Over the years, the Inner Light has become the one doctrine, or teaching, uniquely identified with Quakers. It even has its own entry in some dictionaries and encyclopedias. Remarkably, though, trying to trace that exact phrase to any 17th-century or 18th-century usage by Friends proves futile. Despite a widespread assumption that the phrase must occur somewhere in those formative years, it is simply not found. Scrupulous examination finds the authoritative citations in modern reference books have simply inserted “Inner Light” into the source material being quoted. The reality is that many generations of Friends would have been perplexed by the expression, especially the ways it is typically applied nowadays. Not the “Light” part, although their customary interpretation may, in turn, baffle many Friends today. To the early Quakers, Light was one way of designating a life-changing encounter with what they identified as Christ. While a host of synonyms appears in historic Quaker literature – including Christ Within, the Light of Christ, the Seed of Christ, the Truth, the Witness of Christ Within, the Inner Man (with its implicit Inner Woman), the new Adam (with the implicit new Eve), and similar combinations – what we do not find is Inner Light itself. Rather, the closest we come is the Light Within or the Inward Light. Critical examination demonstrates crucial distinctions between an Inward Light and an Inner Light, as well as a multitude of consequences.
In its original understanding, this Light was an external beacon pouring into the recesses of a person’s existence, disclosing one’s most secret thoughts and actions. This could be terrifying. Like a criminal on trial, Quakers spoke of being convicted of their sins before being convinced to change. Such experiences, in fact, gave rise to the sense of being convinced to join the Society of Friends rather than joining as a result of proselytizing, argument, and conversion. In this model, the Light of Christ is directed toward a human heart or soul, and there to awaken the Seed of Christ – the image of God in which each person is created.
This perspective contrasts sharply with contemporary attitudes regarding Inner Light. Funk and Wagnalls, for example, has this description: “In Quakerism, the Divine presence in man, source of guidance and certainty: also Inner Word,” while the American Heritage dictionary says: “In Quaker doctrine, a divine presence believed to be an enlightening and guiding force in the human soul.” Here the locus shifts from an external motion to an inborn sensibility, from a specific “Christ” to an abstract “divine presence,” and from a single essence to possibly independent or pluralist dynamics that might be construed as conscience or intuition.
Instead, the image of Inward Light presents illumination pouring into a dark room or cell, like the first rays of the day or a searchlight, allowing the inmate to begin removing fetters and clutter; it grows stronger as the day progresses and as the individual opens the windows, blinds and curtains, and door to receive more. The Inner Light, on the other hand, would be like throwing a switch for electrical bulbs already in the chamber. No window or door is necessarily present.
The gap between Inward Light and Inner Light is something other than an evolution across time. The division points straight to the essential sore spot for the Society of Friends today: what is meant by “Christ”?
At both ends of the modern Quaker spectrum, the immediate associative leap equates Christ with Jesus, rather than Christ with Light. In the process, the unique and powerful comprehension of Christ as Logos, historically expressed by early Friends in the synonym “Light” and sometimes as “Seed,” goes largely unrecognized. Indeed, the Logos line of reasoning in New Testament thought can be traced from the opening chapter of the gospel of John, where it is typically translated as “the Word,” to tie it into an existing Judaic stream of development; this, unfortunately, obscures its roots in a distinctive Greek philosophy that would otherwise open an alternative understanding of the nature of Christ. When Quakers proclaimed they were “primitive Christianity revived,” it may well be the result of their rediscovery of this knowledge – one they could not fully express under the constraints of the existing blasphemy laws or their later self-censorship. This is a shame, for here Friends would have a distinctive teaching that holds the potential for healing not only the seemingly insoluble divisions within the Quaker movement today but global society as well.
First, however, we need to recognize why linkage of Christ and Light is so troublesome for many contemporary Quakers. At one extreme, self-identified liberal Friends – those who worship in an hour of silence where individuals may voice short messages, if they feel a spiritual prompting to do so – will emphasize the inclusive nature of this Light’s embrace, while arguing that Christ, at least as they’ve heard Jesus taught, condemns unbelievers to hell or fosters exclusivity or even bigotry. At the other extreme, self-identified evangelical Friends – whose worship includes a pastor, public prayers, hymn-singing, Bible readings, and a sermon – see Christ as Jesus and have difficulty attuning an undefined Light with their emphasis on his crucifixion, resurrection, and atonement, as well as the justification and sanctification they see resulting from the events at Calvary. In short, nowadays this Christ is expressed as either Light or Blood, without much appreciation of an element that links the two – Christ as Logos.
Although the writings of early Quakers muddle their definition of the Light – sometimes identifying it as Christ, while at others insisting it is what brings an individual to Christ, or sometimes saying it resembles the Holy Spirit, while at others insisting it is distinctly not the Holy Spirit, and so on – I believe their Light of Christ experience still points us toward an alternative and radical – literally, “going to the roots” – Christianity. With its grounding in the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul, especially, but also drawing on other passages from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, their understanding of Christ gave them good reason to proclaim their encounter to be “primitive Christianity revived,” generating unique and powerful practices and teachings.
Even so, there are reasons the earliest generations of Friends fell short of articulating their profound experience as systematically and completely as we might like – for starters, the Blasphemy Law of 1650 and criminal prosecution apparently led them to refine and hedge some of their language and perhaps even their spiritual experiences, even as they shifted within a few years from Pentecostal outbursts to “retired meetings” where they could silently “wait upon the Lord.” Then, too, they were no doubt more concerned with surviving the rapidly shifting political confrontations than with pursuing rigorous intellectual consistency in their expressions of faith. While their public witness left an amazing array of lasting changes for society at large, their principal theological quandary – reconciling a Christ as Logos, available to everyone from the beginning of Creation, and a Christ who brought atonement to humanity on the cross at Calvary – would continue to bedevil the Quaker message and eventually feed into the schisms that produced the two contemporary polarities in the Society of Friends.
Friends today, meanwhile, need to recognize emotional hot buttons and preconceptions that stand in their own way. For starters, whether “liberal” or “evangelical,” Friends need to realize that in many early Quaker passages, Christ might not always be identical to the person named Jesus. Without meticulous care, one runs the risk of reshaping their accounts to fit one’s own preconceptions, rather than heeding their words explicitly.
This is not to downplay the centrality of Jesus in either Christianity or Quakerism, nor to suggest that he is anything less than the fullest manifestation of Christ (or the Light) in human form. Rather, I believe that an appreciation of New Testament Logos leads to revolutionary insights into the unique role Jesus holds in the maturation of humanity as we’ve come to know it. It may even help us welcome him as a person, off the pedestal, while valuing his deeds as a prophet, social activist, faith healer, religious reformer, and much more. For me, then, the question is not whether Jesus is divine, but how. To my eyes, at least, the opening chapter in both Mark and John emphasizes a vessel prepared to receive this Light, more than the Jewish royalty lineage that Matthew presents or the theme so familiar to Greek and Roman audiences, of a deity mating with a human, that Luke stresses. (While many modern readers struggle with Luke’s account, we might remember that the scandalous element for his intended listeners was that this God would select a woman who was neither royal nor aristocratic; as happens so often, Gospel events turn the standard anticipated order upside-down.)
Ultimately, reexamining the Light in the context of Logos can prompt an examination of some of the most basic dealings of human existence. In the course of exploring early Quaker expressions of the Light, we find ourselves reclaiming language that initially rings strange to our ears. Some of it reflects 17th– or 18th-century English. Some of it is simply Biblical. Some of it, theological. Regardless, the terms are part of our legacy and its continuing service.
Reclaiming theological language – as well as its unique wisdom – is a problem not just for Quakers. The rise of consumerism and domination-based outlooks throughout the Western nations since World War II, especially, has accompanied a general decline in religious practice and expression; differences between spiritual traditions have become blurred, and any hints that growth in faith and life-awareness will include pain and struggle have been downplayed. Nevertheless, some individuals have been – and continue to be – drawn to a soul-journey, a quest that typically brings one to others who also recognize its timeless aspirations. Once this pursuit involves a circle of people, the seeker is are likely to find himself or herself turning to markers left behind by pioneers exploring this pathway before them; in Western civilization, this has often meant some strand of Judeo-Christian literature.
“Thus, over the years that I have become a part of worshipping communities, I have had to develop a relationship with their scary Christian vocabulary,” Kathleen Norris confides in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. “In living with these words, I have found that they themselves have come to life, and have forced me to shed the inadequate definitions that I had received as a child. Any language can become a code; in religious terms, this means jargon that speaks only to the converted. But in my long apprenticeship as a poet I learned to refuse codes, to reject all forms of jargon.”
In Quaker discussions, the Inner Light is one of the terms often applied as a code or jargon. These terms can, indeed, preclude our looking more closely at our own experience. On the other hand, one of the charges against the original Friends was that their descriptions of the Light of Christ could be understood only by others having similar experiences – again, “jargon that speaks only to the converted.” Yet it is also obvious that those initial Friends were reporting on powerful events in their lives, testimonies given as an invitation for others also to encounter. The first-person descriptions of their intense and intimate commotion frequently ring with authenticity, provoking the reader to reevaluate his or her own state of existence.
Curiously, what many Quakers today would find strange is the fact that the Inward Light teaching is founded on an intense application of Bible passages. While the popular explanation contends that early Friends used Scripture because it was the spiritual language and intellectual framework available to them in their day, that line of argument ignores a crucial dimension: the Bible both directed and defined their experience, providing those Children of Light, as they sometimes called themselves (appropriating a New Testament phrase), with a blueprint for uncovering and recovering an extraordinary comprehension of Christ. This, in turn, transformed Friends’ relationship to the Bible itself, shaped both personal and group mystical experience, and opened out into a universalism that was nevertheless firmly rooted in what they were as likely to call the Seed of Christ as they were to refer to it as the Light Within. The concept is thus both specific and cosmic, made manifest in individuals and history yet also timeless, and radically Christian yet at odds with what has been taught in most Christian denominations.
The original Friends had good reason to believe their faith was, as they proclaimed, “primitive Christianity revived … after this long night of apostasy.” But can modern Friends make a similar claim?
Examining writings from various periods of Quaker history, we should remain aware that there is no consistent standard in the use of capitalization: light/Light, spirit/Spirit, word/Word and so on may be used interchangeably and, as a result, allow us to overlook wider meanings. For example, the frequently quoted passage by George Fox, “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (1652, from his published Journal), opens with “Let all nations hear the word by sound or writing,” which takes on a much different cast when one recognizes that this “word” is the Word – that is, Logos, or, as Fox insisted, Christ himself. Perhaps even, Christ itself. Or, from another perspective, as the Light dawning on all nations to overcome the dark night of apostasy, one person at a time. In this understanding, an Inward Light, not an Inner Light, is received and unfolds.
How we relate to the Divine remains crucial to our daily conduct. It’s not just a matter of who God is – or, in polytheistic systems, who the gods are – but ultimately how Divinity relates to us personally. The answer determines whether we react with fear, guilt, indifference, adoration, joy, or some other response. It also influences whether we respond to community with a pursuit of justice or with injustice, violence or pacifism, aggression or love, domination or equality, and much more. In a monotheistic system, especially, we have a dilemma placing ourselves in relation to a cosmic deity – one whose very name is unspeakable – and a deity who can be present with us. Which is it? Even the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis reflect this polarity: in the seven-day version, God appears distant and all-knowing; in the Garden of Eden, God is shown as emotional, perhaps even lonely, and surprised and perplexed by the humans’ actions and reactions.
The implications of interpreting New Testament Logos as Light, as Quaker history demonstrates, are enormous. In the Hebrew Bible, God usually communicates with humans by means of angels (“messengers”), prophets, or even dreams. But the concept of the Word (Logos) being with God and then being made flesh bridges this in a new way. Angels can come and go; the Seed of Christ within us, however, remains a basic part of our nature. Extending this Word to Spirit or Light within each one further strengthens that sense of being made in God’s image-reflection-shadow. Though this, we are not servants after all, but children of God and friends in God’s Spirit.
This message had an enormous, emotional imprint on individuals who felt they had no hope, no help, and no reason to live; it is seen in accounts of early Quaker convincements as well as in Third World nations today. There is no reason it couldn’t sweep through Meetings and congregations, here and now, anew.
The revolutionary impact of Christ as the Word/Logos or Light is something Friends encounter in virtually every aspect of historic Quaker practice, from the way of addressing other individuals and society to the ways of worship and understanding of church itself. It appears, for example, as Friends meet together for worship: “For where two or three are gathered in my name [power], I am there among them” [Matthew 18:20]. That is, both within us and around us.
One way of distinguishing Christian denominations is by looking for their locus of authority. In the Roman Catholic church, for instance, it is in the person of the pope and the office of the Vatican. In the Anglican communion, it is the bishops. For Lutherans, the synod. For Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the elders or deacons. For Southern Baptists, more and more, it’s the preacher – even as the official authority is proclaimed to be the Bible. In each denomination, custom, teaching, practice, and Scripture are given different emphases and relative importance. An answer may be framed as, “According to Catholic tradition …” or “In our catechism …” or “In the mutual discipleship of Mennonites …” or “The Bible says …” – leading to specific, and often varied, conclusions.
The traditional Quaker insistence on the Logos of Christ – and its recognition as Inward Light – contrasts sharply with other denominations. In historic Quaker teaching, the church is not an organization or outward structure, but the body of believers. Furthermore, Friends have met together as a gathering to await Christ’s Light. There is an expectation that Christ will be present in Quaker worship and also lead Friends in their deliberations over congregational business. The Light is available to all, depending on individual faithfulness. Thus, Friends wait and listen. The process of Quaker church government, with its search for agreement without the use of voting, is rooted in a recognition of the unity of a single Light – which can be accessed by faithful listening.
I would argue that the tragic separations that have wracked the Society of Friends have occurred precisely at those points where individuals leaned too heavily on “the letter without” – which can include Quaker tradition and form as well as interpretations of Scripture – or drawn heavily on the “collection of notions and opinions,” largely assembled from the surrounding culture. Friends’ reluctance to teach practices that might enhance the experience of quietist worship – in particular, techniques of meditation or varieties of prayer – upheld an expectation that whatever happens in the yielded gathering is to be a gift from God. But it also left open the possibility that at least some Friends had not experienced such intimacy, as either Light or Seed; for them, expressions of this encounter must have sounded peculiar, or even incomprehensible. In many ways, that may very well be where the Society of Friends stands today.
As Jack Smith of Ohio Yearly Meeting has observed, “The different groups among today’s Quakers tend to different emphases concerning the Bible and the Word of God. Liberal unprogrammed Friends tend to deny that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. On the other hand, evangelical and pastoral Friends tend to substitute the Bible for Jesus Christ as the Word” (Friends Understanding of the Word of God, Ohio Yearly Meeting, 1991).
Both stances set Friends down far from the vital connection Robert Barclay voiced on behalf of the early Quaker movement. This original and still startling nexus of Spirit, Logos, Word, Life, Light, Love, and divine Truth with Christ, with Jesus, with you, and with me remains dynamic, vital, moving, alive. It tastes and looks quite different from any stained-glass Christianity one encounters. And, yes, it truly can lead people to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” – as George Fox insisted, 1656 – in dimensions yet to be envisioned.
I would argue that a rediscovery of the full range of knowledge too often hidden under the historic shorthand expression, “Inward Light,” has the potential of healing the divisions within the Society of Friends, even as Quakers continue to worship in different ways. At present, the differences aren’t so much over the varied forms of worship, anyway, as they are of differing interpretations of Word of God, or Logos – regardless of whether individual Friends are even aware of the role of the phrase within the Quaker heritage. What has become known as unprogrammed worship was initially called the “retired meeting,” where the newly convinced Friends settled in to savor the Spirit of Christ in their presence. But there has also been a place for public preaching, as is evident even in the length of Elias Hicks’ sermons in traditional “silent” worship. Pastoral Friends’ worship resembles typical Protestant services to the extent that the accompanying theology has been imported, and far less to the extent that its liturgy has been adapted.
Curiously, today’s evangelical Friends describe their faith as an experience of the Holy Spirit, with an expectation of its presence during their worship. This, then, transforms their perspective from Christ in Bible times to the Spirit of Christ working among believers now. In that are glimmers of possibility for reconnecting the Society of Friends.
The central opportunity for bridging the distances between today’s “unprogrammed” (or quietist) and “pastoral” (or evangelical) branches arises within the experience of open worship – whether it’s presented as the traditional waiting silence or as quiet moments in which prayers, concerns, and requests may be voiced by anyone assembled in the room.
Of course, one can ask why Friends should even consider possibilities of reconciliation, given their history and differences. I must admit, I know of nobody who’s holding his or her breath for it to happen. In our own time, however, Douglas Gwyn has thought deeply about these divisions, and his Unmasking the Idols: A Journey Among Friends investigates the shortfalls and opportunities at both ends of the Quaker spectrum. “I am convinced that there is no future for pastoral Quakerism along it present course,” he writes. “Pastoral Quakerism has become an anonymous Christianity, without a clear sense of identity, history, and mission. An abrupt change of direction, a return to roots, a radical repentance is our only hope.” This, from someone who has labored as a pastor. Meanwhile, “Quaker liberalism has drifted away from the Christian spirituality and into the many cross-currents of secular humanism. This is really much the same dilemma as faced by evangelical Friends. In this case, however, the idolatrous impulse seems to be toward a facile world citizenship that can embrace and even include people of all faith traditions. Liberal Quakerism’s idealistic universalism seeks to subsume all things in general but embodies nothing in particular. As with evangelical Quakerism, this path has left us with a general loss of identity, history, and mission.”
He sees these conditions as a mirror image of each other, both employing contemporary idols – images, ideas, and forms we erect as a means of “distancing ourselves emotionally and spiritually from others, including God.”
He observes, “As evangelicals, we want to celebrate the forgiveness we obtain from Jesus’ death two thousand years ago, but we do not want to enter that drama and feel the pain of it here and now. As liberals, we want to place Jesus among the great teachers, Christ among the holy names of world religions, and thereby enact an etiquette of global consciousness that makes us feel worldly, not noticing that the world is an incoherent Babel of contending powers.” He argues that neither branch of Friends can face the future successfully without the other: “We cannot unite meaningfully with people of other faiths unless we regain unity with those of our own faith – present and past. The bulk and wealth of our Quaker tradition is a unique stream of Christian spirituality … let us not sell it out for cosmopolitan platitudes about ‘all religions.’ Quaker universalism is primarily a conviction about encountering God with all people, not about comparing religions. It is a specific path of spiritual formation the world needs today – and we need it most of all!”
The situation Gwyn describes is not entirely confined to the Society of Friends. Many denominations today are stressed by major differences across their organizational spans. But splintering is no answer, either. I believe that a clearer understanding of the thinking that underpins our distinct practices is essential to a revitalized faith. Without that, religion too often becomes a matter of custom, losing both its sharpness and value in daily encounters.
A renewed understanding of the Light/Seed dynamic within early Quaker experience is more than a point of dialogue between the two extremes of today’s Society of Friends. It also heightens a distinct identity within the world of Christianity, placing Quakers in a unique position to interact with other people of faith. The fact that Friends’ faith is based on individual experience cannot be overstated. To express this as Light, on one hand, allows Quakers to reach out and converse with many others, not all of them Christian, who have experienced similar spiritual encounters. To express this as Christ as Logos, on the other hand, reaches out to others who emphasize Spirit-filled worship and opens a new understanding of New Testament passages, liberating their revolutionary meaning afresh. This is not ecumenism or comparative religion, but an enhanced embrace of experience. Ideally, in either case, the dialogue encourages each of us to deepen our practice and our fidelity.
The evangelicals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries did not confront Quakerism out of nowhere; the ones who overturned the Society of Friends were raised within it. Their initial criticisms addressed what was a Quaker retreat from the Lamb’s War, a denomination that had become timid in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world and was repeating a form and language to distance itself from others; they were right in accusing the quietists of no longer going forth to convict and convince the world in its sin and direct it to a new, Spirit-infused, love-filled life. But they were clueless regarding what had given Quakers such incredible power in the first place.
In our own ways today, both halves of the Quaker equation have erected idols. Gwyn is right about that. Both halves have also been led away, for a host of reasons, from the original Quaker experience and vision. In failing to openly articulate and expand their implicit and radical Christian theology, early Friends left a vacuum that later generations would eventually fill with imported concepts. The original and revolutionary impulse of early Friends became muted and clouded.
As I’ve been arguing for a restoration of the original Quaker concept of Inward Light shining into an individual, rather than emanating from within, I’ve also come to see the importance of their corresponding concept of the Seed, the potential and awakening within that individual. The reality is that any awareness of the Seed of Christ becoming activated in our individual lives points us toward an apocalyptic faith: Christ present now, within us and without, can be – and ought to be – both terrifying and breathtaking. This is a much different image of being born again than Friends hear from other denominations. This is the reason early Friends staked everything on their mission.
Those of us in quietist Meetings have welcomed “religious refugees” who have come wounded from other backgrounds, found healing in our circle, and then moved on to more focused bodies of faith – sometimes it’s a church, sometimes a Zen center. Others have relied on loose fellowships with local synagogues or Mennonite “small groups,” for instance, for nurture not available in their own Meeting.
On the evangelical side, there are stories of entire congregations that, having found ecstasy in the Holy Spirit, have wondered how to live within its power and, as a consequence, have moved on to Eastern Orthodox rituals and discipline or to other denominations. There are examples, too, of widespread movements – powerful ministries – that have emerged out of these Quaker roots. Garner Ted Armstrong and today’s Vineyard Ministries are two that come to mind. Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by the son of a Quaker woman, also draws on these roots, with its telling emphasis on Meetings where personal testimonies are voiced.
At times Friends’ criticisms of each other are unnerving and on target. For even more devastating accounts, turn to the teenagers. As things stand today, both branches are fragile; their future, questionable. But the Mennonites have a saying, “God has no grandchildren,” and I take comfort in that. I believe that rediscovering the Seed of Christ accompanying the Light of Christ has revolutionary potential for bringing individual renewal as well as societal change.
From that perspective, when I look at the unprogrammed versus pastoral range of Quakerism, I see a new appearance of the Ranter versus Authority tension – this time, with Ranters, as individuals having an experience of the Spirit, existing in both camps. As Jim Corbett recognized, this can clear the way of established community practices that have become dead forms and it can be a sign of renewed life, as long as we can find meaningful ways of upholding covenant community.
I find it curious that as liberal Friends shifted from “Inward Light” to “Inner Light,” the concept of “Seed” dropped out of consideration – as it apparently already had among the evangelical Friends. It’s as if the concept of Light now replaces the Seed, without any replacement for the Light.
Let me explain. As I contemplate a Logos-based theology, I sense a wonderful balance in having something as ethereal as Light being countered by something as earthy as Seed. For whatever reason, in this context I always think first of fruit, with flesh, before I think of seed as grain or nut, with a hard kernel or shell. Either way, here is something that can take root, that becomes a grounding for Soul, that even becomes flesh. If the Inward Light is the Spirit of Christ pouring into the human heart, the Seed then opens in response and extends its leaves to receive this energy. Here, then, is an answer to the question of why the Light must seek the Light: as light becomes embodied, it turns toward its source. Here is something the Light stimulates and opens.
I think of a Gary Snyder poem about righteousness that opens, “The Dharma is like an Avocado!” – even though his Zen Buddhist look at Seed imagery in relation to religion bends ways my Logos perception doesn’t.
Symbolically, the forbidden fruit of Eden also contained seeds – so that the Light now brings a transformation to the expulsion itself, a reversal much like Calvary’s relation to sacrifice, kingdom, and death – a positive prompting of the Law or Dharma written on our hearts rather than a negative set of prohibitions. Cast out of Paradise, the offspring of Adam and Eve still carry something of it within themselves.
Approaching this from with a Buddhist background, John Tarrant links Light and spirit. “Spirit is the center of life, the light out of which we are born with eyes still reflecting the vastness, and the light toward which are eyes turn when our breath goes out and does not come in again.” But he also acknowledges, “Adept at transcendence, spirit gives us the foundation for understanding reality, but is of little help with the day-to-day arts of relishing life.” He then counters this with what he calls soul, “not taken in the theological sense of an immortal being putting up for the night in the inn of the body – that is spirit. Soul is the part of us which touches and is touched by the world.”
In a leap, I find myself substituting “seed” for “soul,” and Tarrant deepens the dimension: Seed is always learning, always fallible. Seed is weak because it loves – which is, of course, its strength. Denser than the spirit, seed gets in the way of the arriving light just enough, delaying it, making it linger. On the other hand, spirit knows that seed, in itself, does not have enough of a center. When seed is too dominant, we lose connection with the infinite source and fall under the thrall of the world. Seed wanders ever deeper into the marsh of emotion. If seed gives taste, touch, and habitation to the spirit, spirit’s contribution is to make seed lighter, able to escape its swampy authenticity, to enjoy the world without being gravely wounded by it. And so on.
In Quaker practice, the Meeting, regardless of its outward structure, exists to facilitate individual growth of the Seed of Christ. The initial burst of enthusiasm, once inculcated, needs support as it matures; as one seasons in that faith, there will be times of drought and doubt to endure, which will also need nurturing. We need to remember that we are minding not just the Light, but also the Seed – our own sustenance as well as our spiritual descendants. As quietist Friends reclaim the connections of Inward Light with the Word of God and the Christ-present-with-us, they will reclaim much more of that revolutionary power. For pastoral Quakers, the rediscovery may come through connecting an awareness of the Holy Spirit, which many evangelical Friends today acknowledge as being an essential experience in Christian life, with the Spirit of Christ and then with the Word of God that was from the beginning and became flesh. From either direction, this Christ-centered faith unleashes renewed and awesome power.
The Light, as energy, transforms the Seed, as matter.
Surprisingly, this understanding of Christ and the church leads into an astonishing universalism; in Proposition X:ii of the Apology, Robert Barclay describes the church as “the society, gathering, or company of such as God hath called out of the world, and worldly spirit, to walk in his light and life,” one that comprehends “all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue, or people they be, though outward strangers, and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words, and have the benefit of Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light, and testimony of God, in their hearts. … There may be members therefore of this Catholic church both among the heathens, Turks, Jews, and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who … are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God, and there-through become true members of this Catholic church.” He was not alone among Friends espousing this insight – one that confounds those who insist salvation is found only through an acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (For an overview of the ways this dilemma faces missionary fieldwork, I suggest Who Do You Say That I Am? Christians Encounter Other Religions, by Calvin E. Shenk.)
To perceive the Inward Light as simply intuition or individual conscience is to ignore its revolutionary, cosmic, and even scandalous fullness. For here, connecting it to the Light of Christ, will unleash a radical Christianity, indeed.
Early Friends hoped to see this Light guide not just their religious activities, but those of the marketplace and government as well. It propelled them into a Lamb’s War that rocked English society before Quakers settled into a denominational respectability and acceptance, leaving behind a raft of changes in the larger society. Their power and influence came at a heavy personal price, just as it did for early Christians.
Some contemporary Friends, recognizing the power exhibited by the early Quakers, sense that something is missing or at least diluted in their own Meetings. For English Friend Rex Ambler, this has led to reexamining the writings of George Fox, “marking all of those passages that struck me for their clarity and depth, then listing the reference under one of his keys words, such as ‘truth,’ ‘power,’ ‘life,’ light’ (these four, as it happens, are the most frequent in his writing).” Ambler’s reason for undertaking this project was that Fox “nowhere set out his ideas as a whole, systematically. His writing (or dictating, as was usually the case) was nearly always occasional, responding to a particular situation and with the particular inspiration that came to him.” In the published version, Truth of the Heart: an Anthology of George Fox (Quaker Books, London, 2001), Ambler presents the original quotations side by side with modern translations, a decision he made after circulating his selections among a number of friends. Ambler admits he “didn’t anticipate the difficulty others would have when they came to Fox for the very first time, or even the second or third time.” For that reason, he also includes a glossary and closing essay.
In trying to make sense of other readings in Early Quaker Writings compiled by Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts, Ambler noticed he had marked a passage in their introduction, a section beginning, “The Light, a metaphor which suggests a searchlight into a well or a candle in a dark closet and not man’s own mental power, is not to be distinguished in early Quaker experience from Christ or the Spirit within men. The Light searched out sin and brought into sight all of a man’s inward emotions and outward acts, showing a man who he was, as through long evenings alone or at Quaker gatherings the hearer opened himself to Christ’s Spirit for redemption.” As his investigation deepened, Ambler deduced, “And here, in the early Quaker writings, I was being told that the first thing I had to do to gain liberation and peace was to face the truth about myself. But how?” He presents his findings in Light To Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality (Quaker Books, London, 2002), a companion volume to his Fox selections. Here he suggests ways of experiencing the Light, both individually and as a group, to deepen one’s worship. He includes a set of six-step guided meditations, to further understanding of the dynamics of silent worship in relation to the Light. He tells of ways the practice transformed problems he was experiencing and brought him peace.
Brian Drayton presents a parallel argument in Getting Rooted: Living in the Cross; A Path to Joy and Liberation (Pendle Hill Pamphlets, 2007). “In this attitude, minding the Light and not your trouble, I believe that in time you will find yourself relinquished from the grip of the problem and drawn more strongly to a new way of life, able to live into a new habit of mind.” He adds, “I have discovered that the sense of foundation that comes with even a small advance towards the Light is extraordinarily nourishing.”
Notice that for both Ambler and Drayton, steeped in early Quaker writing and now applying it to their own lives, this Light is a beacon that draws them out into a new realm. It is a more universal response than the highly personalized expressions of “Inner Light” might encourage.
To return to Scriptural foundations of understanding this Indwelling Light, listen to Paul of Tarsus, Ephesians 5:8-14: “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; behave as children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness and uprightness and truth. Try to discover what the Lord wants of you, take no part in the futile works of darkness but, on the contrary, show them for what they are. The things that are done in secret are shameful even to speak of; but anything shown up by the light will be illuminated, and anything illuminated is itself light. … and Christ will shine on you.”
William Penn expressed this as well (A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress … of the Quakers, 1694): “The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world, and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvelous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.” (Incidentally, the image of Light being sown, like seed, quotes Psalm 97:11.)
This inward revelation of God, continuing, becomes both an intensely personal experience and the force that draws its followers together. It makes Christ not some remote event in history, but a living Spirit across time and space. It leads people to look for God’s touch in those we meet, and to address those wrongs we encounter. How remarkable, then, that yielding to what has been called the Inner Light (with its own entry in dictionaries) can now be restored to its more revolutionary metaphor of the Inward Light, unleashing a force that can then also turn us inside-out, to stretch out through the universe and connect us to each other in daily relations.
Systematic theology among Friends often seems to begin and end with Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, first published in 1676 and 1678. “In assessing the Apology,” Dean Freiday observes in his introduction to Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, “it is often overlooked that it is not a complete statement of Quaker faith, although Howard Brinton says it ‘affords the most complete interpretation that we have of Quakerism as thought about.’” Even then, as Freiday points out, Barclay does not even address matters of Quaker polity or Friends’ distinctive marriage procedure. More important, “There is no systematic treatment of such ‘notional’ Christian doctrines as the Atonement, although the casual references are consistent with the belief of the early Quakers that it was a basic presupposition to the whole personal process of conviction and growth in perfection. Quakers believed, too, in a Triune God, although many disliked the use of the word ‘persons’ and some other aspects of standard Trinitarian doctrine.”
As valiant and expansive as Barclay’s effort remains, it is ultimately a defense against critics of Quaker faith, rather than a clear advancement of what, exactly, Friends possessed, or why. Just how does this Light illuminate humans in their various conditions and places, and how are Friends so certain this is a matter of Christ? Crucially, Barclay’s lack of specific explanation or definition of numerous rudimentary terms in Quaker usage leaves room to doubt that Friends believed in a “Triune God” as such, no matter how much he demurs to the contrary. He glosses over the possibility that Friends may have been as equally unitarian as trinitarian – or, for that matter, the possibility that within the logic of trinity Friends may have seen these three “persons of God” working in a much different way than conventional Christianity has presented. Moreover, we may ask: in their experience, did early Friends differentiate Christ-as-Logos from the Holy Spirit or from the historic Jesus? All of this has consequences for contemporary Friends, especially in the ways the different branches answer the questions, “Are we Christian? And how?”
While Barclay attempts to have the Society of Friends blend in with other Christian denominations in terms of essential tenets, he shifts his emphasis to the ways and reasons Quaker practices differ from mainstream churches. Perhaps there was an expectation that through the distinctive Friends’ practices, new members would be filled with a sense of understanding, as well. But this still left an intellectual hole in the teaching, one that would sideline Friends from ongoing theological growth over later generations. For example, some modern critics of a trinitarian model contend that four godheads are more stable or more fulfilling than just three; drawing on the early Friends’ understanding of the church, as the collected body of believers – or even as the body of Christ – I would argue that this would round out a four-fold model and fit Scripture better than a Marianist alternative of inserting Jesus’ mother does. In addition, this four-cell model balances the historic person of Jesus with the collected people, and the Father with the Holy Spirit. The fluidity in early Friends’ descriptions of the Light and their emphasis on the consequential gathered body “walking in the Light” suggests, to my ears, at least, additional possibilities of thought in this direction.
Part of the difficulty of a systematic Quaker theology can be attributed to shifts in crucial Biblical passages themselves: the opening chapter of John, especially, rolls from one possibility into another. In the first sentence, the Word/Logos is with God and then is God! Which is it? Then the Word/Logos becomes either the Creator or the agent of Creation – or possibly both! When “the Word [Logos] was made flesh and dwelt among us,” many readers assume, from the openings of Matthew and Luke, that the way the Logos was made flesh was at the birth in a manger. Curiously, Mark avoids this issue, beginning instead at the immersion in the Jordan River. Here, Jesus, (as the Lamb of God in John, with its insinuation of sacrificial offering), encounters a Spirit “like a dove” descending on him at his baptism: is this the Spirit of Christ, transforming and empowering Jesus? The possibility exists, especially later in the same chapter of John, when Andrew proclaims – “ ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed)” – suggesting the Spirit poured like oil upon Jesus. Mark underscores that reading, as “a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’” Reconciling Mark and John with Matthew and Luke obviously creates its own set of contradictions and paradoxes.
And part of the difficulty of determining where Friends fall in regard to unitarian, trinitarian, and similar models of godhead has to do with the traditional Quaker practice of worship itself: in the stilled consciousness of meditative worship, how would one distinguish between God and Jesus, Christ and the Holy Spirit, God and Christ, Christ and Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit, or Jesus and the Holy Spirit? How would these relate to a sensation of being bathed in divine grace, love, joy, goodness, forgiveness, renewal, and blessing? Rather, what appears is a growing perception of oneness that best fits a description of Light or Logos. This experience of worship in collected silence more closely fits Christ’s appearing in Mark and John than in Matthew or Luke – a Spirit descending upon the worship and people, or even rising from within it, rather than the birth of a king or prince in the flesh. While Joseph John Gurney interpreted this as an appearance of the Holy Spirit, George Fox had proclaimed it more boldly: “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” and so Friends met in “waiting worship” to know his presence among them.
One reason for developing a clearer presentation of the foundations of Quaker faith has to do with empowering and intensifying personal experience of worship itself, and of the ways this shapes daily lives in consequence. From the beginning, the emerging Quaker movement resolutely avowed it had uncovered and recovered the power and experience of original Christianity, something Friends insisted had been lost around the time of Roman Emperor Constantine. Its opponents, however, had difficulty corresponding reported Quaker experience to the dogma they believed encompassed Christianity. Because the Apology is primarily a defense of Quaker practices, many of its passages concentrate on “those who do not agree with us,” laying out arguments for Barclay’s subsequent refutation. The Apology is not, however, a straightforward Confession of Quaker Faith, one saying, in effect, “This is what Friends believe and do, and here are our reasons.”
Any attempt at a systematic Quaker theology, moreover, faces some intrinsic obstacles, beginning with the objection to anything that hints of dogma or creed. This aspect alone makes it remarkable that Barclay was able to state what he did, with its occasional emphatic “we say,” “we do not deny,” or “we are certain,” speaking for all Friends. Closer examination, however, finds he generally avoids such declarations, preferring instead to state what Friends did not believe or practice; even then, he frequently couches his argument to imply a Quaker position. In other words, the Apology is more a critique of the shortcomings of other denominations than an independent articulation of Quaker footing.
To engage in argument with existing theology, Barclay was required to work within or around their lines of logic, expectation, and definition – to say nothing of criminal consequences from the legal system. Sometimes, as in Proposition 6:XV, “The Atonement and Sacrifice of Christ Are Exalted by Our Doctrine,” he deftly avoids addressing specifics. “Our doctrine in no way lessons or detracts from the atonement and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but on the contrary magnifies and exalts it.” (Note the use of “Jesus” here, equated with “sacrifice.”) One consequence, however, left some presuppositions unquestioned, among them original sin as well as the trinity, in part, I assume, because of the cloud of blasphemy laws hanging over the period, on one side, and, in part, because of the continuing threat of Ranter identification, on the other.
William Penn’s 1668 Sandy Foundation Shaken, after all, “caused immediate uproar and landed him in the Tower [of London] for blasphemy,” as Douglas Gwyn explains (The Covenant Crucified). “In taking up the Quakers’ biblical case against Trinitarian theology, he came out closer to unitarianism than he probably intended. He did not recant but did refine his position enough to suit the authorities and obtain his release.”
Almost dogmatically, Barclay acceded: “Anyone to whom it pleases God to reveal the [holy scriptures concerning the birth, life, miracles, sufferings, resurrection, and ascension of Christ] and bring a knowledge of these events has the duty to believe them. In fact it is a matter of condemnation if he does not believe these things when they have been declared to him – to resist the holy seed which would incline and lead everyone toward belief as it is offered to him.” In some ways, it is difficult to tell here whether duty is actually a decoy word, forcing Quaker opponents to nod in agreement while Barclay’s real thrust focused on an inward revelation by means of the “holy seed … as it is offered to him.”
Left unresolved was the question of why atonement is necessary if the Light has been available all along and God has spoken through the prophets. If Barclay “exalts” the atonement, another line of reasoning would suggest it as unnecessary: “Thus, we see that it is not the outward knowledge that saves, but the inward. Whether they knew it or not, those who were aware of their inclination toward sin and also of the inward power and salvation which came from Christ were saved whether it was before or after his appearance in the flesh.” Barclay then introduces further difficulties, insisting, “By this inward light, many of the pagan philosophers were aware of Adam’s loss, even though they had never heard of him.”
Thus, despite Barclay’s protestations to the contrary, he ultimately falls short of explaining exactly why anyone must have a duty to believe in the atonement or resurrection. His two simultaneous lines of reasoning just might not converge: one, a politically safe assertion that Friends proclaim nothing that would undermine the necessity of the cross, the other a revolutionary assertion that Christ has been available to save people from their sin all along. Perhaps, as a professing Christian, Barclay felt duty-bound to believe in the necessity of atonement, especially if it meant convincing others of the validity of Quaker experience. His intellect, however, points to alternative conclusions. Friends may have stumbled upon arguments left unresolved by the early Church, which then disappeared around the time of Constantine – the tension between Judaic Messianic thought and a Hellenic Logos. For the historic church, Blood eventually replaced Light, and Christianity entered what Friends decried as the “long night of apostasy” – or what the authorities named orthodoxy, or right thinking. The term would reappear, with unintended irony, among Friends in the 19th century.
More than a century later after Barclay, what early Friends had not clearly articulated left Joseph John Gurney puzzled. As he struggled to translate the Quaker experience of Light through conventional trinitarian concepts, he encountered several problems. The first has to do with basic assumptions about a triune God. Although each one of the three parts is identified as God, there is an implicit understanding that God the Father is foremost, Jesus stands second, and the Holy Spirit – or “third person of a triune God” – appears last. Part of this understanding arises when Jesus promises to send a Comforter, that is, the Holy Spirit, after his departure. The concept of Light or Logos in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, however, can be seen as suggesting that Christ has existed from the beginning of time and came into the world in the person of Jesus. That is, Christ, as the Holy Spirit, existed long before the birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is also shown to preexist Jesus in the opening chapter of Matthew, “Mary was found to be with child of the Holy Ghost,” and Luke, when an angel tells Zacharias his wife, Elizabeth, while bear a child we know as John the Baptist “and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” – that is, months before the birth of Jesus. In Luke, likewise, the Holy Ghost comes to the Virgin Mary and they conceive.
As Gurney linked Light to Holy Spirit, however, he failed to make the crucial next leap to connect Light and Holy Spirit as Christ/Logos, which he instead identifies as Jesus. The Light perspective, in contrast, would have Jesus sending the Comforter that had already illuminated him, rather than sending it forth for the first time. In this model, the Holy Spirit would be the second person of a triune God and Jesus would be the third. The English blasphemy laws that precluded early Quakers from presenting an alternative interpretation of trinity also silenced any direct challenge to orthodox teaching of their time. Even so, for a century and a half, Friends were able to make do with an experience of Light that blended Christ, Holy Spirit, and Jesus without having to draw sharp distinctions. The underlying difficulty reemerged, however, with the evangelical emphasis on accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Nowhere have I seen this cast as accepting the Holy Spirit as Guide and Redeemer, as it might have been within the Light metaphor known to early Friends. Something crucial gets lost in Gurney’s translation. This is not to suggest that profound quietist worship cannot be experienced within the Jesus as Lord and Savior framework; rather, what is deemed essential by those embracing one line of thought might be seen as inconsequential by those espousing the other. This certainly has been the case in the Society of Friends in the years after the Hicksite schisms.
The gaps in systematic theology – especially after the schisms of the 19th century – have left Friends lacking a common language for expressing and comparing personal accounts, for teaching, or for determining what is or isn’t compatible with the faith. It becomes much more difficult for individuals to join with an organization that can tell you more precisely what it isn’t than what it is; the question remains, “What do you stand for?” This is especially the case among traditional quietist Friends, where the response now leads into “some Friends believe” or some nebulous concept such as “that of God in all people” where the identification of God remains hazy, at best. This is not an entirely contemporary condition among Friends, by the way; during the separations of the 19th century, especially, it had become much easier to “read people out of Meeting” – that is, revoke their membership – by citing some action that was contrary to Quaker discipline than it was to provide outsiders with encouraging guidelines for a Friend in the first place. Meanwhile, as evangelical Friends moved from their initial stance of being more inclined to “disown” those who would not unite with them on statements of faith, they found their teaching was soon recast in a way that made it possible to explain precisely what was expected of a new member. One path was essentially conservative; the other, progressive, in terms of their religious styles and message.
In the growing divergence, one path led to increasingly individualization, and a welcoming of insights from many other religious traditions; the other path led increasingly into Protestant streams of worship and teaching, with an emphasis on Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Without commonly accepted expressions of their faith today, quietist Friends turn frequently to Quaker history for answers; this carries the peril of misinterpreting the past, but does allow a response, “Friends traditionally believed” or did X, Y, or Z, with an appreciation for its mysticism and action on behalf of peace and social concerns. Pastoral Friends, meanwhile, look to Quaker history for examples of resolute preaching and steadfast obedience to religious faith. Along the way, as the two sides adapted new expressions, much of the basic Quaker language – especially the metaphors of Light and Seed – was lost in obscurity.
Although evangelical Friends were right on several of their accusations of shortcomings in Barclay’s Apology, much of their imported theology stands at odds with Barclay’s, as some demonstrate in instances of administering water baptism or bread-and-juice communion (notwithstanding their acknowledgments that these are unnecessary to salvation).
We are left to wonder whether the events leading up to the tragic rift within American Friends could have been avoided. There is, at the least, a conflict between birthright membership, based on being born into a Quaker family, and a faith based on an experience of the Light of Christ and of “walking in the Light.” Does Barclay’s theology reflect a faith that was already circling into a defensive stance, no longer reaching outward – this, only three decades or so after the Quaker movement began to appear? Would a companion work, one more directly advocating what Quakers believe, in a positive stance, have steered Friends more definitively into the future? Was such a volume even possible, without the authority of George Fox behind it? In failing to advance their theology significantly beyond Barclay’s monumental work, did Friends leave serious breaches in teaching and directing practice? (The notable exception, the emergence of queries and advices, as a matter for each Meeting of Business to consider, hardly qualifies as a systematic theology.) Might Friends have allowed more variation in their communities of faith, while maintaining a disciplined core of belief? As some Friends accumulated wealth, often as a result of Quaker practice and global connections, were tensions with the tenets of equality or Plainness inevitable or even irresolvable?
I think these are some of the issues – but by no means all – that have Elias Hicks and the schisms of his time casting such a large and haunting shadow over the American Quaker experience. In many ways, the Society of Friends had been in a holding pattern since the passing of George Fox. If anything, as Jack D. Marietta argues in The Reformation of American Quakerism, the labors of influential Friends such as John Churchman, John Pemberton, and John Woolman had helped preserve the denomination’s distinctive character on this side of the Atlantic. But their effort carried a heavy price: a heightened discipline that unintentionally played a generation or two later into what we’ve come to know as the Hicksite Separation.
Without the constraints of slave ownership or warfare on their own soil, English Friends were at greater liberty to open out toward the larger society and to be influenced by it in turn. Hicks had, after all, been in his thirties during the American Revolution; his ministry had been shaped as a defense of Quaker practice then and continued into the confrontation that bears his name. The chilly reception given to Woolman and other American ministers traveling under concern to England may have been a harbinger of theological differences already emerging.
In Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation, historian H. Larry Ingle observes that Elias Hicks “and those who stood with him against the introduction of evangelical doctrines into the Society were closer to the mainstream of Quaker history and theology than were their opponents. He was unlearned, he was not systematic in his theological musings, especially when he spoke in meeting, and, as a rustic thinker, he often went to extremes. But his theology did not differ in any substantial way from that of Job Scott, John Woolman, or, for that matter, the notoriously unsystematic George Fox. Had he published a book of [theology], his reputation would have been made more secure; without such a work, he still remains near the top of Quaker thinkers.”
The Hicksite Separation remains an incredibly complex series of events. Many different factors and a host of explanations were involved, not the least of them theological. For Ingle, the crux of this conflict was over control over the Society of Friends – whether a group of very wealthy, highly educated elders appointed for life-terms and serving as the Meeting for Sufferings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting could direct the future of American Quakerism, as a whole, or whether the “Hicksite Reformers” (Ingle’s term) could restore its egalitarian polity. A half-century earlier, Woolman had warned about the consequences of pursuing wealth, with its “danger of not attending with singleness to that light which opens to our view the nature of universal righteousness”; he saw in the “cumbers and cares” of disproportionate possessions the lusts that lead to injustice, warfare, and a neglect of spiritual obedience. (Published posthumously in 1793, A Plea for the Poor is the best known of Woolman’s admonitions on the dangers of accumulating money and possessions.) By the 1820s, control of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was in the hands of elders such as Thomas Stewardson, “whose wealth and vast holdings of land made him unaccustomed to opposition,” as Ingle notes, and Jonathan Evans, described by Quaker evangelist Joseph John Gurney as “pretty much king of the Society in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.” Obviously, they would want to blunt critics such as Hicks, when he “interpreted the traditional Quaker prohibition against buying or selling goods taken by pirates as applying to the use of sugar, cotton, rice, and molasses, since these items represented the labor of Africans, wrenched by force from their homeland. Pointedly, he said that some Friends, who had previously avoided the use of these products, had changed and were now little better than thieves and murderers; ‘there were some who had gone retrograde,’” Ingle writes. “Jonathan Evans shifted restlessly in his seat and twisted his face into a grimace at these cutting references,” At this time Gurney was among the wealthiest and most highly educated Friends on the other side of the Atlantic.
“There is evidence that the roots of the separation ran far deeper than doctrinal differences,” Thomas D. Hamm writes (The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800-1907). “Historians once tended to echo the Hicksite view that Hicks was contending for democratic liberty of thought and freedom of conscience against evangelical authoritarianism. More recent scholarship has emphasized socioeconomic factors. In a study of the separation in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Robert W. Doherty found that adjustment to the newly emerging capitalist order of America was at the heart of the split. The Orthodox were the successful merchants and entrepreneurs of the city and the surrounding towns, the farmers who had made the adjustment to commercial agriculture. They embraced an evangelical system of belief that allowed them to participate in worldly activities and that accepted wealth as the reward of faith. The Hicksites were a more motley group. They included artisans displaced by an industrial economy, farmers with heavy mortgages, extreme conservatives fearful of innovation, and liberals opposed to intolerance. All of those factors combined with a host of personal antipathies to produce an explosive situation.” All of which demonstrates that theology can, indeed, reach deep into the ways individuals live.
There are many reasons American Friends return again and again to examine these events.
For one thing, the schisms erupted from unsettled business lingering from the beginnings of the Society of Friends, including the fissures and twists in Quaker theology. While Friends had done little in the way of systematic theology in the time since Barclay, the field itself had not stood still; Freiday notes ways John Wesley drew on Barclay’s Apology in formulating the Methodist message. That may be why Methodism drew a large number of Quakers into its ranks; Barclay had not, after all, directly addressed the innovations at the core of Methodist reasoning and practice.
In addition, the Hicksite Separation left Friends of all stripes even less equipped to speak of their faith in a commonly understood, uniquely Quaker language, or of discussing their individual experiences within the context of a Quaker stream. Evangelical Friends openly imported Wesleyan and Holiness language to suit their needs. Today’s quietist Friends have less consciously imported random concepts and terminology from psychology, sociology, comparative religion, literature, environmentalism, feminism, and other contemporary intellectual sources.
Another reason Friends look repeatedly to the schisms, I think, is because many of its events touch on conditions facing modern Friends. How do we discern “that of God” in ourselves and in others? How do we determine the authenticity of a “leading”? What values are most important in our own lives, as well as our Meeting? How do we establish a group identity? Maintain coherence? Find unity, yet avoid exclusivity and divisiveness? How do we pass the wisdom we find in our faith on to others, especially the next generation? How much do we wish to resemble society at large, and how much do we want to distance ourselves from what we see as its shortcomings and corrupting influences? How do we distinguish our faith from other denominations and religions, and how is it akin? How do we raise the money to pay our household bills? Address our labors and our possessions? Reconcile learning and experience? Take pleasure? Address sexuality, marriage, and child-raising? How does our household impact our neighborhood and the environment? What does membership in the Society of Friends mean, or is it even relevant? This is the truly unfinished business, for members everywhere along the Quaker spectrum.
There is also a sense of loss, a desire to recover some strength we assume the Society of Friends possessed in some previous golden era. Hicks represents the closing chapter on an itinerant Quaker ministry that could travel and preach throughout the world of Friends; with him, this system, which had nurtured the movement from its very origins, breaks down, at first confined only to its own branch of the split and then, increasingly, shortening the journeys in time and distance or, on the pastoral side, becoming missionaries or full-time pastors instead.
In each of these instances, language is relevant. It signifies our experiences, however inadequately, and shapes our practices: properly formed ideas lead to action. Both sides in the Hicksite controversies, I believe, understood the importance of language itself; the Philadelphia elders, obviously, sought to control the spoken ministry of others.
Admittedly, a wide range of factors affected the divisions. “Doherty’s picture may be accurate for Philadelphia Friends, but it also has limitations,” Hamm says. “It does not seem applicable to the other yearly meetings that experienced separations, nor does it explain why three yearly meetings remained united. New England, for example, was undergoing the same socioeconomic changes as the Philadelphia area, yet it remained wholly orthodox. Similarly, North Carolina Friends were almost all marginal farmers, but they also remained resolutely Orthodox. In Indiana, family connections and origins in the east seem to have had more to do with the few instances of separation than did social position.” In addition, there were matters of balance among yearly meetings, as well as the distribution of authority within a yearly meeting, its quarterly meetings, and their monthly meetings. When the members of the Meeting for Sufferings within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting attempted to direct Friends in New York to silence Elias Hicks, a separation was already in the works – not within a yearly meeting, but between two of them, supposedly equals.
Paradoxically, very few of those who claim (usually with some pride) to be Hicksites have any sense of what Elias Hicks himself espoused. Contrary to what many today might think, Hicks continued a ministry of Christ. “Hicks’s ‘heresies’ lay not in his championship of the Inner Light but rather in conclusions about Christ and the Bible that he drew from his perception of the light,” Hamm observes. “Hicks argued that Christ was the Son of God in the same sense that all people were. The importance of Christ was in his example: he had achieved divinity through perfect obedience to the light. Along the way Hicks implicitly dismissed a variety of doctrines important to ‘Orthodox’ Christians, Quaker and non-Quaker alike: the Atonement, Original Sin, the existence of the devil, and hell as a place rather than a condition. Hicks’s approach to the Bible was equally heterodox. He admitted the value of the Scriptures, but he saw the revelation in them as far inferior to that still being imparted to human beings by the Holy Spirit and thus refused to be bound by them.”
This passage, incidentally, is a good place to apply this test: when you hear “Christ,” do you think first of the Light – the Logos power – or of Jesus? Then listen to speakers and notice those who use “Christ” when they mean, specifically, “Jesus,” while others seem to make a careful distinction.
Reexamine, for instance, the passage from Hamm, this time substituting terms from a Logos perspective: “Hicks’s ‘heresies’ lay not in his championship of the Inward Light but rather in conclusions about Jesus and the Bible that he drew from his perception of Christ. Hicks argued that Jesus was the Son of God in the same sense that all people were. The importance of Jesus was in his example: he had achieved divinity through perfect obedience to the light [of Christ]. … Hicks’s approach to the Bible was equally heterodox. He admitted the value of the Scriptures, but he saw the revelation in them as far inferior to that still being imparted to human beings by the light of Christ and thus refused to be bound by them.”
Earlier Friends may have been able to avoid some of this confusion by sensing that Christ, as Spirit, spoke through Jesus. No observant Jew, I’ve heard it asserted, could have voiced what Jesus says in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (New Revised Standard Version). Having the Logos/Spirit/Light utter that, however, places it in an entirely different realm: Jesus, in line with the prophetic stream of Judaism, becomes the mouthpiece, just as earlier prophets could proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Here, then, one comes to God the Father through the Logos of Christ – and only that way.
This also points to another unresolved matter of definition: to what extent, if any, the Light or the Spirit of Christ is identical to the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the way back to a common point for discussion between liberal quietist and pastoral Friends may rest on an understanding of similar experiences, which one describes as Inward Light while the other speaks of Holy Spirit or of the Living Jesus. In this way, we may begin running Gurney’s calculations in reverse.
“Thus while socioeconomic change may have played a part in the conflict, the Hicksite separation centered on questions of belief and authority, questions similar to those that agitated other denominations during the 1820s and 1830s,” Hamm remarks. “For Hicks’s opponents, the Orthodox Friends, as they called themselves, the central question was Christ [Jesus] and his atoning sacrifice. On this issue the Orthodox took a position not much different from that of evangelical Protestants. There Orthodox were forthright in asserting the divinity of Christ [Jesus]. They endlessly quoted George Fox’s 1672 letter to the governor of Barbados, which described Christ [Jesus] in language drawn from ecumenical councils.”
Again, I want to emphasize the different implications between sticking with the original interpretation here, Christ, and approaching it from the alternative Jesus. At the same time, we can see how difficult it is to substitute the Light or the Spirit in a meaningful way here. That difficulty continues as Hamm lays out more of the controversy:
“The fall of Adam, the Orthodox argued, had brought sin into the world, and Adam had transmitted his fallen nature to all of his descendants. Christ [Jesus] had come into the world as the means of reconciliation between God and man. On the cross he took upon himself the sins of all mankind and by his death bore the penalty for all. Though Christ’s [Jesus’] atoning sacrifice, they concluded, ‘we witness and know pure and perfect redemption.’ ”
And then Hamm comes to his crucial distinction: “Without realizing it, the Orthodox were at a critical point: reconciling the Fall and Atonement with the Inner Light. There was vague agreement that in some way Christ’s [Jesus’] death had imparted a measure of light to all and that was the Inner Light. For a century and a half Friends had eschewed systematic theological thinking. They had no need for it. Hicks forced Friends to try to systematize their thinking about Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Atonement, and the Inner Light. After 1830 those attempts would bring only more division and controversy.”
Ingle, surprisingly, sees one more attempt at bringing the two strands together: “In the years immediately prior to the split, all published studies but one focused in part on the matter of authority. The exception was the work of Elisha Bates, an erratic Ohio newspaper editor and the most accomplished theologian Orthodox Friends produced in the United States. He focused instead on applying evangelical insights to traditional Quakerism. Unfortunately for Bates’s historical reputation, his 1837 disownment cast a long shadow over his creative contributions to the cause. Bates need not have been an embarrassment, for his 1825 work, The Doctrines of Friends, involved a major effort to meld evangelical doctrines to those of the [Hicks supporting] reformers.”
Remarkably, this is the same man who also stood literally shouting down Hicks during the raucous 1828 division of Ohio Yearly Meeting, a body he himself served as clerk, 1819 and 1825-1831 (although he became indisposed in 1827, leaving the man appointed to serve in his stead to open the fateful 1828 sessions). This is the same man whose two subsequent trips to England brought him increasingly into Isaac Crewdson’s group of evangelical “Beaconites” who influenced what would emerge, after their own separation from London Yearly Meeting, as Biblical fundamentalism. Even so, when Bates republished his volume in 1868, it circulated widely again among the Orthodox branch of Quakers.
Ingle sees Bates defending evangelical orthodoxy “in a fashion unique among his fellow believers. Rather than beginning with the Scriptures, he took the more traditional Quaker approach and stressed the centrality of the ‘Word of God,’ or Christ. Indeed, he got nearly halfway though his book, all the way to chapter seven, before considering the Bible at all; and once there, he denied it the appellation of the ‘Word of God,’ reserving that term for Christ.”
More important, as Ingle explains, “Bates’s most creative contribution to Quaker theology, his central focus, concerned the role of Jesus in the process of redemption. Every other evangelical among Friends echoed the belief of other orthodox Christian groups that Christ’s sacrifice was necessary for salvation. Bates gave the doctrine a unique Quaker slant. Redemption, he explained, stressing an insight of the seventeenth century apologist Robert Barclay, had two aspects: ‘The first is the redemption performed and accomplished by Christ for us, in his crucified body, without us; the other is the redemption wrought by Christ in us.’ That the second followed the first and depended on it did not lessen the impact of Bates’s point; indeed, his identification of God’s grace with one’s inner experience led him to conclude that no one could ‘partake of the first [the outward work of redemption], or secure for himself the true benefits of it, but as he witnesseth the last [the inward experience].’”
For Ingle, then, there’s a glimmer that given slightly different circumstances or personalities, the wreckage might have been avoided. “At another time, when the Society was not exercised by so much controversy, Bates might have enjoyed a better reputation. His gloss on the doctrines of redemption and the Bible suggested a way that Friends could conceivably have accepted some insights from evangelicals without jettisoning traditional Quaker insistence on the internal workings of the divine light. But Bates lived in a contentious time and, being more than a little pugnacious himself, thrived on it.” In addition, “Without the presence of this foreign group,” the evangelical visitors from England, “American Quakers might well have muddled through their disagreements, casting over them their characteristic mantle of understatement and broad assertions of good will that had usually softened conflicts of doctrine and power in the past.”
Beyond the theological disagreements, moreover, Ingle also sees the hand of wealth and privilege: “Such emissaries of evangelicalism sprang from the same social class as their American counterparts and shared many of the same views. They seemed also to have become more accepting of the secular culture than had American Friends. Even visiting American evangelicals commented on the differences between English Quakers’ rich style of living – clothing and household furnishings – and the more scrupulous standards followed by their American neighbors.”
So pervasive was their desire to blend in with other denominations, Ingle observes, “the early evangelical firebrand David Sands reported that British elders had once warned him to say nothing against the English clergy, ‘as it only tended to cause the Society to be considered disloyal.’” This, from those who were considered the guardians of the legacy of the original Friends!
Muddling through disagreements, of course, is hardly a fitting route for “seekers after Truth,” as the early Friends sometimes referred to themselves. Meanwhile, for contemporary Friends, the charge of casting a “characteristic mantle of understatement and broad assertions of good will that … usually softened conflicts of doctrine and power” still rings close to home.
While Friends today often dismiss attempts at theology as a divisive force, especially as a consequence of the Hicksite Separation, that view overlooks the fact that earlier theological labors gave the Quaker movement its distinctive message and practices. Wherever theological clarity is missing, Friends – as a religious society – are vulnerable to imported teachings and customs. To the extent it is missing, Friends lack wholeness – literally, integrity. Because it is missing, Friends are often unable to speak for each other – maybe even to each other – in some of the most basic subjects.
The way out of this situation may be to recognize that it is always unfinished business. As one Friend has remarked about efforts at peace-making, “It’s women’s work,” just like feeding and clothing a family, where there’s always another meal ahead or cleaning to be done. In addition, to ask what each of us believes, in terms of our spiritual experience regarding any of a number of everyday activities, requires soul-searching and incredible honesty. We can always go deeper into our psyche, break through our internal defenses, and what we don’t see or won’t see about ourselves, our closet companions will – whether it’s a spouse or children or parents or even a monastic household. Taking any such question a step further is likely to lead to recognition of times and ways each of us falls short of ethical and moral actions – or even stir up blinders and self-denial, rather than repentance. In traditional Quaker language, of course, these are matters of Inward Light. At this level, the conversation is not about what others proclaim or statements about what someone ought to do, nor does it repeat platitudes or denounce an abstract “they” and “them”; rather, it examines what is and what could be in one’s own life. This is the intimate and ardent quality I so love in the writings of early Friends, especially as they describe their encounters with Christ and Light, or in many of the Psalms, even when they admit a desire to see enemies struck down. This is where the language becomes specific and assumes flesh and blood. It ain’t always pretty or proper, this struggle of cutting through to spiritual reality. Furthermore, to make these insights systematic requires time and patience, if order is ever to appear out of passion. Or, for that matter, Light out of chaos (as Genesis 1 has it).
To do theology also means making this confession public, within a circle of faith. Sometimes this may be voiced as prayer; sometimes, as dialogue. Where there are intense differences, the parties need to agree to disagree, while respecting the sincerity of their mutual labors, if any headway is to appear. Theology, I believe, should lead to growth and wisdom, not repression or spiritual stagnation. In doing so, a dialogue occurs, drawing on the spiritual wisdom from history, our religious tradition, and our own time; sometimes we may speak of this as continuing revelation, although it also alters the ways we read Scripture itself, not as law but as a correspondence from others who have engaged in similar questions and experiences.
I think, too, of the role of tradition in creativity and advancement. Notes on the book jacket of my copy of Axe Handles, poems by Gary Snyder, acknowledge this: “As David Lattimore, reflecting on the axe handle motif, writes: ‘Man alone, says Roman Jakobson, uses tools to make tools. Language is chief among the tools that make tools. Poetry as language is a tool to make tools – a tool, but also a model, like the axe handle.” Snyder takes his title from the longstanding custom of making a replacement handle by using an existing handle – maybe even the old one – as its pattern, often shaping the new one with an ax blade itself. As he observes in the title poem, sometimes this even involves adapting and reusing something that has been broken or discarded; in his case, shaping a new hatchet handle from a broken ax handle.
Language is a tool of both theology and history, and, for that matter, law. It is, in fact, the premier tool of humans, our means of passing on culture over generations, and of adding to its capabilities. For example, by turning to the events of the Hicksite Separation for comparison, we might perceive that some of the most crucial theological issues weren’t even on the table for examination, as such – matters of wealth, polity, and livelihood, especially. Today, similar fronts might also include sexuality as monogamy and fidelity, rather than a clash over same-sex issues; in addition, matters of widespread divorce and remarriage are typically overlooked or, in some places, still harshly condemned. We might also include racial perceptions and reactions or Third World criticisms of American affluence, especially from brothers and sisters within our own denominations.
Somehow among Friends, much of this typically gets lost as different Yearly Meetings attempt to update and revise their books of discipline, often called Faith and Practice, to embrace all of the varied expressions of belief and the range of comfortable lifestyles within any given Quaker constituency, without any accompanying sense of conflict or struggle. I see these efforts as actually diluting the vitality of the experiences, or the visions of what a Quaker future might entail.
From a Quaker perspective, to talk about knowing God – that is, to address theology – is to first examine one’s daily life and then open into a community of faith. As this happens among Friends, one is joined by historic Quakers, as well as other mystics and prophets, plus characters from the Bible – even Jesus and Paul of Tarsus. Maybe it all comes down to daily bread, after all. Even swapping recipes.
For Friends, I would hope this leads to a renewed awareness of the revolutionary vision of the Light experienced by early Quakers, with all of its Logos dimension. I would hope contemporary Friends more clearly define this Light, compared to the earlier Quaker presentations, and in doing so, provide an enhanced appreciation of those evocative historic writings. I would hope Friends will develop bridges between this alternative, Logos-directed Christianity and the far more universal, trinitarian model, and in doing so, deepen both streams of teaching and practice. I would hope Friends recognize the fertile potential in their largely unarticulated metaphor of the Seed, discovering that here they may advance understanding they’ve previously expressed as Inner Light, which might now advance through an expanded intellectual framework.
Even with the omissions in their argument, I sense that Barclay and other early Friends point Quakers today in a meaningful direction for undertaking this labor. Paradoxically, as Barclay observes, the purpose of such rigorous thinking leads individuals and communities of faith to “no longer worship him with the oldness of the letter, but in the newness of the Spirit” (Freiday, Page 439) – the very energy that makes early Quakers so appealing.
Until the 1850s, Quaker discipline forbid the use of names on burial headstones, feeling that to use a person’s name would be an act of vanity. Actually, apart from simple field stones, the headstones themselves were also forbidden.
Here is an example of a Quaker marker erected after headstones were allowed. Note its use of “4th mo” and “11th mo” or Fourth Month and Eleventh Month, rather than April and November. Often a wife would be designated by her maiden name, unlike this example from the Pine Hill Cemetery behind the Dover Friends meetinghouse in New Hampshire.
Now that we’ve spent the previous year with monthly installments examining historic voices regarding the Quaker experience of the Light, we’re about to shift our attention to more recent applications and controversies. This time a book-length manuscript, To Walk in the Light, is being serialized weekly, with postings each Wednesday.
And, looking further ahead, we’ll have a Quaker Daybook starting at the first of the year.