Quaker Christian Ways and Roots

Beech tree roots, Creative Commons © by Stephen Craven.

In his 1950 Pendle Hill pamphlet, Prophetic Ministry, Quaker historian Howard Brinton writes: “The three main types of Christianity” include “Catholic, Protestant, and Quaker; the altar-centered, the sermon-centered and, at least in intention, the prophetic” or experience-centered. In his book Friends for 300 Years published two years later, Brinton spends several pages on Quakerism as a unique type of Christianity. The precedent for doing so, he says, was “set by Quakers of the seventeenth century,” specifically, by Robert Barclay in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity.

Barclay and other early Friends fervently distinguished their beliefs from those of Catholics and other Protestant groups. “Sometimes, for the sake of completeness,” Brinton writes, “Barclay also brings in a fourth position which he calls the Socinian, representing the rationalistic point of view” (Socinians were skeptical of many elements of Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ).

As an example of such distinctions, Brinton cites a section in the Apology in which Barclay defends the Quaker belief in “immediate revelation through the Spirit” which they considered a primary source for Truth. Says Brinton:

To those who argue the Spirit cannot be trusted as a guide to Truth, Barclay writes: “neither tradition, nor the scriptures, nor reason which the Papists [Catholics], Protestants and Socinians do respectively make the rule of their faith, are in any whit more certain.”

In summary, Brinton says, “The Catholics disagree about tradition; the Protestants about the meaning of Scriptures; and the Socinians about the conclusions of reason,” and “in the last resort they all depend on the Spirit which produced all three.” (A quick glance at church history and current events will show how each of these guides to Truth— tradition, scripture, reason, and being led by the Spirit—can be corrupted and manipulated. Seeking the Spirit within as a source of Truth is at least no worse than the other methods.)

In a telling comparison of the three approaches to Christianity, Brinton, a former university physics professor, sets up an analogy to different teaching/learning styles.

The Catholic approach is like a lecture or demonstration class. The Catholic emphasis on apostolic authority and ritual during worship focuses on the priest and the holy mass as a lecture focuses on the professor who conducts and explains experiments.

Protestant worship, with its emphasis on Scripture as authority explained by a preacher, is like a lecture class in which students listen to an expert expound on an authoritative text.

Brinton’s analogy assumes a class subject matter with underlying truth and substance, i.e. Christian faith and practice, though a Socinian/rationalist approach might involve a seminar-class discussion of whether the subject matter holds any truth worth studying.

The Quaker approach—”the laboratory method” in Brinton’s analogy—is characterized by a more participatory, inductive teaching/learning style in which students are actively involved. Brinton explains it this way: “the laboratory method is not unlike the Quaker meeting in which direct experience is sought and where words are used from time to time as they arise from, or lead to, direct experience.” This method involves more questions than answers, more exploration than memorization, and more mystery than certainty.

There are ways to be Christian, and early Friends distinguished them according to source of spiritual authority. Trusting their inner spiritual experiences as primary, the first Friends wisely used a combination of the other three sources to test and discern the validity of spiritual leadings:

  •   authority vested in persons and tradition
  •   authority vested in a text
  •   authority vested in reason
  •   authority vested in experience

“Apostle of the Quakers”

Among the sources of this Quaker approach to Christianity is Jacob Boehme (1575–1624). Brinton, Rufus Jones, and others have pointed out his influence on early Friends, including George Fox in his Journal. So influential was Boehme that one writer, Henry More, leader of the Platonists, referred to him as “the Apostle of the Quakers.” Boehme’s writings are, like Fox’s, sometimes difficult to understand. Here is a simpler passage as an example:

If I had no other book than only the book which I am myself so, I have books enough. The whole Bible lies in me if I have Christ’s spirit. If I read myself, I read God’s book and you my brothers are the alphabet which I read in myself, for my mind and will finds you within me. I wish from my heart you would also find me.

At the time, Brinton’s three types of Christians responded in predictable ways to such theology.

First, though their tradition has a rich history of mysticism, Catholics were suspicious of Boehme because he was a Protestant (a Lutheran) and thus functioned outside the apostolic tradition; he was condemned as a heretic.

Because in these lines and elsewhere he claims authority other than canonical Scripture, Boehme’s Protestant contemporaries accused him of blasphemy. Another example of his blasphemous ideas was that Christ was incarnated, not as “a sacrificial offering to cancel out human sins,” but as “an offering of love for humanity, showing God’s willingness to bear the suffering that had been a necessary aspect of creation.” After his first book was published, Boehme was forbidden by Protestant authorities to publish anything else and was run out of Görlitz, his home town in Bohemia; he moved to Dresden, where he continued to write and publish.

As for the Quakers, they embraced Boehme’s unusual theology, emerging as it did from life-changing spiritual encounters such as the time when, gazing at a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish, Boehme experienced what he called “illumination.” He writes:

 the gate was opened unto me, so that in one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at an University. For I saw and knew the Being of all Beings, the Byss and Abyss; . . . the descent, and origin of this world, and of all creatures, through the divine Wisdom.

In Boehme’s writings, his Quaker contemporaries found affirmation of their own experiences with the Light. They embraced Boehme, read and quoted him widely; his language and theology echo throughout the writings of early Friends.

Comprehensive Christianity

For early Friends, Christianity was behavior, not just belief. Though they were critical of “professing Christians” who valued tradition and Scripture above inner guidance from the Source itself, early Friends were all-encompassing in their acceptance of those who practiced behavior advocated by Jesus even if they had never heard of him. One cannot imagine a more comprehensive definition of “Christian” than Barclay’s. Among the gathered people that constitute the Christian “church” for Quakers, he writes:

are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, (though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures) as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts. . . . There may be members therefore of this catholic [i.e. universal] church both among the heathens, Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who . . . are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God and there-through become true members of this [universal] church [parentheses added for clarity].

The first Friends were Christian, but different from what we commonly associate today with the term Christian. The first Friends would not care if we called ourselves Christians or not; they wouldn’t care how we worshiped, whether in a synagogue, mosque, or meetinghouse, in silent or programmed worship, so long as we practiced Christian behavior, which is to love and be tender with one another (even those we disagree with—even other Quakers we disagree with); to acknowledge equal worth in all persons; to help the poor; feed the hungry; support the oppressed; work for justice; avoid violence; judge not; seek and honor Truth; and remain humble in the face of great Mystery.

Donne Hayden

Donne Hayden is a recorded minister and convinced Friend (convinced that all the first Friends were convinced Friends!). She served seven years as minister at Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting and is still a member. She retired in 2015 and currently works part-time for Wilmington Yearly Meeting as office administrator.

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