Early Friends and Atonement

Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756–1827), “Quakers Meeting.” Watercolor with pen and gray-brown and red-brown ink over graphite. Circa 1810. Image via Google Art Project on Wikimedia Commons.

Enlightened to Serve a Living God

In 1648, George Fox was 24 years old. He was nearing the end of a powerful period of personal transformation and already starting small, quiet worship groups in the English Midlands. They called themselves “Children of the Light,” but they were not making much of a stir yet. In his Journal, Fox records:

There was another great meeting of professors [orthodox Puritans]. . . . They were discoursing of the blood of Christ; and as they were discoursing of it, I saw, through the immediate opening of the invisible Spirit, the blood of Christ. And I cried out among them, and said, “Do ye not see the blood of Christ? See it in your hearts, to sprinkle your hearts and consciences from dead works, to serve the living God” [see Hebrews 9:14]; for I saw it, the blood of the New Covenant, how it came into the heart. This startled the professors, who would have the blood only without them, and not in them.

Christian understandings of atonement generate in various ways around the death of the historical Jesus and the blood he shed on the Cross. In The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (2002), the Quaker New Testament scholar Walter Wink concludes: “Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. There can be no ‘correct’ or ‘true’ atonement theories in the exclusive sense.”

Fox grew up afflicted by the failure of the English Reformation to produce a more authentic faith. He came of age as competing Reformation agendas came to a stalemate of creeds, sacramental observances, and outright civil war. As he came through a period of deep despair, Fox received insights that converged with those of other radicals. They renounced all creeds, outward sacraments, and war. In the quotation above, we hear Fox reconceive the blood of Christ as an inward, spiritual reality—but one that produces concrete, moral outcomes.

Atonement as reconciliation is a continual inward and outward movement. We are reconciled inwardly with God, the Oneness. We also reconcile outwardly with our fellow human beings, across our identities and differences. 

This understanding of atonement was not transactional. That is, it was not an agreement off in heaven between Christ and the Father on our behalf, to forgive us of sin. It was instead an intense existential crisis that transformed forlorn, guilt-obsessed Seekers into empowered Quakers in the 1650s. Puritans preached that there is no overcoming of sin in this life, so we must continually be washed clean by the blood of Christ. By contrast, Quakers experienced the transforming power of the light of Christ to overcome sin. As Fox summarized, “The same Christ who died for all enlightens all.” He understood Christ’s blood to be his life, “and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4).

My book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience follows the personal transformations of several Seekers and other radicals, and how they coalesced into a coherent Quaker movement. Sarah Blackborow was a Seeker who became a Quaker when the movement reached London in 1654. In A Visit to the Spirit in Prison (1658), she addressed the thousands of Seekers who had gone from teacher to teacher and group to group:

Wisdom hath uttered forth her voice to you, but the eye and ear which is abroad, waiting upon the sound of words without you, is that which keeps you from your Teacher within you; and this is the reason that in all your seeking you have found nothing; such as your seeking is, such is your finding. . . . Therefore . . . come out of the many things; there’s but one thing needful [see Luke 10:40–42], keep to it . . . that into my Mother’s house you may come, and into the chamber of her that conceived me, where you may embrace, and be embraced, of my dearly beloved one [see Song of Sol. 3:1–4]. Love is his name, Love is his Nature, Love is his life.

Friends by no means discounted the historical Jesus and the importance of his death. Indeed, as we follow the gospel story, we are drawn to this mysterious human being, the “Son of Man,” and we identify with him in his suffering and death. In that process of identification, he “dies for all.” That is, we discover a pattern we can follow. We find courage to die to our “dead works,” whether they be sinful habits or even our best efforts. We are enlightened to serve a living God, beyond our best motives and worst tendencies. In this process, which takes time, we are baptized spiritually into the death of Jesus (Romans 6:3–4). And over a lifetime, we will likely experience several deaths and rebirths.

In the eighteenth century, Quakers published a series of volumes titled Piety Promoted. It was a collection of Friends’ dying words. These were collected in the conviction that the wisdom and peace expressed by dying Friends demonstrated that they had already been through many baptisms of the Spirit. This was just the last one before moving finally, wholly into the eternal Oneness.

Atonement is literally “at-one-ment.” The Quaker testimony of integrity is basically a lifelong process of atonement: becoming an integrated, integral human being. In his Pendle Hill pamphlet, The Testimony of Integrity (1991), Wilmer Cooper argues persuasively that integrity is the root from which all Quaker testimony grows. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He didn’t mean: never make a mistake. The New Testament Greek word for “perfect” is teleios, which means “whole,” “mature,” “complete.” Thus, we move into perfection as we follow the inward teacher, as we learn to let go not only of bad habits but of selfish motives, prejudices, self-serving ideologies, and wasteful consumption. We let go of things that are not really who we are, who God created us to be. We become more integral, whole human beings. To use Fox’s phrase, we learn to “mind the oneness.” We learn the beatitude of purity of heart (Matthew 5:8), which Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard summarizes as willing one thing.

Image by sar14ev

Atonement is also what the apostle Paul called “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:11–21). We are never reconciled just by ourselves. Atonement as reconciliation is a continual inward and outward movement. We are reconciled inwardly with God, the Oneness. We also reconcile outwardly with our fellow human beings, across our identities and differences. This often includes forgiving and being forgiven. We also reconcile ourselves to live in balance with the whole of creation, making room for all its species and the balances of its ecosystems. This takes time, but we keep moving into that maturity: that wholeness that connects with everything. In my 2014 book A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation, I suggest that sustainability is not just another new Quaker testimony: it is the sum total of our faith and practice. It sustains us in our work for a sustainable life upon the earth.

Sometimes we must atone for past mistakes. The apostle Paul had once been a persecutor of his fellow Jews who had become Christians. After his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ, he risked his life many times, suffering beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and eventual martyrdom in Rome. But through all that, he served as a major catalyst for the spread of the early Christian movement. 

Many centuries later in colonial New Jersey, the Quaker minister John Woolman demonstrated a similar life of atonement. In his early 20s, he violated his own conscience when he wrote the contract for his employer’s sale of an enslaved woman. That painful experience goaded him to become a key figure in moving Friends to renounce slaveholding. His Journal records his travels and his humble but persuasive labors with Quaker slaveholders to free their servants. 

All of us make mistakes. Sometimes we can confess our errors to the one or ones we have wronged and ask forgiveness. Other times the best we can do is turn remorse into fuel to do better. As we hold up to the light all that we are and all that we do, God’s love keeps integrating us. The warmth of that love is a refining fire.

Atonement is not the appeasement of an angry God who sacrificed his Son on our behalf. It is the perpetual drawings of love from our Creator, who still believes in us, and who sent Jesus as a model and guide for our way back home.

Atonement is a nonviolent life process. But it does generate conflict. Early Friends waged a relentless “Lamb’s War,” a nonviolent campaign to disestablish the Church of England and to confront a variety of unjust, unequal, violent, and immoral social norms in English society. They suffered imprisonment, beatings, heavy fines, and over 450 deaths in England and Wales for their confrontational witness. But they also drew many thousands into their movement. Their witness ended the world as people had known and participated in it. And it opened up a new creation for any who dared to enter and enact it. All this was their ministry of reconciliation—but stubbornly unreconciled to an unjust and violent social order.

One skirmish in the Lamb’s War offers a good example of atonement. James Parnell was a teenager from the North of England who was drawn into the movement and quickly became a prophetic witness in the streets of Colchester, Essex. He drew crowds that sometimes turned into angry mobs, enraged by his radical message. On one such occasion in 1655, a local butcher took up a barrel stave and beat Parnell to the ground, saying, “Take that in the name of Jesus Christ.” Lying in the street, he answered, “Friend, I do accept it in the name of Jesus Christ.” Parnell was later arrested and died under miserable conditions in Colchester Castle. He was the first martyr of the movement. But Stephen Crisp, who recorded that street incident, was among those reached by Parnell’s witness and himself became a leading Quaker minister.

Today, Quaker nonviolent direct action is seldom considered in terms of an atonement ministry of reconciliation. Yet we find those dynamics in the witness of a modern Quaker activist such as Bayard Rustin, who became a key strategist for the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin was in turn a mentor to George Lakey of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, who carries on the strategies of nonviolent direct action through Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) and other campaigns. He amply witnesses the hopeful, persistent, reconciling spirit of love in his recent memoir, Dancing with History, which I reviewed in the October 2022 Friends Journal.

Atonement is not the appeasement of an angry God who sacrificed his Son on our behalf. It is the perpetual drawings of love from our Creator, who still believes in us, and who sent Jesus as a model and guide for our way back home.

Doug Gwyn

Doug Gwyn is a retired Friends minister living in Richmond, Ind. He attends two Richmond congregations: First Friends Meeting (New Association of Friends), where he is a member, and Clear Creek Meeting (Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting). His books can be found at douglasgwyn.life, and his music at brothersdoug.me.

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