By Paul Buckley
Originally published as the introduction in Buckley, Paul, ed., The Quaker Bible Reader (Richmond: Earlham School of Religion Publications), 2006. Used with permission of the author and publisher.
For many Friends, the Bible is a lost resource. They don’t read it, and they don’t miss it. This is not a new situation—complaints that too few Friends read or know scripture have been heard consistently for at least the last two-hundred years. For example, more then fifty years ago, Henry Cadbury, a Quaker and one of the twentieth century’s great biblical scholars, decried this condition in an address at Guilford College.
In some ways, this is a surprising situation. Friends in the seventeenth century were devoted to their Bibles. Early Quaker writings seem at times to consist of little more than stringing together selected bits of scripture. George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, knew scripture so well that Gerard Croese, in his 1696 book, The General History of the Quakers, makes the claim that “though the Bible were lost, it might be found in the Mouth of George Fox.” Early Friends, of course, were not unique in their love of the scriptures. Three hundred and fifty years ago, the Bible was the pre-eminent book in the English-speaking world. For many people, it was the only readily accessible book and it profoundly influenced views of life, society, history, politics, and the world. George Fox was far from unique in committing it to memory.
Despite this intimate familiarity with the Bible, the tension between roles of immediate revelation and of the scripture had been present from the very earliest beginning of the Quaker movement. In the section of his Journal devoted to 1648, George Fox wrote:
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 they had been who gave them forth. … 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. These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter, but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate Spirit and power… for I was in that Spirit by which they [the scriptures] were given forth, and what the Lord opened to me I afterwards found was agreeable to them. I could speak much of these things and many volumes might be written but all would prove too short … (p. 34)
Fox is claiming immediate revelation for himself and declaring his mission to be directing all people to know it in themselves. The final sentence makes it clear that these revelations are more than a mere reiteration of the recorded scriptures. At the same time, he acknowledges that afterward he found that what had been revealed to him was “agreeable” with scripture. This formulation—continuing revelation that does not contradict (but may go beyond) the Bible became the Quaker norm and appears in the writings of many other early Friends. The evolving structures of gospel order did little to provide precise definitions of what was agreeable and what contradicted scripture. In general, it was left to subgroups within the Society—monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings—to deal with individual cases. This process led to a degree of local conformity, but no Society-wide standard.
This tension remained unresolved at the beginning of the nineteenth century. If anything, the cracks were widening as ideas were absorbed from both the Enlightenment and from other Protestant sects. The events leading up to painful separations in the Society in 1827-28 prominently featured charges and countercharges over how the Bible was read, how it should be read, and how it was properly interpreted—although not over its ultimate status among Friends. Of course, each side claimed proper use for themselves and charged serious error on the part of their opponents.
Nor are the 1820s unique in this respect. Today’s structures, organizations, and practices within the Religious Society of Friends are the product of our history. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that it is impossible to understand Quaker history without having some understanding of Quaker theology and impossible to understand Quaker theology without knowing something of the Bible. The peace testimony, the practice of simplicity, both silent workship and the elements of programmed worship, and the other hallmarks of twenty-first century Quaker faith and practice were firmly established on biblical foundations.
Even understanding the ways we speak of ourselves depends on scripture.
Many contemporary Friends take pleasure in referring to themselves as belonging to a “peculiar people.” But to say we are “peculiar” is not to claim that we are odd. The phrase is found in both the Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) scriptures. As a Quaker, my favorite example is from the first epistle of Peter, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We Quakers are well acquainted with that “marvellous light.” This is, of course, the translation in the King James Version of the Bible. In modern English versions, “peculiar people” is rendered as “a people belonging to God” or “God’s own people.” To say we are a peculiar people is to claim that the Religious Society of Friends is the chosen people.
Early Friends indeed made this claim, but we shouldn’t think it was a point of pride. They knew the implications of being God’s people—it may be an honor, but it is much more a responsibility. To know the elements of that responsibility, you need look no further than the historic Quaker testimonies. Early Friends described the testimonies as “peculiarities,” but not to suggest these were mere idiosyncrasies. These are the obligations that God’s people carry. A person adopted Quaker dress, speech, and practices as an outward sign of submission to God in all things.
Paul Buckley is a writer and translator of Quaker thought. His book Twenty-First Century William Penn has made Penn accessible to many, and he is the editor of the recently re-published Journal of Elias Hicks.