One of the most radical things about Early Friends was their conviction that God / Christ was immediately available to them to direct their preaching and worship services, answer their questions, and guide their work on an immediate day to day basis. We cannot understand Friends’ approaches to worship, church government, or social justice without having a clear understanding of Quaker theology.
Each person has access to direct guidance from God in the present time.
The Light Within is the opening section of Faith & Practice of Philadelphia YM. It describes a direct-unmediated relationship with the Divine as central to all Quaker practices.
“The Seed, or Grace of God, is small in its first Appearance, even as the Morning Light; but as it is given Heed to, and obeyed, it will increase in Brightness, till it shine in the Soul, like the Sun in the Firmament at its Noon-day Height.” —Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655-1685
“The testimony of the Spirit is that alone by which the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be only revealed.” —Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity
The above quote is near the beginning of Second Proposition “On Immediate Revelation“. Barclay is not easy reading for most Friends today. If you have the patience to read through this, Barclay walks the reader carefully through this critical foundation of all Quaker faith and practice.
“Art thou in darkness? mind it not, for if thou do it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till light arise out of darkness to lead thee.” —James Nayler, 1616-1660
“Sweet is this state, though low: for in it I receive my daily bread, which is given of the Lord; for I cannot live to him, but as he breathe the breath of life upon me every moment.” —Mary Penington (1623-1682)
“I declared Truth amongst them, and directed them to the light of Christ in them; testifying unto them that God was come to teach His people Himself, whether they would hear or forbear. I directed the people to their inward Teacher, Christ Jesus, who would turn them from darkness to the light. Therefore I exhorted the people to come off all these things, and directed them to the spirit and grace of God in themselves, and to the light of Jesus in their own hearts, that they might come to know Christ, their free Teacher, to bring them salvation, and to open the Scriptures to them. —George Fox’s Journal
The Quaker conception of Christ
Early Friends referred to their direct experiential relationship with God using a variety of different terms: Inward Christ, Inward Light (though not “Inner Light”), The Seed, and “leadings”.
The word Christ is Greek for “messiah” or savior. Early Quakers believed that the living Christ was one with God from the beginning of time and still present in their midst in the present — teaching, healing, transforming, liberating, and leading the Quaker community. They made no distinction between their present-time inward relationship with Christ and the historical Jesus. Many Friends today use the word Christ to refer to God’s spirit at work in their lives, but do not see this as identical with Jesus.
Friends found these concepts in the Bible, especially. the Gospel of John (often called the “Quaker Gospel”):
- “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1)
- The Comforter (or helper or Advocate) that Jesus said God would after his death to be with us forever. (John 14:16)
- “Lo I am with you always. even unto the end of the world.” (Matt 28:20)
- “Emmanuel” (“God-with-us”)
- “living water” (John 4:10)
- “true vine” (John 15).
Early Friends emphasized Christ as alive in their hearts and their prophetic movement. Other Christians placed their emphasis on God’s unique intervention in the life and resurrection of Jesus and the critical role of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection in saving humanity from original sin. The question of who Christ is and what Christ’s role is in salvation was a major point of bitter conflict between early Friends and their Puritan opponents—and has also been a point of deep contention among Friends, especially since the Great Schism of 1828.
Edwards Grubbs explores this issue in great depth in The Historic and Inward Christ, his 1914 Swarthmore Lecture to London YM.
Everyone has access to this experience. It is not restricted to an ordained priesthood or to those who receive formal religious training. They felt that the “Seed” (inward presence of God) acted even in the lives of those like Muslims or Native Americans who had no formal knowledge about Christ or the Bible.
“Oh you Rulers & Judges, do you think to overcome us by keeping [our teachers and ring leaders] in prison?. Nay, Christ is our teacher, and he cannot be removed into a corner… The Lord does not speak to us in an unknown tongue, but in our own language do we hear him perfectly, whose voice is better than life… We cannot own the teaching that is of this world, but that which cometh immediately from God, and that is pure and refresheth the soul… and it causeth us to meet together, to worship the Lord as we ought to do.” —Esther Biddle The Trumpet of the Lord Sounded Forth unto These Three Nations, 1662
They were particularly opposed to the idea that religious intermediaries (priests, preachers) required special university preparation. Many of their own gospel ministers were relatively uneducated such as farmers or laborers. Very few had been through formal religious training at a school of divinity.
Early Quakers were deeply critical of other faith leaders whom they felt were hypocritical, were leading rigid forms of worship that was not springing from a direct relationship with God, or were using the instruments of state power to persecute those (e.g. Quakers) that they disagreed with.
On the other hand, they believed that God spoke through others with very different paths than their own including some (e.g. Native Americans and Muslims) whom other Christians often spoke of as evil or even without souls.
See account of Mary Fisher’s trip to the Sultan Mehmed IV, ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
Committing to the Quaker Spiritual Path is a QuakerSpeak interview with Lloyd Lee Wilson of North Carolina (Conservative) YM. He suggests that although Quakers recognize many paths to God, our path is a unique one. And we are likely to flourish if we live into our own path fully, even those aspects that challenge us.
Role of the Bible
Although early Friends considered the Bible to be a critical source of religious truth, they did not consider it higher than the direct revelation (Christ coming to teach His people himself). They believed it was impossible to understand the meaning of biblical passages unless one was living in the “life and power” in which the scriptures were originally given forth. They believed that their religious opponents misunderstood many key parts of the Bible because they were not living in this same direct, living relationship with God in their own day.
“I told them the gospel was the power of God, which was preached before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or any of them were printed or written; and it was preached to every creature (of which a great part might never see or hear of those four books), so that every creature was to obey the power of God; for Christ, the spiritual Man, would judge the world according to the gospel, that is, according to His invisible power. When they heard this, they could not gainsay, for the truth came over them. I directed them to their teacher, the Grace of God, and shewed them the sufficiency of it, which would teach them how to live, and what to deny; and being obeyed, would bring them salvation. So to that grace I recommended them, and left them.” —George Fox’s Journal
Jack Smith of Ohio YM describes this in The Scripture as Understood & Used by Conservative Friends, making clear that Conservative Friends consider Christ as “The Word”, not written scripture.
The “Offices of Christ”
Friends experienced God as touching and shaping their lives in a number of distinct ways. They had an odd-sounding (to us) way of referring to this: namely, the “offices of Christ”. These “offices” (or roles) included king, prophet, counselor, comforter, shepherd, redeemer, mediator, reconciler, teacher, etc. These are all ways of talking about how God works in our lives in our own day (i.e. not just through redemptive acts of God as these played out through Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection). The point was that they believed that God spoke to them, led them, upheld them, guided them, healed them, lifted them up when they were discouraged, reproved them when they got off track, etc.
See: Sandra Cronk (founder of the “School of the Spirit“), Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of the Faithful Quaker Community, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297, 1991, pp.17-20 on the “offices of Christ”)