Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
We modern Quakers are thieves but do not weep. This is unlike Margaret Fell Fox's response to the 28 year old farmer, merchant preacher's, message given before the sermon in her respectable Church of England in 1652. Respectable modern Quakers may object that they are not now in the 38 year old Margaret's position by having stolen a Christian's profession without knowing it needs to be accompanied by a renewing possession of the Spirit of Christ. We modern Quakers frequently quote the phrase "You will say, Christ said this and the apostles said this; but what can you say?" Isn't it a strength of modern Quakers to emphasize the spiritual nature of humankind in opposition to a mechanical, materialistic rationalism that reduces people to individualistic, complicated, highly advanced lumps of clay? Why then label us unrepentant thieves.
Margaret was so moved by what she heard she remembered only a small part of George's speech, but she remembers feeling as though she was a thief suggesting George mentioned Jerimiah 23 as he did in his article entitled "For All the Bishops and Priests in Christendom."
"therefore says the Lord, behold I will come against the prophets that steal my word, every one from his neighbour;' [mark,] that steal God's words, and therefore consider all you prophets and teachers, that do not speak from the mouth of the Lord, do not you steal God's words from your neighbour' will not the Lord come against you' for do not you all steal his words that have not the word from the Lord's mouth"
It is a credit to Quakers when they encourage each one to share what they have received from God especially so because it was generally absent in Fox's time so that he was frequently dealing with those that distorted the Gospel by neglecting a personal relationship with God. Fox seldom had to deal with people who denied the authority of the Scripture as a true record and guide to the Christian life as he would need to do if he lived in the our time. Yet Fox did maintain a dual concern for a consistent Biblical message and for a complete Christian experience of the power that is an organic component of the living Gospel. His article "For All the Bishops and Priests in Christendom" focuses on both of the above Quaker emphases with the following two subtitles:
To measure themselves by the scriptures of truth, and see if they be not reproved by them, and the Spirit from whence they came.
And to all that call themselves papists, bishops, ministers and teachers of the gospel; and professors in Christendom (so called,) that say ‘they have not the same power and spirit the apostles had.' By G. F.
The theft of today happens when we clothe ourselves in Quaker clothes and steal Quaker words while denying the early Quaker God and the plan revealed in scripture as the way they owned to become empowered by the Spirit of Christ. This then makes us also thieves. Jeremiah seems to place this in the typical inclination of humans when he says in Chapter 23:26" How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, even the prophets of the deceit of their own heart? 27 who think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbor, as their fathers forgot my name for Baal."
At the turn of the 18th century into the 19th century, Quakers followed the transcendentalists (as discussed in the prior blog on Quaker Quotes BBQB-5). The transcendentalists would say the Quaker emphasis on the Spirit could support their position against a Biblical view which says you need to be within the body of Christ, submitting to his Lordship over you and testing your dreams and message against what the Spirit has revealed about Christ and what was revealed to those that lived with Him in his earthly existence and were witness to his resurrection, ascension and experienced the subsequent baptism by the Spirit of Christ.
The modern Quaker move toward their new religion described by the transcendentalist could not happen as long as Quakers shared in the life view and experience described in the early Quaker writings, and therefore some began to move early Quaker thought out of the way into the distant background. My first Quaker experience in a small unprogramed meeting was a pleasant place that encourages growth and healing from the bruises life's stumbles leaves on our souls. I particularly relished the opportunity to learn about early Quaker thought and practice which much to my delight mirrored to a greater degree than any other group the teaching of Scripture. However I became confounded and distressed when the Clerk of that small meeting would not accept starting a group to read early Quakers' works although other topics would be acceptable. Later I would find other Quakers, ignorant of early Quaker thought, saying Fox et al were impossible to understand because they were so erratic and confused in their writings. I came to see that there was steady pressure starting before the year 1800 and accelerating after 1800 to remove early Quaker literature out of the mainstream of Quaker experience.
Quakers maintained a desire to have the power and some of the results of the early Quakers but without their belief system which was below, supporting and activating this power. We don't want their risks, we don't want their commitment and we don't want their principles which no longer bring nods of approval from the trend setters of our day. The foundation of their beliefs is not even known to many Quakers.. It is certainly not politically correct to give these beliefs a place of honor in our lives.
As discussed in the prior post on Quaker quotes, the transcendental writings could on the surface be confused with Quaker ideas and were used to replace the earlier Quaker writings based on Scripture. Now if some of us liberal Quakers wish to learn about our intellectual history we need to read books such as The Transcendentalists edited by Perry Miller or a small volume Transcendentalism in America by Donald Koster
We now have two easily available mutually exclusive descriptions of the power of early Quakers to choose from. One is presented by the Bible and the other by the writings of the American transcendentalist. The Bible says Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, was instrumental in bringing about a new relationship with God which became available to any person who was responsive to and yielded in their encounter with the Spirit of Christ. This requires a recognition that we can't create this relationship with our own efforts and that we have a tender and responsive heart with a willingness to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
The transcendentalist movement in contrast to the Biblical view saw individuals possessing divinity within themselves so that they would take their proper place as a Godlike creature in society. To encourage proper development in this view, one would avoid thinking about limitations and reflect on a general sense of oneness with the universal spirit of the cosmos.
We care about early Quakers and their use of Scripture because of the human tendency to create our own Gods because we are so easily mislead by our own interests, benefits and investments of all types. We change very subtly until when we ask "how can we can we live in the power of the early Quakers?", we talk about a vague spiritual light, or we refer to the fruit such as faithfulness, love or service rather than the tree of openness and submission to the presence of Christ of the Scripture and to life in the Body of Christ.
Most thieves in this context are well intentioned as in the value clarification stories where a person steals medicine to save a loved one's life, so Theodore Parker writes in 1841 how he sacrifices the biblical story to save Christians from embarrassment. Rufus Jones in "A Call to What is Vital" in 1948 acknowledges his dependence on transcendental thought; and while never taking off his Quaker clothes, he says he is advancing Quaker thought beyond its scriptural basis in order to save the Quaker movement from embarrassment and from the disapproval of the scholarly thought of his day.
In this way a well motivated, concerned person can end up as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Although the person is changing his nature, he is still attached to the flock where he has been nurtured, admired and has communed with others. He truly believes the flock needs a wolf to make it a better flock. There are enough sheep that devouring one every now and then will not do the flock any harm. He decides it is best if he continues to look like one of the flock so that they will not carelessly exclude him from their midst.
But there is for me a still more important reason to care about early Quakers and their use of Scripture. It is to enable us to see and understand scripture in the same way they did. It was their understanding of scripture that shaped the unique way they structured their concept and proclamation of the Gospel, their way of meeting together, their way of treating each other and their way of developing their personal qualities of courage, sacrifice and love. If the early Quakers found all this in Scripture, we can do the same in our day. I believe an unswerving, industrious application of Quaker principles regarding scripture would lead us to many surprising results which could lead to an organization more effective in producing the fruits of the Quaker tree than any present denomination now does including present day Quakers.