For the first Quakers, convincement was about much more than accepting new beliefs. Even a powerful experience of the Light of Christ within was only the beginning. Then they learned how to allow that Light to be an active and growing force. After turning their attention to the inward presence of Christ, early Friends were shown startling and uncomfortable truths about the nature of their society and their inner psyche. They saw that they had been conforming to deceptive and oppressive social behaviors. Painfully, they recognized that they had been under the control of subtle inward negative forces which created a separation from God. They had not been fully alive.
The Light revealed this and then changed their lives from the inside out. Early Quakers accepted to be put into the spiritual fire of purification, cooperating as God melted away inner impediments to a life of Truth and faithfulness. The person they had been before this change was called “the old man.” Through the process of surrendering everything to the transforming power of the Light, the image of God within their humanity was restored. A “new man” or “new creature” was born, a son or daughter of God, a person willing to “crucify” personal desires and pleasures, when necessary, in order to center his or her life around God and God’s loving and radical purposes. They called this process “regeneration.” They were “translated” (transformed) into a new kind of being. They changed their clothing, their speech, their social mannerisms, their business practices. They stopped complying with unjust social norms and laws, accepting the loss of social status and sometimes imprisonment that followed. They supported one another to be faithful and to endure persecution by forming close networks of community. Their spiritual rebirth involved a great deal more inward and outward change than is usually signified by those today who claim to be “born again.”
The Journal of George Fox recounts the many years during which he endured the experience of the Refiner’s Fire. To his surprise, he saw an inner battle between the Light of Christ within and those parts of himself which resisted the Light and veiled him from God. He gradually opened to spiritual truth and direct guidance from within, ending his conformity to whatever he recognized as oppressive and false in society. He gave up everything else to travel by foot from one region of England to another to share the prophetic message given to him, enduring much persecution and loneliness. After years of transformation and increasing faithfulness, he had a visionary experience of being taken to see “the Paradise of God.” The growing prophetic power that was working through him began to reach more people. The first Quaker groups formed, calling themselves Children of the Light.
Only after all of that did George Fox receive an indication of having fully been “born again.” In his Journal he describes it briefly, using Biblical language: “On a certain time, as I was walking in the fields, the Lord said unto me, ‘Thy name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, which was before the foundation of the world:’ and as the Lord spoke it, I believed and saw it in the new birth.” Mentioned in Phillipians 4:3 and several times in the Book of Revelation, the Book of Life is the list of those who will live forever in heaven with God. When traveling Quakers Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Williams were arrested for preaching in the streets of Cambridge, they told the mayor that their names were “written in the Book of Life.” For this and other bold declarations, they were brutally whipped in the town square.
In “The Inheritance of Jacob” Francis Howgill gives an account of his long journey toward the “new birth.” It began early in childhood and through the first decades of his adult life, when he searched for closeness with God and Christ through reading, prayer, solitude, repentance, spiritual practices, and participating in a series of different denominations, joining whole-heartedly with each church community in turn, but not finding the true life of the Spirit. Finally he became a preacher among the Seekers, those who were waiting for the true form of Christian faith yet to be revealed. Although highly acclaimed by others for his spiritual knowledge and a mature man in his fifties, when Howgill heard George Fox preach on Firbank Fell about the inward presence of Christ, he recognized that his decades of Bible study and Bible teaching, his earnest practices and prayers had all focused outward, on a distant God. He had been ignoring and denying the subtle inward divine presence. For months afterwards, he endured an intense experience of the Refiner’s Fire. It revealed to him the falsity of his previous ministry, a ministry that came from intellectual learning and not from direct experience of the presence of God within. All the works that had come from his own will, even those that appeared to be for God’s glory, were revealed to be contrary to the work of God. Howgill accepted the judgment. He experienced the death of his false self, and then “the new man was made.”
“Eternal life was brought in through death and judgment,” he wrote. “And then the perfect gift I received, which was given from God, and the holy law of God was revealed unto me, and was written in my heart.” His text explains that in order to receive this pure and freely given gift of God, “Self must be denied…that he may be all and you nothing.” In the new man, in the one who is spiritually born through this process, Christ lives: “Therefore it is no longer the creature, but Christ, who is all in his saints.” Francis Howgill was anointed for a true ministry. He was called to leave his farm, his wife, and his children, in order to travel and teach the truth of the Light of Christ within. He became one of the most effective of the early Quaker traveling ministers, spending the rest of his life in ministry, the final five years in prison.
For early Quakers, true Christianity, Truth, was not primarily about believing in what Jesus had already done for them a long time ago in Jerusalem. His life and death and resurrection were holy acts of God, but not sufficient in themselves to save people. In their experience, salvation comes only through allowing the living Light of Christ, which exists within oneself in the present time, to become the active force in one’s life. They felt that Jesus had called them, and all people, to be “born from above” and to live the Christ life.
This is, indeed, an overwhelmingly demanding call. My editor, the first reader of most of the drafts of my blog, found this post more challenging than the others. He wrote: “Is it my shortcomings or is this culmination just too much to accept?” One of the reasons I have dragged my feet so long about sharing what I’ve learned from early Friends is precisely because of the inadequacy, fear and resistance that I, too, feel when faced with their message.
Hundreds of the first Quakers felt called to publicly testify to their faith and travel in the ministry, but most did not. Thousands were put in prison, many for merely attending a public meeting for worship, or for refusing to pay their tithes. Still, tens of thousands of early Friends did not go to prison. The traveling ministers I have written about in this blog were among the most ardent leaders of the early Quaker movement. The faithfulness of early Friends did not always take the form seen in their examples. A life of surrender to God takes many forms. Still, the rebirth to which all are called is a formidable process. Although they experienced God as a refiner who put them in the fire, early Friends also testified to God’s compassion and mercy through this transformation. Thomas Ellwood, for example, described his early openings to spiritual truth this way:
I felt some of that divine power working my spirit into a great tenderness, and not only confirming me in the course I had already entered, and strengthening me to go on therein, but rending also the veil somewhat further, and clearing my understanding in some other things which I had not seen before. For the Lord was pleased to make His discoveries to me by degrees, that the sight of too great a work, and too many enemies to encounter with at once, might not discourage me and make me faint.
In court, early Quaker leader William Dewsbury testified that, “We witness the Work of Regeneration to be an extraordinary Work wrought in us by the Spirit of God.” The ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey which I have been describing in this blog are all elements of that process of spiritual rebirth which the first Quakers courageously witnessed not only in their preaching and writing, but more importantly, in their transformed and transforming lives.
The New Birth: Have you experienced the death of a false self and a spiritual rebirth? Has the Light of Christ within led you or those you know through a process of utter transformation?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe contemporary Friends’ experiences of spiritual rebirth.
A four-day opportunity to explore the Quaker spiritual journey will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014. In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends.
A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.
© 2013 Marcelle Martin