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Spiritual Reformers In The 16th And 17th Centuries by Rufus M. Jones


Few words are needed in conclusion to point out the historical significance of the movement which we have been studying, and to indicate its connection with the rise and development of seventeenth century Quakerism. These chapters have presented sufficient historical evidence to show that from the very beginning of the Reformation there appeared a group of men who felt themselves commissioned, like the prophets of old, to challenge the theological systems of the Reformers, and to cry against what proved to be an irresistible tendency toward the exaltation of form and letter in religion. They were men of intense religious faith, of marked mystical type, characterized by interior depth of experience, but at the same time they were men of scholarship, breadth and balance.

Their central loyalty was to the invisible Church which in their conception was the Body of Christ, forever growing and expanding through the ages under the guidance of the ever-present Spirit; and they esteemed but lightly the established Churches which seemed to them formed not after the pattern in the mount but after very earthly and political models. Challenging, as they did, the formulated doctrines of the Reformation, the type of Church which was being substituted for the Roman Catholic Church, and the entire body of ceremonial and sacramental practices which were being put in place of the ancient sacraments of the Church, these |prophets| found themselves compelled to discover the foundations {337} for a new type of Church altogether, and to feel their way down to a new and fundamental basis of religious authority. That would be a momentous task for any age, or for any spiritual leaders, and we must not demand the impossible of these sixteenth century pathbreakers. What they did do consistently and well was to proclaim the spiritual character of God as revealed in Christ, the native capacity of the human soul for God, the intimate and inherent relationship of the divine and human, the progressive revelation of God in history, the priority of the inward Word, the august ethical aspect which must attach to any religion adequate for the growing race, and the folly of losing the heart and spirit of Christianity in contentions over external, temporal, and pictorial features of it.

They themselves were not founders of sects or churches. Their sole mission was the propagation of a message, of a body of truth and of spiritual ideals. They were from the nature of the case destined to be voices crying in a wilderness-world, and they were obliged to trust their precious cause to the contagion of their word and life and truth. The Quakers of the seventeenth century are obviously one of the great historical results of this slowly maturing spiritual movement, and they first gave the unorganized and inarticulate movement a concrete body and organism to express itself through. The modern student, who goes to the original expositions of Quakerism to find what the leaders of this movement conceived their message and their mission to be, quickly discovers that they were not radical innovators setting forth novel and strange ideas, but that they were on the contrary the bearers, the interpreters, the living embodiment of ideas which have now become familiar to the reader of these chapters.

No one has given us a clearer statement of George Fox's mission and of the creation of the new |Society| than has the writer of the |Epistle to the Reader| in Fox's strange book The Great Mystery of the Great Whore (1659). This |Epistle to the Reader| was {338} written by Edward Burrough and was printed, also under the same title, in Burrough's Works in 1672. In this striking document the writer gives his account of the existing Church, and over against this dark background he sets God's new Reformation that is just beginning, of which he feels himself to be the divinely sent herald and prophet. |As our minds became turned, and our hearts inclined to the Light which shined in every one of us,| he writes, |we came to know the perfect estate of the Church; her estate before the apostles' days, and in the apostles' days and since the days of the apostles. And her present estate we found to be as a woman who had once been clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, who brought forth Him that was to rule the nations; but she [the Church] was fled into the wilderness, and there sitting desolate, in her place that was prepared of God for such a season, in the very end of which season, when the time of her sojourning was towards a full end, then we [Friends] were brought forth.|

In the Light which broke in upon them, he says, they saw that |the world was in darkness| and that |anti-Christ was set up in the temple of God, ruling over all, having brought nations under his power, and having set up his government over all for many ages; even since the days of the apostles and true churches hath he reigned.... As for the ministry, first, looking upon it with a single eye in the Light of the Spirit of God which had anointed us, we beheld it clearly not to be of Christ, nor sent of Him, nor having the commission, power, and authority of Christ, as His ministry had in the days of true churches; but in all things, as in call, practice, maintenance, {339} and in everything else, in fruits and effects we found it to disagree, and to be wholly contrary to the true ministry of Christ in the days of the apostles.| His charge against the ministers of his day is one now very familiar to us: |You preach to people what you have studied out of books and old authors, and what you have noted down you preach by an hour-glass and not as the Spirit of God gives you utterance. You preach other men's words which you have collected.| The |call| to ministry, he urges, is based upon learning acquired in schools, colleges, and universities, and is not of the Spirit, and ministers' lives are obvious signs that they are not in the true |apostolic succession.| |As for all churches (so called),| he continues, |we beheld you all in the apostasy and degeneration from the true Church, not being gathered by the Spirit of the Lord, nor anointed thereby as the true members of Christ ever were, but to be in forms of righteousness without power, and imitations without life. All the practices of religion we beheld to be without power and life.... We beheld all professions [of religion] to be but as coverings of fig-leaves, while the [inner] nature stood uncondemned and not crucified.|

He insists that no true and radical reformation of the Church has taken place, that the churches of his day still bear the marks of apostasy as did the churches before the Reformation occurred: |Do not professors and sects of people have the form without the power of godliness? Are not all people still covetous and earthly-minded, and given to the world, and proud and vain, even such as profess religion? Are not professors as covetous and proud as such as do not profess? Are they not given to the world, and doth it not show that they are not changed nor translated? And is it not manifest that they have taken up the form of the apostles' and Christ's words and practices, and are without the {340} life, and not guided by the Spirit of Christ and the apostles in their praying and preaching?|

Here, with an air of prophet-like boldness and infallibility, we have once again an announcement of the inadequacy of the Reformation, the formal and external character of prevailing types of religion, and the unapostolic nature of the existing churches. The language describing the visible church is throughout the language of a |Seeker.| |We ceased,| he says in words that exactly describe the |Seeker,| |from the teachings of all men, and their words and their worships, and their temples, and all their baptisms and churches, and we ceased from our own words and professions and practices in religion.... We met together often, and waited upon the Lord in pure silence from our own words, and harkened to the voice of the Lord and felt His Word in our hearts.|

The striking difference between him and the contemporary |Seeker| lies in the fact that he profoundly believed, that the time of |apostasy| was now at an end, that a new |commission| had come, that a real Reformation was being set into operation, and that the apostolic Church -- the Church of Christ, the Church of the Spirit -- had appeared as though let down from heaven. He relates how the |Lord raised us [Friends] up and opened our mouths in this His Spirit,| and how |the Light of Christ revealed and made known to us all things that pertain to salvation, redemption, and eternal life, needful for man to know,| and how through the outpouring and anointing of the Spirit |the true Church,| |the true worship,| |the true ministry| have come again to the world. He makes such exalted claims as these: we received the pouring out of the spirit upon us; the gift of God's eternal Spirit was bestowed upon us as in the days of old; the deep things of God were revealed to us; the Lord Almighty brought us out of captivity and bondage and put an end to sin and death; {341} the babe of glory was born in us; we entered into ever-lasting union, fellowship, and covenant with the Lord, and we were raised from death to Life. And, finally, he announces the new |commission| in positive words of glowing faith: |Then having armed us with power, strength, and wisdom and dominion, according to His mind, and having taught us in all things, and having chosen us unto His work, God put His sword into our and and gave us a perfect commission to go forth in His name and authority, giving us the Word from His mouth what to cut down and what to preserve, and giving us the everlasting gospel to preach.|

In the absolute certainty of his divine |commission,| he challenges the Churches which are defending their authority |with jails and prisons and whips and stocks and inquisitions -- all Cain's weapons| -- to a |trial| of faith and spirit and power, like that on Mount Carmel in the days of Elijah, |whether it be they or we that are of the true faith and true worship of God that the apostles were in.|

There can be no doubt, I think, that the writer of this |Epistle to the Reader| in The Great Mystery, has come out of the |Seeker| movement, or that he has |come out| of it only because he believes that he with others have found what they sought, and are the seed and nucleus of the true, restored, apostolic Church of God. They refuse absolutely to be called a sect; and they assume in all their early writings that they are the restored Church of Christ, though they seldom use that word |Church| because in their thought it was a name associated with the |apostasy,| and they preferred to call themselves |the Seed,| or |the Children of the Light.| These were, as I have sufficiently shown, names already in use.

It is an interesting fact that this |Epistle| dates the beginning of the new era as 1652 -- |it is now {342} about seven years since the Lord raised us up in the North of England and opened our mouths in this His Spirit| -- and that it locates the springing forth of |the Seed| in the North of England. It was, we are now well aware, out of the Seeker-groups of the northern counties of England that the new |Society| was actually born, and it grew, like a rolling snowball, as it gathered in the prepared groups of |Seekers,| both north and south in England, and a little later in America.

The creation of the Quaker |Society| was not the work of any man; the groups were there before the formative leader appeared on the scene. In fact the very term |Quaker,| which was soon fixed upon the new movement as the popular name for it, had already been in use -- at least as far back as 1646 -- for the members of some of these highly emotional communities. As soon as these groups -- intense in their expectations -- found a leader who was already raised to an impelling conviction of immediate contact with God and of definite illumination by the living Christ, and possessed of an overmastering sense of mission, the effect was extraordinary. The account of what happened is, we may be sure, none too strong: |The gift of God's eternal Spirit was poured upon us as in days of old, our hearts were made glad, our tongues were loosed, and we spake with new tongues as the Lord gave us utterance and as His Spirit led us.| Profound psychological experiences occurred; they felt themselves baptized together, fused and formed into one group-spirit, swept into trembling as by a mighty rushing wind, and carried beyond their common ordinary range of thought and power and utterance. Their group-experiences of a common divine Spirit coming upon their lives from beyond themselves, their discovery that God was in their midst, that gifts were conferred upon them, and, above all, Fox's compelling sense of apostolic mission -- a conviction which was, as it always is, contagious -- were {343} grounds enough to change these Seeker-groups into the seed and nucleus of a Body possessed of the faith that the long-expected Church of the Spirit had at last come. They rose to the group-consciousness that they were the beginners, in modern times, of a Church of the spiritual order, and a community-loyalty was born which gave the movement great conquering power and an amazing capacity for endurance and suffering.

In Fox we have a person of extraordinary psychical experiences and of dynamic leadership, and in him the |prophetical| and |enthusiast| traits of the movement are strikingly in evidence. He reveals in a variety of ways his connections with the great body of spiritual ideas that had been accumulating for more than a century before his time, but for the most part these influences worked upon him in sub-conscious ways as an atmosphere and climate of his spirit, rather than as a clearly conceived body of truth which he got by reading authors and which he apprehended through clear intellectual processes. He can be rightly appreciated only as he is seen to be a potent member of an organic group-life which formed him as much as he formed it.

The expositions, however, of the more trained and scholarly Quakers show an explicit acquaintance with the writings of these men whom we have been studying, and they cannot be adequately understood in isolation. The fruits of reading and of contact with a wider intellectual world are clearly in evidence, and the ideas and the peculiar phrases of the spiritual reformers |pass and come again| in their voluminous works. Robert Barclay is the chief literary exponent of Quakerism. His range of familiarity with religious and theological literature is very extensive, and he shows intimate acquaintance with contemporary thought. For him, as for his spiritual predecessors, the existing Church is |in apostasy|; it has departed from |the simplicity and purity of the gospel as it was in the apostles' days.| Christian faith has become |burdened with manifold inventions and traditions, with various notions and opinions| which {344} have been |substituted instead| of the true religion of Christ.

The Quaker interpreters all unite in treating |notions and opinions| -- or, to use their sweeping phrase, |notional religion| -- as barren substitutes for a true religion of spiritual reality, which for them is always born in a first-hand experience of Christ as the inner spirit and life and power of one's entire being and activity. A good specimen instance of this position is found in William Penn's Tract, |A Key opening the Way to every Capacity,| etc. He says: |It is not Opinion, or Speculation, or Notions of what is true; or Assent to or Subscription of Articles or Propositions, tho' never so soundly worded, that makes a Man a true Believer or a true Christian.| |Phrases of Schoolmen,| |notions of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,| |conceptions of man's meer Wit,| |superfining interpretations of Scripture texts,| he declares to be very chaffy substitutes for a consciousness of Christ's Life and Light within, conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, and the actual formation of Christ in the inner self. The further Reformation, upon the necessity of which he insists, is one that will take Christianity not only beyond and beneath outward ceremonies, but beyond and beneath all formulations of creed and doctrine, and that will ground and establish it in the experience and attitude and verifying power of the person's life. This is precisely what all these teachers of spiritual religion have all the time been demanding.

The Quaker view of the moral and dynamic character of saving faith, the view that justification is a vital process and not merely a forensic scheme, is, in heart and essence, indistinguishable from the central teaching of these spiritual predecessors of the Quakers. No Quaker has presented this view in a more compact, and at the same time adequate way than has Barclay in one of his {345} important early Tracts: |The manner and way whereby Christ's righteousness and obedience, death and sufferings, become profitable unto us and are made ours, is by receiving Him, and becoming one with Him in our hearts, embracing and entertaining that holy Seed, which as it is embraced and entertained, becometh a holy birth in us... by which the body of sin and death is done away, and we cleansed, and washed, and purged from our sins, not imaginarily, but really; and we are really and truly made righteous.... Christ Himself revealed in us, indwelling in us. His life and spirit covering us -- that is the ground of our justification.|

The root principle of Quakerism is belief in a divine Light, or Seed of God, in the soul of man. All of the multitudinous Quaker books and tracts bear unvarying testimony to that, and all their contemporary accounts make that faith, that principle, their organizing idea. What they all say is that there is a Light in man which shines into his darkness, reveals his condition to him, makes him aware of evil and checks him when he is in the pursuit of it; gives him a vision of righteousness, attracts him toward goodness, and points him infallibly toward Christ from whom the Light shines. This Light is pure, immediate, and spiritual. It is of God, in fact is God immanently revealed.

Then, again, the figure is changed and what was called Light is now called |Seed,| and it is thought of as a resident germ of divine Life which, through the active co-operation of the individual, produces a new creation within, and makes the person through and through of a new nature like itself. It is also frequently called |the Word of God,| or |Grace of God,| or |That of God in you,| or |Christ within,| or |the Spirit,| or |the Kingdom within you.| |By this Seed, Grace, and Word of God, and Light wherewith every one is enlightened,| {346} Barclay says, |We understand a spiritual, heavenly, and invisible Principle in which God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwells; a measure [i.e. a portion] of which divine and glorious Life is in all men as a Seed, which of its own nature draws, invites, and inclines to God. This some call vehiculum dei, or the spiritual Body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, which came down from heaven, of which all saints do feed and are thereby nourished unto eternal life.| But under whatever name it goes, it is always thought of as a saving Principle. He who says yes responds, obeys, co-operates, and allows this resident Seed of God, or Christ-Light, to have full sway in him becomes transformed thereby and re-created into likeness to Christ, by whom the inner Seed was planted and of whose nature it is. The spiritual predecessors of the Quakers, as we have seen, all held this view with individual variations of phrase and experience. All the Quaker terms for the Principle were used by Sebastian Franck and by Caspar Schwenckfeld; and all the men who taught the dynamic process of salvation presuppose that something of the divine nature, as Light or Seed or Spirit, or the resurrected Christ, is directly operative upon or within the human soul. That is, salvation is for them more than a moral change, it is a birth-and-life-process, initiated and carried through by the real presence of the Divine in the human.

The Quakers are perhaps somewhat more emphatic than were their spiritual forerunners, with the exception {347} of Schwenckfeld, in their declarations that this Seed, this Light, is not natural. |We assert,| William Penn wrote, |the Light of Christ not to be a Natural Light, otherwise than as all men born into the world have a Measure of Christ's Light, and so in a sense it may be called Natural to all Men. But this Light is something else than the bare Understanding which Man hath as a Rational Creature.| What man does naturally have, in William Penn's view, is a capacity for the Light, but the Light itself is from a source wholly heavenly and divine. Barclay, in quite Cartesian fashion, interprets it to be |a real spiritual Substance,| |a substantial Seed| from another world, hidden away within man's soul at birth, lying there |like naked grain in stony ground,| until the child is old enough to feel its stirrings and to determine by his own free choices of obedience or disobedience to its movings whether it shall grow and develop or not. We plainly have here a double world. The once-born man is |natural,| though he carries buried deep in the subsoil of his nature a Seed of God, a germ of Life drawn from the higher, spiritual world. He may live in and under the dominion of either world, but he must choose which it shall be. By response to and participation with the divine Seed of radio-active spiritual energy, he can become transformed -- utterly and completely -- into a new nature, and can belong here and now to the spiritual World which Christ by His victorious Life has brought across the chasm and planted in our soil. On the other hand, by negligence or by disobedience he can live a mere empirical, natural life, and keep his inestimable Seed of God buried and forgotten in a region of himself which he seldom or never visits.

The Quakers, however, as a consequence of their heightened group-consciousness, and as a result of the intense experiences enjoyed in their gatherings, exhibited a far greater degree of enthusiasm than had appeared in the earlier exponents of the inner Word; and they showed a heightened element of prophetism, both in their faith {348} and practice. They devoutly believed that in them the prophecy of Jeremiah had found fulfilment: God had written His Word in their hearts, so that they were recipients of His will and His message. The more sure Word of prophecy, announced by Peter, had come and the Day Star had risen in their hearts. Their Light was to them not only a principle of connection with a higher world, a germ of a new nativity, it was also a principle and basis for continuous revelation, and for definite openings of light and guidance on all matters that concern present-day life and practice. |The inward command,| Barclay says, |is never wanting in the due season to any duty.|

Like their predecessors, they did not slight the importance of the outward word, the Scriptures. They had an immense reverence for them and were diligent in the study and skilful in the use of them, though of course they used them in a thoroughly uncritical and unhistorical way, as did also their opponents. But they would never allow the Scriptures to be called the Word of God or to be treated as God's only revelation of Himself to man without a challenge. |The Word of God,| Barclay says, |is, like unto Himself, spiritual, yea, Spirit and Life, and therefore cannot be heard and read with the natural external senses as the Scriptures can.| Our Master, he adds, is always with us. |His letter is writ in our hearts and there we find it.| |There is,| William Penn declares, |something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit, the Word in the heart from which all Scriptures came,| though he is very emphatic in his claim that Friends never slight the Scriptures and believe in their divine authority.

It is not necessary to prolong the exposition of early Quakerism farther. The similarity of its fundamental position with that of the preceding spiritual reformers is perfectly clear. Quakerism is, thus, no isolated or sporadic religious phenomenon. It is deeply rooted and embedded in a far wider movement that had been {349} accumulating volume and power for more than a century before George Fox became a |prophet| of it to the English people. And both in its new English, and in its earlier continental form, it was a serious attempt to achieve a more complete Reformation, to restore primitive Christianity, and to change the basis of authority from external things, of any sort whatever, to the interior life and spirit of man.

That the formulation of this vast spiritual Reformation, as presented by the men who are studied in this volume, was adequate, I do not for a moment assert. The views here expounded in their historical setting are plainly hampered by inadequate philosophical and psychological presuppositions. They need reconstructive interpretation and a fresh re-reading, in terms of our richer experience, our larger historical perspective, and our truer psychological conceptions. That work of reexamination and reinterpretation, especially of the Quaker movement and the Quaker message, is a part of the task undertaken in the historical volumes which follow this one in this series. It must suffice for the present to have reviewed here the story and the struggles of these brave, sincere men and their heroic endeavours to proclaim a spiritual Christianity. It has been a privilege to live for a little while with this succession of high-minded men, to review for our time their type of spiritual religion, and to retrace their apostolic efforts to bring the world, with its sins and its tragedies and its inner hungers, back to the Father's Love and to the real presence of the eternal Christ. They may have failed in their intellectual formulation, but at least they succeeded in finding a living God, warm and tender and near at hand, the Life of their lives, the Day Star in their hearts; and their travail of soul, their brave endurance, and their loyal obedience to vision have helped to make our modern world.

This document, though, as stated above, not written by Fox, had his approval, and may be taken as exactly expressing his views and his position. Many of the early Quaker books show how remarkable was the corporate character and the group-spirit of the |Society| at this period. Whatever any individual could contribute was given for the common cause and went into the life of the whole. I have given the passages, which I have quoted from this |Epistle,| in modern English.

The Great Mystery of the Great Whore (London, 1659), p. B1. Jacob Boehme had already set Fox the example of calling the existing Church by this opprobrious name. See The Threefold Life of Man, vii., 56-58.

The Great Mystery of the Great Whore, p. B3.

Ibid. p. A6.

Ibid. pp. A5-A7.

Ibid. p. B4. This is almost word for word Boehme's view.

The Great Mystery of the Great Whore, p. C3.

Ibid. p. B1.

The Great Mystery of the Great Whore, p. B2. I have taken some liberty in correcting the grammatical form of the passage quoted, but the original sense is preserved.

Ibid. p. C2.

The Great Mystery of the Great Whore, p. B.

For evidence of Seeker-groups in America, see my Quakers in the American Colonies.

The Great Mystery of the Great Whore, pp. B1-B2.

Preface to A Catechism and Confession of Faith.

Works (London, 1726), ii. p.781.

Ibid. ii. pp.781-783.

|Salvation lieth not in literal but in experimental knowledge.| -- Barclay's Apology, Props. V. and VI. sec.25.

Barclay, |Truth cleared of Calumnies,| Works (London, 1691), i. pp.1-48.

This view appears passim in the works of Isaac Penington.

See Penington's Tract, |Concerning the Seed of God,| Works (edition of 1761), ii. pp.593-607.

Apology, Props. V. and VI. sec.13. This passage could be exactly paralleled in the writings of Schwenckfeld.

It is interesting to see how closely William Law, the great exponent of |Spiritual| Christianity in the eighteenth century, carrying on this train of thought in another channel, approaches the Quaker position: |Thou needest not run here or there saying, 'Where is Christ?' Thou needest not say, 'Who shall ascend into heaven, that is, to bring Christ down from above?' or, 'Who shall descend into the deep, to bring up Christ from the dead?' For, behold, the Word, which is the Wisdom of God, is in thy heart. It is there as a bruiser of Thy serpent, as a Light unto thy feet and Lanthorn unto thy paths; it is there as an Holy Oil, to soften and overcome the wrathful fiery properties of thy nature, and change them into the humble meekness of Light and Love; it is there as a speaking Word of God in thy soul; as soon as thou art ready to hear, this eternal, speaking Word will speak wisdom and peace in thy inward parts, and bring forth the birth of Christ, with all His holy nature, spirit, and temper within thee.| -- |Spirit of Prayer,| Works, vii. p.69.

Works, ii. p.780.

Apology, Props. V. and VI. sec.13.

|Truth Cleared of Calumnies,| Works, i. p.13.

Ibid. i. pp.13-15.

Works, ii. p.782.

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