When planning a two-week walking tour in the Yorkshire hills of northern England, I realized the foot path we had chosen, the Dales Way, would take us through the heart of the region where George Fox preached in the all-important summer of 1652. We spent the last two days of our trip at Swarthmoor Hall. Once there, we immersed ourselves: wandering through the seventeenth-century manor house; sitting in the stillness of the Quaker meeting given by Fox to early Friends; exploring the burial grounds where Margaret Fell lies in an unmarked grave; and on a blustery, gray morning, walking the sands of Morecambe Bay. I returned home with a much clearer sense of who Fox was, and of the world he lived in.
With early Quakers much on my mind, I began reading Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels soon after my return. Discovered in the 1940s, the ancient texts were found buried in a large earthen jar near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Scholars place the texts as early as the first and second centuries, around the time of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. References to certain of the Gnostics made by bishops in the second century and early orthodox Christian writers, like Irenaeus and Tertullian, reinforce their conclusions.
At first, I made no connection between the Gnostics and Fox, but Pagels’s description of the Gnostics teaching on the “true church” and their writings about Jesus as a teacher and a spiritual guide caught my attention. Not only that, but the Gnostics were critical of the early Christian church and differed in what they thought made a true Christian. The Gnostics denied the authority of bishops and priests and understood spiritual enlightenment to be obtainable on a personal basis without priests or bishops as intermediaries. They thought salvation could be achieved through knowledge of oneself at the deepest level, hence the word Gnostic, which comes from the Greek word gnosis meaning “knowledge gained from insight.”
The belief that salvation came from inner knowledge was only one example. Gnostics believed that whoever received the Spirit was communicating with the Divine, a concept directly challenging to the authority of the church. What really caught my attention was the discovery that Gnostics believed in a person’s limitless search for understanding—continuing revelation. Gnostics called themselves “Sons of Light.”
If some of this sounds familiar to us as Quakers, it should. Early Quakers called themselves the “Children of Light,” and Fox preached a message that echoed many of the themes found in the Gnostic Gospels, although he probably would have been quick to deny the veracity of Gnostics as true Christians.
During the first and second centuries when the early Christian church was beginning to organize and define itself, Gnostics were considered heretical. By the end of the fourth century, their writings had been purged, and their followers repressed, which may explain why many of the Gnostic Gospels went undiscovered until the twentieth century.
Ideas and beliefs surprisingly similar to the Gnostics, suppressed for almost 1,500 years, re-appeared in seventeenth-century England during Fox’s time. It was a period of religious unrest and contention, beginning in the sixteenth century when King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church. By the time Charles I came to power in 1625, civil and religious discord could no longer be contained, and England burst into full civil war. Puritans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Church of England clergy struggled to either hold onto what power and legitimacy they had, or demand more presence at the religious table.
The concept of personal religious experience and the emphasis on the “spirit within,” rather than outward signs and sacraments, were radical ideas spread by a myriad of splinter groups during the English Reformation. Fox was one of many who had turned away from what he considered a corrupt and bloated church, one based on dry dogma and priests whom he accused of making the gospels into a marketable trade for their own profit. Like many other dissenters, Fox looked to the primitive Christian church as a simpler, purer form of Christian faith.
The religious unrest in England echoed many of the struggles going on in Palestine as Christianity was emerging. Orthodox Jews conflicted with Pharisaic teachings based on the Torah. Radical Zealots sought to overthrow their Roman occupiers as well as the control exercised by High Priests in the Temple. There is speculation by religious scholars that influences from Persian Zarathustrians, Buddhism, and even Hinduism can be found in some of the Gnostic Gospels.
To build a strong foundation in the midst of such unrest, the early Christian church laid out beliefs and practices to identify and unify their followers. They stressed the hierarchy of bishops, deacons, and priests whose authority derived from apostolic succession. They held the canon of the New Testament as inviolate. They stressed the importance of sacraments like baptism, confession, and holy communion. None of these practices was acceptable to the Gnostics, or to Fox.
Gnostics understood a variety of differing views of God. Some described several gods; some contended that the divine was female; some retold the story of creation. Jesus was also viewed through very different lenses. Some thought he was both a spirit and corporeal body, and some believed his crucifixion was not really experienced by his corporeal body. Others believed that Jesus was not human at all, but a spirit that adapted itself to fit human perceptions. None of these beliefs would have been accepted by Fox, but there are texts that invite comparison.
Fox wrote in his Journal that he had been commanded to turn people to the inward light in order to experience salvation. In a book called the Treaty of Resurrection, a Gnostic described resurrection as the moment of inner enlightenment when a person becomes spiritually alive. The Gospel of Truth, another Gnostic text, put it another way, declaring that people contained within themselves a light that couldn’t fail.
Fox described his moment of spiritual enlightenment as one of great happiness. He wrote that he had given up on priests and preachers and learned men because none of them could help him in his search. When all his hopes had disappeared, a voice came to him saying there was only one, Jesus Christ, who could speak to his condition.
A surprisingly similar concept can be found in the Apocalypse of Peter, a Gnostic Gospel which reports that Peter had his own spiritual awakening when he saw Christ in a trance. Christ informed Peter that he, Christ, was the intellectual spirit filled with radiant light. Like Fox, the Gnostics responded to these personal religious experiences with intense joy.
Neither Fox nor the Gnostics believed that baptism or other sacraments instituted by the church could sanctify or save a person. Fox said quite specifically that baptism would never save anyone. The Gospel of Philip warned that baptism was an empty ritual, and that the profession of a creed did not make a true Christian. Both Fox and the Gnostics emphasized that true Christians were known by their actions, by how they lived their lives, not by what they said they believed.
Another striking example of similar beliefs is the understanding of the “true church.” Gnostics believed that a true church had no walls, and that it was characterized by the union of its members with God and with one another. One Gnostic writer declared that the church itself was principally spirit, a spiritual place for spiritual people. Similarly, Fox, on many different occasions, denied the sanctity of churches built by human hands. He taught that the church was the people and their unity with God who was their head.
Both the Gnostics and Fox warned that inner knowledge and spiritual discernment also meant suffering and continual seeking, and that the spiritual seeker was often tempted and troubled by his discoveries. Both believed healing and salvation came from within. But there were differences about what caused the suffering. Fox believed in sin, and he taught that redemption often came through opening the heart and soul to God’s loving presence. Gnostics believed that ignorance caused suffering, and that deep inner knowledge would bring salvation. Both saw Jesus as a teacher of Truth, the spiritual guide.
We know that Fox was a dissenter, a spiritual wanderer who came to rely on the inner voice of God, and a man who envisioned a living church. He dissented against priests, steeple houses, and learned men, whom he thought of as at best, confused, and at worst, allied with the devil. The Gnostics were also dissenters who denied the legitimacy of the church, who believed the true church was not a building but consisted of people, believers, led by God. Gnostics were considered heretical in their time. Fox was accused and tried for blasphemy.
Gnostics were never able to gain legitimacy or organize into a unified sect, probably because of their belief in the importance of individual spiritual enlightenment, enlightenment by different paths, and that some were more enlightened than others. Their focus on individuality and personal inner exploration led some scholars to describe them as solipsists, but Elaine Pagels disagrees. From her research, she came to believe that the Gnostics saw community as integral to the spiritual strength of the church. The importance of community may be one reason why Fox and his followers were able to build a religion that has survived for 350 years without creeds, priestly authority, or outward signs. Quakers set up a practice to test and ground individual leadings and spiritual practices in the religious community.
The Gnostics were ultimately suppressed by the dominant Christian church, but it is interesting to contemplate how ideas and beliefs that had lain dormant for 1,500 years re-appeared during the Reformation in England. Maybe, as Carl Jung believed, there is such a thing as the “collective unconscious”: a deep reserve of knowing that needs only a catalyst to regenerate into consciousness. Jung also believed in synchronicity, the mysterious link between seemingly unconnected events that create a new dimension of understanding. These are only speculations about the reasons for so many common ideas and understandings having resurfaced with no apparent historic connection. I wonder what George Fox would have said.