Friends for 300 Years
Howard H. Brinton, 1952 (republished in 2002 as Friends for 350 Years, available from Quakerbooks.org)
We are having a multi-part discussion series on Quaker History, using Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years as the starting point for discussion. For the schedule for future sessions, see our calendar. Reading the book is not necessary, but you may enjoy it. Below is the content of the handout for the third session on 6/24/2012. It provides notable excerpts along with queries for discussion.
Chapter 3. The Light as Thought About
Facilitated by Sam Stayton, 6/24/2012
That the light first appeared to Friends in terms of feeling and experience is best shown in George Fox’s epistles. It was inevitable and necessary that, before long, this experience should be rationalized and fitted in with other accepted beliefs. What relation has the Light to Scripture, conscience, reason, the historic Christ, the Fall of Man, and his salvation? The task of rationalization fell mainly on two younger converts, Robert Barclay and William Penn.. ..Barclay was the more systematic thinker in the realm of theology, while Penn excelled in political thought and government. Both insisted that thinking about religion was less important than immediate experience. p. 39
(Penn) It is not Opinion or Speculation or Notions of what is true, or assent to or Subscription of Articles or Propositions, though never so soundly worded that…makes a man a true believer or true Christian.
Yet, in spite of assigning a secondary role to doctrine, Barclay and Penn were fully aware of the importance of a consistent system of ideas, without which religion is vague, and incapable of propagating itself… For the Protestants, the Scriptures were primary, and the Holy Spirit was secondary as an aid to their understanding. The Bible was the Word of God. Nothing could be added to it nor subtracted from it by any further revelation of religious truth. For the Quakers the Light Within or the Spirit was primary and the Scriptures a word of God, that is, secondary, confirming and clarifying the revelations of the Light Within. p. 40
In religion what is important to know, or believe, other than what we acquire through immediate experience?
To the Protestants at that time the doctrine of the primacy of the Spirit over the Scriptures appeared dangerous and anarchical, opening the way for almost any heresy of idiosyncrasy to be proclaimed as divine truth. But the Quaker logic was irrefutable. How, they asked, is any Truth sincerely accepted except on the basis of an inward willingness to accept? If there is no such inward acceptance, inspired by the Spirit of Truth, then acceptance may be hypocritical, Isaac Pennington writes:
If I receive a truth before the Lord by his Spirit makes it manifest to me, I lose my guide and follow but the counsel of the flesh, which is exceedingly greedy of receiving truths and running into religious practices without the Spirit…
Yet the Quakers were fully aware of the dangers of pure individualism and subjectivism. As we shall see, apparent revelations of the Light need to be checked and rechecked by the Scriptures, by revelations to other persons, and by the writings of authors who are accepted as sincere lovers of the truth. p. 42
How do we go to the Scriptures to affirm our experience?
There are three ways of dealing with Biblical events and doctrines which follow one another in personal experience in three successive stages. The first is a naive uncritical acceptance of everything at its face value. This may be followed by a critical appraisal in the light of scientific facts and historical research. The result of such an analysis is usually a rejection of parts of the Bible and sometimes an attitude of complete skepticism regarding Biblical religion in general. A third stage may then follow which, while retaining the critical attitude, makes possible a return to belief with an understanding of the deeper meanings inherent in the words of the Bible. At this stage we are not so much concerned with historical validity or rational consistency with our scientific or philosophical outlook as we are with the inner significance of history, myth, and symbol… All living theology grows out of personal experience. p. 42
What must we do to get from one stage to another? Does it just happen?
No Quaker belief aroused more opposition than the doctrine that the Light of Christ has been given to all men everywhere, since the beginning of the human race. The concept was especially repugnant to those Protestants who believe that only the elect would be saved. Fox, writing in his journal for the year 1956…
(Joel, quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17) “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall testify… “For the Grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men (Tit. 2:11)
History clearly shows that the measure of Light given to men was greatly increased after the coming of Christ but also shows that the great men of antiquity were not without some measure of it… must also have been true of the unlettered faithful. p. 47
Are you convinced that the Light has increased since the coming of Christ? If not for all people, may this be true for some people such as Quakers?
The presence of inner peace was the main Quaker test of right guidance. It had nothing to do with the results of an action. The outcome was in God’s hands. Peace comes to him who lives up to the divine requirement. Even though that requirement may not take him very far at first. Where there is no fear of failure and no sense of compromise, the soul is at peace. p. 60
Do you think that your actions can provide inner peace?
In Quakerism there are two complementary movements, withdrawal to an inward source of truth and return to action in the world. The first is Greek in its religious emphasis, the second, Hebrew. Quakerism is both contemplative and active, both metaphysical and ethical, not because it has combined the two in a consistent system of thought but because it has combined them through experience. End of chapter, p. 70