Any investigation of the spiritual concepts of the Light, the Truth, and the Seed as they emerged in the Society of Friends, or Quakers, will turn at some point to George Fox (1624-91). While he is often called the society’s founder, a more accurate view would place him at the center a vibrant circle of early leaders, most of them falling to premature deaths as a consequence of intense persecution. Fox, however, survived well into the second generation of Friends in a spiritual life that was crucially guided by two older women – first Elizabeth Hooton (1600?-1672) and then Margaret Fell (1614-1702). I would prefer to call him its central organizer or administrator. While his biggest impact came in steering a course amid storms of public hostility and in the shaping of the government of his church, or body of believers, Fox increasingly became the arbiter of what was acceptable Quaker behavior. Because of his historic stature, he is often credited for many contributions, including one he definitely did not originate – something that has become known as the distinctively Quaker doctrine of Inner Light.
As an example of the conventional presentation of Fox, I’ll turn to the Associated Press Stylebook, a common reference volume used by American journalists. It details which spelling among several alternatives is to be used, offers distinctions regarding certain words and phrases, notes military ranks and the proper abbreviations, and so on; its purpose is to instill some uniformity in writing and editing the day’s news. Since religious denominations can be particularly baffling for non-members, the Stylebook can be especially helpful in understanding their particular identities. The Society of Friends, for instance, ranges from so-called silent meetings having no pastor or choir to large, evangelical mega-congregations with all the trappings. That’s before we even get to the distinctions between monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings or our affiliated organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, or Friends World Committee on Consultation. In addition to describing him as the founder of the Society of Friends, general descriptions typically leave an impression that Fox’s teaching of the Light of Christ came to him in a flash of inspiration; as the Stylebook’s entry on Quakers states: “In the 1640s, he said he heard a voice that opened the way for him to develop a personal relationship with Christ, described as the Inner Light, a term based on the Gospel description of Christ as the ‘true light.’ … Fox taught that the Inner Light emancipates a person from adherence to any creed, ecclesiastical authority or ritual forms.” This entry then continues with a concise, accurate description of Quakers and was no doubt approved by authorities from several branches of American Friends.
Fox’s Journal, however, paints a different picture, one suggesting a slow evolution of a metaphor of Light in his own understanding and usage. Here the development begins with an acutely disturbed young man: “But my troubles continued, and I was often under great temptations; and I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me.”
This is not someone who would boldly proclaim hearing a heavenly voice, this twenty-two-year-old who “kept myself much as a stranger, seeking heavenly wisdom and getting knowledge from the Lord.” We can ask ourselves if we see his malaise as arising from trying to place himself in relation to the greater society around him, which was undergoing its own upheaval and displacements, from the common dilemma many youths face in trying to determine the course they wish to follow for the rest of their lives, from a psychological disorder, or from some other cause. Perhaps it arose in his recognition of the gulf between what he might reasonably expect God’s people to be and do, and the lives he actually observed.
John Punshon (Portrait in Grey) suggests that the defeat of Charles I by the New Model Army in 1645 thirty miles from Fox’s home in Fenny Drayton cast its own shadow: “You cannot hide thousands of fighting men, guns, baggage trains, fodder and horses in the Leicestershire countryside. George Fox was twenty-one and must have seen it all. He makes few references to these great events, but it was they that carried him to his destiny.”
Modern ears following this section of Fox’s life, moreover, are likely to hear a description of manic-depression, for “though my exercises and troubles were very great, yet they were not so continual but that I had some intermissions, and was sometimes brought into such heavenly joy that I thought I had been brought into Abraham’s bosom.” Throughout the downs and the ups, however, Fox kept turning to spiritual comfort: “When my troubles and torments were great, then was his love exceedingly great.” Indeed, it is often during such periods of emotional distress, when our normal defenses are at their lowest, we become our most open to psychological and spiritual revelations. Fox was no exception.
Within this struggle he reported having an “opening from the Lord,” an apt description for an intense, direct spiritual experience; “opening” implies a breakthrough, possibly in the very place that might be shielded in someone who was feeling no distress in his or her own psyche. For Fox, curiously, this opening or insight directed him away from religious teachers and soon into a revolutionary encounter: “And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell me what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. … And this I knew experimentally.” While his sense of Christ Jesus was through experience, Fox remains degrees apart from the metaphor of Light that Friends would eventually present.
Fox then entered a period of sacred healing before declaring: “Christ it was who had enlightened me, that gave me his light to believe in, and gave me hope, which is himself, revealed himself in me, and gave me his spirit and his grace, which I found sufficient in the deeps and in weakness.” Enlightened, then, with its core of light. The question of how profound this experience was hinges on Fox’s signification of “revealed himself in me.” It could mean simply “to me,” as in “he spoke in my ear.” Or it could mean, at another extreme, Jesus himself rose up within Fox or even that Fox was becoming Jesus. Since the Journal was written from the vantage of his latter years, we may wonder what language Fox would have used at the time this epiphany occurred. The turning point, however, would rest on his sense of “a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’” Even here, though, Fox leaves us with ambiguity: does he mean that the words of Jesus in the Bible can be read in a more personal and direct way, as “red-letter Christians” sometimes argue, or that God is instead speaking directly to Fox, in his heart?
At this time in his life, Fox’s religious journey was essentially private, although he had found a circle of others – including “the tender woman whose name was Elizabeth Hooten,” who would become the first to join in what would become the Quaker movement (I will even suggest she was already a Quaker, in essense, and that Fox joined her). He describes his encounters asessentially times of weighing his own questions and insights. Here, too, his turning away from ecclesiastical authority was based on the clergy’s inability to respond to his probing need, “for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition,” more than because of any shortcomings in dogma or ritual per se. Throughout, he says little of his spiritual practices – prayer, scriptural reading, other study, fasting, and the like – or how they would change after his encounters with the Seekers in 1652, and their influence in shaping what is now known as traditional Quaker “silent worship.”
Emphatically, the inward turmoil continued, even as Fox grew clearer in understanding his “condition.” Later that year, 1647, he “was under great temptations sometimes, and my sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. … And the Lord answered that it was needful that I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.”
So far, any expression of the inward (or inflowing) nature of God’s presence presents itself almost tentatively, as when Christ Jesus “revealed himself in me,” all the while extending “his spirit and his grace, which I found sufficient in the deeps and in weakness.” But Fox was still gathering the elements that would unite into a concept Friends would soon call the Light Within or Inward Light, often combined with Seed. Pointedly, however, this concept of Light remains quite different from an “Inner Light,” or innate divinity often presented today. Crucially, this Light is connected to Christ, to the point that we may wonder whether early Friends then understood Christ as something other than Jesus; perhaps more along the lines of what we know as Holy Spirit. Even “an infinite ocean of light and love” in Fox’s expression appears almost tentatively. In Fox, the imprecision can be quite maddening.
Early the next year, 1648, Fox perceived a glimmering of the potential of an Inward Christ in human hearts: “I saw there was a great crack to go throughout the earth, and a great smoke to go as the great shaking. This was the earth in people’s hearts, which was to be shaken before the Seed of God was raised out of the earth.” In short, Fox declared – apparently from his own experience – that the Seed of Christ or Seed of God could grow in the earth of people’s hearts. As importantly, he saw this happening within the hearts of other people, too, as they began worshipping together, for “great meetings we began to have, and a mighty power and work of God there was amongst people, to the astonishment of both priests and people.” Here, also, two years before the emerging movement was given its “Quaker” nickname, we get a hint at the shaking and trembling that sometimes accompanied its experience. Fox was, however, still short of teaching that Christ was present in every heart, and not just to it, waiting to be awakened, even though he was already intensely aware of a motion of the Spirit of Christ and of inward discernment: “So the more sober of the priests and professors yielded, and consented that it was not the outward law, but the inward, which showed the inward lust which Paul spake of when he was convinced. For the outward law took hold upon the outward action, but the inward law upon the inward lusts.” In that same gathering, “After I had prayed, one of the professors would pray, which brought deadness and a veil over them. … Then he came to me, and desired that I would pray again, but I could not pray in man’s will.”
Somehow, soon after this, Fox began to identify his encounters with the opening chapter the gospel of John. Perhaps in the “great meetings” he was exposed to others who were drawing on related views of an inward experience of Christ; pockets of such teachings did exist in the Gringletonians, Familists, and Boehmists, among others. At last, Fox now voices key words and phrases from the opening passage of John with the authority of personal experience – “the beginning,” “with God,” “everything came about through him,” “without him not one thing came about,” “life,” “the light of mankind,” “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand [overcome] it,” “all should believe through him,” “the light, which illuminates every person who comes into the world,” “the power to become children of God,” “born not from blood or from the will of the flesh or from the will of man, but from God,” “became flesh and lived among us,” “we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth,” “the truth came through Jesus Christ” – all became entwined in his outpouring message. By nowt, central to Fox’s emerging understanding was an emphasis on “light,” which he then linked to “Christ”: “But as all believe in the light and walk in the light, which Christ hath enlightened every man that cometh into the world, and so become children of the light, and of the day of Christ; in his day all things are seen, visible and invisible, by the divine light of Christ, the spiritual, heavenly man, by whom all things were made and created.” Not only was Fox now applying a co-joined “light of Christ,” he was also underscoring an open recognition that this is “the light, which illuminates every person who comes into the world.” Decisively, in all of these turnings of meaning and nuance, this concept of Light operates as a resonant metaphor, rather than a precisely defined term.
To hear that God’s Light was available to all people must have been startling. Both the Presbyterians and Congregationalists at the time held to Calvinist doctrine, with its cornerstone of predestination – the belief that salvation was reserved for the elect, chosen by God from the very beginning of Creation, while all others were damned for eternity. Many others would have found it inconceivable that the Light of Christ could be available to non-Christians as well. And, as Fox observed through repeated confrontations, many of his opponents among the clergy became apologists for sinful activities they observed left and right, in effect defending the fallen state of mankind. At the same time, Friends had to establish the subtle but essential distinction that owning the Seed of Christ was not identical to becoming god-selves, but rather required people to live more Christ-like, and thus perfect, lives – what Quakers would come to call “walking in the Light.” The perception that this Light was available to all was soon proclaimed as the “good news,” or Gospel, that Jesus and the disciples announced – what Fox would soon be calling, in perhaps his favorite catch-phrase, the Everlasting Gospel.
As the year 1648 unfolded, the Journal records Fox restating this understanding several times, each time adding to its compass: “Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God, or Christ, or the Scriptures aright.”
Here, now, a two-fold working of the Light was presented – not just as a matter of potential innate goodness, as it is typically applied today, but also as a powerful searchlight exposing our deepest defects and demanding we respond. When the phrase “Inward Light” does appear in Fox’s writing, it can be easily overlooked in the outpouring of other keywords: “Now, when the Lord God and his son, Jesus Christ, did send me forth into the world, to preach his everlasting gospel and kingdom, I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God. … But with and by this divine power and spirit of God, and the light of Jesus, I was to bring people off from all their own ways to Christ, the new and living way, and from their churches, which men had made and gathered, to the Church in God, the general assembly written in heaven, which Christ is the head of …”
Rather than calling it Inner Light, however, Fox calls it inward, keeping its source universal and placing it within a much broader vision, one of “that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God.” While this Light may be experienced individually, it is never pluralistic: it is the way “by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God.” Over the next several years, Fox continued to inch toward a fuller understanding of its working. In 1651, “I had a brave service with the priests and the people, and the Truth came over all in laying open false teachers and priests, and the Truth and the true teachers, and the light and spirit of Christ in them, and that God that made the world dwelt not in temples made with hands, but their bodies were the temple of the Holy Ghost.” And then, more crucially, that year he reported: “I let them see their true teacher … how the Lord was come to teach his people himself, and the light which Christ did enlighten withal [in addition] they might come to in themselves, and so by it come to Christ.” As if to underscore this, early the next year – and shortly before his pivotal vision atop Pendle Hill – Fox reproached a “false accuser [who] came in before them all, and the rude people, and accused me openly before all the people, that I said I was Christ and had brought a-many witnesses to prove it. … And in the eternal power of God I was moved of the Lord God to stand up atop of the table and tell them that Christ was in them except that they were reprobates; and it was the eternal power of Christ and Christ that spake in me that time to them.” Here, then, is a clear shift in perspective, with the focus increasingly on coming to Christ through the light and power of Christ already seeded within oneself. It is easy to see how someone might interpret that as “he said ‘I am Christ,’” which would have been criminal under the English blasphemy laws or simply insane in our own time.
Trying to trace the influences shaping the Quaker doctrine of Light will prove tentative, at best. Very few original materials survive from before 1652, and those after were often severely vetted. The fact that so many people could embrace its teaching so quickly – or that its newly recruited cadre of itinerant ministers could so thoroughly comprehend and then preach its theology, which can otherwise appear complex and perplexing – indicates that many of its elements were already known in religious debate. Yes, some of the new adherents, such as Margaret Fell, might wonder “at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before,” but others, such as John Camm and Francis Howgill, were no doubt already conversant with similar teachings. The mystery is just what spark was required or combination of ingredients came together to produce the resulting explosion.
One factor that can be easily overlooked is the periods of imprisonment many early Quaker leaders suffered. While these can be seen as keeping leaders away from the battlefront, these times might also be considered as opportunities for monastic reflection, renewal, and growth. Is it possible that Fox, for example, in his confinement digested insights from sustained reading, widespread correspondence, and conversations with Friends who visited him in prison, as well as other religious prisoners – elements that later emerged in the Quaker metaphors of the Light, the Truth, and the Seed? Fox was, after all, imprisoned through much of this period – beginning in 1649, he was held in Nottingham and then Derby, the latter for more than a year, as well as at Carlisle in 1653 for seven weeks.
While the 1652 Pendle Hill experience frames a critical experience in Fox’s personal outlook – “What occurred there was an incident that is often regarded as the turning point in his life,” Punshon writes – it also coincides with the emergence of a Quaker movement, one rapidly gaining both leaders and faithful practitioners across northern England, especially. Any tentativeness Fox may have had in acknowledging the inward presence of this Light now gives way to confidence: instead of an inward reflection of an outward light, he now proclaims a flame that can burn brightly within, “with which light they might see their sins and with the same light they might see their saviour, Christ Jesus, to save them from their sins, and that there was their first step to peace – to stand in that light that showed them their sin and transgressions and showed them how they were strangers to the covenant of promise … and with that same light they may see Christ died for them, who is their way to God and their redeemer and saviour.” Put another way: when this Light blazes within a person, it becomes a beacon illuminating one’s next steps in faith: one rises to stand or walk in its orb. Fox then advanced the breakthrough claim that this Light leads to salvation – by implication, no liturgical sacrament or ritual, no creed or confession, or any other route is sufficient.
That year he could also warn his opponents: “Oh, therefore, tremble before the Lord ye hypocrites, and mind the light of God in you, which shows you the deceit of your hearts, and obey that. … Hating that light, you hate Christ.” He appealed, “To the light in all your consciences I do speak, which Christ Jesus doth enlighten you withal. … And if ever your eyes do come to see repentance and own the light of Jesus Christ in you, you will witness me a friend of your souls and eternal good. … If you love this light, it will teach you, walking up and down and lying in bed, and never let you speak a vain word; but loving it you love Christ and hating the light there is the condemnation of you all.” In Fox’s era, we should note, “conscience” referred more to consciousness rather than to a moral faculty; two centuries later, Caroline Emelia Stephen would argue that the Light can speak to one’s conscience, but by itself, conscience can mislead and prove fickle.
In effect, Fox might have answered the question, “Have you been saved?” with his own original turn, along the lines of “the Light of Christ guides my salvation,” more than “Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” as many today might reply. As he and most of the other early Friends stepped away from their largely Calvinist backgrounds, they nevertheless presumed the Crucifixion and Atonement were crucial for salvation; the difficulty arose – and remains – in trying to define and resolve an experience of the Spirit of Christ in one’s heart and the events at and surrounding Calvary. If this Light precedes Creation, why couldn’t people discover this Light in their hearts in the centuries before the Resurrection? Was it really necessary for Jesus to be sacrificed to liberate mankind from the consequences of Adam and Eve?
As we examine incremental advances in Fox’s comprehension of Inward Light, we should remember he was not operating in a vacuum. Other Friends were also voicing their experiences, and the language and thoughts of one were likely to influence others. Many of the concepts may have also come to Quakers through earlier bodies, such as the Grindletonians at the foot of Pendle Hill. Authorship of a particular phrase or concept thus becomes difficult to establish, especially if its origin arises not in the first Friend to publish it but rather in another who voiced it in worship or conversation. Nowhere in Fox do we see a person inclined to credit others for positions he himself would embrace. Public hostility also forced Friends to articulate and defend their faith: by the end of 1652, Fox faced a second blasphemy charge, with execution by hanging as the price of a guilty verdict. There was little room for careless rhetoric. Rapidly changing political and economic conditions brought their own urgencies, raising or dashing hopes and, above all, demanding a Quaker response. Then there were organizational necessities in administering the fast-growing movement itself. All of these worked their way back into the emerging doctrine. What may seem today to be the product of lofty, abstract reasoning may have in reality been a hard-nosed response to news of the day. Lives were literally at stake.
Examining the developing Quaker theology of this period, Rosemary Moore (The Light in Their Consciences) remarks, “Here was the difficulty. The Quakers’ intense experience of Christ, or the light of Christ, which led them to blur the distinction between Christ and themselves, was difficult to reconcile with a belief in Jesus as a man.” She then observes how Richard Farnworth, replying to one critic, “retained the traditional Protestant beliefs in the unworthiness of man and the consequent necessity of the cross for salvation, but like many Quakers he found it difficult to explain how the necessity of the cross could be reconciled with the Quaker idea of a light available to all.” After quoting additional anti-Quaker tracts, she concludes: “Such criticisms were frequently voiced and never adequately answered.”
In the 20th century, Lewis Benson saw this as “a functional presence,” the various “offices” in which Christ “teaches, he rules, he gives gifts, he empowers a living ministry, he watches over the straying ones like a shepherd. He communicates.” Thus, by the year 1653, Fox was linking the Light to these offices of Christ as they work in our lives and the world: “And I brought them all to the spirit of God in themselves, by which they might know God and Christ and the Scriptures and to have heavenly fellowship in the spirit; and showed them how everyone that comes into the world was enlightened by Christ the life, with which light they might see their sins and Christ their saviour, who was come to save them from their sin; with which light they might see their priest that died for them, their shepherd to feed them, and their great prophet to open to them. So with the light of Christ they might see Christ always present with them who is the author of their faith and the finisher thereof.” This passage goes on to invoke an additional point that emphasized the apocalyptic immediacy of the moment in the spreading Quaker message: “the day of the Lord was come, and Christ was come to teach his people himself and how them might find their teacher within, when they were in their labours and their beds.”
In 1654, in a remarkable epistle to “Friends in the ministry,” Fox poured out his understanding of the Logos, or Word of God (found in the opening of the gospel of John), as a Seed within each person, “to which Seed God’s promise is God’s blessing is too, which Seed is one in the male and in the female. …
“Friends everywhere abroad scattered, know the power of God in one another, and in that rejoice; for then you rejoice in the Cross of Christ … which is the power of God to all them that are saved. So you that know the power and feel the power, you feel the Cross of Christ, you feel the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. Now he that believes in the Light believes in the everlasting covenant, in the everlasting offering …
“There is no justification out of the Light, out of Christ. Justification is in the Light; here is the doer of the will of God, here is the entering into the kingdom. Now believing in the Light becomes a child of the Light, and here is received the wisdom that is justified of her children. Here believing in the Light, you shall not abide in darkness, but shall have the Light of life and come every one to witness the Light that shines in your hearts. …
“With this life you come to reach the Light in every man, which Christ enlightens every man that cometh into the world withal. And here the things of Christ come to be known and the proof of Christ heard. Keep in the Light of the covenant of peace and walk in the covenant of life.
“So all Friends that be to the Light turned – which cometh from him by whom the world was made, before it was made, Christ Jesus the saviour of your souls, with which light you come to see him, which comes from him, with which Light you will see all sin and evil and corruption that is contrary to it – stand still in the Light; you will see your own salvation which is walls and bulwarks against that the Light discovers. Waiting in the Light you will receive the power of God which is the gospel of peace, that you may be shod with it, and know that in one another which raiseth up the seed of God and sets it over the world and the earth and crucifies the affections and lusts’ and Truth comes to reign which is the girdle” – the final images, of being shod and girdled, alluding to Ephesians 6:10-17.
In this, it is easy to hear Fox as a highly skilled motivational speaker or a high school coach urging his players to each “give 125 percent” to the cause. But one can also see Fox prompting Friends to address not just the minds but also the hearts and souls in one another, as well as in the non-Friends they visited. There is no escaping his vision of the Light as a compression of inward feeling of “the power of God in one another,” a cause for rejoicing, “the Cross of Christ … which is the power of God to all them that are saved,” “the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation,” an “everlasting covenant,” “justification,” “the kingdom,” “wisdom,” “witness,” “life,” knowledge, “proof of Christ,” “the covenant of peace,” “your own salvation,” “the gospel of peace,” the reign of Truth. Inescapably, this Light is Christ, an understanding that is likely to perturb conventional Christians and Universalists alike.
Fox continued to press this theme: “I turned them to the light of Christ Jesus, who enlightens every man that cometh into the world, to let them see whether these things were not true as had been spoken.” (1655)
“As I turned the people to the divine Light which Christ the heavenly and spiritual man had enlightened them withal; that with that Light they might see their sins and how that they were in death and darkness and without God in the world; and with the same Light they might see Christ from whence it came, their Saviour and Redeemer, who had shed his blood for them and died for them; who was their way to God, their truth, and life.” (1655)
“But many of the people stayed and I turned them to the light of Christ by which they might see their sins and see their saviour Christ Jesus, who was their way to God and the mediator that made their peace betwixt them and God, and was their shepherd to feed them; and their prophet to teach them. And I turned them to the spirit of God in themselves, by which they might know the Scriptures and be led into all the truth of them, and with the spirit to know God; and in it to have unity one with another. And many were convinced that time there and came under Christ’s teaching. And there are fine gatherings in the name of Jesus thereaways to this day.” (1656)
Appearing before Oliver Cromwell, 1656, Fox spoke of “the light of Christ who had enlightened every man that cometh into the world … which was called the life in Christ, the Word and the light in us.”
That year he also spoke of “the Seed, Christ the second Adam, by whom all things were made … And the way is Christ the light, the life, the truth, and the saviour, the redeemer, the sanctifier, the justifier, and so in his power and light and life who is the way to God, conversion, regeneration, and translation are known, from death to life, darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God again.”
Toward the close of that year, with the unprecedented blasphemy trial of James Nayler before Parliament, the Quaker movement came under crushing attack. Douglas Gwyn (The Covenant Crucified) sees this trial and its punishment as a pivotal moment not only in the Society of Friends, but in English history as well: “But the question of religious toleration versus state enforcement of religion was really the secondary contradiction facing English society. The primary contradiction was the radical egalitarian initiative, as embodied by Nayler and the Quaker cultural revolution, versus the reassertion of class interests in Cromwell’s settlement. Both contradictions are crucial. But we must not allow the secondary contradiction, which was later settled generously by political liberalism, to mask the primary contradiction, the Quaker community’s struggle that Oliver Cromwell and the capitalist class vanquished most decidedly in the Nayler episode.”
While most Quaker presentations of the Nayler affair tend to dismiss it as a shameful aberration, Gwyn, especially, contends it was inevitable. Without pressing the argument as far, Moore also leans toward this conclusion: “The Nayler affair was in fact an explosion waiting to happen. … Disputes over doctrine and behavior were characteristic of Quakerism at this time, and all such disputes were concerned with the weight to be given to a particular individual’s understanding of ‘the light.’ Sooner or later such a conflict was going to involve some of the leaders. Differences between parts of the country may also have been a factor; Quakerism had originated in the rural midlands and north, and was now taking root in the very different environment of London.”
Gwyn grasps the revolutionary impact of the emerging doctrine of Inward Light: because it is revealed and known through individual experience, it cannot be regulated or controlled by the state. Moreover, since it “enlightens everyone who comes into the world,” its revelation is entirely independent of social class or education.
Moore, meanwhile, recognizes that behind the united defensive posture Friends put on publicly, the movement was deeply divided: “In principle, all Quakers were sons or daughters of God and united with Christ, but everybody’s ‘measure’ was not equal, and Friends recognized that some people had special callings as ‘elders’ or ministers to the flock. George Fox had an extraspecial calling, and only a minority of Quakers had quarreled with this assumption. Fox was determined that there should be no further challenge to his position. Before the end of 1656, while the controversy over Nayler was at its height, he held several general meetings. A surviving report of what he said on one of those occasions shows that he covered the whole range of private and religious life, with particular emphasis on unity and order.”
Moreover, Fox and the other Quaker leaders faced a conundrum. They could not acknowledge Nayler’s influence in shaping a distinctive understanding of the Light, even as it was becoming their measure of identity. No one, including Fox, had written as clearly or passionately of the Light or with such comprehension. Yet, criminally tainted as he was, Nayler had to be distanced from the rest of the movement. Even so, from this point onward, Fox voiced an underlying emphasis on coming to unity with others who had also experienced this Light:
“And Christ saith believe in the light that ye may become children of the light, and believe and be saved and he that believeth shall have everlasting life, and he that believeth passes from death to life and is grafted into Christ. And ye do well that ye take heed unto the light that shines in the dark place until the day dawn and the day star arise in your hearts, so that the light is sufficient to lead unto the day star.” (1657)
The Biblical connections were repeated: “which Light is the life in Christ, the Word” (1657) and “for Christ took not upon him the nature of angels but the seed of Abraham, so he might know that seed in himself; who are of faith are of Abraham, and come to be flesh of Christ’s flesh and bone of his bone.” (1658)
Again, the element of unity: “Then I was moved by the power and spirit of the Lord, to open unto them the promise of God, how that it was made to the Seed, not to seeds, as many, but to one, which Seed was Christ; and that all people, both males and females, should feel this Seed in them, which was heir of the promise; that they might all witness Christ in them, the hope of glory, the mystery which had been hid from ages and generations, which was revealed to the apostles, and is revealed again now, after this long night of apostacy. … Now again, the everlasting Gospel must be preached to all nations, and to every creature, that they may come into the pure religion, to worship God in the spirit and in truth, and may know Christ Jesus their way to God, and him to be the author of their faith, and may receive the Gospel from heaven, and not from men.” (1658)
From a 1658 letter to Cromwell’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Claypool: “So then this is the word of the Lord God unto you all; what the light doth make manifest and discover, temptations, confusions, distractions, distempers; do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions, but at the light that discovers them, that makes them manifest; and with that same light you will feel over them, to receive power to stand against them. Which light discovers, the same light that lets you see sin and transgression will let you see the covenant of God, which blots out your sin and transgression, which gives victory and dominion over it, and brings into covenant with God … and so come to know the Seed of God.”
Once more, a call to unity: “The Seed is above all. In it walk, in which ye all have life.” (1671)
Out of this, Friends could envision both a New Eden or Kingdom of God, as the Spirit of Christ liberated them from the disobedience originating with the first Adam, and a sweeping Jubilee (Leviticus 25), with its redistribution of wealth and its proclamation of liberty throughout the land.
Although Fox has been credited with originating the doctrine of Inner Light, he never used that phrase itself – nor, as Moore reports from her extensive examination of the literature, did any other early Friend. Instead, Fox repeated terms such as “the light of Christ” or “the Seed” almost as if he were kneading dough, with the yeast working its transformation within. He commonly spoke of Christ, and secondarily Christ Jesus, rather than simply Jesus or Jesus Christ. Even his exhortation, “meet together in the name of Jesus,” carries an assumption of Logos empowerment. Repeatedly, Fox’s mature awareness of the cosmic Logos imbuing the historic person named Jesus is evident, even as Fox embraced the events of Calvary. This, too, reflects Fox’s emphasis on action. In his passages, even the nouns resonate with motion. Who would have suspected that in someone credited with founding a movement that worships in silence!
His favorite Biblical citation, Galatians 2:20, where Paul proclaims “Christ liveth in me,” becomes extended to “Christ in you, Christ in me.” That understanding is thoroughly revolutionary, moving far from any sense of Christ as Jesus only. To see you as Christ, or me as Christ, shakes traditional Christianity to its foundation. The essential element in this expanded identity is the Logos or Light.
We can sense Fox’s appreciation of Christ as the ancient Greek philosophical concept of Logos, even when he or other early Friends do not directly apply its synonyms – a “principle,” “agent of creation,” “agent through which the human mind can apprehend and comprehend God,” “intermediary,” “soul of the universe,” “reason,” or “plan,” this Word that shakes individuals and the world. When Fox urges us to see not just our sin but also the Light beyond, he proclaims a radical perception of an underlying connection between opposites, something that transforms the definition Heracleitus put forward. By becoming aware of our sins, we can openly engage in their transformation and healing.
In an era when Calvinists insisted that the Word was the recorded words of the Bible, and when, as Benson writes, “the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members,” Friends’ embrace of the Word as Christ – in its fullness as Logos, at that – was revolutionary, indeed.
Failing to find Fox using the term “Inner Light,” I now wonder exactly when the phrase does begin to appear in general Quaker usage. In crediting Fox with originating the doctrine, the Associated Press and others no doubt consulted Quaker Friends authorities. Even so, there are distinctions between an Inner Light, as we’ve come to know the concept, and the phrase Fox and others did use, an Inward Light. While the definition of inner includes “interior,” “obscure,” “hidden,” inward includes “toward the inside, center, or interior,” and “inherent; intrinsic”; curiously, both share “pertaining to the mind or spirit.” To my sensibilities, Fox’s contexts demonstrate he does indeed mean inward, rather than inner: this Light both probes toward the center of one’s heart and also embodies the mysterious image of God in which every person is created; it reveals, rather than hides or obscures.
Since, under its Quaker entry, the Associated Press describes the doctrine of Inner Light as the central distinguishing factor of the Society of Friends today, we have reason to wonder how widespread this teaching appeared, in whatever form, as the movement took shape, spread, and pressed into the future. Today, in the aftermath of divisions sundering the Society of Friends in the 19th century, Fox becomes an authoritative reference for the roots of the various strands of contemporary Friends, especially as we attempt to bridge differences and perceive some sense of commonality, however distant it may appear. In the absence of dogma or creed, we rely on history and tradition to provide clues for our religious legacy.
Beyond that, of course, we have the words of early Friends themselves to speak to us. What they leave us regarding their experiences described in terms of the Light, the Truth, and the Seed is an invitation to partake in similar life-changing encounters. Yet much is also left unsaid, apparently too hot to state openly at the time. For all of his bold preaching, Fox, especially, knew that.