Full text: Creating Heaven on Earth: The Radical Vision of Early Quakers

Well it’s absolutely wonderful to see such a large number of people in the room this
evening and in particular such an international gathering. Welcome friends and
thank you so much to the Quaker Socialist Society for offering this opportunity for
me to share with you something that I spend quite a lot of time thinking about.
We’re going to focus on something essential about the beginnings of Quakerism and
this is really quite a fleeting period, right at the beginning of the Quaker movement,
when in a sense friends are literally turning the world upside down – an experience
of living in heaven on earth. And so our focus is going to be very much on that
earliest vision, how we can understand it, but also the radical implications that flow
from it. And they are significant.

Now this material, I hope, will be inspiring to you. But I guess it will also be
somewhat discomforting and I think there’s two reasons for that. The first one is
that if you are less than happy with traditional religious language and, in particular,
biblical language, we need to recognize that the first generation of friends are
operating within a biblical worldview, and the language of the King James Bible is
very much their language. If you struggle with that, try and see beyond those
limitations to what friends are trying to communicate about their experience. The
other really key element that will probably be disconcerting to us is that this radical
vision really didn’t last very long, and we’ll see the ways in which the Quaker
community corporately becomes increasingly accommodated to the ways of the
world, and increasingly conservative with a small “c”, and really concerned for
maintaining a public image of respectability. And that has serious negative
consequences for the radical vision of early friends, and it’s a legacy that has
affected us across our history. Let’s hope though that in this first session, which is
going to look at the radical vision, we’ll see why it is that we should be inspired by
our founding fathers and mothers.

Part One – The World Turned Upside-Down

I’m calling this particular section, The World Turned Upside-down. It’s a phrase
that’s often used associated with the period of the English Revolution and the
English Commonwealth, famously used as the title of a book by Christopher Hill. But
we can say that something about what the Quakers were doing in those earliest few
years really did threaten to turn the way the world was at the time upside-down,
and offer a very different vision for the future. Let’s look at that context. Just for a
moment think about the situation in 17th century England. It’s very much a
watershed period within English history. But we see, essentially, it’s the main point
of transition between medieval feudalism, an agricultural based society, a society
that’s rigidly hierarchical and structured along the lines of the king at the top and
then the aristocracy and then a middle class and then a peasantry at the bottom,
and the idea that that is actually divinely ordained. That’s a solid aspect of medieval
Christendom. And this is the period when that’s beginning to break down – the king
being ordained by God, having absolute power. We’re seeing in the English
revolution, in a sense, a bourgeois revolution. It’s a movement from feudalism to
capitalism. This is the period when in English society, certainly that’s really becoming
clear – that we’re in a watershed time. And from then on capitalism develops,
colonialism develops, English society becomes enriched by the development of
capitalism and the exploitation of other peoples and other parts of the world, in
colonialism. And, of course, slavery is an essential part of that. And it’s part of the
story that we’re going to be talking about.

The Quaker scholar, Doug Gwyn, has argued in one of his books that in the 1650s, at
this watershed time, Quakers offered a fundamentally different possible way
forward for English society and for the world. And he uses the word covenant. Now
covenant is a word we’re going to come back to. Covenant is about a relationship,
essentially in biblical terms, it’s the basis of the relationship between God and
humanity and so Gwyn suggests that the radical vision of that first generation of
Friends offered an alternative way forward based on a particular relationship
between God and humanity that would create a particular set of circumstances
within the world, the heaven on earth that we’re going to be talking about. However
it didn’t last very long. The world rejected it. The world fought it. The world sought
to crush it. Gwyn argues that the covenant was crucified and, with the death of that
alternative way forward, it was the capitalist and colonialist vision that became
dominant.

Let’s just think though about the situation and one or two key points here. At the
time, if you were an ordinary person living in this society, you would be regarded as
fundamentally inferior to the gentry, the aristocracy, the royalty. A very rigid
distinction – those who were born to rule and those who were born to serve. And of
course, even with the parliament, it’s only the gentry, the land owners, who are
represented. The mass of people are not. Early Friends are actually called the dregs
of the common people. They tend to be fairly middling sorts. But that kind of gives
you a sense of the way in which ordinary people are seen to be fundamentally
inferior to those who run society. And, of course, this is even more the case when
we see the distinctions between men and women. Women are seen to be
fundamentally inferior to men, essentially owned by either their fathers or their
husbands, and really having no place at all within the public sphere of any
significance. And in religion of course, having no place in the ministry, having no
rights to be in a leadership role, having any kind of significant role to play. George
Fox talks about coming across some men who say women of course don’t have souls
any more than geese or ducks. So that’s the kind of situation we find ourselves in – a
very rigidly patriarchal society. Women seem to be inferior to men, and of course
what we’re really talking about is men of a certain social class being the ones who
are born to rule and everyone else being inferior.

Also the cultural attitudes to people of other religions and other cultures is very
negative. For example, across medieval Christendom in Europe, the Jewish people,
the Jewish communities were often regarded as the enemy within, the scapegoats,
the people who were time and time again blamed for things that went wrong. And
there were pogroms, you know mass kind of murders of Jewish people, significant
persecution, constant movement based on being booted out of various places. You
see that very negative attitude to the Jewish people in this kind of context. But if the
Jews were seen to be the enemy within (of course it’s slightly different in England
because they’ve been excluded from England for hundreds of years), the Turk or the
Muslim, the followers of Islam were regarded as the enemy without, the marauding
heathen evil kind of powers that threaten European Christendom. And, of course,
other people of other religions also seem to be fundamentally outside of this
acceptable form of humanity – pagans or heathens, people of other religions. And
we’ll talk a little bit about native Americans of course, and the attitude of Europeans
to black Africans in terms of the transatlantic slave trade. We can see fundamental,
rigid, unjust social distinctions and divisions and conflicts within this society. And it’s
in that context the Quakers are offering an alternative way forward, that in some
ways breaks down very radically the fundamental basis of all of those social
divisions. It really is an assault on a fundamentally divided, unjust and hierarchical
society. And we’ll see that as we work through this early Quaker vision.

What I want to argue is that if you look at the early Quaker experience and
interpretation you will see that there are a number of building blocks that help us
understand their conception of the coming of heaven on earth, and the fact that
they feel as though they are already part of that process. They’re in the vanguard, in
a sense, of the fundamental transformation of all things. And the coming of heaven
on earth, the coming of the rule of God, the coming of the kingdom of God. And
we’re going to look at these in some detail. But just as a summary what we need to
understand is that early Friends are often accused of neglecting the importance of
the historical Jesus. Now it’s true to the extent to which they focus on something
else, but we need to start by recognizing that for early Friends, as biblical people, it
is the Jesus event, what we often call the incarnation, the coming of Jesus as the
word made flesh, God incarnate, that it’s the action of Christ, the work of Christ that
makes all of these things possible. We often see, particularly in the writings of James
Nayler, the sense that Christ achieves a number of things in his life, his death and his
resurrection. He establishes a new humanity, a new way being of being human, fully
reconciled to God, fully in the image of God. He establishes a new covenant, a new
relationship between God and humanity that’s very different from the one that
existed before. He establishes a new understanding of the people of God, and he
establishes the basis of a whole new creation – heaven on earth, the kingdom of
God. That’s what Friends feel they’re participating in.

What makes that possible and what are the implications? Well the first thing to say
is that Pentecost is the key catalyst and enabler, and the availability of the Holy
Spirit prompting these changes, enabling this transformation. That brings people
into a new covenant relationship with God, which is inward and intimate and direct.
That makes possible being in a new way of being human, what I’m calling prophetic –
the idea that in this new humanity God lives and speaks through the human
creature. And a fundamentally new vision, a new perception of all things, what I’m
calling the apocalyptic – what had been hidden is now being revealed. But we’ll look
at each of those in just a little bit more detail.

The early Quaker movement is a Pentecostal movement. And if you’re aware of
contemporary charismatic Christianity you’ll know what I mean here. This is a spirit-
led, strongly physically embodied spirituality. Quakers aren’t called Quakers because
they’re very quiet and unassuming. They’re called Quakers because they physically
reveal the way the spirit is working within them in an outward and embodied way.
They physically shake and quake in the power of the spirit. Now for early Friends,
they take very seriously the proclamation that we see in the New Testament in the
book of the Acts of the Apostles at Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit has been poured
out on all flesh. This is a promise that God makes through the Hebrew prophet Joel,
that the early church says has been fulfilled as a result of the Jesus event, the
incarnation. Now for early Friends the sense is that generally speaking the Christian
tradition for many hundreds of years has massively underestimated the radical
implications of the idea that the Holy Spirit is genuinely being poured out on all
flesh. All people, regardless of who they are, what their ethnicity is, what their
proclaimed religion is, what their gender is, what their level of education is,
everyone has God in spirit dwelling within them without exception. Think about how
radical that is.

Of course, the early Friends, they felt that not everybody recognized
that, in fact most people didn’t recognize that. They often talk about the spirit being
held in prison, you’ve got God within you, but somehow, you’re not aware of it, and
it’s constrained and in bondage, and can’t do the work that it’s meant to do. But for
Friends, they felt they’d had the Pentecostal breakthrough, they’d recognize the
reality of this spirit poured out on all flesh. They were allowing the spirit to come
out of prison to liberate the human creature through cleansing and transformation.
And they draw very much on the words of the apostle Paul. He’s one of the most
important biblical writers for the earliest Friends. And one of the things that Paul
says in the first letter to the Corinthians is, you do not realize that you are the
temples of the living God and that the Holy Spirit dwells within you. This strongly
embodied spirituality is based on this experience of knowing God dwelling within
you and living through you. It’s the very basis of the Quaker idea of that of God in
everyone. We’re not saying that humans have got a physical part of God within
them. But what early Friends are saying is, because of Pentecost and the fulfilment
of that promise, everyone has God in spirit available to them and dwelling within
them. And if it’s held in prison, it needs to be liberated so that it can do its work.
This is an empowering and sanctifying process, a presence. It drives out fear. It
destroys sin. It liberates people from all the limitations that they find themselves in.
And it takes them out into the world to proclaim this new possibility. Pentecost is
very much the catalyst and the enabler of this vision that we’re talking about.
Quakerism in its earliest stages as a Pentecostal movement, a charismatic embodied
spirituality.

What this brings with it as the enabler and the catalyst is this possibility of being in a
fundamentally different relationship with God in spirit. And so, covenant is this idea
of covenant being the basis of a relationship. It’s not a contract, it’s the way in which
God and humanity relate to one another. And because of the Jesus event, and
because of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all flesh, everyone now can enjoy a
new relationship with God in spirit that is both inward, intimate and direct. And
again, for early Friends, what they notice is that this is a promise that God makes
through the prophet Jeremiah. Chapter 31 of Jeremiah that the New Testament
writers proclaim, has been fulfilled as a result of the Jesus event.

We see in the book of Hebrews a very clear proclamation that the description of this
new covenant that’s promised through the prophet Joel has now been fulfilled. And
it’s a very different one. Instead of being somehow disconnected from God and only
connected through sort of secondary means, or mediated means through a
priesthood, through an outward physical temple, through the guidance of an
outwardly written law in the Bible and so on, this is now a direct inward intimate
experience that is universally available because the Holy Spirit has been poured out
on all flesh. And really crucially for early Friends this means that when people allow
the spirit to do its work, when they come into this new relationship, they now have
the inward law and the inward teacher. They know in their hearts what God requires
of them because it’s written within them. They don’t need to be constrained
externally and try and follow an external law because it’s written within their hearts.
They no longer need human teachers because they now have the divine inward
teacher who will show them what God is like, who will teach them what God
requires, who will reveal new things to them and bring them into God’s kingdom,
into heaven on earth.

It’s hard to underestimate the significance of this for early Friends. And again, they
felt that mainstream Christianity across many hundreds of years had neglected the
radical implications of all this. In a sense early friends are saying what went wrong
was the church turned away from this new possibility and got caught up again in a
rather second-hand, mediated style of religion that relied on external physical
things, when actually everybody had this possibility of the direct inward
transformational experience, in every single person, every single human all across
the globe without restriction. You can see how radical that might be, but also how
threatening to an institutional kind of understanding of the church, and also to the
power structures of society. This is somewhat outside of their control and therefore
very dangerous. Everybody has that direct relationship. You can’t kind of control it
from the normal ways that the human power structures have sought to control
religion, and use it to maintain social order in an unjust society. Pentecost – spirit
poured out on all flesh. New covenant – direct inward relationship with God in spirit,
so that you know God’s law written within your hearts and you have a divine
teacher, which means you no longer need human teachers.

And this leads to a new way of being human. This is absolutely one of the most
crucial things that Christ achieves in the Jesus events, what I’ve called the Jesus
event, the Jesus, the historical incarnation events. What has happened is that
humans were created to be the image and likeness of God within creation.
Something goes wrong and they lose that ability. They turn away from God. They
turn away from that inward intimate relationship with God. This is part of the,
metaphorically what’s described in the fall out of the Garden of Eden. And what the
work of Christ is all about is re-establishing that possibility, taking things back to the
way they were at the beginning, what’s often called in the patristic early church,
recapitulation – taking things back to the way they were. Things have gone wrong.

Take them back to where they’d started from, which was right. And one of the
essential things about that is that Christ establishes a new humanity, fully in the
image and likeness of God and humans can now participate in that inwardly and
spiritually, and reveal that new humanity in their own lives. And again, this is
something that Quakers feel they’re reconnecting with, that has been lost
significantly in the kind of Christianity they feel has dominated their culture in
recent years. And they draw again on the writings of the apostle Paul. This time
from Galatians, this idea that it is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me, my
old humanity, what early Friends often called life in Adam, the form of humanity
where the world had gone wrong, where human nature had become corrupted, that
would die through the work of the Holy Spirit so that Christ could be born within
you, and this new life is now revealed within you as a creature. It’s not that you are
Christ, and this is often what’s misunderstood about the early Quaker message, but
it’s you becoming a vessel through which the spirit lives and acts, Christ living, the
new humanity living and acting through us as creatures. We become vessels through
which God speaks and acts and that is essentially the definition of the prophetic. To
be a prophet is to be a vessel through which God speaks and acts within creation.
And one of the radical implications of the early Quaker understanding is that all
people potentially now can live in that prophetic way. Because everyone has a spirit
within them, because they can enter into that new inward intimate relationship with
God, and because they can now reveal this new way of being human, all of us can
act in that prophetic way. And indeed, for Friends, people living in this new
possibility, it was always a divine action, divine utterance that was flowing through
them, not their own self being revealed. It’s very much an idea that what’s intended
for humanity within creation is that they are, they live in that prophetic way, live as
a vessel through which God speaks and acts within the world. And this is really
fundamental to understanding the transformational experience that early Friends
are having. Can you imagine what it means for all people to now be effectively
vessels through which the way of Christ is revealed within the world – the justice,
humility, non-violence and compassion of Christ being revealed through all people,
and the significance of that in terms of how it transforms human society, how it
transforms the whole of the creation, how they could understand that this might be
actually heaven on earth.

And finally, of course, what goes with all of this as well, is the apocalyptic. Now
that’s often a very misunderstood term but basically, what it means biblically, is that
the veil is being pulled back. So that’s the picture I’m using. There the curtain’s been
pulled back. What had previously been hidden to humanity is now being revealed.
It’s not about destruction, which is often the common understanding. It’s about a
new vision, a new understanding. God through the spirit because of Pentecost, in
this new relationship, in this new humanity, revealing how creation really is
revealing what God is really like – revealing the divine intention for the whole of the
creation to be completely transfigured and transformed, so that the kingdom of God
comes, so that heaven is known on earth. In many ways, for early Friends, they feel
that they’re seeing things in a fundamentally different way. They’re seeing creation
through divine eyes rather than through the limited perception of the creaturely
human. You can see here quite a radical vision of new possibility. And in the earliest
years of the Quaker movement it’s that new possibility that really fires Friends up, to
go out into the world and proclaim that all things are being transformed, come and
join this because God is acting in our time to transform all things, to overcome the
evil powers of the world, to establish heaven on earth.

For early friends, in a sense, to the extent to which they were experiencing this.
heaven had already come to earth. It was something that they felt dwelt within
them, and that they dwelled within it. The inward experience of the spirit created an
outward life in which heaven and earth were overlapping, the two would become
indistinct in a sense, and that heaven was no longer separated from earth but was
something that humans could experience. And remember again – all humans, it’s a
possibility for everyone. They won’t necessarily take the offer, but it’s a possibility
for everyone. And here’s Dorothy White, an important prophetic woman writer of
the first generation, giving a very clear, I think, and powerful description of this new
experience. And this is what she writes in 1660. “Thus is the living God purifying his
Temples, and he is making a Glorious situation, a Heavenly Habitation, and an
Everlasting dwelling place in the sons and daughters of men; for God is now come to
dwell in his people.”

You might struggle a bit with the language there but I hope you can see how radical
that vision is. When Dorothy White says that God’s purifying his temples, what she
means is that the human creature, that humans collectively, are the temples of the
living God. And what has gone wrong with them, in a sense the way they become
corrupted, spiritually dead, unable to see the truth, that is being purified, that’s
being cleansed, it’s made possible that they can have this glorious situation, this
heavenly habitation of knowing God dwelling within them. And note, sons and
daughters. This is something that transcends those sorts of gender divisions. God
has come to dwell in his people and his people, God’s people, is now anyone living in
that new possibility. And we’ve already noted on a number of occasions that that
possibility is not confined – it’s universal, it’s available to everyone, because the
spirit has been poured out on all flesh. In many ways, for early Friends, heaven on
earth was something to do with the experience of abiding in the divine dimension of
reality. This was a fundamentally new way of being human, a new experience, a new
relationship, a new perception. It’s not that it wasn’t always there, but it’s just that
humans were incapable of understanding it and knowing it until this new possibility
had been started and enabled by first the Jesus event, and then the pouring out of
the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. And there’s a very strong sense for early Friends that,
when the world had gone wrong, when human nature had become corrupted,
humans were scattered and divided – scattered around the globe, divided by all sorts
of forms of divisions, cultural, language, religion, social class, the divisions between
men and women. This is the negative implications of wrong relationship with God,
wrong relationship with one another, a wrong relationship with the whole of
creation. We are scattered and we are divided. But in this new possibility we see
humanity being gathered into a oneness. In a sense what had been, what had gone
wrong, was being put right. What had been scattered and divided was being drawn
back into a oneness. But it’s important to emphasize that that oneness is not
sameness. We see very strongly the sense of a unity in diversity. And again for early
Friends the way in which Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians talks about the
human community by comparing it to the body, using a body metaphor, this is
helpful in understanding this idea of oneness as a unity in diversity. The body is one
but it has lots of parts and all of the parts need to do their role, and they have
different functions, and they all have a significance. In fact Paul actually says that
the bits of the body that we usually think of as the least important are actually the
most important. This is another way in which the ways of the world are turned
upside down. But this is quite an ecological kind of idea. In this oneness, in this
unity, it’s a unity in diversity with lots of different aspects to it that need to all work
together to make it function as a healthy body. What’s most important for Friends
though is, who is the head of that body? And of course in this new humanity it’s God
who is the head of humanity. It is Christ in spirit that rules within his people. And
we’ll see some of the radical implications of that as we work through this material.

We see Quakers feeling as though they are transcending some of the limitations of
the earthly and they’re finding their true being in the eternal. Fox often talked
about, “meet together in the things that are eternal”. And so the heavenly
dimension of reality is, in a sense, eternal, unchanging. It is the fundamental deeper
truth about how things really are, and how they are ordered, and how they fit
together. And in that context of course earthly structures, earthly human authorities
and governments and so on, and the dominant social structures that we were
talking about earlier, are actually not eternal and not unchanging. They are
temporary. They are forever changing. And certainly for early Friends the sense was
that these old ways were dying because a new way was coming. The old structures,
the old authorities of the earthly dimension of reality were fading away and dying
because the divine rule, the divine authority, heaven on earth, was coming to take
their place. That raises really big questions about what place do those outward
divisions have in heaven on earth? Does social class; do gender divisions; does the
religious divisions, and cultural divisions, and different governments, and power
systems have any validity within this new vision of heaven on earth? In a sense we
might argue that those are all temporary and ephemeral things and they are actually
being transcended by a deeper truth, a deeper reality, the eternal the heavenly
dimension, the transfiguration and transformation of all things, humanity and the
rest of the creation. This is something of this radical vision that we see in those
earliest years.

You can see how radical this is for some people. It seemed complete madness, and
you may take that view. But of course, for Friends they felt that they could do no
other than affirm what they’d found to be true in their own experience. And it has
all sorts of radical implications for the way the world is, and for the way Friends feel
it’s going to be, and for the way Quakers operate as a people in these earliest few
years. First of all let’s think about social hierarchy and inequality – this very rigid
hierarchically divided society with a small number of people at the top, tending to
be the king or the emperor right at the top, and then the aristocracy and the gentry
and the mass of ordinary people, the dregs of the common people, as we said
before, at the bottom, fundamentally inferior, fundamentally born to serve, some
small numbers of people born ordained by God to rule the mass of people born and
ordained by God to serve. Well what we see with early Friends is time and time
again they use the words of the apostle Peter in the Acts of the Apostles. where
Peter says, “God is no respecter of persons”. The divine dimension doesn’t recognize
those outward divisions that have been created in a world gone wrong. All creatures
are creatures. They are not God. All creatures are to be equally humble before God.
This somehow is a slightly different understanding than our modern conceptions of
equality. But it’s a recognition that God is God, humans are humans, and it is God
that is the one that’s above, in a sense. And all creatures, all humans are equally
humble before God. And the social divisions, the rigid hierarchy, the social class
structures of the world are the consequences of this fallen state, this world gone
wrong, this human nature having been corrupted. And that turns the dominant
understanding of European culture on its head. In European Christendom the
accepted position was that the fundamental structure of society, this pyramid, had
been divinely ordained. It was God’s intention for some to rule and some to serve.

But Quakers, like other radical groups of the time, are essentially saying no. Social
divisions are a consequence of the fall. They’re a consequence of something that’s
gone wrong. They are unjust and they do not reflect how humanity is meant to be in
the image of likeness of God. And indeed when some people raise themselves up
above their brothers and sisters and regard themselves as fundamentally superior,
and regard everyone else as fundamentally inferior, and require acts of deference
towards them because they’re superior in their view, that is idolatry because it is
people demanding the worship of other humans when only God is to be
worshipped.

You can see how threatening this might be to a class-based hierarchical society. God
no respecter of persons, everyone’s equally humble before God, social divisions are
actually something that’s happened because of the way things have gone wrong,
and those people who raise themselves up above everybody else are guilty of
idolatry, a great sin in a sense. And here’s James Nayler in full prophetic form,
denouncing this this corrupted reality. It’s in his first self-authored tract, A Discovery
of the First Wisdom from Below and the Second Wisdom from Above
, published in
1653, right at the beginning.

And he writes, “God is against you, you covetous cruel
oppressors who grind the faces of the poor and needy, taking your advantage of the
necessities of the poor, falsifying the measures and using deceitful weights …
deceiving the simple, and hereby getting great estates in the world, laying house to
house and land to land till they be no place for the poor; and when they become
poor through your deceits then you despise them and exalt yourselves above them
… what shall your riches avail you at that day when you must account how you have
gotten them and whom you have oppressed?”

This is a very powerful denunciation
of social injustice, economic injustice. Some people cruelly oppress others, grind the
faces, exploit ordinary poor people. Not only exploit them but also trick them, and
cheat them, and falsify things in order to gain wealth and power. And in doing that
they do gain great power, and that gives them greater authority and great
respectability and all the rest of it. And in doing that, then they begin to look down
on the very people they’ve exploited and treated so badly in order to gain their
wealth in the first place. And this is contrary to God’s intention. And indeed, what
Nayler is suggesting here, is that those who oppress the poor in order to gain
wealth, and look down on people, will face judgment. They will face the
consequences of that because that’s not the order of things in the heavenly
dimension, in the divine dimension of reality. And you can see why that might be
threatening to those in power. Maybe it’s no surprise that James Nayler is the one
who suffers a show trial, brutal kind of torture and imprisonment, and a crushing by
those in power, given how threatening that must be to the powers of his day.

We come on to gender divisions, another key division that’s associated with a world
that’s gone wrong. The division between men and women and the inequality and
injustice of that are very much seen to be a consequence of this fallen out of right
relationship with God, the fallout of the garden of Eden metaphorically. Now for
early Friends, because they believe that that’s being put right, and people are
entering into a new relationship with God in spirit, and entering into that new way
of being human that transcends those old ways, they feel that that’s also healing the
divisions between men and women. This is quite binary because of course in the
culture of the time. There wasn’t the same awareness we have today about gender
and sexual diversity. But it’s still one of the most radical aspects of the early Quaker
experience and message – the fundamental spiritual equality of women and men.
And again early Friends are drawing on what they see the apostle Paul writing about
this in the earliest church. As we said before, Paul in Galatians writes that it’s no
longer he who lives but Christ that lives in him. And so actually, for a woman it is no
longer her old way in the outward fallen form of humanity that’s living, it’s now that
Christ is living through the woman. And if Christ is living, and speaking, and acting
through the woman, how dare anyone stop that happening? How dare anyone stop
Christ acting and speaking through the sister, through the woman? That’s a great sin
to do that. For early Quaker women this was a massively empowering possibility. I’m
not limited by those outward physical divisions anymore because I have God
dwelling within me, and living through me, and speaking and acting through me, and
that gives me great power and great validity, in a sense an authority. It’s not in my
creaturely self that I have that authority, but it’s that sense of God acting through
me. And Paul also says of course in the same letter to the Galatians, in this new
possibility there is no longer male or female for all or one in Christ Jesus. This is a
sense in which in this new possibility, the old divisions are transcended in some
fundamental way. In the new life, women could affirm that Christ was speaking and
acting through them as well as the men. And they could be publicly visible prophets,
preachers, writers, and often in a very kind of powerful way. Now in a rigidly
patriarchal society the visible presence of fearless, powerful women preaching and
speaking and acting in society, was deeply outrageous and threatening to the
accepted social structures. Here we see a couple of short words from early Friends.
First of all from Sarah Blackborow. These are both writings from the 1650s. Sarah
Blackborow writes, “Christ was one in the male and in the female; and as he arises
in both.” We get that sense of, in this new possibility, the spirit working within
people means that Christ arises within them, becomes the very source of their life,
and what lives through them, both men and women, transcending the limitations
that had previously been experienced. And then two other first generation Quaker
women, Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole, again referring to Paul’s words, “Thou tellest
the people, Women must not speak in church, whereas it is spoke only of a Female,
for we are all both male and female in Christ Jesus…”. There’s a sense in which the
church is both the body of Christ with Christ being the head; the body is the bride,
Christ is the bridegroom; the church is the is the woman, Christ is the is the
husband. And the union of those things transcends the old outward ways of
understanding things. And women take their place in that new body, in that new
humanity. And people should not seek to prevent women who are living in that new
birth from speaking and acting publicly because it’s Christ that’s speaking and acting
through them – a radical kind of vision in a deeply rigidly patriarchal society.
We also see a similar process happening in terms of Quaker attitudes to other
cultures, other races and other religions. If you think about it, this idea of the inward
intimate relationship with God being possible for everyone, universally because the
holy spirit has been poured out on all flesh, then it has to be possible for people who
are living outside of a Christian culture, outside of the European context. Early
Friends very strongly asserted the idea that people elsewhere in the world, whether
they knew about Jesus or not, whether they had access to the Bible or not, had that
spirit within them. And if they turned to it, it would do its work and transform them
and bring them into this new possibility. These cultural divisions become regarded
as earthly and temporary. They are not the fundamental truth at a deeper level, and
that enables early Friends to have a relatively enlightened attitude to people of
other religions, of other cultures, when normally within European culture and
English culture those other cultures and peoples were regarded in a very, very
negative way. And Quakers have contacts fairly early on because they travel so
widely with Jewish communities, with Muslims in various parts of the world, in the
Ottoman Empire, north Africa, and with native Americans, in the colonies, in
America. And there are real limitations to this. And we’ll see that in the second part
of this seminar. But it does enable a slightly different view. All people have this
possibility, and we need to take that seriously. That changes our perception of
people who are different from us.

This is quite a famous piece from Mary Fisher who’s one of the people that goes to
the Ottoman Empire and meets with the Sultan, who was obviously what they
would call a Turk, and a follower of Islam, a Muslim. And she writes, “There is a royal
seed amongst them which in time God will raise. They are more near Truth than
many nations; there is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is
my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than
many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless,
though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness
hath in some measure been shown towards his servants.” We can see that what this
new experience makes possible for Mary Fisher, is to recognize the potential in
people such as the Turk, who’s regarded normally as the great threat, evil,
separated from true faith, destined to hell. Actually the truth is close to them, the
potential is in them, the spirit is available to them. They can experience what we’ve
experienced. It’s not limited by where they are and who they are.

And then we have this whole new perception of the physical creation in spirit, in this
new possibility. The creation can be seen through divine eyes. In the new life people
are brought out of a dysfunctional and wrong relationship with God and brought
into a right and harmonious relationship with God, and therefore with the rest of
the creation. We see again the healing of a fundamental division – the division
between the human creature and the rest of the creation. James Nayler talks about
life in Adam, life in the first birth. Humans have become devourers of the just and
the creation. But in this new possibility they’re brought back into right relationship
with the creation – really significant for our contemporary concerns for
environmental sustainability and ecology. But more than that, in this new possibility
humans become vessels through which divine love and wisdom flows out onto the
rest of the creation. Instead of being devourers of the creation, a curse on the
creation, humans being a destructive relationship with the rest of the natural world.
In this new possibility humans can again become the vessel through which
something really health-giving and vital is poured out on the rest of the creation –
divine love and wisdom.

We see this hinted at in this amazing piece by George Fox, quite famous I think, that
gives this sense of this new perception. I call it the creation apocalyptic, the new
vision of all things. And Fox writes, “Now I was come up in the spirit through the
flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation
gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew
nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness; being reviewed into the
image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell.
The creation was opened to me; and was shown me how all things had their names
given them according to their nature and virtue.” You can see in this vision a sense
of a fundamentally different perception of the whole of the rest of the creation. We
can see a very physical and visceral change in understanding. Fox talks about getting
another smell beyond what words can offer. This is a very mystical and
transformational understanding that is a possibility because of this new experience –
the veil having been pulled aside, seeing all things new.

And finally human government. What implications does this have for human
authorities. Well in the new life Christ is the only true king. The authority of earthly
governments therefore are strictly limited. Christ is the eternal ruler, law giver, and
teacher. And therefore in the new humanity people are ruled by Christ, and
therefore no longer need to be constrained by earthly authority. This is something
about heaven on earth, something about new kingdom. It’s the rule of Christ in spirit
within people. They know the law within them, they know what’s required of them,
they’re able to live, Christ lived through them and therefore no longer need the
constraining power of human authority. Now early Friends accepted that human
government was ordained by God to control evil in the context of a world gone
wrong, but in this new possibility its use was being lost in this new life. People lived
with the rule of Christ and they didn’t need to be constrained by human authority.
Now again you can see how threatening that might be to earthly governments at the
time. Where do people’s loyalty lie? Well our loyalty is to Christ and the rule of
Christ that’s living through us. Our ultimate authority is there and so our authority,
our loyalty to earthly authorities, is inevitably limited in some way.
And here, just to end here, Nayler is describing that in one of his later tracts. “There
is no kingdom nor people (that) can be truly said to be the Lord’s and his Christ’s,
but as they come to be guided and governed by the law of his Spirit in their
consciences, which Spirit and anointing all must wait for, even from the king that sits
on high to the least place of government in any people, that with it all may know
judgment and do justice, which is of God and not of men.” This vision of how are
humans governed in heaven on earth, in the kingdom of God? Well they’re
governed by this inward experience of God’s law within them, God’s teaching within
them. They are ruled by Christ. They live in the new humanity by that that means.
They don’t need the constraining power of human authority structures in order for
them to live this new life in justice, in peace, and in compassion. This is essentially
what’s so radical about the early vision, why for a very short period of time it
seemed like the Quakers were going to turn the world upside-down. Everything that
was assumed to be normal within the outward earthly form was being overturned
by this new possibility – Christ ruling within people, divisions between classes and
genders and cultures being overcome, everything that had been scattered and
divided brought back into a unity in diversity. Sadly it’s a vision that had a major
impact for a short period of time, but it didn’t last very long because the world
attacked it and sought to destroy it. And we’ll look at the implications of that in the
second part of our seminar.

Part Two – The World Strikes Back

Now we’re going to move into part two, now part two is maybe the more
discomforting bit. I was asked about how Quakers survived, well I think one of
the reasons that Quakers survived is that they became very pragmatic they became
very selective about what they would get into conflict with the powers of the world
about and what they wouldn’t, and they narrowed down their focus in all sorts of
ways that limited and played down some of the more radical aspects of the first
generation that were particularly outrageous to the wider society. Just to set it into
context, Quakers were regarded as a disruptive and potentially dangerous group
within the commonwealth period, so within the period when Oliver Cromwell is the
head of state and during the commonwealth parliaments. But things got even more
difficult in 1660 when the commonwealth fell and the monarchy was restored under

Charles II. One of the things that the new regime were intent on doing was re-
establishing social order by enforcing again one official church for the whole of the
country, so the Anglican church for the whole of the country. Therefore all non-
conforming groups, all groups that weren’t part of the Anglican church, their

worship was effectively outlawed. And things got particularly difficult after a radical
group called the fifth monarchists, I sometimes call them the paramilitary wing of
the Baptists, but they actually organized an insurrection which was a token one that
was very much about king Jesus coming back physically and overthrowing the
earthly authorities, and of course that scuppered any possibility of religious
toleration in the commonwealth, in the restored restoration period. Quakers in
many ways are enemy number one, they’re the largest most vocal of those more
radical groups surviving into the restoration, their worship is specifically outlawed,
Quakers are being arrested in large numbers. There’s a real question about whether
Quakers can survive. What do they do in order to survive and what implications
does that have for the radical vision that we looked at in part one?

First of all, what’s really interesting is that within a generation Quaker leaders move
from the radical position that we saw with James Nayler in the first section, which
argued that effectively social inequality was a product of fallen humanity and that in
the new life in Christ people would live in in a more sharing and equal way and that
actually oppressing people, exploiting them, gaining riches and then looking down
on people was really an indication of your fallen state. By the time Robert Barclay
writes his apology for the true Christian divinity in 1678, Quakers are moving to a
position in which they argue that actually social inequalities are ordained by God,
they are God’s intention. This is a short section from Robert Barclay’s apology. “I
would not have any judge that hereby we intend to destroy the mutual relationship
that either is betwixt prince and people, master and servants, parents and children,
nay not at all. We say not hereby that no man may use the creation more or less
than another, for we know as it has pleased god to dispense it diversely giving to
some more and to some less, so they may use it accordingly.” Now that’s a pretty
stark difference in only about 20 years. Quakers have moved from an argument that
the kingdom is coming and in the kingdom these divisions will be overthrown,
because they are a product of our fallenness, they are evil, they are sinful, to a
situation in which Quakers are arguing… quite significant Quaker leaders are
arguing, that we are no threat to those relationships, indeed we accept that god has
created those divisions and those inequalities because god has given some more
than others and that’s perfectly acceptable as far as we’re concerned. Now of course
if you’re trying to survive in a position of severe persecution, if you’re arguing for
religious toleration, if you want to be accepted, what you have to do is present
yourselves as a group that is not a threat to those in power and so a lot of this is
about saying: what matters to us most is surviving as a religious group, we need our
worship to be tolerated, we need to be accepted as part of society, what we need to
do is stop threatening those in power and saying things that are likely to perceive to
be threatening to the social order. And this is one of the consequences, social
inequality is no longer a sin it’s what god’s intended. Very significant change into the
second generation.

Gender divisions are a little bit more complicated, in the sense that Quakers never
give up on the basic principle of the spiritual equality of women. However, very
quickly they find the need to manage the role of women in a way that’s much more
acceptable to the wider society and so the freedom of women to be public ministers
and prophets is weakened to a significant degree. Women were often the more
prophetic and the more forceful and the more challenging prophetic speakers and
writers and preachers and challenging public messages and warnings were
increasingly discouraged. Women were less encouraged to be publicly visible, they
increasingly came under the oversight of male elders and although the development
of separate women’s business meetings was, on one level, quite a positive thing
because it created women’s only spaces, where women could exercise some
authority, it also channelled the actions of women into things that are perceived to
be more appropriately feminine: oversight of weddings, care for children, charitable
activities. What we see here is Quakers being quite pragmatic and managing their
public image, stopping doing some of the things that seem particularly outrageous,
women exercising a public ministry in a very prophetic way, being very kind of
assertive and challenging of male authority and channelling women into activities
that seem more acceptable to the wider society without laying down the basic
spiritual principle that there is – at least you know in the church, in the religious
community – women have an equal place to the extent to which it is Christ living and
speaking through them. We see a loss of radical freedom, I mean I think this is one
of the things that’s going on in the massive dispute that happens in 1656 between
James Nayler and George Fox and all the things that flow from that. I think the
women around Nayler begin to see male elders putting them in their place, begin to
rebel against that, see Nayler as the kind of person who’s least likely to threaten
their autonomy and that causes all the conflict in in 1656 that leads to the sign of
Bristol and all that follows. This is happening very early on because the idea of
women’s equality and place in a public situation, and in particular in a spiritual
situation, is so unsettling for a rigidly patriarchal society. This is another example of
Quakers managing their public image in order to be less threatening to society
because what matters most in terms of survival is having religious toleration, being
allowed to be who you are, a peculiar people within the wider society. But it does
have some negative implications for women: women are less free, some women are
silenced. Dorothy Whiter, we quoted earlier, her early tracts are published by
Quakers, the Quakers stop being prepared to publish them and she has to publish
things in her own right and we see a loss of the radical charismatic freedom for
women in the first generation.

When it comes to culture race and religion, this is also quite a discomforting area,
there does seem to be for example, Quakers are almost from the beginning but
certainly from very early on, fully implicated in the colonial slave-based systems in
Barbados and in the American colonies. We see a conflict within the Quaker
community between this kind of universal spiritual equality and the personal
interests of some Friends in the slave-based economy. And again, this leads to a
pragmatic managing of the Quaker position on all of this. I don’t know whether you
know this but it is quite shocking that George Fox finds a way to justify slavery in a
way that upholds the spiritual equality of the slave but supports the basic system.
He called it a covenant slavery. It’s about saying we will manage slavery in a more
acceptable way, a slave will be part of the family, a slave will be treated well, a slave
will be released after a certain period of time but ultimately it was a theological
argument to justify Quakers being slaveholders and involved in the slave trade.
George Fox himself made a huge amount of wealth later in his life through
investments in shipping and it’s hard to avoid the fact that that was probably
implicated in the transatlantic slave trade because shipping was such an important
part of it. We see Quakers in all of this, getting caught between something they’ve
glimpsed of heaven on earth, something that’s a possibility but also recognizing
that’s not going to happen and we’ve got to find a way to survive within the world
and we’re prepared to make compromises in order to do that. We compromise on
social inequality, we compromise on the more radical side of women’s spiritual
equality, we compromise on issues around not just the spiritual equality of slaves
but their physical social equality. We get the beginning of a separation between
spiritual liberation and outward social liberation. Fox is able to say: well of course in
the spirit, the slave is free spiritually. And you get an emphasis on spiritual freedom
over social freedom. And that, of course, limits the radical implications of that
earliest vision in all sorts of ways. And of course if we talk about facing up to
privilege and power, and so on, in our current Quaker communities, we can see how
long Quakers have been implicated in colonial exploitation and into the slave
system, even though of course they are relatively early in in seeking abolition.

When it comes to the creation, again what’s interesting is that wonderfully inspiring
kind of mystical apocalyptic understanding of the creation we saw within George
Fox’s writings, it doesn’t survive really in terms of the first generation. That kind of
vision becomes associated with improper religious enthusiasm. It’s the kind of
outrageous thing that people who are completely, you know, are off the scale in
terms of social acceptability are getting into, it’s showing that you’re just not a
respectable member of society, you’re signing up to all sorts of outrageous things.
Here againis an accommodation to the world, a playing down of some of the things
that were very strongly experienced and communicated in the first generation, but
in the second generation are either neglected or rejected altogether, or at least
Quakers are managing the extent to which the world can see that sort of stuff. And
so that mystical vision of the creation is lost and a more practical and utilitarian view
takes its place. And, of course, you know Quakers then become extremely successful
in business, they become very, very effective capitalists in the developing capitalist
economy, they’re at the centre of industrialization and science, and this is all part of
finding a way to survive in a world as it is, rather than the world that they glimpsed
in their earliest experiences. Now you might accept… you might feel that the earliest
vision was just a bit bonkers and actually they got sensible later on and that’s one
way of looking at it, and some people do take that view. Or you can say Quakers in
the earliest times glimpsed something of the deeper nature of reality as at a divine
level and lost it when, in a sense, it was kind of crucified by the world around them –
you have to kind of take your own position on that. But it has certain negative
implications about how the rest of the physical creation is viewed. The creation
again becomes something that you can use and exploit and become rich by using,
whereas before it was something you were in awe of and you suddenly understood
your relationship to it in a fundamentally different way. If we look at government
and politics – and if you’re following the basic theme of all of this, it’s very clear that
the sort of position that Quakers were taking in the first generation, that they were
no longer really subject to human authority, Christ was ruling within them and that
was their ultimate authority, human governments are about to die, the kingdom of
heaven is coming – when that doesn’t happen and Quakers have to survive in the
world as it is and they want toleration and they want to be respected and they want
to be seen to be not a threat to those in power, apocalyptic pronouncements and
prophetic warnings are discouraged, attention turns to preserving certain Quaker
peculiarities and arguing for religious toleration, rather than that more, what you
might call in a sense, a kind of Christian anarchist position that was strong within
that first generation. I think this is an example of Quakers deciding that they can’t
win on all levels and if they’re going to win on being tolerated, they’ve got to prove
that they’re a respectable people, not a threatening people, they’re not going to
threaten the basic social order. And so this final quote on here is actually from an
Anabaptist scholar called Gerald Biesecker-Mast and he’s writing about the second
and third generation Mennonites, but the words apply exactly the same to the
second-generation Quakers: Quakers struggled less against the social order and
worked instead to open up spaces within which their unique religious practices
could be tolerated. You give up threatening key aspects of the social order with the
kingdom of god and you focus more on creating a space in the world that you can
survive within. But that has negative implications again for the radical vision of the
first generation. It’s just something that Quakers don’t feel able to do and in some
ways I don’t blame them. If you’re being carted off to jail on a daily basis, if you can’t
worship as you see fit, if your whole future is threatened as a community, it’s no
surprise that Quakers are forced to operate in a different way.

What we see is that, you know, in many ways, for many of us I think, quite a
disappointing kind of second-generation vision, you know in a sense the world
crushes this new vision. You know, the world killed the prophets, the world crucified
Jesus, the world crushes the Quakers. But the Quakers survive because they’re
pragmatic, they pick their battles, they manage their public image. But at some cost
I think in terms of the radical dimensions of Quaker testimony and witness. What
can we learn from that experience? I just want to offer some themes that come out
of that story, maybe things we want to think about in terms of what it means to be a
Quaker today, and in particular what it means to be a Quaker Socialist today. I offer,
I put this forward with no personal authority on all of this. I’m not speaking with any
special insight, but these are things that seem to me to be prompted by the story of
the early Quaker vision and the way in which it’s watered down in the second
generation.

Three key things I think we see going on here. The first one is this idea that there are
two ways of being human. There is life in the old way in Adam, associated with
pride, greed, injustice and oppression. And there is a new way of being human in
Christ which is associated with humility, generosity, justice and compassion. Now for
early Friends, they said you’re either in one or you’re in the other. I suspect today
we might want to look at this much more as potentials that are both within us all
the time. Which rules within us? What does it mean to allow the Christ side to rule
rather than the Adam side? That’s something I think we need to think about in terms
of our contemporary situation. Then obviously there’s the whole issue of the
relationship of Quakers to the surrounding culture, to the dominant powers and
culture of the society that we live within. To what extent are we in conflict with that
world, and to what extent are we in conformity to it? And, of course, that’s a big
issue in the early years of Quakerism. Quakers are massively in conflict with the
world in the very first generation, and are significantly finding ways to be in
conformity to the world in the second generation without losing some of the
essentials of their spiritual practice – the way they worship, the way they make
decisions, the peculiarities of the Quaker way. What does that mean for us today in
terms of our relationship with the world? Then there’s the whole issue of, politically
Socialists have tended to focus on the need to transform political structures, the
need to transform the way in which the economy is managed. And that requires
political power. It means gaining control of things – structural change. But the early
Quaker vision obviously prompts a very serious consideration about whether true
ethical Socialism is possible without a fundamental transformation in human nature.
This idea of the Spirit rising up within people, and a new way of being human, seems
to me to be something we don’t want to separate from structural change. But we
might want to think carefully about the relationship between the two.
Rachel Muers, a Quaker theologian in England, in Leeds has done some really
interesting work on the nature of Quaker testimony. And what she said is that
Quaker testimony has historically been both negative and positive. It’s negative in
the sense that it involves interrupting and refusing to go along with ways of the
world that we find unacceptable, that we discern to be unacceptable. And so she
says, “it’s a sustained enacted opposition to some power or structure of thought
that claims to shape and uphold the world but in fact destroys it.” The negative side
of our testimony is that we want to interrupt and refuse to go along with aspects of
the world that we see to be destructive and unjust. On the positive side however,
Quaker testimony has had a tradition of hope – what she calls “holy experiments”.
“A testimony against something leads to actions that express the hope for positive
change.” And this prompts questions for us about how we balance the negative,
interrupting, and refusing side, with the more creative, try out new options, model
new ways of doing things, that’s often more of a bottom-up thing. You know, let’s
show by the way we do stuff that we can show a better way. How do we balance
those two dimensions to Quaker testimony?

Let’s just look in a little bit more detail at those three issues. Two ways of being
human. How do we interrupt and refuse those things in us, and in the world, that
are associated with what early Friends called the way of Adam, the way of being
human that is in a sense in bondage to insatiable desires, to own and control things,
the desire to make wealth and power by exploiting others, the violence that comes
with that, the social inequality and injustice that comes with that? How do we
interrupt and refuse that? And I’m saying here in ourselves, in our communities, in
the workplace, in social institutions, and in political structures. This is a way in which
politics is not something for the electoral system only, for governments. It’s all of
life. How do we interrupt those negative aspects of human life in ourselves and in
the world around us, and how do we encourage a way of experimenting with a new
way of being human, what the early Friends called the way of Christ? Again, at all
levels, think about it within ourselves, think about it within our communities, in our
workplaces, but also in our social institutions and political structures. What does
that say to us today? Where are we being led by the Spirit in relation to those things
today? What do we discern we are being called to?

How should we relate to the world that surrounds us, and that we’re part of? To
what extent are we simply, by being part of the society that we’re in, to what extent
are we simply implicated in oppression and injustice because of that? What can we
do about that? What are we led to interrupt and refuse in the world, and what
should we affirm? This is not necessarily about rejecting everything, being in conflict
with everything. It’s about what is the Spirit leading us to interrupt and refuse?
What is it about contemporary society that we want to affirm? I mean, one of the
arguments might be that the way of Christ actually, as early Friends called it, has
become more important, has begun to have an influence on human society. The
focus on human rights, on the equality of women, on sexual diversity, on cultural
diversity, all of those sorts of issues, beginning to focus on racial oppression,
colonialism and so on. Are these signs of the way of Christ working within human
culture? And if that’s true we won’t necessarily want to reject and refuse all of
human culture. But we will want to discern which bits of human culture, that we’re
in at the moment, need to be interrupted and refused. And at the same time, on the
positive side, what kind of holy experiments are needed today? What can Quakers
do? What is it that might be unique that we can offer in showing different ways,
new ways, new possibilities? What are we called to do? We can’t do everything.

What’s the specific thing that we may be called to do around our relationship with
the world – what we reject, but also what we affirm and what we try to do
differently as a model of new possibilities.

And finally on that sort of dilemma between individual and structural
transformation and the binding together of the two, if everything is both spiritual
and political then transformation needs to happen at all levels. Transformation is
needed within ourselves, again within our communities, within our workplaces, as
well as in social institutions, and political structures, and global systems. This is
something that can’t be compartmentalized into one particular area. There’s a
personal dimension to it and there’s a structural one. And where do we feel that we
need to act at this point in time? Do we give too much attention to the structural
and fail to focus on the need to transform ourselves? Or do we actually spend so
much time thinking about ourselves and our own particular community that we
neglect some of the important things that are going on in the world? So where does
transformation come from? What’s most likely to lead to positive changes over
time, both in terms of economics, social arrangements, the relationship between
people who are different, our relationship with the rest of the creation, and how we
prevent that becoming a complete disaster for our species and for most others as
well?

I just want to end with, I mean, one of the things I’ve argued here is that Quakers
had this massively radical vision at the very beginning – the world crucifies it in many
ways and they have to find a way of surviving in the world, which means a lot of the
more radical edges are played down. And what that means is that, whether we like
it or not, corporately Quakers in Britain and in other parts of the world across
history have more often been part of the power structures, part of the richer and
more powerful people, more accommodated to the society, conservative with a
small “c”, wanting to be respectable. But that early vision has never been lost. It’s
like someone’s tattooed the skin of Quakerism in a sense, and it’s never gone away
completely. And it bubbles up through individuals and groups over time. And so
actually, John Woolman and Lucretia Mott maybe two examples of the way in which
that more radical vision has bubbled up both in the 18th century and in the 19th
century. I’m just finishing with a couple of interesting quotes here. Woolman, from
Plea for the Poor, “To labour for a perfect redemption from the spirit of oppression
is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in the world.” Again, this is
traditional language which may or may not work for you but you see in Woolman
something that’s recognizable in terms of that radicalism of the first generation.
What is it we’re called to do if we’re God’s people? Well it’s to redeem the whole
creation from that spirit of oppression. It’s about liberation, not just inwardly and
spiritually, but outwardly and physically within the world. And Woolman seems to
have great insights and in many ways is, in a sense, a re-emergence of some of that
radical vision of the first generation.

And then Lucretia Mott, 19th century (of course these are both American Friends)
points out a slightly uncomfortable truth. She says, “Any great change must expect
opposition, because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.” We need to learn
from our history because we need to know that if we’re genuinely challenging
injustice, violence and oppression, we will face opposition. We will face being
portrayed as wrong, as dangerous. We will face being deliberately misrepresented.
That’s what the powers do to those people who threaten their interests. They are
attacked, they are misrepresented, their reputations are destroyed. And we need to
accept that that goes with this challenging work, and that our testimony will get
caught up in that. It will bring us into opposition. It will bring us into conflict.
Hopefully we can hold on to our peaceable principles, that we seek the kingdom of
God by entreaty and not contention, to use the word of James Nayler. But this is not
an easy path, and one of the dangers that Quakers always face is to give priority to a
phony peace over justice. Peace and justice are bound together and to seek them
will bring us into conflict, not for its own sake, but simply that’s the way the world
reacts to being faced with the vision that we’ve been talking about.