Perfection and Pacifism

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:

[1] From whence [come] wars and fightings among you? [come they] not hence, [even] of your lusts that war in your members? [2] 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. [3] Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume [it] upon your lusts. [4] 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. [5] Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? [6] But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. [7] Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. [8] 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.4 “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.5

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,6 cares for the just and the unjust alike: George Fox lives, yet not George Fox, but Christ lives in him.7 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.


[1] Cecil E. Hinshaw, Apology for Perfection, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #138. (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1964).
[2] George Fox, Works, Vol. 1, p. 113. Available on line at
[3] See James 2:17.
[4] Compare the Greek areté (ἀρετή).
[5] Hinshaw, op. cit., p. 16 in the print version.
[6] See Matthew 5:44-48.
[7] See Galatians 2:20.

RELATED POST: The Basis of Quaker Pacifism

12 thoughts on “Perfection and Pacifism

  1. We are not, by the way, the only Perfectionist sect. John Humphrey Noyes had been an ordained minister in one such… but they too, had drifted from their original understanding, and threw him out for affirming that Nope, there was no sin in him.

    • A number of perfectionist groups, of different types, have appeared at times in Christian history, Methodism probably being the most widely known. Had Noyes lived a couple of centuries earlier, his teachings about sex would likely have led to his being called a Ranter by the likes of George Fox.

  2. “But I told them, if that was their love and kindness, I trampled it under my feet.”

    Not a particularly skillful response. It shouldn’t have gotten him six months in a stinking jail, but its not altogether surprising that it did. There’s a certain adolescent quality that persists among many Friends today.

    • On its face, it is certainly not skillful. But it may be that Fox’s objective was different from what ours might be. Consider the following passage, thematically related to the pericope the post discusses, from an “exhortation to Friends in the ministry” by Fox. (The passage may give us a somewhat different perspective on Fox’s teaching of “answering God in everyone” as well.)

      Spare no deceit. Lay the sword upon it; go over it. Keep yourselves clear of the blood of all men, either by word or writing, and keep yourselves clean, that you may stand in your throne, and every one have his lot and stand in the lot in the ancient of days. The blessing of the Lord be with you, and keep you over all the idolatrous worships and worshippers. Let them know the living God; for teachings, churches, worships must be thrown down with the power of the Lord God, set up by man’s earthly understanding, knowledge, and will. All this must be thrown down with that which gave forth the scripture; and who are in that, reign over it all. That is the word of the Lord God to you all. In that is God worshipped, that brings to declare his will, and brings to the church in God, the ground and pillar of truth: for now is the mighty day of the Lord appeared, and the arrows of the Almighty gone forth; which shall stick in the hearts of the wicked. Now will I arise, saith the Lord God Almighty, to trample and thunder down deceit, which hath long reigned and stained the earth. Now will I have my glory out of every one. The Lord God Almighty over all in his strength and power keep you to his glory, that you may come to answer that of God in every one in the world. Proclaim the mighty day of the Lord of fire and sword, who will be worshipped in spirit and in truth; and keep in the life and power of the Lord God, that the inhabitants of the earth may tremble before you: that God’s power and majesty may be admired among hypocrites and heathen, and ye in the wisdom, dread, life, terror, and dominion preserved to his glory; that nothing may rule or reign but power and life itself, and in the wisdom of God ye may be preserved in it. This is the word of the Lord God to you all. [emphasis added]


      I note that “deceit” is what he says should be trampled, and deceit was apparently what he thought the commissioners and soldiers were involved in when they flattered him. In any case, the apparent objective that shapes the rhetoric is quite different from what Friends are likely to be working on today, when what we might call the outward eschatological edge of Quakerism has been dulled, as all such edges eventually are, by the facts of history.

      We might consider, too, that Fox may have wanted to be thrown back in prison “for conscience sake,” as he would say. Perhaps in that he is closer to modern activists.

      For witnessing the holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience do we suffer, and are subject for conscience sake. This is thankworthy, if a man, for conscience sake, endure griefs and sufferings wrongfully. In this is our joy and rejoicing, [in] having a good conscience, that whereas we are evil spoken of as evil doers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse our good conversation in Christ; which is not only the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This we witness made manifest, (eternal praises to the living God!) and bear testimony to that which spoke it in the apostle in life and power. Therefore do we bear witness and testify against those, who, being got into a form and profession of it, do persecute the life and power.


      Whatever Fox was up to, I could not use his more confrontational methods any more than I can share his supernatural beliefs. (And for a contemporary Friend to cite Fox’s example to rationalize confrontational and aggressive acting-out does seem absurd to me for a number of reasons.) There are some very precious gems to be mined from the records of the first Friends’ thoughts and experiences, yet the world of those Friends is in many ways strikingly alien. But that makes it all the more intriguing to me.

  3. Friend James:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I am wondering if the two approaches to pacifism are exclusive of each other. It would be helpful to consider the other passages in the writings of Fox that deal with this issue. In addition, I believe that Fox viewed the experience of the inner light as having an ethical component; my recollection is that he regards the inner light as that which tells us when we are behaving badly, that is to say, unethically. If I’ve understood correctly, then it would seem possible that there is also an ethical, or moral, component to his anti-war stance. By that I mean that we ‘should’ not engage in war, just as we ‘should’ be honest, etc. I’m wondering if this is more of a both/and than an either/or.



    • Jim, your comment raises some interesting issues.

      If the Light tells us when we are behaving badly, how does it differ from conscience? And if the function of the Light is to deliver moral principles, then the Quaker who follows those principles is a step removed from the Light; further, if those principles are universal, and following them is the same as following the Light itself, then the Light makes itself redundant and we are back to a covenant of laws.

      More fundamentally, if we are behaving badly, then by definition we are not living in the Light. But a saint, or a Quaker according to the first generation of Friends, is one who lives in the Light: “no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” “[T]he Lord opened to me that if all were believers,” wrote George Fox, “then they were all born of God, and passed from death to life.”

      Here are some other relevant words of Fox:

      ‘I directed them to the divine light of Christ and his spirit in their hearts, which would let them see all the evil thoughts, words, and actions, that they had thought, spoken, and acted; by which light they might see their sin, and also their saviour Christ Jesus to save them from their sins. This I told them was their first step to peace, even to stand still in the light that showed them their sins and transgressions; by which they might come to see they were in the fall of old Adam, in darkness and death, strangers to the covenant of promise, and without God in the world: and by the same light they might see Christ that died for them, to be their redeemer and saviour, and their way to God.’


      We are not to remain on the first step, but to progress from there, to be reborn out of the Fall into moral perfection, out of Adam/death/darkness into Christ/life/light, and thus to walk always in the Light.

      But as all believe in the light, and walk in the light which Christ hath enlightened every man that cometh into the world withal, and so become children of the light, and of the day of Christ; in his day all things are seen, visible and invisible, by the divine light of Christ, the spiritual heavenly man, by whom all things were made and created.


      Walking in the Light means walking, not according to principles revealed by the Light, but as the Light guides us in each moment by illuminating the way forward. As children — that is, having the same nature as — the Light, we see “all things” as they are from the divine perspective. Being of the divine nature, the saints do not follow moral principles, for sin is dead in them, and the law is for sinners. That is not to say that they deny the existence of such principles, but that they have transcended the need for them.

      Fox again:

      For by that spirit their crooked natures might be made straight, their rough natures smooth, and the exacter and violent doer in them might be cast out; and those that had been hypocrites, might come to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, and their mountain of sin and earthliness might be laid low, and their valley exalted in them, that there might be a way prepared for the Lord in them: and then the least in the kingdom is greater than John. [emphasis added]


      Burrough and Howgill put it in this way:

      [F]or the elect are one with the Creator, in his nature, enjoying his glory …. Christ and the Father is one, and the same Spirit that dwells in the Son dwells in the Father which is one, I and my Father is one, the same dwells in the Saints, not distinct nor divided … and he that is joined to Christ is one Spirit, not distinct or separate ….


      Christ does not follow moral principles: Christ is himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” And Christ and the saints, the Quakers, were “one … not distinct or separate.” That’s one vision — the original one — of Quaker spirituality. As we know, it soon changed: already by 1678, Barclay acknowledges in his Apology that he does not know moral perfection. The Quakerism represented by Friends such as Barclay and Penn developed into what we have today, in which “testimonies” are actually precepts or ideals and the Light functions as a mythological guarantor of the truth of the community’s belief system. One purpose of my post is to look a the original experience, which was categorically different from what we have, and what we expect, today.

  4. George, I’m really interested to see how this thread develops, as I’ve just finished reading Glen Reynolds’s Was George Fox a Gnostic?, in which he dedicates much of the book to Fox’s understanding of perfection, both his own state and more broadly, as an aspect of early Friends’ theology.

    About “virtue”: I think the meaning Fox may have had is less focused on a moral strength or excellence, but rather on a slightly different meaning of the word. The very first entry in the OED gives this: “The power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being.” The OED lists this meaning as now archaic or obsolete, but it was still being used into the 18th century and the dictionary includes a relevant quote from 1655.

    “Virtues” were also an order of angel that embodied this power or influence, and a third meaning in this category is “an act of superhuman or divine power; ‘a mighty work’; a miracle;” also obsolete. The latest quote in the OED for this latter meaning is interesting: it comes from Tindale’s 1529 translation of Mark 6:20: “What wysdom is this that is given unto him? and such vertues that are wrought by his bondes?” I don’t remember whether Fox was reading Tindale. I did read somewhere once which Bible historians think Fox read most often and I seem to remember that it was not just the Authorized (King James) Version of 1611; but I don’t remember whether it included Tindale’s. The rest of the OED entries all relate to moral character in the more common contemporary sense.

    This more supernatural or mystic reading of the word “virtue” does not alter, however, your basic reading of the passage, except to expand it to include a deeper level of utter spiritual or ‘metaphysical’ transformation, beyond just the moral, beyond the conquest of sin. This is the assertion of Reynolds and the other people he quotes (especially Rosemary Moore, The Light in their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666; R.G. Bailey, New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism—The Making and Unmaking of a God; and R.H. King, George Fox and the Light Withn 1650-1660). They all argue that Fox claimed a complete unity with Christ, what Bailey calls a “christopresence,” a possession by or metaphysical fusion with the “celestial body” of Christ, which did more than just conquer the impulse to sin. It also conferred charismatic power for miracles and divine insight into reality (“so that I knew the virtues of the creatures”, as Fox reports it in his description of his 1648 vision, in which he is brought up in the spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God.

    • Steven, thanks for your insightful comments. Concerned about creating confusion, I had avoided the idea of virtue as power because of the proximity of Fox’s reference to “life and power,” but you express it very clearly, and you show how it ties in with the primitive Quaker experience to which Fox was referring. Thanks for the references to the books as well. I frequently recommend the books by Moore and Bailey, but I did not know of the Reynolds and King works. They sound interesting.

      Addendum: you might want to look at the (Calvinist-flavored) Geneva Bible, with its marginal notes (feared by King James, apparently). It appears that Fox was familiar with it. Here’s a passage from Romans 1 (from another post on this site) with a reference to a Quaker-friendly note in the Geneva Bible: “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them [‘in their hearts,’ the Geneva Bible’s commentary says]; for God hath shewed it unto them.”

  5. Thanks George (that’s ‘George’, not ‘James’!). That’s a clarifying response. I found it helpful.

    Best wishes,


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