William Penn

From the perspective of understanding the range of Light metaphor at work among early Friends, William Penn (1644-1728) becomes problematic. He is capable of articulating it in the context of traditional Quaker language, as he does in his 1677 letter to the Countess of Falkenstein:

“Let this that hath visited thee lead thee; this Seed of light and life, which is the Seed of the Kingdom; yea, it is Christ, the true and only Seed of God, that visited my soul even in my young years, that spread my sins in order before me, reproved me, and brought godly sorrow upon me, making me often weep in solitary places … Now was all the glory of the world as a bubble … And in this seeking state I was directed to the testimony of Jesus in mine own conscience, as the true shining light, giving me to discern the thoughts and intents of mine own heart. … and when I received it in the love of it, it showed me all that ever I had done, and reproved all the unfruitful works of darkness, judging me as a man of the flesh, and laying judgment to the line, and righteousness to the plummet in me.”

Here we have the image rolling through a series of synonyms and variations, each one adding to a comprehension of the foundation of Light in Penn’s later writing as he continues: “And as by the ‘brightness of his coming into my soul’ he discovered a man of sin there, upon his throne, so by ‘the breath of his mouth’, which is the two-edged sword of his Spirit, he destroyeth his [the sinner’s or Satan’s] power and kingdom. And so having made me a witness to the death of the cross, he hath also made me a witness to the resurrection.”

This compression in which Light brings an individual to witness the cross within himself or herself, as well as its Resurrection there, is the key to perceiving the Light metaphor throughout much of Penn’s other writing. He will substitute, as his metaphor of choice, Cross, but the astute reader should be on the lookout to see where Light might be as appropriate, or even more so. Consider, for instance, his major writing, No Cross, No Crown, as No Light, No Crown instead.

In his 1694 preface to the Journal of George Fox, Penn also writes openly of the Light: “The glory of this day … is that the blessed principle of Light and Life of Christ which we profess … according to the Light and sense this blessed principle gave us … For being quickened by it in our inward man, we could easily discern the difference of things, and feel what was right, and what was wrong, and what was fit and what not, both in reference to religion and civil concerns. That being the ground of fellowship of all saints, it was in that our fellowship stood.”

In the preface to No Cross, No Crown, Penn advises the reader, “retire into thyself and take a view of the condition of thy soul, for Christ hath given thee light with which to do it,” and then “embrace the reproofs and convictions of Christ’s light and Spirit in thine own conscience, and bear the judgment …” In Chapter II, Penn tells the beginner, “the lamp the Lord has lighted in thee, not utterly extinct, it may evidently appear, first, how great and full thy backsliding has been.”

While Penn’s writing discloses an awareness of Christ as Logos, Penn frequently presents this as the Cross, rather than Light. “For as thy fear towards God, and holy abstinence from unrighteousness was, at first, not taught by the precepts of men, but by that light and grace, which revealed the most secret thoughts and purposes of thy heart, and searched the most inward parts, setting thy sins in order before thee, and reproving thee for them, not suffering [allowing] one unfruitful thought, word or work of darkness, to go unjudged, so when thou didst begin to disregard that light and grace … the restless enemy of man’s good quickly took advantage of the slackness … In short, thou didst omit to take up Christ’s holy yoke, to bear thy daily cross; thou wast careless of thy affections, and kept no journal or check upon thy actions; but didst decline to audit accounts, in thy own conscience, with Christ thy light, the great bishop of thy soul, and judge of thy works …” … “Thou must also submit thy will to Christ’s holy law and light in thy heart, and for the reward he sets before thee, to wit, eternal life, endure his cross, and despise the shame of it.” … “But if he calls, if he knocks still, that is, if his light yet shines, if it reproves thee still, there is hope thy day is not over, and that repentence is not yet hid from thine eyes; but his love is after thee still, and his holy invitation continues to save thee.” … “But if you will daily bear the holy cross of Christ, and sow to the Spirit; if you will listen to the light and grace that comes by Jesus, and which he has given to all people for salvation, and square your thoughts, words, and deeds thereby, which leads and teaches the lovers of it to deny all ungodliness and the world’s lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present evil world, then you may with confidence look for the blessed ‘hope, and joyful coming, and glorious appearance of the great God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’ ” (No Cross, No Crown, 1682)

What makes Penn so problematic in terms of an examination of Light metaphor is the way he subsumes it with his Cross imagery, which he then parlays into a message of self-denial, repentance, obedience, and virtuous conduct. Soon after joining Friends, Penn was convicted and imprisoned in 1668 in the Tower of London after being accused of denying the Trinity. This leads to the question of how much this persecution influenced his later writings, causing his presentations to be couched in more “theologically correct” terminology. The intimacy and passion of some other early Quaker writings is missing in much of Penn’s work, and the message often seems to focus on rejecting the world’s ways by being faithful to Christ’s speaking to one’s self or one’s conscience or – here, we are left to presume, our response to Christ’s Light as it comes into play, no matter our faith, Christian, Jewish, or pagan. Penn turns to all three for examples.

Penn does perceive the universality of Light, and articulates his understanding with startling originality: “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls everywhere are of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers. This world is a form; our bodies are forms; and no visible acts of devotion can be without forms. But yet the less form in religion the better, since God is a Spirit; for the more mental our worship, the more adequate to the nature of God; the more silent, the more suitable to the language of the Spirit.” (Some Fruits of Solitude, 1693)

As Hugh Barbour notes in his forward to the 1981 edition of No Cross, No Crown: “Penn went further, to spell out Friends’ claim that Socrates, like Abraham, was already saved by his faith and obedience: righteous pagans had not only known the Light, but followed it fully. Penn’s humanistic and Quaker universalism fused and became more humane in 1682, when his No Cross Preface, a warmly personal invitation to repentance, restated Friends’ attacks upon the Self, in terms true of Quakers and non-Friends alike.”

In 1696, he shades this visitation of Light: “It was the same Spirit that came upon Moses, which came upon John the Baptist; and it was the same Spirit that came upon Gideon and Samson, that fell upon Peter and Paul; but it was not the same dispensation of that Spirit.” In other words, not everyone comprehends or embodies as much of this Light as some others might.

Of the erudite trio of Penington, Penn, and Barclay from those early decades of the Quaker movement, Penn somehow seems the most distant. His focus becomes right conduct as a measure of one’s faithfulness to the Light, or in his terms, the daily Cross. If the shortcoming in James Nayler’s presentation of Light is that it can be understood only by those who have experienced it, Penn often speaks dispassionately of it, pointing to historical persons of virtue, rather than his own encounters. That is, he implies that we may understand the Light by the fruits of its Seed.

What he leaves us with is a vision of the universality of the Light, and of tolerance.

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