During the worst part of the Depression, two Catholics, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, began a movement called the Catholic Worker. This movement tried to serve the immediate needs of the unemployed and destitute in New York City—food, clothing, shelter—not by founding a large charity, but by sharing their lives and working from free-will donations. They did this because Jesus said so clearly that whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on, we do it directly to him. Peter Maurin explained their philosophy in a series of “Easy Essays” published in the Catholic Worker newspaper.
Since I was a teenager, I have been inspired by the faith and dedication of the Catholic Worker movement. Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays tried to communicate Christian faith in everyday language, without a lot of theological fog, in a way that ordinary believers, and ordinary workers, could understand. These essays are intended to explain Quaker theology in the same way: in everyday language, without a lot of theological fog, in a way that ordinary people can understand and use in their spiritual lives and their churches.
I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. I teach at their theological college in western Kenya. An important part of my job is teaching Quaker theology, not just to student pastors, but to members in urban and rural areas. I have had to meet the challenge of expressing Quaker faith in language that can be understood well by people whose English is limited, or who speak no English at all. I have had to do it in Swahili, a language I do not speak very well.) This has been an important challenge, because I love the faith and the practice of the early Quakers, and I want to share with people the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the early Quakers understood it.
However, the writings of the early Quakers are very difficult to read. And as I have taught Quaker theology to student pastors and have explored many difficult theological issues, I have realized something. Explanations of Quaker theology are often theologically very difficult. There is simply no book which presents the reasons for Quaker beliefs and practices in a way that is easy to understand, and can be communicated easily to others.
What if you are a pastor in Friends Meeting, and someone asks you what the Inner Light is? Maybe you have not known much about traditional Quakerism. Or maybe you have read some of the great writers but have a hard time explaining their ideas to a non-expert. How often do you begin by saying, “Well, that’s a little hard to explain,” or, “It depends upon whom you ask.” In modern Quakerism there is a lot of confusion and variety about our ideas. As a result, many Quakers are simply afraid of them. Many Quakers wonder if Quaker theology is un-Biblical.
That fact is, it isn’t hard to explain, and it doesn’t depend upon whom you ask. The basic ideas of traditional Quaker theology are not difficult to describe. This book presents Easy Essays which cover the most important topics of traditional Quaker theology in everyday language.
There is a catch. When I talk about “Quakers” in this book, I am talking about traditional Quaker theology—the ideas and practices that Quakers shared in the first 150 or so years of their history. So if you are a Quaker, you may read about a particular belief or practice that your meeting or church doesn’t hold to. That’s because we Quakers—almost all of us—have wandered and strayed from the ideas and practices that originally made us a people. How and when that happened are not the subject of the book. I’m not blaming anybody. Yet you may find that much of the theology is familiar, while the practices are not. Or you may find that the practices are familiar, while the theology is not. You may find that you recognize the theology or the practice, but the way they are connected is new to you. Don’t be afraid, or turned off. Or you may find that parts of the theology are familiar to you, but when you go deeper it becomes unfamiliar. The things that seem strange or new to you show you how far your branch of Quakerism has adjusted itself to the world, and diluted the Gospel witness of Friends. It’s easier in this world to adopt the form of Christianity or spirituality that is fashionable and marketable. The early Quakers were aware of this: they distinguished themselves from other Christians, and criticized the way other Christians quickly adopted what was fashionable, while ignoring the hard teachings of the gospel.
These essays are not just for people who want clear explanations for Quaker ideas. It is for people who want to recover the power, passion, and courage of the early Quakers. It is for people who want their spiritual lives and their meetings to become filled with power—the power of the Holy Spirit, which early Quakers found when they waited on his power to cover them and reveal to them the will of God.
Let me be very clear about something that will come as a shock to many Quakers in the United States, Europe, and the English-speaking world. The early Quakers were passionate about Jesus Christ. The person of Jesus—the Son of God who was made flesh, was crucified, died, was raised from the dead, and is present in the power of his Holy Spirit—was at the center of Quaker faith and practice for the first 250 years of our history. If you are hostile to Christianity or believe that Jesus is just another interesting spiritual teacher, this book (and the early Quakers) might be a great disppointment to you. On the other hand, if you are familiar with basic Quaker ideas such as the Inward Light, that of God in every person, the peace testimony, or silent worship, you may be intrigued to find that all of these are based on how the early Quakers understood Jesus—and perhaps you may find a new angle on Jesus that separates him from those who have abused his name.
Another thing which might surprise some readers: I will often use texts from scripture to help explain a Quaker idea. For some Quakers, this will be unfamiliar, because they have left the Bible far behind. But for the early Quakers, good Quaker theology was good biblical theology. They constantly referred to scripture to defend and explain their ideas and practices. A great many people reading this book, both Quaker and otherwise, will not be persuaded of any Quaker idea unless it is faithful to biblical teaching. Nor should they. In Africa, Quakers are often considered a cult because we do not use water-baptism or the outward communion. We are somtimes considered a cult because we use terms like “Inner Light” which we cannot explain very well. We have similar problems in many places in Latin America or the US. To explain our ideas to other Christians, and to explain them properly to ourselves, we must show how they are faithful to biblical teaching. The early Quakers certainly believed this. They had an unusual view of the Bible, but without biblical foundations, they would not have accepted the ideas revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. Nor should contemporary Quakers.
Furthermore, modern Quakers may be shocked, or maybe relieved, to hear that the early Quakers cared desperately about salvation. It was the entire purpose of their relationship with God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. The idea of salvation appears constantly in this book, because it appeared constantly in the writings of early Quakers. If the idea of salvation bothers you, perhaps you will see a view of it here that looks different from what you may have heard. Perhaps it may compel you to look into your heart—this is the beginning of salvation! On the other hand, maybe you are very familiar with the idea of salvation. Perhaps you think of it as a kind of light-switch which you switch on only once in your life, the day you accept Christ. You will find that traditional Quakers had a much less trivial idea of salvation, an idea that is more fully biblical.
Let me be very clear about something else. There are some readers who will test the worthiness of these essays by searching for the word “homosexuality.” They will want to see whether my position agrees with theirs, and they will reject the book if they dislike my position. The early Quakers had nothing to say about homosexuality, so I have not talked about it in these essays. You will not find it, except on this page. Conflicts among Christians about the biblical teaching on homosexuality have torn us to shreds, and I am not interested in doing the same thing with these essays. This is a book about how Christ works in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the gathered meeting, through a free gospel ministry. It is about the most important ideas of early Quakers.
I am writing these essays because I believe the early Quakers had it right, and because I would like to see large sections of the Religious Society of Friends take those ideas seriously again—not just the ideas they already agree with, but the ones that may be new and challenging to them. I am writing this book because I believe that the Holy Spirit can bring a period of renewal and revival to Friends, if we open ourselves to the transforming power which he gave to the early Friends. As John Punshon taught us in his book, Reasons for Hope: The Faith and Future of the Friends Church, the key to renewal and revival among Friends is to become more Quaker, not less Quaker. I am very worried that many Quakers today have been blown away by various winds of fashion: superficial pentecostalism; mass-market, high-tech evangelicalism; new age fads; political movements without spiritual grounding; rural community religion.
The early Quakers had a powerful name for their form of Christian spirituality: not “walking with Jesus” or “silence” but “taking up the Cross.” They called their spirituatliy “taking up the Cross” because they knew that following Jesus, yielding to his power, and accepting his guidance in our lives are not easy. Jesus promised us that if we follow him, things will often be tough. He promised persecution as well as blessing—in fact, he promised blessing through persecution. I promise you that if you begin to take seriously the ideas in this book, and to live faithfully by them, you will upset people, and you may make your own life more difficult. But you will also receive the blessing that comes from living in intimate friendship with Jesus because you will be filled and covered by the power of his Spirit.
The book is written for anyone who wants to know more about basic Quaker ideas and practices. It is not limited to Americans. I am blessed to live and work among Friends in Africa, where we are growing more quickly than anywhere else in the world. Sometimes I will use American examples to make a point, and sometimes I will use African examples. (I cannot use Bolivian or Australian or German or Filipino examples because I have not lived among Friends in those places.)
There are not a lot of quotations from early Friends in this book. If you are interested in finding more of the background of these ideas, a very good introduction to early Quaker theology may be found in Douglas Gwyn’s Apocalypse of the Word. An excellent interpretation of traditional Quaker ideas for a modern audience is Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.
If you are a Quaker of any sort, you may be surprised at the idea of Quaker theology. Many Quakers believe we have no theology. Certainly Quakers have no creed. Some Quaker believe this means that we believe nothing, or that we believe nothing in common with one another. That is not what it means: having no creed means that we do not require our members to sign or subscribe to a formal creed such as the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Thirty-Nine Articles, or a “statement of faith,” and we do not force people to accept a denominational system of ideas about God (Some Quakers now require this!) But many, many Quaker could still read the Nicene Creed and agree with every word in it. The point is not that we disagree with the doctrines. The point is that mouthing the words or signing the document does not mean that we know the power and truth of these ideas inwardly, in the heart, by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The point is that human beings cannot force believe by a signature: the Holy Spirit must lead us to a personal conviction of these beliefs, or else they will be meaningless. Early Quakers were hostile to what they called “divinity,” the complicated theological writings and debates in the universities. They believed that mastering “divinity” did not make a person a real Christian or a gifted minister. But the early Quaker poured out gallons of ink writing books that can only be called theology. George Fox’s so-called “doctrinal books” fill three dense volumes, and his book The Great Mystery is one dense and heavy volume. Quakers produced reams and reams of pamphlets and essays. The works of Isaac Penington reach four good-sized volumes. William Penn wrote several long works of theology which are still in print today. Barclay’s Apology is nothing if not theology. Theology is any attempt to interpret the teachings of scripture in a way that makes sense in one’s society: Quakers in fact have never stopped writing theology! Every generation has had good Quaker theologians.
Finally: I said earlier that I would avoid a lot of theological fog. But I am a theologian—I like theological fog. Or to put it differently: good ideas that stand the test of time, good ideas that probe the depths of the human spirit and attempt to sample the depths of God’s infinite being, are usually not simplistic, even if they can be expressed simply. To handle them fully requires a lot of thinking, and a lot of writing. This book is only introductory. If you are intrigued by it, I encourage you to wander into some good theological fog. Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity is the best single description of traditional Quaker theology. It is difficult because the English is old and complex, and because long sections of the book are spent arguing with his opponents. But reading it is still very worthwhile. If the complex English scares you off, try Dean Freiday’s Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. It is not perfect, but it is a fair representation of Barclay’s ideas. An easier early Quaker writer to read is Isaac Penington, who plumbs the depths of the spiritual life. Finally, as I write this book I am also writing a piece of my own theological fog, a longer and more in-depth accout of traditional Quaker ideas called Quaker Theology: Classic Doctrines Restated. I encourage you to explore any of these books if you want to gain more depth in your understanding of Quaker theology.