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Quaker Thought & History

George Fox and Christian Theology

By Edward Grubb


George Fox and Christian Theology

An attempt to set forth the Theology of George Fox would resemble the celebrated chapter on Snakes in Iceland: "There are no snakes in Iceland." Neither of the words "Theology" and "Divinity" is to be found in the Index to the Cambridge or the Ellwood edition of his Journal; he rarely used either.1  His education, from the scholastic standpoint, was very imperfect; he read little except the Bible (which, however, he is said to have known almost by heart); and he had been unfortunate in his intercourse with theologians—not one of whom, during his early years of deep inward distress, had been able to "speak to his condition." Before light came to him, he records how "the Lord opened to me that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ; and I wondered at it, because it was the common belief of the people." When at last the clouds rolled away, in 1647, it seemed to him that what man could not do God Himself had done: "I heard a voice which said, 'There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition'; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy." From that time onwards the centre of his teaching was that "God (or Christ) is come to teach His people Himself," and that therefore they have no need of divines to instruct them. He simply assured his hearers that God had met him, and that what he had found they could find also; that to every man God was speaking in the depth of his own soul, if only he would listen and obey. What Harnack says of Jesus Christ might be truly said of Fox: "Individual religious life was what he wanted to kindle and what he did kindle; it is his peculiar greatness to have led men to God, so that they may thenceforth live their own life with Him."2

Of the "Children of the Light," whom Fox gathered round him, and who became the pioneers of the Quaker movement, some had already discovered this direct and personal relation to God before they met him; others through his help became not only Seekers but happy Finders. Some of them were men and women of little learning; others, on the contrary, were already preachers, and versed in the theology of the day. But they all agreed with Fox that Christianity was not a scheme of doctrine to be believed, but an experience to be entered into, and a life to be lived; and they tended, therefore, to regard Theology as a collection of "notions" of no importance, and possibly even a hindrance, to the religious life. Fox himself appears to have known nothing of Church history; both he and his friends, to whom the Sun of Righteousness had arisen with healing in his wings, regarded the Christian centuries since the first as merely a "dark night of apostasy." In comparison with the Light that they felt shining in their own souls, and the path of obedience which it required of them, the age-long disputes of Churchmen on points of doctrine seemed to them of no account. In 1650 Fox was taken before the magistrates at Derby for preaching in a "steeple house" after the regular preacher had closed his sermon, and he writes: "I told them all their preaching, baptism and sacrifices would never sanctify them; and bid them look unto Christ in them, and not unto men; for it is Christ that sanctifies. Then they ran into many words ; but I told them they were not to dispute of God and Christ, but to obey Him."3  This is characteristic and significant.

If we are to judge rightly of the severe terms in which Fox and his friends speak of the theologians of their time, we must remember that the intense vitality of the first Reformation days had departed, and that the preaching that prevailed was mainly of the hard Calvinistic type. The God of the Puritan pulpits was a Being in whom it must have been difficult indeed to discern the lineaments of "The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." He was a Terror, whose arbitrary decree had irrevocably predestined a. great part of the human race to eternal torments. "The doctrine of reprobation," as Westcott wrote,4 "was then commonly preached with a crude violence which shook the very foundations of morality." Moreover, God was not a God at hand, but One afar off: He had prisoned Himself in a book to which no page had been added for fifteen hundred years; all the knowledge men now had of Him was bound within the covers of the Bible. It was against this gloomy creed that Fox came with his message of a God who was close to men, still speaking to them as in the days of prophets and apostles, teaching, leading and controlling them by His Spirit in their own hearts. The Bible was not the only fount of truth, for the same Spirit that inspired it was still at work, and only as men were enlightened by that Spirit could they understand or use the Bible aright. This last had been Luther's conviction, and it had been expressed (with caution) in the Reformed Confessions of Faith; but it had been largely overlooked and forgotten. There can be no doubt that to most of Fox's converts the assurance of a God who was in direct touch with their own souls was a joyful discovery that transformed their lives, and that it is this discovery which explains their attitude towards the Bible and theology.

If we try to place Fox's religion in relation to the three main streams of influence that had united to form the Christianity of Europe—those contributed by the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Latins—it is to the first of these that it most naturally belongs. He and his followers were not concerned to understand intellectually the nature of God or of the world, nor to construct an organization of "faith and order" that should hold the Christian world together by law and government. William Penn afterwards called the Quaker movement "Primitive Christianity Revived," and the description seems apt enough. It was an attempt to recover the freedom and spontaneity of New Testament Christianity in the days before the Hebraism of the first followers of Jesus had been philosophized by the Greeks or imperialized by the Romans. Its ethical interest was as strong as that of the Old Testament. In his early days of darkness Fox felt the burden of his people's sins (he rarely speaks of his own), as crushingly as did Hosea or Jeremiah; the experiences of the prophets were repeated in his life; at times, after strenuous labours and sufferings, he would be laid aside for weeks together in spiritual conflict with powers of darkness. His main desire was that the life of God, the God of perfect holiness, should enter and dominate the lives of men. Hence he had no use for ideas of "justification" that made practical righteousness a by-product, or notions of Atonement which left men morally where they were. There could be no justification which was not also sanctification, no Atonement that did not bring men really into union with God. It was this overmastering ethical passion that separated Fox and his followers not only from orthodox Calvinism, but from the "Ranters" of his day, with whom they were often confounded.

But the Quaker movement was not a mere reaction to Hebraic modes of life and thought. In the writings of Fox and his followers the evangelical note is strong and clear. Their Christianity was saved by their implicit acceptance of the Light within them as the Spirit of the living Christ, who had fulfilled His promise that He would not leave His people orphaned. It was this, together with the sanity and sobriety of Fox's character, that preserved them from the extravagances of the Ranters, whose Pantheism tended to break down moral distinctions. Following the Light meant something very different from wandering in one's own will, in the delusion that this will would necessarily be the will of God. The Light was the light of "Truth," which was one; and its identification with the Spirit of Christ meant that He was seeking to reproduce His own life and spirit in the lives of His disciples. The character of Jesus, therefore, presented a definite moral standard, but a standard that could only be attained through personal experience of His life in the soul. Fox aimed at building up a society which should be, like the early Church, the fellowship of an inspired people, each member of which was ideally as truly in touch with the Spirit of God as were prophets and apostles. It held, with the orthodox, that "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost"; it differed from them in believing that inspiration had never ceased, but that the Spirit had now been poured out on "all flesh."

To most of the theologians of the time, even to saintly men like Richard Baxter (who, curiously enough, seems never to mention Fox), the Quaker movement appeared mere heresy and religious anarchism, threatening the whole fabric of organized Christianity. The Church invoked the secular arm, and, not content with argument and vituperation, sought (in the words of Hudibras)—

"To prove its doctrine orthodox
By apostolic blows and knocks."

The Quakers suffered fierce persecution as blasphemers, mainly on the grounds that by their assertion of the Light in all men they made Christ and His salvation needless ; that by refusing to call the Bible the "Word of God" and make it the final "rule" of faith and practice, they left every man to believe and act as was right in his own eyes ; that they denied the Trinity, and the humanity of the Son of God ; and that they held up to men the delusive standard of "perfection" in this life. These charges, we note, were theological; rumours of immorality were freely circulated, but such accusations rarely or never reached the Courts.5

In the history of the Christian Church such persecution has usually been the lot of those who have tried to recover the spirit of early Christianity. In his books, Studies in Mystical Religion and Spiritual Reformers, Dr. Rufus Jones, seeking to trace the spiritual antecedents of the Quaker movement, has shown how a "mystical" element has persisted, deep down in the hearts of Christian believers, acting as a ferment in individual lives, and ever and anon breaking through the crust of credal and institutional religion, with a fresh upspringing of the living waters of first-hand acquaintance with God or Christ. For the most part these movements, from Montanism downwards, have by the organized Church been trampled on as "heresy," and often almost extinguished. The experience of George Fox did but repeat that which many reformers had passed through, but he knew little or nothing of such movements, and if they affected him at all it would seem to have been subconsciously.

The early years of the Quaker movement, from 1650 onwards, saw a vast output of controversial literature. Books and pamphlets were issued in streams by Fox and his friends, attacking the Puritan ministers as false prophets and Antichrists.6  To these some of them, notably Richard Baxter and John Bunyan, replied with equal vigour, charging the Quakers with being the real Antichrists; and such charges Fox and Burrough answered, in 1659, by a portentous volume, "The Great Mistery of the Great Whore," containing replies to about one hundred books and papers issued against Friends. The verbal controversy continued for many years, but it is now, of course, of only antiquarian interest. It does not really throw much light on the theological position of the Quakers, beyond the central principles that salvation is an inward work wrought by Christ in the soul of man, and that the Spirit, not the Bible, is the primary source of his knowledge of the truth.

In addition to such controversial writings, the Quakers were accustomed, from very early days, to put out more formal and positive declarations of their religious belief, to prove unfounded the attacks on their Christianity. In the earliest of these of which evidence exists Fox himself had no hand. It was an outcome of the terrible persecution in New England, in which four Friends suffered martyrdom on Boston Common as heretics and blasphemers. The authors were three Friends who had been subjected to severe whipping and rigorous imprisonment, and they issued it from Boston prison in 1657. It is rather surprisingly orthodox in tone,7  stating belief in God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His Son who was born of the Virgin and suffered for our offences, in the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and so forth. These points of agreement with the prevailing theology are stated first, and only later, in a passage of exhortation, is there allusion to the peculiar Quaker doctrine of the Light.

Better known is the Letter addressed to the Governor of Barbadoes by Fox and others in 1671, which begins: "Whereas many scandalous lies and slanders have been cast upon us, to render us odious, as that we deny God, and Christ Jesus, and the Scriptures of Truth...." Like the other, it is entirely orthodox in tone, so far as its positive statements go, though it makes no mention of belief in the Trinity8  or in the total depravity of man, and holds (of course) to the Lutheran view that Christ died for the sins of all men and not of the elect only. It has often been quoted as if it were a complete declaration of Quaker belief; but, as Rufus Jones points out, "it is not that, for it deals only slightly and feebly with the distinctive truth of the Quaker message ; it is rather what it claims to be—a document to clear Friends of slander and heresy on points of catholic, i.e., universal, Christianity."9

Two years after Fox's death in 1691, a more elaborate document was drawn up by George Whitehead, and issued by Friends in London, to set forth their position in answer to charges of heterodoxy brought against them by George Keith, a Scotchman, and one of the few learned divines who joined the Quakers. He had been a fervent follower of Fox, a companion of Penn and Barclay, and had suffered persecution with the rest; but he came to think their views unsound, and ended as a clergyman in the Anglican Church. In this declaration of 1693, which is printed at length in Sewel's History of the Quakers10  both strains of teaching—the evangelical and the mystical—are set side by side, but without any adequate attempt to reconcile them.

In mentioning the Keith controversy I have passed beyond the lifetime of George Fox; but it seems needful for our subject to examine some of the effects of his personality and his work on his companions and successors, and how they supplemented and developed, and perhaps modified, his teaching. He had, as has been said above, drawn them into acceptance not of a theological system, but of an experience and a life. But, just as the new experience of God which glows in the pages of the New Testament formed the raw material for a theology—and would inevitably have led to attempts to formulate and explain it, even had there been no Greeks among the early converts—so the second generation of the Quakers found themselves faced with questions to which they were compelled to try to find answers. Chief among these questions was this: What was this Light that they perceived in their souls, lighting up their whole inner being with new certainty of God and His truth, and how was it related to His historical revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ?

In the attempt to find an answer they were severely handicapped by their rooted dislike and distrust of theology. Most of them felt the Light within them so superior, as a spiritual and moral guide, to any conclusions they could reach by thought, that they were inclined to disparage any use of Reason in relation to spiritual things. They feared to use their minds freely, lest their own thoughts should block the shining of the Light. I am dealing now, in the main, with Isaac Penington, William Penn and Robert Barclay, who took the lead in the attempt to state the Quaker position in terms that would reach the ordinary educated Christian. In this they were gravely hampered both by the philosophic dualism of the day, which separated by a rigid wall the natural from the supernatural the human from the Divine; and by the dogma, which some of them at any rate accepted without question from their religious environment, that man was totally lost and his nature wholly corrupted by the Fall.11  The Light in their souls they must regard as either purely natural and human, or else as wholly supernatural and Divine ; and, in so far as they held that man by nature was totally corrupt, they found themselves driven to the latter alternative.

In the theological field the same dualism gravely hindered the finding of a satisfactory answer to the question of the relation between the Christ within and the Christ of history, and why, if He was present in all human souls, His coming in the flesh was needed. It is quite safe to say that neither Fox nor any of his true followers ever thought of denying the reality of the Incarnation; but with most of them it lay in the background of their thoughts. When some of them did begin to ponder its problems, led by Penington, they had recourse to a doctrine akin to that of Apollinarius12  —that a Divine soul (the Eternal Christ) inhabited for a time a human body (that of Jesus), and would also inhabit His faithful and obedient disciples. It is obvious that this theory does not preserve the unity of the Divine and the human in Christ's person, nor the unity of personality in ourselves. It takes no account of the human mind of Jesus, and gives no answer to the question whether, or in what sense. His mind was the mind of God. Nor does it contemplate the development of our minds into instruments that can think the thoughts of God, into means of His self-expression and self-manifestation. It assumes that if the Divine is to express itself in us, the human mind and all its thoughts must be suppressed and kept in subjection.

Barclay (following Keith) hints at another theory. The Light or Seed of God he calls vehiculum Dei, a phrase which with marvellous exegesis he deduces from Cant. iii. 9, "King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon." "By this Seed,. Grace and Word of God, and Light wherewith everyone is enlightened, we understand a spiritual, heavenly and invisible Principle, in which God as Father, Son and Spirit dwells: a measure of which Divine and glorious life is in all men as a Seed, which of its own nature draws, invites and inclines us to God ; and this some call vehiculum Dei, or the spiritual body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, which came down from heaven, of which all the saints do feed, and are thereby nourished unto eternal life."13  Barclay's reason for thus reducing the Inward Light to a "principle" was undoubtedly to avoid the charge, which had been freely made against the Quakers, that by saying Christ dwelt in them they made themselves His equals. "For, though we affirm that Christ dwells in us, yet not immediately but mediately, as He is in that Seed which is in us ; whereas He, to wit the Eternal Word, which was with God and was God, dwelt immediately in that holy man."

All this, like so much more theologising, served a temporary purpose but has no lasting validity. It must be freely admitted that the Quakers did not succeed in formulating a theology that could do justice to the reality of their experience. And the imperfection of their Christology was one cause of the disaster known as the "Hicksite" separation, which in the nineteenth century almost destroyed the Society of Friends in America.14  It hastened an Evangelical reaction on both sides of the Atlantic, which, while it awakened the Society out of its period of Quietism, very largely obscured its special witness to the world— its testimony to a Divine Light in every man.

It is a comfort to turn from this, for a moment, to some of George Fox's thoughts concerning the central theme of Christianity—the Cross of Christ. For him and his friends, as has been said above, Atonement was no transaction, carried on outside a man, like paying his debts or enduring his punishment, which left his heart unchanged. Fox constantly expressed his sense of the inward nature of Atonement in his favourite sentence, "The Cross is the Power of God." "Now ye thai know the power of God and are come to it— which is the Cross of Christ, that crucifies you to the state that Adam and Eve were in in the fall, and so to the world—by this power of God ye come to see the state they were in before they fell, which power of God is the Cross, in which stands the everlasting glory; which brings up into the righteousness, holiness and image of God, and crucifies to the unrighteousness, unholiness and image of Satan."15  The Cross is no "dead fact stranded on the shore of the oblivious years," but is to be a living experience deep in the heart of the believer, and changing his whole life. "You that know the power and feel the power, you feel the Cross of Christ, you feel the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth."16  All real experience of the Cross must lead, he thought, to the same way of life that brought the Master there—to the way of humility and non-resistance, of overcoming evil by the sole force of love and goodness. To Fox it seemed that a high profession of Christianity often went with a way of life in flagrant opposition to this. He writes to the persecutors : "Your fruits have manifested that you are not of this (wisdom from above) ; and so out of the power of God which is the Cross of Christ; for you are found in the world, out of the power of God, out of the Cross of Christ, persecuting."17 

This I believe to have been, next to the affirmation of the Light within, the deepest and most fruitful thing the Quakers had to say ; and on this they were all agreed. It lies at the root of their opposition to War, little as this has been understood; and it is a thought to which the Christian Church seems to be slowly awakening. Almost all recent studies of the Atonement are far nearer to the thoughts struck out by Fox, on the basis of his own experience, than to those of his Puritan opponents. And there are many to-day who would agree with him that the way of the Cross is God's way of overcoming evil, and that it must be man's way too.

I conclude, then, that George Fox was a true pioneer in religion, but only indirectly in theology. His central assurance of the Light within, and his consequent basing of all religious beliefs on experience and not on either authority or reason, certainly seems to anticipate much of the thought of reformers like Schleiermacher and Ritschl, who have done much to transform the theology of Christendom. But the task of building up a satisfying philosophy of the Light of Christ in the soul of man is one to which the followers of Fox have still to set their minds.

Chapter II ...>

From Quaker Thought and History: A Volume of Essays. By Edward Grubb, M.A. Published in 1925 by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

Notes and Links

 1  The only instance I have discovered of the use of the word "divinity" is in the Ellwood Journal (Bicentenary Edition) p. 29, (Tercentenary Edition, p. 17): "The Lord opened to me three things, relating to those three great professions in the world, physic, divinity (so called), and law."

 2  What is Christianity? Pp. 11-12.

 3  Journal, Bicentenary Edition, Vol. I., p. 50. (It is from this edition that quotations are made.)

 4  Social Aspects of Christianity, "The Quakers," p. 127.

 5  Some of the worst sufferings of the Quakers were for offences against neither accepted beliefs nor customary moral standards: such as refusal to take an oath, and persistence in wearing their hats, even in courts of justice. The first was due to their high standard of truthfulness; the second to their refusal to render certain persons an honour which they held to be due to God alone. Fox himself had his imprisonment at Derby (1650-51) increased because he refused to serve in the Parliamentary army. (Journal, Vol. I., pp. 68-73.)

 6  For some of the titles see Braithwaite, Beginnings of Quakerism, pp. 280 ff.

 7  It is printed in full in Bowden, History of Friends in America, Vol. I., pp. 90-93.

 8  The Quakers had no use for a developed doctrine of the Trinity. regarding it as an intellectual notion not to be found in the New Testament. In speaking of God, they freely used the terms " Father," "Son," and "Spirit," but they found no New Testament warrant for thinking of distinct "Persons."

 9  The Quakers in the American Colonies, pp. 111-112.

 10  Third Edition, Vol. II., pp. 542-555.

 11  See below, Essay II., pp. 82, 29.

 12  Though Barclay explicitly rejects this (Apol. Prop. vi., (section) 13).

 13  Apology, Prop. vi., 13. The conception had been used by others. Dr. Rufus Jones states that the above passage can be exactly paralleled in the writings of Schwenckfeld (1489-1562). See Spiritual Reformers, p. 346.

 14  For this see Rufus Jones, Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. I., ch. xii., and my Swarthmore Lecture, The Historic and the Inward Christ, pp. 58-63.

 15  Journal. Vol. I., p. 345.

 16  Ditto, Vol. I., p. 191.

 17  Journal, Vol. I p. 312.