Salter Lecture 2021: Quaker values in South Africa’s struggle

24 July, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come. that your carriage and life may preach among all people, and to them. 

then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering to God in everyone. Whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you. 

—George Fox, 1656 

It is a great honour for me to give the 2021 Salter Lecture on “Quaker values in South Africa’s struggle” at the Britain Yearly Meeting. I thank the Quaker Socialist Society for celebrating the amazing lives of Ada and Alfred Salter. I had been looking forward to joining you in person last year, but a year later, we are meeting online, due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I bring you greetings from the Quaker Community of Southern Africa Yearly Meeting, which is also meeting virtually at this time. 

Ada Salter’s life of activism and political engagement fascinates me, as it speaks of a deep commitment to transformative public service. Born a Methodist and of liberal background, she embraced radical and pacifist views in her youth. She not only opposed wars, she also campaigned for women’s suffrage, social justice and workers’ rights. I was fascinated that the Salters succeeded in bringing politics and health together in the service of all. 

When thinking about this talk, I went back and forth in time, looking at my own role as a social activist in the national liberation movement to end apartheid and in my role as a politician in a free South Africa. Even though I was not born a Quaker, the Quaker testimonies to peace alongside justice, equality, simplicity, integrity, community, and stewardship of the earth have had a tremendous influence on the decisions I took. 

Quaker Testimonies

Quakers believe in living life in the spirit of love and truth and peace, reaching for the best in oneself and answering “that of God” in everyone. Quaker testimonies or spiritual insights unite us worldwide and are expressions of the commitment to put those beliefs into practice. 

The Peace Testimony has evolved over three hundred and fifty years in response to a changing world. Quakers have been faithful throughout in maintaining a corporate witness against all war and violence. 

However, in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government. 

Growing up in SA and the Values that Shaped my Activism

I was raised on the African values of ubuntu – a person is a person through others. In ‘Guns and Gandhi in Africa’, by Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes in the Foreword about ubuntu as the essence of what it means to be human as a source for compassion and that idea that “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be truly human together.” This is the fundamental principle for non-violent struggle. 

The value of ubuntu aligns with the Quaker value of seeing that of God in the other. When Africans were converted to Christianity, some of these values were lost, together with a whole lot of other precious attributes that defined what it means to be an African. Despite this, great African leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere developed education for their newly independent countries based on philosophy as represented by Ujamaa (Swahili for familyhood). 

Education in this context is designed to make all citizens of Africa self-reliant. Self- reliance is portrayed in economics, politics, and social cultures. A self-reliant person does not exploit other people and at the same time they are not exploitable. Ujamaa is about African socialism, a belief in sharing economic resources in a traditional African way, as distinct from classical socialism. 

The Black Consciousness (BC) Movement slogan: ‘People Shall Share’ was an attempt to entrench and promote African Socialism while also addressing internalised racism and restoring a positive image of what it means to be black. 

I was introduced to black consciousness as a student when I attended a Youth Camp organised by Steve Biko and others at the Mahatma Gandhi Settlement in Phoenix, just outside Durban. 

They had chosen one of Gandhi ashrams for raising the awareness of young people like me about the importance of social awareness and non-violence. Gandhi developed the philosophy of Satyagraha, which influenced the national liberation struggle in South Africa, India and beyond. 

During the Camp, we visited the local village, to conduct a community survey and learn about people’s living conditions and basic needs. These Black Consciousness ideas of self-reliance are built into the Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha or “soul force.” 

The thread which ties spiritual and social liberation together as inseparable forces is tightly and colourfully woven through Ubuntu and Ujamaa, from Black Consciousness to Satyagraha, from letting one’s life speak to the work of Ada Salter to my childhood to our virtual togetherness here today. 

Growing up as a child in an African village, I was taught to greet everyone, including strangers. In isiZulu, when two people meet, they stop and say “Sanibona” meaning, “We see you.” Often followed by “Ninjani?” – How are you?”, greetings are in plural form to indicate we are not meeting as individuals but as representatives of our families and communities. My family greets your family, my community greets your community. 

I saw a re-awakening of this tradition in Philadelphia during the COVID 19 lockdown, when strangers started to greet one another. Previously I had seen people walking past, wearing headphones, and not bothering to greet. 

A senior citizen in the community where I grew up often reminds me, with a broad smile, of how much she appreciated the gesture when I used to take her tea, when she was tilling her fields in the village. I am sure this would have been on instruction from my grandmother. We probably got paid back in kindness and madumbes (yams). 

And as the cry that Black Lives Matter went up around the US and the world considering the murder of George Floyd, the echoes brought me back to Sanibona: We can be certain that our lives matter when we are able to truly see one another. 

Raised as a Christian, I realised I made my grandmother uncomfortable when I asked why she had abandoned African spiritual beliefs. I now know that she too was struggling with these questions, even though she was grateful for the education she had received from the missionaries. 

In my adulthood, I am grateful to my grandmother, my mother, my teachers, the women in the Natal Organisation of Women and fellow activists in the struggle for freedom, who taught me resilience and the values of ubuntu – we are human because of others. 

When I was in solitary confinement, I often had vivid dreams of my grandmother who had died a few months before. I believe her spirit was present in my mind, at that difficult time. I drew immense strength from the power of struggle songs. Often sung in rallies and protest marches, they had the power to instil amazing courage and fearlessness. Even though I was alone I felt a sense of being connected to my comrades through singing struggle songs. 

I was attracted to Quakers through my interaction with a small Quaker community in Durban in the early eighties. In 1983 I had been part of establishing the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), which joined the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was formed as a broad coalition of civic organisations established in August 1983 to oppose the Whites-only referendum for a new constitution that created a tri-cameral parliament for Whites, Indians and Coloureds, while excluding the black African majority. 

NOW worked closely with the youth and we were concerned that the youth was getting militarised in their response to state violence. Our own strategy was to organise marches, peaceful protests, and night vigils. During one of our night vigils we invited Richard Steele, a Quaker and Conscientious Objector to address a night vigil as part of promoting non-violent forms of resistance. When he had been called up on 4 July 1979 to serve in the whites only South African Defence Force, Steele had written a letter explaining that he would be unable to report for duty due to him being a pacifist. When he was called again the following year, he refused to serve, and was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. 

While in prison, he began to question his long-time congregation, the Baptists. He read about Mahatma Gandhi and came to respect his teachings. After his release, Steele travelled the world, learning and seeking a more integrated spirituality. On his return he served as caretaker of the Gandhi Centre in Durban and became a Quaker. He, his wife, Anita Kromberg, Jeremy Routledge and others, were active in the End Conscription Campaign and the Conscientious Objector Support Group. 

Jeremy was also an active member of the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA) – a non-racial teachers’ union. He, Richard, Anita and other young whites had joined the struggle to end apartheid, mobilising against militarism, and in solidarity with the oppressed black majority. As Quakers, they actively participated in campaigns in support of detainees and exposing and opposing state sponsored “black on black” violence. Jeremy was also active in the Detainees Support Group. 

Jeremy Routledge and I found love across the colour line, following our detention without trial. Jeremy was detained for a month during the national state of emergency in 1986. I was detained for just under a year in 1987, under the Internal Security Act, which gave the apartheid state powers to detain activists indefinitely without trial. We were married in January 1989 in a blended African traditional, Christian and Quaker ceremony, attended by friends, relatives, comrades and the local community. 

The wedding took place in the rural village where I was born, and the African traditional part of the ceremony included ilobolo, an exchange of gifts that united our two families and our peoples. To this day, Jeremy is loved and regarded as umkhwenyana or son-in-law by the whole village. Our children are their children. 

The backdrop to this was that the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which prohibited marriage or a sexual relationship between White people and people of other race groups had been repealed (1985) while the Group Areas Act was still in place, and we were not allowed to live under one roof in a white designated area. 

Despite our different racial backgrounds, Jeremy and I had found we had much in common. We both had a parent who was a teacher, and we had both studied science; had grown up in rural KwaZulu Natal and we shared a concern to end racial injustice. We had become activists, mobilizing our communities and reaching across the artificial boundaries created by apartheid. 

Quakers believe we should let our work speak for us. These Friends, who were mostly white, connected their spiritual lives with political action, their connection to humanity and the God in all people, with their opposition to violence in the form of racist policy and militarized defence. 

They recognized that for them to be free, they needed to give up white privilege and join the struggle for a non-racial, democratic and equal society. All these actions connected with the African Values at the heart of my upbringing. 

On Non-violence and Armed Struggle

The question of whether to support the ANC in the struggle to end Apartheid caused intense debate among Quakers globally. Since the adoption of armed struggle in December 1961, the ANC’s strategy had moved from a totally non- violent struggle to one that incorporated violence, particularly under pressure from its youth wing, of which Mandela was part. 

The 1960s marked an important watershed in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. The aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 in a firing by the police that lasted for approximately two minutes, leaving 69 unarmed protesters dead and, according to the official inquest, 180 people seriously wounded. This killing of unarmed peaceful protestors signalled the beginning of a far more brutal and intensive phase of state repression that would crush internal resistance in the space of a few years. 

South African Quakers had challenged the abuse of race and power. However, the question of support for the ANC caused debate among Friends. I became aware of these debates during a Southern Africa Yearly Meeting I attended in 1988 in Botswana. 

A representative of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) challenged Friends about their ambivalence, and this raised a heated debate in the Meeting, whose main objection was the ANC’s association with the South African Communist Party and its embrace of armed struggle. 

Hendrik van der Merwe was a South African Quaker, academic and peacemaker who grew up in a conservative rural, Calvinist Afrikaner community in the Western Cape. He was actively involved as a mediator in South Africa, meeting with leaders from the ruling National Party and homelands, the exiled and imprisoned leaders of the banned African National Congress (ANC), and the internal resistance led by United Democratic Front. 

In aligning with the oppressed, HW gained their trust while continuing to put pressure on the powerful. HW explained that when forced to choose a side in a conflict, he would choose the side of the powerless or the oppressed. This explained to me that Quakers can be pragmatic yet principled when faced with complex decisions. 

I had not begun to challenge the ANC’s adoption of armed struggle, as one of the four pillars of the anti-apartheid struggle. I felt the ANC had made this decision as a last resort, in response to a massive onslaught on an unarmed resistance, as illustrated by the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. 

A way to think about this is that, firstly, my support for members of MK was informed by a belief that the system of Apartheid was cruel and unjust, and that we were fighting an illegitimate regime. I had not begun to question whether or not the means justify the end. 

Secondly, the armed struggle was only a tiny part of the pillars of the liberation struggle and that the defeat of Apartheid was due largely to the other pillars: underground organisation, mass mobilisation and international solidarity. Archie Gumede, a stalwart of the liberation struggle and former chairperson of the UDF stated that, “The armed struggle did have some effect in showing that people could resist oppression. It boosted morale” (p163 ‘Guns and Gandhi’). 

My position began to shift after engaging with Quakers in my small meeting in Durban. However, violence had broken out in our townships, led by armed Zulu warriors recruited by and aligned to Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. 

During one of the attacks, someone had fired a gun into the air, which caused the warriors to disperse. This caused debate among us about whether the use of violence to counter violence was ever justified. There was reason to think, if the Police were not protecting us, we would have to protect ourselves, especially following the advent of state sponsored “black on black” violent attacks. 

I now fully embrace non-violence as a method of struggle, as both the means and the end. Today, as a Quaker, I support the peace testimony in full as I look at the aftermath of Apartheid and colonial violence in South Africa. The deep-seated culture of violence is proving difficult to uproot, confirming the adage that violence breeds violence and that we should continue to oppose all wars and preparation for war. However, while always anti-military, our nonviolence must be ever-more militant, supporting revolutionary change in the face of oppression, through mass unarmed civil resistance and non-military means. 

A Quaker and Deputy Minister of Defence?

My appointment as Deputy Minister of Defence in 1999 came as a total surprise and I wrestled with this issue, which questioned by pacifist beliefs and caused debate among Quakers and the media. The Christian Science Monitor commented that it was either “a stroke of brilliance or a monumental gaffe.” 

When I got the call from the Secretary General of the ANC, on behalf of President Mbeki, I told him he had called the wrong number. When he insisted, he had the right number, I told him I would need time to think about it. He gave me half an hour! I was alone in the house and the first thing I did was go on my knees to pray for guidance. 

People have asked me why I chose politics as a career. My answer is that I did not choose politics, politics chose me. By that I mean, it was impossible to ignore the injustice around me and not be involved. My entry into politics was through the national liberation struggle. 

Growing up in rural Apartheid South Africa, I did not even begin to dream of becoming a Member of Parliament. In any case, this was not even possible at the time. Blacks were not allowed to vote, let alone to be voted into positions of power.

There were good reasons for feeling that it would be right to accept the challenge as South Africa’s first female pacifist deputy Minister of Defence. 

  • I found support among Quakers who debated the issue at our Yearly Meeting in 2000. We adopted a Statement on Peace in Africa, an outcome and testimony to the Quaker process of consensus building. 
  • South Africa and the world had witnessed a miracle, something I had never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. 
  • We had seen Mandela walking out of prison and start negotiations to end apartheid. 
  • South Africa had installed our first democratically elected non-racial, non- sexist parliament with Mandela as our President. 
  • As a newly elected Member of Parliament, I had sat across from my former enemies in the Parliamentary Chamber and had witnessed a military fly past in the colours of our new flag salute Mandela at the inauguration, where I had seen global leaders who came to witness this amazing change. 
  • Our country had been welcomed back into the global community as an important player in the effort to achieve global peace. 
  • This was a time of change and optimism both locally and globally. 

Under the new Constitution, the policy and defence posture began to undergo radical transformation from state security to an all-encompassing condition, in which individual citizens: 

  • live in freedom, peace, and safety. 
  • participate fully in the process of governance. 
  • enjoy the protection of fundamental rights; have access to resources and 

the necessities of life. 

  • and an environment which is not detrimental to their health and well- 


I have a dog-eared signed copy of the Human Security Now Report that our former Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Frene Ginwala gave me. She was democratic South Africa’s first woman Speaker and was one of the 12-person Commission on Human Security that produced the UN Report in 2003. 

The report describes the concept of human security as freedom from want and freedom from fear. This is the concept of security South Africa had embraced, and which made it easy for me to relate to my role in the Ministry of Defence. We had argued that it was important to increase the participation of women in all the Peace and Security structures and processes, and at all levels of decision making. 

We stressed the importance of their presence in sufficient numbers to form a critical mass – at least a third – to make a difference. As MP’s and as part of the women’s movement, we had established strong connections with feminists outside of Parliament, who helped shape national policy and legislation. I could therefore draw on a large pool of activists who were more than willing to help me develop programmes aimed at transforming the role of the military in a democracy. 

I became aware of the work of Sydney Bailey at the United Nations when his widow sent me a copy of his book: ‘Peace is a Process’ published by the Quaker Home Service and Woodbrooke College in 1993. This assured me of the important role Quakers can play in influencing high level diplomacy. Bailey was
a conscientious objector during World War II, spending several years in the Friends Ambulance Service. 

Through the opportunities afforded me in the new South Africa we had fought for, the core beliefs which always guided me, and my new experiences from leading fellow Parliamentarians, UN experts, and Quaker-informed diplomacy, my work as a Deputy Minister of Defence while attending Quaker meeting opened a world not of conflict or contradiction but of challenging questions about creative nation-building. 

Speaking Truth to Power 

As Deputy Minister of Health during the HIV and AIDS crisis in South Africa, I drew strength from the call to speak truth to power. I was saddened to see people dying needlessly from AIDS when they were refused treatment in our public health facilities. I could not understand the refusal by my government to deny HIV positive pregnant women access to Nevirapine to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child. 

When I heard about babies dying at Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape and went on an unannounced visit to investigate the cause. This angered the Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who was promoting only the use of nutrition and traditional remedies instead of the scientific approach to the treatment of people with AIDS. I took the decision to speak publicly in support of science based interventions and this led to my dismissal by the President, after several warnings for me to say only what the Minister of Health was saying. 

In speaking truth to power my aim was not to embarrass the President but to take a principled stand on the side of the powerless, the people who were dying needlessly because they were being denied life-prolonging medicines by their own government. Though I was famously fired from the position as Deputy Minister of Health, in an act which still casts more criticism on the President who fired me than on my own forthright acts, my Quaker orientation helped make it clear on what side of the principled/pragmatic poll I should fall. 

Friends have never been diffident about offering advice to rulers about how to achieve peace. I am inspired by the Quaker Mission to Tsar Nicholas in 1854 in the hope to avert the Crimean War. A panel from the Quaker Tapestry by Mary Mason and family illustrates this Quaker effort to prevent war. The inscription on the tapestry says, “O Mighty Prince, may the miseries and devastation of war be averted. Speak Truth to Power.” 

Looking at the compromise in diplomatic work, Sidney Bailey answers the question of how we can distinguish between a concession of marginal importance, a sacrifice of vital national interest, and a violation of personal conscience. He says, “Friends often ask for an enhancement of the moral element in international decision making, and they are quite right to do so. 

At the same time, we should recognise that for the harassed foreign minister or ambassador, the distinction between the pragmatic and the ethical is often blurred…Our commitment to peace and justice should be infectious, so that we inspire others to share in the process.” 

I was inspired by Audre Lorde, an American writer who dedicated her life and her work to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, and homophobia serves as inspiration. She says: 

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision Then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid. 

Freedom is a Constant Struggle – A lifetime of Activism

I have learned that freedom is a constant struggle and that every generation must play their part in defending the gains made by those before it. Recently, I was thinking about my role as an activist and Psalms 121, which I had learned to recite as a child, came to me. I thought of an activist as someone who stands up for others, who is willing to sacrifice his or her own freedom to help others gain theirs. I thought of Mandela who said we are not free until all are free. 

So, when I left formal party politics in 2009, after serving for 15 years, I had not abandoned my role as a catalyst for change. I feel strongly that wide ranging basic rights in the Constitution MUST be given expression in people’s lives, which includes mobilising them to become active citizens, participating in elections and in between elections, through public participation. 

Jeremy and I established Embrace Dignity, a non-profit abolitionist feminist organisation that seeks to challenge gendered power inequalities that continue to oppress women, girls, and other marginalised people through the system of prostitution, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and patriarchy. We are campaigning for the abolitionist Equality Model Law pioneered in Sweden and adopted by a growing number of countries. Our aim is to restore the rights of women and girls to equality, life, dignity, human security and psychological integrity, rights our Constitution has promised to all South Africans. 

What are the most pressing issues facing us and the world today, and how should we respond as Quakers? How do we ensure social, economic and climate justice for all? How do we respond to the call for reparations for colonization, slavery, and apartheid – as well as the intergenerational trauma that these systems of oppression have caused? 

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust issued a statement on 15 April 2021, acknowledging “that the roots of the trusts’ wealth stems from “slavery, colonialism and white supremacy.” In the statement the Trust stated that “The Rowntree Company purchased cocoa and other goods produced by enslaved people while the company itself benefitted from the system of colonial indenture.” 

The statement says, “Wilson Rowntree, the South African subsidiary of the Rowntree Company, was also responsible for highly oppressive and exploitative practices during the apartheid era.” 

Additionally, how do we respond to the #Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo campaigns? How do we ensure a just peace in Palestine, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, to name but a few places of violent conflict? As the saying goes, “We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children.” 

How do we contribute to righting the wrongs of the past? The Statement issued by the Joseph Rowntree Trust opens an opportunity for British Quakers to partner with the Southern African Quaker Community in our effort to end poverty through the work of our Yearly Meeting. 

Thank you for listening. I hope I have inspired you to continue the good work you are doing to make the world better than you found it. 

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge giving the Salter Lecture from her home studio. Photo by Jeremy Madlala-Routledge

Jesus Was a Working Class Hero

This article by Tim Gee first appeared in Quaker Socialist. Subscribe by joining QSS here.

For as long as there has been ‘civilisation’ there have been systems of class inequality. Many in working-class movements have concurred with the view that the history of society is the history of struggle between oppressor and oppressed.

When we study the Bible, there’s little doubt as to Jesus’ economic position. In common with Joseph, his paid work is as a tekton – a word that can be read both as carpenter and low paid labourer on construction sites. Later in life Jesus recalls having been hungry, thirsty and in need of clothes. His mother Mary describes herself as a servant-girl. We learn something about her beliefs when she describes God as one who brings down rulers from their thrones, lifts up the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. 

Jesus’ first major speech begins “Blessed are the poor” to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Translating directly from Aramaic into English, Palestinian priest Elias Chacour points out that in Jesus’ native language the word rendered into English as ‘blessed’ means something like ‘get up, go ahead, do something, move’. Today perhaps he’d say “Rise up and take action, fellow people of the working class: the revolution is yours”. 

The first recruits to Jesus’ team are fishermen who lack formal education. Matthew is something akin to a bailiff, collecting taxes to be sent back to Rome. Like Jesus’ mother, Joanna is part of a servant family, albeit one earning enough to donate some money to the movement. Others in the movement are rumoured to be sex-workers. 

It’s notable that while Jesus critiques the system, he doesn’t blame working class people for the jobs that they do and declares that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom of God long before rich lawyers and priests. Meanwhile he describes the rich as a “brood of vipers” who are “full of greed and self-indulgence”. When a privileged man asks to join the movement, Jesus tells him to sell all he owns and give it to the poor. When he doesn’t, Jesus tells his followers that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. 

There’s also a realistic assessment of how difficult winning this change will be. One of Jesus’ last parables tells of a servant who stands up to his boss and refuses to be complicit in making unearned wealth for his cruel master. For this he is thrown out into obscurity. Sometimes in rich countries preachers have suggested that the master in the story represents God and the servant is to blame for his poverty. Increasingly though, especially in the Global South, Christians are seeing it from the servant’s perspective. 

After Jesus’ crucifixion (a punishment reserved for rebels), the struggle continues led by James, Jesus’ brother. The New Testament letter that carries his name – possibly a transcription of a sermon (or sermons) he made – is full of challenge to wealth and power: “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you”, “the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you”, “the rich will fade away”. To communities who perpetuate inequality by giving a good seat to rich visitors while telling poor visitors to sit on the floor, James asks a series of rhetorical questions: “doesn’t this show your judgments are led by evil motives? Hasn’t God chosen the poor to inherit the Kingdom? Isn’t it the rich who oppress and slander you?”  

The movement in Jerusalem that followed James were called the Ebionites which translates into English as ‘the poor’. As proudly working-class Bible scholar Alan Saxby points out, this raises some tantalising possibilities. When Jesus says ‘blessed are the poor’ could he be talking about an organised working-class political movement? When he suggests the rich man gives all his money to ‘the poor’ did he mean he should donate it to the struggle? And when James says ‘the poor’ will inherit the Kingdom is he making a revolutionary declaration?  

It’s impossible to be certain in our answers to these questions, but there are some things we can be sure of: When Jesus describes what the Kingdom is like he depicts labourers earning an equal wage, people’s debts being cancelled, and the first being last and the last being first. In the light of such a vision, the words “your Kingdom come”, recited in churches around the world, have profoundly radical implications. 

At his trial Jesus said “my Kingdom is not of this world”. Some have understood this to mean that it exists only on a celestial plane. That’s not how I read it though. I hear it echoed in a cry that brings hope all around world: 

“Another world is possible, another world is necessary, another world is coming”.   

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Some Quaker writings summarised

During the first Coronavirus lockdown Quaker socialists read and shared summaries of Quaker texts. As the UK returns to significant restrictions, here’s an easy introduction to some books that you might enjoy.

The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill

“Popular revolt was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition and the middle decades of the seventeenth century saw the greatest upheaval that has yet occurred in Britain” 

Accounts of Quaker history have typically followed the narrative as told by George Fox in his journal, through his childhood, wanderings, openings and alliance with Margaret Fell, leading to the Children of Light, later known as Quakers. 

‘The World Turned Upside Down’ changed that, beginning instead by exploring the class character of the time, the divisions between north and south, the freedom of the forest and the emergence of London as a place people could live without masters. 

Whereas Fox’s Journal claims his organisation as the one with the answers, Hill recognises it was part of an interconnected movement, in which people moved easily between dissenting groups such as Levellers, Ranters, Muggletonians and many others who frequently adopted the pejorative terms given them.  

On the basis that the common people of the past should be taken on their own terms rather than those of their critics, Hill resurfaced and repopularised the democratic theologies of such figures as Gerrard Winstanley, Abiezer Coppe, Joseph Salmon and Samuel Fisher. He also helped resuscitate the reputation of James Nayler (pictured on the cover) to whom Quaker narratives had sometimes been unsympathetic. 

Rather than dismiss the daring ideas of the time, he recasts them as rational responses to the situation they faced, and their pioneers as leaders of a radical revolution-within-the-revolution who only now are being better understood. Of this radical milieu only Quakers and Anabaptists still exist. But a new generation is asking new questions of the past, as we relive different aspects of the experience of our predecessors, and ask how we act on them today. 

Women’s Speaking Justified, Margaret Fell

“The church of Christ is a woman and those that speak against the women’s speaking, speak against the church of Christ”

The plague of 1665-66 coincided with the persecution of Quakers during which many suffered prison. While incarcerated, Margaret Fell wrote ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’, a forerunner of modern Feminist Theology. 

In it she argues: 

– That God puts enmity between women and the serpent/the dragon (evil)
– That the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a time when gender relations will be different and a woman will protect a man
– That there were many female leaders who worked with Jesus, including Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Martha. Jesus also spoke to the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s Well and celebrated the woman who anointed his feet with ointment 
– That women were there at the crucifixion even when most male disciples had fled, and women were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
– That there are female leaders in the early church mentioned in Paul’s letters, especially Priscilla, and the letters make clear that all are prophesying 
– That with the Light of Christ in all, the promise is fulfilled and all have the Spirit poured upon them  
– That the new Jerusalem spoken of in Revelation is a woman, signifying gender equality 

If you have ever heard a man trying to use the Bible to justify the oppression of women, then Fell’s ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’ is a refreshing rejoinder.

Full text:

A Caution to the Rich, John Woolman

“How many are spending their time and money in vanity and superfluities while thousands and tens of thousands want the necessaries of life?” 

‘A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich, 1793’ is usually published as an appendix to John Woolman’s Journal. 

This deathbed query of John Woolman, shocked by the inequality of England, remains relevant today. As we begin to imagine how the world could be built back better, some ideas from Woolman’s 1793 essay ‘Caution to the Rich’ are worth remembering: 

1. Put limits on rent

“Rents are often so high that persons…often find occasion to labour harder than was intended by our gracious creator…These things are common when in health but through sickness and inability to labour…many are so straitened that much of their increase goes to pay rent, and they have not the wherewith to buy what they require.”

2. Check your privilege

“Now when some who have never experienced hard labour themselves live in fullness on the labour of others there is often a danger of their not having a right feeling of the labourer’s condition and of being thereby disqualified to judge candidly in their case” 

3. Stand up for migrants 

“”Ye know the heart of a stranger seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”. He who hath been a stranger among unkind people, or under the government of those who were hardhearted has experienced this feeling; but a person who has never felt the weight of misapplied power comes not to this knowledge but by an inward tenderness, in which the heart is prepared to sympathise with others.”

4. Better wages, less work, more employment

“If four men working eight hours per day can do a portion of labour in a certain number of days, then five men, equally capable could do the same business by the same time by working only six hours and twenty-four minutes per day” 

5. Redistribute wealth

“Did a man possess as much land as would suffice for twenty industrious frugal people and…did we believe that after our death our estates would go equally among our children and the children of the poor it would be likely to give us uneasiness. This may show to a thoughtful person that to be redeemed from all the remains of selfishness..we must constantly attend to the influences of His spirit”

6. Make peace

“The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning…wealth is attended with power by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported, and hence oppression carried on with worldly policy and order the seeds of war swell and sprout and grow”

7. Respect indigenous peoples

“The offspring of those ancient possessors of the country in whose eyes we appear as newcomers are yet owners and inhabitants of the land adjoining us, and that their way of life, requiring much room, hath been transmitted to them from their predecessors and probably settled by the custom of a great many ages”.  

The Journal is available to read online here:

Search for Reality in Religion, John MacMurray

John MacMurray

One of the influential figures of 20th century Christian Socialism was the philosopher John MacMurray, who gave the Swarthmore Lecture in 1965. 

Given towards the end of the life, the lecture begins with an autobiographical section detailing his spiritual and political journey before sharing what he describes as his”‘conclusions – necessarily personal and tentative towards which I have been led”:

– What makes humans distinct from animals is reflection, and the original form of reflection is religion, which is an expression of the consciousness of fellowship  
– The principal society which achieved a progress to maturity without breaking this religious unity, is Judaism 
– Jesus was a social reformer, and an answer to anyone who says he was actually a religious teacher must be to ask how any Hebrew prophet could be a religious teacher without being a social reformer, as the distinction did not exist 
– Friendship is a spiritual relationship, and in this sense any religious unity is a spiritual not a biological unity.  
– Any dualism of classes makes such a unity impossible 
– The purpose of God is the establishing of a permanent co-operative fellowship to be achieved with full human consent, which must do away with enmity
– That the example of Jesus and those who followed him shows that the new must be established in the shell of the old rather than relying on government 
– That Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere shows us the form society should take 
– That this will involve neither withdrawing from the world nor joining the ’empire’ versions of religion which were what Marx so famously critiqued 
– That the ‘church’ should be understood to mean the community of the disciples of Jesus working to establish the Kingdom of heaven on earth, which will be inclusive, international and interdenominational.
– That this is a religious task based not on self interest or legal compulsion but on love working in freedom

Fit for Freedom Not for Friendship, Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel

For a number of years Quakers in the US and Europe have been engaged in a process of reflection on – and uprooting of – racism and white supremacy, in society and in the Society of Friends. 

An essential resource in this has been Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel’s history ‘Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship’. The book investigates Quaker work for racial justice, especially in the US anti-slavery and civil rights movements and notes that while many Quakers did play a role in these movements, the people we celebrate today were often radical outliers, while the mainstream of white Quaker opinion was rarely dissimilar from white opinion at large. The result is that the Quaker record on anti-racism is not as consistent as many today would like to think. 

It records: 

– That Quakers were the first Christian denomination to free itself of enslaving Africans, but this followed a century of prevarication. Prior to this there were many Quakers who ‘owned’ slaves, including, most prominently, William Penn.

– Quaker history tells the stories of John Woolman, Lucretia Mott and Levi Coffin for their prominent roles in anti-slavery campaigns. To truly learn though we also need to remember Benjamin Lay who had his Quaker membership removed for the stridency of his anti-slavery activism, and Sarah Mapps-Douglass who never joined the Society of Friends, because of the segregation that was practiced at that time  

– Individual Quakers played a role in most of the major civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides and the Poor People’s Campaign. Friends in Baltimore and Philadelphia also ran joint social project with Black Panthers. Progress towards racial equality and diversity in Quaker Meetings and schools however was slow.  

For those who prefer to think of Quakers as consistently on the right side of history it is an uncomfortable read. In honouring of our testimony to truth though, it’s essential to engage with our ‘roses and warts’ history, in order to be able to transform

“The phrase, “practical mystic” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It has often been applied to Quakers, for whom the communal Meeting for Worship is a central experience.” 

Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh

“The phrase, “practical mystic” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It has often been applied to Quakers, for whom the communal Meeting for Worship is a central experience. It is a meeting in stillness, not in passivity, but in expectant waiting on the Presence”

Practical Mystics explores the often mysterious connection between faith and action. It looks at not just how the contemplative and active lives can co-exist but how in essence they are the same. Practical people, all of whom can be mystics; mystics who can also be practical. And, more than that, how the action stems from that very faith, how the two are intertwined, and how crucial that interaction is.

The popular conception of mystical experience is that it is something exclusive, elite, soaring above the scope of the ordinary person. This is very far from the truth. If we define mysticism as a direct experience of the Divine – whatever that means to you – this is an experience that is open to all. Mysticism, in its very nature unconfined by institution or creed, inherently tends to universalism.

The phrase, “practical mystic” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It has often been applied to Quakers, for whom the communal Meeting for Worship is a central experience. It is a meeting in stillness, not in passivity, but in expectant waiting on the Presence, waiting for guidance on how to make the world a better place. It is where faith and a leading to action come together.

The relation between our faith experience and our action is not a simple causal relationship.

That we are changed, that is certain – we become part of a larger consciousness, aware of our connection with other human beings and other creatures. What we are called to is not an externally imposed duty but an inner imperative.

Maybe we feel that “mystic” is too big a word for us individually, but the Quaker way is without doubt a mystical one. We might conclude that not all Quakers are mystics, but that we will all, in some way and to some degree, be touched by the mystical, sometimes held by it and even, in some, be taken up in its all-encompassing embrace.

So far from being a contradiction in terms, the practical is the lifeblood of mysticism: we are not being asked to detach ourselves from our humanness, to float off into some kind of numinous ethereal space. Even in our mysticism, we are relating to others. The practical is both the natural outcome of the mystic experience and intrinsic to the experience itself. There is no division between being and doing.”

A post with some of the summaries of books on socialism will follow

Video: Heaven on Earth (Salter Seminar 2020)

The Quaker Socialist Society Salter event for 2020 took place in the form of a seminar given by Woodbrooke tutor Stuart Masters.

Ahead of the talk he said “I hope to be able to convey something of the Spirit-empowered fearlessness and radicalism of the early Quaker movement, which very nearly turned the world upside-down. We’ll look at how this experience helped shape our social testimonies, and what it has to teach us about sustaining a radical witness to peace and social justice in a hostile world.”

The presentation is in two parts, each followed by a Q and A

Top 5 books for Quaker socialists

During the 2020 coronavirus lockdown we posted summaries of more than 30 Quaker, socialist and left wing writings to social media. The following were the most popular:

1. Race and Privilege in Europe by QCEA 

“One cannot be passively non-racist in a society whose very economy has been structured on a racist past” 

The 2019 publication Race and Privilege in Europe from Quaker Council for European Affairs is a concise and deeply relevant text, available to read for free online.

It argues: 

  • Racism is about more than the use of offensive language: it is racial prejudice reinforced by power and privilege  
  • The structures of racism can be hard for white people to see, especially, for example, if they have rarely or never been followed by staff in a shop, or asked where they are ‘really from’ 
  • When we see few or no people of colour in a place or an activity, then there are probably structures and processes that are excluding people of colour 
  • Race is socially constructed and was created to divide labourers who were resisting oppression. Telling dehumanising stories allowed white people to commit extreme violence and feel justified. 
  • Military violence, climate change and anti-immigration policies today are products of racial injustice, as are poverty, hunger, poor schooling and healthcare, lack of safety for people of colour and differences in access to employment 
  • Racism is not an aberration in Britain linked to Brexit. The Leave campaign revealed the virulence of racism under the skin of social life 
  • We must also resist any version of ‘Europeaness’ that resembles a racial project. Many of the EU institutions are overwhelmingly white, and the anti-immigration actions of many European states are rooted in racism.  
  • Quakers need to be careful not to overstate the Quaker role in the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire as this can obscure the much bigger story of resistance by enslaved people  
  • Active anti-racism is a necessary part of the Quaker commitment to equality, peace, truth and simplicity

2. Poems of Percy Shelley 

“Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ – Ye are many, they are few.”

  • There has been one poet regularly quoted by democratic socialists from the Chartists to Hardie and Corbyn – Percy Shelley. 
  • After the Peterloo Massacre he called on the people in verse: “Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ – Ye are many, they are few.”
  • He wasn’t calling for an uprising (he was an advocate of non-violence) but simply believed that if enough people (“unvanquishable number”) stood in solidarity, oppression would be defeated. His wife, Mary, wrote: :”Shelley believed that a clash between the two classes of society was inevitable, and he eagerly ranged himself on the people’s side.” 
  • His politics are vividly described in ‘Red Shelley’ by Paul Foot. But how did Shelley arrive at his political views?
  • His first political action was a visit to Dublin in 1812 to distribute his ‘Address to the Irish People’. In it he praises the Quakers. He never became a Quaker but he’d learnt his political activism by campaigning with the Quakers against the Napoleonic wars and by studying Paine, from a Quaker family.
  • All his poetry is saturated with love for ‘the universal Spirit’, pacifism and equality for all. 

3. Revolutionary Christianity by Tony Benn

“The teachings of Jesus can be seen as truly revolutionary and to have spread its influence far beyond the bounds of Christendom.” 

In his essay ‘Revolutionary Christianity‘, first published in 1980, Tony Benn shares his belief: 

  • That ‘thou shalt love your neighbour as yourself’ must be the starting point for exploring Jesus’ revolutionary teaching 
  • That despite this, many churches seem more interested in preaching personal salvation than the social imperative of Jesus’ words 
  • That the radical nature of the Bible helps explain the reason why the authorities were so keen to keep it out of the hands of the masses for so long  
  • That John Wycliffe, the Lollards, the Diggers, the Levellers and the Quakers have all based their actions on Jesus’ social message 
  • That through these and other movements, the ethics of Jesus were incorporated in to human rights, environmentalism, democracy and socialism  
  • That these movements need to practice neighbourly love, to build the social, political and economic institutions that express it. 
  • The threat of nuclear weapons makes this task all the more urgent 

The essay forms part of ‘The Best of Benn’ edited by Ruth Winstone.

4. Age of Reason by Tom Paine

“My mind is my own church” 

Tom Paine is best known for his anti-monarchist text ‘Common Sense’ and his defence of revolt ‘The Rights of Man’, which between them helped catalyse revolutionary movements of America, France and Britain. He also wrote a book on religion which proved so controversial that he had to escape England. 

Although by that stage he was no longer a member of the Society of Friends, he retained a connection throughout his life, and Friends will recognise the Quaker influence on his thought. 

In The Age of Reason he states: 

  • He believes in God, in equality and the idea that religious duties involve doing justice, mercy and making fellow creatures happy  
  • That he does not believe in any creed professed by any church in the world and that organised religion has a tendency to be an instrument of oppression  
  • That divine revelation is real, but must be experienced first-hand, rather than through the words of others
  • That Jesus’ morality has not been exceeded by any, but that Christian mythologists have layered on top of this some supernatural aspects, which people shouldn’t be forced to believe 
  • That in a number of important and specific ways, the Bible contradicts itself, so cannot be read as the literal word of God  
  • That a revolution in the system of government should be followed by a revolution in the system of religion

5. Immediate not gradual abolition by Elizabeth Heyrick 

“The whole nation must now divide itself into the active supporters and the active opposers of slavery. There is no longer any ground for a neutral party to stand upon” 

Elizabeth Heyrick’s 1824 pamphlet ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition‘ feels relevant to the present times. In it she argues: 

  • That Britain is hypocritical, because on the one hand it asks other countries to end slavery, but on the other hand still profits from it
  • As a result everyone in Britain is implicated, and this must be admitted as a step towards change 
  • That emancipation has long been argued for through petitions and persuasion 
  • That the cause now needs something more decisive, namely a solemn commitment from abolitionists to no longer participate in the crime of bondage by consuming its products
  • That moderate opponents of slavery have ruined their case by calling for gradual emancipation. The slaveholder likes this ‘demand’ very much, because it will lead to gradual indifference 
  • That is is ridiculous to suggest that the interests of an enslaved person are best secured by remaining in slavery 
  • That great effects often result from small beginnings as a resolution to change will influence family and friends, and their family and friends likewise  
  • That everyone must now decide whether they truly stand for emancipation or for perpetual slavery. People who stand for emancipation must act on it. 

The essay is included in the Penguin Book of Quaker Writings edited by Thomas Hamm.

Further reading

Some writings about Quakers that might also be enjoyed by socialists, include Margaret Fell’s  Women’s Speaking Justified, John Woolman’s Journal, Christopher Hill’s  The World Turned Upside Down, Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel’s Fit for Freedom Not for Friendship and Catherine West’s Swarthmore Lecture .

Writings about socialism and progressive politics that might also be enjoyed by Quakers include William Morris’ Useful work vs Useless Toil, Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid , Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Steve Cohen’s That’s funny you don’t look antisemitic and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer talking to White People about Race.

If you prefer real live books to reading online, you can get many of them from the Quaker Bookshop

Quaker Socialist Society submission to the Book of Discipline Revision Group

The collective book of testimony, Quaker Faith and Practice, is currently in the process of being updated. Following a process of conversations and discernment spanning more than a year, this is the Quaker Socialist Society’s submission to it.


The Quaker Socialist Society is a recognised group of Britain Yearly Meeting, the representative organisation for Quakers in Britain. QSS is not affiliated to any political party and is open to all those who on ethical grounds wish for an egalitarian, peaceful, green and democratic society. 

We aspire to encourage the practice of ethical socialism in everyday life, and organise the annual Salter Lecture, which is delivered as part of the Yearly Meeting programme. 

Quaker Socialist Society hopes that its objectives and activities will inform the spiritual and material development of Quakerism and bring Quakerism to the notice of the wider world. 

Revision of Quaker Faith and Practice 

We welcome the revision of Quaker Faith and Practice and are grateful for the opportunity to feed into it. We relish the prospect of a readable, user-friendly volume Friends could make available at events which explains to newcomers what Quakers are about and might interest readers in coming to further Quaker gatherings.   

In the spirit of participation and preparation, in the first months of 2019, we posted every single passage from the current ‘Social Responsibility’ chapter to social media, one per day, inviting people to ‘like’ or comment. From this we were able to identify some particularly popular quotes from the present version as well as some themes from the comments, in particular the current under-representation of women and people from ethnic minorities in the text. 

We also noted that some of the passages are overlong and that the political and social activity of the Society of Friends since 1919 could be better reflected. The trade union, anti-racist and feminist movements after 1919 are not referred to, but the anti-slavery, women’s suffrage and CO movements before 1919 are. This leads to a party-political bias, with Liberal MPs quoted but not Labour or Green. The suggestions that follow seek to address these observations. 


1. Audit of the current text.

We are aware it could be easier to find content to add than to cut, and don’t want to risk perpetuating this problem through this submission. 

We are also aware that, particularly in sections addressing – for example – inequality, a great deal of the current language has become rather dated, and can sound somewhat patronising – even condescending. There is also a significant amount of strongly gendered language, not reflective of the insights of feminism. 

Rather than suggest particular passages for removal we propose an audit of the current material, identifying any passages which don’t reflect our modern understandings of equality, and to prioritise these for taking out. 

We realise that this could imply the need to say a fond farewell to the ‘origins of a Quaker Social Order’ from the next iteration of QFP which while still inspirational in its message now appears sufficiently dated in its language that it may be ready for updating.

If this is too radical a suggestion then perhaps each chapter’s quotes could be laid out chronologically, demonstrating the evolution of Quaker thought.

2. History chapter 

The format of the current book as an anthology means that there are a number of longer passages which appear to have been included because of the history they convey rather than because of their spiritual content. We propose stripping these out, and replacing them with an introductory historical chapter, giving an overview of the Quakers’ development. 

In addition to the stories of Margaret Fell and George Fox, we hope that this might mention social radicals such as Gerald Winstanley and John Lilburne of the Diggers and Levellers respectively, both of whom went on to join the Quakers.

In the second generation we hope mention might be made of John Bellers who elaborated a Quaker reform of society which prefigured universal education, the NHS and the Welfare State. Bellers has been hailed as the first Quaker Socialist since, unlike Lilburne and Winstanley, he had an understanding of labour and a social programme to help the poor.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we hope the history chapter would include mention of moderate Quaker reformers such as Elizabeth & George Cadbury and more radical ones such as Ada & Alfred Salter. We also hope this will take a global perspective, rather than a narrowly British one.  

A history chapter would also provide a means for QFP to honour ‘friends of the Friends’ such as Sojourner Truth, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King among others, all of whom had close associations with Quakers and whose ministry has shaped the witness of our society significantly.

3. Social Responsibility 

The new Quaker Faith and Practice needs to be able to engage with people where they are, including online. This was part of our thinking in committing four months to online conversations about the section on Social Responsibility. Below these introductory comments are listed the ‘top ten’ most popular passages in order. 

Through this process we noted that only one in three contributors to the present social responsibility chapter is a woman, and that in the first 30 entries only two women are featured at all.  Despite this, the most popular three quotes by individuals (rather than groups) are all by women. We also note that some of these passages (E.g. William Penn 1682, Michael Sorensen, 1986) reflect the male-gendered language we have highlighted above as problematic. 

Searching for pictures of contributors revealed that, despite being the chapter that covers Quaker attitudes to tackling racism, not a single named contributor to this chapter at present is a person of colour. 

The following are the texts currently included in Quaker Faith & Practice which were most welcomed by our respondents. 

1 – Ursula Franklin, 1979 

“I have never lost the enjoyment of sitting in silence at the beginning of meeting, knowing that everything can happen, knowing the joy of utmost surprise; feeling that nothing is pre-ordained, nothing is set, all is open. The light can come from all sides. The joy of experiencing the Light in a completely different way than one has thought it would come is one of the greatest gifts that Friends’ meeting for worship has brought me.

I believe that meeting for worship has brought the same awareness to all who have seen and understood the message that everyone is equal in the sight of God, that everybody has the capacity to be the vessel of God’s word. There is nothing that age, experience and status can do to prejudge where and how the Light will appear. This awareness – the religious equality of each and every one – is central to Friends. Early Friends understood this and at the same time they fully accepted the inseparable unity of life, and spoke against the setting apart of the secular and the sacred. It was thus inevitable that religious equality would be translated into the equality of everyday social behaviour. Friends’ testimony to plain speech and plain dress was both a testimony of religious equality and a testimony of the unacceptability of all other forms of inequality.” 

2. Yearly Meeting in London, 1727

“It is the sense of this meeting, that the importing of negroes from their native country and relations by Friends, is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.” 

3. Elizabeth Fry, 1827 

“Much depends on the spirit in which the visitor enters upon her work. It must be in the spirit, not of judgment, but of mercy. She must not say in her heart I am more holy than thou, but must rather keep in perpetual remembrance that ‘all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God’.”

4. Eva I Pinthus, 1987

“The duty of the Society of Friends is to be the voice of the oppressed but [also] to be conscious that we ourselves are part of that oppression. Uncomfortably we stand with one foot in the kingdom of this world and with the other in the Eternal Kingdom.” 

5. Joseph Rowntree, 1904

“Much of current philanthropical effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness and evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes. The soup kitchen in York never has difficulty in obtaining financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support.”  

6. George Fox, 1668 

“Then I came to Waltham and established a school there for the teaching of boys, and ordered a women’s school to be set up at Shacklewell to instruct young lasses and maidens in whatsoever things were civil and useful in the creation.”  

7. William Penn, 1682 

“True godliness doesn’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it… Christians should keep the helm and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world and leave those that are in it without a pilot to be driven by the fury of evil times upon the rock or sand of ruin.” 

8. Harvey Gillman 1988 

“The word ‘testimony’ is used by Quakers to describe a witness to the living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based on the realisation that there is that of God in everybody, that all human beings are equal, that all life is interconnected.  

It is affirmative but may lead to action that runs counter to certain practices currently accepted in society at large. Hence a pro-peace stance may become an anti-war protest, and a witness to the sacredness of human life may lead to protests against capital punishment. 

These testimonies reflect the corporate beliefs of the Society, however much individual Quakers may interpret them differently according to their own light. They are not optional extras, but fruits that grow from the very tree of faith.” – 

9. Deborah Haines, 1978 

“I think I have wasted a great deal of my life waiting to be called to some great mission which would change the world. I have looked for important social movements. I have wanted to make a big and important contribution to the causes I believe in. I think I have been too ready to reject the genuine leadings I have been given as being matters of little consequence. It has taken me a long time to learn that obedience means doing what we are called to do even if it seems pointless or unimportant or even silly. The great social movements of our time may well be part of our calling. The ideals of peace and justice and equality which are part of our religious tradition are often the focus of debate. But we cannot simply immerse ourselves in these activities. We need to develop our own unique social witness, in obedience to God. We need to listen to the gentle whispers which will tell us how we can bring our lives into greater harmony with heaven.”  

10. Michael Sorensen, 1986

“We are all the poorer for the crushing of one man, since the dimming of the Light anywhere darkens us all”

4. Additions for consideration

We suggest the following passages for consideration as additions which could be included in the upcoming text. 

1. George Fox, 1659, translated into Modern English by Rex Ambler

Let all those abbey lands and glebe lands that are given to the priests be given to the poor of the nation, and let all the great houses, abbeys, steeple houses and the palace of Whitehall itself become houses for the care of the needy, or for some use other than they have now, so that the blind and disabled can go there. Let all these fines that get paid to the lords of the manors be given to poor people instead, for the lords have enough already. Let the poor, the blind and the disabled be provided for by the nation, so that there needn’t be a beggar in England.”

2. Anne Knight, anti-slavery activist and early campaigner for women’s right to vote.

“Brothers, if only your declaration of principles would proclaim loudly the complete abolition of all privileges of sex, or race, or birth, of caste and of fortune, you would soon see in your ranks women of spirit and intelligence who would uphold your heroic efforts and help you to triumph.” 

By linking the issues of race, wealth and gender she prefigured what might now be referred to as an intersectional approach.

3. Alfred Salter, 1914 

“Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into the body of a German workman.  See! The Son of God with a machine gun, ambushing a column of German infantry, catching them unawares in a lane and mowing them down in their helplessness.  Hark! The Man of Sorrows in a cavalry charge, cutting, hacking, thrusting, cheering.  No! No! That picture is an impossible one and we all know it!”

4. Bayard Rustin

“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so the wheels won’t turn” 

5. Barrington Dunbar, 1970 

“I can identify with Jesus, a man of deep commitment and with a revolutionary strategy, who gathered together a disciplined people in his effort to share with them his vision of the beloved community, of the Kingdom of God, freed from the barriers of race, clan or creed. 

I can identify with Jesus the revolutionary who was put to death on a cross because he proved to be a threat to the existing social order, as he sought to remove the barriers which separated Jews from Gentiles, the taxpayer from the fisherman. 

As I identify with Jesus the revolutionary, and with the historical circumstances of his human life, I see an example of a personal encounter through which God makes himself known”

6. The Quaker Women’s Group, 1986

“Wars are not isolated phenomena; there are ways of leading up to them and away from them, behaviour which provokes them and which calms or stops them. They are part of the human process of relationships on an individual, a national and an international scale” 

From the Swarthmore Lecture ‘Bringing the Invisible in to the Light\

7. Helen Steven, 2005

We can view Jesus’ whole ministry as a life lived in deliberate opposition to the domination of his time. It was not enough to show compassion for the poor and dispossessed, the whole system of oppression which left people in poverty and despair had to be challenged”.

8. Esther Mombo, 2006 

“Some readers have wondered whether the Bible can ever liberate women from a patriarchal, male-chauvinistic system of oppression…those who embrace a reader-centred approach – like most African women theologians would argue differently…Quakers included, African women have embraced the Bible and use it to analyse their particular situation of triple sexism: sexism in the African culture, sexism in the colonial culture, and sexism in the biblical culture…the Bible as such is not an instrument of oppression of women, but rather a lopsided interpretation of the Bible which has been vested with ulterior motives”

From ‘The Quaker Bible Reader’

9.  Vanessa Julye, 2019

Our past is not divorced from the present; we cannot fully understand and adequately respond to the racial injustices of the present without understanding racial injustices of the past. Many times, the racial discrimination or exploitation of the present is not a new creation but rather a redesigned extension of oppressive structures and beliefs of the past… 

In order to begin a journey of healing our trauma from racism, it will be important for us to know and understand our own individual cultural heritage. We also need to have an honest understanding of how our ancestors contributed to this world and undergirded the structure of white supremacy. Also, we need to understand how we continue to maintain vestiges of this structure in our behaviors today. It is only possible to change a system once you have a clear understanding of how it operates. Acknowledging the pain and celebrating the accomplishments will help us be able to transform members of our religious communities and eventually the inhabitants of the world into peaceful human beings.”

10. As our tenth proposal, we offer this array of quotations from Ada and Alfred Salter 

Alfred Salter: 

“You will only overcome force by love. (A silly, sloppy sentiment, you say!) You will only overcome arrogance by humility. You will only conquer brutality by kindliness. You will only supersede militarism by developing in the hearts of all peoples the spirit of brotherhood and forbearance; war does not do that. This war will not do that. It will leave behind a bitter heritage of hate to bear more fruit in due season.

“Let us not forget that Socialism is a great faith, prompted by a great religious motive, and inspired by a great humanitarian spirit… It is the greatest religious movement since the early days of Christianity.”

Ada Salter:

“We have had to ask ourselves whether it is any good making speeches and passing resolutions against war in general during a time of peace, if now, when the test has come, we are in favour of this particular war… We are always against the last war; we are always against the next war; but we are not against the present war.”

Ada Salter:

“Always act according to truth and principle and you will never feel anxious or distraught.”

Ada Salter:

“The cultivation of beauty should be considered a civic duty.”

She also said: “The cultivation of trees and flowers should be considered a civic duty.”

Ada Salter:

“If evil or wrong methods are deliberately adopted in order to gain quickly some desired end, that end if attained will never be worth the effort put forth, nor will the ideals for which you are striving be realised.”

Ada Salter: 

“When Trade Unionists fully realise that all workers, men and women, youths and maidens, are members one of another, then we shall hear more than the rumble of the revolution in the distance – the revolution will be here.”

Faith of a Quaker Socialist

The below article appeared in the autumn edition of Quaker Socialist. To receive our newsletter you can join QSS here .

The idea that Jesus was an antagonist to those who hold power is two millennia old. The story is told four times over in the library of books known today as the Bible. Based on these accounts, Jesus has been called a social reformer, revolutionary,  anti-racist and supporter of women’s equality who affirmed sexual diversity, was sceptical of the ‘nuclear family’, taught his students to be nonviolent, became a prisoner of conscience and suffered capital punishment for his beliefs. 

The movement that he inspired was of the marginalised and the oppressed. It consisted principally of colonised peoples from the Middle East and Africa, including his home country which was suffering under military occupation. The movement’s leaders were largely from working class backgrounds. Central to it was an interfaith alliance bringing together Jewish people with people from Samaria who also suffered religious discrimination. Disabled and formerly disabled people were especially prominent in building the movement. The community included women, men and genderqueer people.

Yet before three centuries had passed, the faith had become a religion of empire, used at the service of the very same anti-Semitic, classist, white-supremacist, misogynist and imperialist mindset that Jesus had spent his life challenging. Ever since there have been powerful forces in Christianity who have used a version of faith to justify religious intolerance, economic inequality, racial injustice, oppression of women, homophobia and war. Part of the task of liberating humanity from oppression will involve liberating Jesus from those who claim that oppression is consistent with Christianity.      

Radical Christianity suppressed

Given the revolutionary potential of Jesus’ teaching it is no surprise that for generations elites tried to keep it out of the hands of ordinary people. Even at the point that the shape of the Bible was negotiated and agreed, there were even more radical accounts, which referenced, for example, the divine feminine and focussed much more on the lives of female leaders. These were left out and ordered to be burned. Those who didn’t hand them in were threatened with death and people who disagreed with the official view were deported. 

For a millennium afterwards, the Bible was available only in ancient languages, giving elites with expensive educations the near-exclusive power of interpretation. When in 1382 – just a year after the Peasant’s Revolt – John Wycliffe translated the Bible in to English, he was condemned as a heretic. Wycliffe died of a stroke, but not content to let him be, church authorities ordered that his body should be dug back up and then burnt.  

William Tyndale is credited with translating the Bible in to English direct from the Greek and Hebrew, publishing his New Testament in 1526. His work was initially appreciated by Henry VIII who went on to make himself head of a new English national church in order to allow himself to divorce his first wife. But when Tyndale criticised the King for the ways his actions differed from scripture, Tyndale was ordered to be strangled at the stake before being burnt.     

Martin Luther completed his full Bible translation into German in 1534. By that stage he had already been declared a heretic and excommunicated from the church. As the text reached common people’s hands it became clear that what was being taught and done by some of those in power was quite different from the example set by Jesus. In the same year a group dubbed Anabaptists attempted a revolution in the city of Munster in order to try and introduce a more communal system. Luther spoke out against the rebellion, but was never readmitted to the church. 

Eventually, in 1611 the King James Version of the Bible was produced.  Although copies were placed in churches in English and in Latin, great efforts were made to shape people’s understandings of it. The church was sharply hierarchical, priests tended to be drawn from the upper classes, and at the top of the pyramid was the King himself who claimed he had been put there by God. Attendance at church was compulsory with the threat of fines or imprisonment for those who refused. 

But the cat was out of the bag. Alternative visions of Christianity were already beginning to be adopted across Europe and a spiritual gulf was growing in England between the approaches inspired by these developments and the national state church preferred by the upper classes and royalists. By the 1640s this was a factor in the outbreak of civil war, culminating in the execution of both the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Quakers and fellow travellers

England’s short period as a republic coincided with a relaxation of the laws against grassroots faith groups. Thousands of people in previously underground groups emerged. Some agitated for the extension of the ballot and limitations on the death penalty and others set out to redistribute land through direct action, by reclaiming rich landowners’ fields and farming them communally. The most famous of these were nicknamed ‘Levellers’ and ‘Diggers’. Later, many of those radical spiritual activists combined together as the Children of the Light, later known as the Society of Friends (Friends for short), and nicknamed ‘Quakers’.   

Although then, as now, many men tried to use their religion to suppress women’s voices, Quaker women found in the Bible a powerful case for women’s equality. Most prominent was Margaret Fell who wrote a pamphlet pointing out that Jesus often revealed truths to women before they were revealed to men. Amongst thousands of fellow freethinkers, she endured prison for sticking to her beliefs. But a path was beginning to be paved towards women’s ministry, which many more would follow. 

It was another Christian non-conformist, Mary Wollstonecraft – a Unitarian – who wrote one of the foundational texts of modern feminism; a Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1791. The work not only called for gender equality but called out the whole system of unjust hierarchies that reinforced the male power structure. She was shunned by many in her community. 

One who didn’t ignore her was Tom Paine – who had written the first part of a Vindication of the Rights of Man the previous year. By writing books that profoundly shaped the founding fathers of the USA, revolutionaries in France and England’s emerging movements for democracy, he played a role in contributing to the development of human rights. The child of Quaker parents, he was also a keen Bible reader on which basis he rejected the literalist approach. For this he was forced to flee his country for his life. 

Yet another contemporary of Wollstonecraft and Paine – as well as an early campaigner in the movement for the vote – was Olaudah Equiano, whose memoir of life in slavery had become an international bestseller by 1792. The book gave a narrative of the events of his life, but was also a work of spiritual autobiography recounting how he had found strength in the actions and words of Jesus and Paul, which he contrasted against the moral hypocrisy of the nominal Christians who had enslaved him.

Intersecting struggles

It was from within the anti-slavery movement that a new chapter in the movement for votes for women began. After being excluded from an anti-slavery convention in 1840 on account of her gender, Quaker activist Anne Knight wrote what is usually considered the first leaflet calling for women to have the vote, arguing that a female influence on Parliament would lead to more peaceful and just decisions. She became a regular thorn in the side of the male leaders of anti-slavery campaigns who she argued had not understood scripture properly. Her contemporary Elizabeth Cady Stanton went further and wrote a version of the Bible from a woman’s perspective. 

This was not however just a white woman’s cause. Perhaps the most memorable women’s rights speech of the century was given by Sojourner Truth to a conference in Ohio. Pointing to a church minister who had argued against women’s rights she declared “that little man in black there he says women can’t have as much right as a man because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him”. 

All the while nascent trade union groups were being built, perhaps the best-known of which were the Tolpuddle Martyrs, led by a preacher George Loveless. After organising an association of agricultural workers in England, they were sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1834. After mass mobilisation in solidarity they were pardoned two year later. That same year the Chartist campaign began, one of the most significant mass-participation working-class campaigns since the industrial revolution, which demanded the vote be extended to workers. Amongst the teachings of Chartist leader Ernest Jones was the idea that “Christ was the first Chartist and democracy is the Gospel carried into practice”.     

In the Eastern Church, Christian dissent was more effectively contained. Nonconformist sects such as the Dukobhors needed to escape to avoid persecution.  One of those who sympathised with and assisted the Dukhobors was Russia’s most renowned novelist Leo Tolstoy. Reading of the activism of anti-slavery campaigners abroad, he penned a series of books about the essence of Jesus’ teaching and the potential of nonviolent action, which he contrasted to the actions of the national church. He couldn’t find a publisher for his work in his own country, which ended up being printed abroad. Among the best known of his overseas readers were the US women’s rights activist Jane Addams, and the Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. In his own country though, Tolstoy’s membership of the church was revoked. 

The early twentieth century saw an upsurge in radical union activity in the USA, a contributor to which was a young Dorothy Day, who went on to organise Catholic Worker houses of hospitality with the dispossessed. Against the same background, Walter Rauschenbusch published his seminal work Theology for a Social Gospel pointing to the institutionalised sins of poverty and injustice, the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and the potential to understand the resurrection as the ability to do good. US civil rights leader Martin Luther King came across Walter Rauschenbusch’s work whilst at seminary, which along with Gandhi’s work, profoundly shaped his thinking. 

Liberating theology

Informed by global struggles against racism and poverty, the term ‘Liberation Theology’ was coined in 1971 by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest. He drew attention to the Bible’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ and invited an approach to theology based on praxis – a cycle of action followed by reflection, repeated many times. Alongside the work of others – most prominently the Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff – this inspired a resurgence of theological perspectives in struggles against authoritarianism and imperialism. Gutierrez and Boff were subjected to investigations and silencing orders respectively by the church hierarchy. Despite this, their message was heard as it opened the way for other forms of liberation theology to emerge based on the experiences of different oppressed groups. 

A black theology of liberation began to be systematised by James Cone based on the religious thought of the civil rights movement. One of Cone’s best-known readers was a young Desmond Tutu, who wrote his PhD on Black Theology. He went on to serve as Archbishop of Cape Town and one of the best-known voices against apartheid in South Africa. Later in life he has related this experience to further campaigns, including for peace and justice in the Middle East, for LGBT inclusion and for financial disinvestment from fossil fuels. 

Another approach which now forms part of Liberation Theology, is Feminist Theology, referred to as Womanist Theology where it specifically centres black women’s experience. These approaches find in scripture examples of Jesus breaking convention to associate with women, appointing women to the leadership of the movement and making women central to teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. It also finds in Jesus words and decisions an awareness of gender inequality. For example, when a woman is brought before Jesus by an angry mob of men wanting to punish her for having had sex outside of marriage, he challenges them in a way that so bruises the fragile egos of the men that they storm off. 

Feminist and womanist theologians often advocate ‘reading between the lines’ to enquire after the silent female characters who are often unnamed. Continuing with the same story we might ask: Who was that woman who was brought to Jesus by the mob? What were the circumstances of the action that made the man so angry? Had she had an abortion? Was it her idea to take the matter to Jesus rather than to a judge? If it was, it was a smart move. Jesus points out the patriarchy by inviting ‘him without sin to cast the first stone’. The story serves as a powerful critique of modern-day Christian-led protests outside abortion clinics.  

Yet another approach to draw inspiration from the liberation school is the emergent ‘queering’ of theology. This has led to some novel questions being asked of the Bible: Could the fact that there is no record of Jesus getting married or having a girlfriend indicate an acceptance or even a modelling of a queerer approach to sexuality and gender? Can we detect an androgyny, or alternative masculinity in his character, with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics? Who was the unnamed semi-naked man who ran towards him at the time of his arrest, and was he the same as the unnamed ‘disciple Jesus loved’ who was present at his crucifixion? These are of course all impossible questions to answer with any certainty, but the fact they are asked indicates not only a theology of liberation, but an increasingly liberated approach to theology.   

Most rapidly emerging today is the field of eco-theology which finds themes of care for nature in the first book of the Bible and prophesies of environmental breakdown in the last. Both Jesus and his followers appear closest to God when taking walks in nature. Jesus teaches that God cares about the flowers and birds and draws on the metaphors of seeds and fields.  He compares himself to a vine and his followers to plants who will be known by their fruit. In widely read encyclical letter in 2015, Pope Francis contrasted Jesus’ example to “the culture of consumerism, which prioritises short-term gain and private interest” which is leading to ecological violence. 

A radical manifesto

By now the argument should be clear; as well as being used as a tool of oppression, the Bible is a tool of liberation. Jesus taught that we would know his true followers by their actions when he said “You shall know them by their fruits”. His brother James taught that if faith is not accompanied by action, it is dead and continued “I will show you my faith by my deeds”. So we live our faith in action, but it cannot be only that. Praxis is a process of action followed by reflection, action and reflection. Part of that reflection is the lives of those who have gone before, including those people we meet in scripture. 

By one estimate there are up to five billion copies of the Bible in the world. That’s five billion manifestos for change present a great many libraries, hospitals and hotels right across planet, many of them going unread. This article is an invitation to pick one of them up. The fact that a great many of us don’t is no doubt a relief those who exercise unjust power. Because if enough people studied and acted on Jesus’ words, then the foundations of elite power would start looking very sandy indeed.

In Conversation with Maggie Chapman

Maggie Chapman is a feminist, environmentalist, peace activist and Quaker socialist.  She is currently the Rector of the University of Aberdeen. Maggie was among the first elected Green councillors in Scotland and until mid-2019 was Co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party.

The public meeting we had planned with Maggie in York on 28 March was cancelled due to the situation with Coronavirus. In its place she agreed to an interview for the website, in full below.

Would you be happy to introduce yourself and share a little about how you got involved in working for change? 

I was born and brought up in the sunshine in Zimbabwe. Postcolonialism and the politics of race and inequality shaped my childhood, even though I really wasn’t aware of it at the time. I had a very happy, and in many ways, very privileged upbringing. My parents created a very safe, welcoming and open home, and, whilst we were not that well off compared to many of my school friends, we never wanted for anything. 

But I was very aware that many people around me were not so fortunate. I realised, at quite a young age, that we (my family) placed value – mostly sentimental, it has to be said – on material possessions that the vast majority of Zimbabweans had never seen, nevermind owned. Or took for granted. I saw the racial inequalities – which often mapped onto economic inequalities – very starkly all around me, even if I didn’t understand how or why they existed, and what sustained them. And I had some sense that these inequalities were problematic, even if I didn’t know how to articulate this sense or think it through. Racial differences of wealth, values and aspirations were often explained away as cultural preference and practice. I’m not sure that this satisfied me, but it did placate me. For a while, at least. Because I was protected and nurtured in a society that valued education.

I went to the Dominican Convent in Harare – Zimbabwe’s first school, founded in 1892 – for both my primary and secondary education. I was brought up a Methodist, but the school was between home and my Dad’s work, and in the age of petrol rationing, that mattered! Zimbabwe was not formally racially segregated, and I learnt a great deal from my classmates, who came from pretty much every racial community in the country. We talked about (small “p”) politics. We debated world events. Despite our racial diversity, we shared hopes and dreams because we could. Post-independent Zimbabwe invested in education: for over a decade, it was one of the most literate countries in Africa. And Convent, as we called it, whilst fee-paying, had significant financial support mechanisms for less well-off families. And so the education I received, infused with the Dominican’s holistic approach to learning and emphasis on charity, taught us to see diversity as strength, difference as beautiful, and faith as being about making the world a better place.

At home, alongside the perhaps old fashioned but good-hearted paternalism, my sister and I were instilled with a very clear sense of justice and humanity and the importance of principles. Both my parents planted the seeds of my love for the world around me, gave me the foundational belief that all life mattered and that kindness would take me further than wealth. Their two daughters would never not be encouraged to do things because they were girls. And being wasteful was never an option … something my non-hoarder partner struggles with everyday!

Equipped with these values, when I began to understand more about how the world works, and how deeply unequal it is, it was no leap at all to see the connections between social, environmental and economic justice. And a handful of very patient people encouraged me to turn my principles into activism and action. At university, I got involved in societies and activities focussed on social justice, peace and spirituality, and started attending (irregularly), a small lunchtime Meeting for Worship in Edinburgh. At the same time, I got involved in (big “P”) Politics, and it was just obvious to me that the Scottish Greens best reflected my values about the world.

Some people of faith working in politics have encountered difficulties in reconciling the two. Could you share anything about your faith journey as it relates to social action? 

In some ways, I think my answer to this question is a bit of a cop out. I think, at best, I’m a very bad Quaker: I have wandered a long way away from faith in the conventional sense. I don’t think I would call myself a “believer”, and I have many more questions about faith than I probably ever had. But the pluralist embrace of the Religious Society of Friends continues to appeal, and the light within is a powerful motivator for me to strive for a peaceful and equal world. So I suppose I don’t really encounter conflict between my spiritual life and political activism, possibly because I don’t put much emphasis on the former. But more fundamentally, I do not see any conflict between the Quaker teachings of peace, kindness and love and the Green principles of equality, inclusion, social justice and environmental concern.

Your last two speeches to the Scottish Green Party conference emphasised the role of social movements in creating change. Since the Coronavirus crisis almost all public gatherings have been closed down yet significant social change is happening. What’s your take so far on the emerging situation? 

I think we need to be clever in our response to this situation. I think that the social movements behind the climate strike and Extinction Rebellion have achieved as much in a year as many of us working in environmental organisations have achieved in decades (I should be clear here that I don’t think it would have been possible to have these social movements without the work in those organisations – it’s not an either/or, nor should we disparage the work done in those organisations). 

But it’s also very clear that the protestors have catalysed action that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. And they’ve done it through occupying the streets. That obviously will have to change in a period where we can’t associate in these ways. 

I’m very optimistic about the possibilities of doing online campaigning. That needs to move well beyond petitions and the ‘clicktivism’ that emerges from conventional marketing thought. 

If we can go beyond our online ‘filter bubbles’ and begin to reach out to people this offers a real chance. We’ve had an example of how people can be put before the economy. We must make the case that to stop climate breakdown, to end the arms trade and to harness the digital tools that are currently monopolised by tech billionaires. 

Over the past 40 years, we’ve been put on a productivity and consumption treadmill. And one thing about a treadmill is that it’s very difficult to get off once you’re going. I don’t think we’ll go back to a situation where people get back on the treadmill and run at the same pace we were going before. For many office workers the presenteeism of the last decade is falling away. 

All of this provides more opportunities to communicate online, built the case and make sure that we don’t go back to the world we had before. 

Originally we were planning to talk about the crisis of poverty in the UK, prompted by the reports which revealed that 14 million live in poverty in the UK and that more that 100,000 people have died as a result of cuts.  We were also planning to explore the connections with the global climate crisis. Why do you think there has been a worldwide effort to combat the Coronavirus pandemic but not to address the ongoing crises of poverty and climate change?

I think there’s an important factor here which is that very much of the capitalist system is based on a morality. That morality values richer people more than poorer people. In that context, austerity – which destroys lives on precisely the basis of wealth – is acceptable to elites. It reinforces capitalist normality. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will never be a victim of austerity, but he did get Coronavirus. So if you can insulate your loved ones from austerity through wealth, it seems more acceptable than an infectious disease that could affect anyone, and could affect them now. 

That said, there is something quite different with climate breakdown. Capitalism is deeply and fundamentally entwined with fossil fuels. The industrial revolution, which birthed modern capitalism formed at the nexus of fossil fuels to power factories and new financial forms to pay for those factories. 

So if capitalism has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with fossil fuels it’s easy to see why there has been enormous resistance from capitalists to any move away from fossil fuels. The deployment of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) and the creation of conspiracy theories about how climate breakdown wasn’t happening are classic elite strategies to stop change. 

I’ve always believed that capitalism could not provide an answer to climate change. Quite simply it’s easier to buy doubt than it is to fundamentally reorientate the economy. That’s why I’m a socialist, and a Green. 

One of the things I think Coronavirus has exposed is that, even in a capitalist economy, another world is possible. It will be very difficult to argue that the economy is more important than people’s lives again. Not that it will stop them trying, of course! But we need to be ready, to make the point that an economy that is based on saving lives is what we did in the corona-crisis. And that it is now possible to build a wellbeing economy, rather than a growth economy. 

Across the UK national identity appears to be becoming an increasingly important factor in politics. In England this is leading to greater xenophobia, but Scotland appears to be forging a more inclusive sense of nationhood. Is there something that progressives beyond Scotland can learn? 

I think one of the great errors of the socialist movement has been its puritanism. One of my heroes is Raymond Williams – who may be known to many of you as one of the leading peace activists of the 1950s and 60s. But he was also a great Welsh literary theorist, and his work on the location of identity has a lot to say. I sometimes joke that if you want to know why the world is the way it is, you need to start by reading Raymond Williams. His sense of working-class Welsh identity articulated in Border Country and the People of the Black Mountains reflects a way of conceptualising how we can live in community, in a progressive way. 

Too often progressives have abandoned community and faith to the political right. That’s a terrible shame, and it’s not something we can continue to do. I like Billy Bragg’s attempts to build a progressive English identity, but I sometimes feel he is ploughing that furrow almost alone. 

I also think it’s much easier to form a progressive identity in a country like Scotland that is much less attached to it’s past as an Imperial power. While Scotland (particularly lowland Scotland) was a significant partner in the creation of the British Empire, it’s not the basis of Scottish identity, in the way it is for many in England. 

There needs to be a serious reckoning in England about the role of Empire. Far from a benevolent enterprise it was responsible for terrible, terrible crimes. From an Gorta Mór (sometimes known as the Irish Potato Famine) to the Bengal Famine, the British Empire chose starvation for colonised peoples in the name of laissez-faire economics. In Brexit I see a desire to return to Britain’s role as a globally aggressive force. I don’t see it being particularly realistic, or something that can be achieved. But the seeds are there for really nasty politics. If, as I think is very likely, Brexit turns into a national humiliation, that will be a very dangerous political context. A political context that might well lead to hard-right politics. 

We all need to find ways to give people a sense of belonging, a sense of identity that is built on the progressive values that still, I believe, underpin people’s beliefs. I think there’s an instructive example here. In the years that led up to the Brexit vote the tabloid press went into overdrive blaming immigrants for a whole range of problems. Most of these were actually government choices – and the decision to pursue austerity. But people were told time and again that the NHS was said to be creaking under the pressure of immigrants. That classrooms were supposedly filled with children who couldn’t speak English and all sort of other terrible lies. We can’t stop people lying. But what we can do is make the case for immigrants. 

In 2014 I ran for the European Parliament. The election was all about UKIP, and how much people disliked the EU. And that dislike was located in disgruntlement about immigration. I wanted to work with the material given to me. Despite widespread scpeticism – mainly based on a belief that the case for immigration couldn’t be made, I ran a campaign based on the value of immigrants. 

It wasn’t to try to dissuade people of the lies they’d be told. I knew that wouldn’t work. It was to put an opposing position. We made the case that immigrants didn’t just use the NHS, they staffed the NHS. They didn’t just use public services, they paid enough taxes to more than cover that use of schools and hospitals. 

The result was a campaign in Scotland that debated immigration. Coming, as it did, months before the Independence Referendum, it changed the nature of that discussion. In the referendum campaign, this solidified into a ‘Scottish position’ that was about welcoming immigrants. 

It requires a smart approach, and an understanding of the politics, but we can build reasoned cases for a more collective approach to our society. We have made huge progress in public awareness of the seriousness of climate breakdown in the last year, with the Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion. Both of which articulate the Quaker approach of ‘bearing witness’, and the socialist belief in structural change. 

At the moment QSS is engaged in a process of sharing and co-development of our collective thought about Quaker socialism. Would you consider Quaker socialism to be distinct from socialism in general?  If so – how? 

For me socialism is about freedom from alienation. By that I mean that our work, our lives and the things we create should be created by us, for us as part of a contribution to the collective good. The relationship must not be coercive. I believe that the capitalist principle that if you have no capital you must sell your labour – you must alienate yourself – is at the root of much of the dysfunction of our world. And the reality is that if you don’t participate in your own alienation, you starve. 

I think there are some really interesting overlaps here. Quakerism has a very long lineage of liberal paternalism. Some of the best paternalism, but still paternalism. The Cadburys and Frys and other Quaker industrialists did ‘business for good’ – producing chocolate as an alternative to alcohol. They treated their workers better than almost all other workers in the history of capitalism. But they didn’t go that next step of freeing their workers from alienation. 

And that’s where I think there’s a really interesting conversation to be had. In the meeting for worship we are all equal. That’s right. But shouldn’t we articulate that in a new way of living? An economy that works for us all. 

I’m very interested in the transformation of the economy from mass-market capitalism to a data economy. At the moment that’s disastrous. Billionaire tech-bros in Silicon Valley are deciding what we do and how we do it. There’s a cliche that data is the oil of the 21st Century, and we’re currently using it to drive advertising so that people can have tailored messages getting them to buy things that they don’t need. Or we have authoritarian governments, like the People’s Republic of China using data to curtail people’s liberties. 

As always I believe another world is possible. The unique thing about Quakerism is that it is a belief system that is based on the individual’s conscience but in a collective setting. As we see more automation, so our daily work will turn to focus on the fundamental human qualities: caring and creating. We will need to become better at making decisions together. This feels much more like a Quaker world. 

Yet I don’t feel we’re considering these questions. In some ways, our approach has become too oppositional. Care and creativity have always been at the heart of my relationship with Quakerism. But it’s something else I think that we might want to share. The Quaker Meeting for Business offers a model of decision-making that might be more appropriate for a world in which human need to do less ‘grunt work’. Consensus, bringing people with you, giving way where you believe it is right are all qualities we see rarely in our debate. 

Socialists talk about ‘prefigurative’ actions. Those actions that ready us for a world after alienation. That feels very close to living in a Quakerly way. 

A Quaker socialism must be free of the authoritarianism that 20th-century socialism inherited from Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But it must also recognise the need to give all people the freedom from alienation that those Quaker industrialists didn’t recognise. 

The future will be one where we are much better able to understand what human needs and planetary needs are, and where we can plan to meet them. That requires us to learn from where we’ve done that work of prefiguration. Where it is we’ve built lives where we can be fully in touch with our profound human need to care for others and for the world. Where our creativity is nurtured and unleashed. And where we can recognise the value of others in the decisions about what we do together and how we allow ourselves to live. 

For me a Quaker socialism is one that recognises the value of living differently in the world while seeking to change that world. It is a socialism that is based on the value of all people and of the world. It is a Quakerism that isn’t just opposed to war and injustice, but that seeks to build a different way of being in the world. In the way those Quaker industrialists used technology to build businesses for good that treated their workers well, so we need to meet the challenge of our contemporary world in a way that harnesses the opportunity to create a society that has those Quaker values at its heart. 

What should be in the next version of Quaker Faith and Practice?

Our collective book of testimony, Quaker Faith and Practice is currently in the process of being updated. As part of this, Quaker Socialist Society will make a submission. 

By way of preparation, last year we posted every single passage from the current ‘Social Responsibility’ chapter to social media, one per day, inviting people to ‘like’ or comment.

From this we were also able to identify a ‘top 10’ of most popular quotes from the current version as well as some themes from the comments, including the current under-representation of ethnic minorities and women in the text.  

Subsequent discussion at the Quaker Socialist Committee has noted that much of the political and social activity of the Society of Friends since 1919 is skated over. Two of the most famous Quaker couples of the 20th century – namely Elizabeth and George Cadbury and Ada and Alfred Salter – are not quoted at all. The US civil rights leader Bayard Rustin is also notable by his absence from the text. 

We are interested whether Sojourner Truth, Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King could feature; although they were not Quakers, they all attended Quaker meetings at points in their lives and gave ministry which has inspired the social and spiritual witness of many Friends since. 

The next step is to hear your ideas. We plan to bring a copy of our draft submission to the Quaker Socialist Society AGM in August, before which it needs to be considered and compiled by the committee. 

If you have a suggestion for our submission, please email quakersocialistsociety@gmail.comby 31 March 2020 or just let us know through our contact form 

Remember you can also send examples of inspirational and helpful pieces of writing directly to the Britain Yearly Meeting Book of Disciple Revision group online here: or by emailing