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Understanding the Quaker Past

"Justice Pearson: What difference then between the ministers and you?
"James Nayler: The ministers affirm Christ to be in heaven with a carnal body, but I with a spiritual body."

from "The Examination of James Nayler at Appleby,"
Saul's Errand to Damascus (1653), p. 31

Licia Kuenning

Quaker Heritage Press
16 Huber St.
Glenside, PA 19038, USA


Mark Twain once wrote, "There is something worse than ignorance, and that's knowing what ain't so." The biggest difficulty that Friends today face, in understanding early Quakerism, is not that they know nothing at all about it, but that what they know is fragmentary and often understood within a frame of reference quite different from that in which the early Friends actually lived and understood themselves.

This tendency is not confined to any one branch or party among Friends, and no branch or party is free from it.

The source of the problem, which perhaps occurs in all religious denominations, is that early Friends have been turned into mythical heroes to represent the ideals and beliefs of one or another party in a later generation of Friends. They are quoted when the quote serves the speaker's purpose. They are ignored when what they said and did does not serve anyone's contemporary agenda.

For example, several years ago I received an e-mail by a Friend who had recently purchased the first volume of Isaac Penington's Works, which Quaker Heritage Press had reprinted. This Friend was utterly shocked by what he found in Penington because it was so different from what he had been taught about early Quakers. Why, Penington actually thought he was right about his religious beliefs, and he thought that other sects were wrong! How intolerant and unquakerly. This Friend had been taught that early Friends were tolerant and respected everyone's faith.

In fact they were not and did not. The "tolerant" early Quaker is a myth. Seventeenth-century Friends vehemently denounced, as false and apostate, every other sect in England; and Penington did so as zealously as did the other Quakers of his time. The shock that my correspondent experienced was the result of his having "known what ain't so."

Does this mean that Friends today should be intolerant? Not necessarily. We need to be able to separate questions about what we should do or say today from questions about what early Friends did or said. Otherwise we cannot look at the early Friends objectively.

Does this mean that early Friends have no lessons for us? Again, not necessarily. But most readers move much too quickly to the topic of what the lessons for us are. We must know what a thing is before we know what lessons, if any, it teaches. If we don't know what Friends of the past were, if we don't understand them and their cultural context (which was vastly different from ours), we are in no position to discern which things that they said and did can validly be applied today, or in what ways they can be applied.

To understand early Friends we must get over needing to find support for our own beliefs in them. When we really understand them, we can consider whether we agree with them or not, and to what extent we should take their advice. In the Quaker e-mail discussion groups I sometimes find Friends contending that George Fox taught this or that - when what the writer really means is: (s)he believes this or that and would like to feel that Fox is on his or her side. In trying to persuade Friends to let go of this compulsion I have sometimes said: "Look, there is no law against disagreeing with Fox. It is perfectly possible to say 'George Fox taught such-and-such doctrine, but I don't agree with it.' Thee will not go to jail for saying this. Thee will not even be read out of meeting."

Where is the Data?

The compilers of books of Faith & Practice bear some of the responsibility for misunderstandings of the Quaker past, though no doubt they are in turn conditioned by the expectations of the Quaker bodies that they serve. It is very common to find, in a yearly meeting's book of Faith & Practice, selected quotations from early Friends. The selection is highly biased, and the quotations are out of context. They are selected because they seem to support the philosophies of the compilers and their meetings: philosophies which the Friends quoted often did not hold and perhaps never even heard of.1

So if you want to learn something about Quaker history, do not try to learn it from a book of Faith & Practice.

Where can you learn it? What is a modern Friend to do, who does not have time to spend many years in historical study?

There is no easy answer to this question because in fact it does take a lot of time to read enough historical Quaker writings, and to learn enough about their context, to understand them. But for those who care enough to put in the time, I would recommend:

Read primary sources. By primary sources I mean writings by the early Quakers themselves, and contemporaries with whom they were directly involved, in preference to books about them written centuries later.

Don't limit yourself to George Fox's Journal and Barclay's Apology (the two primary sources most often read by Friends). Although these books are certainly worth reading, they were written decades after the rise of Quakerism and do not give much of a feeling for what was going on in the early years. Also, they are so overlaid, in the minds of Friends, with generations of interpretation, that it is difficult to come to them fresh.

(The Journal is the least typical of Fox's writings: almost anything else he wrote would give a better idea of his style and content.)

Today it is easier than it was, for most of the twentieth century, to obtain primary sources. Quaker Heritage Press and the New Foundation Fellowship have put some of these sources in print. And a larger number of texts of many old Quaker writings can be found on the Web. The Quaker Heritage Press website contains a catalog of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writings that are currently available (whether from QHP or from other publishers), either in print or online (with links to the online ones). This catalog can be found at <>.

There are still many old texts that are available only in specialized libraries, and an immense number of Quaker manuscripts which have never even been printed. Work is continuing to make more of this material available. Earlham School of Religion is planning to put online some sixty-four thousand pages of old printed Quaker writings, and Rosemary Moore has suggested a Web database on manuscript material, which I would gladly encourage.

But there are already more texts available than most Friends are likely to find the time to read in the next few years. Those who want to get started have plenty to work with.

Read whole documents rather than excerpts or condensed versions. There is a great range of lengths in early Quaker documents, from very short to very long - so a commitment to reading whole documents does not necessarily mean a commitment to reading huge tomes. Remember that those who excerpt documents have an agenda: what they leave out is what does not suit their agenda. It might nevertheless be important for understanding the document.

Where possible, read the original edition, or a reprint as close to the original as you can get. Later editors sometimes altered documents. Their changes range from very minor amendments improving the grammar, to omissions or alterations that obscure some interesting aspect of the original. I.e., editors too have agendas. That said, the problem should not be exaggerated. Most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reprints are close enough to the original to be worth reading if that is what's available.

Avoid "modern language" versions. I have never yet seen one that was even close to accurate. And the difficulty of early Quaker texts is not so much one of archaism in the English as of the unfamiliarity of the concepts. The language is well within the reach of educated people today; the concepts take more work.

Also, if the language is modernized one may miss the Biblical allusions which are all through early Quaker writings (and not always identified with explicit citations). Familiarity with the King James Bible is a great help in reading Quaker writings of the past. Do not trust editions that substitute quotations from a modern Bible translation for KJV (AV) quotations. Modern Bible translations are not merely modernized paraphrases of the KJV. They draw upon increased knowledge of biblical Hebrew and Greek, and upon advances in textual scholarship; and as a result, a passage in a modern Bible version may have a different meaning from the corresponding passage in a seventeenth-century Bible. It may be a better translation of the original Greek or Hebrew; but it isn't what the early Quakers had in mind when they wrote.

Become aware of how much primary source material there is. Very few will have time to read it all, but it's still worth knowing that it's there. Check out Rosemary Moore's catalog of Quaker and anti-Quaker writings, 1652-66, originally on Woodbrooke's website. Larry Kuenning has worked with Rosemary Moore to put her bibliography on the Quaker Heritage Press website in a more readable form: <>.

What about secondary sources - books not by but about the Quakers of the past? They can be useful in that the historian has consulted more old documents than the average reader can do; and often one can find facts, dates, and biographical information in a history book that would take more time to locate if one had to learn these things from primary sources. But secondary sources should be approached with caution. Historians have their own biases, and reading a modern history book does not go very far toward giving one the flavor of what the early Quakers actually sounded like.

The most authoritative historical writing is still that of William Braithwaite, who wrote The Beginnings of Quakerism (1912) and The Second Period of Quakerism (1919). A defect in Braithwaite is that to some extent his narrative reflects the interpretation of Quakerism that was current when he wrote, and he is too fond of moralizing about what the Quakers should have done instead of what they did. But a reader can to some extent screen out Braithwaite's philosophy and gain a tremendous amount of factual information from him.

A shorter and more objective work is Rosemary Moore's The Light in their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000).

Most historians are not theologians, and they are usually not very good at understanding early Quaker theology. This is a difficult subject which calls for a thorough knowledge of the Bible, competence in the history of Christian theology generally, and more specifically competence in the intricacies of Puritan theology in seventeenth-century England, as well as an understanding of George Fox's peculiar use of words, which is derived from the Bible but does not conform to the usage of academically trained theologians. Historians who encounter Fox and find his theological expressions confusing may too quickly conclude that Fox himself was confused, or they may superimpose anachronistic concepts to try to make sense of what they are reading. A really good book on this subject remains to be written.

Recognizing Bias

If a controversial new religious group emerged in your neighborhood, and you were researching it, perhaps with a view to writing a book about it, or maybe just in order to understand it better, you would interview many different people. No doubt you would talk to members of the group and attend some of their meetings. You would also talk to their neighbors, to family members who had not joined the new church, to ex-members who had known the group from the inside but had decided to leave it (or perhaps had been kicked out of it), and to local people such as ministers of other churches who had been outspoken in opposition to it.

You would recognize that all of these sources have a bias. Insiders would naturally tend to stress the good features of their group and discount criticism; they would probably not want to discuss openly the internal weaknesses of their community, if indeed they even recognized those weaknesses. Ex-members would naturally emphasize the faults of the group that they felt justified their leaving. The views of family members might be colored by jealousy of the devotion paid to the new religion, or "cult" as they might call it, by one of their own. Pastor Jones from down the block would of course be motivated to defend his own church against the implicit or explicit charges against it made by this new rival group. And some of your informants might be repeating mere unfounded gossip.

As an intellectually honest researcher you would not approach your project with a preconception that the interested parties could be neatly divided into "good guys" and "bad guys." You would listen to everybody and try to sift out the facts from the misunderstandings and distortions.

In general, the more controversial any historical phenomenon was in its own time, the more difficult it is to get objective reportage about it from contemporaries. Everybody had an axe to grind. When in addition there have been historical consequences of those past events, and additional controversies resulting from them, everybody continues to have an axe to grind. This is not to say that there are no facts of the matter, nor that some sources are not more reliable than others - only that continual awareness of possible bias is the price of truthfulness.

In addition to the large volume of early Quaker writings there is an extensive literature by contemporaries critical of Quakerism. Sometimes arguments were exchanged back and forth, and both sides of the debate, or "pamphlet war" are still extant. Historians recognize anti-Quaker literature as one of the useful sources of information.

Scissors and Paste

I have said that excerpts serve someone's agenda. The title page of this pamphlet contains a brief quotation excerpted from a much longer document. It will be no surprise that I put it there to serve my own agenda: that of pointing out that the early years of Quakerism are indeed mysterious and unfamiliar territory to most Friends today.

"Justice Pearson: What difference then between the ministers and you?
"James Nayler: The ministers affirm Christ to be in heaven with a carnal body, but I with a spiritual body."

How many Friends today, if asked what the difference was between the earliest Quaker preachers and the established ministers of their time, would think of this answer?

What does it mean? Why did James Nayler think it was important? Why did the ministers think it was important? How did it relate to the rest of the Quaker story? And will it help me decide what to take to my meeting's next potluck?

The answer to the last question is, probably not. And the question of what kind of body the risen and ascended Christ has strikes many modern readers as an academic quibble, of interest only to ivory-tower theologians. But it obviously wasn't that to Nayler, or to his opponents, as he stood before a tribunal that was about to throw him into jail. In fact the quotation provides a key to a complex of ideas that arise in other contexts and that did have practical implications in the 1650s.

To those who would like to explore this subject I recommend the chapter entitled "Some Four or Five Foot Long" in Larry Kuenning's dissertation on the debate between John Bunyan and Edward Burrough, online at <>.

I have sometimes mused on what it would be like if a Friends book of Faith & Practice, in addition to quoting the sayings that modern Friends are so fond of, were to include an equal number of quotations that are strange or even off-putting. Such as, perhaps:

If enough passages were included that startle modern Friends this would still not, of course, give anyone a balanced picture of what early Quakerism was like. But perhaps it would alert readers to the futility of trying to understand the subject without getting a fuller context.

The Quest for the Quaker Dynamic

To some people, what is most attractive about early Quakerism seems to be the fact that its zealous adherents gathered a large number of people. Observing that the rate of growth eventually slowed down, and that Quakerism no longer generated as much social excitement as it did in the first decade, these people ask: What went wrong? What was the secret of the contagiousness of early Quaker excitement? What big mistake did Friends make to cause it to be lost? Behind these questions is often the assumption: We could do it again, in our own time, if only we could recover the secret of early Quakerism.

In the past thirty-five years I have lived through many attempts to recover the Quaker dynamic and have seen many theories about what it was. I have never seen the proponents of any of these theories gather more than a small group, or make much impact on society. And I have sometimes wondered why so few people ask some basic philosophical questions, such as:

Excitement goes hand in hand with expecting something - and expecting it soon. In the nature of the case excitement doesn't last very long. Either the expected thing happens, or it fails to happen, or more likely something else happens; in any case there is a new situation, which has to be dealt with.

Quakerism arose during the Puritan revolution, when a lot of people were excited about reforming the church and state and it was possible to believe that something like the Kingdom of God would become a political reality. What actually happened was that the revolutionary government failed, the monarchy and the episcopalian hierarchy were restored, and dissenters such as the Quakers were cracked down on much more severely than they had been under Cromwell's government. That Quakerism survived at all is impressive. That it should have survived with the same springlike fever of expectancy that it displayed in the 1650s is not plausible, and we do not need to postulate an apostasy, or even some serious tactical mistake, to explain why the excitement of the 1650s didn't continue forever.

So I do not say to Friends that if they study the Quaker past they will learn how to recreate it. The seventeenth century will not come again. I have the more modest hope that we will learn to tell the truth about it.

Some Internet Resources

Catalog of pre-twentieth-century Quaker writings currently available in print or online:

Bibliography of early Quaker and anti-Quaker publications (1652-1666) compiled by Rosemary Moore:
(the second of these may be more complete and/or more readable)

Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr Colleges combined library catalog (TRIPOD catalog), including two major Quaker historical collections:

Quotations Referred to

All you wanton lustful ones, sporting yourselves, who gather yourselves together to spend your time in vanity, there is something in your consciences tells you, all that to be folly, foolishness, and madness: laughter is madness saith the prophet.

(George Fox, 1654)

As I was passing down the borough of Southwark not many days ago, I saw the greatest abominations acted that ever mine eyes beheld, in several places in the open streets men upon scaffolds, by two, three, four or five on a scaffold, transformed into several shapes, lifted wickedness up on high, and acting such abominable folly in words and actions, in the sight of the sun, as might make any tender heart, fearing God, to tremble at the sight of. And this was in many places of the streets openly, besides what was within the houses, where several trumpets were sounding to gather vain minded people thereto: which wounded my heart to see, that ever such things should be tolerated under your government.

(James Nayler, 1655)

At length there came one of the King of England's frigates, called the Sapphire, commanded by Captain Samuel Titswel, who took them in, together with some knights of Malta, among whom was the Inquisitor's brother, who often spoke to the captain, that they might not want anything that was in the ship, and he told them, if they came to Malta again, they should not be persecuted so. And to the captain he said, "If they go to heaven one way, and we another, yet we shall all meet together at last." But they told him that Christ Jesus, the Light of the World, was the only way to the Father.

(William Sewel, 1723, writing of
Catherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, 1662)

Oh ye high ones, which spread yourselves, appear fair, tall and strong! You know not God, nor yourselves to be oaks. O ye tall cedars! ye know not yourselves to be so; the Lord hath sent to look for fruit in his vineyard among you, but it is full of wild olives, and wild grapes, that many are drunk with the juice of the wild grapes; and so the vineyard is full of briars and thorns, that the lambs and sheep cannot pass.... and no discerning you have had betwixt a lamb and a goat, a sheep and a wolf. Now the Lord himself is gathering his lambs and his sheep ... and some are trampled upon with the horses of Pharaoh; but the Lord's hand is against you, and his sword drawn....

O how beautiful hath thy harlot been!

(George Fox, 1654)

Woe, woe unto all the inhabitants; for the Lord God of power is coming in power and great glory, with ten thousand of his saints, to judge the earth, and to make a desolation; and an utter overthrow and a consumption shall come upon all flesh, and its glory shall be stained; for all flesh hath corrupted its way, and gone a whoring after other gods, and hath committed fornication with strangers, and whoredoms with the uncircumcised, and the land is filled with monsters, and the living God is departed from; the Lord is grieved, the Lord is weary with forbearing, and will no longer forbear.... And so remember you are all warned in your lifetime, lest you be swept away into the pit, and perish forever and ever, and there be none to deliver you; and unto you this is the word of the living God, whether you hear or forbear.

(Francis Howgill, 1654)

John Audland ... stood up, full of dread and shining brightness on his countenance, lifted up his voice as a trumpet, and said, "I proclaim spiritual war with the inhabitants of the earth, who are in the fall and separation from God, and prophesy to the four winds of heaven." ....ah! the seizings of souls and prickings of heart which attended that season; some fell on the ground, others crying out under the sense of opening their states.... Oh, the tears, sighs, and groans, tremblings and mournings, in the sight of the middle wall of partition, that we saw then in our awakened states, that stood between us and the Lord.

(Charles Marshall, 1689, remembering 1654)

As I turned my mind within to the Light of Jesus Christ... My eyes were opened, and all the things that I had ever done were brought to remembrance and the ark of the testament was opened, and there was thunder and lightning and great hail. And then the trumpet of the Lord was sounded, and then nothing but war and rumor of war, and the dreadful power of the Lord fell on me: plague, and pestilence, and famine, and earthquake, and fear and terror.... And all that ever I had done was judged and condemned.... And then something in me cried: "Just and true is his judgment!" My mouth was stopped, I dared not make mention of his name, I knew not God. And as I bore the indignation of the Lord, something rejoiced, the serpent's head began to be bruised, and the witnesses which were slain were raised.

(Francis Howgill, 1660, remembering 1652)


1. This use of selected quotations in books of Faith & Practice is a 20th-century development. Older books of discipline were organized by topic and contained minutes or excerpts from yearly meeting epistles directly dealing with the topic; they were therefore less likely to foster historical misunderstanding.