Sunday, May 6, 2007

Some Reflections Upon Reading George Fox' Epistles

I have been working my way slowly through George Fox's epistles, which is a different experience than reading his journal. For one thing, the epistles are very repetitive - Fox said the same thing to many people. For another, I get a better sense as to what Fox and other early Quakers were most concerned about. There are a few things that really stand out for me. I originally intended to list several things here, but this first one is so long, I will save the others for later.

1. "Answering that of God" and the experience of "The Light"
George Fox used variations of the phrase "that of God in every one" fairly often in his epistles, and he is referring to that "divine seed", the "Light of Christ" that "lighteth every man coming into the world". In modern usage, we more often hear "that of God" as "there is that of God in every one", and the modern usage is closer to a philosophical reason why we should treat people justly and equally - that is, you are doing these things to God. The modern usage seems close to what Jesus was saying in Matthew 25 ("Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.") Fox's usage of "that of God", however, wasn't a philosophical justification, in fact, I think he would have opposed such a thing. Instead, it reflected the simple belief that the Light of Christ was present in every person.

The experience of that Light was not necessarily a warm, fuzzy, feel-good experience, at least not at first. The Light shows you where you are straying from God (i.e. it reveals your sins to you) but also gives you the power to resist temptation. This is what Fox says in Epistle 10:

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed, and fly away.

Epistle 43 also has a good description:

To you all, who are enlightened with the light of the spirit, that the light which shows you sin and evil, and your evil deeds and actings, and the deceit and false-heartedness; it will teach you holiness, walking in it, and bring you into unity; and it will draw your minds up to God, and in it ye will see more light. But hating the light, there is your condemnation.

This power of the Light to turn us towards God is, for me, what makes "that of God" such a powerful idea. Last month, The Quaker Agitator had a post about Looking Hard For That Of God In Everyone. In it, Quaker Dave relates a story of a women in meeting who had trouble seeing "that of God" in people like Cho Seung-Hui. What bothered me about the story is that it is as if we have to find some sign of something good in a person in order to see "that of God" in the person. If, however, you look at it from George Fox's point of view, "that of God" is there in someone no matter what they do. "Answering that of God" isn't a process of trying to see some good in the person, but of trying to awaken that person to the divine seed within themselves so that they might be drawn closer to God. That potential exists in every single person, no matter what they have done, no matter how evil they may seem.

The part of "answering that of God" that may be uncomfortable to some modern Friends, and in all honesty I must include myself here, is that it is along the lines of being evangelical. That is, it asks us to talk to people about that divine seed, or to awaken them to it in some way. It seems that many of us have no problem calling on others to do things, such as ending the war in Iraq, so why should this be any harder? Couldn't they go hand-in-hand? If we advocate peace because we are "living in that life and power that takes away all occasion of war", would it not be more effective to call others to that life and power? In fact, it almost seems cruel to try to get someone to change their mind because of what we say, rather than because their mind was changed from the inside.

Although "answering that of God" is sometimes accomplished merely by our own acting in accordance with God's will, I noticed places where Fox took a more direct approach, such as Epistle 5, which was written to his parents:

To that of God in you both I speak, and do beseech you both for the Lord's sake, to return within, and wait to hear the voice of the Lord there; and waiting there, and keeping close to the Lord, a discerning will grow, that ye may distinguish the voice of the stranger, when ye hear it.

Before I end, I would like to return to something I said earlier, which is that I think Fox would have been opposed to using "that of God" as a philosophical justification - that is, using it as a reason for doing something, treating people certain ways. One of the most frequent themes in Fox's epistles is that Friends should "wait on that which is pure, which gathers you out of the world's nature, disposition, conversation, churches, forms, and customs, which will knit your hearts together up to God." (Epistle 43) Over and over he emphasizes being led by God and not by our own reasoning. For example, "take heed of reasoning with flesh and blood, for there disobedience, pride, and presumption will arise". So when it comes down to "Why did you visit that guy in prison?" or "Why did you feed and clothe that homeless person?" or "Why did you stand up for that person's rights?", the answer isn't "because there is that of God in that person", the answer is "because that is what the Light led me to do."


  1. Thanks for lifting these pieces of Fox's epistles up. Like you, I think there is value in reflecting on what Fox meant by "that of God" and "answering that of God."

    I also very much like the excerpts you lift up--I have come across them elsewhere and they grow dearer to me each time I read them.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. Mark,

    One of the good things about reading early Friends is the shock that comes when they say things that clash with our modern minds. When that happens we shouldn't rush to accept or reject what they say. A kneejerk reaction to reject it because "we know better" will prevent us from learning something new. In Barclay when he writes about these issues he emphasizes that while each person has that of God within them, not everyone chooses to heed it. Indeed he thinks that every person experiences some crucial moment in their life where they are confronted with the Light of Christ and must choose to accept it or to turn away. So, obviously, he thinks lots of people in fact turn away from that of God which is in them and so you won't see much evidence that it's even there. The early concept of that of God in everyone definitely does not mean everybody is really good. I think early Friends were more correct about this than some overly optimistic modern Friends.

    As for evangelizing the early Friends certainly were not shy about that either. In the quietist phase that came later they did largely withdraw behind the hedge and didn't actively try to speak to that of God in others. I agree with you that we ought to get over our qualms about this and do at least a little low-key evangelizing.

  3. Mark, When you wrote "would it not be more effective to call others to that life and power? In fact, it almost seems cruel to try to get someone to change their mind because of what we say, rather than because their mind was changed from the inside," it resonated with me. As someone who's spoken to many people over the years about caring for the natural world, I have come to realize that care for creation, or for one's fellow humans, is something that comes from that inner change, and not from information or logical argument or even coercion.

    Introducing people to the source of my love for creation and other people has become more important to me since that realization.

  4. Friend Mark,

    You're drawing a distinction here between two things that don't seem all that different to me. I don't see a difference between "that of God in everyone" and the Divine Seed, the Light of Christ, the Bread of Life, etc. There is that spark in each of us that guides us, that casts light on good and evil, that connects with the eternal.

    Of course we want to awaken that of God in everyone, to help them see the Light, to have the Truth made plain.

    What am I missing?

  5. Liz, thank you for stopping by. There are so many other things I could have posted excerpts of, the epistles are really great!

    Richard, I often have that problem of figuring out how to relate early Quaker writings, or biblical writings to modern times. Something I read recently, I wish I could remember what, talked about how Fox lived in the 17th century, and we can't just pick him up and place him in the 21st century, but he was in touch with the "unchangeable" (as Fox often puts it), so there are some things that transcend the centuries. THe evangelism question has been a struggle with me for a while, it feels necessary, but I don't yet understand what form it would take.

    raye, that's so right, "turning people towards the light" is the first step. As they begin to heed the light, of course, some guidance is always helpful.

    Heather, you haven't said anything I don't agree with, I think you and I are on the same wavelength here. What I was contrasting it with was the idea that "that of God in every one" is WHY we do things - that it is the foundation for the testimonies. There are many Quakers who would tell you that the foundation for the peace testimony or the equality testimony is because "there is that of God in every one", making it more of a philosophical approach or an ethical standard.

    With love,

  6. Mark,

    I have certainly heard that the idea that the seed of God is in everyone was used to justify women preachers in early Quakerism. That's often seen as a first step towards the equality testimony. So perhaps there's a kernel of truth to that view as well.

    The peace testimony, though, would seem to go back to the idea that Jesus told us to love one another, and so it wasn't appropriate for Christians to slaughter one another. Or, as we later extended the thought, other human beings.

    This is a case, though, where it seems that it's not so much a case of either/or but rather both/and. Certainly the seed of God was seen as a great corrective, a moral guide that pulls us under God's law, but I think that it was also seen as much more than that. It was the mystical core of Quakerism, that shared well from which we drink, the Divine Presence that unites us.

    Also, it seems important that Fox advised people to answer that of God in everyone. Even if people had turned their backs on God repeatedly, there was still that of God to answer in them, still a chance that they might turn from darkness to the Light.

    Friends have contemplated those words of Fox's for three and a half centuries. They're deep words with many possibilities; it seems reasonable to suppose they might have borne several types of fruit.

    So I suppose it still seems like two halves of the same coin to me.

  7. Heather, I think the equality testimony is more firmly rooted in what Paul expressed as "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female - for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." I certainly agree with you of the importance of "every one", I thought I was pretty clear about that.

    I'm not quite sure you are understanding my point, I apologize that I am not so good at getting it across. You are mostly telling me things I agree with. Let me try to explain it using one of your points:

    You said: The peace testimony, though, would seem to go back to the idea that Jesus told us to love one another, and so it wasn't appropriate for Christians to slaughter one another. Or, as we later extended the thought, other human beings.

    In this case, we see the peace testimony as something that comes from Jesus, and we can expect that as we come to walk in the light, that we are able to love one another more easily (and the process of loving one another can also help draw us closer to God).

    Now, if instead we say instead that the basis of the peace testimony is "there is that of God in every one, so I should be peaceful with every one", it is no longer a testimony of Christ working on my heart to be more peaceful, but just me making an intellectual decision justified by this particular core statement of belief.

    I do not see those two things as two sides of the same coin, because in one, the reason I do things is because I am heeding the Light within, and in the other, it is just me making my own choices.

    With love,

  8. I find that's a paradox of a dichotomy between ourselves and that of God, which combine in us but which don't mix.

    Friends have the expression "in the world but not of it," which seems to touch on the same paradox.

    My reading of "that of God," etc. partly draws on the context of the times, in which Friends faced almost daily the accusation that they were a new breed of ranters, that they had no way to discern God's leadings from other, more personal impulses. So they had to think about what part "the inward Christ" would play in their activities. It had to be more than just a warrant for them to go out and do whatever they felt was proper, and it had to be able to intervene somehow when they had "run out" ahead of their Guide. (I love visualizing that expression.)

    This was a constant concern, with lots of nuances and complexities that the early Friends teased out in their writings. But I find it's important to realize what they wrote was grounded in their daily interaction with common people and with their vehement critics. And of course, grounded in their own successes in following the Light, and in actually reaching "that of God" in many of those they met.

  9. Marshall,
    Thank you for your response, it does give me a much more well-rounded understanding. I wasn't actually thinking of "trying" in terms of a personal act of will, I had in mind the idea that it doesn't always happen and that we can't force it. I'm glad I used that word if only because it elicted such a wonderful response from you and an additional reminder about staying in the life & power and let the answering come from that.

    I think maybe I tend to associate "answering" that of God with other references to "that of God", such as in George Fox's letter to his parents that I quoted where he explicitly says "To that of God in you both I speak". That seems more than just "answering by the way you are", but maybe that isn't an example of answering at all.

    I would definitely take an act of God to get me to do what John Pemberton did!

    Also, thanks for mentioning those books. I found some of them on Google Books and I posted links in a blog entry.

    With love,