hedge” from worldly society. While the hedge could keep outside influences at a distance, it might also allow other activities to flourish unhindered.
Whatever the reasons, it is remarkable that Friends first published reference to Inner Light appears to be an attempt to negate it. It’s as if the charges against Elias Hicks – substantiated or not – had continued to gain momentum, snowballing into an avalanche. Where Hicks had once been accused, by a non-Quaker, of advocating an internal Light, he now can be seen – unwittingly – as the inspiration for the doctrine of the Inner Light!
In 1890, a dozen years later after the Ohio Gurneyite diatribe, Caroline Emelia Stephen calls a chapter “The Inner Light” in her book, Quaker Strongholds. She basically reiterates the traditional position of Friends, but this time applying the term repudiated by the Ohio Gurneyites, rather than the traditional “Inward Light” or “Light Within” formulation. Strikingly, within London Yearly Meeting, where the evangelical attack on the distinctively Quaker doctrine or metaphor of Light originated, a defense can be seen forming, nearly a century after the evangelical onslaught. Moreover, many of the most crucial voices in restoring an awareness of Light theology or metaphor were those who, like Rufus M. Jones, one of its leading members, had been raised in Orthodox branches of Friends.
The “Inner Light” tenet, then, both grows and shifts in definition during the 20th century.
Writing almost apologetically, for instance, A. Neave Brayshaw explains (1915): “By far the greater part of any ‘Inner Light’ that we know is, ultimately, whether we recognize the fact or not, due to Jesus of Nazareth and to the Scripture; and our spiritual life is hurt by a confused thinking that leads to any neglect of these, setting the Light over against them as if it were their rival and superior.”
But in 1927, the next decade, Ellen S. Bosanquet moves toward a broader position, with no mention of Christ or of Jesus: “The Inner Light does not lead men to do that which is right in their own eyes, but that which is right in God’s eyes. As the Light is One, so its teaching is ultimately (though not superficially) harmonious. In actual experience, it is not found that souls truly looking to the Inner Light as their authority will break away from each other in anarchy.”
That same year, Inazo Nitobe picks up the subject in A Japanese View of Quakerism, seeing both its Christian foundation and universal applications: “Quakerism stays within the family of Christianity. It professes to rest its structure on the person of Jesus Christ, whom it identifies as the Inner Light. It does not deny His incarnation and historicity, but it accepts His continued work of grace in each succeeding generation. Not only that, but it believes His grace was retro-active, so that it was He who enlightened all the seers of old. He still dwells within us – in the least as in the greatest, even in the savage and the unlettered.”
I must confess astonishment at Nitobe’s audacity. Initially, I’m taken aback at the brashness of making Jesus Christ the Inner Light. Then, on reflection, I see in his compressed logic something Quakers have long dealt with in subtleties: if the Light that was manifest in Jesus is also in our heart, then Jesus is in our heart. I wonder how Gurney would have reconciled that with justification and sanctification! Whether from the 1893 World Conference of Religions or from Orthodox Friends’ involvement in foreign missionary fields, Nitobe represents an encounter with theological thinking outside Christian tradition. The threat of blasphemy persecution that hung over the original Friends is lifted (though not entirely, as Christians in Muslim nations will attest – not that they are alone in the world of turbulence.)
Rufus Jones, meanwhile, largely observes the traditional forms of expression in his 1936 attempt to reinterpret the concept for a 20th-century Quakerism: “The Light Within, which is the central Quaker idea, is no abstract phrase. It is an experience. It is a type of religion that turns away from arid theological notions and that insists instead upon a real and vital experience of God revealed to persons in their own souls, in their own personal lives. Christ no longer stands for a Being who came into the world to effect a mysterious scheme of salvation, a scheme to be mediated henceforth by men by an authoritative church, after He Himself had withdrawn into the heavens from which He came. Christ is God eternally revealing Himself – God in an immediate relationship with men.” Just as it appears that Jones is advocating a purely Logos-based definition of Christ, however, he shifts to a Jesus-based perspective, but even then, not entirely: “Christ by his coming did not change the divine attitude; He revealed God as He essentially was and is, and made the fact forever plain that He is self-revealing and inwardly present wherever a human life is open and receptive. … There are many of us who can say today: ‘This is what I have waited for and sought after since my childhood. This is He. There is no other. I have met with my God; I have met with my Saviour.’”
Jones presses his argument that the Incarnation is not just history, but also universal: “God is not absentee, not unknowable, but already revealed, as truly as light or electricity or gravitation or life are revealed, and revealed in the only way in which He could be fully revealed, namely, in a Person. And furthermore … the revelation of Him is still proceeding, that we have found Him in ourselves and have living relationship with Him and are sure of that the spiritual nature of man has access to Him. This kind of experience, the very basis of religion – is what ‘Inner Light’ means to us now.”
Where Jones consciously moves from the traditional “Light Within” to the “Inner Light,” he does so with the parentheses for the latter, making it seem apologetic or, more likely, an attempt to return it to its earlier form.
In 1941, when his student, Thomas R. Kelly, first published the now classic A Testament of Devotion, a chapter title maintains the traditional phrase, “The Light Within.” While Kelly’s understanding is emphatically Christ-focused (“In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders.”), there are occasions where he lapses over to apply the newer term. For example: “The Inner Light, the Inward Christ, is no mere doctrine, belonging particularly to a small religious fellowship, to be accepted or rejected as a mere belief. It is the living Center of Reference for all Christian souls and Christian groups – yes, and of non-Christian groups as well – who seriously mean to dwell in the secret place of the Most High.”
Curiously, Kelly here argues against a general trend that is apparently becoming known as the “Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light.” Something remarkable also seems to be happening in another passage nearby:
“At first the practice of inward prayer is the process of alternation of attention between outer things and the Inner Light. Preoccupation with either brings the loss of the other. Yet what is sought is not alternation, but simultaneity, worship undergirding every moment, living prayer, the continuous current and background of all moments of life.”
Kelly’s chapter even takes the concept of “Inner Light” beyond the New Testament ideal of unceasing prayer to a reordering of our labors and possessions: “But there is a sound and valid contemptus mundi which the Inner Light works within the utterly dedicated soul. Positions of prominence, eminences of social recognition which we once meant to attain – how puny and trifling they become!”
In his 1951 biography of Jones, Hinshaw slips over into some novel interpretations: “The core of the Quaker belief is the Inner Light – that intuition of the presence of God which enables the individual to learn how to discover and realize what is evil for him and by avoiding it to bring himself into harmony with the universal spirit.” This sounds all too much like the description of conscience that Caroline Emelia Stephen had been warning against just six decades before. The sense of personal “lights” is also suggested: “John Woolman’s Inner Light convinced him that slavery was wrong, although many Friends then held it to be right. … Thus Woolman’s Inner Light, reflecting the Light of God, helped educate the consciences of men on the question of slavery. Since the Quakers held that the Inward Light was the Light of Christ they were able to prevent abuse of guidance by those who felt they could do what was right in their own eyes.” Despite his attempt to return to a traditional perspective, the argument here remains inverted; I would prefer he had said that in holding faithfully to the revelation of the Light of Christ, Woolman was able to call other Friends into that Light, which then searched them and revealed to them their wrongdoing. Woolman, after all, had described this as the Universal Light, not the Inner Light.
Two quite different perspectives do begin to converge in usage of the “Inner Light” term – sometimes, as Hinshaw demonstrates, within the same passage. One perspective, essentially, is a revelation of Christ; the other, an intuition. One unites one with the divine; the other, with oneself above all else. Sometimes, in contemporary thought, Friends find themselves suspended between the two.
“By emphasizing the Inner Light, we do not humanise religion too much. It is not our light – we receive it,” Waldo Williams explains in 1956, hewing to the original Quaker tradition before taking an existential turn: “As we are in the midst of experiences with our fellow beings, a light will come that causes those experiences to look changed. We say, in a clumsy way, that it is the Inner Light that has caused this transformation and we believe that it came from God. How do we know we are not deceiving ourselves? In the end, we have nothing but our own experience to rely upon. In the end, even the one who accepts the most traditional religion has nothing but his own experience to rely on.”
This is far from the impassioned perspective voiced only decades earlier by Jones and Kelly.
By 1966, D. Elton Trueblood (The People Called Quakers) sees a fallacy in the shifting application of “Inner Light” imagery: “The overuse of the expression ‘that of God in every man’ is a further indication of the humanist danger inherent in all references to the ‘Inner Light.’ In somber fact, the tendency is really one which borders upon a disguised and not frankly declared atheism. … The divination of man is cherished as a substitute for theistic faith.”
Its application, indeed, now appeared far from its early connections, as is demonstrated in this 1969 passage from Pierre Lacout: “In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.” Here, however, the Light is expressed entirely as an individual’s effort, with no acknowledgement of any gift of grace: rather than shining into a person, to reveal evil as well as good, it now blazes outward.
Even so, efforts to correct this view continued. “It is easy to misconstrue ‘Inner Light’ as an invitation to individualism and anarchy if one concentrates on the subjective experience known to each one. But it is an equally important part of our faith and practice to recognise that we are not affirming the existence and priority of your light and my light, but of the Light of God, and of the God who is made known to us supremely in Jesus,” L. Hugh Doncaster insisted in 1972.
The subjective experience known to each one, however, refused to yield entirely to Doncaster’s rejoinder, as we see in this 1987 quotation from Marrianne McMullen: “Ministry is what is on one’s soul, and it can be in direct contradiction to what is on one’s mind. It’s what the Inner Light gently pushes you toward or suddenly dumps in your lap. It is rooted in the eternity, divinity, and selflessness of the Inner Light; not in the worldly, egoistic functions of the conscious mind.” Ultimately, this excerpt leaves me uncertain just what is intended by either “ministry” or “Inner Light,” even when I attempt to substitute “Christ” for the latter. And early Quakerism had been quite aware that the Light of Christ was likely to rudely jolt one to change, rather than gently push. If anything, this last quotation comes unnervingly close to the humanist application Trueblood had warned against. The Light has not only been further and further distanced from any reference to the Seed, it has even come in some ways to replace it.
No matter how widely Inner Light is seen as the unique and defining doctrine of Quaker faith, a close reading of history shows otherwise. Not only is the teaching of Inner Light repudiated by one branch of Friends, its expressions within another stream remain highly personal and, compared to others, inconsistent or even contradictory. Part of the problem can be laid to early Friends when they refrained from fully articulating their understanding of Christ and Logos that was embodied in their metaphors of Light and the corresponding Seed. This gap in the teaching was further complicated by the lack of a clear reconciliation of that definition of Christ and Christianity with the mainstream teachings regarding the crucifixion, resurrection, and atonement, as well as the doctrine of trinity. Further difficulties arise in attempting to interpret the early Quaker teachings through the legalistic systems of mainstream Protestantism, rather than through the metaphorical thinking Friends had embraced as Light and Seed.
One consequence has been that Friends today do not have a common language for speaking across the differing branches. For evangelical Friends, the key to reconnecting to early Quaker thought or to reaching across the present-day divide may be found in comparing an emphasis on Spirit-filled worship with an experience of the Light of Christ; for quietist Friends, the key may involve translating expressions of Inner Light into the earlier Light/Seed metaphors, with special attention to Light as Christ.
Either way, a distinct, unique, and defining wisdom may be recovered – as I would hope, from both directions.