Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism

[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?”


[1] 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.

[2] Ben Pink Dandelion, Confident Quakerism (Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 410). All quotations are from pages 10 and 11.

[3] 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.

[4] Brinton, op. cit., p. 21.

[5] Fox, Works, Vol. 1, p. 75.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.)

[9] John 1:12, my translation.

[10] 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 ….”

[11] 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 ….”

[12] 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.”

[13] Romans 1:19, my translation. The verse is the source of the well-known Quaker phrase “that of God in every one.”

[14] Acts 17:28a.

[15] “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.

[16] 1 John 4:16b

[17] Fox, Works, Vol. 2, p. 163.

[18] Ibid., p. 375.

[19] Fox, Works, Vol. 1, pp. 375-376.

15 thoughts on “Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism

  1. Although I agree almost entirely with this post, I also agree with much of what Ben Pink Dandelion writes. I see the difference in mainly “semantic” terms although I do not like to gloss over differences by the term “semantic.” I believe there are clearly different psychological, emotional, etc. stages/differences that interpret words and experiences in slightly different ways.
    I like your evaluation of “experimentally” as related to “experientially” since I too believe Fox differentiated, properly, the two.

  2. Tom, I’m confident that we have more than a “semantic” difference between, say, a “direct, unmediated encounter with the Divine” and “a change in thinking that is mediated by scripture,” “a mental product of the interplay between scripture and life.”

    Given the centrality of the “there is one” pericope to contemporary Quaker self-understanding, its interpretation is crucial. If we say that it decribes a special “inbreaking” of God, then God comes to us from outside, which is why Pink Dandelion speaks of a difference between “inward” and “inner” on page 12 of his pamphlet: “Note,” he writes, “that Fox makes the distinction between having nothing ‘outwardly’ to help him and his experience of inward relationship. Note it is inward, not ‘inner.’ That vocabulary shift came in the twentieth century, dramatically redefining where divinity resides ….” But an older meaning of “inward” is “inner,” “in the soul”: the word “inward” can’t carry the weight that some traditionally theistic Friends give it. And Fox’s point in the pericope is precisely that we are not to look outside — “Lo, here! Lo, there!” — for Christ.

    I am convinced that Pink Dandelion is right that the question of “where divinity resides” is crucial for Friends, but I am convinced that he is wrong about the answer. And how we answer that question makes a huge difference in our individual and corporate spiritual life — and in our self-understanding as Friends. This is not to get into wrangling about metaphysics, theistic vs. panentheistic mythologies, or other speculations, nor is it to minimize the very real danger of narcissism (“I am divine!”) and naivete about human nature. But the important thing is that, as Paul taught George Fox, “that which can be known of God is manifest in them” — not in heaven watching over them, not on earth walking beside them, and not breaking into their minds from outside when he feels like it — or, as Maggie Ross puts it, “flit[ting] about like Caspar [sic] the ghost saying ‘Catch me if you can,'” an image which reminds me of the “The Presence in the Midst” painting that mars some Quaker meetinghouses. As heirs of George Fox’s wisdom, we should not be seeking anything beyond “that which can be known of God,” and that power is already present, recognisable, and accessible within us.

    Certainly there are long and strong traditions of more outward-directed thinking in Quaker history, if not already in the later George Fox, then clearly in Friends like William Penn, who was so dismayed by at least one of Fox’s typical statements — “Christ is not distinct from his saints” — that he was sure it was a misprint. (Some of us may see aspects of the apostasy of Christianity in all of that.) But if we are to base our faith and practice on the records of the original experiences, which is what the pamphlet proposes (and I agree, precisely because of the unique teaching of those records), then we must be very careful to read them critically and without the lenses of other theologies.

    So, again, it’s evident to me that Pink Dandelion and I are talking about very different approaches, very different views of Quaker faith and practice, in which the same or similar words have quite different meanings. Perhaps semantics, in the sense of the study of the meanings of signifiers, is something we need more of.

    • I will just comment briefly that the emphasis on “inner” would seem to be “liberal” in the sense that my inner self is all I need or see so that all I need to do is study my own navel (sorry for the hyperbole) and I can be enlightened. However, “inward” implies that there is “Light” that can and does shines on AND in me. Many of the “Liberals” that I know use “inner” to imply that all we need is our own “conscience” and what is “in” us and they avoid inward because that implies a Spirit that may exist “apart” of me rather than a part of me and each of us.

      • As I noted, there is danger of narcissism and naivete about human nature, among other things, but I don’t think that we can shape our interpretation of texts based on concerns about such misapplications. I think that the best chance at remedy is to go more deeply into the texts and allow them to critique contemporary views — which they can do as effectively in this century as they did in the seventeenth.

        “The light in the conscience,” for example, should not be confused with the everyday conscience, but a superficial reading of the tradition can lead to just that confusion. Fox tells us how to recognize the light: it’s that which we transgress when we follow the conscience we have naively accepted from our social group, when we do what we think is right according to (what we think are) our own beliefs. That’s something that liberal Quakerism often wants to deny, and so a compassionate ministry of the spirit will continually but gently hold it before the community, thus answering that of God in all of us. But such ministry must be done carefully and in full conformity with the original Quaker experience (which is still what liberals appeal to when justifying their belief systems): liberal Friends are likely to respond quite negatively to insistence that an external deity sets standards and makes demands on us — and rightly so, because that is a return to the religion of law. Postulating a God without is as dangerous as postulating one within.

        So I agree that liberal Quakerism has drifted into superficiality and narcissism — there’s plenty of critique here in this blog about that — but I don’t think that metaphysical arguments will change that, in part because liberal Quakers sometimes hold that everyone’s opinions about such things are “right for them” and so can’t be challenged. (Again, that’s something a return to the texts undermines.) And I don’t think that we can legitimately read our concerns, or our metaphysics, into Fox, however pressing the reasons — liberal Quakerism is an example of what happens when we do that. But there’s power in the texts, read with open minds and hearts, to take us beyond metaphysics and narcissism, and it’s only in the recovering of that power that I find hope for our religious society in the 21st century.

  3. It is true that Fox did not postulate a God without, but nevertheless he did know God and found him to be not simply immanent but also transcendent. There’s a passage early in his Journal about his being beset by a temptation, which said: “All things come by nature.” He “sat still under it and let it alone” and then he says, “a living hope arose in me, and a true voice, which said, ‘there is a living God who made all things.’ And immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away and life rose over it all, and my heart was glad, and I praised the living God.” This opening revealed to him that there was a God beyond nature.

    The great error in liberal Quakerism (and it’s one of pride) is the tendency to identify the best, noblest human capacities as being “that of God.” And so loving, compassionate feelings (Matt. 5:46) or avoidance of conflict (Lk.12:52) is mistaken for being God’s presence or will, while it is merely human aspiration. No one “hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven,” which is another way of saying: you can’t get there from here.

    In the apocalytic chapters (the apocalypse being, Quakers realized, an inward event) in the synoptic gospels (Matt.24, Mark 13 and Luke 21,) Jesus describes the difficult transition between carnal existence and spiritual Life as being one of utmost disruption and difficulty. He then concludes his speech by saying no one has control over when this event happens: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.” It is not we, as agents, that can simply “turn to the life of love within us.” However, we can prepare the Way: by seeing the man of sin revealed within, by making straight the paths, by hungering and thirsting after righteousness. But it is God that delivers us, a living God who makes us anew. And, like Fox, what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to the Scriptures. (The emphasis is on “afterwards.”) For Fox, revelation preceded scriptures, both for himself and also for the prophets who wrote them.

    • Thanks for your comments, Patricia. I’ll try to respond to each major point.

      Fox’s story of his temptation, which was triggered when “it was said, ‘All things come by nature,’” is one of my favorite passages: if we accept the chronology of his journal, it happened after the famous “There is one, even Christ Jesus” experience. I find it interesting that even after repeated revelations received directly from God, Fox could still give serious consideration to that idea — and in the 17th century, making me wonder (fruitless speculation, I admit, but interesting) what he might decide in the 21st. I don’t know why you bring it up in response to this post, however; I don’t think I made any argument either for or against theism in the essay.

      I’m not sure whether your criticism of liberal Quakerism is directed to me personally; if it is, you may want to read more in the blog. There’s plenty of criticism here about some of the same sorts of tendencies you decry, although I’m sure I could find greater problems than the one you’ve named. Try the “Liberal Quakerism” tag.

      Regarding your quotation from John 3:13, which in its entirety in the KJV is “but no man has ascended into heaven, but he that came down from heaven, [even] the Son of Man which is in heaven,” I suggest that your interpretation is not the only possible one nor even the most compatible with the writings of primitive Quakers. George Fox, quoting scripture, will tell you that the saints — that would be those of us who have passed from death to life — sit in heavenly places with Christ because they are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.

      And the saints are not distinct from him, for they sit with him in heavenly places, and he is in them, and they in him. And ‘Christ in you the mystery,’ ‘the hope of glory,’ and, ‘he is the head of the church,’ and so not distinct.” (The Great Mystery, p. 292)

      That’s how you get there from here: as Paul describes in Gal. 2:20, you continue to live, yet you are not you as you were, because Christ lives in you, and you live your life in his faithfulness. But to return to John 3:13: we can render the passage more closely as “and yet no one has stepped up into the heaven if not the one stepping down out of the heaven, the son of the [hu]man, the one being in heaven.” That fits very well, I think, with Fox’s favored question, which I quoted in the post, “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (Reprobate, presumably, signifying beyond redemption, as one who blasphemes against the holy spirit by thoroughly denying the light within.) In any case, note that Christ is simultaneously on earth and in heaven, just as are the saints, his body — for they are “not distinct.” If we are members of his body, then we are united with the one who stepped down, and therefore we step up with him, and dwell there with him, as well. (For another perspective on that, see the current post, “The Religion of the Broken-Hearted.”)

      How is it that Christ comes to live in us? Do we just wait around, maybe sweep up a little (but even that’s problematic; see below), until he decides to drop by and take up residence? No: “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent in us” (George Fox’s translation). The reality signified by the name “Christ” is already manifest within us. I can testify to you from my life experience that (if perhaps you can temporarily set your beliefs aside: I say that only because they seem to be telling you that this metanoia is not possible) one can turn to the love within one. For God is love, and “that which can be known of God is discernible in [you]” (Rom. 1:19); to turn in trust to the love within you is, therefore, to turn to God in faith. That’s how the Friends read the prologue to the “gospel” book of John, and it’s what made them universalists in the sense of affirming that even those who know nothing conceptually of God or Christ are justified — made one with the Just One — by turning to the same inner light that saved the Friends.

      When Fox spoke of “openings” that were confirmed by scripture afterwards, he was generally speaking of insights, or “revelations,” about how scripture was to be applied to present events, both external and internal. His emphasis on “afterwards” appears to be an attempt to stress the unmediated nature of those insights, which nature, as you will have gathered, I do not accept. (Which is not to say that Fox intended to deceive; we are aware of the vast and very active human subconscious mind now.) But revelation is not the same as justification/salvation. Abraham, for example, was declared righteous not because God spoke to him but because of his faith and faithfulness. To turn to the love within us is to make the act of faith[fulness] which brings salvation, for it is love that “delivers us [and] makes us new.” If you want to argue that it is God who inspires one to turn, I have no problem with that; in fact, given that God is love, I agree completely. (Given your stress on the divine transcendence and what looks to me like divine capriciousness, however, I would leave it to you to explain why proclamation and “answering that of God in every one” are necessary, effective, or even not blasphemous.) In the works of Fox and other primitive Friends, you will find many exhortations to turn to the light, the Logos of God-who-is-love, within. They made those exhortations because they knew, not only that such turning is possible, but that precisely that turning, that conversion, is our submission to the baptism by which we are reborn in Christ the image of God. And yes, being reborn ain’t easy. Simple, but not easy.

      The apocalyptic scripture that you cited, when interpreted “spiritually” or allegorically, could be read as saying that we don’t know when love will “convict” us (or, as Robert Barclay, in an attempt at biblical theodicy, would put it, when our “day of visitation” will begin or end). Again, I have no problem with that: when we turn to the love within us, it is because love has drawn us to itself. I would, however, point out that interpretation of those passages must be compatible with Jesus’ saying that “The Kingdom of Heaven is not coming in a visible way, nor will they be saying Look, here! or Look there!, for behold, the Kingdom of God is inside of you.” Note, by the way, that that was spoken, as George Fox put it, “to the Pharisees” (emphasis mine).

      “And I say” [Fox told a contemporary Pharisee/minister] “that is the kingdom within them [that is, within the Pharisees] which never consented to sin, and in you all, which one day you shall witness … which [one] must come to, before he be as a little child, and know the leaven … and the kingdom…. [A]nd where the diligent waiting is, the soul comes to live, and the everlasting covenant is felt.” (The Great Mystery, p. 256)

      As I said in the post, we wait upon that in which we wait. Even we Pharisees. Or, if you like, grace is ever-present, not capricious or evasive: he pitched his tent in us, and he remains as a seed (the seed promised to Abraham, one yet many), crying out to us, as James Nayler would say, to turn and be converted that the seed might grow and produce fruit a hundredfold.

      So unless the real issue is that you don’t accept the biblical teaching that God is love, I’m thinking that your argument about the possibility of our turning to the light within is with George Fox (et al.), not with me.

      Regarding your final points, I suggest that your dividing line is an artificial imposition (and that, by the way, the “internal” interpretation of scripture does not exclude the “external” for the first Quakers — you’ll find plenty of protestations about that in their works). Either we have some freedom of will or we don’t. If we can’t turn to love, then we can’t prepare “the Way” or make straight the way of the Lord: moving the problem back doesn’t get rid of it. Theologically speaking, Christ who already makes his dwelling in us (even if in the form of a “trampled seed”) is the Way, and what good we do, we do in him. It is love, the “divine nature and power” (Rom. 1:20), that accomplishes all good things, and love is already discernible within us — if we would turn and behold. If we don’t, we are “without excuse.”

  4. In claiming it is possible to turn to love, you need to distinguish between the saints and those who have yet to experience God. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus (Jn. 3:13), he was speaking to someone ignorant of inward knowledge of God, and Jesus therefore made the point repeatedly that he (Nicodemus) could not enter into the kingdom of God.The saints, on the other hand, do know God and thus know the Way and are able to “turn” and wait to receive him inwardly, as we are to do in worship.

    That initial knowledge of God does not come by any action that we ourselves intend. It is not within the purview of the will. It cannot be achieved. If you read further in that chapter, Jesus reveals both the problem and its solution, an answer to your question of why proclamation, answering God in everyone is necessary and effective. Looking at the text, we see that the light, though in the world, is not wanted; men loved darkness rather than light and will not come to it, lest their deeds should be reproved. Doing truth (notice he did not say turning to love) is the way to come to the light (21).The function of the prophet/proclaimer/answerer of God is to bear witness to the Truth, and this unveils what darkness has hidden.

    This is not a gentle process – not for the hearer, nor for the speaker once the hearer has been angered by having his sin uncloked. It is disruptive and difficult. It doesn’t resemble a gentle turning toward love, but it is an apocalyptic war of the Lamb. Yes, God is love, but the day of visitation does not feel like love. It is a dying to the self, being buried with Christ. I associate the easy notion of a willful turning to something pleasant and loving (let’s call it God; do we have consensus on that, Friends?) to be one of the travesties of liberal Quaker faith. It doesn’t gibe with Scriptures, nor with our Quaker tradition, nor with inward experience.

    Another question you asked was this: Why did I bring up the Journal excerpt about Fox learning “There is a living God who made all things?” I brought it up because I thought that the statement “Postulating a God without is as dangerous as postulating one within” indicated that you thought that a transcendent God was a concept rather than a reality, whereas the Fox story contradicted that assumption.

    Here is a statement of yours that focuses the difference between our points of view: “but that precisely that turning, that conversion, is our submission to the baptism by which we are reborn in Christ.” We may choose to undergo the baptism of repentence for the remission of sins, which is John’s baptism with water. But Christ’s baptism with the holy Spirit is not chosen by us; it is given. The “turning” that you refer to isn’t the conversion. The conversion from death to life occurs when “the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead…shall quicken [our] mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in [us] (Rom.8:11). So, the prerogative and action that allows for our regeneration is of and from the Spirit, not of and from our particular human wills and their turning. That seems to be the main point of contention but not the only one.

    There are others: for example the statement “Abraham, for example, was declared righteous not because God spoke to him but because of his faith and faithfulness.” The verse in Romans 4 is Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. I’d say that Abraham needed to hear God speak (know his will) in order to believe him. And so, the hearing/knowing is intrinsic to believing, which is the quality of justification or being accounted righteous. So, there is a line of connection between hearing/knowing God and justification.

    There are some words of William Penn that I came across recently in a 19th century book titled Friends in the Seventeenth Century. Speaking of the movement, he writes: “They came forth low, and despised, and hated, as the primitive Christians did, and not by the help of worldly wisdom or power, as former reformations in part have done, but in all things it may be said, this people were brought forth in the cross, in a contradiction to the ways, worships, fashion and customs of the world; yea, against wind and tide, that so no flesh might glory before God.” It’s important to remember that being “brought forth in the cross” is the way we are a people of God.

  5. Patricia,

    If you have not found it possible to turn to love, then I hope that, from your perspective, God has turned you. I have already agreed that it is possible to say in effect that “That initial knowledge of God does not come by any action that we ourselves intend” — or, as I would put it, that we turn to love because love calls to us. (Which calling, I perceive, may take the form of someone’s ministry or example, of their “answering that of God” in me.) The process I see described in the primitive Quaker texts is that love calls, we turn in response, and love takes hold of us and continues turning us. From there, the relationship continues; we mature in Christ if you will, until love is all in all. (Anything beyond that begins to look like Calvinism to me.) If that doesn’t go far enough toward protecting the initiative of the deity for you, then we can agree to disagree and move on.

    As for what such “visitation” feels like, that will be different for each person, don’t you think? Love feels like love to me, even when it hurts — sometimes especially when it hurts. Not everyone is angered by having his wickedness illuminated (was George Fox?), although it may be true that everyone is shaken; some are even grateful, having longed for truth and liberation. Perhaps you are confusing, or want to paint me as confusing, the biblical and theological concept of love with a popular idea of warm fuzziness. But I know too many people who have suffered greatly for their fidelity and witness to love to accept such a trivialization. Truth, love, justice, the gospel, the kingdom, the way, life, power, wisdom, new covenant, and so on is one, because Christ is one (see George Fox). “Doing truth” is walking in justice, which is what we do when we live in love, and why we can be accounted just. Those who do that are not surprised when the cross is raised for them. This is not about feeling good — in either sense. Or feeling that one is of the elect.

    A brief comment on the Abraham story: connection is not causation. Abraham archetypically responded to the call, and his faith and faithfulness in doing so indicated that he was a just man. He was accounted righteous not because God called to him, but because he chose to respond in trust and fidelity. If responding to love’s call is “not within the purview of the will,” then we’re back to Calvinism. Again, though, if we can’t agree here, then we can’t agree, and proof-texting won’t change that because we read the texts differently. (By the way, I don’t rely on the KJV, which, like all translations, is biased; I look at the Greek to see what was written — to the extent we can even know that — and then work from there. In that way, any bias will be my own.)

    Thanks for clarifying why you asked about theism. My comment, “Postulating a God without is as dangerous as postulating one within,” was not in the post but in a dialogue with another reader. My view is that any postulated God, internal or external, is a danger. The worship of conceptual idols, whether they are imagined to exist inwardly or outwardly, appears to be a source of many of the horrors of religion. Although I am not a theist, that is not an argument for or against theism, and it’s one that theists, too, have made.

    I don’t know what “being brought forth in the cross” means to you, but there is ample evidence in the blog, even in the dialogue you quoted from, that your heavily loaded phrase “the easy notion of a willful turning to something pleasant and loving” is not proposed here. Not all “liberals” are the same.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

  6. I have often seen in Fox and others, including myself, that “love is the fruit of faith, flows from it” (Works. 3:450). Never have I seen in scriptures or in readings of early Friends that one turns to love as a means of coming into right relationship with God. The danger is that the only love that the unredeemed know is fleshly (meaning solely of the natural, not spiritual life), and this love withers (Works, 7:129) unlike God’s love, which is unchangeable.

    Let’s let Stephen Crisp have the last word: “…many…are convinced of the truth of the doctirne…we preach.., but they do not get into the power of truth…, power that should enable them to work out their own salvation. These persons grow in knowledge but not in grace; they will embrace truth as far as doctrine and words go; they have professed it and…have suffered reproach for it, and yet they HAVE NOT RECEIVED THE TRUTH IN THE LOVE OF IT, they cannot reach the power of it…”

    • It seems evident to me that you don’t accept the (Johannine) doctrine that God is love. In that case, we are not members of the same religion, which is why proof-texts cannot help: as I noted previously, we read them very differently, or, if you prefer, they say different things to each of us — which is in the nature of reader-text interactions and is perhaps the main reason why there are competing Christianities among biblicists.

      There is a piece by Isaac Penington about love as the nature of God: it may or may not broaden your perspective, but in any case it’s beautifully written. It’s available here on this blogsite, at

      Thanks again for the conversation.

  7. Reflecting on this post, I am reminded of the distinction made between the two major schools of Buddhism regarding the experience of enlightenment. It seems that H. Brinton, Dandelion, et al., interpret the “When all my hopes” enlightenment of Fox as a sudden event, a Zen kensho of clear seeing, in the Mahayana tradition, after which he [Fox] is changed forever. TPQ seems to favor the gradual enlightenment school of Buddhism, the Theravadan tradition with its emphasis on scripture study and the traditions of the elders (primitive Christianity) which values the awakening of insight and wisdom. I think most Friends will agree with both of these approaches or understandings of enlightenment with some preferring more one than the other. And, in my experience a deepening and maturing spirituality usually, but not necessarily, involves both. Sometimes we are invited by spirit into the deeps and other times we fall head first with a loud splash.

    • George, thanks for your comments. I wouldn’t say that I favor either of those forms of Buddhism as examples of or for Quakerism. I find quite a difference between the original Quaker thought and experience, which is what the post addresses in speaking of Fox, and Buddhist thought and experience of any sort.

  8. Pingback: Inward Light, Inward Shadow | The Limits of History

  9. This article and the exchanges at the end are extremely interesting. I found this during a search for Quaker mysticism following a meeting for learning on Big Bang theory at the Miami Friends meeting that I attend.

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