A central teaching

The metaphor of Light has long been applied to illustrate religious concepts. In the hands of early Quakers, the Light became a central teaching, one that induced life-changing spiritual encounters as well as distinctive ways of addressing daily life.

While we may never know exactly who introduced the concept to the Quaker movement, or Society of Friends, as it would become known, we do know that the Light spread quickly. It became so basic to their message – and perhaps also so combustible – that none of their writings concentrate on it solely. Rather, we find it interwoven into their discussions of other issues.

For instance, describing her initial encounter with the Quaker vision, Margaret Fell wrote that George Fox “went on and said, How that Christ was the Light of the world and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this Light they might be gathered to God, etc. And I stood up in my pew, and I wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before.” Turning to the Bible, Fox argued, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’” Fell’s reaction, seemingly the point of the narrative, is revealing: “This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves,’” a remark alluding to Matthew 21:13, Luke 19:46, and John 10:8, among other passages.

Within this brief passage, Fell exemplifies the intensity of the Quaker confrontation. It was powerful enough to make her despair of all she had previously learned. It rebutted the prevailing Calvinist emphasis on Scripture and preaching, and emphasized instead an inward communion with God. Crucially, by 1652, the Light had become so fundamental to Quaker teaching that Fell could reference it as “etc.” Even so, she also sketches a linkage of Christ to the Light and to the gathering people, or Children of Light, who would then “walk” wherever it led them.

She touched on this again in 1656: “Let the eternal Light search you, and try you for the good of your souls for this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodgeth in you the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest. Therefore all to this come and by this be searched and judged and led and guided, for to this you must stand or fall …” (Letter to Friends, Brethren and Sisters; spelling and syntax modernized). Here again the Light is conceptualized as an active agent, one that provokes epiphanies of intensely emotional self-awareness and transformation.

In her descriptions, and those of all other early Friends, the Light is quite different from the “Inner Light” many modern Quakers espouse. The original understanding, I contend, is more universal, more resilient, and more transformative, especially when used in relation with Quaker impressions of the Seed and the Truth.

Admittedly, the logic within their teachings on the Light, the Seed, and the Truth is hardly systematic. There are several reasons for this.

First, of course, arises in the realities of their circumstances. The first decades of the Quaker movement were turbulent, violent, and rapidly shifting. Tracts were issued quickly, often in response to accusations. What Friends experienced in their worship and practice was pristine and still unfolding; their language could only approximate, in tentative terms, their awe. They had little time for deep intellectual examination of their encounters, either individually or collectively, yet they sensed something marvelous happening among them. In the agitation regarding their evolving fellowship, they were more concerned with precisely how to respond in their lives and actions than with any firm set of theological answers. Tellingly, Quakers soon collected sets of queries, rather than creeds, to guide their faith. How I love a spiritual life that can be guided by questions!

Second, the Scriptural passages they invoked are hardly systematic, perhaps for similar reasons. In the opening chapter of the gospel of John, for instance, the concept of Light as well as the Logos or Word appears to be constantly in flux. It’s many things, all at once.

Third, Quakers were hampered by the harsh realities of existing blasphemy laws. Among other things, this meant Friends had to be careful not to appear to deny the established doctrine of Trinity. What I find embedded in their writings, however, points to an alternative understanding of Christ and of Christianity, one that does not easily fit within the confines of conventional Christian creeds. As a consequence, I suspect that any open, thorough arrangement of early Quaker perceptions would have been suicidal, no matter how welcome it might be in our own era. It appears that early Friends instead moved deftly between systems of conventional Christianity and their radical Light-based experience, and back again. Thus, in reading early Friends and coming upon the word Christ, you can always stop to ask yourself whether their meaning better fits as the person of Jesus or as the Light or Spirit; the exercise can be revealing.

Fourth has to do with the nature of early Quaker theological thinking itself. Instead of building from a progression of thought based on interpretations of Scripture or history, Friends relied on metaphor to express their own direct experiences. Rather than being subject to hair-splitting definitions, metaphor overlays and compresses concepts, which are then embodied in an image – in this case, often as Light or Seed. Metaphoric thinking is hardly systematic, in the usual sense, yet it allows an exploration and discussion of what ultimately remains elusive.

If a godly woman like such as Mrs. Fell reacted to the Quaker message with amazement, we should be equally astonished that the movement could so quickly draw together a cadre of leaders from a spectrum of diverse dissident pockets who nevertheless voiced, out of their individual experiences, a shared yet novel religious language, as well as an alternative way of worship and conduct of living. Some elements that would blend into the distinctive Friends’ belief system had apparently been percolating for decades. Others were a topical brew.

For instance, Oliver Cromwell wrote in 1638 to “beloved cousin” Mrs. St. John with language quite similar to what Quakers would use a decade later: “The Lord accept me as his son, and give me to walk in the light, and give us to walk in the light, as He is the light. He it is that enlighteneth our blackness, our darkness. I dare not say, He hideth his face from me. He giveth me to see light in His light. One beam in a dark place hath exceedingly much refreshment in it. Blessed be His Name for shining upon so dark a heart as mine! You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh, I have lived in and loved darkness and hated the light. I was a chief, the chief of sinners.” In her biography, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, Antonia Fraser observes, “Here indeed is the authentic language of the convert, of one touched by grace and feeling the workings of Christ within himself.”

We are left to wonder just what twist, what combination, what innovation sparked the explosion that fused Puritan thought like Cromwell’s with that of the “chapel” debates within the New Model Army and other Parliament regiments, as well as elements of General Baptists (more like today’s Mennonites and not to be confused with the more familiar Particular Baptists we encounter in our own time), Levellers and Diggers, Gringletonians and Familists, Seekers and Ranters, and other English radicals who melded into the Quaker vision their concepts of Light and Seed. Friends’ ministers had no seminaries or universities where complex theology could be honed into a cohesive whole; what they had instead was travel in twos or threes, small face-to-face gatherings, epistles circulated among themselves, and long stretches of imprisonment. There are hints of proto-Quaker communities before and apart from George Fox, who is often considered the founder of the Society of Friends. There is also mention of “quaker” applied to James Nayler before his introduction to Fox or its becoming affixed to the early Friends movement. What we do know is that so many united so quickly in the weeks after Fox’s 1652 epiphany atop Pendle Hill in what we might consider a “Woodstock moment” in religious history. Thousands suddenly became visible as a united front, rather than as an array of splinter groups; the movement was confident enough of its mission that it could dispatch the Valiant Sixty (actually closer to seventy) to go, two by two, throughout the English-speaking world, promptly followed by a second wave.

This survey of the original Quaker discussion of the Light is not intended to be encyclopedic. Rather, I would hope that within the legacy of their range of expression you will discover rich comfort and stimulation to deepen our own understanding and practice. If you initially find their period language too difficult to understand, let me suggest starting instead with two works by Rex Ambler, Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox, where original 17th century quotes are arrayed alongside contemporary English renderings, and Light To Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality. Once the ability to translate from Fox’s era to our own is in your ears, the other voices should speak clearly.

I focus on James Nayler for several reasons. First, in the four years until his fall to scandal in 1656, he was the most influential of the early Quaker ministers and one of its most prolific writers. Second, he is considered the most systematic theologian among early Friends. Third, I find his articulation of the Light to be the most expressive of any Friend, excepting Isaac Penington a generation later.

From there, the line moves to Edward Burrough, considered the second most systematic theologian of the original movement.

However notoriously unsystematic, George Fox’s statements must be examined, for they stand with authority. Where Nayler can be seen as a theoretician, Fox stands as a tactician and organizer.

This collection then presents passages from the second generation of Friends – Penington, Robert Barclay, and William Penn – as well as two of the last voices of the traditional Quaker understanding more than a century later in Job Scott and Elias Hicks, before considering its mutation and dilution in the decades that followed.

With their emphasis on personal experience of Divinity, in contrast to dogma, their passages contain much that remains original, profound, refreshing, and provocative. These are not the platitudes of televangelists or entrepreneurial hierarchies, but rather intimate letters that speak across the centuries to sincere Seekers After Truth today. While their place is firmly within the Quaker stream, they traverse much that may comfort and stimulate individuals in other religious traditions, Christian or non-Christian. In many ways, these are responses to George Fox’s admonition, “but what canst thou say?” – as well as patterns for us to do likewise.