Note: This first appeared as a blog post on the New Foundation Fellowship website.
There are two compelling reasons for devoting a whole session in this series to Fox’s teaching about the Holy Spirit. The first is that Quakerism is now being categorized as belonging among the many Christian movements that make the Holy Spirit central to faith and experience. The other reason is that those who are now being called to re-proclaim the everlasting gospel will encounter many Quakers, and many Christians in all denominations, who make the Holy Spirit central. I have found in my own experience that where the charismatic or Pentecostal movements have established themselves there is a built-in resistance to the gospel that Fox preached. Therefore we have to study these movements and be prepared to respond when they say there is nothing in Fox’s understanding of the gospel that they do not already have.
Thus Lewis Benson began lecture #9, Fox’s Teaching on the Holy Spirit, of his 10 Moorestown Lecture Series, given in the fall of 1982. His contention is that rather than making the Holy Spirit central, the early Quakers knew/experienced Jesus Christ as the center of their life and worship. Is this really the case? To answer that question, I went to Epistles from the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in London, to the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings in Great Britain, Ireland, and Elsewhere, From 1681 to 1817, Inclusive: With an Introduction, Comprising an Account of several preceding Epistles, and of the Early Records of the Yearly Meeting; Also An Index Of Some Of The Principal Matters. (Available from archive.org.) Following are some examples of what I found.
The Lord, who is the Ancient of Days, the unchangeable, and Holy One of Israel, that was, and is, and is to come, our Rock and Strength for ever, hath graciously brought us together by his own power, and is with us, yea, and hath covered us with his love and Spirit, and filled our hearts with his undeclarable kindness; the sense of his mercies hath exceedingly overcome us, and the remembrance of his ancient goodness has even melted and cemented us together; and blessed, and sweet, and very precious to our souls is the heavenly unity of life among us, wherein at this meeting the Lord our God hath crowned us with glory, dominion, and peace: blessed for ever be his pure name! (p. xi, From a Meeting Held at Ellis Hookes… 1677)
…In the ancient pure and precious Truth…is the very endeared salutation of our tender faithful love to you all, in which is the blessed fellowship of life felt, enjoyed, and maintained…O! blessed be his Eternal Arm of power, that hath made us sensible of this unity, and gathered us out of this worlds’ spirit…into this sweet, pure, and peaceable society…Dear Friends, his dew descendeth, his rain falleth, and the light of his heavenly countenance is lifted up, and shineth upon us; our hearts are affected, our souls are overcome, he hath filled us with his blessing, and caused our cups to overflow; he hath spoken such peace to his people, as the world can neither give nor take away, and therefore, they dare not return to folly… (p. xvi, from The Yearly Meeting Paper, 1678)
WE dearly salute you in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our prince peace, our head, our life, and lawgiver; being truly comforted and refreshed in his continued presence and blessing with us, and with our meetings and christian care in the affairs and concerns of Truth and churches of Christ ; truly rejoicing in the living sense and accounts we have at this Meeting of Truth’s prosperity… (p. 1, Epistle 1681)
…Finally, dear Friends and Brethren, “we commit you to the Lord God, to be ordered by his divine wisdom and counsel; and therein continue your love and tender care one for another, and for Truth’s prosperity. All dwell in the love of God, in unity and peace in Christ Jesus, the prince of life and peace; and therein go on in his service, and keep your habitations over all that which is contrary, or would hinder you therein, or disturb your peaceable societies. (p. 3, Epistle 1681)
And this from George Fox’s Epistles:
…so in his name keep your meetings, in whom you have salvation; and these are the true meetings and true gatherings who feel Jesus Christ in the midst of them, their prophet, their counsellor, their leader, their light and life, their way and their truth, their shepherd that laid down his life for them, that has bought you, his sheep, who feeds you in his pastures of life; and your heavenly bishop to oversee you, that you do not go astray again from God. And so it is that through him you overcome, and he that overcomes shall go no more forth out of his fold, out of his pastures, who shall sit down in heavenly places in Christ Jesus who is your priest that offered up himself for you, and sacrifices for you and makes you holy and clean, that he may present you blameless up to the holy and pure God and here you come to witness him and to know him in his offices, by his light, sprit, and power;… (Works of Fox, Vol. viii, p.77)
Those early epistles were not written to appease someone looking over their shoulders, scrutinizing their words. Neither are modern epistles afflicted with any dread that I would look critically at their wording. Therefore, the differences in mood, in attribution, and in language indicate a real difference in experience. It is not so much that the early Friends refrained from mentioning the Holy Spirit, but in reading through their epistles I sense the critical importance of Jesus’s presence in all his offices.
Finding modern Quaker epistles is not so easy, but let us look at a couple of statements from a group that proclaims themselves to be “passionately Christ-centered” and “passionately Quaker.”
Their definition of Christ/Christ-centered is:
Friends use the word Christ to refer both to the historical Jesus, and the present Spirit that “has come to teach His people Himself” (Fox)… (http://www.freedomfriends.org/FF-WGloss.htm#Chr)
And the body of Christ is defined as:
This term has multiple meanings. The most simple is that all Christians, regardless of church affiliation or lack thereof, are the physical presence of Christ in the[sic] this world . Since Jesus left the planet in physical form, being present to us in spirit, we have to be his eyes and ears, his hands and feet… (http://www.freedomfriends.org/FF-WGloss.htm#bo)
And then there is the epistle from a recent gathering of Quaker ministers and elders from several Yearly Meetings which contains the following:
Twenty-nine of us gathered at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Chicago October 6 – 9, 2017. Experienced ministers and elders were invited from a number of the branches of Quakerism, the diversity of which enriched the gathering. The two planners and one of the group leaders fell sick at the last minute. Other Friends stepped up at a few minutes’ notice. Those of us who like everything planned were a little cranky, but we marveled at the miracles and mischief of the Holy Spirit manifested among us…
In the opening worship one Friend shared a heartfelt message saying the Society of Friends is in deep trouble because we are not surrendering to the Holy Spirit.
The two definitions quoted from Freedom Friends above are markedly different from statements made by Fox and other early Friends expressing the reality of Jesus Christ’s presence, rather than a representative spirit, in and among them. The epistle from the gathering of ministers and elders makes no mention at all of Christ’s presence among them fulfilling his offices.
The expression of the centrality of Christ’s presence and function is what first drew me to the message of the early Friends and gave me an understanding that in that message is something that the rest of Christendom lacks. Many things have changed in the 48 years since I first read the Journal of George Fox, but the need for this message has intensified rather than diminished. Lewis Benson’s lecture #9 is essential for understanding the distinctions between the early Quaker message and the various “gospels” presented today.