Whatever its subsequent history, the Quaker doctrine of moral perfection was central to the first generation of Friends and, although sidelined, remains as call and challenge to us today. I plan to dedicate some posts here to exploring that doctrine and the experience it represents. In preparation for that, I have been re-reading some material that I found helpful in the past. Reviewing Cecil E. Hinshaw’s Apology for Perfection1 today, I was reminded of the significance for this topic of one of the classic pericopes, or narrative units, from George Fox’s Journal: Fox’s account of his refusal to accept a position in the army.2 Deferring until another time a more systematic approach to the doctrine of perfection, I begin here with an introductory meditation on that story, which relates Quaker pacifism and moral perfection in a way that we may find surprising and even revelatory. The pericope begins with Fox’s recollection that, as the time of his imprisonment neared its scheduled end, he was taken out into the marketplace where some “commissioners and soldiers” offered him a captaincy in the army. They urged him to “take up arms for the commonwealth against Charles Stuart.” Here is Fox’s account of his reply:
I told them I knew from whence all wars arose, even [i.e., namely] from the lusts, according to James’s doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.
Fox was referring to the biblical letter attributed to an early Christian leader named James. It’s fair to say that James, as we will refer to both the epistle and its author, is one book of the Bible that many Protestants (including Martin Luther) might wish to omit from scripture, for James asserts that “faith without works is dead”,3 striking a blow at the popular Protestant doctrine of sola fide (salvation by faith alone). James insists — as does Jesus — that salvation requires a conversion of heart which issues in works of justice and mercy. In other words, James demands — as do the first Friends — a faith that brings real sanctification here and now. The possibility of a forensic “justification” such as that claimed by many Christians even today, an “on paper” salvation that does not enable us to overcome sin in this life, is denied by James. For that reason in particular, James was beloved of the first Friends. Here is the relevant passage from the fourth chapter of the epistle:
 From whence [come] wars and fightings among you? [come they] not hence, [even] of your lusts that war in your members?  Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.  Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume [it] upon your lusts.  Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.  Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?  But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.
As an aside, it’s interesting that Fox quoted that passage against what Friends would call “outward” fighting. By his usual method of translating biblical Greek, Fox could be expected to read the first verse as referring to inner conflict: the phrase the KJV translates as “wars and fightings” is followed by en humin, which we would expect Fox to render as “in you.” (When translating John 1:14, for example, Fox renders en as “in” rather than “among”: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling in us.”) But here he allows what we might call an outward translation, even though it may not be unreasonable to translate the first verse as “From whence the fightings and strivings in [en] you, if not of your lusts that war in [en] your members?” Fox may have had such a reading in mind: he claims to know “from whence all wars arose” (emphasis added). If he did, he kept it to himself, focusing on a much more important objective at that moment; namely, the conversion of his listeners.
In his response, then, Fox was not only, or even primarily, refusing service in the military: more importantly, he was preaching, directing his hearers to look within and to acknowledge that their lives were driven by self-centered craving rather than led by the love that is God. He also offered them a way out of that craving and its violence: by implication, they were to understand that they, too, by heeding James’s call to “Submit yourselves … to God” and therefore becoming single-minded (that is, no longer internally divided by desires), could live “in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”
That latter phrase is a very significant one for our understanding of Quakerism. Fox says that he lived “in the virtue of.” That is often misquoted by Friends, as if he said that he lived “in virtue of.” Is the article “the” really important? I think that it is. “In virtue of” may connote something like “in the light of” or “by authority of”; that could lead us to reify “that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars” into a moral principle, some kind of belief. But Fox was not talking about living according to an abstract principle or belief; he was pointing to a new kind of existence resulting from a radical shift in the motivation that drives our lives. By definition, a virtue is a moral strength or excellence. “In the virtue of” denotes “in the moral strength of” or “in the moral excellence of”; that is, Fox was asserting that he lived in the moral excellence, or purity, of “that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars.” He was saying that he lived, not as a normal human being, driven by self-centered desires and impulses, but as a redeemed, even divinized, being, animated by the inner life of God, which is love, and the power of that love consistently to do good and avoid evil. Fox was telling the “commissioners and soldiers” that he was living proof that sanctification is available here and now. But at first his hearers didn’t understand at all. They continued to press him.
Yet they courted me to accept of their offer, and thought I did but compliment them. But I told them I was come into the covenant of peace, which was before wars and strifes were.
Fox continued to try to make his point. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who believed that they lived under the New Covenant, he challenged them by averring that (as the scriptures teach) it is a covenant of peace, not of war. And he asserted that living in the New Covenant means living in the innocence, the moral perfection, in which Adam and Eve lived before the Fall. By that time perhaps, the others were beginning to think that Fox had an unusually exalted self-image; they then employed the tactic of playing up to that image.
They said, they offered it in love and kindness to me, because of my virtue [i.e., moral excellence]; and such like flattering words they used.
That sort of thing, of course, did not work with George Fox, who despised flattery as duplicity. With characteristic brusqueness, he told them so.
But I told them, if that was their love and kindness, I trampled it under my feet.
In Fox’s view, it was not an act of love or kindness to attempt to seduce him out of God’s Paradise of moral perfection into the normal human morass of cravings, envy, and murder — into the world of sin. And so the scene turned ugly.
Then their rage got up, and they said, ‘Take him away, jailer, and put him into the dungeon amongst the rogues and felons.’ So I was put into a lousy stinking place, without any bed, amongst thirty felons, where I was kept almost half a year….
Now that we know how the story ends, we can return to the beginning of the pericope in order to reflect further on what George Fox has to say to us.
I told them I knew from whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James’s doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.
Fox tells us that it is human lusts, natural cravings, that lead us to envy, conflict (internal and external), and killing. That seems to be his main concern. We should note that, although a negative implication about the spiritual state of his hearers is evident, Fox says nothing directly about anyone else. Nor, as we have seen, does he mention any moral principles. He does not argue, for example, that war is wrong because human life is sacred or because “there is that of God in everyone,” as Friends like to say today. Rather, he takes for granted that murder and war are evil, and, following James, traces that evil to desires and subsequent envy in the human heart. The condition of that heart is where Fox is focused. Hinshaw has some helpful comments.
Most Quakers today who support pacifism maintain that all human life is sacred and that this is the reason we ought not to kill men, even at the command of a government. While this is a valid reason for our position, it is well for us to be clear that it is a modern emphasis and is not found to any significant degree in early Quaker thought. In fact, although Quakers later came to a more absolute position, in the first ten years or so of Quakerism there was not a clear testimony on the matter of taking human life because of the sacredness of such life as the creation of God. Yet they quite generally refused to fight. The apparent inconsistency is explained when we see that it was the violence, the hate, the selfishness inevitably involved in fighting that bothered them. Fox was perhaps even more concerned with what violence did to the one who used it than he was with the results of the violence on the person against whom it was directed.4
Hinshaw seems to say that Fox and other first Friends rejected participation in war because of what it might do to their souls. Fox — who elsewhere in the Journal has already spoken of a state even better than that of prelapsarian Adam and Eve, a state of oneness with Christ from which no falling is possible — has given implicit evidence of concern for what soldiering means for the souls of others. But he has also made clear that a principal reason for Friends’ refusal of military service (when they did refuse, for some did not) was that war was no longer a possibility for them. Serving in the army is not an option for one who is unable — not because of moral constraints, but by nature — to contend with others with intent to harm. And Quakers were people who, according to the “measure” or capacity of each, had received and become centered in a new nature, the nature of God.
Again, the character of the original Quaker rejection of war, as presented in our pericope from Fox’s Journal, may seem alien, even to us contemporary Friends. George Fox rejects military service not so much because war is wrong for moral, philosophical, or even empathetic reasons, but because, his selfish human nature having given way to the divine nature, he is not subject to the cravings that lead to war, the “lusts” that cause war not only to occur but to seem to make sense. Further, the nature or “life and power” which animates him is unable to fight and kill because it is divine love, that perfect love which, as Jesus taught,5 cares for the just and the unjust alike: George Fox lives, yet not George Fox, but Christ lives in him.6 In other words, Fox rejects military service and participation in war not because he is a pacifist but because he is a saint. And that brings us back to the centrality of moral perfection in the religion of first Friends. George Fox and other Friends believed and taught that perfection, sainthood, actual freedom from sin, is available to everyone here and now. That’s a very difficult doctrine for us to understand, much less accept, in these times. But the doctrine of perfection was at the core of original Quakerism, and it is a doctrine that can be understood in a way that makes moral perfection relevant and attainable today. I plan to explore that understanding in future posts.