Primitive Christianity Revived and Primitive Quakerism Revived
Reviewed by Max L. Carter
Primitive Christianity Revived. By William Penn, translated into modern English by Paul Buckley. Inner Light Books, 2018. 115 pages. $25/hardcover; $15/paperback; $10/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
Primitive Quakerism Revived: Living as Friends in the Twenty-first Century. By Paul Buckley. Inner Light Books, 2018. 164 pages. $25/hardcover; $15/paperback; $10/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
Growing up with only the King James Version of the Bible and a literalist’s understanding of Scripture, I went to the clothes closet in my bedroom for my nighttime prayers. There among my trousers and shirts, I observed the biblical directive to “go into thy closet to pray.” It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and on a visit to Pennsbury Manor that I realized my mistake. On a tour of the duplicate of William Penn’s seventeenth-century home, I noted a small, private study off a main bedroom labeled “closet.” I imagine God was amused by my youthful misunderstanding of olde English. But perhaps my clothes were made hol(e)y by more than hard farm work.
I share that anecdote to underscore the service Paul Buckley has given by translating William Penn’s classic text Primitive Christianity Revived into modern English. Just as other translators have made Fox’s and Woolman’s Journals and Barclay’s Apology more accessible, Quaker historian and theologian Buckley has helped readers navigate Penn’s writing with better understanding. And given present-day debates within Quaker circles about the nature of Quakerism, Penn’s articulation of the fundamentals of the faith are good to explore.
By Penn’s account, there probably aren’t any Quakers at any point along the Friendly spectrum who live up to the name—if one is to judge by his description of the fruits of the Quaker faith. Penn lists nine characteristics: plainness of apparel, plainness of speech, care for one another, no observing of holy days, no formal greetings, no participation in war, no oaths, no tithes, and no marrying a non-Quaker. But this list doesn’t go to the heart of what Penn sees as the core of Quaker faith. That would be a belief in the reality of the Light of Christ in all people and an orthodox Christian understanding that makes of Quakerism the only true Christian faith. Penn does not shrink from that assertion as most contemporary Quakers would!
In Buckley’s companion piece, Primitive Quakerism Revived, he picks up on the theme of how present-day Friends need to “come out of the closet” and re-assert the fundamentals of early Quaker Christian assertions. In his opinion, Friends need nothing short of a revival—a breaking through the encrusted traditions and idiosyncrasies of Quaker practice to the fresh springs that empowered the early Quakers. In calling for this revival, Buckley asks the reader for a willing suspension of disbelief, for he will gore the sacred cows of most Friends. Buckley introduces the book by listing the ten signs that Quakers need this revival and then goes on in subsequent chapters to describe the nature of a Quaker revival, review early Quakers’ understanding of the faith, show how Quaker faith and practice have changed over time, explain what a primitive Quakerism revived would look like, and call for a Quaker community that would be “leaven” in the wider world. The book ends with 12 queries, the first three of which are “Am I a Quaker—and what does that mean to me?” “Where is God in my life—and how is God manifest in the heart of my community?” and “What spiritual disciplines enliven my spirit and guide my days?”
This book will challenge those Evangelical Friends who avoid “Quaker” and “Light” language, as Buckley takes Penn and other early Friends seriously in seeing Quakerism as a revival of original Christianity, and the Inward (as opposed to “Inner”!) Light of Christ as central to Quaker Christian teaching. It will challenge Liberal Friends with an understanding of that Light as far different from the warm, fuzzy glow of “The George Fox Song” and “holding others in the Light.” Early Friends experienced it rather as a searing searchlight that exposed their sin and gave them the power to overcome it. And Buckley echoes others who recently have critiqued the over-simplified SPICES reductionism of Quakerism.
For Buckley, there are two essentials in the Quaker way of life: (1) following the guidance of the Inward Light, and (2) creating communities that model how to love one another. Given the fractious nature of Friends today, it doesn’t appear that either “essential” has been taken to heart. Perhaps Friends need to read these two books! Or at least follow Penn’s famous saying, “Let us then try what love will do.”