Heaven and hell in Quaker preaching

09/03/2017 § 12 Comments

A recent Friends Journal issue (August 2017) has as its theme “The art of dying and the afterlife.”  There were two moving first-person accounts from Friends of their ideas and experiences relating to the afterlife, but the general tenor of the issue is not concerned with that aspect of death and dying.  This is very much in keeping with the modern Quaker narrative, which is that “we don’t pay much attention to that kind of thing. ”  We resonate with the famous story, told in many forms (here quoted from a curious tome,  That unknown country; or, what living men believe concerning punishment after death):

A mediaeval story runs that a venerable bishop met in the streets of the city a woman, with a face of fierce but solemn determination, and a rapid step, bearing in one hand a pan of burning coals and in the other a bucket of water. To the bishop asking her whither she was going she answered, ” With this fire to burn up heaven and with this water to quench hell, that men may learn to serve God for himself alone.”

The FJ issue put me in mind of an incident in my own life from a few years ago.  A member of a local meeting, at an advanced age, though not (as far as I know) in ill health, decided that the time had come for her to withdraw from life.  She adopted the method that Scott Nearing had used, ceasing to eat and then allowing the lack of nourishment to gradually enfeeble herself until death.  The Friend told her family, and her meeting. Although (as I recall) the meeting sought to dissuade her, she was quite clear, and in a sense very positive about the prospect.  She expected to be less and less engaged with people as the process continued, but she invited individuals to come keep her company during the last few weeks.

A friend of ours, not a Quaker but a practitioner of another path, volunteered to take a turn or two sitting with the Friend, and during the same time, expressed a desire to go with Darcy and me to worship at our meeting.  During the trip there, she expressed some strong discomfort with our Friend’s decision to cease living, and wanted to know the Quaker attitude towards such an action.  She also asked what the Quaker doctrine of the afterlife is.  Darcy and I did our best to explain that the Quaker focus is on the quality of the life now, and that the afterlife would take care of itself.  Something like that.

But the query got me wondering:  Is this lack of interest (or belief) in life after death and its nature a modern thing?  A liberal thing? An American thing?  Following my instinct on all such occasions to run ad fontes! (go to the sources! as we used to say in the Renaissance),  decided to explore early Quaker attitudes.  Many are familiar with the beautiful passages on death and the afterlife  in William Penn’s Fruits of solitude (some of which even appears as an epigraph to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).  One can occasionally find statements in controversial tracts, often written to prove Quakers’ essential orthodoxy against hostile accusers.  For example, George Fox the Younger (one of the First Publishers of Truth) writes:   I do steadfastly believe that there is a  glorious state to be entered into after this life, by all them that shall be found in the Immortal Seed, wherein they shall be swallowed up of Life, Glory, and Immortality [and] I do certainly believe that there is a woful [sic] dreadful, horrible state to be entered into after this life, by all them that shall be found in the Seed of the Serpent, wherein they shall be swallowed up of perpetual Torment and Misery, where the Worm dyeth not, but shall gnaw everlastingly, and the Fire goeth not out.   (written from prison in 1661;   In A Collection of the several books and writings…(2nd edition), 1665, pg 197.  The original typography is much more exciting than I can reproduce here.)

But it is often the case that Quaker truth was expressed very differently to those gathered with the Children of Light than it was in controversies with the unsympathetic.   I decided to look at Quaker sermons from the first few generations of Friends (before 1700).  There are more of these, taken down for the most part by anonymous inquirers with the gift of short-hand, than you might think – several by Fox, for example, and at least 32 by Stephen Crisp.  These were all sermons given at Friends’ meetings (most often at Gracechurch Street), and not primarily for “the world.”  This gives some sense, therefore, of how Friends communicated within the fold, so to speak, and where they placed their emphasis

I did a sort of random selection from collections in my possession (references at the end for the curious), looking at 41 pre-1700 sermons by a variety of Friends,  including 5 by Crisp, 9 by Fox, 9 by Penn, and also by Barclay, Dewsbury, Marshall, Stamper, and others. (These collections contained no sermons by women.)

My results:
A. In 27 of these I found references to heaven, eternal life, or the expectation of judgment after death. In short, early Friends could be said to hold to the testimony of the New Testament authors.

B. There is very rare mention of, or warning about, damnation. One example is found in a remarkable wedding sermon by William Penn, delivered Oct 3, 1694:

. We see God’s visible care over all the works of his hands. Here in this world, his goodness is extended to all, both good and bad:  he is kind to the unthankful;  he causeth the sun to rise upon the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust;  but in the other world, there is no shining of the Sun of righteousness upon the wicked and ungodly;  no comforts of the Holy Ghost, no manifestations of love vouchsafed to them;  but there is a revelation of wrath, and the fiery indignation of the Almighty.  (in Harmony pg. 103)

In the sermons there are lots of references to eternal life, or life everlasting, or salvation, but —and this message is familiar to modern Friends — the general tenor of these is such that they are linked rather with the invitation to live NOW under the guidance of the Spirit, in unity with Christ, and with the things making for spiritual death expunged by the inward work of Christ’s spirit and light.  So also did Robert Barclay teach, when he wrote in the Apology about the “day of visitation” that each of us is given — the days of our lives, in which we are to work the works of God, for “the night is coming when no man worketh.”  (John 9:4)

We have become accustomed to talk about the first Friends as being “apocalyptic,” as the first Christians were, living in a high pitch of focus and moral clarity in the expectation of the imminent arrival of the End of the World and the final victory of Christ over death and evil. Large scale.

But just as frequently — and in these sermons, far more frequently — the emphasis is on this “day of visitation,”  for me or you,  our own personal apocalypse.   The point is the reminder that every day we have an opportunity to choose the way of life or the way of death, and (to quote Johnson) “Who knows if Jove, who holds the score, will toss us in a morning more?”   Whether you hold with the traditional view of heaven and hell (I don’t!), the essential Quaker message still carries power: The Spirit says come!  Now is the time to “be found in the Immortal Seed.”  

That thy candles may always be burning: Nine pastoral sermons of George Fox. Edited by M. Skinner and G. Stillwell, published by the New Foundation.

The harmony of the living and heavenly doctrine demonstrated in sundry declarations…preached at the Quakers’ meetings in London, by William Penn and others.  New York. 1822, published by Refine Weeks.

The concurrence and unanimity of the people called Quakers as evidenced by some of their sermons. (2010) edited by P. Burnes and THS Wallace.  A New Foundation Publication.  Note that this collection is not the same as the previous one, whose title is perhaps modelled on this, originally published in 1694 by Andrew (and Tace) Sowle.

Scripture truths demonstrated in thirty-two sermons; or declarations of Stephen Crisp. 1787. Philadelphia:  Joseph James.


An appendix to the foregoing

Some years ago, having agreed to offer some comments on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I had to confront the question of the afterlife, since Paul makes it so important a part of his Gospel message.  I had never been put on the spot about this before, and it caused me some inward labor.  I finally came to a resolution which more or less still speaks my mind:

In a world where power resided in kings and priests, and in their subordinates and hangers-on, Jesus told us that we are all kings, all children of the only king that matters. This kingdom is not exclusive, nor is it rare, or localized.  It is pervasive, like yeast in a loaf, or weedy mustard, and although it is all around us, it is hard to see because we look in the wrong places. You cannot achieve greatness in this kingdom except by service, but laborers who work all day may get no more reward than latecomers who barely break a sweat. Fairness is not a value there.

In fact, the poor, the weak, the sorrowing — their world is where God rules. It is somehow  also inhabited by the merciful, by those who do not claim their rights, by those who seek concord where discord arises when they might avoid it or exploit it to their advantage. This kingdom is full of unsavory characters, and is very near to the land where death and life run side by side, and in fact entering it fully requires you to shed deci­sively the shape of life as common sense has built it up.

Even the inborn structures from which we build society, which can mediate love and right action, have a different meaning in this kingdom; you can’t hold on to father and mother, spouse or children in the same ways, because they, too, are subject to rule by the Father in this king­dom, and we do not own them anymore (as if we ever did).

Yet despite its furtive character, the kingdom may be found, if you seek it, and in it there is great joy, for we find that every loss is recompensed with gain, and all the things that matter to us are restored to us. There is nothing so small that is not price­less, and all is meant for joy. It is true that all the structures that make for security and self-assurance are of no avail in this kingdom, but then in the end they are of no avail in the unredeemed world, either. And in the new world, we can find salvation….  Salvation is not an event, it is a place, it is something that is ever happening anew, and yet it’s a place to reside.  When I find the center, when I am still and open, I find myself in God’s harmony, and since time is not a property of God, when I am there I am adjacent to eternity, and if that is what is waiting for me when my body falls away, I am eager for it, and I know it will seem familiar.




§ 12 Responses to Heaven and hell in Quaker preaching

  • Ellis Hein says:

    This is a mostly-nuts-and-bolts comment. You have mentioned a couple of books available through the New Foundation Fellowship. Our literature distribution is changing from Terry Wallace’s hands to Dan and Lucy Davenport of Portland, Oregon. That process should be nearing completion and I hope will not entail any interruption of service to those who order books.
    My wife and I have been hosting a monthly conference call in which the participants read and discuss the sermons in That Thy Candles May Always Be Burning. These have been very provocative discussions. I am glad to see you also have found this volume to be useful.


  • briandrayton says:

    Thanks, Ellis.
    I am grateful for the NFF’s work.
    I would think the “Concurrence and unanimity” would also be a good book for group study.


  • martinkelley says:

    Great research! I definitely would have been interested in including it in the issue if you had written it before August. 🙂


  • briandrayton says:

    Thanks, Martin– The notes were lying around, but your issue pushed me to revisit — though still pretty informal. Finding the passage from George Fox the Younger made me aware that there’s probaby a whole dissertation’s work out there… Especially since there were a lot of radical ideas rattling around in revolutionary Britain that might relate to Quaker attitudes.
    And of course the 18th and 19th century would be additional fields to investigate — and to relate to their religious landscapes.. Anyone out there wanting to do this work?
    The point for me, actually, is not heaven and hell, which does not stir my pulse – but changing attitudes towards the nature and preciousness of the soul…

    Liked by 1 person

  • Thank you for this post. My “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God'” is explicit in its view that the ‘immortal Seed’ was indeed, to the Early Friends, God but also the ‘Kingdom of God’. This Kingdom was also God, Love (they had their own words), and its manifestation took the form of a Lamb’s War ‘for righteousness sake’. I think the EFs were aware that ‘righteousness’ included justice. Many of their writings are either directly or indirectly concerned with justice for themselves (as a ‘people in scorn’) and others. In well over 90% of their works published between 1652 and 1663, the Kingdom is mentioned prominently.

    Liked by 1 person

  • briandrayton says:

    Nice to hear from you — hope we get to meet sometime!
    Thanks for this comment.
    I would only add that it is remarkable how — as in modern Quaker language — the “Kingdom” can most easily be read as speaking about a presently enjoyed experience or condition (or at least presently enjoyable). This is in contrast to a lot of other Christian preaching, in which “Kingdom” really has a future valence (and therefore we can be excused from living according to its ethic now). Quaker perfectionism breaks down that barrier. I conjecture that early Friends mostly took it as understood that in the Light and Seed you can live in the Kingdom now (having experienced the first, spiritual resurrection), which moreover is needful for the second, final future resurrection of the body — the only personal resurrection that most Christians think of. But I think many modern Friends don’t think in those terms, and though they can use the “living in the kingdom now” language, the connection with the afterlife mostly doesn’t occur to them. That resonance was lost — in sort of the way that many resonances are lost when some modern Friends speak of Spirit or Light, but make no connection with Christ. (What was it Bernard Shaw said about the Americans and the British — two peoples divided by a shared language?)


  • In my unscholarly innocence I find that the life of a Friend as I experience it
    whether now or before, did(does) not depend upon any particular
    Doctrine of the afterlife up or down. There is a compelling use of the metaphor(s)
    to point towards the reality and Presence of the Divine
    in the present time…in other words, to encourage the seeker
    towards that Inward Light (and so toward the master of Time after all),
    so that whatever sacred experience one has, now and forever (if there is forever) is in the Everlasting Arms…This experience is Good…
    Thereby placing the fire and the water onto the ground,
    leaving the hands free, open and unweaponed
    to give and receive in a wholly human manner…
    Did Fox (whose words I love) believe in the Afterlife?
    Shall we argue about it?
    or examine it as an interesting part of his thinking….
    Maybe he did….so what? Maybe he didn’t…No Doctrine of any consequence is at stake
    that I can find….
    And how many genuine Friends do you know
    would assert something they had literally no experience of
    and could not have any experience of
    until they were dead….
    Does it assuage bearing the Burden of the Christ
    to have the future look bright and eternal?
    Or does the Eternal have to be Now…
    (I admit now I have read some stuff)
    Those old metaphysics are tricky……..

    What a post my Friend!


  • briandrayton says:

    Thanks for this, Eric, you put your finger on the essentials.
    And we need to be very clear in our own minds about the reason we read the First Friends, or anyone else we consult. They speak from the day of a new “Gospel day dawning,” and so I find it useful to feel (as I can) how something was seen in that perspective, by those prophets. They would be the first to tell us to try all things, and hold fast to what is from the pure Spirit, constrained by the basic commitment that it is the spirit of Christ, rather than the spirit of the age, or some least-common-denominator triangulation.
    Also it helps just to have a feeling for what is meant by Quakerism at various times.

    * * *

    I am now drawn to think about Erasmus, as one so often is. He wrote famously that he loved reading the early Fathers because they were focused on the life of the Spirit and the gospel, and doctrine was a lot less fully formulated — there is a freedom, even a wildness, that feels so fresh and refreshing. Heresy was not such a big thing. But then, he reflects, in subsequent times, there did arise various opinions (and external attacks, too) which were harmful enough to require an answer, and so doctrine was helpful — but also a dangerous temptation away from essentials. Here I append two of my favorite quotations:

    “Thou shalt not be condemned for not knowing whether the Spirit which proceedeth from the Father and the Son consists in one principle or in two ; but thou shalt not escape destruction unless thou shalt make it thy endeavour to possess the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, meekness, faith, modesty, continence, chastity. . . . The sum of our religion’is peace and concord ; which cannot easily be maintained unless we define but very few points, and in the greater number leave every one free to form his own judgment….

    “ In old times faith consisted in the life rather than in the profession of a multitude of articles. By-and-bye it became necessary to impose articles of faith, but these were at first few in number and of apostolic simplicity. Subsequently, in consequence of the dishonesty of the heretics, the sacred volume was subjected to a more severe investigation, while their obstinacy com pelled the definition of some points by the Synods of the Church. At length faith ceased to be a matter of the heart, and was wholly transferred to written documents ; and there were nearly as many forms of belief as there were men. Articles increased, but sincerity decreased. Contention waxed warm, charity waxed cold. The doctrine of Christ, which at first repudiated all strife of words, began to look to the schools of the philosophers for protection: this was the first step in the decline of the Church.”


    • Ellis Hein says:

      I am finding two people named Erasmus mentioned in church history. One lived sometime around 300 A.D. the other was a contemporary of Martin Luther. Which Erasmus do you refer to and where do you have access to his writings? Which ever one of the above you are quoting sounds like an interesting person.


    • As one so often is…


  • briandrayton says:

    Hi Ellis–
    I mean Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), “Prince of the humanists,” and a personal hero of mine. Don’t get me started! His most widely-read work is “The Praise of Folly,” but he has had a lasting impact because of his edition of the New Testament in Greek, his editions of the Church Fathers, the Colloquies, Adages, the Handbook of the Christian Soldier, and Complaint of Peace. Indeed, he was the first great Christian pacifist to question Augustine’s “just war” theory. He was also one of the great letter writers.
    Anyway, here is some bibliography. I am giving more than you may want, because I don’t know quite what you’d be intrigued by.
    1. An excellent short bio is by Roland Bainton, “Erasmus of Christendom.”
    2. There are various anthologies of his writings — the one I quoted can be found in John Olin’s “Erasmus:C hristian humanism and the Reformation” — (the preface to Hilary’s works was written as a letter to Jean de Carondolet, a patron of his). Another short work that is in the same anthology is his preface to the Gk NT, entitled the “Paraclesis.”
    3. For my money, the best exposition of his religion can be found in Sylvia Fitzpatrick’s “Erasmus and the proess of human perfection,” a most lovely book, and also M. Screech’s great “Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly.”
    One reason I often think of Erasmus is because he lived at a time of great religious pluralism, and advocated a Spirit-centered Gospel meant for all, and accessible to any. He was not naive at all, but both deeply learned and deeply mystical in a way that recalls Origen, his favorite early Father. He inspired or provided tools for many of the Reformers but refused to separate from Catholicism (he wrote movingly on the “seamless coat of Jesus”), yet argued against persecution of Luther etc.
    I first encountered him in high school Latin class (catholic high school), and he helped me prepare for my CO case before the draft board. He’s been over my desk ever since!
    I guess I’ll stop there, before I get too warmed up.
    His birthday is coming up (Oct. 27th)– Last year I wrote a blog post on the anniversary, and I’ve been wondering about what to write this year. Now you’ve really got me thinking…


  • Before reading this, I produced some written ministry that is somewhat related, though it is specifically about the behaviour and discourse of British (liberal) Friends. I only posted it this morning, as I wanted to read it over and make sure I hadn’t mangled anything. I though people reading this post might be interested in it: https://quakeropenings.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-irrelevance-of-life-after-death.html


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