James Nayler

In the first generation of the Quaker movement, no one wrote more expressively or insightfully of the Light than James Nayler (1617?-1660). From the time he united with Quakers in 1652 until he was enveloped in scandal in late 1656, he was “seen by some as the most important leader among Friends, and his personal appeal was quite powerful,” as Brian Drayton writes in his Selections From the Writings of James Nayler. Unlike George Fox, who was able to compile and revise his journal from the vantage point of an advanced age, Nayler died around the age of 43, after being waylaid on a highway in Yorkshire. As a result, what Nayler leaves us is far less autobiographical, and more a collection of testimonies, tracts, and letters than personal development – most of them written on the run, with little or no revision, while traveling in missionary service throughout England. The title of his central volume, not surprisingly, is Collection of Sundry Books, Epistles and Papers, Written by James Nayler; with an Impartial Relation of the Most Remarkable Transactions Relating to His Life. Where Fox’s Journal presents us with an evolving understanding of Light, dictated in 1675, Nayler’s writings leave us with snapshots that largely fall into two halves, one from the four years before he fell to scandal and an unprecedented blasphemy by Parliament, and the other briefly thereafter.

Unlike Fox, we find Nayler expressing the Quaker metaphor of Light at the onset of his ministry. His undated The Power and Glory of the Lord, Shining Out of the North … is prefaced with a citation from John 8:12, where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Nayler then opens with an appeal to “All people, everywhere, who profess that you love God, and have a desire to walk in his ways, and are in this dark world … where filthiness and darkness rules … and yourselves are kept in bondage to sin and unrighteousness, blindness and thick darkness, and know not where you are, nor the way out of this condition … seeking after your blind guides, who are not the way, neither in the way themselves, and so have forsaken the fountain of light … and have been led by them who are in the same darkness with you.” Nayler quickly compresses an array of images on one side accusing the general populace and their religious leaders of apostasy, spiritual ignorance, and quackery, each negative image hinting at a positive alternative in the Light imagery: there is a way, cleanliness, righteousness, vision/sight, guidance, a fountain of light, liberty, salvation and redemption, and life. Nayler then says, “Now stand a while, and see where you are, and what you have been doing. You pretend as to the kingdom of God, but you are not seeking where it is: you have been seeking without, but it is within you; and there you must find it, if you ever find it.” Of course, to stand and see requires a glimmer of light. “It is not to be found in forms and customs, and outside observations: but the kingdom of God is within you, and the way to the kingdom is within you, and the light that guides you into the kingdom is within. Christ is the way, and know ye not that Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? And as he is the way, so he is the light … And he who comes to hear the voice of Christ in spirit, will no more desire to hear the voice of strangers.” All this (and much more) from the first paragraph!

He then exhorts his listeners to “return to the light of Christ in you, that which shows you sin and evil, and the deeds of darkness: for whatever makes manifest is light; and this is that light which shines into the conscience, which tells you, that lying, swearing, pride, envy, covetousness, backbiting and dissembling leads to condemnation: And this light checks you for sin, and would have you do to all men, as you would have done to. And this light is not a chapter without you [outside you] in a book, but it is that light that revealed the Scriptures to the saints, in their several measures, which they spoke forth, and which thou readest in the chapter. And this light being minded, will lead to the perfect day, which declares all things as they are.”

This Light is hardly equivalent to intuition or some innate goodness in and of itself; rather it is a voice that is heard and obeyed intimately – one the apostles heeded “till the day dawned, and the day star did rise in their hearts: and this is a more sure word of prophesy.” It is also to be obeyed, or “minded” – as Friends have long counseled, “Mind the Light.”

Nayler continues: “And if you take heed of this light, to obey and love it, then it will show that to you, which no outward declaration of man can show you; it will let you see all your sins done in secret, and whom you have wronged, and how you have spent your time, and will bring you to repentance, and to tenderness of heart towards all people, and will lead you to exercise a pure conscience in the fear of God, towards God and man in uprightness, and so will lead to justification and peace. And if you disobey it, it will condemn you in your own hearts, and will show you that God is greater than your hearts, who will render to everyone according to their work.”

Here, Nayler has an answer for modern Friends who proclaim “that of God in each person” yet are then frustrated to encounter individuals doing unspeakable acts. Of such people, Nayler says, “But this light you hate, because you love your evil deeds; and you perish not for want of light tendered, but because you turn your backs on it: for when you should bring your works to it, to be proved, then you join with the deceit, to make coverings for your sins, and hide them lest they should come to the light, and be made manifest. And this is the cause why you stumble, because you walk not in the light; for your evil deeds will not abide the light.”

While the tract is thoroughly footnoted with Bibical citations, to present a grounding in Scripture, the piece is a warning aimed at both the professional clergy and the rulers of England. Other writings, addressed to Friends, suggest the pervasiveness of Light metaphor in early Quaker understanding. In 1653, for instance, Nayler says:

“Awake, thou that sleepest, and stand up from the dead, that Christ may give thee light: come forth, come forth of all created things, witness your redemption from the world that you are redeemed from the earth up to God, out of all kindreds, tongues, people and nations, to reign as kings and priests forever, above the world, sin and death, triumphing and treading upon all that would take you captive. … But you, standing fast in the pure light of Christ … that your souls may live.” (An Epistle to Several Friends About Wakefield)

“Now mind your way, and the light that is given to you to guide you in the way, to keep your eye to the light, that it may lead you through all the visible things of the world … And this light and redemption is his son, whom he is about to exalt, in which exaltation a strange and mighty work is to be brought to pass … And now stand in the light, that a separation may be made in you, the precious from the vile, that a new Saviour may arise, that you may know your calling and election, what is called, and what you are to come out of, lest you stay in any of that to which the plagues are … The night is far spent, the day is at hand, come out of the darkness all that love the Lord, into his marvelous light, where you shall see what you have been, and what you are redeemed from, that you may live and praise the Lord …” (To All Dear Brethren and Friends in Holderness and the East Parts of Yorkshire) Here we can also sense the overlap where “this light and redemption is his son,” that is, Jesus, and an invitation “stand in this Light” so that “a new Saviour may arise,” presumably within oneself! Critics, then and now, are likely to be disturbed by the implication that we, too, can have Jesus rising within us, thus redeeming us from sin. Is there a fine line between this and proclaiming oneself to be a new Jesus?

Nayler turns back to the humbling labor of minding this Light:

“Dear friends, all mind your guide within you, even [that is] the pure light of God, which bears witness against all our ungodly ways, ungodly words, thoughts, works, and worships … If you abide in the pure light within, you shall see, that whatever the light of Christ makes to appear to be evil, and to be cast off; then the other, which stands in man’s wisdom, makes a covering for it, that it may abide still …” Nayler continues: “abiding in the pure light of Christ within … turn your minds within, and wait for a wisdom from above, which begins with the fear of the Lord, which is pure, peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated … and as you grow in this pure, you will grow in the knowledge of Christ within you.” (A Discovery of the Wisdom From Beneath, and the Wisdom From Above)

In 1655-56, he adds two insightful turns to the Light metaphor: “through obedience to the light, which is God’s love to the world,” and “Now honestly search your house with the candle which God hath lighted, and when you find the truth in your inward parts, then shall you say there is no love but it … dwelling with God who is love without end.” (Epistle Concerning Love and Judgment)

Through his expanding metaphor, Nayler suggests that this Light is also a Living Cross, and that Salvation, Redemption, Resurrection, and Atonement are to be found in it – by implication, as critics of the Quaker movement would perceive, rejecting the necessity of the historic Calvary. The addition of the image of a candle to the Light metaphor differs sharply from its use by modern Friends; here God ignites the wick as part of the soul-searching journey, rather than having the candle already self-illuminated.

To this, Nayler adds the imagery of the Seed or Plant, responding within the person to the Light that is poured forth. In this sense, Light both clears a place in the heart and prepares the soil and then energizes the emerging seedling, drawing it forth in the sunlight.

After his blasphemy conviction, especially, Nayler also establishes Lamb metaphor, as in the 1658 tract, The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin, where the Lamb of God is Spirit appearing both as a guide and within the believer, drawing the faithful as a flock.

“A tree may grow high, and hard, and strong, yet fruitless and out of the power, got above the poor, above the innocent, and out of the feeling of the sufferer and man of sorrows where he is. The end of this growth not in the pure rest, for the higher anyone grows here, the more doth that wither and die in them, which is soft and tender, and melting, which makes one [a true lamb] and is true fold for lambs, where the lions must lie down in the end if they come to rest,” Nayler says, conscious of liquid – Living Water – as part of the Light/Seed metaphor expansion. “And this seed … strives not by violence but entreats … And this is the seed of eternal peace, and the eternal peace-maker … where the hardness of heart is broken.” (Not To Strive, But To Overcome by Suffering, 1655-56)

“And many other fruits you may find which he ever brought forth in his chosen, whereby they were known to be in him and he in them …” (The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin)

“And as He grows in you, and you in Him, you will feel that power arising which will make you able to answer a good conscience, and give lasting peace, and so by His resurrection shall be saved from condemnation … following the Lamb in all his leadings … as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you … and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world … yield to the Lord of the vineyard His fruit in due season.” (How Sin Is Strengthened, and How It Is Overcome, 1657)

By 1659, Nayler begins admitting a dimension of grace to his metaphor of Light: “for this I found, that God in this was merciful, in that He did not lay them [my sins] all at once before me, lest they should have pressed me down, that I could not have followed the light, nor gotten any strength; but must needs have perished under them, had He not spared.” (What the Possession of the Living Faith Is, and the Fruits Thereof)

“So that nothing shall hinder your prayers from coming to the throne of God, nor the dew and blessing of heaven from falling upon the seed. … And as you come to feed on the Plant of life, you will come to know the work of the Father in His vineyard, and who the faithful laborer is, and what must be his work … the vine may grow alone in the clean affections, and holy mind, and honest chaste heart, which is the good ground, and where the pure Plant will bring forth of itself in all, where it is not encumbered with that which is contrary to it; which contrary fruits all that mind the light may see …” (Milk for Babes, and Meat for Strong Men, 1661)

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Nayler’s theological elaboration of the Light most fully appears in a 1655 tract, Salutation to the Seed of God. Running 38 pages in the Collection, the piece is “a powerful setting forth of the doctrine of the Light,” as Brian Drayton declares (Friends Journal, page 38, September 2005), although, curiously, that line of reasoning is largely subsumed as background in a polemic against those who “have got words instead of power and life” and rely on “performances which ye have taken on you from imitation of others.” Originating as a dispute between Nayler and “parish teachers” (that is, Calvinist and Anglican authorities), the tract serves first “a call out of Babylon and Egypt from amongst the magicians where the house of bondage is,” countered with a position of Quaker practice woven throughout. Further complicating the presentation, many of Nayler’s positions are voiced as questions, rather than direct statements – essentially taunting his opponents to respond rather than giving them and us sharp explanatory answers. This approach raises obstacles for modern readers who may not recognize the scriptural quotations running throughout (and their context), but who also need translations for much of his opponents’ theology and practice. Sometimes, Nayler turns accusations made against Quakers back upon his opponents, as he does in arguing, “And a faith you have devised and set up besides it, if not wholly against it [the way of God’s walking and working in his people]; so that now to witness good works is counted popery (though that all that come to God are fore-ordained to walk therein, and to that end new-created).” (In these and other passages that follow, I make some adjustments in punctuation to more current usage.) To those who saw Roman Catholic tendencies in the Quaker expectancy of the presence of God in their silent worship or who challenged Friends on their faith-infused daily lives, Nayler retorts that living in the Light of Christ will cause one to do God’s work. “But you say, you bring forth better fruits than drunkards and swearers. I say, the best fruit that’s brought forth in either, which is not the work of God by Christ in you, is but self-righteousness, and all your self-actings in performances in your own will is no better.” The “God by Christ in you” (second-person plural) is telling, a reflecting the action of Christ or Light as an inward-reaching mediator and empowering agent. Through the course of the tract, Nayler rails against the application of ordinances (that is, sacraments and liturgy), seeing in the practice of “the visibles” of “communion, whose knowledge is outward, and your worships outward, as in words, or water, bread or wine, or any carnal perishing things, though good in their time and place” were no longer “given the substance, but as the shadows; not in the place of God” but as substitutes – like temple worship, circumcision, sacrifices, and the brazen-serpent of the Hebrew Bible, observances that originated as good acts had now turned into empty acts now set “up against truth and righteousness,” applied blindly by those who “blessed themselves in their evil ways … and excluded all else.” Prayer and fasting soon join the list. When read closely, some of Nayler’s phrases might also been seen as supporting radical political and economic currents of the day. Throughout, his approach is more an accusation of the failings of others than defense of Friends’ faith; indeed, the tract can be viewed as several overlapping arguments, to be teased apart individually for fuller understanding. The work ends in a justification of civil disobedience before simply trailing off.

Surprisingly, the word “light” does not even appear until the bottom of the fifth page. Before that point, especially, Seed imagery and mention of conscience are prominent, as well as the contrast of sin and perfection.

“Arise, shine forth, thou seed of the covenant, to which the promise is, for thy glory to come; and with judgment is the Lord arisen to redeem his chosen, and all that turn to him shall be covered with righteousness, even that which before the world was, and above all the world is, which is perfect for evermore,” the tract opens. The sentence, condensed and overlapping itself with metaphor, has more in common with contemporary poetry than it does with analytic exposition. At the outset, this is a galvanizing invocation, addressing a puzzling first-person singular “Seed of the Covenant.” Covenant, of course, was a widespread concept of the time, often as the binding agreement between God and a community of faith, as exhibited in covenants made over the course of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Mayflower Compact of colonial American history. Here, though, the Seed would appear to be a result or even a cause of that covenant, something advanced in the next phrase, “the Lord arisen” just as the Seed is urged to “arise” and “shine forth.” The hint in “shine forth” would link this Seed and Lord to the Light as Quakers understood it, but for now, the argument pushes along other lines. Nayler chooses instead to confront the widespread Calvinist doctrine of the elect – the few God knew and predestined from the beginning to be saved for eternity, while the rest of sinful humanity would remain damned. Nayler, in contrast, proclaims that this arisen Seed, the Lord, comes “to redeem all … that turn to him.” This arisen Seed or Lord judges “his chosen,” this time turning the concept from those who are chosen by the Lord to those who themselves choose to respond to the Lord. Nayler insists, once again hinting at Light metaphor, those who turn to the Seed or Lord “shall be covered with righteousness, even that which before the world was, and above all the world is, which is perfect for evermore.” Covered, as in bathed with Light.

Throughout the tract, this perfect world is contrasted by the troubled world of Satan or mankind, a state of darkness, lifelessness, self-centered existence, and sin.

Nayler promptly leaps into his next paragraph and sentence, shifting from addressing the divine to the fallen multitude:

“Put off your rags you that have covered yourselves with your wisdom. … How long will it be e’re you harken to the Lord …” As Nayler will repeat, this wisdom “is your own way, and not the way of God,” it is cursed and fruitless, “praises which arise from a vain mind in your own wills and imitations, but not from a soul redeemed, quickened, and set free from the power of sin and temptation.” This vein continues throughout the tract. While this strand has contemporary applications, as in considerations of televangelists, fundamentalists, and similar incarnations, my central interest for now is in Nayler’s still evolving metaphor of Light and its related Seed. These are not yet clearly delimited; indeed, their definitions become slippery, as does the concept of conscience. Even so, they open new visions to our understanding and practice, hinting at an alternative definition of Christianity that might have been articulated in the absence of blasphemy laws or the Quaker self-censorship that took hold soon after Nayler’s trial and conviction. In the tract, remember that for early Friends, Christ and the Light were synonymous. Thus, when Nayler emphasizes “the righteousness of God, which by faith in Christ alone is freely received, and the least measure is perfect,” we can see elements of Light already at work. “This is the gift that comes from above, which takes up the creature above all other,” he states, presenting this (Light?) as something that comes from outside of us (“without”), and then fills and transforms us. “That which we have received, we declare, and can do no other, for in him is our glory, and this is and will be our boldness in the day of judgment, that as he is, so are we in this world, herein is our love perfected in him, because we are of him, and one with him, in his righteousness; and that measure we have of it is freely ours without upbraiding, and an inheritance we have in it, wherefore we leave all to follow him who is our fullness, and cannot but call to all who love their souls to come to us, knowing his freeness.” Passages like this can be reread, substituting “Light” for “him” and “Light’s” for “his” without weakening the understanding; indeed, as Nayler develops his argument, he soon links Light and Jesus.

As Nayler returns to the subject of Light and Christ, he becomes rapturous, reveling in ecstasy and perceiving sin crucified within those who choose to welcome this heavenly gift: “For in the way of God, Christ is all, in all … and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and have not the truth in us: but where he alone lives there is no sin; for the life of Christ is the death of sin, as it is manifest to take away our sins, and for this purpose we know he was manifest to take away our sins, and in him is no sin, for by the appearance of his life are we translated into his likeness, which is our boldness, and he that has this hope, purifies himself even as he is pure; for we see him as he is, our life, our hope, our strength and way, which is pure and perfect; and as he is, so he makes our way perfect; and this is our way of peace, that we have nothing but what we have received, and it is his own, and he cannot deny himself, who is faithful, and with faithfulness we are made faithful to him; and the least measure of him which comes from above is present power, and in him we move and have our being, where nothing is impossible. The day of his power is come whereby we are made willing, in whose will his people ever took pleasure; and whatever he doth is good for us, and his wondrous works we see.” This Christ, obviously, is something different from the historical person of Jesus, although some of the description draws heavily on the epistles of Paul.

Without this spiritual experience, Nayler insists, his opponents are easily deceived by the Devil and filled with confusion. Nayler is soon using “you” to separate his opponents from what “I say” and “we” Quakers know from experience: “And thus you set up a profession without power. But did you mind the light of Christ that never changes, by it to be taught in spirit, these deceits would soon be discovered, and you could not walk in darkness, by which light we see that he who commits sin is of the devil, and is fallen from God, whatever his profession …”

With Christ now mentioned with Light, Nayler presents both Christ and Light as unchangeable, a spirit, a presence, teacher, and revealer – ultimately, as one unity. Nayler now speaks openly of Light, focusing on those who respond to it as well as those who reject it:

“With the light we see that he that is in the way [“stream,” rather than an obstruction] of God is in holiness, and he that is not is not, is in the way of the devil; and he that’s in God, is out [free] of self, and there sin is blotted out and forgotten; but he that’s in self, is in sin, though he be praying or plowing: with it we see that the life of Christ is pure, and he who lives any other life, it’s polluted … with it we see the way of God is perfect, and you, whose way is sinful, are in the way of condemnation.

“With the light we see him that hath not the word abiding in him, hath not life, though he knows the letter and can preach it; and that he who hath not that faith that overcomes sin (in its measure) hath not the true faith, and that he that hath not heard his voice knows him not, and he that hath not seen him, hath no fellowship with him, and whose heart is filthy can do neither.

“With the light we see that who is in the work of God, is in the good work, and he that is not, is in the evil, and whatever he doth is abominable: and he that hath not the righteousness of God hath his own, which is imperfect; but who hath that of God, hath that which perfectly satisfies both God and man, so far as with it the creature is covered.

“With it we see him that hath faith, without this work, to be as a body without a spirit, which can do nothing, and that faith is vain that’s without power. And as we see with that which is eternal, so we judge … only those who mind the light of the spirit, discern and own our testimony, and receive our witness and his power who is true, and so become willing to follow that truth that leads to freedom.”

Nayler now makes the Light the definer of and the standard for those who are truly Christian: the Light reveals Christ as well as the authentic believer; it is truth and power. As Nayler rolls the images together, the Light is also the power of Christ working within individual people and drawing them together as a community:

“Are you a willing people for God, when you see with the light of Christ in your hearts, that you ought to do, and what you ought to forbear?” On the other hand, he asks, “And what power is this which acts you in these ways of unrighteousness, for which your hearts condemn you? This is the power of darkness, which the light of Christ in your consciences bears witness against.”

Soon, he also accuses those who “obey not the covenant of light, as God hath ordained.” This Light becomes an agent acting upon the conscience, and a pathway to salvation: “That’s his call, which in your consciences lets you see you have lost him; which, did you wait in it, would lead you to him. … His light is that which searcheth your hearts in secret, nor any other judge you in private.” This is, of course, the Inward Light or Light Within of early Quaker teaching: “You have but one thing that lets you see your evil, yet you will not turn to that for teaching; that eye you love not which lets you see your darkness … it’s the least seed in you, which we know is the seed of the kingdom, trodden underfoot by the kingdom of the world … and with this seed is the covenant … and we know him in whom we have believed, where he is, and the way to him, having seen the glory of his kingdom, and the powers of the eternal world, the house wherein are many mansions, yet the lowest place is pure, for which the Lord alone prepares his people and their way …” To wait, in Quaker practice, was the basis of silent worship, a time of stilling the “carnal” or earthly passions and becoming dead to the world of darkness. “Thus God is prized and praised in his own will, a sacrifice forever accepted; therefore Christ must not be offered up in his own will, but in the will of the father Matth. 26:39. And in that will he had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again. Thus he is become our example, whom we delight in the same will to follow … therefore to you the cross is preached, which must be taken up e’er you can follow the example of Christ.” Here Nayler begins blurring the distinction between Christ as Light or spirit and the person of Jesus; in the process, he hints that the Light was given to Jesus by God, to empower the historic Jesus: “God so loved the world that he hath given his son a light into the world, that whosoever believes and follows him shall not abide in death and darkness, but shall have the light of life. And this we know, who love his appearance, and that he hath loved us first; and in that love we follow him, and call to all to come to it.”

Through this, the Light is not only Christ but a quality of the father as well: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all, and if we walk in the light, then we have fellowship with him, and the blood of Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” The compression of images continues, as Nayler now turns the Light into the blood of Jesus and a cleansing agent of salvation.

What Nayler outlines is a process of surrender: “ by his light, which in your consciences shines in the midst of darkness, which you comprehend not by your dark minds, nor sensual wisdom, yet a faithful witness is it against your deeds of darkness” a faithful individual may see “with the light the saints and redeemed ones are led to,” unlike “you who despise his light in Christ Jesus.“ Nayler finds in “the light of Christ … the righteous pure way he shows you with the light in your conscience …” Lacking that, he demands, “what covenant have you, who deny the light of Christ to guide you? Was he not given for an everlasting covenant of light, both to Jew and Gentile? And in his light all that knew him were guided, according to several administrations both of law and gospel. And when they turned from his light in spirit, to men’s teaching from the letter, then they set up carnal worships instead of spiritual obedience.” Again, he sees a trend for people to turn away from the demands of Light, toward the pleasures of the flesh instead. The alternative, he insists, is that “God may be glorified in his creatures by his light shining and his righteousness reigning … in such the devil is denied and disowned before the world, where God is obeyed; and such are his servants, sons and daughters, who obey him and wait upon him, that they may bring to light what he works in them … nor can any bring it forth but by his power … even then in his people doth his kingdom stand in righteousness and peace and joying in holiness.”

Thus, through the Light, individuals become like Jesus, sons and daughters of their heavenly Father; the process includes waiting, as occurs in the traditional Quaker meeting for worship.

“And this we witness to be that covenant and that power by which we are entered into that inheritance which is eternal and are made partakers of the divine nature; which is the nature of righteousness, merciful and just, meek and patient, faithful and diligent to the obedience of the cross, long-suffering, full of love, moderation and temperance, and in all things thereby are transformed into his holiness, so far as we are entered into, and abide in this covenant, so that we can truly say, here he is all, and self is nothing.” Here Nayler continues an emphasis on self-surrender, and possibly a separation from the tendencies of the Ranter movement: “the eye now being open that’s only taken with affection to that which is holy; and with this eye we see you, your name [power], your covenant and your righteousness, all which lie under the power of darkness.”

Even the act of prayer, he argues, demands surrender and waiting: “I say, wait for the spirit of prayer, which is only heard, and without which none know what to pray for; and with that prayer which helps the infirmities and gives the understanding: only such are answered in what they pray for.” Nayler adds, “You call, but receive no answer: but did you mind that in your conscience which is pure, you would see how often he hath called to you and checked you for sin.”

Nayler sees a social consequence in this experience: “and this we have learned of Jesus in spirit, not to please ourselves nor be men-pleasers, but to be obedient to another principle, which moves contrary to the wills of men, for him we witness … a seed contrary to the seed of evil-doers … this is that holiness without which none will see God.”

As Nayler attempts to reconcile his understanding of Christ with Light and with Jesus of the Cross, he argues: “I say, he that believes not in Christ who suffered at Jerusalem (where known) [meaning, I believe, those who have heard the Gospel proclaimed], and his obedience and righteousness, and that he bare our sins in his own body on the cross and trod the wine press alone, and alone was well-pleasing to the father, and in him alone redemption is placed, and wrought by him … I say, whosoever believes not this cannot be saved, neither can he, without faith in him, ever come to receive Christ within him, working and witnessing the same in spirit, as is declared in the letter; nor can he come to witness him that’s greater in him, than he that’s in the world, giving him victory over the devil, sin, and the world, because God hath placed all power in heaven and earth in him; and without faith in him who is that power, none can come to it, nor receive it, but in him whom God hath freely given it … all the promises of life and salvation being in him yea and amen.” What starts off as Nayler’s open embrace of traditional Christian doctrine regarding the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Atonement suddenly leaps far forward – to receiving Christ within, working in spirit. Nayler now shifts from Christ to Jesus, though it’s difficult to tell how orthodox his thought: “by that faith which lies in Jesus, we are freed, and have received his righteousness to which we are obedient, by which we are purified … and so through obedience of the spirit our souls are purified and we become conformable to him that’s gone before us, who received light and obedience and power from the father and so became the first fruits unto perfection and holiness, through whom we receive power for obedience, grace for grace, by which we are saved, and our life is in him, and our obedience, and he is all in us, which we receive of the father, who hath wrought all our works in us, and ordains peace for us …” The word obedience also carries a meaning of listening, one that arises out of waiting patiently. “I say God accepts no will but his own, and this he begets by his spirit in all that wait upon him in the light of Jesus, and with such he begets the will, begets the deed also, and it is no more what we can, but what he will, with whom all things are possible … so the will of God is done in us by his power (in our measures) as it is in heaven, and this is perfect righteousness, where Christ is all, and the creature nothing.”

Again, this requires individual choice: “I say that which condemns you who are out of the way is the light that leads the way, for whatever makes manifest is light; so that which makes manifest your darkness, is that light that shines in darkness, to lead out of darkness that condemns you while you are in it.”

Nayler now applies Light to an understanding of Scripture as well: “I say this is the light of Christ given unto the world, that whosoever believes and follows shall not abide in darkness but have the light of life. Now read all the scriptures and see if there be any other covenant but this covenant of light, and this is the life which is the light of men … in which alone the power is placed, which whoever receive become the sons of God, as the father hath appointed.” The Light is an invitation, both a power and a pathway: “Therefore all are first called to believe in the light e’re they can be accepted: for without faith it is impossible to please God or be found in his work or receive his power.” Light may even be faith itself, as well as the element that empowers faith: “in the light, that all the children of light may see and praise him who doth all for his own glory.”

“Therefore I say to all who desire to know him, that you stand still in the light of Jesus, that you may come to see the life and its movings, and the power of death and its movings; that you might see what spirit moves obedience, and what spirit works disobedience … if the eye be single, then there’s no place for darkness but it is discovered. So with the light you come to discern each spirit and each principle and their several workings; and that one is the power that works in the light, which works to obedience.”

“God hath reserved the light pure, and herein placed his power, so that none may fail who believe in it; and here is the blessing and the cursing, the election and reprobation, the light and the darkness; both which the light discovers as it arises as it arises in all who believe in it and wait. And if you abide in the light, you will see none can curse what God hath blessed, nor bless what God hath cursed.”

“In the light is the power, and the power in the light, for this is one in Christ Jesus; and in this light if you keep waiting, with it you will see the motions of sin which are after the flesh, working in you, drawing your minds after them to obey them; and you shall see at the same time the motions of the spirit in the meek principle, drawing you to the contrary. So that if you be not rash to follow the motions of the flesh, but of the light take counsel, you shall see every word and action discovered to you, in the light, of which sort they are of, from what root they arise, and what they tend to; and here you come to a knowledge of sin, and who begets it in the creature, and the knowledge of righteousness, and who begets it in the creature; and here in plainness you come to see your father, and whose children you are, even his whom you obey; for if you bring forth the works of the devil, which he begets in you, then you are his children; but if you deny the works of the devil, and bring them to the light, then God gives you power to bring forth what he will beget in you in the light … this is not only a talking of God, but a living to him in your measure, and here shall you grow up (in the obedience) in the knowledge of Christ, and learn him of God, and the way to him … so shall you see the law written in your hearts, which discovers lust and uncleanness … And as your minds  are kept to this law that God hath written, to show sin and evil, you will come to see the power that sin hath got over you, and that you are wholly polluted and sold under it; then will you see the great transgression, and the fear of God will appear in you, and so your hearts will grow tender in his fear, which is but the beginnings of the knowledge of God and his wisdom: and so waiting in the light, you will come to see openings and breathings after Christ Jesus, in which abiding and waiting low in the fear you will come to see some openings and promises of the father’s love to that seed which is breathing in you after him, and some hopes of pardon of sin in Christ Jesus.”

Nayler picks up on the metaphor of Seed, in response to Light: “the seed is buried under the earthly pleasures … for the promise is to the seed which is one, not to the seed which is many … the spiritual seed, which is meek and lowly … that seed which is but one, one heart, one mind, one soul, one spirit.”

“And if you abide faithful in the light, you will be so far from turning into the liberty of the flesh, that you will see every vain thought and imagination judged … and the ground of all sin will see laid open, and so come to see the axe laid to the root of the corrupt tree that hath brought forth evil fruit.”

“And that kingdom you will hear preached at hand, which consists not in words but in power … and so see your [many have one] light grow and spring up to the burning and shining, ‘till the day-star arise in your hearts; then you will cease to put God and Christ afar off you, and wait to see Christ in you the hope of glory; and so come to see Christ in you the light, the way, the truth, and the life; and not to have your light and life to seek in a book without you, nor from men, but Christ your life in you, made manifest your mortal bodies; and so coming to the son, and to see him revealed, by him come to have the father revealed also, and so come to the knowledge of God, which is life eternal, even God in his temple, where he is worshipped in spirit and truth; and this truth in you, and this God in you, then shall we know that your bodies are the temples of the living God, as he hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them, 2 Cor. vi. 16. – And that spirit of God dwelleth in you, 1 Cor. iii. 16. By which spirit he is worshipped, and by the same spirit you are taught, and this is not known by hearsay, nor got by imitation, nor taught in the imaginations, but through death it is learned, only in those who in the light are guided, and by the spirit kept, in the fire, and in the water, where death is slain, faith purified, and the body cleansed and purged from its dross and filthiness, patience given and proved, and all the gifts and graces … waited for in the light, received in the faith.”

Nayler then turns to those who “have wholly lost the favor of Christ within,” taunting them with a series of questions about the shortcomings of their religion, before concluding with a consideration of good government and the role of civil disobedience.

This was Nayler at the height of his powers. Unlike the apologetic portrayals in later histories, “in the 1650s many regarded Nayler as the ‘chief leader,’ the ‘head Quaker in England,’” as Christopher Hill observes in The World Turned Upside Down, continuing: “’He writes all of their books,’ Colonel Cooper told the House of Commons on December 1656. ‘Cut off this fellow and you will destroy the sect,’ Mr. Bond agreed.”

History has proved otherwise.

* * *

Despite all of its ferocity, enthusiasm, and metaphorical richness, Nayler’s examination of Light/Seed falls short as a logical system. He does not allow for confirmation by any independent means – the Light and Seed and their related dimensions are known only through an individual’s response.

In part, this may be intrinsic to the use of metaphor itself, complicated by the intangible nature of Nayler’s subject matter.

Writing from a Buddhist point of view, Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry), provides another insight applicable to Nayler and other early Friends: “Human vision divides,” yet Nayler writes of uniting oneself with infinity and eternity. “But symbols – and particularly words,” she writes, “are perverse. In the face of our human desire for understanding, they pose riddles before which our ability to read the face of things must either deepen or fail – and how it fails is instructive.” In addition, “every poem remains an attempt to name with some fidelity some complex aspect of the human experience and keep it available through time.” Although Nayler was not writing poetry, at least in the traditional sense, he was applying metaphorical thinking to his presentation. With its onrush of overlapping images and concepts, his writing has more in common with contemporary poetry than with verse from his own time, which constrained itself to more Aristotelian logic. Considering Nayler’s repeated calls to humility, Hirshfield would add, “it is in the spirit of non-possession and surrender that art flourishes best” and “enlightenment as becoming a person of ‘no rank,’” we might see how his voice aligns with the poetic stream – and though generations of Friends would banish much art from their lives, poetry was one they would continue to allow.

Just as troubling, if Nayler’s Light or Seed cannot be independently verified but is known only by experience, we are then left wondering why most modern Friends who claim this Light do so without having come through a turbulent trial of discovering their own sinful natures or separating themselves more from the surrounding society than they do. To say we live in a different era and circumstances may not satisfy the skeptic who argues that early Friends experienced a different Light than we do, yet it is also true that we approach our experience with different mindsets. The first generation of Friends, after all, was shaped by medieval thought and the challenges of the Protestant Reformation; in addition, England was undergoing unprecedented economic and social turmoil that included toppling the monarchy and beheading the king.

To further complicate the picture, Mary A. Matossian contends another factor may have been at work – ergot in rye (“Why the Quakers Quaked: The Climatic Change on Quaker Health, 1647-1659,” Quaker History, Spring 2007).

Nowhere through all of this, though, does Nayler speak of “inner light,” much less use his metaphor in a manner fitting its later sense among Friends. For all of his emphasis on personal experience, this Light was still a guide out of the darkness within oneself and an opening into the power of Christ, the Lamb, and the Cross.

In laying out his Quaker cosmology, Nayler was no doubt also envisioning the possibilities of transforming British society and government as well, perhaps even bringing some of the ideals of Levellers and Diggers to fruition. All this would be dashed, of course, by his trial and conviction, which was likely influenced by far more than religious grounds.

Even so, his message remains a two-edged sword. On one side, he takes conventional Christianity to task on a number of shortcomings. On the other side, he goads Quakers to intensify their worship and conduct. Here are answers for people who come to Friends Meeting today and ask what we believe; the subsequent issue, of course, is just how do we interpret Nayler’s expressions in relation to our own experience? What do we make of his revolutionary descriptions of Christ and Seed? Do we, too, feel our bodies to be the temples of the living God, where God can walk within us(!), or “that seed which is but one, one heart, one mind, one soul, one spirit” opening within us? Do we sense ourselves being purified and redirected? Do we join in a holy covenant as a people of God? Do we search our hearts for sin, as well as forgiveness and grace?

Though he does not mention the Light in his last words, after being beaten and robbed on his way home after being released from prison, Nayler nevertheless returns to his understanding: “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can any own its life. It’s conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

The Spirit he speaks here also may be addressed as Christ or the Light or the Logos, with each phrase adding to a comprehension of this worldview. Here, on his deathbed, Nayler speaks with calm authority of a Peaceable Kingdom or Perfect Day that counters the ways of the world – the “ungodly ways, ungodly words, thoughts, works, and worships” he warned of early in his Quaker ministry. The Bright Morning Star, after all, is Light.

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