[Revisions: 2/2012 and 7/2019] These notes were written as part of my preparation for presentations at Homewood and Little Falls Friends Meetings under the title “Mysticism, Experience, and Quakerism.” Thanks to Friends’ thoughtful questions during those presentations, I have changed the title and revised the first section in order to clarify the context in which I was working — namely, the modern doctrine that Quakerism has been from the first a religion of Neoplatonic-type mysticism.
“There is one”: Mystical Experience?
Before leaving the meetinghouse on Sunday, I visited the library and borrowed a Pendle Hill pamphlet, Confident Quakerism, by Ben Pink Dandelion. The pamphlet contains a section called “Six Stages of Early Quaker Experience,” and I wanted to see what Dandelion had to say about that. I discovered that he appears to accept the widespread belief that Quakerism finds its origin and center in a mystical experience reported by George Fox in his journal. I don’t mean to single out Dandelion’s pamphlet, which impresses with its open, confessional approach, for criticism; its succinct presentation of the standard liberal reading of Fox, however, offers a springboard for re-examining the validity of that reading and its consequences for the spiritual lives of Friends today.
Following is the relevant section of Fox’s narrative. Interestingly, in the pamphlet Dandelion replaced the penultimate sentence, as well as the concluding clause of the sentence that precedes it, with an ellipsis; I have restored the omitted text, putting it in italics, below.
And when all my hopes in them [i.e., priests, preachers, and “those called the most experienced people”] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do; then, Oh! then I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even [i.e., namely] Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” And when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let [i.e., hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.1
Dandelion interprets that as “God breaks into Fox’s [everyday] life, in God’s own time.” “This,” he writes, “is a critical [i.e., essential?] experience of direct unmediated encounter with the Divine,”2 and indeed that is how many of us have learned to read it — particularly in context of the Neoplatonic presentation of early Quaker experience in Howard Brinton’s ever-popular Friends for 300 Years. Dandelion’s phrase is almost a quotation of Brinton’s definition of mystical experience as “inward, immediate experience of the divine” on page xii of that book.3
But is Fox’s narrative a report of such an experience — is it a report, in other words, not simply of receiving an insight from God, but, as Brinton described Quaker experience, of “apprehending the inner Unity which exists beyond time and space, One as contrasted with the multiplicity recognized by the senses”?4 That is, is it a report of a monistic “mystical experience” as those have been popularly conceived at least since William James? Considering Fox’s words critically and contextually, I think not. Further, I argue that, whether or not we choose to categorize Fox’s report as relating some kind of mystical experience in the form of an audition, the textual evidence indicates that Fox experienced an opening into insight — insight mediated, as it were, through language, particularly scripture.
As we have seen in the George Fox Series here, Fox had earlier fallen into a depression triggered by the manifest failure of Christianity to produce just, godly human beings — and to assure him of finding the strength to resist whatever temptations assailed him. After a period of isolation, he had begun to seek answers to that “condition” from various sorts of Christian teachers. All had failed him. But he knew that he had an alternative. In the same long paragraph of his journal (as edited by Ellwood), Fox tells us that
I found two thirsts in me; the one after the creatures, to have got help and strength there; and the other after the Lord the creator, and his son Jesus Christ; and I saw [that] all the world [i.e., the creatures] could do me no good.5
When he acknowledged that his outward search had been futile, Fox realized that he would find power and wisdom only within, for Christ the power and wisdom of God6 dwells in his saints, and his saints are those who, as John 1:12 indicates, accept the Light that already shines inwardly by putting their faith in it alone. Fox had been tricked by the church into not realizing where his spiritual power — the power by which he was righteous — lay.
With that, another insight emerged: normative Christianity’s deceit and moral failure must be part of God’s plan. There must be a reason behind it all, a reason reflected in the inability of the “professors” to offer anything true and useful. That reason, Fox saw, was that truth cannot come from sinful beings: truth is not a teaching or doctrine but Christ himself, “the way, the truth, and the life.”7 Like Fox’s other “openings,” these seminal insights were interpretations and applications of scripture.
Fox reports the first insight’s emergence dramatically, writing that he heard a voice deliver it to him. (The hearing of a voice may not be the kind of experience that liberal Quakers hope to enjoy — or to base their spiritual lives upon. And yet we present it as just that.) Fox does not identify the source of the voice; it could even have been that of another human being, but it was likely the voice of his own mind, delivering a revelation that he felt was from God. In any case, he believed that the audition and the associated revelations were providential and correct. He “knew experimentally” that it was all true, for the insights, derived from the mutual illumination of life experience and scripture, had been proven through testing.8 George Fox had learned from hard experience that only the inward Light of Christ could lead and empower him.
He had sought spiritual power and wisdom from the representatives of Christianity, but they’d had none to give (although they believed and claimed that they had). Scripture says that Christ himself is the power and wisdom of God; clearly, those “professors” did not have Christ. They were false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Scripture also says that Christ dwells in saints, and one of Fox’s favorite passages for argumentation was 2 Cor. 13:5: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” Although he had been “shut up in unbelief” when looking outward for the power of Christ, Fox was not reprobate: in fact, he reported early in his journal that he was not a sinner, and his reports about his later struggles imply that he did not succumb to temptation even then. Christ the power and wisdom of God dwelt in George Fox, but Fox had been looking in the wrong direction and so had not consciously known what he had been relying upon. That misguided seeking had now come to an end. Accepting the Light, Fox put his faith solely “into his name,” thus receiving “the power to be becoming the offspring of God.”9
What we see here, then, is not that “God breaks into Fox’s life, in God’s own time”: God is never absent from Fox’s life. What has broken in is insight, a mental product of the interplay between scripture and life. That, again, is typical of what Fox called his “openings.” Rather than a “direct unmediated encounter with the Divine,” Fox’s experience involves a change in thinking that is mediated through scripture. What he has experienced is not God himself but a redirection to the locus of God’s activity, turning him away from the impotence of religion’s outward God to the power and wisdom, the Christ, in his heart.
The Mystery of Iniquity Revealed
As we saw above, Fox’s insight has also shown him why Christianity denies that locus. He now understands that God permitted Christianity to fall into apostasy almost from the beginning, and that he did so in order that he may be glorified through Christ’s coming in the flesh of his saints, who would call themselves Friends, in the seventeenth century. This, too, Fox knows experimentally. His rhetorical question (omitted by Dandelion), “Thus when God doth work, who shall let it?” recalls 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10, a passage in the KJV’s Christian scriptures where “let” is used in the sense of “hinder” or “prevent.”10
Now we beseech you … that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled … as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come], except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: even him, whose coming11 is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. [Emphasis added.]
Fox believes that he has had insight into “the mystery of iniquity” (an important phrase in primitive Quakerism’s theology and polemics): God has permitted apostate Christianity to flourish for many centuries through its evil means of imitation (“signs and lying wonders”) and oppression, but the time has come, as foretold in the scriptures, for that to end. Now, through the appearance of Christ in George Fox and the saints, the antichrist Christianity is to be unmasked and overthrown — “destroy[ed] with the brightness of his coming.”
Christianity is a demonic impostor, Christ the power of God lives in the saints, and there’s a providential reason why the former has eclipsed the latter for 1,600 years: that is the content of the revelation, mediated if not created by scripture and life experience, recounted by Fox in the “There is one” passage. The experience marks the death of Fox’s hopes in an outward Christ and religious system, the birth of his apocalyptic convictions (further discussion of which is beyond the scope of this post), and the beginning of his relying solely on the life, power, and wisdom of God in his heart. It does not mark the birth of a religion based on waiting for special experiences of God: to the contrary, it is a moment in the birth of a religion in which everyone has immediate access to God in all times and places, for Christ the power and wisdom of God is present, if only as a tiny seed, in everyone — “except ye be reprobates.”
What Then Are We Waiting Upon?
Again, what George Fox reports in the journal passage is not an unmediated mystical experience but an insight into the nature of religion and the locus of spiritual power. That insight changed his orientation, focusing him on the salvific power and wisdom of God as reliably felt within12 — on “that which is known of God shining within.”13 Understood in this way, the passage can indeed be “foundational and central to Quakers worldwide today” (Dandelion). For what the passage teaches us is to reorient ourselves here and now, without waiting for a special divine “inbreaking,” to the godly power and wisdom already active within us.
“We cannot summon God up,” writes Dandelion, “but we can remain open and mindful so as not to miss those particular moments of intimate encounter.” But there is no need for us to summon God or even to wish that we could, nor to defer our spiritual life while waiting for what we perceive as discrete encounters with God, “for in him we live, and move, and have our being.”14 For us, as for George Fox, God is never absent: “That which is known of God is shining within them, for God manifests to them” (see note 13). “Is shining” — right now, wherever we are. Encountering God is not a matter of waiting and looking but of beholding.15
When we do wait, as in worship, we wait not for the presence of God, which is already a reality, nor for a theophany or “mystical experience,” as if such a thing were necessary for our justification (that is, our living justly): we wait confidently (i.e., trustingly) upon the guiding and shaping work of the Light of love — that which is known of God-who-is-love16 — which already shines in our hearts. “In the measure of the life of God [within you],” advises George Fox, “wait for wisdom from God, from whom it comes.”17 Waiting upon that in which we wait, we will not know disappointment, and our waiting is one with our living in the spirit in the present. In an exhortation to Friends, Fox wrote:
In that which convinced you [i.e., “convicted,” revealed the unacknowledged evil in, you], wait; that you may have that removed [which] you are convinced of. And, all my dear friends, dwell in the life, and love, and power, and wisdom of God, in unity one with another, and with God; and the peace and wisdom of God fill all your hearts, that nothing may rule in you but the life which stands in the Lord God.18
In one of my favorite passages from his writings, Fox described such waiting almost poetically in a letter to “the lady Claypool (so called)”:
Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord, from whom life comes; whereby thou mayest receive his strength and power to allay all blusterings, storms, and tempests. […] Therefore be still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee, that it may raise thy mind up to God, and stay it upon God, and thou wilt find strength from him, and find him to be a God at hand, a present help in the time of trouble and of need. And thou being come to the principle of God, which hath been transgressed [by thee], it will keep thee humble; and [to] the humble God will teach his way, which is peace, and such he doth exalt. […] Now as the principle of God in thee hath been transgressed, come to it …. Then thou wilt feel the power of God, which will bring nature into its course, and give thee to see the glory of the first body. There the wisdom of God will be received (which is Christ, by which all things were made and created) and thou be thereby preserved and ordered to God’s glory. There thou wilt come to receive and feel the physician of value, who clothes people in their right mind, whereby they may serve God and do his will.19
If, as Fox advises, we still our seeking, turn to the life of love within us, and wait faithfully in, and only in, our present “measure” of that life, we find the wisdom and power we need to live justly. Here is no waiting and hoping for mystical experience, but simply a trusting response to the love that is already at work within our hearts. “Thus when God doth work, who shall let it?”
 George Fox, The Collected Works of George Fox, Vol. 1, p. 74 (1831/1990 edition), with punctuation slightly modified to accord with the version quoted by Pink Dandelion.
 Ben Pink Dandelion, Confident Quakerism (Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 410). All quotations are from pages 10 and 11.
 Howard H. Brinton, Friends for 300 Years (1952). Brinton, who defines Quakerism as “group mysticism” in the book, defines mysticism itself as “a religion based on the spiritual search for an inward, immediate experience of the divine” [page xii; emphasis added]. He later explains what he believes was the mysticism of the primitive (i.e., earliest) Quakers in markedly Neoplatonic terms, apparently reading the Friends’ references to “substance” and “figure” or “shadow” as more philosophical than biblical.
 Brinton, op. cit., p. 21.
 Fox, Works, Vol. 1, p. 75.
 1 Cor. 1:24. The entire passage from 19 – 31 is instructive and could well have been in Fox’s mind at the time:
For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
 See John 14:6. Robert Barclay, whose theology differs somewhat from that of the young Fox, had this to say in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Quaker Heritage Press edition, 2002, p. 144):
Though the outward declaration of the Gospel be taken sometimes for the Gospel, yet it is but figuratively and by a metonymy. For, to speak properly, the Gospel is this inward power and life which preacheth glad tidings in the hearts of all men, offering salvation unto them, and seeking to redeem them from their iniquities, and therefore it is said to be preached in every creature under heaven: whereas there are many thousands of men and women to whom the outward Gospel was never preached.
 Although we are sometimes told that Fox’s “experimentally” is simply equivalent to our modern “experientially,” I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Both “experiment” and “experience” date back to the mid-14th century, and both come from Latin words which, while different, mean the same thing: a trial or test. It seems to me that Fox’s use of the word carries that connotation — which is not to say that it does not also include the common sense of “experience.” In any case, contemporary concepts of “experiential mysticism” carry connotations that I don’t think we can simply read back into Fox’s thought. Unfortunately, while Ellwood and Penn use the word in their introductions to Fox’s Journal, this is Fox’s only direct use of it in his collected works. (He once quotes an opponent’s use of it in The Great Mystery.)
 John 1:12, my translation.
 The word is also used by the KJV in Romans 1:13, where it renders a different Greek word from that in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, but the Romans use does not appear to be relevant to Fox’s experience: “Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come to you, (but was let hitherto), that I might have some fruit among you also ….”
 Interestingly, in verses 8 and 9 the passage uses the noun parousia to refer to the presence/coming of both the Antichrist and Christ himself, reinforcing the image of the simulation of Christ by the evil one. The passage as a whole is reminiscent of Romans 1 as well, particularly verse 25, which can be rendered literally as “who change the truth of God into a lie, and are venerated, and worship the creation above the creator ….”
 In an epistle called “To Friends in the Ministry” (Works, Vol. 1, page 195), Fox wrote, “You, that know and feel the power, you feel the Cross of Christ, you feel the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.”
 Romans 1:19, my translation. The verse is the source of the well-known Quaker phrase “that of God in every one.”
 Acts 17:28a.
 “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). On “beholding” as inward seeing, see the “Exploring Silence” series by Maggie Ross at Voice in the Wilderness.
 1 John 4:16b
 Fox, Works, Vol. 2, p. 163.
 Ibid., p. 375.
 Fox, Works, Vol. 1, pp. 375-376.