Robert Barclay

Robert Barclay (1648-1690) produced the masterpiece remains the cornerstone attempt at a systematic Quaker theology. Unlike Isaac Penington, who frequently speaks in the first-person singular, and William Penn, who urges his readers to look for the working of Light in the lives of others throughout history, Barclay instead rises to voice a united front for Friends as a movement. Writing principally in first-person plural, he reaches beyond his own experience to earn the endorsement of George Fox and other public Friends.

Joining with Friends in 1666, Barclay came with unique preparation – the strict Presbyterianism of his childhood in Scotland combined with Jesuit tutoring in Paris to ground him in theology, church history, and Latin. This preparation proved especially apt when he attempted a systematic Quaker theology we’ve come to know as Barclay’s Apology. In defending Friends against many of the accusations cast against them, and setting them apart from other denominations, Barclay emphasized an inward experience of Christ and its transforming power. In part, he says: “It is a living, inward, spiritual, and pure thing of great substance. It is not a mere form or shadow. It is not a display. It is not a collection of notions and opinions.”

He continues, “We have earnestly desired people to sense the presence of God in and near themselves,” “We say to people that it is the light and law within, rather than the letter without, that can truly tell them their condition and lead them from all evil,” “Merely talking about the outward life of Christ on earth will not redeem or justify them in the sight of God,” “They must know Christ resurrected in them,” “We ask them to come to the judgment of Christ in their hearts, to believe in the Light, and follow it.”

While similar expressions can be gleaned from the writings of many other early Friends, Barclay remains authoritative and offers many expression of experiencing the Light Within generously over a few pages. What’s more, we’re dealing with a highly literate, logical thinker – hardly the stereotypical mystic. Intended to stand amid the learned discourse of its day, the Apology for the True Christian Divinity was first published in Latin, in 1676, two years before the English version appeared. Yet listen to Barclay’s passionate argument: “It is by this Spirit that the glorious things which God hath laid up for us, which neither outward ear hath heard, nor outward eye hath seen, nor the heart of man conceived by all his reasonings, are revealed unto us. It is by this Spirit that both wisdom and knowledge, and faith and miracles, and tongues, and prophecies are obtained.” And “Why should any be so foolish as to deny … this Spirit which Christ hath promised shall dwell in his children? They that do suppose the indwelling and leading of his Spirit to be ceased, must also suppose Christianity to be ceased, which cannot subsist without it.”

Barclay proclaims, “To men who resist not this Light, but treasure their gift and obey it, it produces a spiritual birth, and Christ is begotten within them, these branches abide in the Vine; they are plentifully nourished and fruitful, their virtue is not in themselves; but in Christ who supplieth their nurture; it is He, both the gift and the giver, who effecteth man’s justification, this justification proceeds pari passu with sanctification.”

Again, this Light is defined quite differently from the modern Inner Light teaching. Here it causes a person to be born again, as Christ is born within that person. Branches of the Vine also sprout within that person, with their roots being Christ – by suggestion, the Seed metaphor reappears. Through this Light, the individual is purified and brought into holiness. Barclay embraces the paradox that Christ becomes both the gift and the giver.

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Penn and Barclay joined Friends nearly decade after Penington – Barclay in 1666 and Penn a year later. While applying much of the same language as the original Friends, a shift in world outlook was already occurring. As Elizabeth Cazden observes (The Modernist Reinvention of Quakerism: The Independent Meetings in New England, 1920-1950): “The Quaker movement, it has been said, was born on the cusp between the late Protestant Reformation and the early liberal Enligtenment, strongly imprinted with both identities. George Fox can be seen as essentially a medieval person, with an outlook grounded in sixteenth century Anabaptist and early Protestant conflicts. Under his sole leadership the Quaker movement might well have fit more securely the sectarian mold of its pacifist fellows, Mennonites and Brethren, with strict discipline and separation from the world.”

Of course, leadership of the Friends movement was not solely in the hands of Fox, and in moving its headquarters from Swarthmore Hall in Lancashire to London, the outlook shifted not just from rural to cosmopolitan, but from medieval to Enlightenment as well: “William Penn and Robert Barclay, on the other hand, were a generation younger, were affluent children of the Enlightenment who reinterpreted the message of the still-new Society of Friends for a more modern age of science and rationalism, putting more emphasis on freedom of conscience, natural religion, and experience than on orthodox Christian doctrine.”

Moreover, Cazden notes, “Both writers came close to equating the Light of Christ with universal natural reason, which was present in all persons whether or not they knew the ‘history’ of Jesus Christ.”

What Penington, Penn, and Barclay accomplish now constellates the direction of the Quaker movement for the next century and a half, within the organizational confines established by Fox and Fell at Swarthmore. Penington voices the passion of the inward experience of Light. Penn points to its role in making Friends a more temperate and gentle people. Barclay gives the movement respectability and intellectual gravitas.

The Quaker outbreak was finally on solid footing.