A REVOLUTIONARY GOSPEL
Published by the Tract Association of Friends, 1515 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102
(Reprinted from The Friend, V. 132, Nos. 16-18, 4/19, 26, and 5/3, 1974)
This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.
The rise of the Quakers in the seventeenth century was a revolutionary event. The first Quaker prophets believed that their mission was to redirect the course of Christian history by rebuilding the whole Christian structure from the foundations. They saw their task as turning people from darkness to light, and the community that was gathered by their labors called itself Children of Light. If their revolutionary claim is to have meaning for us today we need to understand what they meant by darkness and what they meant by light.
George Fox taught that the life of darkness is a life that does not seek the counsel of God and does not obey God. “Darkness,” he said, “came into man by transgression. But men and women can be brought from the darkness of disobedience to the light of obedience by receiving Christ as their teacher and savior. “The ground of man’s belief and obedience is Christ who doth enlighten him to the intent that he might believe and obey the truth,” says Fox, and “after you have heard Christ the light, believe and obey.”
In the Old Testament the Law of Moses was called “light” because by this means God’s people were led into the righteousness of God by a word from God. But now, through Christ, the New Covenant, this light-word that leads to righteousness is given to all nations. Christ is “the light of the Gentiles.” “That light that Christ hath enlightened thee with,” says Fox, “teaches righteousness and holiness.” Fox maintained that the whole intent of God’s redemptive work was to restore to men, through Christ, the life of righteousness that had been lost through disobedience. Through Christ, the great prophet and teacher, the life of righteousness can become a reality for all men. The Old Covenant was centered on God’s righteous law as set forth in the Mosaic code. the New Covenant is centered on a living teacher of righteousness, who is present in the midst of his people as their living leader, counsellor, shepherd, bishop, prophet, priest and king. This is the gospel message that Fox preached and which he so frequently proclaimed in its shortened form: “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” Hostile critics called this message “the Quakers’ new gospel.” It certainly had an unfamiliar sound to many who heard Fox preach. It was, in fact, a revolutionary message about who Christ is and how he saves men.
THE QUAKER REVOLT
The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”
The great emphasis that early Quakers placed upon Christ as the teacher and enlightener has often been grossly misunderstood by out-group critics and by Quakers themselves. It has sometimes been maintained that the central principle of the Quakers is the “Inner Light” — a Quaker discovery whose universal validity is not dependent on the Christian revelation. this misunderstanding caused some early critics to call the Quaker teaching about the Light, “the Quakers’ idol.” Fox was not putting an “Inner Light” doctrine in place of Christ, but he was using the biblical “light” terminology to express a greatly expanded understanding of the saving power of Christ. This expanded understanding is the foundation of everything that Fox taught.
The early Quaker movement was a new beginning on a new foundation. The new foundation is to be found in the Quakers’ revolutionary gospel message. Fox says that this gospel “hat been lost for many generations. But that gospel again is to be preached” and “as for the gospel foundation, I say, it is to be laid again in the whole world.” “The everlasting gospel will be preached again,” and “so shall truth go over all nations, the power of God, the gospel, as it did in the days of the apostles. The announcement that “the gospel is being preached again” is repeated at least forty-two times in Fox’s writings.
In 1676 London Yearly Meeting sent a minute to all Monthly and Quarterly Meetings recommending that they “keep an exact account of those that first brought the message of glad tidings among them.” The First Publishers of Truth were bearers of a message of “glad tidings.” The Truth that they published was Gospel truth. This message was to go to “professors and profane,” that is, to professing Christians as well as non-Christians. According to Burrough and Fox there were few in England that had not been challenged by this “Gospel of Truth.”
Even more remarkable were the scores of missioners whose travels covered a very wide area that reached as far as Surinam, Newfoundland, the Near East and the Baltic countries. Fox himself addressed evangelical epistles to the Pope, the Emperor of China, the Kings of France and Spain, and the Emperor of the House of Austria (with copies to go to the Palatinate, Holland and Hungary) and “to the most part of the world” to proclaim to them that “God was come to teach his people himself by his Son.”
These first missioners were not wearing themselves out for the sake of promoting some sectarian cause. They did not see their missionary task as a work of persuading people to see the value of silence in worship, or the advantages of not taking a vote in reaching group decisions, or the way God uses women in his church and in the church’s ministry. All these things belong to the Quaker story, but the Truth that the first Quakers were publishing consisted of something much more fundamental. Their task was to preach a revolutionary gospel and to establish people upon a new gospel foundation. They believed that this was the beginning of a new era in which the saving power of the gospel would be released in the world and experienced as it had not been “since the apostles’ days.
The people who responded most positively to this message were those who had passed from one reforming sect to another or who, like Fox, had not received from radical Christian leadership a word that could “speak to their condition.” The appeal of “truth” for such people was not that it represented the ultimate in radical reform but that it held out a real alternative to every kind of reforming strategy.
The revolutionary spirit of the early Quaker movement comes to life in Fox’s great evangelical epistle to Princess Elizabeth of the Palatinate. The following abridged extracts give the gist of it:
The Lord is come to teach his people himself and to set up his ensign, that the nations may flow to it. The work of the Lord is beginning agian as it was in the Apostles’ days. Now people are coming out of the apostasy to the Light of Christ to receive the gospel from him. For the Lord and his Sone Jesus Christ is come to teach his people and to bring them from all the world’s ways to Christ who is the heavenly rock and foundation to build upon.
A FOUNDATION TO BUILD UPON
In the earliest Quaker writings the word “foundation” recurs with great frequency. The first Quakers were convinced that existing Christian foundations were incapable of supporting the new construction that had to be built. their message was a challenge to the old foundations, and they were filled with zeal to turn people to a new foundation. Fox declares that “many foundations have been laid since the apostles’ days by such as are gone from the true and sure foundations, but their foundations have proved rotten”; but Christ “is razing down to the ground the world’s foundation and is setting up himself, the living and everlasting foundation, for all his to build upon. He will shake the foundations of all false religions, ways, worships, churches and teachers and will make the pillars of them to totter.”
In a paper addressed to all “gathered churches (as they call them) of what sort soever” Margaret Fell puts the challenge:
Where is your Foundation? where is your Ground? where is your Root? who deny the Cornerstone, Jesus Christ, as he is the Light and…The Word of God who lives for evermore.
What was this new foundation that these Quakers claimed that they were putting in place of the old foundation?
In proclaiming that Christ is the one rock and one foundation the Quakers were not saying anything new. What was new was the revolutionary things they were saying about Christ the foundation. The proclamation “Christ has come to teach his people himself” is first of all a proclamation that Christ is alive. “The Lord is come to teach his people himself and is alive and lives for evermore. This statement that Christ is alive is not in itself revolutionary but it is the starting point of a new teaching about Christ that was so unfamiliar to many who heard it that they called it “the Quakers’ new Christ.”
The second feature of this new foundation is the affirmation that Christ, who is alive, is present in the midst of his people “in all his offices.” He is “a living head — a living shepherd — a living bishop — a living priest — an everlasting prophet” and”a living rock and foundation.” This is the heart and soul of the new foundation that was being laid.
The third feature of the new foundation is the part that is the most distinctive and the part that was least familiar to those who first received it. The Calvinistic view of Christ understood his saving power to consist in his work as Priest — as the forgiver and justifier. Thus it is in his priestly office that Christ is known as savior. In Fox’s teaching the saving power of Christ is greatly enlarged and expanded because he saw that Christ’s power to save is not limited to his priestly office but is also known in what he does as Prophet and King. As Prophet he is able to teach men the righteousness of God and give men the power to do it and as King he is able to gather men and women into an ordered and invincible “people of God.”
The Quaker gospel preaching that “Christ has come to teach his people himself” is a call to know Christ as the prophet who teaches his people righteousness. This message brings a new dimension to gospel preaching and it bring a new dimension to faith. Here righteousness is remarried to faith. Fox declares that “God doth draw people from their unrighteousness and unholiness to Christ the righteous and holy one, the great prophet whom Moses said God would raise up when people “should hear in all things,” and he challenges all Christians to consider “whether you do believe that God raised up this prophet Christ Jesus? and if so, whether you do hear him?”
Writing of this new foundation and this new faith Fox says:
And this is the catholic faith that we are of….Christ is the head of his church that he gathered out of the whole world into his name; and he is in the midst of them a prophet, and a priest, and a shepherd, and a bishop, and a counselor, and a king to rule…and to exercise those offices in his church….For Christ is the foundation of God’s holy house of living stones, and the rock which his house is built upon, which the gates of hell cannot prevail against: For the foundation of God standeth sure.
This message had a powerful effect on people who felt that the teachings of the churches had not given them a knowledge of God’s righteousness or the strength to act in obedience to it. For such people the Truth that the Quakers were publishing was a real breakthrough. Many of those who were convinced were able to say with Francis Howgill “we came to know a place to stand in.”
The work of publishing truth involved three operations. The first part of the work was turning people to “Christ their teacher and savior and their rock and foundation.” This was a turning from old foundations to a new foundation and a turning people to Christ their teacher. Fox claimed that during the first decade of the Quaker mission that “there were few in England but Friends were moved to go to them, to tell them where their true teacher was, and a great people was convinced, and brought to their teacher…which is Christ the great prophet.”
But convincement was only the first step and many “did not stand in that which did convince them but turned back.” There were always some who were convinced of the Truth but “were not come into obedience to it” and “did not repent” and failed to “live and walk in the truth.” These failed to “grow up in the the truth” and so did not go on to become gathered, settled, and established. They who had been convinced needed to be exhorted to come into obedience to their teacher and to become “settled” in him. The work of settling and establishing the newly convinced was the second part of the work of publishing truth and it was a very important part. Those who were convinced but who neglected the work of repentance and amendment of life were not prepared for the work of building on the foundation. Turning people to this foundation and settling people on this foundation was the purpose of preparing for the crowning work which was building on the foundation.
The Quaker vision was a revolutionary vision of a whole new righteousness based on obedience to the living Christ and a new Christian community ordered and governed by Christ. The gospel foundation that was laid at such great cost by the First Publishers of Truth was the first step toward fulfilling this vision.
Many of Fox’s earliest “openings” were related to the nature of the church and so, from the beginning, he must have seen, at least in outline, the vision of the Christ-ordered community that was to be gathered. But he was guided to make gospel preaching his first concern and to give priority to laying the gospel foundation. “I was first moved,” he says, “to go up and down the nation to preach the gospel.” On Pendle Hill he had a vision of the great work of the Lord in the earth and how he was to begin it. The beginning of this work was the laying of the gospel foundation.
When the time came to build upon the foundation, only those who had become truly settled and established upon it were able to participated in the work; The gospel that was preached by the Publishers of truth was a message about the light-word revealed to the Fathers, to Moses, and to the prophets which becomes God’s light and word to us through hearing and obeying the voice of Christ, who is the heavenly prophet sent to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets and to be the universal covenant of Light of which Isaiah spoke. To many who heard this gospel it was a call to revolution, and a challenge to the Christianity that they had known before.
A fairly large segment of first-generation Quakers misunderstood the nature of the Quaker revolution. They thought it was leading to an individualistic righteousness and a loose association of free-wheeling religious individualists. They failed to catch the vision of a great people gathered to God by Christ who would learn together, obey together, witness together and suffer together. However, faithful Friends, who had grown up in the truth, became builders of the new righteousness and the new community.
BUILDING ON THE FOUNDATION
The Quaker revolt appeared as a twofold thrust against two elements in the prevailing form of Christianity that were preventing men from experiencing the full power of God to save through Christ. First, it was a revolt against a form of the gospel that gave Christ less power to save from sin than God intended and left the evil power in man undefeated. And, second, it was a revolt against a view of the church as a “mixed multitude,” composed of the righteous and the unrighteous — a church which is not taught by Christ the righteousness of God so that it can learn together, obey together, and suffer together in a corporate witness for God’s righteousness.
Fox expected that this revolt would produce a new kind of Christian and a new kind of church. And this is exactly what happened — eventually. But it did not happen instantly and it might never have happened if Fox had not been a man of patience as well as a man of vision. He knew that before the vision would be realized a gospel had to be preached and a foundation laid.
The Quaker character that began to emerge was soon recognizable by its moral probity. Although the Quakers were vigorously attacked and persecuted by both church and state they were not usually accused of immorality. The moral character of the Quakers was even more remarkable because it was not linked to any kind of legalism, biblical or otherwise, nor was it inspired by some abstract ascetic ideal. Behind the Quaker character was the gospel that they preached: “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” They believed that they were being taught the principle of God’s righteousness and that when Christ lead them into a course of moral action the power to obey would be given. This gave them a moral certainty which was accompanied by the gift of moral energies which sere sufficient to give them a moral strength that they knew was beyond their human capacities. For the sake of faithfulness to the moral truth revealed by Christ they found they were able to endure much hardship and suffering. The Quakers were tempted to do wrong and to compromise what they knew to be right, and they were subject to inner tensions and inner struggles like everybody else. But they had heard a message of truth and had received that truth and this gave them a faith that overcomes the world and gives victory over that which separates from God. There were many within the early Quaker movement who sought to undermine that faith by reducing it to an individualistic morality and asserting that obedience can stop short of the Cross. These opposers of truth had a scattering effect upon the new community but their counsels did not prevail.
Fox taught that the Light of Christ that shows us evil is the Light by which we are brought into unity. “All people,” he says, “must own the light of Christ within them, which light is but one in all men, and brings into oneness all who believe in it.” The unity of the church is not a unity that excludes the unity of witness for moral truth. God is a God of order and not of confusion, and what he teaches one he teaches all. The light that brings unity shows all God’s people “what is evil” and teaches “righteousness and holiness.” “God is righteous, and would have his people to be righteous.”
In the emerging Quaker fellowship “loving one another” involved the concern of each member for the moral welfare of all. “Watching over one another for good” was the way they described the help they gave one another in those things concerning which the whole church had received moral wisdom. This measure of moral wisdom was expanded from time to time as prophets arose to expose the church to the challenge of new moral truth. As the church was led into a unity of witness on particular moral issues, appropriate Advices and Queries were formulated as stimuli to continued faithfulness. These “testimonies,” as they came to be called, were a witness to the power of Christ to unite his people in corporate obedience to the moral truth that he teaches them. They are Christian testimonies. The suffering that came to the church as a result of these testimonies was suffering for the sake of Christ and as a witness to his authority over his church. These testimonies had evangelical power; they led people to Christ. But the testimonies came after the gospel foundation had been laid. They were a part of the new structure that was being built and they were evidence that the revolutionary gospel led to corporate obedience in righteousness. Fox speaks of this newly founded people of God as the people “clothed in white raiment” that he saw at the foot of Pendle Hill. The “white raiment” is the righteousness of Christ and this righteousness, says Fox, is “the badge and livery of Christ.”
Preaching the revolutionary gospel bore fruit in a new righteousness but it also produced a new kind of Christian community. This new community was built on the same gospel foundation as the new righteousness. The starting point of this new community is faith in Christ as the living head who is present in the midst of his people exercising all his offices wherever they gather togather in his name. We have seen how the knowledge of Christ as prophet and teacher was the foundation of a new righteousness fir God’s people. But we are also to know him as King, and Lord and Ruler and Shepherd, Bishop and Leader, Governor and Orderer. Christ gives his people a new order and the foundation of this order is his promise to be present in the midst of those who gather in his name. The first step for God’s people is to gather and to know to whom they are gathered. “The gathering is to Christ,” says Fox. the second step is to gather in a spirit of waiting to experience Christ as he is present in all his offices. His presence is a functional presence. He teaches, he rules, he orders, he gives gifts, he empowers a living ministry, we watches over the straying ones like a shepherd. He communicates. In the silence, says Fox, “we can hear our prophet.” “We come to hear our own prophet, which God hath raised up, Christ Jesus, to open to us; and him do we hear in all things in our meetings.”
In order for Christ to be known in this way the church had to come togather at set times and places, and for convenience it was found best to regularize meetings. This orderly schedule of meetings had no special religious significance. There was no sacralization of structure in the early Quaker community. From the beginning there have been many variant in the Quaker calendar of meetings but, in the main, they follow a pattern of three concentric circles consisting of Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly meetings. Christ is in the midst of all these local, regional and more comprehensive levels of fellowship. He is the center, the middle part. It is his presence and what he does that gives the church its authority and its motive power. He call men and women to be his ministers and gives them the power to speak a prophetic word to his church. “We are not our own,” says Fox,
and are not to live to ourselves, nor to order ourselves, but to live unto him and be ordered, ruled, and governedby him…to be counselled by him, and led by him andtaught by him, as he is heavenly prophet.
The purpose of the structure of meetings was to give the maximum opportunity to experience the presence and leadership of Christ in his church. The “gospel order” is not structureless but the structure itself does not impart order to the church. The unity and fellowship in witness and in suffering will not be features of this church structure unless the presence of Christ is felt and his leadership experienced as a present reality. This is the reason why Fox is continually asserting that the “gospel order” is “not of man nor by man.” Fox is not the inventor of the gospel order any more than he is the inventor of the gospel. “So here is the foundation of our meetings,” he says,
the foundation of them is Christ, of the increase of whose righteous, glorious and spiritual government there is no end; nor of the glorious, heavenly unity and orderof his heavenly gospel…which is not of man nor by man; so man hasno glory, but God and Christ alone.
Because the gospel had first been preached and the foundation had first been laid God was able to “raise up” a new kind of Christian community in the seventeenth century.
And so we have traced the rise of the Quakers from the revolutionary gospel that they preached to the building that came to be built on this gospel foundation. Now we must put the question: Has this story anything to do with men and women today?
There is surely as much moral confusion today as there was three centuries ago, and the need of men and women to be gathered into a primary community “where righteousness dwells” is as great as it ever was. The Society of Friends seems to have forgotten that it ever had a message that could minister to these needs. But the revolutionary gospel is being discovered again and Truth is being published again. The great work of the Lord is beginning again.
The call now is for men and women who will be builders again on the one sure foundation.