Jesus and Quakerism

Because we have no creed, Quakers cannot claim uniformity of belief about the facts of Jesus’ life or resurrection or about their theological interpretations. Because we have characteristically tended to respect the validity of diverse beliefs both among ourselves and in world religions, outsiders sometimes question whether we are or consider ourselves Christians.

The writings of Quaker leaders, from the beginnings of the movement onward, justify the generalization that Quakerism always was and still is a Christian movement of which Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, as he is for all the rest of Christendom. George Fox’s calling was no vaguely general religious opening. He "heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’" And thereafter he conceived the purpose of his preaching to be that his hearers "might all come to know Christ to be their teacher to instruct them, their counsellor to direct them, their shepherd to feed them, their bishop to oversee them; and might know their bodies to be prepared, sanctified, and made fit temples for God and Christ to dwell in."

What, then, is the scope of our present attitudes toward this Jesus around whom we build our faith?

Although there are among Friends many gradations of belief, I can best clarify what I feel to be our distinctive interpretation of Jesus if I relate it to the two extremes of belief which an individual can hold and still be comfortable within the Religious Society of Friends.

At one extreme are those who believe that Jesus was the greatest of spiritual teachers but with nothing of the supernatural either in the facts of his life or in his powers. At the other extreme are those who can accept the creed of most of Christendom that Jesus was God’s "only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." This creed places major emphasis on certain miraculous physical aspects of Jesus’ birth, death, and powers and omits mention of his teachings.

People outside the Society of Friends who adhere to the first belief usually see no value in "accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior." Adherents to the second belief usually see no hope for a man aside from "accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior." What, then, enables Quakerism to encompass both?

I believe that the secret lies in a special emphasis of ours which makes these differences relatively unimportant. We are held together by our belief that the historical Jesus was a unique revelation to men of God’s nature and will and that there is a spiritual element in men which corresponds to this nature and will and which, therefore, responds to the spirit of Jesus by growing. This we have called the eternal Christ or the Christ within to differentiate it from the man Jesus. Our earliest Quaker theologian, Robert Barclay (1648-1690), expressed this mystical concept:

A divine, spiritual, and supernatural light is in all men; . . . as it is received and closed within the heart, Christ comes to be formed and brought forth . . . and with the Apostle thou mayest say. . . . It is no more I, but Christ alive in me; And then thou wilt be a Christian indeed.

This concept accounts for the fact that Friends have generally put less emphasis on the physical facts of Jesus’ life than on the spiritual meaning. It enables us to feel that acceptance of the miraculous recorded facts about Jesus, while permissible or perhaps even desirable, is not of paramount importance. The basis of our Christian-ity is not these facts but the spirit revealed in Jesus’ acts and teachings. And the essential power of Jesus is not to be sought in the physical miracles but in his transforming power in lives with which he comes into contact. This we test and testify to by our own experience.

Jesus’ spirit is self-giving love. This love is not to be understood as affection, which is a spontaneous response of person to person and cannot be commanded. Nor is this love a vaporous good will, which is likely to be misguided or passive because it fails to make the effort to understand the other person’s needs. Self-giving love can be felt for those toward whom one feels no natural affection and leads toward beneficial action because its essence is imaginative identification with all men—that I love my neighbor as if he were myself and that I do unto others as I would have them do to me, if I were they with all their past experiences, individual tastes, and needs.

What does all this add up to in terms of such basic Christian concepts as those of salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Quakers have tended to regard Jesus as savior in a sense quite different from that preached by many other branches of the Christian Church. We regard salvation not as abolishing the price of our sins but as giving us the desire to pay it; not as saving us from the consequence of our sins but from the sins themselves.

Salvation As Transformation

The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus exemplifies this concept of salvation. When one brief contact with the spirit of Jesus caused the grasping, cheating tax collector to say, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold," it is not recorded that Jesus told him not to bother paying for his sins, since Jesus by his life and death would cancel the debt. It is, on the contrary, recorded that Jesus exclaimed, "Today salvation has come to this house. . . ." And this is Jesus’ only use of the word "salvation" recorded in the Scriptures!

The spirit of Jesus transformed Zacchaeus into a man who wanted to do the will of God. The spirit of Jesus still gives men this desire. And the promise of forgiveness of sin gives them the power to throw off their slavery to sin. Is not forgiveness of sin misinterpreted by many Christians as a promise to blot out all the consequences of our sins? Jesus did not promise the adulteress any such thing. But when he said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again," he gave her the essentials of divine forgiveness—freedom from the paralyzing sense of guilt which binds us to our past, and the assurance that we have the power to make a fresh beginning and "sin no more." This power is surely as great and mysterious as any promise of orthodox Christianity.

So we Quakers can continue to hold a wide variety of beliefs about the physical facts of Jesus’ life and still be unified in the belief that Jesus has limitless power to bring men into harmony with God, and with each other; to transform their lives; and, through them, to transform the world.
This is the unrevised text of an article that appeared in Friends Journal, August 10, 1957. It is a condensation of an address given that year in Wrightstown, Pa.

Dorothy Hutchinson

Dorothy Hutchinson (1905-1984) was a member of Abington (Pa.) Meeting, a writer on religious subjects and international relations, and a leader in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Her papers, 1942-1980, are in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.