Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)
Although priests and preachers in seventeenth-century England insisted that nobody could attain the state of perfection or be freed from sinning while still alive, the first Quakers did not want to postpone perfect faithfulness until after death. They sought a surrendered life, a life in union with God. They experienced the Spirit of Christ within them, teaching them, step by step, how to become perfectly responsive to God’s will and free from the compulsion to sin. In doing so, they became joined with the Fountain of Love.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus commands his disciples to be perfect, and early Friends were certain that Jesus would not require something that was impossible. For them, perfection was not about appearances or performance, or in any way about worldly standards. Christian perfection does not gratify a controlling ego, but instead crucifies it. After undergoing the purifying rigors of the Refiner’s Fire, after dedicating their lives to following the will of God in all things, big and small, after consenting to live in the Cross, gradually an individual’s will becomes wholly united with the divine will, divine love, and divine purposes. Christ, the Light, lives and loves and acts freely and fully in such a person.
Few early Friends claimed to have journeyed completely into perfection, but many could point to those among them whom they believed had done so, souls living in a state of unity with God, steadfastly fixed upon the rock which they called Christ, allowing the “life of God in its own perfect sweetness” to flow without impediment through their humanity.
They felt called to return to the original state in which human beings had been created, in the image and likeness of God, with a perfect, divine nature. Early Quaker writers made reference to 2 Peter 1:4, [H]e has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world…and become partakers of the divine nature. London tract writer Rebecca Travers, for example, wrote about “that Power and Life in which we that believe have and do know the fulfilling of the promise, and are become partakers of the Divine Nature…”(Testimony for God’s everlasting truth, 41). In his Journal, George Fox wrote that “Christ saith, `Be ye perfect even as my heavenly father is perfect,’ for he who was perfect comes to make man and woman perfect again and bring them again to the state God made them in…” (367-368).
When speaking of perfection, early Friends often added that one grows into perfect obedience to God by degrees. More is asked of some than of others, and one is only called to be faithful in one’s measure. James Nayler, for example, wrote, “It is true, the Light is but manifest in the creatures by degrees, but the least degree is perfect in its measure, and being obeyed, will lead to the perfect Day, and is perfect in its self, and leads up to perfection all that perfectly follow it” (qtd. in Damrosch, 101).
Even those who learn to be completely faithful in their measure need to be vigilant, for this is a condition from which one can fall. Many believed James Nayler had come to the state of perfection during his years as the most celebrated and effective Quaker preacher in London. During a crisis, however, Nayler succumbed to temptation in a very public way, giving fuel to detractors of Quakerism. His complex story is the subject of many books,* and might become the focus of a separate blog post here someday. Now I will simply say that while recovering from brutal torture, alone in prison, James Nayler discovered that God had not abandoned him, and he learned to discern more clearly the difference between a call from God and a temptation.
Isaac Penington described the process whereby the spiritual transformation worked in a soul leads increasingly toward the state of perfection:
Belief in the light works patience, meekness, gentleness, tenderness, and long-suffering. It will bear anything for God, anything for men’s souls sake. It will wait quietly and stilly for the carrying on of the work of God in its own soul, and for the manifestation of God’s love and mercy to others. It will bear the contradiction and reproach of sinners, seeking their good, even while they are plotting, contriving, and hatching mischief, laying many subtle snares…. Here is joy, unspeakable joy, joy which the world cannot see or touch, nor the powers of darkness come near to interrupt…and this joy is full of glory, which glory increaseth daily more and more, by the daily sight and feeling of the living virtue and power in Christ the light … in them that turns towards it, give up to it, and abide in it…it cleanseth out the thickness and darkness, and daily transformeth them into the image, purity, and perfection of the light (“Scattered Sheep,” 136).
Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, married women and mothers of children, were among the earliest Quaker traveling ministers. Together and apart they suffered many miserable imprisonments and other punishments. When they set sail to bring the Quaker message to Alexandria in 1658, they were imprisoned by the Inquisition on the island of Malta. They asked one of the Inquisitors, “By Faith we stand, and by the Power of God we are upholden; dost thou think it is by our own power and holiness we are kept from a vain conversation [i.e. behavior], from sin and wickedness?” When told that their statement was prideful, they explained that they had been “children of wrath once,” like everybody else. However, they had been undergoing the purification of the Refiner’s Fire. God, they said, has “washed cleansed and sanctified us through soul and spirit, in part, according to our measures, and we do press forward toward that which is perfect” (197).
Evans and Chevers did not claim to have reached the state of perfection. In another piece of writing, however, Sarah Chevers described the process of self-emptying that leads to being filled and united with God, a state she was experiencing:
The more we taste of this heavenly banquet, the much the more are we broken down into self denial, sealed down forever in the true poverty, and upright integrity of heart and soul, mind and conscience, wholly ransomed by the living word of life, to serve the living God…. [Then] we cannot hold our peace; the God…of glory doth open our mouth, and we speak to his praise, and utter his voice, and sound forth his word of life, and causeth the earth to tremble…my heart, soul and spirit that is wholly joined to the Lord, stream forth to you…. [I] am a partaker of living virtue. (qtd. in Mack, 136).
Perhaps the most beautiful description by an early Friend experiencing a state of union with God–Christian perfection–was written by William Robinson after Boston magistrates condemned him to be hung in 1659. In a letter to his fellow Quakers a few days before his death, Robinson describes how he has become united with God’s love. As in the passage by Chevers above, something divine steams through him to others. It will continue to do so after his death:
The streams of my father’s love runs daily through me from the holy fountain of life to the seed throughout the whole creation. I am overcome with love, for it is my life and length of my days, it’s my glory and my daily strength. I am swallowed up with love, in love I live, and with it I am overcome, and in it I dwell with the Holy Seed, to which the blessing of love is given from God who is love, who hath shed it abroad in my heart which daily fills me with living joy from the life from whence it comes. You children of the living God, feel me when you are waiting in it, when your hearts and minds are gathered into it, when …it runs from the fountain into your vessel, when it issues gently like new wine into your bosoms, when the strength and power of it you feel, when you are overcome with the strength of love (which is God), then feel me present in the fountain of love, wherein are many mansions. (Barbour and Roberts, 133)
Perfection (in One’s Measure): Has my spiritual experience given me confidence in the power of God to transform my mind and heart and restore the divine image within me? in others? Do I aspire to live with God in perfect love, truth, and obedience? Why or why not? Have I known anyone who seemed to shine with divine radiance, whose life modeled faithfulness in matters big and small?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe contemporary Friends’ experiences of Perfection (in one’s measure).
On November 8-10, 2013, Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio will host a weekend retreat on Learning From the Spiritual Journey of Early Friends. Registration deadline: Oct 25th.
A fuller opportunity to explore this material 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.
* The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit, by Leo Damrosh, is one of the best studies of James Nayler and the sign of Christ’s return enacted by him and several others.
© 2013 Marcelle Martin