Gwynedd Friends Meeting Religious Education Notes

Early Friends Use of the Bible

Notes from a talk given at Gwynedd Meeting

on November 10, 2002

By Gene Hillman

Before we can appreciate the place of the Bible for early Friends we need to understand the place of the Bible in England at that time. The Reformation began in Germany with Luther in 1517, and continued in Switzerland with Zwingli and Calvin. Luther was objecting to some of the more questionable practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Zwingli went a step further and questioned any practices not authorized by the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church based its authority on scripture (The Bible) and tradition (through what we would call "continuing revelation" except that this was seen to happen only through the church hierarchy). Luther was willing to accept practices not prohibited by scripture, but Zwingli and later Calvin only accepted that which was in scripture.

The Reformation was enacted in England in 1534 under Henry VIII by the Act of Supremacy. In England, political considerations, particularly of the succession, weighed heavily in this, with theology being secondary. Henry's action replaced the Pope as head of the church with himself, the king. He took over church lands but other than that not much changed. This didn't go far enough to satisfy the reformers. Political and religious issues continued to be intertwined, and contributed to instability for the rest of the 16th century.

Two forms of Calvinism found in England were Presbyterianism and Puritanism. The former was named after Calvin's model of church government by elders (presbyters), and had taken root in Scotland. Puritanism was named after the effort of the reformers to purify the church of non-scriptural accretions. One doctrine of Calvinism which we will mention later is the total depravity of human nature from which fallen man is unable to save himself.

Before the Authorized Version (AV) of The Bible was published in 1611 by authority of King James I (hence it is known as "the King James Bible") there were two English translations in use, The Geneva Bible and the Bishops Bible. Printing itself hadn't been around that long, and the combination of Bibles translated in the common language, and available through printing, meant almost anyone had access to this book that was, for the reformers at least, the basic authority in all things religious, and therefore also political in a society in which the two were inseparable.

The Bible was well known in 17th century England and the language of scripture was used freely. One of my favorite examples is "the flaming sword." Fox describes a mystical experience he had in 1648, an early opening, even before Pendle Hill and Firbank Fell.

" Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue.

I was at a stand in my mind whether I should practise physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of things were so opened to me by the Lord. But I was immediately taken up in spirit to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam's innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus that should never fall. And the Lord showed me that such as were faithful to Him, in the power and light of Christ, should come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell; in which the admirable works of the creation, and the virtues thereof, may be known, through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made." (Journal p.27, all Journal references are to the Nickalls edition)

The sword is from Genesis 3:24 (all quotations are from the NRSV though Fox probably would have used the Geneva Bible, or possibly the AV), after the man and woman commit the original sin Yahweh was concerned that they would next eat from the tree of life and so "He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life." The reference to the naming of the animals is also from Genesis (2:19). He draws from The Bible without attribution confidant that his reader will know the reference and it will be meaningful in much the way the name "1984" evokes for us images of a puritanical (in the modern sense) totalitarian state.

He is making a profound statement about the human condition and his relationship to God (remember the Calvinists believed in human depravity about which we could do nothing). He said we can go back through the flaming sword to that state we were in before the fall. Sin is not a necessary condition. Perfection is possible (though few, maybe only two, actually claimed it). Fox was using Biblical language and imagery to make his point.

Friends were steeped in the Bible, but not in the way many others were. It was used by many for "proof texts" in which one would cite verses to prove one's point, often taking them out of context. The other side of the argument would then find texts that refuted the first. For Friends The Bible was not "a rule or form to walk by" (that quote, by the way, at the beginning of our Faith & Practice, is brings to mind another excellent example of a scriptural quotation inserted without attribution. It is from the elders meeting at Balby and is at the beginning of our, and many other, books of discipline (Faith & Practice).

Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of the light which is pure and holy may be guided, and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, - not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.

And it quotes without citation Paul [2 Corinthians 3:6] in the last line). The Bible was not a rule book. Without the spirit that inspired them they were without power. On page 34 of his Journal Fox says:

 " I was sent to turn people from darkness to the Light, that they might receive Christ Jesus; for to as many as should receive Him in His Light, I saw He would give power to become the sons of God; which power I had obtained by receiving Christ. I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth.

Yet I had no slight esteem of the holy Scriptures. They were very precious to me; for I was in that Spirit by which they were given forth; and what the Lord opened in me I afterwards found was agreeable to them. I could speak much of these things, and many volumes might be written upon them; but all would prove too short to set forth the infinite love, wisdom, and power of God, in preparing, fitting, and furnishing me for the service to which He had appointed me; letting me see the depths of Satan on the one hand, and opening to me, on the other hand, the divine mysteries of His own everlasting kingdom."

It is the Holy Spirit that is primary. In 1652 Fox is brought before Sessions. He compares himself to Paul before Festus and Agrippa, and defends himself against charges of blasphemy by citing scripture (p. 134-5), then continues on page 136:

" I was moved of the Lord to speak; and as soon as I began, priest Marshall, the orator for the rest of the priests, went his way. That which I was moved to declare was this: that the holy Scriptures were given forth by the Spirit of God; and that all people must come to the Spirit of God in themselves in order to know God and Christ, of whom the prophets and apostles learnt: and that by the same Spirit all men might know the holy Scriptures. For as the Spirit of God was in them that gave forth the Scriptures, so the same Spirit must be in all them that come to understand the Scriptures. By this Spirit they might have fellowship with the Father, with the Son, with the Scriptures, and with one another: and without this Spirit they can know neither God, Christ, nor the Scriptures, nor have a right fellowship one with another.

I had no sooner spoken these words than about half a dozen priests, that stood behind me, burst into a passion. One of them, whose name was Jackus, amongst other things that he spake against the Truth, said that the Spirit and the letter were inseparable. I replied, "Then every one that hath the letter hath the Spirit; and they might buy the Spirit with the letter of the Scriptures."

This plain discovery of darkness in the priest moved Judge Fell and Colonel West to reprove them openly, and tell them that according to that position they might carry the Spirit in their pockets as they did the Scriptures. Upon this the priests, being confounded and put to silence, rushed out in a rage against the justices, because they could not have their bloody ends upon me. The justices, seeing the witnesses did not agree, and perceiving that they were brought to answer the priests' envy, and finding that all their evidences were not sufficient in law to make good their charge against me, discharged me."

Friends today would say the Word is Christ; The Bible is the words of God. You can buy the words and carry them around in your pocket but in your pocket they will not transform you.

Margaret Fell Fox, wife of Judge Fell until his death and later wife of George Fox, is also notable in her use of The Bible in responding to those who took literally Paul's injunction against women speaking in church. In Women Speaking Justified she cites proof text against proof text in refuting those who would use The Bible to exclude women from leadership in the church but shows the position against women to be out of the spirit of Christ.

Robert Barclay, raised Presbyterian in Scotland, educated by Catholics (Jesuits?) in France, wrote the first and possibly only systematic theology for Quakers (after all, we are an experiential religion). He put it in terms of a fountain. Speaking of The Bible he says:

"From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints, have proceeded the scriptures of truth, which contain, 1. A faithful historical account of the actings of God's people in divers ages, with many singular and remarkable providences attending them. 2. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come. 3. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ, held forth in divers precious declarations, exhortations, and sentences, which, by the moving of God's Spirit, were at several times, and upon sundry occasions, spoken and written unto some churches and their pastors: nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Nevertheless, as that which giveth a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty; for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that guide by which the saints are led into all truth: therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader. And seeing we do therefore receive and believe the scriptures, because they proceed from the Spirit; therefore also the Spirit is more originally and principally the rule ... "(From The Apology, summery of Proposition 3)

It is the spirit that is primary. This can be see in the testimonies.

The testimonies were to confront the vanities of the professors (those who professed Christ but may not have possessed what they professed). I will take as an example the peace testimony. In 1651 George Fox was in prison in Derby (Journal, p. 65) when he was approached by Commonwealth Commissioners (Calvinists to be sure) recruiting for the army. Fox's fellow prisoners wanted him for their captain so the commissioners offered him a captaincy because of his "virtue." Fox threw back at them the word "virtue" with his famous statement "I told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James' doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars." The virtue they were talking about wasn't the kind of virtue Fox knew. But he explains what he means by citing the Epistle of James. James (the brother of Jesus, president of the church council in Jerusalem, and whose bone box was just discovered) speaks of war in chapter 4, verse 1-3:

"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings [lusts in the AV which is the word Fox used] that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures."

Fox spoke of an inner certainty that would not allow him to take up arms. He cited James to explain that certainty to these Calvinists. The spirit was primary and scripture validated it. The Declaration of 1660 (the one written in January 1661 according to our calendar, Journal p. 398 ff.) also cites James, as well as other passages, but they are preliminary to the line

... the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move onto it; and we do certainly know , and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons ....

It is the spirit that guides us but we know it is the Holy Spirit because it is consistent with scripture.

It is interesting the Epistle of James (the brother of Jesus, President of the church council in Jerusalem in Acts, and whose bone box was recently found) was cited. It was also most commonly cited in support of the refusal to take oaths (James 5:12) over the sermon on the mount (compare Matthew 5:33-37). I wonder if Luther's contempt for James (its emphasis on works rather that the faith Luther stressed caused Luther to call it "a right strawey epistle" and consider leaving it out of his translation) played a part in that.

There are two texts that do deserve mention. First is the verse that has often been called "the Quaker text" John 1:9 "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." The second is the verse from which our name Friends is derived, John 15:15, but I'll start from verse 12 to give the context. "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

Another use of scripture was in symbolic actions. The most famous was the entry of James Nayler into the city of Bristol on a colt in imitation of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. For this he was arrested and tried before Parliament for blasphemy, convicted, and punished by having his tongue bored through, a 'B' branded on his forehead (for blasphemy) and whipped. Friends "went naked for a sign" to symbolize the moral nakedness of society in imitation of Isaiah who on God's command went naked for three years (chapter 20).

The Bible permeated the language, thought, and actions of early Friends. We can't understand Fox's Journal without some understanding of that book that stands at the beginning of continuing revelation, and in itself represents God's progressive revelation to the Hebrew people through a succession of evermore inclusive covenants of love.



The Religious Society of Friends is not (or, at least, shouldn't be) a religion created anew by everyone who comes into it. Most Friends today are convinced Friends, not birthright. We bring the experience (baggage) of other understandings of Christianity, or even other religions or no religion. We believe the inward light (John 1:9) is sufficient to guide us, but we need a language so we can express to each other our experience along the way and thereby make this a common spiritual journey.

The Bible is a record of God's relationship to the Hebrew people, and records His progressive self revelation to them (the development of their understanding of His nature and will for them over time, imperfect always, but becoming clearer until the essence, love, became a light to the nations (Isaiah 51:4) in the life and teaching of Jesus. It is the starting point for the continuing revelation we speak of so often, and provides a common spiritual language for us, and between us and early Friends, and if for no other reason remains important for Friends today.

Early Friends built on a great spiritual heritage. Ours is an experiential religion and we build on the experiences of early Friends through reading the Bible as they did (allowing the spirit to speak through the words by focusing on that spirit as the words are read), reading their journals (records of the experiences of weighty Friends who preceded us), and reading our history (the corporate experience of our religious society). The Bible and these two genre should make up the core of our adult first day school program.



I quote from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, which uses inclusive language except in those cases where the original language requires a specific gender. Keep in mind though that this is not what early Friends would have used.

The quotation from Barclay's Apology is from George Amoss's web site . The full Apology is on line at , and in two versions from the Friends General Conference Bookstore (Dean Friday's "modern" edition or the original from Quaker Heritage Press). By the way, Fox's Journal (Rufus Jones edition) is also at, at

Margaret Fell's "Women Speaking Justified" is available in A Sincere and Constant Love edited by Terry H. Smith Wallace.

For those looking for specific texts and how they were used, I recommend Arthur Berk's "George Fox and the Bible" and Esther Murer's unpublished manuscript "The Biblical Roots of Quakerism" (both available from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting library).

Doug Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox points out many uses made of scripture, and has an index of scripture citations (this is an excellent book for first day school discussion and there is a study guide available from the publisher at Friends United Meeting press). The first chapter summarizes the historical context of the Quaker movement.


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