Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Early Friends' Experiences of the Light, Part 1

I am doing a workshop at SAYMA this year entitled "Experiences of the Light Among Early Friends". I thought it might be useful to just look at experiences rather than discussing doctrine, and to compare those experiences to what we experience today. I have attempted to categorize these experiences for the purpose of discussion, but there is much overlap between them. The topics I intend to cover are:

  • Repentance and Transformation
  • Healing
  • Strengthening and Power
  • Humbling and Tendering
  • Unity
  • Guidance and Insight

    I am writing up the the material into a handout, which I will post here as I am able to, starting with the section on Repentance and Transformation:

    There are numerous accounts among early Friends of dramatic conversion (convincement) experiences, where they suddenly came to repent. The Greek word in the New Testament commonly translated as repentance is metanoia, which more literally means “to change one’s mind”, and for many Friends, repentance wasn’t a sudden regret for one’s past deeds, but an inward recognition and acceptance of the Spirit within them - a change of their mind and their understanding. There followed a transformation, sometimes fast, sometimes gradual, in which the person found themselves inwardly purified and they gave up their old ways. This often involved repentance in the traditional meaning, as the Inward Light revealed one’s sins. There are several important things to note about the way early Friends experienced repentance and transformation:

  • The repentance often came about as a result of the preaching of Friends, and sometimes out of other forms of witness. It was not as much what was said, but that it was spoken from the Spirit and answered that of God in the hearer.
  • Transformation came about by the working of the Inward Light on one’s soul.
  • Friends believed it was possible to lead a sinless life as a result of this transformation.
  • The emphasis wasn’t on feeling guilt for one’s sins, but on living a sinless life.

    The convincement of William Edmundson is a good example of this repentance and transformation:

    He soon sold off his stock of goods; and going over to England to purchase a fresh supply, he heard of George Fox and James Nayler being in the north; and feeling a great desire to meet with them, he went to a place where James Nayler was, and had an opportunity of hearing him discourse of the things of God’s kingdom, and the work of regeneration. And though James’s words were not many, yet they were so powerful, and so fully reached and answered the testimony of the divine witness in his own mind, that his heart was opened to receive the word preached, and to confess that it was indeed the truth. He was now brought into great exercise of spirit; his former ways were “hedged up;” and many things to which he had been accustomed were shown to him in the Light of Christ, to be incompatible with the purity and entire obedience to which he was called. He flinched not however from the hand of the Lord, for his sins were set clearly before him, and he felt that he must be purged from them through judgment. And returning shortly to Ireland, the Lord’s hand was mercifully laid upon him, while at sea, producing great wrestlings and conflicts of spirit; under a strong temptation to land his goods clandestinely and avoid paying the duty; but this he was enabled to withstand. He landed at Carrickfergus; and rode twelve miles to his own home. His brother meeting him at the door, offered the usual salutation, probably bowing and using the empty complimentary phrases so ready in the mouths of men of the world. The Lord’s power that instant so seized upon William, that he could not join in what he now saw to be vanity; and he was broken into many tears. His wife and brother were amazed at the change, but made no opposition.

    It wasn’t the content of the words that reached William, but their power, and that they answered the divine witness (i.e. “that of God”) within him. After that, he experienced the Light showing him his sins, and over time it changed him.

    George Fox described this process in one of his epistles. Note how often he reminds us not to try to do anything when we see our sins, but to wait in the Light:

    To Friends, to stand still in trouble, and see the strength of the Lord.

    Friends,Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone. 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. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, etc. then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation. Then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. David fretted himself, when he looked out; but when he was still, no trouble could move him. When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here ye learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then ye tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace. G. F.

    Repentance and transformation was not always such a sudden thing, however. John Woolman describes his transformation as more of a gradual process, spanning much of the first chapter of his journal.

    This series of posts continues.

    1. That's very powerful ministry from
      George Fox! I find myself wondering if it could be put into simple modern english; would it's power be diminished? Or might it be even more powerful for some readers? Does anyone know of a simple modern english rendering of this? Who knows? - maybe I'll be moved to have a go myself.

    2. Helen,
      Thank you very much for all the references! In looking at the meditations at, I think there are some similarities and some differences. I had not thought about doing meditations on these things, I will keep that in mind. I have been thinking about how we explain Quakerism in terms of these experiences, and perhaps also showing how Friends understood various parts of the bible in relation to these experiences. It sounds like I need to plan a vacation at the Guilford library, which is the nearest library with a good Quaker collection. I'll definitely have to read some of Rex Ambler's work, too. I don't have any of his books here.

      I have definitely gotten a lot out of this exercise, and it has helped me see many things more clearly. In a way, I am glad that I was able to do the workshop before finding out about all these other sources - I was able to be comfortable with what I had, and the workshop went very well.

      With love,

    3. Our Experiment with Light (EwL) group at Homewood Meeting is now using a script, which we find very helpful, by Harbert Rice. It's from his book _Language Process Notes_, which discusses three related processes: EwL meditation, "focusing" (Eugene Gendlin: EwL is built partly on focusing), and Nonviolent Communication (NVC).