What Did Easter Mean to Early Quakers?

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What does Easter mean to Quakers? It clearly means different things to different individuals and groups of us. From the earliest days of the Religious Society of Friends, we have resisted having a creed, and George Fox considered theology nothing but “notions” that got in the way of true Christian experience.

Furthermore, Quakers have always resisted the idea that some days in the Christian calendar are more holy than others. Every day is equally important to our spiritual life. After all, none of the dates for our religious holidays are rooted in historical fact. Even Easter weekend, which the Bible clearly puts at the time of the Jewish Passover, perversely is usually celebrated at a different time. Although public and Christian schools give a holiday for Easter, spring break in many Quaker schools is separate from Easter and doesn’t include it.

Nonetheless, Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ, about which there are a variety of “notions” in most meetings, partly rooted in distinct views about Christ held by early Friends. Quakerism arose in the mid 1600s in part as a result of the widespread availability of the Bible in English; it was also a response to the discovery that the established church hierarchies had been distorting the message of the gospel and the practices of the early Christian Church, as presented in Acts and the Epistles. People at that time didn’t have available to them higher criticism, hermeneutics, or early Church manuscripts. So early Friends all would have seen the resurrection as an uncomplicated fact. Their understanding of the resurrection, however, was colored by their experience of the presence of God in their midst. Continuing revelation was a tool for understanding Scripture and extending our understanding of God’s will.

The quarter of the English populace that was influenced by Quakerism in the seventeenth century were deeply dissatisfied with various theologies offered by those with divinity school educations (then provided in England only by Oxford and Cambridge). These people considered themselves seekers and disassociated themselves not only from the Church of England and the Catholic Church, but also from the other available theologies of the day, such as those of Calvinists and Baptists.

The foundational experience of these seekers is exemplified by Fox, who after talking with a wide variety of ministers and being dissatisfied with their notions received an opening that “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” By this he meant not only were trained ministers not needed to mediate his relationship with God but that Christ could be  experienced directly. Fox wrote: “Though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation.” Fox insisted again and again that he “knew experimentally” the truths he ministered—that the Inward Light, the Presence of Christ, the Indwelling Seed gave him a direct experience that affirmed particular insights or “openings” for him.

Thomas Ellwood, another founding Friend, similarly wrote: “Now also did I receive a new law, an inward law superadded to the outward, ‘the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus,’ which wrought in me against all evil, not only in deed and in word, but even in thought also.”

Quakers insisted that the spirit of Christ that was experienced by Jesus’s disciples after the resurrection, by Paul on the road to Damascus and in gatherings of the early Church, is universally available to everyone in all ages, locations, and cultures.

For early Quakers, Christ was not tied just to Jesus, but, as with the Word in the Gospel of John, was present from the beginning and is manifest in the prophets of Judaism and other religious traditions. One might say today it does not matter if the resurrection of Jesus was physical or spiritual, for, from the beginning, Quakers have insisted that Christ’s spirit can be experienced by any of us anywhere. Hence Mary Fisher, one of Quakerism’s founding Valiant Sixty, felt confident she could minister to the Sultan of Turkey, because he would know the same universal spirit of God or Christ that she did.

It is significant that when Fox and Ellwood speak of their experience of the divine presence, they speak of Christ Jesus, thereby distinguishing themselves from Calvinists’ claims (and later, Methodists’) that “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior.” Calvinists stress that we are convicted of sin and liberated from it only by the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus. Fox explicitly criticized Calvinists for “preach[ing] up sin.” The traditional Quaker view instead is that the active presence of God, of the universal Christ, received into our lives gives us the self-understanding, commitment, and divine support—the Inward Light—to improve the ethical content of our lives.

As a consequence of the effect of the Light, they were changed people. William Penn observed:

They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments changed; and they knew the power and work of God upon them. . . . The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God; regeneration and holiness. Not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds, nor new forms of worship; but a leaving off in religion the superfluous, and reducing the ceremonious and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part to the soul.

Let us then think of the risen Christ as a transforming experience of the Divine that is available on any day of the year without regard to religion or theology.

6 thoughts on “What Did Easter Mean to Early Quakers?

  1. An interesting and thought provoking discussion. Meets Jesus for the First Time Again by Marcus Borg held that a lot of “miracles” were thrown in to make Jesus seem more appealing to the masses. So I started to think of the resurrection as a season of forgiveness, hope, when the earth wakes up and produces new life

    1. This is very clearly stated. It allows for a much broader vision of Jesus and the resurrection than dogmatic presentations. I look forward to an expanded discussion of how this vision applies to the social awareness and community caring that extends out from a personal experience to others.

  2. One of the worst aspects of our Christian celebration of Easter is that we point to the physical resurrection of Jesus, this one man, with a sense that he had a special relationship with God, which he did of course. But then we fail to understand that we ourselves can have a special relationship with God if only we will quiet our minds and hearts and become receptive to the Spirit within and around us. Like placing saints on pedestals we place Jesus in such a historically unique setting that we fail to understand our own coming to life in the Spirit. Instead, like the saints that we honor, we place Jesus’ experience out there, not available to us, not a spiritual encounter we can have. Instead, if we can find the silent, liminal places where we can experience the presence of God we will experience resurrection in our own lives in some ways that continue to be mystery.

  3. My computer is not a concept of my computer nor an experience of my computer (although this is how I become familiar with it.

    Likewise the resurrection was neither a concept of Jesus being resurrected nor an experience of Jesus being resurrected. Something happened that various people experienced on different occasions and evidently had different thoughts about. After which they behaved in ways that would not have made sense unless they firmly believed that God had restored Jesus to life to vindicate all the things he’d said and did that led to his crucifixion.

  4. Interestingly, although Easter in the Western (e.g., Roman Catholic and churches that follow their calendar) is often celebrated a month earlier than Passover, this is not true for the Orthodox churches. The reason is the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, which redefined the length of the year to be more in line with the actual length of the year. At the same time, 10 days slipped from the Gregorian calendar relative to the old Julian calendar. In particular, October 4, 1582 (Julian) was followed the next day by October 15, 1582 (Gregorian). This made the Spring solstice come about 10 days earlier on the Gregorian calendar, and it is now about 13 days earlier, relative to the Julian calendar. But the calculations for Passover were not affected by the Gregorian reform, hence Passover comes late almost half the time. The Orthodox church continued to use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter and so it is usually (always?…the calculations are different) in step with Passover.

    I taught a course on “Time” and discussed some of these issues, particularly what happened with the Gregorian calendar reform. Some of this is discussed in this page:

    http://billandsue.net/BillInfo/doomsday.html

    [Actually the main point of this page is a very neat way to calculate the day of the week, given any date in history. It can easily be done in your head, once you know the rules. Kind of fun, like telling people what day of the week they were born on. And useful since it’s easy to remember the key information…the “doomsday” for a given year, so that when you write a check or do something similar that requires writing down the date, you can know what date to write without having to look at a calendar or your smartphone. But it also discusses what happened in 1582 and the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.]

  5. I very much appreciated the quote from William Penn at the end of the article. (What is the source?)

    You do have important ideas to contribute towards the good of all. And to do so is important, to be the best person you can be, to not hide your lamp under a bushel. It is not a matter of if but when.

    Jesus said to take the beam out of your own eye … and then you can see clearly to …

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