In 1656, a Christian preacher named Immanuel Bourne, “who [called] himself pastor of a church” in Derbyshire, endeavored to refute Quaker ideas in his A defence of the Scriptures, and the holy spirit speaking in them. George Fox responded to Bourne in his book, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded. The following is an excerpt from Fox’s response, paraphrased for readability. Fox’s words lead me to a reflection on the simple essence of Quaker life.
“The kingdom of heaven is within you” doesn’t mean that Christ is in everyone, but only that the kingdom of heaven is within you, or among you.
As the apostle Paul said (2 Cor. 13:5), Christ is within except ye be reprobates [i.e., rejected as proven unworthy]; Christ is even, I say, within all professors [i.e., people who profess Christ but do not live in his Spirit], even in Christendom [i.e., the apostate church]. Christ is within them all, except they be reprobates.
If Christ be not within them all, they are all reprobates, but if Christ be within them all, then the body is dead [i.e., the body of sin: see Rom. 6:6 & 8:10, Col. 2:11]; and where that is so, there is Christ’s reign and his kingdom, and no Babylon or antichrist.
“The kingdom of heaven is within you,” said Christ: even in the Pharisees! And that is the kingdom in human beings which never consents to sin; it is like a grain of mustard seed, like leaven that leavens the new lump. And when anyone comes to know that little kingdom, and receives that little kingdom as a little child, the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of the Son of God — and know that no unrighteousness or ungodliness must enter into it.
Fox teaches that the kingdom of the Son of God — the reign of justice, mercy, and peace — is within us as a seed, a living potential, because Christ — the Logos-light that enlightens everyone; that which can be known of God — is within us in just that way. Christ, the scriptures tell us, is the power and wisdom of God, and God is love. Therefore, when anyone receives as a child — submits in trust to — the power and wisdom of love within her, then, as Paul said, “Behold: new creation!”; then the kingdom of this world, the reign of oppression, callousness, and violence, gives way to the heavenly kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace in her life. That submission is the sine qua non of the Quaker way.
To the extent that we are unable to receive that “little kingdom” as would a child, we are “professors” and “Pharisees,” more or less self-righteous ideologues for whom religion is a matter of correct opinions and values. The seed of Christ, the power and wisdom of love in our hearts, is trampled underfoot as we walk, heads high and steps firm, through the kingdoms of this world. But at some point, perhaps we are lucky enough to stumble. Somehow, we look down and see what we have done.
At such a point, we experience what the first Friends called a “day of visitation,” a moment when we are confronted by the selfishness and hypocrisy of our lives. At that time of judgment, we may surrender to the inward reign of love or we may find a way in which to continue as we have been. In the latter case, we may become reprobate: instead of permitting our incorporation into the body of Christ, we choose to continue in the dead body of selfishness, closing the door to life. And the door may not open again.
Therefore, Friends such as Fox urge us to be vigilant, alert to the manifestation of Christ in our hearts, and open to the possibility that the radical love we unthinkingly reject within ourselves is the very heart and soul of life. For Christ lives as a seed even within professors and Pharisees. Even within Christians. Even within nonbelievers. Even we can begin in hope to become more fully human, and therefore more divine, through faith in the power and wisdom of love that lives already, although hidden, in our hearts. Through faith — trust — we can come to live in that love. And to live in love is, in biblical and traditional Quaker terms, to live in Christ — in God. “For God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in her.”
We can, then, state the central Quaker doctrine and experience in this way: “except [we] be reprobates,” within us is a relational spirit that “never consents” to selfishness. That holy spirit, which we tend to repress, constantly critiques our attitudes and actions, saddened by our confusion of narcissism and love, wanting to awaken us to the divine power and wisdom waiting in our hearts. Friends call that spirit the inner light, the light of Christ within, and we understand our practice as opening ourselves to being searched and guided by that light.
Quaker worship is the most concentrated form of that practice. When we enter into silent worship, we intentionally bracket our habitual thought patterns, allowing them to subside in order that the light of Christ may show us the relational truth of our lives. We discern the difference between what we see in that light and what we see in the light of selfishness by a simple criterion: it is the light of Christ that shows us clearly where we resist love’s motions. When we see that truth and surrender in faith to the light that reveals it, we are worshiping “in spirit and in truth,” and it is in and through such worship that we are baptized into the body of Christ, the community of love in this world. Quaker worship is “faith working through love,” trust in and submission to love’s equitable, merciful, and peaceable motions. Over time, the attitude of worship comes increasingly to characterize our everyday lives.
The Quaker way is, then, the way of worship in spirit and in truth. To walk in that way is to walk intentionally and continually in the critical light of the power and wisdom called Christ — a truthful walking that takes us out of the unjust, violent world of selfishness and into the New Jerusalem. It is the way of spirit in lieu of law — in traditional terms, life in the New Covenant. Observable aspects of that way include what are sometimes called “testimonies”: integrity, simplicity, equality, peace. But Quaker testimonies should not be confused with principles or norms: an enlightened Quaker’s life is ordered not by standards but by love. She experiences the kingdom of God not as an ideal to be striven for but as a present spirit in which she lives.
The kingdom of Christ, where no unrighteousness or ungodliness abides, is within us as a seed. “And when anyone comes to know that little kingdom, and receives that little kingdom as a little child, the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of the Son of God.”