"Primitive Christianity", What Did Original Friends Mean by it?

As I read the original Friends, they thought most Christian sects had missed the boat, and as some of those Friends said explicitly the Reformation had failed to go far enough.  They, unlike the "professors" of Christianity, did not take belief as the be all and end all, and instead focused on the experience of God.

Today, however, I have found many members of Friends who take their beliefs (including their lack of beliefs-- atheism and agnosticism) as definitive of themselves.

Without getting into a historical debate about whether Friends were correct in thinking they agreed with the earliest Christians, I would like very much to hear what Friends who are drawn to the distinctive message of original Friends think those Friends meant by "primitive Christianity."

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As a new, 'liberal' attender, my understanding and experience of Friends' spiritual practice(s) are important elements of what drew me to the Society. Maybe there are spiritual dimensions that seem new and powerful to me, but that many experienced Friends take for granted, and some other (perhaps newer) Friends have yet to discover?


Caroline Whitbeck said:

Do we Friends have a spiritual practice to help people experience that (or any other) encounter with God?  

In my experience, most liberal (i.e., FGC) Friends who have any spiritual practice--and not all do--have taken theirs from a tradition other than Friends.  

I have found the writings of original Friends helpful in drawing my attention away from the idols of popular culture (such as, winning) to the Divine.

Although am very grateful for the Timeless Quaker Wisdom CD that at least serves up some wonderful short quotes, I don't know where in the future Friends are going to find the power that I have found in the full statements. 

I have delayed in responding, because I fear that my response may sound unloving and I don't wish it to be.

Listening for God/the Spirit/the Divine is what I understand to be the precious witness of original Friends , but today, perhaps Quakers (at least Liberal Quakers uphold as a central value, listening to whatever (including popular white middle-class culture).  If so, I think it is a loss and very much like Liberal Culture's worship of tolerance as the central value, a value that as all  teachers of ethics know, silences all other values (because one must be tolerant of the contrary of any value).  

Original Friends offer me a very real alternative to Liberal popular culture.  What I hear in original Friends does have the ring of truth.  I think earlier generations of Friends were right to hold to the truth no matter what.


Dear Caroline,

Although I disagree with much of your post, I thought it was quite even-tempered; maybe I'll acquire some of the same virtue by replying!

Some teachers of ethnics might agree that tolerance silences all other values, but I don't think that all would. I believe this critique is more commonly (and perhaps more accurately) applied to strong forms of moral relativism that, in various ways, contest the existence of any objective morality. Tolerance doesn't necessarily imply indifference, or even approval, of the thing tolerated, but merely a willingness to coexist with beliefs or behaviors different from one's own. A passionate commitment to tolerance as a (or even 'the') central value may reflect a heightened awareness of the dangers of intolerance as easily as an endorsement of moral relativism.

For a person of my own modest stature, I consider tolerance as almost synonymous with (and absolutely necessary to) simple humility. George Fox may have heard the voice of God speak, clearly and without ambiguity, telling him that "there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition." But I can not experience his hearing, and I myself have never heard with such clarity. And Fox, hearing, may have known beyond any doubt that the voice he heard was, in fact, God's voice. But I can not experience his knowing, and I myself have never known with such certainty. For Fox, absolute conviction in his beliefs and (hypothetically) concomitant intolerance of others' may have been wholly justified, or even morally required. For me, however, with my dim hearing and questionable understanding, it would be the absolute height of arrogance. I am not built for such heroic garments; tolerance fits me much better.  :)



Caroline Whitbeck said:  "Listening for God/the Spirit/the Divine is what I understand to be the precious witness of original Friends , but today, perhaps Quakers (at least Liberal Quakers uphold as a central value, listening to whatever (including popular white middle-class culture).  If so, I think it is a loss and very much like Liberal Culture's worship of tolerance as the central value..."


Any "central value", in lieu of listening to very God, is a mistake. "Continually" listening-- which means that when you catch yourself having forgotten to do that, it's time to try again, and know what's being set before you.


God is continually (re)-creating the world, and anything can be a message. It may be merely telling you, "This piece of popular culture is a lie..." but everything can be considered a prop in God's classroom.  [I sometimes found profound meaning reading Arnold Lobel children's books to my son.]


The Spirit was supposed "to lead you into all truth." It was not said to instantly stuff you, packed-full with All Truth right away; I can't say that's never happened to anyone, but such hasn't been my experience. I get led from here to there, from one mistake to a new understanding, perhaps to a new mistake...


I get the impression that many people are trying to convert each other from one "central value" to another. But God (although it might be good if our central value can become 'the wish to know God') is not "a central value."

Dear Caroline,


I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about early Friends offering an alternative. I think that one thing that early Friends had in common with primitive Christians and in contrast to the Christians of their day is one thing Penn said in "No Cross, No Crown" : "The world would have a Christbut not to rule over them."


Early Friends were willing to have Christ rule them. They were willing to submit their wills to God. I think one problem with many Friends today is that, since ministry can come from anywhere, binding authority comes from nowhere. Once a point of complete non-hierarchical perception is reached, and the Bible is no more authoritative than the Bhagavad Gita, our whole practice is limited to listening, as many have said hear. I think this is wrong. The whole reason for a website called "QuakerQuaker" is that Friends DO have distinctive practices and beliefs. You don't have to be a "Jewish-Quaker," a "Pagan-Quaker" or a "Buddhist-Quaker" to have  a religious practice.


The core of Friends' faith, at least Early Friends' faith, is this: submit to Christ fully. Prepare yourself to submit to Him by reading the Bible, meeting for worship and meditating on God's glory. Be prepared to bear witness to Christ's dominance by recognizing his indwelling in others and be prepared to see His glory in all people. In your First Day School, introduce the children to Gospel history, especially stories like that of Jonah, when people have to submit to God even though they don't want do. Build their integrity and strength of character, while teaching them submissiveness to the Lord.


God bless you,



"Once a point of complete non-hierarchical perception is reached, and the Bible is no more authoritative than the Bhagavad Gita...."


then a whole lot of idolatrous nit-picking should be ripe for the trash can.


People have always sought power over other people, to subject them to whatever customs they've come to consider "the obviously right thing"-- but the point of Quaker (and Hindu) practice, from God's point of view, is to establish the right human/divine relationship, in which people submit to God-- not "even though they don't want to" but "because nothing else works."

I am most drawn to Robert Barclay's formulation of what is commonly called "Christian universalism" in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (which you can access in Section XI at 

http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/props5-6.html ):

Thirdly, That God, in and by this Light and Seed, invites, calls, exhorts, and strives with every man, in order to save him; which as it is received, and not resisted, works the salvation of all, even of those who are ignorant of the death and sufferings of Christ, and of Adam's fall, both by bringing them to a sense of their own misery, and to be sharers in the sufferings of Christ inwardly, and by making them partakers of his Resurrection, in becoming holy, pure, and righteous, and recovered out of their sins. By which also are saved they that have the knowledge of Christ outwardly, in that it opens their understanding rightly to use and apply the things delivered in the Scriptures, and to receive the saving use of them.  But that this may be resisted and rejected in both, in which then God is said to be resisted and pressed down, and Christ to be again crucified, and put to open shame in and among men, and to those as thus resist and refuse him, he becomes their condemnation.





I see that the current brochure for the School of the Spirit, which you can access at http://schoolofthespirit.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/SN9-Prospec..., has two of its five areas of study dealing with the Friends distinctive witness.

"•  Quaker Spirituality

Reflection on Quaker faith and practice, including Quaker Christology, interpretation of Scripture, the blessed community, and the offices of minister and elder.

. . . .

• Practicing the Presence

Introduction to distinctive Quaker approaches to the spiritual life, such as corporate worship based on waiting and listening, daily retirement, allowing the Bible to speak to us, the use of queries, and discernment, as well as varieties of prayer and spiritual disciplines."


Thank you, Fiends, for your help and attention, but I think that is where I had best look for something more adequate to my experience of God than popular culture's forced choice between

     •   secular individualism

     •   creedal protestantism.

yours in the Spirit,


Hello Caroline,

When I read in the novel Peaceable Kingdom about George Fox and Margaret Fell  I was deeply struck with the presence of God in their lives.  Certainly the author did an incredible job of conveying to the reader so many pivotal moments that could not be attributed to the people involved but only to an act of God...such as the impact on the crowd at end of book one when Margaret Fell is in a state of such grief  and feels she has utterly failed to make a difference.  We as readers get to see how, despite feeling one has made no difference, something  HUGE  is at work in that moment.

I am deeply drawn to God-power...  The energetic ACTION that happens in the state of listening and surrender.    Certainly this makes me think of the Pentecost, and the subsequent discovery the disciples made after Jesus' resurrection when things just HAPPENED that could only happen by God's crazy intervention...time after time after time. 

These happenings do not happen only according to certain guidelines in our Faith that we like to think they are based on.  We like to take these occurrences and believe that this happens to X kind of people or  to good Conservatives  or to those who use words like Believer or "Lord, Lord"  -- or perhaps we may even just restrict that in our minds to Christians.  I feel that listening surrender to the Divine, submitting one's will to the Divine, which is a fierce and multi-layered struggle, is the only requirement.  I believe that what I mean by primitive Christianity is a state of heart that could be equally available to any other monotheists.  

My greatest failing has been a persistent struggle with Goodness.  The belief that I could be "good enough" somehow or must try to be.  Because I am aware of this as a fault that interferes with God's grace in my life, I see in the earliest Christians a freedom from that...the knowledge that anyone of any faith and any life experience and any ability or disability IS ENOUGH because God is everything and is all that the recipe requires.

Thanks for asking this great question and, yes, so very even-handedly. 

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