Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
In 1669 Nathanial Smith wrote a tract entitled “The Quakers Spiritual Court” wherein he documents the Quaker use of outward ecclesiastical forms and leaders to rule over the conscience of others in the gathering. Smith became a Quaker at 19 years of age and remained so for about fourteen years. It seems he was among those of the first Quakers. Smith calls himself a “Physick.” Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1792) defines Physick as “originally signifying natural philosophy, has been transferred in many maodern languages to medicine. The science of healing.”
In this tract, Smith relates an encounter with George Fox under a section entitled: The First Cause of my dislike, as to the Quakers; and chiefly, of certain Principles Holden by George Fox, and others. I now reprint from a facsimile of the original tract.
“In March 1664 or 1665. I hearing that George Fox was at Lancaster in Prison, I was resolved to go to the place, and there to remaine for a certain time; as also, to have some Discourse with Geo. Fox. After some few dayes were spent, Geo. Fox had heard that I held the Earth to be round; and that when it was day with us it was night in others places; he was then desirous to convince me of this Errour, (as he thought) and to make me Relinguish all such Tenants: I being come to the Castle where he was, he came to me, and Jo. Stubs told him of my Principle concerning the Earth, and its roundness; whereupon, Geo. told me that it was flat, and brought Arguments for it; that let a man Travel never so far, he shall not see the Earth to bend round; he also Affirmed, that when it was 12 of the Clock with us, that then it was 12 of the Clock all the World over. Then I asked him, whether there was a new Sun every day? he answered, No, there was but one Sun; then said I, what becomes of it in the Night? or does it give light or not? or doth it go down into the Sea to cool itself? he said it went cross back again some way. But when he could not hold the Discourse, then he begun to father all this his Errours upon his Spirit of Revelation; and said, that it was revealed to him that it was so, and therefore it must stand for Truth, (he thinking that I would submit to that as many others do, which believe al that he and some others say is a Divine Truth, and must not be contradicted by any;) but at the last last, reason did over-power these Divine Revelations. This was in the Great Room or Hall in Lancaster Castle.”
There is so much in this small anecdote. Beside the obvious, One thing I find instructive is that Nathaniel Smith acknowledges that there were many Quakers at the time who hung upon the words of George Fox as “Divine Truth” even when they themselves were not so convinced in their own conscience. This was an attitude many founding and early Quakers scrupled against as being not of the nature of the Quaker dispensation and even approached George Fox and asked him to speak out against this tendency of other Quakers to follow the words of George Fox even when their own conscience did not speak so to them directly. John Wilkinson, in a letter to George Fox, in around 1676 actually suggested to Fox that, to the extent that he allowed and nurtured such an attitude toward him, that he was stepping all over the prerogative of the spirit of Christ itself to teach and guide people in the same way that James Nayler had done by his activities in Bristol. In essence saying that Fox was making himself Christ. It is also telling that Smith was in no way enchanted or overpowered by the personality of Fox. This anecdote suggests that there were many Quakers, during Fox’s lifetime, who did set him up as their leader and teacher; who were, in fact, ready and willing to call him out when necessary. It is also so interesting the Smith relates Fox’s tendency to fall back on divine revelation to support and give substance to his arguments when all else falls. As if to say, “God has revealed this to me and you must follow it without question even if you do not believe it yourself; and, if you do not submit to what God has revealed to me you are going against God himself.” It is interesting that so many Quakers at the time relinquished and submitted to Fox in the face of this imposition of Fox upon their conscience. This was clearly against the primitive experience of many first and early Quakers of the nature of Quakerism, which clearly affirmed the inshining Light itself as the sole and sufficient guide and rule in the conscience (which is the Kingdom of God) without regard for any outward institution or leader.