Walking Cheerfully Over the Facts
As interim Webmaster for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF), I was updating that organization’s site when I noticed a quotation on the home page:
“Walk cheerfully over the earth answering to that of God in everyone.” — George Fox
That exhortation, although usually without the “to,” appears on other Web pages and blogs on the Internet, too, some of them belonging to Friends affiliated with QUF. I’ve also found it in other Quaker instructional materials; I’ll make reference to one of those, a classic Pendle Hill pamphlet, later in this essay. Whatever the mode of publication, the saying is almost always carefully attributed to George Fox, the putative founder of Quakerism. Presumably, at least some readers will accept it as a central prescription of Quakerism, ponder its meaning, and attempt to put it into practice — trying, perhaps, to be amiable, conciliatory people who appeal to good will and honor a divine principle (whatever that might be) in every human being they meet.
It is certainly a rich and challenging exhortation; however, it’s not one that George Fox actually gave. It’s what is left of a statement that has been lifted from its original context in his writings and modified in a number of ways. As a result, it paints erroneous pictures of Fox’s teaching and the Quaker faith and practice from which it came.
Before restoring the fragment — mark (as Fox would say): fragment, not sentence — to its native setting, which is a written sermon or epistle called “An exhortation to Friends in the ministry” in Fox’s Journal,1 we’ll review and repair the modifications in approximately the reverse order of importance. We’ll then be able to examine the statement in context and consider what Fox might have been saying to the Quaker ministers (that is, to Friends who devoted much of their time to spreading the Quaker message; the Quaker understanding of ministry is another topic I hope to discuss here in the future).
First, the original’s “every one” has become “everyone” — a very minor change, but one that can lead us away from the individual to the general or collective. Second, the word “to” has been inserted. “Answering to” has a different connotation than “answering.”
Third, Fox’s Journal has “world,” not “earth.” That may be significant. As students of the Bible will know, the term “world” in Christianity signifies the realm of evil and death in which unregenerate human beings exist, as in the very apposite saying of the Johannine Jesus:
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The substitution of “earth” is understandable, because in the preceding sentence of the epistle Fox had referred to “all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come”; but apparently he used “world,” and, given his evident if implicit reference to the verse from John, Fox most likely had a reason for choosing that word instead of the other. (I like to think, too, that he enjoyed double-entendre.) In any case, when quoting a person or text, we — especially we who make a “testimony” of integrity — are not free to change words. Unqualified quotation marks mean, or should mean, “This is exactly what the person/text said.”
Fourth, and most important, the passage, as we have already noted, is not an independent sentence in the original. It is a fragment which, in being re-made into a stand-alone sentence, has been not only modified in other ways but also truncated from both ends. Here is a longer segment of the sentence with the beginning restored. (Note the ellipsis at the end: Fox wasn’t finished at “one.”)
“Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one ….”
Simply by restoring “Then you will come to,” we can see that the passage is not the exhortation it had seemed to be. Evidently, Fox was not urging us to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one,” but to do something else which would result in our walking thus. What might that be?
An Exhortation — to What?
In working toward an answer, if only preliminary and brief, to that question, we will need to experience at least some of George Fox’s epistle from which the popular fragment has been lifted. Given the need for brevity in the blogging format, I will not reproduce all of that epistle here, but it is available at the Quaker Electronic Archive (link opens in a separate window). In order to obtain a much fuller context for the poor truncated thing with which we began, readers of this post may wish to read the epistle in its entirety there before continuing, but I will provide some extracts here.
In the power of life and wisdom, and [in the] dread of the Lord God of life, … dwell; that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding the deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life …. Spare no deceit. Lay the sword upon it; go over it. […] Let them know the living God; for teachings, churches, worships must be thrown down with the power of the Lord God … 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. […] 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 ….
The answer we begin to see in Fox’s epistle is likely to be uncongenial for many of us. The Quaker ministers are exhorted to live every moment in the power of the life and wisdom of God, and in the dread, and even terror, of God as well, thus being a dread and terror to others to whose lives, conduct, and religion the Quakers’ are a reproach. They are to “tread and trample all that is contrary” to truth — truth being the living spirit of Christ in human hearts — and “lay the sword upon” all deceit. (That’s a metaphorical sword: in this same epistle, Fox says, “Keep yourselves clear of the blood of all men, either by word or writing ….”) “[T]eachings, churches, worships must be thrown down with the power of the Lord God,” the power in which the Quakers live — “and [those] who are in that [power], reign over it all.”
That last phrase is very significant. Fox asserts more than once that Quakers are “over all.” In context of themes that permeate his writings, we can read that as meaningful on a number of levels. Dwelling in the power that is Christ, the Friends are kept “above” “the world” in a moral and psychological sense, in being kept free from sin and above the occasions of sin;2 they are also “over” the world, and over unregenerate human beings, in an ontological and even metaphysical sense, because they are one with Christ the judge and “sit with him in heavenly places.”3 In other words, Fox asserts Friends’ moral and spiritual superiority as well as the powers of judgment4 and spiritual dominion which inhere in that superiority. The Friends have been reborn in Christ and therefore have dominion over sin; that is, they are morally perfect. They are reminded to abide in that perfect life in Christ and thereby to “reign and rule with Christ … whose dominion is over all to the ends of the earth.” As they would before Christ the judge, “the inhabitants of the earth … tremble”5 before the Quakers, in whom they meet God’s judgment: the Day of the Lord is at hand.
Fox is clear that the job of the Quaker minister is to bring not peace but a sword. Elsewhere, he writes:
The ministers of Christ and the prophets of the Lord, who spoke his word, spoke in synagogues and in markets, in highways, and under the hedges, and upon the mountains, which disturbed the world, and all professors upon the earth [who] had the words of truth but were out of the life; and they disturbed the heathen that knew not God. […] The ministers of Christ preached up perfection, and an overcoming of sin, and a being made free from sin ….6
Again, these are images that we, too, may find disturbing, even those of us who, unlike me, are Christian theists.
With that introduction, we look now at the section from which the popular statement is taken.
Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh … that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn …. For the chaff is come upon the wheat by transgression [i.e., sin]. He that treads it out is out of transgression, fathoms transgression, puts a difference between the precious and the vile, can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner; so brings to the lively hope the immortal soul, into God out of which it came. None worship God but who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God. So the ministers of the spirit must minister to the spirit that is in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; that with the spirit of Christ people may be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, to serve him, and have unity with him, with the scriptures, and one with another. This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.
Although the conjunction of images such as trampling and walking cheerfully may be confusing, by this point in our enquiry Fox’s teaching should look quite different than it often appears in modern Quakerism. Fox’s words raise serious difficulties for the popular contemporary reading of “walk cheerfully over the world/earth, answering that of God in every one,” a reading epitomized by Howard Brinton’s anachronistic framing of it as an “instruction” for Friends to engage in “‘intersubjective dialogue’ or an ‘I-thou’ (rather than ‘I-it’) communication” with others.7 This is communication of a different order.
To Answer That of God
As we have seen, Fox admonishes the Quaker ministers to “be valiant for the truth upon earth; tread and trample upon all that is contrary” and to “be a terror to all the adversaries of God [in particular, “professing” Christians, especially ministers], and a dread ….” In practice, he says, that means “answering that of God in them all,” “awakening the witness, confounding the deceit, gathering [them] out of transgression into the life, [into] the [new] covenant of light and peace with God.”
Just over forty years ago, Lewis Benson published an essay called “‘That of God in Every Man’ — What Did George Fox Mean by It?”8 Writing a critique of that essay has been on my to-do list for a few years, and it must remain there for now. [Update: see my post of 9/2/2013.] But I can state here my opinion that Benson was certainly correct in tracing “that of God in every one” to the first chapter of Romans.9 (I don’t think that’s the only scriptural referent in the phrase, but I do think it’s the principal one.10) Here are two spelling-updated renderings, the first from the King James Version and the second from the Geneva Bible, of verses 18 through 21 of Romans 1. I provide both because Fox may have known both translations.
 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;  Because that which may be known of God, is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him from the Creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal Power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse:  Because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (KJV)
 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness of men, which withhold the truth in unrighteousness.  Forasmuch as that, which may be known of God, is manifest in them: for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him, that is, his eternal power and Godhead, are seen by the creation of the world, being considered in [his] works, to the intent that they should be without excuse:  Because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was full of darkness. (Geneva Bible, with, among its marginal notes, the phrase “in their hearts” after the word “in” in verse 19)
“That of God in every one” is, then, “that which can be known of God … manifest within them.” And, in the immediate context of Paul’s argument, what can be known of God in us is God’s power and divine nature; that is, “the power of life and wisdom” in which Fox exhorts the Friends to abide. The Quaker ministers, by their life and conduct, are to “answer,” respond to, the call of that divine power within others. The Day of the Lord, the day of judgment, being at hand, Fox proclaims in his epistle that
The call is now out of transgression[;] the spirit bids, come. The call is now from all false worships and gods, from all inventions and dead works, to serve the living God. The call is to repentance, to amendment of life, whereby righteousness may be brought forth, which shall go throughout the earth.
The Quaker knows that the same inner Christ who called her to acknowledge her sinfulness and who led her “out of transgression” and into his “life and power” is calling within the other. If, as is likely, the other person is not responding to that call, is “trampling” the promptings of Christ within; if, although given the opportunity to see the true nature of self and sin in the light, that person cannot give “the answer of a good conscience toward God”;11 then through her manner of conducting herself, which includes her speech, the Christ-led Quaker responds as if on the other’s behalf, declaring the deceit and sin in which the other is living. The Friend’s manner of life and speech is a moral reproach, a mirror in which the other’s true condition is revealed as it is illuminated by the light of Christ. In that mirror, too, can be seen the “seed,” the potentiality, of divine power in the other: the Quaker is a living testimony that salvation is a real and present possibility, and thus she points the other to the living Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” within, the power that gives actual freedom from sinfulness. In that way, the Friends lead people out of the world, “out of captivity up to God.” (From that point on, “then is the planting, watering, and increase from God.”) Their ministry as parts of the body of Christ is to cooperate in “the work” of Christ within others by modeling, mirroring, challenging, and pointing.
If walking “over the world, answering that of God in every one” involves being “a terror … and a dread”12 to the many who profess Christianity but do not live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars” (a statement which we’ve previously discussed here), if it means that “the inhabitants of the earth … tremble before you,” how is that done cheerfully?
To Be of Good Cheer
Sometimes, Friends have quoted a slightly longer, although usually still truncated, passage from Fox’s epistle. Some of us are familiar with this as an isolated instruction:
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
It’s a little longer, but, except that it does let us see that something leads up to “walk cheerfully,” it’s not much better. In this format, the passage may seem to invite us to provide our own version of what and how our “life and conduct” are to preach. But Fox has clearly described the what and the how in other parts of his epistle. I think that’s an especially important point, given that Friends, if not aware of the teaching in that epistle, may tend to reason backwards from what they imagine “walking cheerfully over the world” means to how and what their lives should preach. Regardless of which version we are more familiar with, then, it behooves us to examine the phrase “walk cheerfully” in its original context (and to remember as we do so that “walk cheerfully” is not, on its own, an instruction or exhortation).
We have already discussed the meaning of “world,” and we’ve noted that “world” and “cheerfully” are related in John 16:33: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” We can see that the terms find their meaning there in connection with “tribulation” — persecution and other forms of suffering. In exploring further, it may be helpful to look at a different translation of that verse: the following (with, again, updated spelling) is from the Geneva Bible, with which, as we’ve noted, Fox may have been familiar.
These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace: in the world ye shall have affliction, but be of good comfort: I have overcome the world.
Instead of the KJV’s “cheer,” the Geneva has “comfort.” And here is the Geneva’s marginal note on “that in me ye might have peace”: “That in me you might be thoroughly quieted. For by ‘peace’ is meant here that quiet state of mind which is completely contrary to disquietness and great sadness.”
In biblical usage, “cheerfully” is much richer and deeper than “in a good mood” or “amiably.” I know that Fox read some Greek, to the point of feeling able to dispute accepted translations of words and phrases, but I don’t know how well he read it. If, however, he had read John 16:33 in the Greek, he would have found that “be of good cheer” renders a single word, tharseite, which literally means “be ye couraging,” or “be ye having courage.” A clear example of that sense is Matthew 14:27, in which Jesus, walking on the storm-tossed water, says to the frightened disciples, “Be of good cheer [tharseite]; it is I; be not afraid.”
We should note, too, that Fox was fond of the Pauline saying, “God loves a cheerful giver,”13 and “cheerful” in that sense means willing; ungrudging; enthusiastic. A momentary substitution of these two senses may help us draw out connotations that Fox was likely to have had in mind: “Then you will come to walk enthusiastically and courageously over the world ….”
It seems to me that “walk cheerfully” most likely harbors the sense of a generous, bold, and courageous willingness to “go through the work” despite adversity, a willingness that is born of the deep joy and inner peace, persisting even in suffering, of living in the power and purity of Christ. And that exegesis is reinforced, I think, by the fact that at the end of his exhortation to the ministers Fox wrote of persecution: “Therefore ye that be chosen and faithful, who are with the Lamb, go through your work faithfully in the strength and power of the Lord, and be obedient to the power; for that will save you out of the hands of unreasonable men, and preserve you over the world to himself.” We also have such instruction as this from the Journal:
[I]f any brother in the light … be moved of the Lord to go to the priest or impropriator, to offer himself to lie in prison for his brother, and to lay down his life that his brother may be released, he may cheerfully do it, and thereby heap coals of fire upon the head of the adversary of God.14
Fox as Pattern and Example
A classic illustration of Fox’s Quaker ministry as described in the epistle is the anecdote15 that we discussed in Perfection and Pacifism. Fox, about to be released from prison, was offered a captaincy in the army. 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.
But the others pressed him to accept the position.
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. But I told them, if that was their love and kindness, I trampled it under my feet.
Fox made that retort knowing the likely result, and indeed he was imprisoned, in a very unpleasant cell, for an additional six months. But I think there can be little doubt that, from his perspective, he had cheerfully answered that of God in them, not only by his words but also and especially by his willingness to suffer for the work of Christ.
Pondering that incident, we may feel some empathy with Samuel Butler, who described a Quaker as one who “believes he takes up the Cross in being cross to all Mankind.”16 But Fox would have believed that he was engaged in the saving ministry of the spirit of Christ, that in heaping “coals of fire upon the head of the adversary of God” he was “answering that of God in them.”
A Tentative Restatement and Conclusion
We are now far from the kind of message often derived from the popular misquotations. I’ll take a stab at summarizing Fox’s exhortation on the basis of our explorations:
Friends, live faithfully in the divine life and power within you. Know that in that pure life you reign spiritually over all with and in Christ. As ministers of and to the Christ-spirit in each and every person, go throughout the world, in joy and courage despite hardship and persecution, confronting false religion at every turn and answering, by your manner of acting and speaking and your willingness to suffer, that spirit’s call in others — challenging them to acknowledge their deep-seated evil and duplicity, to reject their ersatz religions, and to submit to the purifying and empowering light of Christ in their hearts so that they, too, may completely overcome sin and live, as you do, in his divine life and power here and now.
Except in an encounter with another saint, our “answering that of God” is the response of the realized Christ, the power of God-who-is-love, within us to the as yet unrealized, “transgressed” Christ within the other. And I say another saint in all seriousness: Fox’s exhortation to do that which brings us to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (whether amiably or crossly) is first of all a call to moral perfection. As should be evident from our discussion here, according to traditional Quaker experience and teaching we cannot answer that of God in another until we have answered it in ourselves as fully as possible according to our “measure” (our current capacity, as it were: this is another traditional concept that I hope to explore here) — that is, until we have submitted to the exposing (“convicting” is the classic term), purifying, and guiding light within us so thoroughly that we are living saints; until we live, no longer we, but Christ lives in us. Until then, lest we fall into an unwitting, perhaps group-thought, hypocrisy, we should be quite focused on our own condition, keeping in mind that such admonitions as the following, which was written by James Nayler, another prominent Quaker founder, would likely have been directed toward at least some of us, who “plead for sin” and are facile at rationalizing our own self-centeredness and attachment to the values of the world.
[T]hat which is of God [within you] lies under [your sinfulness], in death and captivity, and bonds of iniquity, and so thou canst not have power, nor the promise, nor salvation … and so art not of the promised seed, but an enemy to it, and by thy lusts and pleasures and self-will art in Pharaoh’s state and nature, keeping the seed of God in the house of bondage, and dost not pity nor regard the cries thereof, which cries against thy pride and excess, envy and wrath, and all thy wickedness by which thou oppressest the seed of God in thee ….”17
The question of what we might make today of the Quaker call to sanctity and its ministry invites our exploration. I encourage Friends to hold Fox’s words in your minds and hearts “cheerfully” and generously, and not to give way to any impulse to write them off as irrelevant 17th-century religious ranting. I am confident that, by informed and open-minded study, reflection, and discussion, we can find much more of value in the exhortation than might be apparent during initial shock at its alienness. In the meantime, as a people who have talked cheerfully over the earth, misquoting that of Fox to everyone — and perhaps distorted his thought in constructing a more or less new belief system under his name (a project, by the way, that probably can’t be legitimized by an acontextual use of the doctrine of continuing revelation) — it may be that we need someone or something to answer that of God in us. Approached with respectful, open (which is not to say uncritical) minds and humble hearts, the writings of our spiritual ancestors can offer us that kindness.