Were the Early Friends Preoccupied with Sin?

The Genesis of this post

I left a comment on Steven Davison’s blog, to which he responded:

You know, the early Friends’ preoccupation—one might say obsessions—with sin and sinfulness just does not work for me. I am not saying that we humans do not sin, or that sin doesn’t matter, or even that the traditional Quaker solution for the problem of sin is false. This is a deep subject with many facets, so I can’t address it or them here in a reply to a comment. I can see, rather, that it deserves a series of future posts.
But I want to touch on it here. My critique focuses on what I see as a false presumption of a “Fall” in which humans lost some original intimacy with God and became inherently disobedient—there was no garden, no Adam and Eve, no serpent; we started out as pre-human primates who were probably already capable of doing the wrong thing. Meanwhile, while sinfulness is inherent in “human nature”, so is love, community, cooperation, creativity, art, healing, and compassion. Why pathologically focus on the darkness within us without working at least as hard to raise up the light within us?…

Therefore, my purpose in this post will be to showcase passages from the writings of early Friends and suggest others people may want to examine. So, long quotes are the object here, with minimal interjection on my part.

The early Friends and sin

I agree with Steven’s assessment. The subjects he has introduced are too big to take up in a series of comments.

So, to begin with, lets look at Fox’s commission. This is a logical place to start since it marks the division between Fox’s period of preparation and the work he devoted his life to doing. This commission, therefore, marks the beginning of the early Quakers. If there were a preoccupation with or obsession with sin, it ought to show up here. However, I read in these pages of his Journal a message of hope for all mankind. If there is any preoccupation or obsession portrayed it is a preoccupation with the power of God to take mankind as they are and make them into creatures conforming to the “OEM specifications” (Original Equipment Manufacturers specifications).

I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light, that they might receive Christ Jesus; for to as many as should receive him in his light, I saw he would give power to become the sons of God; which I had obtained by receiving Christ.

Was God’s judgment correct that people were in darkness? to the extent that He needed to prepare and send George Fox to turn them from darkness to the light of Christ, from the power of satan to the power of God? Is there any evidence here of a [pathological] focus on the darkness within us without working at least as hard to raise up the light within us? Read the testimonies of the several people who contributed testimonials to George Fox to be included in the front matter of Vol. 1 of the Works of Fox. Read Edward Burrough’s description of the rise of the Quakers in the North of England, which is the preface to Vol. 3 of the Works of Fox. Something dramatic, perhaps we should say apocalyptic, happened in their lives as the result of being “turned from darkness to the light.” Read Stephen Crisp’s account of his encounter with James Parnell or William Penn’s hearing Thomas Loe’s sermon on the Faith that overcomes the world and the faith that is overcome by the world. There are a number of people alive today who can add testimony to the power of this message. It was not just a 17th century phenomenon. So, friends, this commission, this message, is something we must take seriously.

I was to direct people to the spirit, that gave forth the scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and so up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth. I was to turn them to the grace of God, and to the truth in the heart, which came by Jesus; that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them salvation, that their hearts might be established by it, their words might be seasoned, and all might come to know their salvation nigh. For I saw that Christ had died for all men, was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men and women with his divine and saving light; and that none could be true believers, but those that believed in it. I saw that the grace of God, which brings salvation, had appeared to all men, and that the manifestation of the spirit of God was given to every man, to profit withal.

Later comes a listing of specifics Fox was sent to bring people off from and what he was to bring them to. The “off” part includes most of what constitutes the practice of Christianity. No wonder the priests and professors, magistrates and people raged like the waves of the stormy sea. They were shown to be trees without fruit, cisterns without water. This is a necessary step, but neither a preoccupation nor obsession with sin and darkness. Fox’s commission does not end in “off” but with a declaration of the authority and power of God that sent him forth.

all their own ways Christ the new and living way
their churches, which men had made and gathered the church in God
the world’s teachers made by men learn of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life
all the world’s worships know the spirit of truth in the inward parts, and to be led thereby
all the world’s religions, which are in vain know the pure religion
all the world’s fellowships, prayings, and singings, which stood in forms without power holy ghost, the eternal spirit of God; that they might pray in the holy ghost, sing in the spirit, and with the grace that comes by Jesus; making melody in their hearts to the Lord
  • Jewish ceremonies
  • heathenish fables
  • men’s inventions and windy doctrines, by which they blowed the people about, this way and the other way, from sect to sect
  • all their beggarly rudiments, with their schools and colleges, for making ministers…of their own making, but not of Christ’s
  • all their images, crosses, and sprinkling of infants, with all their holy-days, (so called.) and all their vain traditions

Now that you have had the chance to read the portions of Fox’s commission I have lifted from the full text, what do you see regarding the focus of Fox’s commission?

Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand

William Penn, in his preface to Vol. 1 of the Works of Fox, wrote what I consider some of the finest descriptions the heart and soul of that people of God in scorn called Quakers. The first of the following two passages express the overall sentiment felt by the early Friends concerning the people of their day:

It were fitter for a volume than a preface, but so much as to repeat the contents of their cruel sufferings, from professors as well as from profane, and from magistrates as well as the rabble: so that it may well he said of this abused and despised people, they went forth weeping, and sowed in tears, bearing testimony to the precious seed, the seed of the kingdom, which stands not in words, the finest, the highest that man’s wit can use, but in power; the power of Christ Jesus, to whom God the Father hath given all power in heaven and in earth, that he might rule angels above, and men below; who empowered them, as their work witnessed!, by the many that were turned through their ministry from darkness to the light, and out of the broad into the narrow way of life and peace, bringing people to a weighty, serious, and godly conversation; the practice of that doctrine which they taught.
And as without this secret divine power there is no quickening and regenerating of dead souls, so the want of this generating and begetting power and life is the cause of the little fruit that the many ministries that have been, and are in the world bring forth. Oh! that both ministers and people were sensible of this! My soul is often troubled for them, and sorrow and mourning compass me about for their sakes. Oh! that they were wise! Oh! that they would consider and lay to heart the things that truly and substantially make for their lasting peace! (Works of Fox, Vol. I, p. xli)

The second passage is a fitting description of true repentance:

Well! and what does this blessed light do for you? Why, 1. It sets all your sins in order before you. It detects the spirit of this world in all its baits and allurements, and shows how man came to fall from God, and the fallen estate he is in. 2. It begets a sense and sorrow, in such as believe in it, for this fearful lapse. You will then see him distinctly whom you have pierced, and all the blows and wounds you have given him by your disobedience; and how you have made him to serve with your sins, and you will weep and mourn for it, and your sorrow will be a godly sorrow. 3. After this it will bring you to the holy watch, to take care that you do so no more, and that the enemy surprise you not again. Then thoughts, as well as words and works, will come to judgment, which is the way of holiness, in which the redeemed of the Lord do walk. Here you will come to love God above all, and your neighbours as yourselves. Nothing hurts, nothing harms, nothing makes afraid on this holy mountain. Now you come to be Christ’s indeed, for you are his in nature and spirit, and not your own. And when you are thus Christ’s, then Christ is yours, and not before. And here communion with the Father and with the son you will know, and the efficacy of the blood of cleansing, even the blood of Jesus Christ, that immaculate Lamb, which speaketh better things than the blood of Abel, and which cleanseth from all sin the consciences of those, that, through the living faith, come to be sprinkled with it from dead works to serve the living God. (Vol. I, p xlviii)

Penn lays out in specific detail what the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, and the early Friends meant by “repent.” It begins with a sight of our condition, but the process is preoccupied with the end result, which is the only way to raise up the light within us.

About Ellis Hein

I am a woodturner and the author of The Woodturner's Project Book. I have a life-long interest in the gospel preached by George Fox and the early Quakers. You can see some of my material on that subject at http://nffquaker.org/profiles/blog/list?user=1zw2th7nj9p89.
This entry was posted in Salvation, Sin, Uncategorized, Understanding early Friends. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Were the Early Friends Preoccupied with Sin?

  1. I agree with you, Ellis, that early Friends emphasized the power of the Lord to alter our minds and hearts, so that we are given to enter a state of “pureness, innocency, and righteousness.” Friends focus was not on sin but on that which overcomes it and enables the human to enter into his rightful state. In Fox’s letter to Lady Claypoole, one can see how Fox directs her attention away from the darkness that besets her and toward the light; that’s the goal, darkness but a stumbling block. It may be that other so-called Christian traditions focus on sin, but the Quakers did not. Perhaps it’s because the Quakers discovered the power that overcomes sin, while others of their contemporaries had not discovered that power and had thus to confine themselves and their discourse to the only state they knew. Here’s the passage from the letter to Claypoole:

    This is the word of the Lord God unto you all; what the light doth make manifest and discover, as temptations, distractions, confusions; do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions; but at the light which discovers them and makes them manifest; and with the same light you may feel over them, to receive power to stand against them. The same light which lets you see sin and transgression, will let you see the covenant of God, which blots out your sin and transgression,
    which gives victory and dominion over it, and brings into covenant with God. For looking down at sin, corruption, and distraction, ye are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light, which discovers them, ye will see over them. That will give victory, and ye will find grace and strength; there is the first step to peace. That will bring salvation; and by it ye may see to the beginning, and the “Glory that was with the Father before the world began;” and come to know the seed of God, which is the heir of the promise of God, and of the world which hath no end; and which bruises the head of the serpent, who stops people from coming to God. That ye may feel the power of an endless life, the power of God which is immortal, which brings the immortal soul up to the immortal God, in whom it doth rejoice. So in the name and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, God Almighty strengthen thee. G. F. (Works, I, 376-7).


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