Early Quakers and the Fire Within

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

Often, in reading various Quaker blogs, I see calls to return to the ardent spirit of early Quakers. This spirit is lacking today, or so it seems from reading these various authors’ nostalgic laments.

One might say that, in addition to having encountered the Light Within, they also had the Fire Within.

Something never quite set right with me about these calls to renew the vigor of the early Friends. I wasn’t quite sure what my uneasiness was about. This week, while reading Ben Pink Dandelion’s delightful little book “The Quakers: A Short Introduction”, I got the clarity I was seeking.

BPD says “In the 1650s, Quakers as co-agents with God as the vanguard of the new dispensation had little time for believers of other types and in particular for those who led them. At the same time, the sense of unfolding endtime gave this critique an urgency contributing to its zeal…Thus, the first period of Quakerism was not universalist or ecumenical, and neither was it polite…In the 1660s, as with so much else, Quakers modified their outlook towards other groups in that they worked with others to seek relief from persecution and religious toleration.” (BPD, pp. 86-90.)

It was not the information itself that caught my attention. Even a casual student of Quaker history knows that there was a fervor in the early days that was eventually replaced by a more serene approach to Friendly life.

What caught my eye was the date: the 1660s. Quakerism is often dated to George Fox’s vision of “a great people to be gathered” on Pendle Hill in May of 1652. James Nayler’s “triumphant entry” into Bristol was in 1656. The excesses of Nayler’s actions caused many of the early Friends to moderate their actions. Not all, of course, but one could make a case that Bristol denoted the high-water mark of the early period of vehemence, and that it tapered off from there. “By 1662, the Quaker message toward the priests and professors was tempered.” (BPD, p. 90)

1652 through 1662, more or less. Ten years, more or less. George Fox was still alive. Edward Burroughs was still alive. Mary Fisher was still alive. Francis and Mary Howgill were still alive. These and many others of the Valiant Sixty were still active in Friends’ ministry — and had moderated their earlier zeal.

Those among us today, who long for that same passion, may not realize how short a time it lasted. Of our 360 year history, 10 years is a very short time. It had its impact. It spread Quakerism far and wide, and permitted the establishment of Meetings which are still active today. It provided many of the legends by which we still identify ourselves (you have to love the one about Mary Fisher going to Turkey to convert the Sultan.)

But it didn’t come to an end because the next generation was too complacent or lazy to follow suit. The very people who were most influential during that pioneering time were those who brought it to a close. They changed their minds. They found different ways to spread and consolidate the message that “there is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”

Is it not the work of arrogance and pride to say that we should return to the intensity of that time, when those who lived in and through it found it inadequate themselves? I suspect, human nature being what it is, that a secret desire is cherished among some of those who call for such a return to be the George Fox or James Naylor of our time. Easy to forget that for every one of the Valiant Sixty, there were many more, the nameless heros, who supported them in their journeys and kept the Meetings open while they were off gallivanting around. These are not bit players; these are the foundations without which the work of the architects is in vain.

Yes, there is value in contemplating that passion. There is also value in considering the Quietist phase which produced such lights as John Woolman and Lucretia Mott. No lack of passion there.

I doubt that any great number of people will ever again look upon eschatology in the same simple, even naive terms, as was found among the early Friends and others, in England and on the continent, who thought that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent.

The Second Coming, as subsequent Quaker experience has taught us, is not an event. It is not a historical moment. It is something that happens every day, in many ways, whenever someone becomes aware of the Light Within and surrenders their egoistic will to that divine guidance. For some, this will be a passionate awakening, and if they are true to the Light as given to them, it will play out in a genuine way, in context of that person’s life and times. For many, that awakening will be more like a hearth fire than a wildfire, warming and nourishing all who come near it. Is the one not as worthy as the other?

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