Responses to Questions from Module 2 of Woodbrooke/AWPS Study Program

  1. Early Quakers argued that “God might teach, transform and speak through any person” but that the person needed salvation first. This appears to conflict with Fox’s injunction to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”. Is there a conflict between Fox’s injunction and the vision that not “everyone” will have been spiritually transformed? (Murray Short)

Early Friends rejected the Reformed doctrine of Predestination (i.e. that God had already decided who was save and who was not). However, they seem to have accepted the related doctrine of Total Depravity (i.e. that due to sin, humans were completely incapable of contributing to their own salvation). All people experience a physical ‘first birth’ in the fallen and sinful state of Adam and needed to experience a spiritual ‘second birth’ in Christ. While they were convinced that the Spirit/Christ had the power to genuinely transform people in this life, this would only happen if they were willing to surrender their human will to the divine will. It seems, for them, that even this act of surrender was only possible due to the work of the Holy Spirit (acting as God’s prevenient grace).

So, while these Friends argued that the Holy Spirit had indeed been poured upon all flesh, they believed that in most people this Spirit was held ‘in prison’ (i.e. it was held in bondage and was not free to do its transformative work). I think, therefore, that when Fox wrote about ‘answering that of God’ in others he was encouraging Friends (who had already experienced the new birth in Christ) to speak and act in ways that enabled the Spirit in them to address the Spirit in others. The intention of this action was to prompt others to recognise the presence of the Spirit within them and surrender to it so that it could teach and transform them too.

We can see, therefore, that early Quaker spirituality placed great emphasis on human surrender and passivity (i.e. minimising active human involvement) in the process of spiritual transformation. This is consistent with both Reformed Protestantism, and a form of mystical spirituality that had its roots in late medieval popular piety (Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, the Theologia Germanica).


  1. Could you expand on the arguments about whether Quakers were really a peaceable people in the 1650s? (Wilma Davidson)

There has been an ongoing scholarly debate about whether the earliest Friends were genuinely nonviolent. Some scholars, such as Gerry Guiton have argued that early Quaker theology and practice was consistently peaceable both before and after the Restoration. Others, such as David Boulton (influenced by the historian Christopher Hill) have suggested that Quakers transformed themselves from a revolutionary movement in the 1650s to a peaceable people in the 1660s. They suggest that the famous peace declarations of 1660/1661 were primarily actions of political expediency. The latter position has used Quaker writings from 1659 that appear to support the military conquest of the European Catholics powers.

My position is as follows:

  1. The theological basis of the peace testimony is present within the earliest Quaker writings published from 1653 onwards.
  2. During the 1650s, Quakers were a fluid movement rather than a disciplined and order institution. Hence, there may not have been absolute consistency of belief and practice.
  3. The allegedly ‘violent’ writings of 1659 reflect the ‘two kingdoms’ theology of early Friends and their particular understanding of divine providence (i.e. God’s saving actions in the world).
  4. Early Friends did believe that they (as the true people of God) were a peaceable people. However, they also accepted the legitimacy of earthly governments using violent force.

Early Friends worked with what might be called a ‘Two Kingdoms’ theology. There were the earthly kingdoms and there was the kingdom of God. Each worked in fundamentally different ways, and the two were essentially in conflict with one another. Despite this, Friends did seem to believe that God’s providence might be achieved through the earthly powers as well as through God’s people. Hence, although it was God’s people who revealed the true nature of God’s kingdom (non-violent), the earthly powers might be used to further God’s purposes (violently). So, when the Commonwealth fell, many Friends express the view that this was because these powers had not been faithful to what God had called them to do. Ultimately, however, it is through the Lamb’s War, as a nonviolent spiritual conflict, that Christ would rule, and the kingdom of God would be established.

Hence, early Friends could claim to be a peaceable people while at the same time appearing to admonish the Commonwealth authorities for not being faithful in physically conquering the evil powers of the world that they felt stood in the way of the coming of the kingdom of God (e.g. the Catholic powers of continental Europe).

Kingdoms of the World

Of outward and physical things

(Temporary, changeable, and dying)

The way of Adam

(pride and greed leading to violence and injustice)

Earthly government

(ordained by God to control evil and protect the just)

The Kingdom of God
Of inward and spiritual things

(Eternal, unchanging, and coming)

The way of Christ

(humility and generosity leading to nonviolent and justice)

Divine government

(humans ruled by God inwardly and spiritually)

  1. When people ask me why I believe in the peace testimony the answer I usually give is something like “I believe in ‘that of God’ in everyone and so I believe it is wrong to kill.” Did early Friends use the expression ‘that of God’? (Margaret Blakeley, New Zealand)

The expression ‘that of God in everyone’ does indeed come from the very earliest period. It is taken from George Fox’s epistle written from Launceston Jail in October 1656:

So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the Spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same Spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures and with one another. And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.

For Fox, the expression “answering that of God in everyone” meant that although all people have access to the Holy Spirit which can teach and transform them, for most people, this Spirit is held ‘in bondage’ or ‘in prison’ (i.e. prevented from doing its work). Fox therefore exhorts Friends to be ‘patterns and examples’, to ‘let your lives preach’ and ‘walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone’:

  • Be Patterns and Examples/Lives that Preach – the way our visible lives communicate something of the faith we possess (i.e. what we have been taught inwardly by God).
  • Answer that of God in Everyone – what we say and what we do should be the Holy Spirit in us addressing the Holy Spirit in others (i.e. prompting the Spirit become active in those in whom it is currently held in bondage ‘in prison’.

For the earliest Friends, refusing to ‘fight with outward weapons’ (i.e. being peaceable/nonviolent) is a fruit of the Spirit. Human life ‘in Adam’ is characterised by pride, greed, and violence. Human life ‘in Christ’ is characterised by humility, generosity, and nonviolence (as it was revealed in the life of Jesus). Hence the Quaker peace testimony has its roots in the experience of new birth in Christ, rather than in more general ethical principle. The modern conviction that all humans (and sentient creatures) have inherent value and deserve to be treated with compassion can be seen in embryonic form in the earliest Quaker understanding, but this has become clearer and more explicit over time.

  1. What can we learn from Quaker peace-making in contemporary Africa? (Elizabeth Duke)

Elizabeth writes:

Witness by Friends in contemporary Africa. These stories are amazing. One I heard from Burundi was that during the genocide a number of pastoral students at their theological seminary had been murdered. Afterwards Friends were invited to identify the killers so that justice could be done. They refused, on the grounds that peace and reconciliation had to begin with them. Another Burundi story relates to your questions about witness in the contemporary world. The post-genocide Government in Burundi was looking for measures to overcome the ethnic hostility which had featured in the genocide, and decided on universal military conscription (I understand male conscription, though I could be wrong.) So Burundi Yearly Meeting had a dilemma: were they to follow their peace commitment and encourage their young men to refuse to take up arms, or were they to support a Government which was attempting to promote national reconciliation by this means? I heard of the dilemma, but I have never found out what decision was made. Do you happen to know?

I have very limited knowledge of contemporary peace-making in Africa (and elsewhere for that matter). We would benefit greatly from hearing from others who are involved in this work. The theme of the 2016 Swarthmoore Lecture is directly relevant to this: shattered-lives_9781907123955

Other Issues

1a. Why did early Friends believe that the world was going to end when it was so long since the Bible was written. Was it because their apocalyptic conviction meant they saw the biblical prophesies in a different way? (Ronis Chapman/ Canberra Group)

The whole history of Christianity has been characterised by a practice of waiting for the promised return of Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God.

From the late medieval period in Europe (approximately 1200-1500), ‘end time’ expectations became more powerful. Social change, religious conflict/persecution, and the perceived corruptions of the established Church, all contributed to this sense. In England, the break from the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s, and then the English Civil Wars of 1642-1651 (often understood on the Parliamentary side as a battle against the antichrist) prompted fervent end-time expectations. This was true for all Puritans, not just Quakers. People have frequently predicted specific dates for the end of the world. This seems to have been the case in England for both 1556 and 1666.

What primarily distinguished the Quaker position from that of others, was their belief that Christ was returning in Spirit within his people, rather than a physical return. This seems to have been a feature of radical Puritanism in the 1640s (e.g. the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, was writing about an inward spiritual appearance of Christ ‘within the Sons and Daughters’ in the late 1640s). They also give greater emphasis to the coming of heaven on earth rather than a spiritual heaven somewhere else. This seems to reflect a sense of the whole physical creation being deified rather than destroyed.

1b. Are you saying that Quakers identified as being part of radical Puritanism? I know about the emphasis on ‘heaven on earth’ but also thought that there was something Quakers were expecting to happen that didn’t in the first 20 or so years and this had a big impact on them.

While I don’t think that early Friends would have recognised the label, I do feel that their overall religious orientation fits with the radical wing of English

Puritanism (which emerged in the 1610s as a rejection of Calvinism, inspired by the mystical and spiritualist writings of the Radical Reformation).

Their spiritual experiences (of Christ returning in Spirit and dwelling within them) convinced them that God was acting decisively in their time. Much of the earliest vision is predicated upon a sense of really living in the eternal/heavenly dimension of reality (rather than the temporary/earthly dimension). They were not inclined to predict specific timescales or dates, but they did feel that they were being caught up in the coming of the kingdom of God in the here and now. Many other groups shared this sense, but in many ways early Friends lived it in a much more embodied way (what, technically, might be called a ‘realised eschatology’).

The fact that the expected transformation of all things didn’t take place, along with the fall of the Commonwealth, and the restoration of the monarchy, had a major impact on the Quaker vision. Instead of being on the offensive, Friends were under serious attack and faced a fight for survival. In this context they had to find a way to accommodate to the world as it was, rather than how they had expected it to be, whilst safeguarding their distinctive practices. As we have seen this had a real impact on the practical application of spiritual equality. Friends tended to play down those aspects of their early witness that were regarded as especially outrageous and threatening to the wider society (so the freedom of Quaker women became more constrained, economic radicalism was toned down, and prophetic warnings directed at those in power was discouraged).

  1. Was James Nayler fierier than that of most of his contemporaries? How widespread was the view that Nayler was the real Quaker leader? Was he seen as the most dangerous, and would this help to explain why his Bristol action was punished by Parliament rather than by local magistrates? (Elizabeth Duke)
  • Most/all Quaker ministers during the early 1650s adopted a position that was very assertive and deliberately challenging to established authority (especially the Church). Verbal and written messages of prophetic warning and condemnation were very common.
  • Nayler’s economics and politics do have a real radical edge to them that is reminiscent of the likes of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers. We will touch on this in more detail during Module 3.
  • In 1665/1666 Nayler’s profile was raised considerably due to his very successful and visible ministry within London. My sense is that, at this time, those in power probably did regard him as the principle Quaker leader and a real threat to their interests.
  • At the same time during this same period, it seems that George Fox decided to adopt a somewhat different tactic. Instead of confronting the powers, he decided that it would be better to use diplomacy – seeking to reassure the authorities in return for reduced persecution.
  • Some of what happened in the Summer and Autumn of 1656 (leading to Nayler’s conviction for Horrid Blasphemy and brutal punishment) may well reflect a clash between the ‘diplomats’ like Fox and the ‘absolutists’ like Nayler.
  • As we saw in Module 2, the ascendancy of the ‘diplomats’ after 1656, secured the survival of the Quaker movement but maybe at some cost (i.e. the loss of early radicalism). So, for example, we see the activities of Quaker women increasingly managed by male elders, and channelled away from charismatic and prophetic public expression, and into forms that were more acceptable to the wider society (e.g. separate women’s meetings).

Stuart Masters Woodbrooke September 2020