Quaker Convincement and Experiment With Light

Experiment with Light (EwL) is “a Quaker practice which is based on early Friends’ discoveries. It was devised in 1996 by Quaker and theologian Rex Ambler, following his study of early Friends’ writings.”* EwL uses a guided meditation process, in which spoken prompts are interspersed with periods of silent waiting, that may help us experience something of what worship was for the first Friends. For some years, I have been a member of Experiment with Light groups in local Friends congregations. The conjunction of my EwL practice with my own reading of early Quaker writings has shown me the potential of the Experiment to facilitate Quaker convincement.

In contemporary parlance, “convincement” often refers to one’s finding Quaker values and practices congenial enough that one joins the Society. When the word is defined in that way, the suggestion that Experiment with Light can lead to convincement may seem almost trivial. But that meaning is just one of several, and an attenuated one at that. Experiment with Light can open a door to something much more profound.

Among the various meanings provided by the Oxford English Dictionary under the entry “convincement” is an unusual kind of definition, one that is peculiar to a peculiar people. “Convincement,” says the OED, has been “used by Quakers in the sense of religious conversion.” Why does the OED specify Quakers? Although “convincement” commonly signifies that one is persuaded of certain ideas, and “conversion” a movement from one belief system to another, for Friends those words have had richer and more radical significance.

“Convince” derives from the Latin convincere, a compound of con, meaning wholly, and vincere, to conquer. The English verb “convict” comes from the same Latin word. “Convincement” can connote one’s being convicted of error logically or factually, as in an argument. But in the seventeenth century, when Quakerism began, the word also carried the sense of being convicted of moral wrong, of evil. The latter meaning was essential to the Quaker concept of conversion (con+vertere: to turn wholly around).

The sine qua non of Quaker conversion was not, then, a change in institutional allegiance or beliefs, although such change might well follow. Perhaps surprisingly, given the assertion of some modern Friends that human nature is essentially good, conversion—convincement—for earlier Friends was a change of heart that began in one’s conviction of moral evil.

In Psalm 19, the psalmist prays, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” According to classic Quaker teaching and experience, the first work of the “Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (John 1:9) is to begin that cleansing by showing us the sinful—i.e., self-centered and consequently unjust—character of our nature. Conversion begins with the experience of being enlightened to the truth of oneself, the unwelcome truth which one had more or less successfully repressed (perhaps with the help of religion and spirituality), and it matures and bears fruit as one is increasingly surrendered to the continuing work of the Light within.

Quaker conversion involves, then, a response to revelation, but to revelation of a specific nature: of the evil abiding in every human heart and specifically in this heart. That revelation can be devastating, and it should be no surprise that the first Friends trembled—quaked—as the Light worked in them. Nor should it be a surprise that we normally deny or rationalize the reality of darkness in our hearts. Conversion is baptism into a more sincere, and therefore holier, way of being.

That baptism, that conviction of hidden sin, is the work of the Inner Light, which is itself hidden in us “until the day dawns, and the morning star rises in [our] hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). The revelation of darkness is also the revelation of Light. Robert Barclay expressed the experience in his An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678):

[T]he secret light which shines in the heart, and reproves unrighteousness, is the small beginning of the revelation of God’s Spirit, which was first sent into the world to reprove it of sin, John xvi. 8.

Before our convincement, the Light abides in us as a tiny, despised seed (as the early Friend Isaac Penington would say). But its glimmer, illuminating our darkness, is the glow of the spiritual power that can lift us out of that darkness. When we respond by accepting its truth and ceasing to constrain it, that seed of spiritual life and wisdom grows within us, converting our natural self-centeredness to radical relationality and thereby leading us into just and peaceable living. Barclay continues:

And as by forsaking iniquity thou comest to be acquainted with that heavenly voice in thy heart, thou shalt feel, as the old man, or the natural man, that savoureth not the things of God’s kingdom, is put off, with his evil and corrupt affections and lusts; I say, thou shalt feel the new man, or the spiritual birth and babe raised, which hath its spiritual senses, and can see, feel, taste, handle, and smell the things of the Spirit; but till then the knowledge of things spiritual is but as an historical faith.

Without convincement/conviction in the Quaker sense, conversion is the adoption of a different ideology by the same unregenerate hypocrite. But in the conversion of which Barclay and other Friends spoke, one is radically changed; that is, one is changed at heart. One may be “converted” to belief in specific doctrines as well, but that is not essential.

For not a few have come to be convinced of the truth after this manner, of which I myself, in part, am a true witness, who not by strength of arguments, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by this life; for when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed. And indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian, to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful, as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

In such passages, the original Quaker universalism is evident. What matters is not belief in narratives and doctrines—such belief “will grow up so much as is needful”—but enlightenment and empowerment by the spirit of Christ, a different, more relational way of experiencing and living which begins with the initially unwelcome revelation of darkness in one’s heart. Anyone who opens him- or herself to that revelation and to the inner power that offers it can be “born again”: the “old man”—the normal, narcissistic human being—gives way to the “new man”—the Christ-spirit—at the center of one’s sense of self.

And many that have [lacked] the outward [knowledge] have had a knowledge of this inwardly, by virtue of that inward grace and light given to every man, working in them, by which they forsook iniquity and became just and holy … [people] who, though they knew not the history of Adam’s fall, yet  were sensible in themselves of the loss that came by it, feeling their inclinations to sin, and the body of sin in them: and though they knew not the [outward] coming of Christ, yet were sensible of that inward power and salvation which came by him, even before as well as since his appearance in the flesh.

Today, some of us who may be ignorant or dismissive of the “outward” story of fall and redemption can nonetheless discover within ourselves the power of honest insight and effective justification through the practice of Experiment with Light. Even if initially we reject the idea that darkness works deep within us, the Experiment, by inviting us to allow the self-conscious mind to become quiet and the normally repressed unease in our hearts to come into consciousness, can over time open us to the experience of truth, of the real. And when we begin to see and accept the truth about ourselves in the light of the spirit that was in Jesus, then, as Barclay testified, the evil in us weakens and the good is raised up. That awakening to our darkness and rising out of it “in Christ” is, in the classic Quaker view, the essential beginning of the spiritual life. Experiment with Light, if conscientiously performed in context of the traditional Quaker understanding of convincement, can be a gateway to that new life.


* The opening description of EwL is from the Experiment with Light Website, where more information and resources are available.

This post is a modified version of an essay that appears in Issue 15 of the Journal of the Experiment with Light Network.

The music video (right) is of “The World of Silence” from Ned Rorem’s A Quaker Reader. I think that the music expresses a Quaker silence that is not blissful navel-gazing but a dynamic, even unsettling, experience of revelation such as is facilitated by Experiment with Light.

3 thoughts on “Quaker Convincement and Experiment With Light

  1. Thank you, George. I look forward to a chance to try Experiment with Light.

    I would like to add the practice of “stand[ing] still in the Light”, as a way to continue the revelation of sin and sinfulness AFTER convincement. I don’t have to hand this minute the wonderful passage from Fox in which he talks about those times when we are tempted and enjoined to stand still in the light in the face of that temptation, and when we do stand still in the Light, we are sent strength of spirit to resist.

    I had heard the phrase many times, but it’s full truth as practice was only revealed to me when I read Doug Gwyn’s recent book A Sustainable Life, in which he discusses this practice at some length. This is an aspect of Quaker practice that has inestimable value for day-to-day living, a practice available in the moment when the shadows loom close.

    • Thanks for your comment, Steven. I hope that you will write about your experience of Experiment with Light.

      I’m guessing that your reference is to Fox’s Epistle X, one of my favorites which is quoted elsewhere on this site:

      Friends,—Whatever you are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After you see your thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there does strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed and will fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after you see yourselves. Whatsoever you see yourselves addicted to — temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. — then you think you shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you what you shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help comes, contrary to your expectation. Then you grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. David fretted himself, when he looked out; but when he was still, no trouble could move him. When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here you learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then you tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.

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