I’ll first mention a conversation I had with my son over Skype while he was working in Korea several years ago. He was attending a Presbyterian church with his landlord on Sundays (the only Quaker meeting in Korea is about 300 miles north, in Seoul), and had met a young woman who was a member of that church. He wanted to marry her, but in order to do so, he would have to become a member of the church. One evening (my time; it was morning for him) as we were talking, he asked, “Dad, have I ever been baptized?” Without thinking I blurted out, “Not with water you haven’t!” But I didn’t object when he decided to go forward with it. After all, the apostle Peter found a group that had been baptized with the Spirit while hearing ministry, and he baptized them (with water) almost as an afterthought (Acts 10:44–48). Does our Quaker witness to the inward baptism still make the point it once did? As with many of our testimonies, it is a witness which may have lost meaning, and therefore power.
There are those who hold that Quakers can’t be Christian because we don’t practice the ordinances, that is the rites that were considered to have been ordained by Scripture, in particular the rite of baptism (sprinkling) and of communion (the supper). The Quaker understanding has always been that baptism with water is a Jewish ritual and unnecessary, and in fact, we avoided it as a witness to the inner baptism, rather than the outward. We would use Scripture to explain our practice to outsiders (e.g. Mark 1:8 “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”), while our own understanding was guided by the Spirit directing us to the inward experience that is found in worship.
Another case of a testimony that may have lost its meaning, or at least its power, is our testimony against oaths. When I worked doing abuse investigations for the county, I would often be required to testify in court. The bailiffs got to know me and recognized that I would not take an oath. (Once, in an adjacent county where I wasn’t known, a bailiff tried to force my hand onto the Bible.) I would explain to them, and anyone else who asked, the reason for this, both scripturally (Matthew 5:34, James 5:12) and rationally (i.e. an oath implies a double standard of truth). But if I have to explain the witness, it loses its power. It becomes a quaint peculiarity. Yet it did serve to remind me of my commitment to truthfulness in all things, maybe no longer a witness to others but still very useful.
Quakerism arose out of a time of political and religious turmoil in England. The Quaker movement was a reaction against the structure and practices of the church at the time. Friends considered the church of the day to have gotten away from true Christianity and become far too dependent on creeds and rituals, outward forms that came between the worshiper and the direct, inward experience of God. The testimonies were employed in what they called “The Lamb’s War” to confront the hypocrisy of the professors (those who professed Christ but did not possess inward knowledge of him).
I am a convinced Friend, and the first book I read on Quakerism was Friends for 300 Years _by Howard Brinton (now updated as _Friends for 350 Years). He considered Quakerism to be a third branch of Christianity, neither Catholic nor Protestant. The former places authority in church tradition as well as the Scripture, and both as interpreted by the hierarchy; the latter places authority in the Bible alone. (Luther proclaimed sola scriptura, “only scripture,” and is said to have thrown an inkwell at an appearance of Christ because such an appearance was not scriptural.) Quakers, on the other hand, place authority in the Holy Spirit as experienced in the gathered meeting. Rufus Jones made the same point:
Quakerism in spirit and ideal is neither a form of Roman Catholicism nor a form of Protestantism. Protestantism in its original, essential features called for an authoritative creed, specific sacraments, and an authentic form of ordination. Quakerism at its birth was a fresh attempt to recover the way of life revealed in the New Testament, to re‐interpret and re‐live it in this present world. Its founders intended to revive apostolic Christianity.
Early Quakers seemed to have taken for granted that Quakers are Christian, but what kind of Christian? They ranged from the orthodox tendency as reflected in George Fox’s 1671 ” Letter to the Governor of Barbados,” and a less doctrinaire understanding as was presented in William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived. In the last paragraph of Penn’s “Advice to his Children” from 1699, he equates the “Holy Ghost, the spirit of truth and wisdom” with the divine principle cited by pagan philosophers.
The canonical Christian scriptures include several understandings of the nature of Christ. In particular, there are those expressed in the letters of Paul, in the synoptic Gospels, and in the writings of John. The councils and creeds that plagued the early church bear witness to the church’s divisions and search for unity.
So which primitive Christianity do we revive? And what was it? Christian orthodoxy was established in the creeds and church practices (traditions which have become authoritative in the Catholic Church). William Penn seems to have overlooked the fact that even early Christianity—maybe especially early Christianity—was split by many different understandings. That was the reason the creeds were developed: to define the true Christians. To be fair to Penn, his knowledge of early Christianity was limited. The only knowledge that was had at the time of competing sects was seen through the eyes of the orthodox writers.
Friends have long eschewed a creed. Maybe we resist being pinned down as to what we believe, but I like to think that it is more that our faith cannot be put into words; God is transcendent and beyond words. Fundamentalist Christians take the stories of the Bible literally. But God can’t be spoken of directly, and we must speak in metaphor. So the Bible is full of metaphor, and we miss the point when we take these stories literally. Jesus spoke in parables in the synoptic Gospels; why don’t we recognize the same rhetorical technique in the rest of the Bible?
Our language is drawn from Scripture even where we don’t realize it. The very name “Friends” comes from John 15:14–15. The Bible was a source of inspiration, as well as of images used as shorthand, causing the reader to go inward for meaning. Take my favorite example: the reference in the Journal of George Fox to coming back through the flaming sword, an obvious reference to Genesis 3:22–24, and Fox’s way of telling us in as few words as possible, that he was in no need of baptism to wash away original sin. (Was he claiming perfection?) Unless one understands the story of the expulsion from the garden (and one doesn’t need to accept the story literally), one will fail to understand Fox’s message. It is when Friends were presenting arguments to other Christians that they used Scripture as proof texts for their arguments. This use is shown in the “Letter to Charles II” of 1660, which we now consider the seminal declaration of our peace testimony.
Rufus Jones was an Orthodox Maine Quaker who moved to the Philadelphia area and taught at Haverford College. Many consider it to be he who introduced the mystical strain into Quakerism (we have always been prophetic). Jones tried to show Quakerism as a development of mystical movements in continental Europe going back to Meister Eckhart and the fourteenth century. They were expressions of Christian mysticism, but as mysticism at its highest level goes beyond language and thought, the Christian language falls away. So Christian mysticism in Quakerism quickly becomes pure mysticism and may lose its Christian element.
But it is language with which we often have difficulty. Today the real issue is our language in vocal ministry. Just as political correctness is a concern in secular settings, among Friends the matter is one of theological correctness. Friends have many words for Christ: Holy Spirit, Seed, the Light (inward Light or Light within), the Inward Teacher, Guide, Divine Presence or Space, and Jesus are some that come to mind. All these names (except Jesus which refers to an actual personage) have the advantage of being gender neutral.
Some years back, I accompanied a woman, traveling in the ministry, at a meeting near my own. She spoke of the experience of Christ. After meeting, as they were having introductions, one member of the meeting addressed her directly and said, “We don’t use that kind of language in this meeting.” This kind of eldering stifles ministry. We lose the power of our ministry when we have to think ahead to guess the effect our words will have on the listener rather than whether they are coming through us from the Spirit. We need to feel free to speak the words as they are given to us.
Friends sometime say that the purpose of ministry is to bring the listener to Christ and leave him or her there. My companion was clearly not able to do that for at least one Friend. Yet I have to assume she was true to her Guide. We don’t know how others in the room may have been affected.
The language of Friends is replete with metaphors taken from Scripture. A prime example is the Light. For some of us the Light is rhetorical, and for some of us, it is experiential. Robert Barclay considered the gospel of John to be the Quaker gospel, and in John 1:9 he found the Quaker text: “That was true light, which enlightens everyone that comes into the world.” In chapter 3 of John the Light is expounded upon:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
Yes, the light exposes our faults, but it also enlightens us and heals us. When someone is sick or having difficulties, we hold them in the Light. But just as Christian mysticism becomes just mysticism (for good or ill) when it loses the language in which it is expressed, in the same way, our theology of the Light loses its connection with the Light of Christ, and the Light as it is expressed in the Gospel of John.
We proclaim continuing revelation as a core belief. It took 100 years for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to move from an acceptance of slavery to a denial of it. The aforementioned “Letter to the Governor of Barbados” includes a defense of slavery. By the 1800s North American Quakers were active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to reach Canada. We continue to seek continuing revelation around issues of social justice (race, in particular, continues to be an issue for Philadelphia Friends) and same‐sex marriage.
But we must always remember that continuing revelation implies that it is continuing from somewhere. Our roots are in Christianity, and whether we believe in the salvific power, or even the centrality, of Jesus Christ, we can’t avoid the roots out of which we grew. To cut off those roots is to deprive the Religious Society of Friends of power and life. Quakerism would become a dry intellectual exercise. To my mind, that would be a great loss. Without our Christian roots and the language that goes with it, we deny the power that that language gives us, and those who would cut themselves off from that language are missing a great deal.