Library: Letters etc. of early Friends

A.R. Barclay (1794-1845), a descendent of Robert Barclay “the Apologist,” was a passionate and scholarly evangelical, who was deeply acquainted with the history of Friends.  He lived at a time when theological innovation (the rise of evangelical Quakerism in Britain) stimulated re-interpretations — by traditionalists, progressives, and evangelicals —  of the “true message of early Friends.”  While some (like the Beacon) did this to argue that on key points early Friends were theologically unsound or deeply confused, however venerable,  Barclay sought to reconcile his understanding of the Gospel with that preached by Fox et al. , and to claim that they were really in agreement with him (more or less).

Barclay went past the well-thumbed works (like Fox’s Journal and the Apology), and dove deep into the little-known trove of documents from the beginnings of Quakerism. Indeed, it has seemed to me that no one surpassed his knowledge of those materials until William Braithwaite undertook his great histories in the early 1900s.

Barclay’s scholarship produced two works that heavily influenced later Quaker developments:  the Letters &c of Early Friends, and The inner life of the religious societies of the Commonwealth. The latter was left unfinished at his death (“the Author having been removed by death after a short illness, when a few sentences only remained to be written,” as the Prefatory Note says).  It is a good deal more interesting than one might suppose from the title. He had more interest in the development of the discipline — especially of the roles of ministers and elders — than many Evangelical Friends did, and despite his strong polemical intent, he had something of a historian’s eye (see his rather astonishing chart,  tipped in at page 548 of your copy  of historical developments and corresponding changes in membership, or his treatment of Quaker dress, for women Friends of different classes).

The book influenced J.S. Rowntree’s Quakerism Past and Present (1859), which in turn played a role in developments that resulted in the transformation of British Quakerism in the 1890s, and continued to be read and cited by scholars well into the last century (and I have benefited from it myself).

But perhaps even more important was Barclay’s collection of  Letters &c of early Friends, which I have now added to my Library, downloaded from Google.  (It may also be found in vol. XI of the Friends Library.) This work is a loosely organized collection of primary documents, in three sections (I quote):

I. Historical, or Letters which illustrate the history of the Society of Friends, as regards events, services, or sufferings, in London, and “in the Country,” with some few relating to Ireland.

II. Documents illustrative of the early discipline and testimonies of the Society.

III.  Epistles of Counsel and Exhortation to the Churches, &c. “ is hoped that some of these selected epistles (believed to be now for the first time printed) will be truly acceptable to not a few readers in this day.  The letters and epistles of Alexander Parker, have been more largely taken, as but few of the writings of that eminent Friend have come down to use in print.

Not an easy work to read through from front to back, but as one dips in ad libitum, one encounters many old friends first met as excerpts in books of Faith and Practice, or Quaker histories.   Although thanks to the interwebs it’s not hard to find, you have to want to find it.  I place it here so that all you have to do now is want to read it.







Luke 8:18: Pay heed to how you hear.

Yet another entry in the long catalogue of “things I have been slow to notice.”

One of the best things about reading the Bible in another language is that it makes you slow down.  Reading Luke in Greek,  I came to a passage that is famous for its obscurity:  “Whoever has, it will be given to him;  whoever does not, even what he seems to have will be taken away from him.”  (gender as in the original: Βλέπετε οὖν πῶς ἀκούετε: ὃς ἂν γὰρ ἔχῃ, δοθήσεται αὐτῷ, καὶ ὃς ἂν μὴ ἔχῃ, καὶ ὃ δοκεῖ ἔχειν ἀρθήσεται ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ.).  The verse occurs after Jesus has explained the parable of the sower to the apostles, followed by his admonition not to put your light under a bushel, and to remember that everything said in private will be shouted from the rooftops.

This passage has been commented on, of course, but not to my mind with much insight.    Here is William Barclay, a fairly solid evangelical commentator:

Luke 8:18 lays down the universal law that the man who has will get more; and that the man who has not will lose what he has. If a man is physically fit and keeps himself so, his body will be ready for ever greater efforts; if he lets himself go flabby, he will lose even the abilities he has. The more a student learns, the more he can learn; but if he refuses to go on learning, he will lose the knowledge he has. This is just another way of saying that there is no standing still in life. All the time we are either going forward or going back. The seeker will always find; but the man who stops seeking will lose even what he has.

Good commentaries set their target verses in context, but most commentaries on this passage (that is, the ones I know about, not a large number) seem to widen their scope only to the immediately previous lines. On the one hand, this is reasonable since as in other places in the gospels we seem to have a collection of items that have been assembled in composition with a fair amount of disconnect — what have these few verses to do with the preceding parable, which is a significant and extensive teaching?

Moving at my snail’s pace, by the time I  arrived at verse 18, I had not yet forgotten the path there.  After the parable of the sower, the gospel provides us with a glimpse “backstage” — The apostles are unsure about the meaning of the parable, and Jesus says (verse 10), To you it is given to know the meaning of the kingdom of God, but for the others [to know] only by parables, with the result that looking they don’t perceive, and hearing they don’t understand.

The last phrase echoes passages in the prophets, diagnosing the lack of spiritual (and ethical) understanding of most people (no wonder they don’t heed the warnings and the invitations from God!).  However, I was struck by the echo between verse 10 and verse 18, the repetition of the verb  “look”  (in both places, it is the same word, blepo (βλέπω).  

In the first occurrence, in verse 9,  Jesus is talking about people who are not able to see below the surface of things.  And here we have a teaching, I think, that modern people resist:  that the full Gospel is not readily apparent, and our understanding of it (most importantly, our ability to let Christ dwell in us, and transform us) does not come all at once.  Experience makes a difference, and that is as natural in spiritual growth as in any other kind of growth.  Sylvia Fitzpatrick writes (drawing on Erasmus’s paraphrase of the gospel): Jesus told the apostles that they were allowed to know the truth but that for those people who were ‘excluded from the inner circle, all is conducted in parables, whether I speak or act before them. For they do not have suitable ears or suitable eyes.

More than once through history, this idea has been taken to mean that Jesus had some esoteric teaching available to the few, establishing somehow a hierarchy within the spiritual body.  It is so easy for the judging part to get up, and draw distinctions in the spirit of competition, of scarcity, when this is so antithetical to Jesus’ invitation to abundant life, the ever-flowing well of living water!

The key is walking on the path of faithfuless as it opens, so that our eyes and ears grow more and more sensitive and discerning — partaking of the banquet along the way as we have capacity, assured more and more by our experience that all are invited to full understanding, and that the diversities of gifts and insight we find in our fellow travelors is itself a gift, and affirmation of the promise.   Seeking to follow the way, you can grow aware of what you have learned already — and so you are able to receive new insight that reinforces and expands on what you already have discovered.  Otherwise, the parables we encounter  (whether they come in words or in experience) will profit us nothing.

Erasmus in wrapping up the whole passage, closes the loop between the two states of seeing, disarms the fear of exclusivity,  as he completes his paraphrase of this passage:  Do not think that it is my wish to keep always a secret what I now entrust to you in secret… At present I hide many things from the multitude because they are not capable of understanding, and even if they were capable, the time has not yet come. Truly, when the time comes, there is nothing so secret among us but it must be divulged; nothing so arcane but it must be openly preached to all.*

It seems to me that Friends need to continually remind ourselves not to let our worship and our practice become customary, searching inwardly for where the Seed is opening sweetly and quietly, and being eager also to see and encourage growth in each other.  At times, indeed, this will mean finding those with whom we can speak the current truth of our hearts.

I close with a familiar passage from Woolman’s Journal that feels closely connected to the thoughts above:

As I lived under the cross, and simply followed the openings of Truth, my mind from day to day was more enlightened; my former acquaintance was left to judge of me as they would, for I found it safest for me to live in private and keep these things sealed up in my own breast.

While I silently ponder on that change wrought in me, I find no language equal to it nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it.  I looked upon the works of God in this visible creation and an awefulness covered me; my heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me.  This will be understood by such who have trodden in the same path. Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance, and some appearance of right order in their temper and conduct whose passions are fully regulated.  Yet all these do not fully show forth that inward life to such who have not felt it, but this white stone and new name [cf. Rev. 2:17] is known rightly to such only who have it. (28-29 in the Moulton edition)

*Fitzpatrick, Sylvia. Erasmus and the Process of Human Perfection: The Philosophy of Christ. Stauros. Kindle Edition. Locations 4467-4470








“Your faith has rescued you”: a morning meditation

In the seventh chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is invited to a respectable house to dine. The dinner is interrupted by a woman whom the host knows to be a “sinner.” She brings an alabaster jar of myrrh, settles at Jesus’ feet, and undertakes what clearly is an act of regret and reverence: weeping, she kisses and anoints his feet, wiping them with her hair. After a plain-spoken exchange with his host, Jesus concludes a little parable with the statement that her many sins are forgiven because she has loved much. One can draw lessons from the story so far about pride, and the importance of love (agape) in the hierarchy of virtue.
But this morning I was struck freshly by Jesus’ words directly to the woman: “Your faith has rescued you; go in peace.” This is a phrase that Jesus uses not infrequently, when he is healing. A standard interpretation, which is what I have carried around in my head, is that the woman is forgiven because of her faith in Jesus, as a sort of reward for acceptance of his numen, his teaching, or his mission.  This fits with the prior story, in which the analogue of “sin” is “debt.”

This morning, however, I hear another message in what Jesus says.  When he tells someone “Your faith has made you whole, has healed you, has rescued you,” he is saying that they have faith.  However empty their hands, or heavy their afflictions, this one thing is at work in them, which enables them to see a path to more abundant life: “The just shall live by faith (Habb. 2:4).”  Moreover, they have (even by touching the hem of his garment in a crowd) acted on that faith (as Bill Taber construed the prophet’s words, “The just shall live by faithfulness”)  And in these stories, Jesus is turning the focus away from his own agency to the evidence in the seeker that the divine author of faithfulness is at work.  (“Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Luke 18:19).

Modern Friends often abbreviate “the gospel as traditionally understood by Friends”  to some such dry phrase as “everyone has access to the divine.”  I often worry that this unintentionally (?) puts the emphasis on the human agent and flirts with the language of ownership and individuality. In the unwary, it can reduce a multidimensional message to a simple one more easily accommodated to our complacency.

The power that works in us does seek our opening to it, however tentative  — “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” —  yet it often is working where and as we cannot see.  Our inward, unspoken poverty or hunger is invitation enough, and the Word of judgment and consolation can enter, cleaning and opening the springs of life.  Therefore, saying “In case you didn’t know it, you have faith, you are not abandoned, and the evidence is that you came here to me” is itself a powerful gift (a gift full of power), and can be a healing one, and a door to hope, of which we so much stand in need!

*    *     *

This is one root of the power of the Quaker message:  God is at work, and you can see the evidence, even in your trials, your regrets, and your longing for hope, and for transformation: Come and see where the pearl of great price glows for your enrichment!

Here a passage from James Nayler’s Love to the Lost (in the section on “Justification,” and the immediately following one on “Hope”).

faith… is the gift of God, believes in the light, and follows it, and so leads to the life; and this faith that stands in the light and life, is the living faith, never without works, which works are love, meekness, patience, mortification, sanctification, justification, &c., the works of God in Christ Jesus, in which God’s workmanship is seen in the new creation, received in the faith, and in the obedience, to which the soul is purified, and victory witnessed over the world, sin and death….

Hope is a gift of God, and is pure, showing the purity of God, and His righteousness in Christ Jesus, the beholding whereof stays the soul from joining to the wicked one, when he tempts, because he sees in the light a better work to serve; so that until the time of that work being fully manifest, the hope is as an anchor to stay from following the unclean one, and so keeps out of the sin, and so makes not ashamed, even then in the time of want it hopes against hope.

When that life of Christ is not yet seen in its full power, yet it is evidenced in the hope, which is wrought in the patience and experience, whereby the love appears and the faith works…  And this is that hope that enters within the vail, into the holy place, where the life and immortality is brought to light, which the mortal eye nor carnal senses cannot approach to.

And this is the living hope, which hopes to the end, that Christ and His righteousness may be revealed, to take away sin, and save from it, and out of it; and in hope of this, the children and babes of Christ wait in the obedience of the Spirit…but as He who has called to that hope is holy, so in His holiness is their conversation who are in His hope.

Library: Harvey “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording”

Finally I’ve turned back to my “library” section, and am pleased to offer a short article by T.E. Harvey which I have found very valuable over the years, “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording.”

A little context:  The great movement to re-energize Quakerism in the late 1800s and early 1900s was more than a Quaker version of the “social gospel,” more than a revisiting and reinterpretation of Quaker theology and history, and more than an engagement with modernity (especially issues of labor and equity,  the challenges of modern science, and the insights of Biblical scholarship).  These elements were there, of course;  as was a desire to move past the divisions and parties of the Age of Separations.

In among all these strands, however, was a mission to build up and unleash a ministry (preaching and teaching) that drew nourishment from a robust encounter with the times, and also offered spiritual and intellectual resources for that encounter. A recent study by Alice Southern argues that the Rowntree Series of Quaker histories were in part intended to educate and encourage this ministry — but this is old news. A.R. Barclay,  J.S, Rowntree, J.W. Rowntree, Edward Grubb, John William Graham, Neave Brayshaw, Rufus Jones – these and other leaders of the Quaker aggiornamento wrote powerfully about the need for the renewal of Quaker ministry, and argued that the decline of the ministry was a contributing factor in the decline of the Society in the 19th century.

One outgrowth of the desire to encourage a more adequate ministry was a debate that raged for at least 3 decades, about whether the institution of the recorded ministry was outmoded, and even harmful — the reasoning being that it inhibited some Friends from making their contribution to the liveliness of worship.  In 1924, London Yearly Meeting ended the practice, though it continued naming elders.

Harvey’s little article is an interesting reflection about 20 years after this action.  As a young man, he had been in favor of abolishing the recorded ministry, but his meeting recorded him anyway, and he accepted the meeting’s discernment.  When the Yearly Meeting moved to lay down the process, Harvey united with the decision.   This background makes his reflections particularly valuable, since he had, as it were, been on all sides of the question, both in opinion and in experience.

The bits I find most valuable in this essay are two:  [1] his examination of the question, Has this change had the effect we hoped, leading to a stronger and more widely shared ministry? and [2] what benefits of the old system (as he could report from experience) had just been lost?

This article, and others of its ilk, got me thinking, long ago, in terms of functions and processes that make for a healthy religious community — rather than specific organizational machinery.   I encourage you to read it, and maybe pass it around your circle of friends for conversation.

Perfection and hope: A meditation for Erasmus’s birthday

While wondering what to write about for the birthday of Desiderius Erasmus, I happened upon a book by Naoko Saito entitled The Gleam of Light:  Moral perfectionism and education in Emerson and Dewey.   As Saito expounds it, the notion of perfection as a practical moral aim, and its relation to growth and human flourishing, is both akin to, and different from, the human perfection that Erasmus advocated  — and that Quakers preached and suffered for in Puritan England.  

Saito’s reflections are rooted in a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.  As Saito shows, Emerson saw this “gleam of light” as a powerful and precious resource for renewal and authentic creativity.  This “gleam of light” is “transcendent,” in that it pulls us out of our selves as we have realized them to date, inviting us into growth — a progressive discovery of our true selves, a perfectionism without final perfectibility (Saito, pg. 3).  It is also “prophetic,” in that it enables us to see the delusions and evils in which we are enmeshed (personal and societal). We are diminished when we allow ourselves to be distracted, or to cede to our culture or our associates so much of our inward life and consequent actions, that we lose the ability, and even the desire, to watch for and respond to that light.  In Emerson’s view, our tragic, conventional blindness to the “gleam” is at the source of much moral weakness and human waste.

John Dewey, as Saito perceives, extends (reconstructs) this idea in ways that have direct implications for ethics, democracy, and education. Along the way Dewey, often rebuked as an over-optimistic thinker, conveys quite powerfully (to my mind) the tragedy of the human condition, which in the modern era is only reinforced by an individualism whose moral compass is never calibrated through moral critique (aided and abetted by political and economic processes whose preferred material is an isolated, conventional individual). Dewey’s philosophy, which has (among others) Emersonian roots, is not “optimistic” so much as “melioristic.”  That is, he believes that humans can, through an inquiry process that is deeply engaged with the world, move towards an increasingly just and humane society. Nor is this a solely a matter of will and mind.  For Dewey (like Emerson) places the imagination (“the chief instrument of the good”)  at the center of human health: The new vision does not arise out of nothing, but emerges through seeing, in terms of possibilities, that is, of imagination, old things in new relations serving a new end which the new end aids in creating.

“Perfection” in this account takes the form of a person’s complete faithfulness to the vision of the good that they have been given so far.  And this will often require, may necessarily require, an abandonment or rejection of one’s prior ways of thinking and living, the grief of self-denial and conflict in the emergence of new life.

Now, a Quaker reading this will find much that is familiar: [1] the practice of watching for the light; [2] the transcendent nature of the light (including its effect of “detachment” or self-critique); [3] the potential prophetic nature of the light; [4] its social dimensions;  and [5] the relation of the work of the light to the “death of the old person and birth of the new,” to paraphrase Saito — and the foundational Quaker commitment to Christian perfectionism, which casts it as a growthful and progressive idea.  All this sounds very much akin to the “Emersonian moral perfectionism” that Saito explores in depth.

The Quaker echoes are not surprising.  Sharp-eyed readers like Rufus Jones, Yukio Irie, and Frederick Tolles have noted that Emerson was well acquainted with Friends he admired, and read (for a nonQuaker) pretty deeply in Quakerism — including the journals of Fox and Woolman, and Sewell’s History (in which the story of James Nayler anong others captured his interest).

Emerson will not have overlooked the foundational Quaker doctrine of perfection, the trust that God’s call to the beauty of holiness is not a cruel tease, but rather a clear directive and orientation for the Christian life, which is realized in each person according to their measure, as Barclay beautifully articulated in the Apology, Proposition VII:  In [those] whom this pure and holy birth is fully brought forth, the body of death and sin comes to be crucified and removed, and their hearts united and subjected to the Truth: so as not to obey any suggestions or temptations of the evil one, but to be free from actual sinning and transgressing of the law of God, and in that respect perfect: yet doth this perfection still admit of a growth; and there remaineth always, in some part, a possibility of sinning, where the mind doth not most diligently and watchfully attend unto the Lord.

Quakers (at least those seeking to understand and live the Gospel) have always argued that this “perfection,” and the process of being reconstructed or transformed  by which it is enacted (living in the Cross, following and conforming to the spirit of Christ), is integral to the Gospel’s teaching, and God’s plain intent for us.  Moreover, while Emerson and Dewey leave open to inquiry the direction of growth, the Gospel supplies orientation, guidance, and clear criteria, based on its fundamental commitment to love  — of God and one’s neighbor.

It is comforting and inspiring when we can recognize that this is not only an eccentric Quaker interpretation.  This brings us back to Erasmus, born on this day in 1469 (or maybe 1466).  Sylvia Fitzpatrick explores his teachings on Christ, human nature, and their mutual relations in her book Erasmus and the process of human perfection:  The philosophy of Christ, which I discovered and read a few years ago with great delight.

She argues that Erasmus’s “philosophy of Christ,” a Patristic phrase he revived and enriched, “is not some mysterious and unintelligible religion” for the learned (after all, he preached to fishermen, housewives, tradespeople, farmers).  Fitzpatrick:  he said, “this philosophy easily penetrates into the mind of all, an action in especial accord with human nature.”   He went on specifically to equate the process of Christian perfection with the perfection of human nature when he asked, ‘what else is the philophy of Christ, which he himself calls a rebirth, than the restoration of human nature orginally well formed?’..he said there is no one of any race who is without the law of God.  (all these quotes from Fitzpatrick, pg. 53).  The method of salvation was open to anyone, not only through the Scriptures (and the great complex parable of the Incarnation), but also by means of the operation of the Logos in each human being and in creation. (pg. 32)  Like the Quakers, Erasmus did not believe that an unassailable perfectedness was possible while we yet lived — yet he trusted, taught, and tasted the reality that we can be free of our allegiance to sin, or (to put it another way) we can become fully cooperative participants in the life of Christ, embodied (as Friends would say) in his saints.  Though I doubt Fox ever read Erasmus, Barclay and Penn surely did;  but the consonance of their views of the Christian life I think is less one of direct scholarly influence; rather, they were following recognizably the same Guide. I found Erasmus before I found Friends, and have been glad to find that as a Quaker I could continue to feel that older friendship intact and indeed enriched.

I conclude with a note on hope, perhaps the most essential nutrient for the modern human.  Too often we think of hope as directed towards some specific accomplishment — “What is you hope for?” — and our hopes are all too often dashed to bits in the machinery of this world.  Yet all four of the teachers I have reflected on today are deeply hopeful — because, I would argue, of their reverence and watchfulness for the gleam of light.  Emerson and Dewey, deeply educated in Christianity, found themselves leaving it behind, and though they fashioned more “universal” philosophy which (I think) is healthful, rich, and challenging, their systems have flaws that result from their unmooring of their “gleam” from the Light of Christ within.  Fox and Erasmus (among others, including myself) found in that Light, Wisdom, and living Word a spring of hope — of life, indeed, which is often discovered when outward hopes are seen to be built on sand.  Pardon me for  quoting from a thing I once wrote, about hope in the face of climate change:

We have not confronted the spiritual challenges of climate change until we recognize that some of our grounds for hopefulness are false, and that we need again to ask where the Holy Spirit and the Gospel story (including its later, Quaker chapters in some of which we are appearing right now), can be found in the midst of it all.  At such a time, indeed, we are challenged to bring our grief and our need before the Living God. Many Friends have experienced surprising grace when driven to such an extremity, seeing that many of their props and resources were unreliable  —”When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do…”  We cannot tell God what to do, but we can know some things about how God moves among us.

When false hopes are removed, true hope can be discovered. It may be that our calling as a people is to be intentional about descending into the depths as we encounter them, and then waiting there for the power to call out in thanksgiving and in a hope that lives without any illusion of control.  If Friends as a people could testify first and foremost to the Spirit from which we learn love, and the grace of a thankful heart, then indeed we can speak both power and love to our frightened, angry, disoriented time. The speaking will come with power as it comes from a life empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and as we open to true concerns, our work will bring consolation, as love carries us past fear, even in calamitous times.


A final note:  It is gratifying for me, as an educator, to see how Emerson, Dewey, Erasmus, and indeed Fox, understood how the life guided by the “gleam of light” was both deeply part of human nature, and deeply a concern for education.  In all four, education was not a matter of instruction, but of growth, to be welcomed, sometimes cultivated, and above all respected — a process that we too often think of as something for the young, but the wise have always known to be what living is.  I close with Fitzpatrick on Erasmus (pg 53 again) :

We are born with the potential to become, at one extreme, something wonderful: a fully developed human being, or, at the other extreme, something horrific: A degenerate being capable of great evil….”birth does not create a man [sic]… what is born is the raw material, so to speak, education gives it shape.”  This education was not the usual formal training of ordinary school… the best possible educational program should include.. the philosphy of Christ… a way of showing the true nature of existence in all of us.



Fig #2: Blasted fig!

Matt 21: 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

The most important thing that happened to me in high school was that I read the gospels. They were challenging and disturbing and inspiring, and I haven’t gotten over it.  I discovered, too, that reading the gospels was a doorway into a thousand fascinating conversations that have been going on for the past 2,000 years.  Exhilarating.

Later, sometime around my junior year, I came across Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and read it with considerable enjoyment and some disturbance —  Russell’s prose invites to discussion and debate, and his take on religion (though often irritatingly glib) was different from any I’d encountered before.  In the course of the eponymous essay (you can read it here), he comments in passing on the “Jesus blasted the fig” story, and he is not impressed:

This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.

Was this, as Russell suggested, another example of Jesus’ increasingly erratic or deluded self-conception?  Russell got me thinking, but he did not disengage me from the Gospel story.  I did worry about this anecdote, though. It did seem odd, and indeed out of character for Jesus.

After all, one thing that is quite clear from the Gospel record is that Jesus was aware of seasonal and agricultural cycles.  And if nothing else, he knew the Psalms well, and understood that a healthy tree “putteth forth his fruit in his season”  (Ps. 1).  This is not someone who, itinerating across the land,  would imagine, nor expect,  that figs were available when they were not.  I have concluded that the gospel writers quite misinterpreted the whole event.

Others have tried to make sense of this story, in ways that show more ingenuity than insight, as I read them.  William Telford, in expounding this passage,  quotes a scholar as arguing that “In symblic commentary upon the Jewish expectation [of the messianic age’s beginning in springtime, signalled by the fig’s blossoming], Jesus withers the tree, so indicating that the Jewish view of the New Exodus and Messianic Age is not to be.”    Ugh.  Quite aside from the strong supercessionist overtones, this seems to me to be bad exegesis (“not even wrong”), as there is nothing in the text that suggests that Jesus had any such thing in mind.  Telford comments that this among other “solutions” to the problematical fig seem focused on the dogmatic aim of “removing the blot on Jesus’ character.”  I agree.

A quick search of other commentaries produces other examples in which the problem of this blasted fig is solved by attributing to Jesus some intent to comment on the state of the people of Israel.  “What Jesus is doing is pronouncing on the already sealed fate of the nation…he is lamenting over the sorry condition of his nation that is bent on despising God’s gracious purpose and will inevitably suffer for it in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.”   (Ralph Martin)

Now, it seems to me that Martin (and others he refers to) have this much right, that this is a prophetic sign, rather that simple petulance.  Yet it cannot have the kinds of meaning attributed to it — grand statements about the fate of the apostate nation, or what have you.  For one thing, Mark (ch 11) and Matthew (21: 18-22) actually supply comments by Jesus.  The disciplines, at the sight of the tree blasted by a word, are all “Gee whiz, that’s amazing!”, but Jesus says, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea,’  it shall be done.  And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

Nothing there about his people not receiving him, nor the fall of Jerusalem.

Yet part of the reason the incident is so puzzling is that the rationale supplied by the narrative is sort of irrelevant.   The teaching on faith that can move a mountain (an example of the rhetorical exaggeration which Jesus often uses) occurs elsewhere in the gospels, unconnected with any fig trees (though in Luke 17:6 the faith is in fact transplanting a mulberry tree into the sea).  As Harvey’s Companion to the New Testament comments, the sayings attached to the blasted fig  “were presumably remembered separately,”  to be deployed by the gospel-writer as seemed best to him, and not originally linked to the fig tree.  (I will return to the mulberry and the fig in my next post.)  In any case, the commenters do not seem to me to “unscrew the inscrutable.”  I don’t know that I can, but I here offer my mite.

A note on the context.  First, I would note that in both Matthew and Mark, this incident occurs just after (in the same chapter as) two other striking events:   the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem,”  and the driving out of the money-changers from the Temple. Both of these public demonstrations are intentionally saturated with symbolic elements — relating to the key concerns of idolatry, the kingship of God, and the way in which Jesus taught the kingdom is to be proclaimed and manifested.  Taken together with these prior events, the fig-tree incident may be seen as a third prophetic sign.

A note on prophetic signs.  The “prophetic signs” of (for example) Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are sometimes interpreted as “nonverbal proclamation,” but they are very often accompanied by words, in which the prophet interprets his action. (See here for an earlier post exploring this a bit more.)  The act gets attention, and grips the imagination;  the preaching then, as it were, enters into the breach that the act has created in the wall of habit.  Jesus understood this and used it powerfully — including in the great prophetic sign of Calvary.

So what? How to take this blasted fig?  The fig tree incident takes place  towards the beginning of the final, intensifying phase of Jesus’ teaching. He has come to Jerusalem in the season leading up to Passover, the festival of liberation, conscious that danger is growing.  These chapters have a compelling narrative momentum, with Jesus driving forward the core of his teachings, his revelation, about the nature of God’s rule, and his radical understanding of the process by which we are to be freed in and through the God who is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, whose fellowship is with the outcast, the unprivileged, and the teachable, compassionate, child-like peacemakers.   An essential characteristic of his teaching is surprise.  All through these final chapters, we hear again and again that God’s time is not our own, that God’s presence offering liberation will come, not when we expect it, but when the Holy One moves.  Keep awake! for you do not know on what day your Lord is to come! (Matt. 24:42, NEV)

The message is epitomized, perhaps, by the parable of the “Wise and foolish virgins” (here, the KJV):

25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 25:2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 25:3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 25:4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps. 25:5 When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 25:7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 25:8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 25:9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 25:10 But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 25:11 Later,the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!” 25:12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth,  I do not know you!’ 25:13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.

This, I take it, is the message of the blasted fig:  Of course, it seems illogical that I should be concerned now to be bearing fruit.  I’m not ready, and I’ve got nothing to offer.  Just wait!  Next week, next month, next year, next life, I’ll have something ready!

Christ, though, is here and at work, and expects us to offer our mite, employ our talents (no matter how poor we think them), to give when asked (just as we are to ask in our turn), to live generously as way opens— generous with our compassion, with our prayer, with our service.  This is, indeed the end times, because for each of us “there is no time but this present. ”  And there is one more fig, which think belongs just here:

Learn a lesson from the fig tree:  When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you may know that the end is near, at the every door….But about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven;  not even the Son;  only the Father. (Matt. 24:32-36, NEV).


Two Figs: Fig #1

I was reading yet another argument the other day, about biblical teaching on humans and the environment which focused on alternative readings of Genesis 1:26.  This is where God says, “Let’s make a human being in our image and likeness, and let [ humans] [do something] to/for the fish, the birds, etc.”  The key question debated is how to construe the “do something.”  Is it rule over? Lead?  Exercise stewardship? Superintend?  Freely exploit?

Rather than engage with all that yummy philology, I have become interested in what kinds of ecological awareness can be discerned in the bible, including the role of human activity as part of, or in contrast to, what all the other organisms in the world are up to. What is taken for granted?  Is there discernable a theory of the balance of nature (scientifically problematic, but a metaphor that sometimes has the effect of motivating good stewardship)?  Is there a sense of human dependence upon the biosphere’s health and functioning?  Is there a sense of nature’s value, quite aside from human purpose?  That kind of thing.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the first passages that came to mind was the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke xiii:6.  Not the story where Jesus blasts a tree for not having figs when he wants them (I will get to that later, in Fig #2).  This is the one I mean:

6 He spake also this parable; A certain man [someone] had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. 7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? 8 And he answering said unto him, Lord [Sir],  let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:  9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. (KJV)

To me, this parable speaks of God’s compassion and patience— but also has something to say about Jesus’ ecological presumptions.

Clearly, the fig tree is being judged by its fruits (Matt. 7:16), and found wanting.  The land-owner thinks the case is clear — time to clear the tree away.  His gardener says, “Well, wait a minute.  Give me time to try some things here. You’re right, we want the figs, so if nothing gives, we’ll take it down. But a little more care could make the difference.”  The owner agrees.  We don’t hear how it turned out!

Now, I found a sermon by Augustine of Hippo that expounds on this parable (you can read it here).  It is a fine example of allegorical exposition (see here for a dense but useful epitome of “senses” of Scripture), in which each participant in the parable (including the dung) is given a spiritual interpretation relating it to the process of salvation.  Augustine seems to equate the owner with Christ, who will come to judge at the End.  The gardener “is every saint who within the Church prays for those who are without the Church.”  The fig tree represents “the sinners, the unbelievers, the unfruitful.”  The digging represents “the teaching [of] lowliness and repentance.”  As for the dung:  “It is filthy, but it produces fruit. The gardener’s filth is the sinner’s sorrows.”

Far be it from me to quibble with the august bishop, but I would take this parable a little differently.  I think the owner is God as Creator, Planter of Gardens, who placed Humans (male and female), along with the other  creatures amidst a teeming land- and sea-scape. Each is created to be generative.  Humans, however,  are asked not only to produce offspring, like all the other species, but also fruits of that part of their nature most akin to God’s — insight, relationship, imagination, compassion, beauty — fruits of thinking, feeling, willing, loving.

This Being (the Greek just says “Someone”) has seen no fruit, and asks the Gardener  to take action.  But the Gardener argues on behalf of the tree — maybe with more care it will respond! — and the Someone yields to his advice.

This is in the fine tradition of Abraham pleading with God for a few just men in Sodom (Gen. 18), and it seems clear to me that the Gardener here is Jesus, that Prophet and more than prophet, who represents himself elsewhere as a shepherd.  Jesus knows the human heart (John 2), and in this case asserts that he has more work to do, opening the soul (soil) up to air, bringing enrichment (derived from the processes of life) to nourish the roots, shoots, leaves, which must flourish before the plant is in condition to bear fruit, and bear it to maturity (until it is “perfect,” teleios, completed, matured.)  The tree must take advantage of the cultivation, which may come through many instruments and sources — the “mulch” that feeds us can be from the work of Christ in us, or in material form — words and deeds, examples and investigations, the stuff of life and social involvement.   The gardener cannot create the fruit, nor even dictate the season of its appearance — the tree must incorporate the resources available to it, and from its own substance, thereby fortified, through quiet even hidden internal process bear what fruit it can.


To return to my main focus:  Note here, that Jesus (and his hearers) are acquainted with gardening practice, with the complementary relationship of vegetable life and animal life, each making available required nutrients not otherwise accessible.  The parable also assumes the element of time — plant growth, and agriculture, have their own rhythms, and humans can play a constructive role  — but it must be a collaborative one, indeed a symbiotic one, since for humans to receive the fruit they need, they must ensure the plant’s nourishing, communicating or transacting with it in the ‘language’ it can understand, which we may call chemistry, physics, and biology, but the plant experiences wordlessly, with its whole being.



Heaven and hell in Quaker preaching

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.



Seneca, that old Fox

Well, not really, but:   One of  my minor reading hobbies is the letters and essays of Seneca the younger (AD 4-65), a philosopher who has often been seen as one of the pagan proto-Christians (along with, for example, Socrates).   There is something very appealing about the Stoics (and their often limpid, direct prose) — Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and (in some of his moods) Cicero.

Friends might feel some kinship with Seneca because of Letter 51, “On the god within us,” as well as the value he places on retirement and contemplation, plain living, and the cultivation of the soul towards freedom.  Other similiarities may present themselves:

Recently, I was working my way through Letter 33, to which the Loeb edition gives the title “On the futility of learning maxims.”  Seneca is telling his friend Lucilius that it’s too easy for the seeker after wisdom to read and listen to others, and grasp too eagerly at quotable passages from the masters.  This, he holds, can enable someone to avoid daring to speak their own truth — and avoid doing the work of seeking for themselves.

At one point, he says, “Hoc Zenon dixit”;  tu quid?  “Hoc Cleanthes.”  Tu quid?  Quousque sub alio moveris?  Impera et dic, quod memoriae tradatur.”  “‘Zeno said this’ — but what do  you say?*   ‘Cleanthes said this.’  But what can you say?  How long will you march under someone else’s [command]?  Take command yourself, and say something that will be passed on in others’ memory!”

Of course, one is struck by the similarity between this passage and the famous challenge that (in Margaret Fell’s account) Fox issued:”What canst thou say?” — though there is also an important difference:

You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”

Seneca is advocating for someone to speak with integrity from their own experience in the search for wisdom and virtue — and so Fox’s critics understood him, and mocked him by claiming that they could speak of their experiences as well as he.  But George raises the stakes by saying (in effect), “I’m not talking about my experiences, my opinion, my wisdom!  The challenge is, do you wait go as you are sent, as taught by the Light of Christ, speak as you are given by that Spirit?”

Seneca  speaks powerfully on behalf of what Emerson calls ‘self-reliance, ‘  and it is good as far as it goes,  but Friends have experience of a life based on a different reliance.


* literally, “You, what?”


More from the Quaker toolbox: An educative network for Spirit-led workers

As I have written about in previous blog posts (and elsewhere), I long have felt that Friends are in urgent need of faithful ministers of the Gospel — those with gifts of speaking, preaching, teaching under the guidance of the Spirit.  There certainly is a need for more workers, but we also need have a way to  help the ministers we do have get better at their work — each according to their gift.  Being under some kind of monthly meeting guidance is important, of course, but our tradition offers additional tools, and though in recent posts I’ve done some work on this, here I’d like to conclude (at least for the moment) with a more “toolbox” approach.

This is because I think that the general approach being sketched can well apply to any group seeking to carry out long-term work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  For example, as I have gotten involved with the Prophetic Climate Action Working Group (PCAWG) in New England Yearly Meeting, I find that I seeing similar at work in our mutual accountability and encouragement.   I haven’t every really tried to articulate the model out of which I am working, and so this piece is an attempt to do that.  So:

Our Quaker toolbox includes what one might call “an educative network for Spirit-led workers.”

I base this  on what I understand of the practice of Friends in the first few years of our movement.  This is not out of antiquarian interest, or nostalgia  for some by-gone “golden era,” but rather because in that practice I see several characteristics that are well-suited to our times.  There are certainly differences, as well, and I do not ignore them.  I see our tradition as a resource, not an idol.  To quote Jaroslav Pelikan (see The vindication of tradition), “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.”

We should use our tradition discerningly, in the same way that we make use of ministry we hear in a meeting for worship: receive it, hold it in the light, and draw from it in ways that have life.  What does not at present have life for you is not rejected, but rather held respectfully — it may yet be seen as nourishment for another time, or perhaps not.

I also find our tradition important as a counter-balance (not “corrective”) to the many voices I hear (and Friends hear) from our present culture.  We know very well that even as we seek to live by the guidance of the “Pure principle,” we hear many other voices from self and culture proposing, compelling, inviting.  Some of these, if not from God, may nevertheless be useful;  some may be contrary to the life we seek to embody.  I hearken back to the practice and testimony of past Friends as a way to triangulate, and to challenge myself to test whether some alternative I am weighing is more or less consistent with Quaker spiritual commitments.

With that preamble: I suggest some parallels between the current situation of the Quakers I know and that of the first Friends, which I think make the use of the “educative network” idea particularly useful.

  1. First, faith unsettled: there was then, as there is now, a plethora of alternatives, styles, interpretations, vocabularies — from non-theism and atheism, through various kinds of mysticism, skepticism, through a bewildering range of Protestantisms, not to mention Catholicism and so forth;  even in places where Judaism was denigrated (as in much of Europe), there were enthusiasts for the Kabbalah, and the Qur’an was available (at least in part) in translation. The variety was stimulating to some, threatening to others, and paralyzing to yet others.
  2. Missing tradition. The first Friends were gathered to form a people, not born into a pre-existing institution. They were adults, many of them young adults. All had a history of search for an authentic spiritual base and community; most were deeply steeped in the Bible as instruction, and as a narrative in which they participated. In the Quakerism I am most familiar with, in these times, the large majority of Friends are also convinced Friends, which is both a source of strength and also of challenges to the coherence and integrity of the movement’s vision.  Convinced Friends (then and now) have chosen their “family,” and bring with them fresh perspectives and energy;  there is (& was) sometimes also a tendency to see in Quakerism some of what they valued from their prior paths.
  3. Practice emerging or in transformation. The first Friends had no structures, processes, or customs with which to shape the life of the Spirit into human terms (words, lives, decisions, relationships), though the New Testament patterns were important reference points. Modern Friends have abundant resources in this regard, thanks to Quaker history — yet in every generation Friends have to test the continued value of their inheritance, to ensure that we are bringing our lives (individually and corporately) “under the ordering of the Holy Spirit.”  One value of such inherited structures is that they indicate a need or function that followers of the Quaker way at one time found important to address.  Though we may decide that their solution doesn’t work anymore, we do well to understand why the solution was developed, and how it was shaped to hold the Spirit.  This can help us maintain openness to the inward teacher active both then and now, and increase the likelihood that we will follow that guidance faithfully.
  4. Balancing freedom vs. regulation. The first Friends were always tempted on the one hand with Ranterism, and on the other hand with the need for regulation — which can tend in some cases to verge on over-regulation or control.  We must balance the same tendencies.  Our God is a God of order, not confusion, but where God is, there freedom dwells.
  5. Crisis of authority. The commitment to the ultimate authority of the Spirit of Christ shaped the use and interpretation of the Scriptures, and the severe critique of church tradition developed since apostolic times. These days, there is no agreed-upon authority among Friends except the Spirit — with the additional complication that we are not in agreement about what spirit is guiding us, and how it is to be known. Hence, our practices of discernment and shared seeking and accountability are of crucial importance for the health of the spiritual body.


A lot of moving pieces!  Those who called themselves the Children of the Light tuned in to a signal amidst the noise, centering on the presence and activity of the light and spirit of Christ, inwardly and in the gathering people.  This growing focus was made possible by the Publishers of Truth and others who came forth in the ministry, who articulated, for the Children, and the world, what was happening, and explained the shapes that faithfulness was taking — in speech, behavior, worship, and more. They also explained (or developed explanations of) the ways in which this new movement was in continuity with prior revelation — one of the major tasks of Barclay’s Apology, for example. Other innovations, such as the growth of some common discipline and organization, both shared in this work, and were (are!) in tension with it, as is probably healthy, if we are indeed to be guided by the Spirit that “bloweth where it listeth.”  The Gospel life is a mysteriously lawful freedom.


The first generations of ministers among Friends saw that their model was a radical, new birth from the Spirit.  The wise ones saw that it was real work, and full of real dangers, both to the movement, and to the ministers.  They were shown early on that, when faithful, their efforts were all fruits of the one Spirit, whose servants they were, on behalf of the whole gathering people.  Being public, visible spokespeople on behalf of that Spirit, they had to be on their guard that they do nothing that would harm those who were spiritually young, nor dishonor or tarnish the movement in the eyes of the unconvinced.

They  took seriously this sense of collaboration, in several ways — and it is my opinion that all of these “methods” were needed, and were mutually reinforcing.

  1. They worked together as way opened or as Friends asked. They made plans for campaigns and journeys, they shared writings, they coached each other on the best way to handle opposition and controversy. They drew up schedules and lists to support their work
  2. They held each other in prayer, and in love for the work’s sake.
  3. They wrote to each other. There are quite a few general letters “to Friends in the ministry” from most of the early leaders, and from occasional others over the first two centuries of the movement (Some Friends had a particular tenderness for their fellow servants —e.g.  George Fox, Charles Marshall, Martha Routh, Samuel Bownas).  Additionally, there are many letters between individuals in the ministry — sharing news about what they are doing, places they’re visiting, people they are talking to, challenges and triumphs, sorrows and joys.
  4. Their communications were not just supportive, but also educative. They gave each other advice and warnings, and called on each other for help.
  5. They met as often as they could to share worship and mutual counsel and comfort.
  6. They expected that faithful workers would grow in the gift, through experience and through all this mutual, forthright support. They remarked on individual’s progress and mistakes.
  7. They kept clear before their eyes their service from the Spirit of Christ, for the Body of Christ, in collaboration with other gifts and callings; and remembered that whatever they received was a gift from that Spirit to be husbanded and not possessed.

The office of “elder” was not differentiated in the way it was in the later 1690s or early 1700s, but minsters (who were often called “elders”, a term generally connoting spiritual authority) were alert to receive counsel from those “well grown in the truth.”  At a time when there was no tradition to embody and teach lessons learned and affirmed by the body out of experience with the guidance of the light, Friends worked from that guidance alone.  In the Spirit, scripture’s authority was used for precedent and insight;  and the wisdom of individuals and worshiping groups was evaluated.

Those with gifts of prophecy, teaching, and counsel, trusting that when faithful they were guided by the same life and truth, lived into a shared apprenticeship — mutually accountable for the diverse gifts and operations of the one Spirit.  We can do this too!



At present, I will not extend this with illustrations or elaborations of these points (if there were sufficient interest, I might try in future).  For those who want to explore this further, I mention a few references.

Journals which bear on this topic:  George Fox, Samuel Bownas, Martha Routh, Catherine Phillips, John Churchman (many others as well).

Other writings (historical or descriptive) (a selection only!)

 Barclay, A. R., ed. Letters, etc., of Early Friends Library Vol. 11. London, Darton & Harvey, 1847.

Beamish, Lucia K.  Quaker ministry 1691 to 1834. Privately published

Bownas, Samuel.  A description of the qualifications necessary to a Gospel minister.

Braithwaite, W.C.   The beginnings of Quakerism.

The second period of Quakerism

(The ministers’ collaboration and mutual support a thread throughout these indispensible works)

Doncaster, Phoebe.  John Stephenson Rowntree: his life and work.  See especially his essay “Gospel Ministry  in the Society of Friends.”

Drayton, B.  On living with a concern for Gospel ministry.

Grundy, Marty.  Early Quaker ministry.

Penn, William. The rise and progress of the people called Quakers.

Taber, William P. 1980. The theology of the inward imperative: travelling Quaker ministry of the middle period. Quaker Religious Thought 18(4): 3-19.

Taber, William P. 1985. The Eye of Faith: A history of Ohio Yearly Meeting, Conservative. (Esp.  Ch. 8, “The ministry of the Golden Age.”