One of the mysteries regarding the emergence of the early Quaker movement is the matter of exactly where the central teaching of Inward Light emerged and how it became infused into Friends’ identity and understanding. Elements of this teaching have been detected in earlier English bodies, including the Gringletonians, named for a radical parish village at the foot of Pendle Hill where the curate in 1617 had been accused of blasphemy for preaching similar thoughts just decades before the Quaker movement erupted.
In her seminal exploration, The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666, Rosemary Moore voices her puzzlement that so little original source material has survived from before 1652. Admittedly, much of it might have been lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. She notes, “There are no surviving Quaker pamphlets that can be certainly dated to 1652,” much less earlier. She does, however, mention “a number of surviving letters … in which the recipient is addressed in the language of popular devotion as Christ would be. In later years they were an embarrassment, for the original scripts show attempts, probably made by [George] Fox himself, to delete the offending passages.”
The early Quaker movement attracted members of many other radical bodies, especially as the latter collapsed under attack and persecution. The General Baptist church that was worshiping in Elizabeth Hooten’s home had “shattered,” in George Fox’s expression, possibly as a consequence of Leveller dissent, as others have suggested. Curiously, many followers of both the General Baptists and Levellers united in time with the Quakers.
One of the more fascinating figures in all of this is Gerrard Winstanley (1609?-1676), a leader of the True Levellers, or Diggers of 1649-50. David Boulton’s Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven is a succinct overview of this puzzling revolutionary’s life and writings, with a close eye for possible Quaker connections. Crucially, Winstanley’s twenty published works were all printed between 1648 and 1652, the very period of the emerging Quaker movement that leaves us essentially no published material. Not only that, but from the beginning, Winstanley’s works were printed by Giles Calvert’s shop at the Black-Spread-Eagle, the same source of many of the Quaker publications to appear soon after. Could it be the Friends’ faith originated far more in political action than we have been willing to admit? Were are own proclamations far too close to the radicals’ to be acknowledged in light of later events? Was Winstanley a Quaker voice of the earliest years, only to drift away?
In his earliest works, Winstanley’s focus was theological, including suggestions of both a Christ and a devil within each person. Christ, moreover, is “not a single man at a distance from you but the indwelling power of reason.” Also, “When you know the Sonne within, as you can talke much of his without, then the Sonne will set you free.” There are other bits, of course, to be found. From this emerging line of thought, some scholars suggest Winstanley as the origin of the Quaker doctrine of Inward Light. He seems to have other likely impacts as well. For example, in June 1649, he outlined what Quakers would later proclaim as the Lamb’s War, another of their central concepts. In Winstanley’s words, “I tell thee thou England, thy battells now are all spirituall. Dragon against the Lamb, and the power of love against the power of covetousnesse; therefore all that would be Souldiers for Christ, the Law of righteousnesse, joyne to the Lamb. He that takes the iron sword shall now perish with it, and would you be a strong Land and flourish with in beauty, then fight the Lambs battells, and his strength shall be thy walls and bulwarks.”
Yet for all of his commonalities with the early Quaker movement, Winstanley largely disappears from sight in 1652, leaving enough clues that he was moving in a different direction, including affiliation with the local parish church. Yet, as Boulton details, there are tantalizing snippets of mutual admiration and influence. Edward Burrough, for example, wrote to Margaret Fell in 1654, “Wildstandley says he beleeves we are sent to perfect that worke which ell in their handes hee hath bene with us.”
Boulton presents a fascinating overview of the changing nature of Quaker character and practice between 1652 and Winstanley’s death in 1676, and notes along the way two telling details: In 1664, after the death of his first wife, he remarried. “She certainly married a Quaker, in a Quaker marriage ceremony … and brought up Winstanley’s children as Quakers.” Furthermore, “When he died in January 1676, his burial at Long Acre is recorded not in the church registers but in those of the Quakers’ Westminster Monthly Meeting.” As Boulton argues, “Quakers did not bury non-Quakers and record them in their registers. The Gerrard Winstanley who died in 1676 had definitely thrown in his lot with Friends: that is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from his inclusion in registers which recorded the births, marriages and deaths only of recognised and acknowledged adherents to the movement. When his widow remarried in 1681, her husband was certainly a Quaker …”
A 1678 pamphlet by the Dean of Durham may have hit the mark all too accurately when it contended the Quakers “derived their ideas from the communist writer Gerrard Winstanley.”
Or, as Boulton views the resulting Quakerism, “If it did not complete, or attempt to complete, Winstanley’s work, it salvaged much from the wreckage. … The Quakers offered a similar republic of heaven, but more internalised, more spiritualised than Winstanley’s: a paradise within rather than without, or at least with more emphasis on personal than social transformation.”
This, then, suggests a comprehension of the Inward Light as something spanning both the spiritual and temporal worlds. It opens a new perspective on the Quaker developments that followed, and on our applications today. As if we’ll ever fully understand either.