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The Message of Early Friends
Compiled and copyright by MJP Grundy, 2017


Print by Anne E. G. Nydam, used with permission.

      George Fox is usually remembered as the main catalyst that helped meld disparate mid-seventeenth century seekers into a powerful movement for personal and social transformation under direct Divine guidance. However, Fox was not a particularly systematic theologian, and his syntax is distinctly old fashioned and sometimes difficult to understand. He had, however, profound theological insights, and they fit together into a coherent whole. A twentieth-century Friend, Lewis Benson, has done more than anyone else to study and make available to modern Friends the revolutionary, empowering, transforming message of Fox and early Friends.

      The short statement that probably best describes the message early Friends preached, that summed up their own experience, was "CHRIST IS COME TO TEACH HIS PEOPLE HIMSELF." Each part of the statement was filled for meaning for them, and for us, if we take the trouble to decode or "translate" it into words or metaphors that "fit" or describe our own experience. Note that the first verb, "is come", is in present tense. Rather than waiting for some pie-in-the-sky "rapture" or horrifying apocalypse (global warming? nuclear strike on Iran?), Friends took Jesus at his word: he would return, and God's kingdom is among us. Friends discovered to their amazement that these were and are true: Christ is alive within the hearts of those who love him and obey his commandments; as they live in his life they experience the Kingdom. See John 15. Furthermore, early Friends understood, Christ is not here to punish but to teach. Think of the best teacher you ever had: someone who knew you, and how to encourage and guide you. That's the way Friends discovered Christ teaches. Christ is come to teach his people. Note that this isn't about personal salvation, important as that is. It is about a community, a "people", it is the whole group of those who are willing to be taught. Finally, Christ does this "himself", directly within each individual heart, and in the gathered community that waits expectantly for his guidance and direction. He is not dependent on priestly intermediaries.

      The expectation of those who experienced an inward conviction and transformation is that this new way of seeing and being would result in a new way of living. The transformed lifestyle was the hallmark of Friends. They eschewed formal creeds because God cannot be captured in human words and formulas. That did not stop them from trying to explain their own experience, and inviting others to be open to a similar transformation. Rather than arguing about verbal definitions, they looked to each others' lives because they assumed that similar experiences would lead to similar results. So they wanted to know: was daily life suffused with God's Love? were those who called themselves Friends marked by transparent integrity? did they treat others equally rather than kowtowing to social hierarchies? did they put away physical weapons and work to resolve conflicts non-violently? were all their economic transactions done with honesty and fairness to suppliers, employees, and customers? did they live simply without indulging in fancy clothing, fashionable vanities, luxurious excesses, and unnecessary consumption?

      One good way to understand the message of early Friends is to read stories of people who struggled to bring their lives into conformity with the Light of Christ that they experienced inwardly. Quaker Journals, especially of John Woolman, can be found in many public libraries. Older, less well-known journals are available through Earlham School of Religion's Digital Quaker Collection.

      If you are curious and would like to try "unprogrammed" silent waiting worship, here is a list of Quaker meetings.



First posted April 16, 2017.