While the interlocking concepts of the Light, the Seed, and the Truth guided much of the early Quaker movement, there were attempts to articulate their religious experience within other religious language as well. During the initial period of the Society of Friends, “The most competent Quaker theologian was James Nayler,” as historian Rosemary Moore contends (The Light in Their Consciences). No one wrote more discerningly or effusively of the Light and the Seed. Moore then adds Edward Burrough, who, “After the disgrace of Nayler, became the leading Quaker theologian.”
Their span at the forefront, however, was brief. Nayler was born circa 1617, joined Friends in 1652, became enmeshed in scandal in 1656, and died in 1660. Nearly generation younger, Burrough was born circa 1632, joined Friends the same year as Nayler, and died in 1662. Together, their service in Quaker ministry barely spans a decade. Burrough’s role, however, was quite different from Nayler’s.
In the aftermath of Nayler’s conviction by Parliament on blasphemy charges in 1657, Burrough was left trying to defend the movement against “false reports and lying informations concerning a people raised up and going by the name Quakers,” as he declares at the beginning of his major tract, A Standard Lifted Up, And an Ensign Held Forth to All Nations. Appearing in 1657, on the heels of Nayler’s fall from authority, its intent is to answer critics of Quaker teaching while recasting the message away from personal experience and into a vocabulary more closely fitting conventional Christian debate. Thus, where Nayler internalized the battle between good and evil, Burrough now externalizes it. Where Nayler spoke of turning your back to the Light as it appears in your own heart, Burrough now insists “the Beast hath reigned upon the face of the whole earth” (not just within human hearts), “There is a Devil which is out of the truth … and is a liar from the beginning … the father of all evil doing, the author of all unrighteousness, and whatsoever is contrary to God in word, thought, and action,” one who is “the prince of darkness,” and leads “the kingdom of Satan, which hath long ruled in the world.” While Nayler is replete with dramatic Light and Seed metaphor, Burrough seems consciously to tip-toe around both. When he does touch on them, he situates them in ways that are likely to allow the critics to perceive them as externalized bodies, but in a circumspect way that does not violate a Quaker reading of intimate experience. Thus, even in passages where he speaks of the inward labor, he hedges. When he speaks, for instance, of non-Friends: “Many profess them in words … but have not felt in themselves the workings of the Holy Spirit. Neither have they any witness in themselves of being restored to God again, of being redeemed by him from under the Devil’s power, and neither are they saved by Christ from sin and transgression.” Or, speaking of the Light, he subordinates it: “Christ Jesus the second Adam … that lighted every man that comes into the world, that all men through him might believe and by him have their consciences purely exercised towards God and towards man in all things whatsoever.” Or, in emphasizing the Holy Spirit, in place of the Light, he offers passages such as this: “Sanctification is by the working of the eternal Spirit in the heart of the creature, which purgeth out and taketh away all unrighteousness, and all the works and fruits of darkness it witnesseth against” – making the process sound like a response to medicine. In his defense against attacks spurred by the Nayler incident, Burrough obfuscates expressions of deep psychological upheaval. In his presentations, the Light can as easily be understood as standing outside of an individual, as it might have been in more conventional Christian teaching, or within the more radical Friends’ vision as taking hold within the awakening individual. Pointedly, Burrough repeatedly mentions covenant, a central element in the prevailing Calvinist denominations, and standing in faithful obedience to government, which he then shades to mean government when it is aligned to God’s laws rather than the Beast’s rule. Burrough also repeatedly applies “witness” to his argument, often in places other Friends might have used “the Light.” For instance, “The witness of God in every man, beareth witness against all unjust men, laws, rulers, and governments which strengthen the hands of the wicked and oppress the just.” He follows this with “We also bear witness against,” as if to turn the understanding outward again, as if appearing in a courtroom. “The witness of Christ being reached to by this true ministry gives testimony to the power and truth of Christ” likewise seems to turn the experience outward again, as if toward Bible interpretation or Judgment Day in Scripture.
Burrough seems determined to bring Jesus back into the discussion, perhaps deflecting from those who sensed in earlier Quaker writings an understanding of Christ as being something other than the historic person. “Our light is in the Lamb and the government of Jesus,” Burrough writes, suggesting the importance of Atonement – which would widely been understood to include the necessity of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. “The Son of God, who is called Christ the Prince of Peace and Righteousness… is one with the Father in power and dominion … and is the Redeemer, Saviour, Deliverer, and Restorer of the children of men. … The Father doth nothing without the son. By him and through him the Father brings all things to pass.” Here Burrough appears to side with the human Incarnation, rather than “becoming one with Him that dwells in the Light, in death, in suffering, in patience and in obedience, which otherwise no mortal man can approach to, there being that to be fulfilled as the light requires.” Where Nayler speaks of personal experience, Burrough falls back on formal construction: “He is at the right hand exalted, and is the very express image of the father,” as if Burrough has seen this!
He does not avoid the Light metaphor altogether. “All that are in the light and walk in the light can receive this testimony which is given by the Spirit of God,” he writes. But he carefully aligns this with “His pure Spirit is put into their inward parts to be the rule and guide of life in all things,” a reference that follows “His just law is written into their hearts to condemn all transgression,” in effect externalizing the source of this action once again – even the law can be seen as a reflection of Scripture. Spirit takes the place of Light: “It trieth all things, and revealeth the things of the Father and the Son unto all that doth believe in the Son. It makes manifest and searcheth into the deep things of God.” And so on, each time appealing to a Trinitarian view of the New Testament.
In Burrough’s writing, Light can be seen shining down on the individual, and the divine connection comes through the Eternal Spirit – thus drawing away from accusations of privately individual interpretation or self-delusion.
When read closely, the differences in their language and emphases might leave one wondering if there was any commonality in the religious perceptions of Burrough and Nayler. It is possible, of course, that A Standard Lifted Up, And an Ensign Held Forth to All Nations intended to do just that. From another perspective, we may recognize that Quaker writings of the time were addressed to two quite different audiences: one, appealing to Friends, sought to deepen their faith and practice; the other, directed to religious and civil authorities, argued the validity of Quaker manifestations, often while debunking the claims and practices of the critics themselves. In this regard, we might expect expressions for one audience to differ from those employed toward the other. Complicating this would be the upheaval generated by the Nayler affair, placing Friends in retreat after 1657.
Burrough had already castigated non-Friends regarding their conduct of public and religious affairs. His 1655 A Trumpet of the Lord Sounded Forth in Sion, as Douglas Gwyn observes in The Covenant Crucified, is “made up of fourteen epistolary warnings to various powers, parties, and sects in England.” Burrough not only upbraids Oliver Cromwell, “He next attacks the judges and lawyers for their greed, corruption, and the damage this does to the poor. … But some of his most revealing critiques are those leveled at sects sharing many aims and ideals with Friends.” Burrough warns, “for you are not dead with Christ from the Rudiments of the World, but alive against him in the World … and you know not the daily Cross of Christ … nor what it is to follow Christ, and obey him, which is contrary to man’s will.” Gwyn sees this as “the striking assertion that only when sharing the death of Christ does one truly know, and not simply assert, that Christ died for all. Only then does one truly live with Christ and stop putting him to death within. The deepest spiritual core of Quaker nonviolence is seen in this affirmation of complete surrender to God. Burrough’s treatment here is typical of the paradoxical manner in which early Friends treated the issue of predestination versus freedom, divine will versus human will.” In these passages, including Gwyn’s, the concept of Christ seems to vacillate between the historic Jesus and the timeless Logos – or Light. That’s not to say Burrough avoids the Light metaphor altogether. Turning to the Ranters, for instance, he argues, “And though you speak of the Light, and what it once wrought, yet being from it … the Light is your eternal condemnation.” Toward the Seekers, “his former fellowship,” as Gwyn notes, Burrough warns of silent worship that does not yield itself to Christ: “in him who is the Light of the World … you cannot believe … you speak of that which through death you never obtained … Forms outward you deny, but your Form is inward, of your selves, and in your own time, and the Lord is not all, and in all among you.”
Obviously, both Burrough and Nayler were profoundly moved and changed by their spiritual encounters and willingly endured severe hardships in response. They both experienced baptism by the Holy Spirit, spiritual death and rebirth, and the presence of what they identified as Christ. Burrough, however, seems more willing to proclaim this as Jesus and the Cross, while Nayler voices it in more intimate language of Light and Seed. When Nayler writes, “the light says, Love your neighbor as yourself,” he moves beyond convention and beyond comfort. He moves the citation beyond the words of Jesus, reported in Matthew 5:43, 19:19, and 22:39, and Mark 12:31 and 12:33. Religious critics would have correctly observed that Nayler was moving beyond the text itself. I believe that had events allowed him to freely articulate what his writings can only suggest, Friends would have been endowed with a radically different concept of Christ. Instead, Burrough took up the task of covering that exposure, and bringing the Quaker message more in line with dominant theology. We can only speculate how widely an alternative understanding of Christ existed among the earliest Friends. Gwyn has suggested that the Quaker movement has been in retreat ever since the Nayler scandal, though I would pin it on another reason: where Gwyn sees their dreams dashed in regard to running national government in terms of Gospel Order and the Lamb’s War, I see their vision of Christ as Light now constrained by language – especially questions about Jesus. Pointedly, early Friends spoke of Christ far more than they did of Jesus – when they spoke of the “name of Jesus” or the “power of Jesus,” they implicitly referred to Christ. When the two names are used together, they come typically as Christ Jesus, rather than Jesus Christ, as if they are emphasizing a distinction.
The question of individual experience of Christ remains one confronting Friends today. For those of us in quietist Meetings that do not find a common vocabulary in Biblical verses, how do we express our experience of open worship, much less guide others? How do we discern between genuine spiritual motions and those arising in our own ego? I would argue that in these circles, Burrough proves more difficult to discuss than Nayler. For Friends in evangelical, pastoral Meetings, on the other hand, how are Nayler’s visions experienced? Perhaps Burrough understood the controversial and explosive dimensions implicit in Nayler’s vision, but in defending them against widespread outrage, he wound up muting them to the point we no longer see their revolutionary potential.
Perhaps in these two theologians we already see the divisions that would rip through the Society of Friends a century and a half later. Straddling their extremes was George Fox, who would outlive them by nearly three decades.