CHRIST IN EARLY QUAKERISM
by Maurice Creasey
Source: Creasey, Maurice. Christ in Early Quakerism. Philadelphia: The Tract Association of Friends, undated.
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Friends everywhere are conscious of the fact that our Society, although still used of God in ways beyond our deserving, no longer possesses the vitality and unity which marked its early years. A bewildering variety of teaching passes under the name of Quaker, and there is much uncertainty amongst us as to whether we should regard ourselves as called to give expression to a profound and revolutionary conception of the purpose and scope of God’s dealings with man, or whether we are a religious fellowship which exists primarily in order to give hospitality to the widest possible range of views.
Whatever else may be learned from a study of our origins, this much at least is clear: that the early Quaker teaching concerning “the universal and divine light of Christ” was a message concerning the action of God rather than the nature of man. It was saying, not simply that there is innate in every man a private source of illumination; but rather, that what God showed himself to be in Jesus Christ he eternally is in all men. The love and compassion, the challenge and demand which were embodied and expressed in Jesus were apprehended as having been, in measure, present and active in and towards all men everywhere at all times.
Friends were united in the certainty that the same power, wisdom, and grace of God which had ever been seeking to save man from his futile desire for autonomy, and which had been concretely revealed and expressed in Jesus Christ, was now available to lead into all truth those who trusted and obeyed it. This was the light to which they directed men, even “the light which lighteth every man coming into the world,” the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Friends knew, indeed, that although all men everywhere thus came within the scope of God’s saving purpose, not all men responded to it with obedience and trust. They knew that, seemingly, not much less universal was the refusal of this claim. The light of Christ shines, indeed, in every heart; but it is sadly possible to hate the light; and men are saved not simply through the possession of the light but only through obedience to it. Refusal of that claim of God which constituted man’s very being cannot but disrupt the whole course of his nature, and set him against himself as truly as it sets him against God and his fellows.
Again, it seemed clear to early Friends that, although many of their contemporaries glorified Christ in words, their understanding of his meaning was both narrow and shallow. It was narrow in that it seemed to minimize or even to ignore the deep truth of Christ’s relation to Creation and, therefore, to every man. It exhibited little or no concern for “the heathen,” in whose final doom it seemed blandly acquiescent. It showed little awareness of the present implication of belief in the Lordship of Christ, and seemed able to combine it with an uncritical acceptance of social, political, economic, and military methods and conventions which went far to empty it of all practical significance. It was shallow, too, in that it tended to content itself with an intellectual apprehension of doctrine rather than to demand a deep and thorough transformation of the whole personality by obedience to the contemporary leadings of the Spirit of Christ. When it did emphasize “holiness,” this tended to be interpreted in a narrowly pietistic sense which had in it not a little of a sub-Christian asceticism.
As against such interpretations of the meaning of the fact of Christ, the early Friends proclaimed one which was both more extensive and also more intensive. The Christ of whom they taught was a Christ through whom and unto whom were all things, a Christ whose light shone in every human heart, whose voice spoke in every demand of conscience and every prompting of love and truth. The service of Christ so conceived demanded the patient acceptance of obloquy and suffering, and under no circumstances permitted their infliction upon others. He was to be served in all the ways of common life, in simplicity and gentleness, integrity and love. All customs and practices, however deeply rooted in tradition or sanctioned by usage, were to be brought under the judgment of Christ and, at no matter what cost, were to be broken if loyalty to him seemed so to require.
Those who so knew Christ knew themselves to have been delivered not only from the penalty of sin but also from its power. They found themselves, moreover, gathered into a community in which were to be known, not merely as a doctrine or an idea, but in reality and in daily life, both the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and the power of Christ’s resurrection.
It was this radical emphasis upon the living presence of Christ among those who desired above all else to hear and obey him that formed the foundation of the Quaker conception of worship, ministry, and the Sacraments. Since Christ alone, as Prophet, has the right to speak in his Church, the only acceptable worship, in spirit and in truth, will be that in which the worshippers wait for Christ himself to speak. This he may do secretly and silently, without uttered words; or he may move any one of the worshippers to utter words of prayer or praise or testimony, as he who alone knows the condition of each person present sees fit. Thus ministry required the creation of no separate “order,” but is known in the exercise of a spiritual gift which may be bestowed upon any. It is a “ministry of the word” in the sense that Christ, who is the word, speaks through it.
Further, the Quaker rejection of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper was not founded merely upon a negative doctrine of the rejection of all “forms” in the interest of a “purely spiritual” worship. It had a positive basis in the belief that, Christ’s presence being known so truly in the gathered and worshipping group, no outward ceremony was needed to mediate it or could make it more real. Christ’s baptism, with spirit and with fire, had superseded John’s, and denoted an inner experience of cleansing and purification and power, Where it was known inwardly no outward baptism could add anything to it; where it was not known, no outward ceremony could impart it.
Early Quakerism thus took its rise in a vision of the breadth of and depth of the loving purpose of God as this is revealed and made effectual in Jesus Christ. The original Quaker conception of Christ, like that of the New Testament as a whole, was able to hold togather, within its extraordinary profound and flexible group, both the particular and the universal, the historical and the mystical emphasis. Unhappily, this vision has to a large extent faded from amongst us, and the component elements of that comprehensive conception have fallen apart. Thus it has come to pass that some groups of Friends feel called to stress one side, some to stress another, and they do this not realizing that each requires the other to give it validity and meaning. Thus the conception of Christ has become a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, occasioning division, whereas for our spiritual forefathers it was the one foundation upon which all was built and in which they all found their unity.
Our greatest need as a religious Society is, surely, that we should give of our best in prayer, in obedience, and in thought, so that we may, in God’s mercy, recover and express in contemporary terms, in relation to the needs of the present day, this tremendous vision of Christ.