Now, with the foundations laid, we’re ready for the touchy topic of dogmas and creeds in Quakerism.
I think there’s no way to truly understand that messy matter, except by beginning at the beginning when Quaker theology was first taking shape.
The bare facts that most every Friend “knows” are these: first, that early Friends imposed no formal credal tests on their members, and second, that their doctrines, though carefully spelled out in print, and systematically organized in Barclay’s Apology, were never exalted as dogmas — as things that all Friends must believe.
But that’s by no means the whole of the picture of how early Quakerism worked.
Let’s begin by recognizing that the first half-dozen generations of Friends do seem to have regarded themselves as doctrinally orthodox Christians. Their writings blithely asserted — or assumed — the validity of orthodox beliefs. They saw Quakerism not as a rejection of orthodoxy, but as a rejection of those human additions and betrayals that had taken christendom away from the path of Christ.
It quite distressed those early Friends when outsiders accused them of not being orthodox Christians. We know this because of the enormous effort that those Friends poured into affirming their orthodoxy — in their disputations, their polemical writings, and their private and public conversations with outsiders.
Above all, the leaders of the earliest Quaker movement — the first- and second-generation movement — spelled out their orthodoxy in their joint letter to the governor and assembly at Barbados, which was written in 1671. That is the letter that, two hundred years later, became a landmark in Quaker theology, when Orthodox Friends began invoking it in support of their theological positions.
These facts concerning the early Friends suggest that, even though they imposed no credal tests on one another, they felt the weight of Christianity’s traditional credal expectations resting upon themselves. And what does it mean, that they also instituted two credal restrictions on settlers in their colony of Pennsylvania — one denying religious toleration to atheists and polytheists, and the other denying Jews and atheists the right to hold elected office in the secular government?
(The latter restriction was imposed by William Penn himself at the time the colony was founded, and persists in modified form even today: Pennsylvania’s current state constitution, Article 1 §4, guarantees the right to hold public office only to those who “acknowledge the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments.” This, our Quaker heritage!)
If the early Friends were unwilling to let a Jew or an atheist sit in their colonial legislature, it would seem a safe assumption that they wouldn’t have allowed such a one to sit on a facing bench, or as clerk of a monthly meeting, either.
And so the bare facts that most every Friend “knows” about early Quakerism, cannot really be taken as proving that the early Friends had no unwritten equivalent of a creed within their own communities.
The Quaker letter of 1671 to the rulers of Barbados is especially significant because of its present-day prominence in the pastoral branch of Quakerism. It is included in many pastoral yearly meetings’ books of discipline, alongside the Richmond Declaration, as one of the key theological documents defining their form of Quaker faith. This treatment would seem to give it at least a quasi-credal status.
But was this letter to the rulers of Barbados actually intended as a credal statement? That’s a good question.
Let’s look briefly at the letter. The key portion reads as follows:
…Whereas many scandalous lies and slanders have been cast upon us, to render us odious; as that “We deny God, and Christ Jesus, and the Scriptures of truth,” etc. This is to inform you, that all our books and declarations, which for these many years have been published to the world, clearly testify the contrary.
Yet, for your satisfaction, we now plainly and sincerely declare, “that we do own and believe in God, the only wise, omnipotent, and everlasting God, the Creator of all things both in heaven and in earth, and the preserver of all that he hath made; who is God over all, blessed for ever; to whom be all honour and glory, dominion, praise, and thanksgiving, both now and for evermore!”
And we own and believe in Jesus Christ, his beloved and only begotten Son, in whom he is well pleased; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary; in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins; who is the express image of the Invisible God, the first-born of every creature, by whom were all things created that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, principalities, or powers, all things were created by him.
And we do own and believe that He was made a sacrifice for sin, who knew no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; that he was crucified for us in the flesh, without the gates of Jerusalem; and that he was buried, and rose again the third day by the power of his Father, for our justification; and that he ascended up into heaven, and now sitteth at the right hand of God. This Jesus, who was the foundation of the holy prophets and apostles, is our foundation; and we believe that there is no other foundation to be laid than that which is laid, even Christ Jesus; who tasted death for every man, shed his blood for all men, and is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world; according as John the Baptist testified of him, when he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29.
We believe that he alone is our Redeemer and Saviour, even the Captain of our Salvation, who saves us from sin, as well as from hell, and the wrath to come, and destroys the devil and his works; he is the Seed of the woman, that bruises the serpent’s head, to wit, Christ Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last.
He is (as the Scriptures of truth say of him,) our wisdom and righteousness, justification and redemption; neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we may be saved.
It is he alone, who is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls; He is our Prophet, whom Moses long since testified of, saying, “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; Him shall ye hear in all things, whatsoever he shall say unto you; and it shall come to pass, that every soul that will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.” Acts 3:22,23.
He it is that is now come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true. He rules in our hearts by his law of love and of life, and makes us free from the law of sin and death. We have no life but by him; for he is the quickening Spirit, the second Adam, the Lord from heaven; by whose blood we are cleansed, and our consciences sprinkled from dead works to serve the living God.
He is our Mediator, that makes peace and reconciliation between God offended and us off ending, He being the oath of God, the new covenant of light, life, grace, and peace; the author and finisher of our faith.
This Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly Man, the Emmanuel, God with us, we all own and believe in; him whom the high-priest raged against, and said, he had spoken blasphemy; whom the priests and the elders of the Jews took counsel together against, and put to death; the same whom Judas betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, which the priests gave him as a reward for his treason, who also gave large money to the soldiers to broach a horrible lie, namely, “that his disciples came and stole him away by night, whilst they slept.” After he was risen from the dead, the history of the Acts of the Apostles sets forth, how the chief priests and elders persecuted the disciples of this Jesus, for preaching Christ and his resurrection.
This, we say, is that Lord Jesus Christ, whom we own to be our life and salvation.
Concerning the Holy Scriptures, we do believe that they were given forth by the Holy Spirit of God, through the holy men of God, who (as the Scripture itself declares, II Peter 1:21) “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” We believe they are to be read, believed, and fulfilled (He that fulfills them, is Christ;) and they are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works,” II Timothy 3:16, and are “able to make wise unto salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus.”
We believe that the Holy Scriptures are the words of God; for it is said, in Exodus 20:1, “God spake all these words, saying,” etc., meaning the ten commandments given forth upon Mount Sinai. And in Revelation 22:18, saith John, “I testify to every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: if any man addeth unto these, and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy” (not the word,) etc. So in Luke 1:20, “Because thou believedst not my words.” And in John 5:47; 15:7; 14:23; and 12:47.
So that we call the Holy Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles called them, and holy men of God called them, viz., the words of God….
This very significant statement was signed by George Fox himself, along with other prominent Friends.
In reading this letter, what strikes me first and hardest is the fact that it lists and affirms even some relatively minor details of orthodox belief — like the Virgin Birth, which most modern liberal Friends would regard as historically questionable, scientifically improbable, and wholly extraneous to Quakerism. — This, in what is clearly intended as a relatively brief statement!
Why is the Virgin Birth included in this letter?
By way of answer, we might start by reminding ourselves that the Virgin Birth was of course not considered scientifically improbable at the time when this letter was written; science had not yet gotten around to quarreling with the idea of divine miracles.
One of the early Quaker leaders, Samuel Fisher, had already pointed out internal inconsistencies in the Biblical account, had noted evidence of lost scriptures, and had concluded that, far from being inerrant, the canonical Bible is quite visibly, humanly flawed.
Moreover, two of the early Friends’ most important testimonies — their rejection of water baptism and their rejection of the standard communion ceremony involving bread and wine — rested on an unstated but quite obvious conviction that the Bible’s presentation of these particular matters was muddled, i.e., humanly flawed.
But Friends still believed that the Bible’s overall account of human and cosmic history was truthful and valid; they had no reason, as yet, to think otherwise. And the details of that account, including the Virgin Birth, seemed far from silly, for they had been the subject of tremendous struggles in the early Church between the orthodox and their gnostic opponents, and the reasons for those arguments had never been forgotten.
None of the details of orthodox faith concerning Jesus appeared wholly extraneous to Quakerism in the eyes of the early Friends themselves. For the early Friends saw themselves as living within the Judæo-Christian story — the one that began with Adam and Eve, ran through Jesus and his disciples, was recounted in the Bible, and then continued down to their own time. They saw their own faith as a fulfillment of what that story had to teach. Indeed, the fact that their faith was a fulfillment of what that story had to teach, was, in their eyes, its reason for existing.
You may recall, from my previous essay, how important it was for the early orthodox Church to feel a sense of embeddedness in a meaningful cosmic history. Here we see the importance of that same sense of embeddedness for early Friends.
Thus, by including the bit about the Virgin Birth in the letter, the Friends who wrote were saying, “We share orthodoxy with you even on minor details. And we see ourselves as embedded in the sacred Christian story, just the same as you.”
So this brings us to an important insight.
Within the liberal Quaker world, it is sometimes imagined that this letter of 1671 was written merely to allay the fears of the Barbadian ruling class, so that Friends would not be persecuted there. It is thought that early Friends “weren’t really as orthodox” as this letter indicates. It is imagined that the actual content of the affirmations — the little details like the Virgin Birth and “redemption by his blood” — must have been unimportant to Friends, since after all Friends had the Holy Spirit, which was The Only Really Important Thing, After All.
But given that the writings that circulated within the early Quaker movement, and were never meant to be shown to outsiders, were just as full of Biblical assumptions and orthodox Christian thought as this letter was, such a reading of this letter just does not seem very credible.
The Friends who wrote this letter were not being hypocritical to avoid persecution. They were simply speaking their faith. They genuinely believed in the story they affirmed, and found important affirmations of Quaker practice within that story. To affirm that story, which in turn affirmed their path, gave them joy.
Yet there is another significant thing we might note about this letter of 1671 — and that is what it does not say. Its silences are as meaningful as its speech.
The letter does not affirm, for example, that after Christ’s death he descended into hell. And why not? The descent into hell was part of orthodox belief, after all, as we can see in the Apostles’ Creed. But it wasn’t in the Bible, and Friends were committed to tossing out all post-Biblical additions to Christian belief.
The letter doesn’t affirm belief in “the holy Catholic Church”, although this too is part of the Apostles’ Creed. Why not? Perhaps because “catholic” in this context means “inclusive”, and the early Friends were not at all willing to include all claimants to Christianity within the church they recognized. The early Friends had serious differences with the rest of christendom, differences so serious that they believed the bulk of the Church outside their little movement had fallen deeply into apostasy. They were not about to disregard those differences.
The letter does not even affirm the resurrection of the body, although that particular clause in the Apostles’ Creed had been a major concern of the orthodox ever since their struggles with the gnostics.
These omissions — along with others, which I skip past here for brevity — strongly suggest that this letter was never intended as a full affirmation of orthodoxy. It may seem like one to the casual observer. But in truth, it only lists some of the things that Friends agreed with other Christians about, while omitting other points of agreement, and totally omitting any mention of the disagreements that divided Friends from christendom at large.
The letter was a bridge-builder — openly, sincerely so. But we might legitimately ask, was it anything more?
In particular, can we take the Barbadian letter as being a statement of fixed Quaker dogma — a sort of creed?
No, we cannot — for four reasons:
First, it was not a statement of a definitive council of the whole Church. For early Friends — as for Christians in general in those days — this was important. Catholics and Protestants alike still had hope that the Church could eventually be cleansed and reunified; they had not written one another off entirely. Friends themselves recognized, and openly testified, that the true Church was something much larger than their own movement. They might be certain that they themselves had rediscovered and revived the true Christian religion, but they were never so arrogant as to suppose that they could settle major questions of theology for the portion of the true Church that existed outside their own ranks.
Second, it was not a statement of such a sort as would lead to members of the Quaker movement being anathematized and branded as heretics if they disagreed. It was simply, merely, and directly, a factual description of what people in the early Quaker movement believed.
Third, Friends did not believe that it was right to for one person or group of persons to try to compel another person or group in matters of conscience, as for example by use of creeds. They believed that, in matters of conscience, the only right sovereign was the indwelling Christ.
And fourth — and, perhaps, above all — early Friends did not believe that it was even possible to assemble a definitive list of dogmas, such that a person who disbelieved in any one of them could be certain of damnation.
As Isaac Penington had written in his An Examination of the Grounds or Causes which are said to induce the Court of Boston, in New England, to make that order or law of banishment upon pain of death against the Quakers (in 1659 or 1660, more than ten years before the letter to the rulers of Barbados), “A man may speak high words concerning the kingdom, and get all the doctrines about it, and yet be a stranger to it, and quite ignorant of the power: and another may want divers doctrines concerning it (perhaps some of those which men call fundamentals), and yet be a citizen of it, and in the power.”
— And if this seems somewhat at odds with the fact that Pennsylvania Friends did not permit atheists to hold public office, then let us remind ourselves that Friends believed in a religion that went to no human-made extremes. Thus, on the one hand, they did not think that all doctrines that men called “fundamental” genuinely were; but on the other, they did think that a real belief in God, stemming from some sort of living relationship with God, was a genuine necessity.
What the letter of 1671 actually was, was an incomplete Confession of Faith.
Confessions of Faith are a step — a long step — below creeds. They are something that was never even needed before the Christian church splintered into sects. They arose from the fact that, with the rise of sects, there were now free-standing church communities at theological odds with one another, each one holding a different set of convictions regarding what Christianity ought to be.
In part, then, a Confession of Faith was an affirmation of the essential orthodoxy of the church community that created it. In another part, it was polemical in nature, designed to show that the community that created it was more faithful to real Christianity than any other church community was.
A Confession of Faith was in one way a sort of almost-creed for a given subset of Christians, such as the Anabaptists or the Calvinists, crafted much as a creed would be by the weightiest members of that subset. But there was still the difference, the very important difference, that one might still be considered a true Christian, and saved, without believing in every point in the Confession. Thus a person who disbelieved in some points of a Confession was not anathematized and branded a heretic; she was merely regarded as unsound in her faith and therefore not a true member of that subset.
(Of course, there have always been people who have not been clear about this crucial difference between creeds and Confessions — Catholics convinced that all Protestants are going to hell; Protestants convinced that all Catholics are. But the people who think that way have misunderstood the basics of Christianity as taught both by Catholicism and by the major Protestant denominations.)
Equally significant, here, is the fact that even though a Confession resembled a creed in many respects — spelling out the doctrines that a religious body held in common, and helping to distinguish a member of that body from a non-member — its fundamental purpose was quite different from a creed’s. It was composed, not as an internal test of qualification for membership, or an internal test of heresy either, but as a banner held up to outsiders, saying, “This is what we, as a movement, a reformation of Christianity, stand for. This is what we think an ideal, perfect Christian Church would believe.”
Think, then, of a Confession of Faith as being something like a religious parallel to the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence states that “when in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” (Emphasis mine.)
A Confession of Faith does not declare “the causes which impel them to the separation”, but rather, declares the convictions which make the group a genuine church. But aside from that difference, the parallel to the Declaration of Independence is real and meaningful. Like the Declaration, a Confession is (1) a self-justification (2) coming from a group that has chosen to separate from the whole and (3) generated by “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”.
Thus, by way of illustration, you can look if you like at:
the Waldensian Confession of 1120, which was perhaps the very first Confession of Faith, and is very short and sweet;
the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren’s Schleitheim Confession, drawn up in 1527;
the Lutherans’ Augsburg Confession, written in 1530; and
the English Puritans’ Westminster Confession, written in 1647.
All these were composed well before the Quaker letter to the rulers of Barbados; all but the first were readily accessible to early Friends; and I think you should have no trouble seeing how the Quaker letter echoed the pattern of these models.
All the same, as I’ve said above, the Quaker letter can’t really be considered as anything more than an incomplete Confession of Faith. For it left out all the uniqueness of Quaker logic concerning Christianity, and it left out far too many of the crucial Quaker convictions that resulted from that logic.
Moreover, the Quaker letter of 1671 never had the gravity for early Friends that, say, the Westminster Confession had for English Puritans. For in the first place, it was not produced by a formal council or meeting even of all the weighty elders in the Quaker world — let alone of all the weighty elders in the true Church as a whole — nor was it ever approved by any such council or meeting. It was merely an ad hoc document produced by George Fox and a handful of other Quaker leaders in the course of Fox’s visit to the New World; so ad hoc, indeed, that no Friend who was not with Fox in Barbados had any chance to provide input into it.
— And in the second place, while the affirmations in the letter were honest and sincere, they were affirmations made from a quite different state of mind and being from that in which the denominations that really believed in Confessions lived — and it was that different state of mind and being, not the affirmations, that mattered to early Friends.
As Isaac Penington had written in his essay Some Things Relating to Religion proposed to the consideration of the Royal Society, So Termed… — in 1668, just three years before this letter to the rulers of Barbados — “Our religion stands wholly out of that which all their religion stands in. Their religion stands in the comprehension, in a belief of a literal relation or description. Our religion stands in a principle which changeth the mind, wherein the Spirit of life appeareth to, and witnesseth in the conscience to and concerning the things of the kingdom; where we … know things, not from an outward relation, but from their inward nature, virtue, and power.”
That, friends, is a serious critique of the logic on which all creeds and Confessions rest.
So this early statement of Quaker doctrine, the letter to the governor and assembly of Barbados, was not (yet) a creed, did not (yet) have the force of dogma, and only barely qualified for the label of a Confession.
Does the pastoral branch of Quakerism, then, misuse the Barbados letter, in making it a basis for dogmatic rigidities? I personally would answer yes — even though the early Quaker movement doubtless did have some sort of unwritten creed.
I think Fox and his associates in 1671 would have been horrified by later attempts to pressure Quaker communities into conformity to the written statements of belief in that letter — not because they didn’t fully believe what they were writing, and not because they didn’t believe that every Friend should hold similar views, but because they were not writing for the ages. They would have pointed out, and rightly, that their letter gave only a very one-sided and incomplete picture of Quakerism, and that the rest of the Quaker movement had not been given any chance to review and correct it.
However, the date at which this letter was composed was only 1671. This was still just the start of Quaker theological history. Five years later, Robert Barclay would publish his Apology; thirteen years after that, the English Toleration Act 1689 would seduce the Quaker revolutionaries with the idea of well-behaved, tolerated denominations — and so the whole situation would be changed.
It’s the Apology and the Toleration Act that I want to turn to in my next installment.
I’ll see you then.
Steve posted a link to his blog site here on this page — you can see it directly below this postscript — but my site’s software has handled it in a way that renders the link non-functional. And I’d hate to have you miss his fine essay! You can use the link here to get to it.