Summing up

It is wonderful to have so many people on the course (nearly 8000) and from so many different parts of the world. And it is wonderful to have such a rich mix of interests, and so many different reasons for joining in on our three week exploration of early Quaker history.

It has been a full week and there have been so great comments and great discussions taking place. The list of lesser known facts about the civil war or war of the three kingdoms was so rich. (Apologies again for our hiccup with the BBC video for those of you outside of Britain – we have now amended that step and offered alternative resources). The war and the general upheaval of the time presented a fertile context for the emergence of a new religious group offering hope, certainty and such a clear way of life in the 1650s.

Your posts have been very thought-provoking. For example, I hadn’t made the connection in the Fox passage we read and heard that he might deliberately have mentioned both Oxford and Cambridge as they represented different poles of religiosity. Neither one nor the other fitted anyone to be a minister of Christ. So, we really have formed a learning community and I have loved to see how we have helped each other along, people coming in with really helpful links and passages from Larry Ingle’s book on George Fox, First Among Friend, and other texts. The connections some are making between the seventeenth century and today’s world are very compelling.

The questions you have raised have been really good ones and the answers really useful too, eg the way Justice Bennet termed Fox at his blasphemy trial in Derby in 1650 a ‘Quaker’ but how the pejorative term stuck, how Fox had a private income, and whether or not we actually have any evidence that Fox ever went up Pendle Hill. On this, it is interesting that Fox never mentioned this part of his journey in the first version of his journal, only in the second, dictated (for he had a form of dyslexia and found writing difficult) in the 1670s.

Then, there have been our reflections on the kind of person Fox may have been. He never set himself up as having unique spiritual authority, although it is true that most other Quakers deferred to him. It is also true that he had a great confidence that he was right and obviously a fair dose of charisma. Quakerism was set up on a series of very grand claims – universal salvation and the shedding of original sin (which Fox believed in), perfection, the lack of need for any outward forms of faith (more on this in week 2), and the equal ministry of all who had been transformed – but these claims can also be seen as arrogant. It certainly felt that way for some of the other Christians of the time.

Fox was clear he and his followers had a monopoly on spiritual truth. ‘Christ is come and is coming’: ‘Christ is come’ to the Quakers and ‘is coming’ to everyone else. This was the inward second coming of Christ. Communion was inward after Revelation 3:20, and silent worship was validated with reference to Revelation 8:1, ‘half an hour of silence in heaven after the breaking of the seventh seal.’ Christ was the inward teacher, Fox and other Friends of the Truth were merely to bring people to the foot of the cross. In one incident, a new convert pleaded with Edward Burrough to teach him more, but Burrough refused. Fox knew the Hebrew and Christian scriptures by heart and his writing is laced with references and quotations but the Bible was ultimately only the word, from others led by God, about the living Word, the inward Christ. There is no inconsistency between Fox’s preaching and his attitude to scripture and the necessity of direct revelation.

Unlike Quakerism today, particularly its permissive Liberal variant and its emphasis on unfolding truths (we will come to the different types of Quakers in the world today in week 3), the first Quakers, the Children of the Light or Friends of the Truth, or ‘Saints’ were clear they were right. My sense is that whilst some forms of ecumenical co-operation began in order to seek toleration for non-conformists in the 1670s, Quakers maintained a sense of themselves as the true church until the early nineteenth century. We must be careful not to think about the first Quakers in light of what we may know about Quakers today. Equally, no group of Quakers today is like these first Friends.

It is true that Quakerism was not the only radical group of the time and indeed we can see many of its traits in other groups. Fox never mentioned the civil war context or any human influences, whether Familist, Anabaptist or Leveller, although he owned a considerable library. We can see that Quaker thinking fits into the mystical tradition, but also that its presents silence and stillness as sufficient. Quakerism is mysticism alone, without any accompanying church tradition. Its theology is radical in comparison with other Christians with its idea of an inward second coming of Christ, and radical in terms of its consequences, eg the ministry of women and children. It is also politically radical, out of a place of faith, in terms of its levelling of society. We could see it as amalgam of different insights but some are distinctive and as a package, it is unique.

Many of the questions you have raised will I hope be answered by the material in week 2. I look forward to our time together next week.

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This article is from the free online course:

Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

Lancaster University