The Quaker culture that emerged from the mid-1600s was hardly uniform, but by the time George Fox died in 1691, the Society of Friends had largely made peace with the world and drawn into a framework where its members could pursue their faith with little fear of persecution. Over the ensuing decades, the focus turns toward daily life. If Friends were to be a people of God, they sensed they had now been gathered out of the world and placed behind a protective hedge; their teachings were to be handed down largely within their families. This, of course, created a paradox for a faith that was based on direct experience of the Logos as an Inward Light. Not all birthright Friends had undergone this transformation, and not all children would choose to stay within the faith. Outwardly, Friends were also engaged in the Holy Experiment of governing Pennsylvania, and all the compromises that came with it. The very manner of Quaker living also made some families, on both sides of the Atlantic, extremely wealthy within a few generations, while others kept moving out to the frontier and its subsistence conditions.
Through all of this, there was little, if any, theological development. The published journals of prominent Friends typically speak of their inward labors and their global travel in ministry but say little of what their messages encompassed. The failure of early Quakers to directly address and then reconcile the inherent differences between a theology based on Christ-as-Light, emphasizing the Greek philosophical concept of Logos, and one based on Christ-as-Jesus, accentuating the blood-sacrifice and Resurrection at Calvary, remained – something that would eventually plague later generations of Friends. Some of the opposition arises in the employment of a metaphor (which can be raised as Calvary or the Cross as much as it can as Light). Metaphor, reflected in personal experience, stands apart from more legalistic or logically rigorous language, with its sense of judicature, widely voiced from Protestant pulpits.
To be fair, some of the conflicts are Scriptural, with Mark and John emphasizing Logos-based empowerment, while Matthew and Luke present two different arguments for empowerment-based on birth. The mostly overlooked Nativity of Revelation 12, meanwhile, gives both interpretations of Christ a tormented, cosmic context that begins with a pregnant sun-clothed woman crying out in agonized birth pangs, sends her in flight into the desert rather than Egypt, even provides two wings so she can fly in escape, and has the child’s appearance coinciding with a Heavenly battle in which “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan … was thrown down to earth,” which inverts the popular understanding of a Messiah’s coming to “save his people from their sins” and bring “good news of great joy” and has it causing ongoing tribulations instead. Could it be that this Nativity is ignored each Christmas precisely because of its presentation as metaphor, rather than history?
Rather than addressing these tensions directly, conventional Christianity early on turned increasingly to the empowerment-at-birth dialectic of Matthew and Mark, downplayed the implications of Logos that appear in the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and ignored the counter-presentation of Revelation, which in some ways spanned the other two approaches. In restoring a Logos-based Christianity, the first generations of Friends renewed this inherent tension; as a persecuted sect, moreover, they no doubt understood the drama of Revelation’s Incarnation. As successive generations of the Society of Friends gained acceptance and even respectability, it appears that for many Quakers, encounters with this Logos were increasingly found in descriptions left by earlier Friends, rather than in the experience of their own lives. That is, they were finding religion in texts rather than first-hand.
Reexamining my own understanding of these alternatives, I sensed that an earlier Friend had begun to articulate an understanding similar to the one I was developing. Essentially, the distinction comes down to being Christ-like (or Jesus-like) versus Christ-filled. That returned me to Essays on Salvation by Christ by Job Scott (1751-1793), a recorded minister from Rhode Island who died of smallpox while on a mission to Ireland. What makes Scott especially significant is his position as the last major Quaker to travel in ministry entirely before the cataclysmic schisms that rip the Society of Friends ironically into two hostile camps. We might also speculate whether history might have taken a different course had Scott lived and not left Elias Hicks as the leading proponent of a traditional Quaker embrace of Light metaphor.
In Scott I find the language thicker, more obtuse, than in Friends writings from the previous century or in Caroline Stephen’s a century later. Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve spent more time with early Quakers and their literary constructions, while Stephen – sister of Leslie Stephen and aunt of Virginia Woolf – voices a more contemporary sensibility. Scott’s day, though, was in the throes of major upheavals as intellectual systems and socio-economic forces in North America, especially, collided: there were armed insurrection against monarchy, expanding frontier settlement, new experiments in government, and an air of liberty. Theologically, Scott faced deists on one side, and Methodists, Pietists, and an incipient Holiness movement on the other. Terms such as justification and sanctification emerged as central topics of religious debate. The very idea of being saved, in all of its new intensity, could be beyond the comprehension of those for whom being yielded was a measure of faith. Christian Newcomer (His Life and Journal) demonstrates the clash of two differing theological models from a Mennonite versus United Brethren perspective – the latter, at the time, being a German-language Methodism arising on American soil. In Scott’s own New England, meanwhile, the spiritual heirs of Puritans were poised for their own schism, precipitated by the selection of presidents for Dartmouth and Harvard colleges – a controversy that would split them into Unitarian and Congregationalist denominations about the same time the Society of Friends in America splintered into its Hicksite and Orthodox branches.
As it turns out, Scott’s writing gives crucial insights into both the final strand of the double-helix Quaker theology – one that Friends could unite on, relying on language of Inward Light and of Scripture – and the emerging battle lines. Scott’s death, in middle age and at the height of his powers, preserved him from participating directly in the ensuing controversies, unlike his contemporary Elias Hicks, even though Scott’s theological writings – when finally published – did become part of the debate. Some of his opponents argued blatantly that his views would have come around to theirs by then or, had he lived, he never would have allowed their publication.
Central to Scott’s message was his focus on the inward experience of Christ: “I am as easy to risk my everlasting condition upon the true faith and fellowship of Christ, as inwardly revealed from glory to glory to those who keep a single eye to his holy light within them, as I am in believing that GOD made the heavens and the earth!” … “I know that Christ must sit at the right hand of eternal power in my soul” … “there never was but one true religion … the immediate inward work of God in man” … “Nothing but a true and living birth of God in the soul, of the divine and incorruptible seed, a real and substantial union of the divinity and humanity in one holy offspring, has ever brought salvation; and this, throughout all generations” … “a conception, generation, and the birth of the seed of God in us” … “Christ is the door. Is there a door of entrance into the kingdom in our hearts? If so, it is Christ in us; there is no other door” … “He is hid and buried in them” … “the seed is one in all” … “This is all inward, for redemption and salvation” … “the seed groaned on Calvary, the seed groans in us all” … “Hence every man in whom this birth is brought forth, is truly the mother of Christ.”
Even in his innovative admission of a believer’s mothering role in the continuity of Christ, Scott essentially upheld Quaker tradition, stressing each individual’s responsibility to accept and nurture this Seed if the soul is to bear fruit. The first step involves a recognition of sin: “He that commits sin works directly against God, against the divine call, the manifestation and operation of God in himself. This is the evil of sin. It is hence the guilt and condemnation arise. It is rebellion against the light. The light shines in all.” … “None therefore have, nor ever can have, this condemnation, who have not had the light. Its coming cannot be to the condemnation of any but those who hate it. He who loves it, that lives in it, and conforms his deeds, his heart, his life to it, is and must be in union, communion, and reconciliation with God.” … “Cleansing from all sin, and washing it away, are not effected while we are living daily and hourly in sin. Sin ever separates the soul from God.” To see “that of God in each person,” then, may require forceful words and action to turn someone toward the Light and away from sin, rather than simply assuming a natural goodness within everyone. In traditional Quaker vocabulary, natural refers to someone who hasn’t yet awakened to the Seed of Christ Within.
Scott defines Christ in an experiential manner: “He is the eternal Word, and as such is God. To us he is the emanation, or son of God’s love. When he lives and reigns complete in us; when he is our life, and has in all things the pre-eminence with us, and so is our complete justification, as such he must have been begotten and formed in us; strictly and truly so; for it is thus, and thus only, that we are or can be complete in him. … Every true believer is his mother.”
Scott’s Journal was first published in abridged form, 1797, deleting most of the doctrinal material, which was nevertheless copied and circulated before its controversial publication in 1824 – significantly, only three years before the schism, however inappropriately, named after Hicks.
In Quakers in the Colonial Northeast, Arthur J. Worrall describes Scott as an “enthusiastic convert … who could and would carry traditional Quaker beliefs to extremes.” Worrall explains: “During his trips in the ministry outside New England, especially on his second trip to the South in 1789, Scott first set forth his novel interpretation of traditional Quaker beliefs. He had always stressed the mystical side of Quakerism – namely, the necessity of following the leadings of the Inward Light. In 1786 he began to branch off in new directions, stressing the universality of Christ and the emptiness of religion unless one could encourage Christ to grow within.” So far we see nothing that hadn’t already appeared in some form among Friends a century earlier. “By the 1790’s his sentiments were making some Friends nervous. But they were not the only reasons for future Orthodox Friends to be concerned,” Worrall observes. “He carried the doctrine [of the Inward Light, or Seed of God] further by arguing that eternal Christ had to be born in all men and the natural man crucified. To be saved, one had to put off the old Adam and have Christ born again in oneself.” Again, this was largely in line with early Friends. The real problem, however, surfaced when Scott followed Logos as Light/Seed to a logical conclusion others had preferred to leave unvoiced: “More than that, to Scott the body of historic Jesus was no more than a temple that had received the eternal Christ, much as people in earlier and later ages had been saved. Scott never, strictly speaking, denied the divinity of the historic Christ [Jesus], but by stressing continual crucifixion, salvation, and baptism, he challenged in explicit terms what traditional Christian churches upheld as accepted doctrine. He carried to extremes the beliefs which critics had always maintained were basic to Quakers and which Friends had in some fashion or other denied publicly for a century.” Here, then, is a suggestion that early Friends had arrived at a theological breakthrough they dared not articulate openly in face of the Nayler and Penn convictions. The fact that Friends had been far more likely to refer to Christ than to Jesus leads to the striking conclusion that they perceived a difference. In doing so, they largely sidestepped the questions of Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Atonement that were the basis of arguments about Jesus. These were, after all, events that happened within an individual who welcomed the Light of Christ into the heart.
Worrall notes rising opposition to Scott’s expressions, both within his own monthly meeting and within New England and New York yearly meetings, and sees them as forerunners of the schisms to come. “For by 1790 Quakerism was taking on a more evangelical cast.” That is, the arguments were turning to the historic Jesus, rather than the eternal Christ.
Among the public and sometimes vitriolic objections raised by British Friend Luke Howard, in 1825, to Scott’s Salvation by Christ was this: “The fundamental proposition then of the whole book, and which the author seems to have regarded as a special revelation to himself, is, that the human soul is in a spiritual sense, and in relation to its God and Saviour, a female … He insists again and again, that these things are real, which sober Christians have regarded only as lively and apposite metaphors …” I have been arguing, of course, that metaphors can allow intense expression of experience, something not to be dismissed with an “only”; could it be that a trained scientist could not fathom the equations at work within a metaphor? A famed meteorologist, Howard succeeded his father as one of three Friends on the fifteen-member board of the British and Foreign Bible Society. “In his account of the beginnings of the Bible Society, its first secretary writes that it may have had a vital role in drawing Friends out of their quietist seclusion into the mainstream of national life,” John Punshon observes (Portrait in Grey). For me, the big question involves how much of Howard’s theology was being imported from outside the Quaker stream. Punshon provides the answer: “In 1835, Isaac Crewdson of Manchester meeting issued a tract called A Beacon to the Society of Friends intended as a counterblast to suspected ‘Hicksite’ sympathies among British Quakers. Crewdson adopted an extreme evangelical position, condemning the doctrine of the Light as a ‘delusion’ compared with the outward authority of scripture. In the row that followed, he and a large number of Friends around Manchester and Kendal resigned and set up on their own, taking the name, ‘Evangelical Friends.’ They were in an impossible position and rapidly declined as a community, most joining in fellowship with other churches, notably the Plymouth Brethren, who observed the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but like Friends, did not have an ordained ministry. The best known member of the group was Luke Howard.”
We should note that despite their small numbers, the Plymouth Brethren were central in promulgating and advancing the doctrine now known as Biblical inerrancy – or fundamentalism. With its emphasis on the Bible as the Word of God, this teaching stands as a direct denial of the Quaker awareness of what the Bible itself says about the Word of God: that it was made flesh and dwelled among us.
A Brief History of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) (1959), compiled by Charles P. Morlan, describes Crewdson’s volume as “a clear statement of the evangelical position. He declares that the Inward Light is ‘A delusive notion.’ He repudiates the foundation principle of Quakerism, immediate and continued inward revelation. For him the only basis of religious truth is the revealed words of God as recorded in Scripture. This is probably the first important publication which sets forth the trend toward evangelicalism among English Friends.”
In the 1963 edition of Handbook for Friends by what was then Ohio Yearly Meeting (Gurneyite), now Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region, we learn, under a critique of “Quietism,” that “in 1785 Job Scott spent twenty days visiting fifteen meetings in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and did not open his mouth in a single one of them.” The implicit criticism is that he had nothing to convey, or at least preach; the reality is that he was being obedient to the Spirit of Christ, and tender to utter nothing in a public forum unless directed to do so by that Light. I suspect that for a person of Scott’s intellectual capacity, such silent waiting while sitting on the facing bench in free gospel ministry presented its own trial by fire.
The intensity of the Gurneyite/Orthodox critique of Scott perplexes me. Despite the passion in Scott’s ministry, his language carefully avoids blunt confrontational retorts, which tainted Hicks’ final decade. The misogynist tone in Luke Howard’s reaction betrays a common masculine bias in the Word-as-Bible strand of Christology. As Scott acknowledged – and as feminist Biblical scholars, including those who see in the Sophia (Wisdom) literature a Jewish parallel to Greek Logos concepts, are detecting – the Light/Seed understanding embraces feminine dimensions. The critique of Scott’s vigilant continuance in silence betrays a Gurneyite/Orthodox emphasis on words, however shallow or however articulate, instead of a direct and holy obedience to the Spirit of Light for what is required at this moment and place. I suspect that much of his antagonists’ vehemence arises in a recognition that rather than directly answering their newly phrased questions (rooted largely in Wesleyan Methodism), Scott instead brought greater clarity to Friends’ embrace of Logos as the alternative Christianity it had presented all along. For those who were hoping to reach out from their Quaker enclaves to find commonality with other people in joint activities, this would not do. In the schisms at hand, Friends lost their Christ-as-Light connection; while the Gurneyite/Orthodox factions increasingly replaced Light with Blood imagery, the Hicksite party eventually eliminated Christ from the equation, causing Scott’s achievements to be neglected. They await our rediscovery and renewed application.