Friends within God’s Light

“Mind the Light” is an old counsel among the religious denomination that became known as the Society of Friends. Indeed, when the movement first swept across the British Isles in the mid-1600s, it frequently referred to itself as Children of Light (applying a name drawn from Luke 16:8, John 12:36, Ephesians 5:8, and 1 Thessalonians 5:5).

While early Friends were hardly alone in using Light as an element of religious discourse, their encounters and descriptions did advance Light as a defining element of Quaker faith. In rejecting dogma and creed while emphasizing instead direct spiritual experience, Friends spoke of Light in ways intended to direct others toward what they themselves had felt. Their representations were often passionate, profound, and even radiant, but their arguments ultimately emerge as circular, or tautologies. They never quite said exactly what this Light was in ways that people who hadn’t encountered it might understand. Part of the problem originates in the New Testament passages of Light that Friends applied to their own discoveries. A more difficult part of the problem, however, originates in the blasphemy laws facing early Friends. Systematically following their arguments to logical conclusions would have led too far into what would have been considered heretical and prompted authorities to invoke the death penalty. Friends were under enough persecution as it was, something that forced them to couch their words carefully, despite all of their apparent boldness. As a result, crucial gaps went missing in their message, and we are left without key parts of the equation. In the process, Friends never satisfactorily counterbalanced their expressions of Light against trinitarian Christian arguments regarding the crucifixion, resurrection, and atonement of Jesus. I am convinced that this reconciliation can be accomplished, but only after methodically working our way through the veiled implications of early Quaker thought. Indeed, it appears the failure of the original Quakers to fully articulate their revolutionary understanding of Light left the Society of Friends vulnerable to the divisions that ripped it asunder in the 1800s, especially when faced with language and practice based on Lord Jesus as one’s personal Savior.

All of this is the field of theology, of course, an inquiry many Friends express aversion to. They have seen theological disputes too often lead to schisms, rather than deepening a common understanding and experience. Nonetheless, throughout history, people have sought answers to life’s central questions – the mysteries regarding creation and origins, life and death, birth and sexuality, family, ethical behavior, poverty and wealth, peace and conflict, persecutions and suffering, disasters and abundance, and so on – and the responses often appear in the context of religion. Attempts to make sense of them, then, leads into theological discourse. Its conclusions, in turn, direct individual and group practices, a sharing of experiences, and teaching a next generation in the evolving traditions.

The fact remains: Friends do engage in meticulous theological inquiry, despite claims that such labors have largely rested since Robert Barclay’s cornerstone Apology was first published – in Latin in 1676 and English in 1678. Because Quaker theological work has typically been personal, small-scale, focused on daily practice, and often pragmatic rather than theoretical, we may not even perceive it as theology, unless we look closer. A crucial element of Quaker theology, especially in its first century and a half, was its emphasis on individual experience. Truth, Friends proclaimed, was to be uncovered within oneself, rather than without. Unlike the legalistic logic employed by Protestant Calvinists, on one hand, and Roman Catholic Jesuits, on the other, in which theology becomes an elaborate system of law and speculative verdicts, Friends largely related their encounters within the process of metaphorical thinking, with Light as its unifying image.

This would lead Friends to engage the Bible from a unique perspective. George Fox argued, “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this,’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” At another point, he contended: “The holy scriptures were given forth by the Spirit of God, and all people must come to the Spirit of God in themselves … for as the Spirit of God was in them that gave forth the scriptures, so the same Spirit of God must be in all of them that come to understand the scriptures.” Within the early Quaker manner of thinking in metaphor, Light and the Spirit of God are synonymous.

My initial occasions of participating in a traditional Quaker meeting for worship left me wondering just how Friends, working within Western Christian teaching, had essentially rediscovered group meditation, something widespread among yogis and Buddhists in the Far East. Coming, as I was, from life in a Hindu ashram, I could criticize the postures and breathing of individuals within the circle, but I could not escape acknowledging the underlying current. I was home. Only much later would I also discover how much of the discipline is also found within and supported by Biblical texts, especially those of the New Testament.

At the time, I could relate the image of Light to the way I had been taught to meditate. Sitting before a single candle, we would gaze at its flame and eventually close our eyes, holding the afterimage behind the bridge of our nose, as long as we could – in a space referred to as the Third Eye, opening into intuition. Light also worked to relate another sensation of deep meditation, where we begins to feel “light,” as in weightless; in this, one may also relate a sense of being transformed from bodily matter into something ethereal, such as the energy of light.

Those of us who had come of age in the 1960s and ‘70s could also relate light to illegal drug use; hallucinations, after all, are an entirely individual experience, and psychedelic is a synonym for colorful. Strobe lights, ultraviolet “black” lights, and light shows were all basic parts of the scene. For many youths, these encounters opened an awareness that there were other ways of experiencing mundane life.

As a spiritual metaphor, light matches marvelously. It is not seen in itself, but in what it illuminates. It comes from a source and travels to an object. It reveals, anything from a lost object or one’s place in a landscape to Revelation itself. It sustains life through photosynthesis in chlorophyll-containing organisms. It accompanies warmth and comfort. It represents knowledge and wisdom, in contrast to ignorance. It is energy, rather than matter.

This emphasis on Light set Friends apart from conventional Christianity, where “Word” was instead applied as a central religious metaphor. Through the knowledge of modern physics, we can appreciate the spoken word as a vibration – that is, as energy (which it would hold in common with light). Word can also be a means of conceptualizing and conceiving, of naming and claiming, of commanding and ordering, of relating and evaluating. Word, moreover, can also become an object, especially with the appearance of writing. It becomes a vessel and a tool. From Word, then, one can pass easily into words, and away from metaphorical thought. Crucially, words are also the basis of law, leading to an entirely different kind of religious experience and practice.

Both metaphors are at work in the opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. … And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”

Over the generations, most of the religious teachers who have pursued this religious branching – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – have concentrated on what God said … that is, words. Friends, however, returned to the Light, essentially focusing on what God did and does. As the Quaker saying goes, “Mind the Light.”

Freed of the blasphemy laws, persecution, and subsequent self-censorship that inhibited early Friends from rigorously defining and fully expressing the dimensions of this Light, modern Quakers are now finally beginning to reinvestigate this essential metaphor of their legacy. In The Mystery of Quaker Light, for instance, Peter Bien presents Samuel Caldwell’s list of characteristics from Quakerism 101: A Basic Course for Adults. Here, the Light is defined as:

  •   divine – not equivalent to reason or conscience; not “natural”
  •   single – one and indivisible, not my Light vs. your Light
  •   unifying – brings us into unity, draws Friends together
  •   universal – works in the life of every person
  •   eternal – existed before time and will exist forever
  •   pure – perfectly good, unerring, and infallible
  •   unchanging – our awareness of the Light changes, but the Light itself does not
  •   personal – not an abstract force
  •   inward – implies action, dynamic; the Light shines within each of us
  •   saving – brings us into right relationship with God, ourselves, and each other
  •   guiding – will lead us into a more meaningful, richer life
  •   resistible – we are free to ignore the guidance of the Light
  •   persistent – our perception of the Light may dim, but we can’t completely extinguish it
  •   empowering – will empower us to do what is required, even if we feel inadequate
  •   ineffable – cannot be fully understood and described

We should note that while these qualities are offered from the quietist end of the modern Quaker spectrum, individual Friends in that range may quibble over various points. More important, though, is the admission that Friends at the evangelical end of the spectrum are likely to be largely baffled by the list. Here, many would find the words “Christ,” “Jesus,” or “Holy Spirit” to be more meaningful than “Light” – a substitution that would prove equally as baffling for most quietist Friends.

A dialogue addressing these differences will, I believe, bring all strands of today’s Friends to a profoundly revitalized faith and teaching, with all of the revolutionary consequences. For non-Quakers, the conversation promises to expand one’s understanding of what it means to be Christian, regardless of whether one approaches the subject as a member of another denomination or a non-Christian religion. Along the way, the implications can be unsettling for all. Which is all the more reason to mind the Light as we grow.

* * *

Sections of this chapter originally appeared in Friends Journal (July 2009) and my pamphlet, Revolutionary Light.

The Ranter extension

When James Nayler and other early Friends spoke of Light and Seed as being knowable only through direct, personal experience, they placed the Quaker movement in direct opposition to established religious and governmental authorities. This was something that could not be taught, as ministers would attempt from the pulpit, or administered by Eucharist, as priests would perform. Nor could it easily be channeled into organized bodies, given that it was an essentially private encounter, understood only by the individual. The fact that Friends came together in worship at all would appear to be, in this context, miraculous.

Moreover, as Christopher Hill points out (The World Turned Upside Down), a personal understanding and empowerment by an awareness of Christ within would undercut all of authority in society – political, economic, and social. As the Quaker movement came into existence, it drew heavily on existing and widespread nonconformist teachings and streams, including versions of an indwelling Christ through Familists and Boehmists, the theologically-infused communism of the Levellers, the democratic impulses of the New Model Army, and possibly even insights into Greek Logos through sources such as Paraclesus (1493-1541), a Swiss alchemist with Hermetic, Neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean roots.

As critics of the emerging Quaker movement recognized, stressing personal experience as a defining element of a religious movement carries its own perils. How does one discern between God’s will and one’s own desires? Between enlightenment and self-delusion? Between competing, contradictory conclusions? Between one’s experience and the faithful community’s? Is there sufficient commonality in the group’s collective experiences for unity – or do the disparities impel schism? How are differences resolved and insights tested? Is there a common language of individual spiritual encounters? Which practices are acceptable or even essential, and which ones are not? And why?

Questions such as these have never been far from the Quaker doorstep. In spite of – or maybe because of – their emphasis on a personal experience, Friends have recognized the necessity of dedicated religious community. Pointedly, George Fox emerged as its central figure because he did not continue forever on a solitary spiritual quest or into a monastic vocation, but arrived tellingly in what he shaped into a Society of Friends, joined by the Seekers and many others.

But not all.

Early on, the original Friends were not alone in stressing first-hand spiritual empowerment. “The disturbed political situation led to fresh ideas that the reign of Christ was about to come, or was even now present. About 1649 or 1650 some of those who taught the primacy of the indwelling spirit, the idea that God infused all things, received the name ‘Ranter,’” Rosemary Moore explains (The Light in Their Consciences). “Their teaching, it was supposed, would lead to immorality, especially of a sexual nature, and there were indeed some people who held the view that if they were in the spirit, or elect, or justified, however they phrased it, then sin was impossible, for their behavior was of no consequence.”

While Friends  soon vociferously insisted their own practices and beliefs differed sharply from the Ranters, we cannot be so sure that such was, indeed, the case 1649-50. Friends were, after all, still formulating a collective articulation of what they were individually experiencing. Furthermore, our understanding of the views of the Ranters come principally through their opponents, including Quakers, rather than from themselves. Moreover, because of its extreme individualism, there could never be a definitive statement of Ranter thought as such. Even the origin of its name comes into question; Christopher Hill hints that it may result from one of several people surnamed Rand who were identified with the movement, “Rander” becoming “Ranter” along the way.

A fine line separated Friends from the Ranter offenses. “It is an easy step from the Spirituals’ experience of the Holy Spirit to a sense of the divinity in all things, and thence to pantheism,” John Punshon explains in Portrait in Grey. “Many Christians are willing to make some affirmation about the nearness of God, but the Ranters went further and freed their conception of God from dependence on the Christian scriptures and doctrinal formations, admitting other models of the relationship between human and divine. If the Quakers did not reject their Christian vocabulary and conceptual framework it was not because no alternatives were available; the Ranters got their name from the flamboyant and intemperate manner in which many of them proclaimed that there were.”

In rejecting Christian vocabulary and concepts, however, “universalist” Friends risk an eerie resemblance to Ranters. While Friends traditionally sought that of God available in each person (a matter of being created in God’s image), the most extreme strand of Ranters concluded that each person was simply created as God’s image – in short, as gods. And as such, they could do no wrong. The ethical and social consequences of such a gloss become identical to those of the madman who claims “God told me to kill” or steal or harm. For followers of a monotheistic divinity, however, a logical conclusion would argure there can be only one authentic, universal outcome, as the Friends’ peace testimony insists. The one Light shines upon every heart, drawing the individual into unity with God. A statement commonly heard among today’s unprogrammed Friends, “My Light tells me to do X, Y, or Z,” would have been unthinkable. Rather, it would have been simply the Light of Christ, without blatant contradictions.

Punshon perceives that among the Ranters, “The most favored alternative was a mystical pantheism involving conceptions of God being resident in all things, or as being life itself, as being one with reality and nothing more, or indeed as having such a nature that he could fully reveal himself in human personality which was therefore either actually or potentially divine. But this personality was transient, and Ranter conceptions of soul differed sharply from Christianity, which taught some kind of heavenly reward as against the Ranters’ mystical union or re-absorption of the soul at death by the greater reality of which it is a part.”

In The Covenant Crucified, Douglas Gwyn perceives similarities in both the Ranter and Seeker outlooks. While Friends have generally discounted the former, they have also celebrated the latter, groups in northern England that had begun to worship in silence before joining with the Quaker movement in 1652 and soon after. Gwyn sees both expressions as responses to a “growing sense of despair” and having “some of the most brilliant and perceptive young thinkers of the day,” yet they reacted to events quite differently.

“In an era of intense covenant theology,” Gwyn says regarding the Ranters, “their ranting oath-swearing was the perfect expression of rage, a dissonant diatribe that flung covenantal blasphemies aimlessly in all directions. Ranters frightened the Church, the government, and almost everyone else. Parliament passed a Blasphemy Act in 1650 to deal with them; their leaders were rounded up and jailed in 1650 and 1651. They all recanted readily to gain release; there was no principle or truth they felt compelled to defend, much less suffer for. Chaos, rage, self-exaltation, and nihilistic freedom were the realities to which they witnessed – with prolific eloquence.”

The legislation, of course, came down not just on Ranters, but also on Quakers, who refused to recant; defending what they experienced as true, Friends suffered heavy fines and imprisonment.

“So quickly did the Ranter bubble swell that in 1650 the authorities moved equally swiftly to burst it,” Purshon remarks. “The statute had the desired effect, and Ranterism retreated to the footnotes and margins of history.

“Quakers, however, proved vulnerable to the Act, for through both ignorance and design persecutions were brought against them, most notably in the person of George Fox. Actually, it is perfectly understandable that persons of little religious sophistication should notice only the outward similarities between Quakers and Ranters, who did not take the scriptures as their final authority, who judged all things by what light was in them, who preached that perfection was an attainable ideal, and who had a clear sense of the indwelling spirit of God. It is no wonder that one of the Friends’ most difficult tasks was to show that in spite of these similarities, Ranterism and Quakerism was not the same thing.”

Gwyn, however, notes something else that further muddies the picture: “many Ranters became Quakers in the 1650s.” Hill goes further, arguing that the Ranter element gave early Quakerism much of its enthusiasm and energy. But what drew them into Quaker circles? Were their differences not as insurmountable as Friends insisted? Or were Friends creating viable alternatives to the Ranter model, including a theology that united Scripture and individual experience? And how did Friends react to Ranter extremes, on one side, in developing both Quaker theology and organization against the entrenched clergy and government, on the other?

“One group which cast a long shadow over the period were the much-abused Ranters, people who took liberty seriously by exercising it rather than just talking about it, or struggling for it,” Punshon explains. “There was no Ranter organisation as such, nor any agreed body of beliefs, so it is best to ask what kind of attitude or behaviour attracted this description, and how the Quakers might be connected to them in the popular mind.”

As Moore coyly inserts, “The prevalence of such (Ranter) ideas was no doubt exaggerated by scaremongering.”

Even if the Ranter bubble had essentially collapsed by 1651, its shadow did indeed lay long across the horizon. Nearly a quarter century later, in 1674, Robert Barclay’s pamphlet, Anarchy of the Ranters, continued a Quaker defense. And Friends would develop group processes for testing whether an individual’s spiritual experience was in harmony with a Quaker Meeting’s understanding of both the Light of Christ and Scripture.

Ultimately, however, the Ranter confrontation is not just history. It does not go away. A faith based on first-hand experience must find ways of authenticating one’s understanding, as well as perceiving delusion and error.

To the extent that ecclesiastical and governmental intrusions, such as military conscription, are readily identified, they can be resisted. The Ranter extension, however, becomes the soft underbelly of Quakerism. Whether voiced as a response to the Inward Light or to the Holy Spirit, individual deviations from “the way of truth” may be harder to identify and confront; on the other hand, overzealous watchfulness can choke off the encounters of spiritual refreshment and growth. The evangelical Friends of the 19th century no doubt saw themselves as a corrective action against Ranter tendencies, yet one trait common to both unprogrammed and pastoral Friends today is an almost anarchist tinge seen in business meetings when the presiding clerks find themselves faced with “trying to herd cats” or “move frogs in a wheelbarrow.” Everyone has an opinion; God’s will, however, demands deeper concentration.

In Reclaiming a Resource: Papers From the Friends Bible Conference (held in Philadelphia, 1989), Jim Corbett takes a closer look at measures of personal experience and sees one test in what an individual will defend at all costs: “Ranters would meet and speak openly, refuse hat honor and call the upper classes ‘thee,’ and denounce the oath of fealty – until they were taken to court, imprisoned, threatened with fines, unemployment, or the loss of property, or otherwise put at risk. Then they would recant, give the pledge of allegiance, recite the required creed, bow and scrape, and go underground.”

I’ve wondered, at times, whether any group would have actually called itself Ranters, and whether such a group would have had the internal cohesiveness to exist as an organization. Corbett addresses this:

“Some historians now claim that there never was a Ranter movement, that the Ranter threat to good order was mostly myth, invented by Episcopalians [Anglicans] and Presbyterians to sound the alarm against the ungoverned congregational and individual practice of religion – a myth that was then further elaborated by Quakers to establish group discernment and internal discipline.”

And then Corbett, in the matter of examining “The Bible and Covenant Communities,” leaps to some remarkable deductions: “No one questions, though, that there is a Ranter tendency; we know it first-hand in ourselves as well as our Meetings and can trace it as a perennial, unresolved tension throughout Quaker history. Sometimes it clears the way of established community practices that have become dead forms. Sometimes it simply throws off the covenant and revels in everyone’s doing his or her own thing, unconstrained by any commitment to a community practice or task.

“Because a community’s outward practice of its faith does tend to become a fossilized form, our faith-and-practice would probably ossify and die without our Ranters and Ranter tendencies. Historically, Quaker faith-and-practice also seems to have been at its lowest ebb when our Ranter strain was weakest. Yet, when the Ranter strain prevails, we cease to practice any community faith.”

In acknowledging this Ranter tendency, he suggests, we can more fully appreciate the tension between individual experience and the empowerment of a faith community. As Lloyd Lee Wilson has charged, there are no Quakers apart from the Meeting and its face-to-face transactions.

This places us in a remarkable paradox. Caroline Emelia Stephen, in a marvelous chapter, “The Inner Light,” from her 1890 Quaker Strongholds, observes: “Mystics are naturally independent, not only of ecclesiastical authority, but of each other. This is necessarily implied in the very idea of first-hand reception of light. While it must always constitute a strong bond of sympathy between those who recognize it in themselves and in each other, it naturally indisposes them to discipleship. They sit habitually at no man’s feet, and do not as a rule greatly care to have anyone sit at theirs. Mysticism in this sense seems naturally opposed to tradition.”

If that were the extent of our experience, we could never come together in sustained action. But, as Stephen observes, “The first effect of the shining of the light within is to show what is amiss – to ‘convince us of sin.’” The origins of concerted spiritual action, then, arise in discipleship – encouraging one another to greater fidelity.

“There is no doubt that George Fox himself and the other fathers of the Society were of a strongly mystical turn of mind, though not in the sense in which the word is often used by the worshippers of ‘common sense,’ as a mild term of reproach, to convey a general vague dreaminess. Nothing, certainly, could be less applicable to the early Friends than any such reproach as this. They were fiery, dogmatic, pugnacious, and intensely practical and sober-minded,” Stephen asserts. “But they were assuredly mystics in what I take to be the more accurate sense of that word – people, that is, with a vivid consciousness of the inwardness of the light of truth.”

Quaker process, then, seeks to apply intensely practical and sober-minded benchmarks on individual experience. Unlike Ranters, Friends sought accountability, in part to make sure they weren’t indulging in mere conscience, which, “as we all know, is liable to perversion, to morbid exaggerations, to partial insensibility, to twists and crotchets of all sorts, and itself needs correction by various external standards,” as Stephen writes. “Conscience, therefore, can never be our supreme and absolute guide.”

One Light prevails, and connection with its Source remains essential. Friends would consult is the record of Scripture, on one hand, and the collective discernment of the Meeting, on the other, for confirmation. Unity in the Light of Christ has allowed Quakers, as a body, to seek to live historic testimonies: nonviolence, sexual and racial equality, simplicity, honesty, integrity, a waiting worship, and so on.

This quest for “common-unity” may also be seen as discipleship. Like the original disciples called to gather around Jesus, a Quaker Meeting can be seen as gathered in and around Christ, much like students under the authority of a teacher. Here, though, is another turn: the Meeting not only gathers in Christ, but also as his friends (John 15:14-15).

“The founders of our Society were not philosophers, but spoke of these things from an intense and abundant personal experience, which led them with confidence to appeal to the experience of all sorts and conditions of men for confirmation of their doctrine as to the light within. And they were not disappointed,” Caroline Stephen writes. “When questioned as to the reality and nature of the inner light, the early Friends were accustomed in return to ask questioners whether they did not sometimes feel something within them that showed them their sins; and to assure them that this same power, which made manifest, and therefore was truly light, would also, if yielded to, lead them out of sin. This assurance, that the light which revealed was also the power which would heal sin, was George Fox’s gospel. The power itself was described by him in many ways. Christ within, the hope of glory, the light, life, Spirit, and grace of Christ; the seed, the new birth, the power of God unto salvation, and many other such expressions flow forth in streams of heartfelt eloquence.”

The historic Quaker emphasis on Christ as the Word stands in defiant opposition to those who insist that the Bible is the Word – or, more dogmatically, the “inerrant” Word of God. To give Scripture the preeminence reduces the Word from something that dwells among us, as flesh-and-blood, and as the kingdom of God within us, to a set of history and laws that then need interpretation, raising a class of ministers to do so and erecting a barrier between each believer and our Source.

In contrast, Friends have insisted, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” In that, George Fox voiced an intimate, immediate, unconditional response of love extended to the beloved. As Paul of Tarsus asserted, “Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” [2 Corinthians 3:6]. This Spirit of Christ is not a historical event alone, but a continuing relationship. It has led Friends into a remarkable dynamic with Scripture itself; while the Bible provides a blueprint for Quaker faith and practice, once individuals encounter the Living Word, or Inward Light, the text itself is transformed. Scripture suddenly becomes a series of intimate letters from people much like ourselves. After her convincement as a Friend, Margaret Fell denounced the legalistic, moralizing approach she had previously known as the way of “thieves,” alluding to the story of the Good Shepherd, John 10:1-18.

Robert Barclay presents two telling instances that demonstrate the conflict between honoring Christ as the Word (Logos) and the Bible as the Word of God.

In Proposition III:iv of his classic Apology, he relates: “I myself have been a witness of the dispensation of Christ’s Spirit. … Some of my friends who profess the same faith as I do, and who a faithful servants of the Most High God, are full of the divine knowledge of his truth. This was directly and inwardly revealed to them by the Spirit in a true and living experience. They are not only ignorant of Greek and Hebrew but some cannot even read their own language. Yet when pressed by some of their adversaries with certain citations from the English translations they have boldly asserted that God never said so. They were sure that the cited passages were wrong because they disagreed with the manifestations of truth in their own hearts. They said they did not believe that any of the holy prophets or apostles had ever written anything like that. When I seriously examined these passages because of their doubts, I found that they were right. These passages contained errors and corruptions by the translators.”

In Proposition X:xix he writes: “We have considerable experience of this in many of the illiterate men whom God has elevated to the ministry in his Church in this day. By his Spirit some have even corrected the errors of translators. … I personally know of a poor shoemaker, still living, who cannot read a word, but who maintained that a highly esteemed and learned man was mistaken when he constantly asserted that what he was saying was a quotation from scripture. He stated before a magistrate that although he could not read the scriptures, he knew from the positive evidence of the Spirit in himself that the professor of divinity was mistaken. He knew that the Spirit of God had never said any such thing. And when the Bible was brought, it was found that it was just as the shoemaker had said.”

This points to yet another dilemma: to what extent do words shape and inform our experience, and to what extent to they limit or even preclude them? Barclay’s illiterate Friends obviously possessed sufficient knowledge of Scripture that they could argue within its very framework. Somehow, then, the Bible had provided guideposts by which they could come to experience the Spirit of God. This almost has us asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. The gospel of John, however, simply says the Word came first.

For early Friends, the Christ-as-Light connection was secure. The theological battle at hand required defining Quaker faith in the face of the intellectual parameters of the time. Barclay articulated a Quaker theological defense largely against Anglican, Calvinist (Congregationalist and Presbyterian), Roman Catholic, and Baptist charges. Today Friends and other people of faith must counter other forces: consumerism, the politics and philosophy of domination (with the military as one of its instruments), psychologically-based views of humanity, and so on.

As Quakers of various stripes have neglected their unique embrace of the Light of Christ/Seed of Christ dynamic and use as extended metaphor, both the Society of Friends and individual practice have suffered. There are good reasons to restore that vision and experience. In many ways, the work of early Friends remains important and even revolutionary today.

More to the story

The marker for Nicolas Shapleigh in Kittery, Maine, overlooks his crucial role in advancing religious plurality and tolerance in North America. In 1662 he granted asylum to three Quaker women who had been condemned in Dover, New Hampshire, and been ordered tied to a cart and whipped in each town from there to Cape Cod -- a ruling that would have resulted in their deaths. Shapleigh's courage makes him a hero in my eyes.
The marker for Nicolas Shapleigh in Kittery, Maine, overlooks his crucial role in advancing religious plurality and tolerance in North America. In 1662 he granted asylum to three Quaker women who had been condemned in Dover, New Hampshire, and been ordered tied to a cart and whipped in each town from there to Cape Cod — a ruling that would have resulted in their deaths. Shapleigh’s courage makes him a hero in my eyes.

Scriptural expressions of the Inward Light

Despite their insistence on personal religious experience and ongoing revelation, early Friends (or Quakers) found both confirmation and direction in Biblical texts. These were so thoroughly interwoven that a modern reader who is unfamiliar with the Scriptural passages will miss the overlapping quotations and fuller implications in typical historic Quakers’ writings. To grasp just how fully they relied on Scripture in articulating their own experiences, we need to be aware, especially, of the opening chapter of the gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word [Logos, in the Greek], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning, with God. Everything came about through him, and without him not one thing came about. What came about in him was life, and the life was the light of mankind; and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand [overcome] it.”

Here, in the first four sentences, is the origin of the Quaker Light-infused theology, as well as a translator’s nightmare. The original Greek text, after all, introduces the concept of Logos, which most translators render into English as Word, aligning it with Judaism’s roots as a religion of the book or words (the Torah or Mosaic Laws, especially), while unintentionally slighting the concept’s long stems in Hellenic philosophy. Crucially, however, the text presents light as a definition of this creative force. Moreover, the light empowers moral goodness and life. (Quakers may notice an echo of “the darkness did not overcome it” in George Fox’s experience of “an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness,” from 1646.) The narrative continues, inserting John the Baptist (or, in the translated name I prefer, John the Immerser) as a bridge between the cosmic dimensions of the opening sentences and the human episodes to follow; in this passage, the repeated use of “light” now dominates, rather than “Word”:

“There was a man sent from God; his name was John. This man came for testimony, to testify concerning the light, so that all should believe through him, and the world did not know him. He was not the light, but was to testify concerning the light, which illuminates every person who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world came about through him, and the world did not know him. He went to his own and his own people did not accept him. Those who accepted him, he gave them to the power to become children of God, to those who believed in his name, who were born not from blood or from the will of the flesh or from the will of man, but from God.”

The shimmering quality of this transition seems to embody a deliberate attempt to short-circuit logical explication: John was not the light, yet the light illuminates every person; the light’s people (or maybe John’s people – can we be certain?) did not accept the light, yet some did and became children of God; the light illuminates every person, yet he was in the world. There’s even that rolling sense of the light’s being in the world, having created the world, and being rejected by the world – all of this becomes very elliptical and mysterious in its compression. Poet Robert Bly offers an explanation for this kind of sequencing: “In ancient times, in the ‘time of inspiration,’ the poet flew from one world to another, ‘riding on dragons,’ as the Chinese said. Isaiah rode on these dragons, so did Li Po and Pindar. … That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” According to this view, the passage directs individuals to leap into the unconscious, as can happen during open Quaker worship, rather than attempting to nail down each word with a single meaning, as Biblical fundamentalists attempt to do. Bly is, of course, talking about thinking in metaphor, with its compression of overlapping thought and experience.

Finally, the text connects the Word and the light specifically with Jesus:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a single son from his father, full of grace and truth. John bears witness concerning him, and he cried out, saying (for it was he who was speaking): He who is coming after me was before me, because he was there before I was; because we have all received from his fullness, and grace for grace. Because the law was given through Moses; the grace and the truth came through Jesus Christ” – John 1:4-17, translated by Richmond Lattimore. (I have capitalized “Word” here to conform with other translations.)

Here, in thirteen sentences, are phrases and concepts that reappear and repeat themselves in the emerging Quaker movement, countering Bly’s objection that “as Christian civilization took hold, and the power of the spiritual patriarchies deepened, this leap occurred less and less often in Western literature. Obviously the ethical ideas of Christianity inhibit it. From the start Christianity has been against the leap. Christian ethics always embodied a move against the ‘animal instincts; … Christianity taught its poets – we are among them – to leap away from the unconscious, not toward it.” Yet the Quaker emphasis on Inward Light, conceived from the opening chapter of John, indeed incorporated a leap toward the unconscious and its workings.

Significantly, the chapter employs light five times and Word, four, before using either Jesus or Christ.

Beyond its traditional English translation as “Word,” the Greek Logos can be rendered alternatively as “reason” or “plan,” among other possibilities; these dimensions advance an unforeseen potential of conjoining the conscious and unconscious minds after all. If you reread the opening chapter of John, this time substituting “reason” or “plan” for “Word,” notice how your perspective broadens or shifts. Read, too, listening for the rhythmic repetitions of light and its synonyms, both as nouns and as verbs: life, illuminates, power, glory, fullness, grace, truth. Remember as well that this chapter parallels the first chapter of Genesis, where God says, “Let there be light,” along with the refrain, “And God saw that the light was good.” In fact, according to the text, this light was the first thing God spoke into existence. Recall, also, this text includes, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Which raises the question of just how we define “image” – as a copy, a reflection, a shadow, a projection, or something else?)

Quakers would have understood the metaphor of Light as simultaneously embracing all of the concepts John also raises. They might have settled on Logos instead – calling themselves Children of the Logos rather than Children of the Light – but didn’t, relying instead on the phrase taken from Luke, John, and Paul of Tarsus. While we are left to wonder whether these Friends knew anything at all about the ancient Greek origins of the Logos concept, which may have been circulating from neo-Platonists in Italy or alchemists in their own land, what is clear is that Friends sensed its dimensions and actions.

Even with its acknowledgement of rejection, the metaphor of Light in the opening chapter of John overflows with joy and awe. Inviting humans to a new life, it suggests a super-conscious awareness that simultaneously deepens and opens outward. In John, now, the children of God are those who are born again, apart from flesh and blood; as this light transforms into the “life” and, by extension, the Word or Logos that was from the very beginning of creation. Again, by extension, John identifies this Word or Logos as something with God and of God, and then, as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (in John 1:9; many translations, though not the one I previously quoted, use “true light,” a favorite George Fox phrase); the text then announces that this Word-Logos-Reason-Plan-Light-Life “became flesh and lived among us,” specifically as Jesus.

It doesn’t take a big leap to connect “in God’s image” and “the true light, which enlightens everyone” to the emerging Quaker comprehension of Light/Seed metaphor. Look, for instance, at John 17:26-27, where Jesus prays, “I have made your name [power or essence] known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Again, we are told that Christ can be in his (its?) followers – not in front of them, under them, over them, or behind them, but in them.

Paul of Tarsus takes up this concept, when he tells early Christians: “… you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you …” [Romans 8:9]. Here, it must be noted, the indwelling Christ is not perceived as something activated within everyone, but only those who have accepted, as he claims from his own conversion, “So that the power of Christ may dwell within me” [2 Corinthians 12:9] – and, by extension, within each one who likewise turns to this Spirit.

The aspect of love voiced in John 17:26-27 is reiterated and amplified in 1 John 4:16, along with the concept of an indwelling God: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

These passages demonstrate a concept of Christ’s Light or God’s Light dwelling within each person as Scriptural. Biblical fundamentalists and others who object to Quaker expressions of a Light Within argue that those passages refer to Bible times, but not our own. In reply, we could ask, as Robert Barclay did, “What kind of Christianity is that?” Early Friends were fond of the phrase, “Christ is coming and come,” acknowledging not just the historic life of Jesus but also the presence and availability of the Spirit of Christ in our own lives and time. This is expressed, too, in George Fox’s proclamation, “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” Awareness of this Inward Light remains an integral and defining component of Quaker theology and action.

In How We Came To Be Friends, the Tract Association of Friends’ explanation of “The Light Within” maintains a historic Quaker perspective: the section begins with a re-proclamation based on John 1:9: “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. The early Friends first experienced, and then told, the good news that Christ gives power to become the sons and daughters of God to all who will receive him and walk in his Light. As each of us is obedient to what we are shown, we are given more of this Light to see and do God’s will. This inner Light, which is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, Friends sometimes call ‘that of God’ in people (that is, God’s witness in our conscience). It is available to each one who seeks to know it. Obedience to God’s leadings is the way to grow in knowledge of him. As we follow him more closely, he gives us inner peace and joy.”

Attempting to take a middle ground in the current expanse of the Society of Friends, the authors of this introduction to Quaker practice link the “liberal” and “evangelical” poles in one remarkable combination as they equate inner Light and the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. Even so, I suspect this equation raises eyebrows among both types of Quakers, at the same time it opens a potential gateway for mutual rediscovery.

The pamphlet goes on to extend the work of the Light Within to personal choice and response, acknowledging that merely having the Seed, or image of God, in each person does not necessarily mean that the Seed has sprouted or is growing; to extend the analogy, for that to bear fruit requires an openness to Light – in this case, a response by the divine image in each soul to God’s personal call. Thus, this knowledge involves not just thought but action – listening and “walking,” that is, living in ways that are harmonious with God’s direction. Minding the Light becomes, ultimately, a “hands-on” knowledge engaging the heart as well as the mind. This experience, in turn, transformed the way Friends read Scripture – something that can be seen in the numerous Biblical acknowledgements appearing in many of their earliest books and pamphlets. Citations of chapter and verse ultimately became an primary ingredient of Robert Barclay’s definitive Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676 and 1678), where he demonstrated the thoroughness with which Quaker practice embodied Biblical thinking.

Without an awareness of Logos, I am left wondering how else the gospel of John or the experiences in the epistles of Paul could make any sense. Here, in the Light, I feel the passages ringing so clear, so compelling, and so utterly profound.

Breakdown and beyond

Religious faith presumes relationship. In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, this involves not just a relationship of the individual to the divine, but also the individual to others, and to a place and time. There are even seasons of faith as one journeys from infancy to old age, or at least to death, whenever it strikes.

For a host of reasons – some known, others obscure – the traditional Quaker comprehension of Christ as Logos, often expressed in Light and Seed terminology, broke down shortly after the end of the 18th century. Whether this produced the schisms in the Society of Friends, or is rather their byproduct, is open to interpretation.

What does appear is a series of tragic misunderstandings, as well as a hope and promise of healing.

Facing the Light

Succinctly defining today’s Society of Friends is a formidable task. (We even quibble over whether it’s “Religious Society of Friends” or the simpler and earlier “Society of Friends”; I prefer the latter, seeing our faith extending far beyond religion only.) I wonder whether the assignment is any made any easier if the definition is for just ourselves, as modern Quakers, rather than for others. Telling non-Friends exactly what we’re about can be daunting. If defining ourselves is such a problem, no wonder defining membership is so difficult. Just what is someone joining?

Consider, for example, the QUAKERS entry from the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard reference used by journalists across the country in writing and editing news reports: “The denomination originated with George Fox, an Englishman who objected to Anglican emphasis on ceremony. In the 1640s, he said he heard a voice that opened the way for him to develop a personal relationship with Christ, described as the Inner Light, a term based on the Gospel description of Christ as the ‘true light.’ … Fox taught that the Inner Light emancipates a person from adherence to any creed, ecclesiastical authority or ritual forms.”

On first blush, this outline appears authoritative and serviceable, in line with much recent Quaker writing. On closer examination, however, I find both fault and insight in its presentation.

My first difficulty comes in the statement that Fox originated the denomination. Admittedly, it does avoid calling him the “founder,” but that sense nevertheless remains close at hand. There is, however, evidence to suggest that in the mid-1640s Fox may have stumbled upon existing proto-Quaker bodies. Regardless of the solitary nature of his own religious explorations, which led him to what he described as a relationship with Christ, he did wind up in a circle of like-minded people, even before the Quaker message moved from the English Midlands into the North Country. I simply have too much appreciation for the abilities of other early Friends to relegate them to the sidelines. In many ways, especially after James Nayler’s blasphemy conviction, Fox emerges as a consolidator and definer of the movement, but even here we need to be careful not to lose sight of the contributions of other decisive leaders, not the least of them being Margaret Fell. Thus, I prefer to view Fox as emerging, over time, as the foremost among many extraordinary Children of Light in that astonishing generation of spiritual pioneers, all of them contributing to the development of this movement.

Furthermore, when Fox articulated his personal relationship with Christ, he did not initially apply Light imagery, at least in any fullness. Instead, he came to this language apparently after several other original Quakers expressed their own Light-based teachings. Significantly, while early Friends applied many expressions of Light, the phrase Inner Light itself never appears in their writings, contrary to assertions by the Associated Press and many others.

Interjecting Inner Light into the definition presents another complication: not all branches of Friends today ascribe to the doctrine, although all do emphasize a personal experience of the divine.

Finally, one may contend that Quakers do have ritual forms, however ascetic, from the way we gather for Meeting for Worship to the ways we minute our business or elder one another.

Those objections aside, what jumps out from the Associated Press definition is its emphasis on Inner Light as the distinctive element that sets Quakers apart from other religious denominations. The AP’s ten-paragraph entry then must also explain Friends’ organizational structure, titles for officers, and present-day branches. Begin to enumerate what isn’t mentioned – things many Friends would mention first as essential qualities, such as the testimonies of non-violence, of simplicity, or of sexual and racial equality, among others – and you are confronted with the pivotal position a personal experience of the divine (expressed here as Inner Light) holds in Quaker faith and practice.

In this definition, return to the passages, “a voice that opened the way for him to develop a personal relationship with Christ, described as the Inner Light, a term based on the Gospel description of Christ as the ‘true light.’ … Fox taught that the Inner Light emancipates a person … ” Although Fox did not use the term Inner Light, he did come close with the occasional “inward light.” In addition, each part of the AP definition attaches to interlocking meaning: “voice,” for instance, relates to “Word,” which then points to the Greek Logos in the opening chapter of the gospel of John, which in turn is linked to “Christ,” here also described as “Light,” further connecting to “personal experience” and human potentiality. Each part of the equation informs the others.

Missing from the AP definition, but repeatedly emphasized by Fox, was that this Light of Christ, while existing with God, is also placed within every man and woman who comes into the world. In this understanding, a potential relationship with the divine existed for everyone: this was implicit in being “created in God’s image.” Early Friends simply drew on Scripture in ways remarkably different from other sects and denominations.

Crucially, the AP definition points to the historic Quaker understanding of a personal relationship with Christ as being identical to an experience of this Light. This, of course, raises some perplexing issues for contemporary Friends, among them the question of whether and/or how Christ relates to the person named Jesus, and also the question of whether and/or how references to Light in other world religions correspond to the personal experience George Fox identified as Christ.

Although it is now considered a distinctively Quaker doctrine, the Inner Light was not an expression of early Friends. Instead, they spoke of the “Seed of Christ,” “the Witness of Christ Within,” “the Light of Christ,” the “Inward Light,” the “Light Within,” or variations – all of them linking personal experience to Biblical comprehension. Look in a Concordance, for instance, and you’ll find almost as many Biblical references to Seed as there are to Light; early Friends were aware that it referred not just to nourishment from vegetables, fruit, or grain, but also to the posterity of a particular person – all of one’s descendants. Thus, seed represented a union – male and female, grandparents and grandchildren, spirit and flesh, and much more. The multiplicity of meanings was not lost on these Friends. This Seed of Christ within each person could bear fruit, satisfy hunger, shelter one in tribulation, and produce a new birth to make that individual a spiritual heir. Simply consider the word inseminate and its cousins, seminar [seed plot] and seminary, with all of their connotations in our own time, and you can glimpse a linkage between an inward experience leading to personal transformation and public conversation (“intercourse,” in its now archaic usage) in the form of teaching and learning. Seed, too, can be extended, as it is through references to grain and then bread. To speak of Inner Light without an awareness of its conceptual dynamic of Light and Seed costs us, among other things, an appreciation of its wondrous taste, its sexuality, its seasons of patient growth, and its appearance as unity and harmony. Early Friends who farmed or lived in rural communities would have comprehended these as vital qualities of life itself. Over time, however, with rising urbanization and non-agricultural livelihoods, this “earthy” cognizance withered; nearly a century and a half later, when Job Scott re-articulated an awareness of this procreative function, some progress-minded Friends were scandalized.

Another synonym commonly used by early Friends was Truth, which also reflects an array of Scriptural citations, including John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (New Revised Standard Version). This passage, incidentally, can be interpreted differently from a Light incarnate perspective and from a Jesus as Lord and Savior point of view; it also conveys an awareness of Seed metaphor, in this case as lineage. While the concept of truth exudes a sense of reliability and permanence, my Cruden’s Complete Concordance also notes that it embraces “fidelity, sincerity, and punctuality in keeping promises,” is often joined with mercy or kindness, and “is opposed to hypocrisy, dissimulation, or formality.” Even so, many modern Friends admit a sense of unease when the word arises, in part because of its misuse by fanatics – dictator and lunatic alike. Their preference, then, is to apply the old Quaker phrase, to be “seekers after Truth,” acknowledging how tentative and deficient one’s intelligence remains in the face of infinity.

The image of Light is, I assume, far more familiar, and not just in Judeo-Christian traditions. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for instance, exhorts the practitioner to set face to face with the Clear Light of the Void and even counsels the deceased to recognize “one’s own inner light” or “self-light.” It appears in many Biblical passages as well, beginning with Genesis 1:3, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good,” with its overtone of ethical goodness, before extending into New Testament verses dear to the Quaker movement. Light, then, is not just the energy studied in physics or astronomy. Tellingly, the Genesis version of day begins with darkness, which erupts into light.

Phrases expressing an experience of a divine Seed permeate the writings of nearly all the prominent early Quakers. Read them with an eye for this, and you will observe how frequently they embody an intimate account of encountering this Inward Light, though rarely by even that name.

As Quaker history unfolds, there are also examples of how elusive minding this Light can be and how tragic the consequences when this Light is neglected.

Largely missing at both ends of the spectrum of the Society of Friends today is an understanding of the Scriptural dimension of traditional Quaker Light-based theology. Unprogrammed Quakers commonly admit to being “Biblically illiterate”; a Friend who refers to Scripture or Jesus while giving a vocal message in open worship may afterward be “eldered” by a well-meaning person who claims such references are inappropriate to Quaker ministry. Pastoral Friends, meanwhile, commonly embrace a Blood-based theology that has not been counterbalanced by the far-reaching consequences of Logos/Light perspectives. Both strands of Friends will profit from examining the Biblical underpinnings of the Quaker movement anew. In either case, I suspect, Friends will discover Christ – and the Light – to be astonishingly different from what they first presumed.