Introduction to “The Christian Universalism of George Fox”

When I began to concentrate my studies on all the writings of George Fox more than forty years ago, it was during the period of Quaker history that might be called the “high tide” of the mystical interpretation of Quakerism. And when I had first encountered Fox’s Journal just fifty years ago, I was not a professing Christian. If I had any bias when I read the Journal for the first time, it was in the direction of hoping to find in Fox the “perennial philosophy” of the mystics. But as I continued to study Fox, I became convinced that the great work on which he labored so faithfully all through his life was to preach the good news concerning Jesus Christ and how he saves people, and I became convinced of the truth of this gospel message.  – Lewis Benson

“The Christian Universalism of George Fox” is the tenth and final lecture in the series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox that Lewis Benson gave at Moorestown (N.J.) Meeting in 1982. These lectures were prepared with those in mind who had been reached through hearing gospel ministry and, as a result, had wanted to “become involved in the work of preaching it again.” Each of the first eight lectures in this series covers a specific area of Fox’s teaching. The final two lectures (this and the previous one: “Fox’s Teaching on the Holy Spirit”) were included to prepare those who will go out to preach the gospel, and who can expect to “run into questions about holy spirit religion and about non-Christian universalism.”

In this essay, Benson distills significant points from various scholars’ writings regarding the interface between universal mystical faith and Quakers. Rufus Jones figures prominently in this inventory, and Geoffrey Nuttall, Melvin B. Endy, and John Yungblut are mentioned as well. Going beyond scholarly positions, however, Benson presents Fox’s moving past intellectualism and into the wisdom of sequential, inward experience, which culminates in the knowledge of the inward Christ as person (i.e., having a face). The verse from 2 Corinthians 4:6, encapsulated in the following, was frequently referred to by Friends:

Believers in Christ Jesus and the apostles and disciples…preach Christ the covenant of light among the Gentiles, and so bring them from the darkness to the light, from the power of Satan to God…and brought them inwardly to the light that shines in their hearts, to give them the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

A frequent charge from the earliest decades of the movement was that Quakers eliminated from their faith Jesus Christ “who dwelt in Galilee and Judea and was crucified, buried, and rose on the third day.” Though Friends always denied the accusation, and owned Christ’s “appearance of him in his body of flesh,” they formally stated their position in “The Christian Doctrine of the People called Quakers Cleared.”  Benson quotes from this document, which was prepared in 1694 by trusted ministers and leaders in the Society. Here is one statement from that document: “The son of God cannot be divided…nor is the sufficiency of his light within set up by us in opposition to him.”

Benson identifies a more recent challenge to the early Quaker message as “denominational-mindedness.” The principle behind this thinking is that different “natures” require different philosophies or theologies, thus accounting for the many denominations. Since Benson’s time, denominational-mindedness has gained ground among Quakers, and a diversity of philosophies is now seen as valid not only for those outside of the Society but for those within. A tightening conformity to the doctrine of individualism has accelerated the proliferation of ideologies within the Society. Resisted by most is the observation that human nature is intrinsic and universal, the same in every time and place, and that Jesus Christ speaks to this universal condition.

Benson concludes this lecture series with the following:

[Early Quakers] were proclaiming that Christ, who is present in the midst of his people in all his offices, is the means that God has provided to save not just the Jews, or the Christians, but all people, all nations. The need today is for more men and women who are prepared to go forth and proclaim this gospel to Quakers, Christians, and people of all faiths, or none. “It is a wonderful thing to be called to the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  

This tenth lecture can be found under the Resources tab in Lewis Benson Writings at the New Foundation Fellowship website.

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The Tongues Declare

Today is the day the world celebrates as Pentecost. Though we Quakers have a mild taboo against celebrating particular days, I do often celebrate them, privately, because all the direction and structure of my life is acknowledged in these particular days, and I am affirmed through celebrating a shared knowledge and purpose with those of the past. “Hello Peter; hello David; we are just some centuries apart, but our inward life, our knowledge and love of God, is the same.”

There have been and are others who like me have known life’s fulfillment through having been given to know the Inward Christ, have sought to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, and are committed to proclaiming the Kingdom. Some, like Peter and David, were also given words and tasks that we who follow in time can rally around and rejoice in, for they come from the pure human heart that knows its Creator’s greatest gift, the Presence of His Son, Christ Jesus.

I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved; Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope; Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance (Acts 2:25-28).

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The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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The Lesson of the Fig Tree

The following is based upon gospel ministry given in a Philadelphia meeting on May 6, 2018.

There is a story of Jesus and his disciples walking toward Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance, and upon approaching it, he saw that it had leaves but no fruit, “for the time of the figs was not yet”(Mk. 11:13). Then Jesus cursed the tree, saying, “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever” (14). Though it was the nature of the tree to bear figs only in season, he cursed the tree for having no fruit.

As with so many incidents that take place in Scripture, this story tells us something of ourselves, and in this story, we are being taught something about what is expected of us as human beings. Like the fig tree, we humans have a particular nature, the human nature, and what its fruits are is well-known to each of us: we have our particular strengths and limitations, our seasons of fear and desire, our fruits of virtue and vice. These all are a part of our human nature.

We are being told in this story that just as more was expected of the fig tree than its nature could yield, more, too, is expected of us than that which our nature can produce. To meet the expectations that are placed upon us–and that we place upon ourselves–we must be more than what our nature confines us to be. We are commanded to be righteous and loving (Jn. 15:12), yet human nature does not allow us to be this; it always lets us down. We try and we fail, and we try again.

How are we to handle this problem with which we are cursed? Is self-deceit our nature’s only possible escape from imposed and internalized expectations of the unattainable? Is the honest person’s only option the agonized cry of Paul: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24)

It is through receiving the spirit of Christ that we become more than our nature allows. It is through receiving this Spirit that we may bear divine fruit of love and righteousness, which is beyond human nature to yield. We prepare to receive this divine Spirit by stilling our human nature and waiting in truth, in that emptiness where, in truth, Truth is not yet come. Through waiting to receive, Friends found that Truth is given, and our human nature transcended and fulfilled. Friends of Truth discovered that we could come into unity with the One whose divine image we bear as sons and daughters of God, and thus come into loving, righteous fellowship with one another. Their discovery confirms the reality that, in any age, we humans can bear the fruits of the Spirit, in season and out, no longer prevented by the confines of our nature; it is  the one true miracle!

Who are ingrafted into Christ? Can any one be ingrafted into him, but as he is inwardly revealed and made known? Yea, is not he in them who are ingrafted into him, and are not they in him? Is not he that is truly regenerated cut off from the old stock within, from the root of bitterness within; and is not he implanted into the new stock within also; insomuch as he sensibly feeleth the pure, holy root of life bear him, and the sap thereof springing up in him, causing him to bring forth fruit to God in due season? (Penington. Works: IV, 165.)

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Review of Traditional Quaker Christianity

As I read and re-read Traditional Quaker Christianity, I felt a spirit of humble diligence intent upon conveying the core substance of Quaker understanding, as well as the practices that have thus far assisted its continuation. The original draft of this book was the result of a study of Friends faith and witness by Ohio Yearly Meeting member Michael Hatfield. He gave his work to the yearly meeting “to do with as it saw fit.” Small study groups were formed in which his writing was found useful but in need of more work. OYM called upon four Friends (Arthur Berk, John Smith, Susan Smith, and Terry Wallace) to edit and develop Hatfield’s original draft.

There are seven chapters in the book, each containing anywhere from four to ten sections. Each section is comprised of a title, selections for recommended reading, a short essay, and questions for discussion. Four appendices complete the main body of the book, providing more discussion of eldering, a brief history and present-day scope of alternate forms of Quaker faith, a glossary of Quaker terms, and a bibliography.

This book would be helpful for anyone wanting a readable introduction to or comprehensive overview of the original tenets of Quaker Christianity, and the sustaining practices that have evolved in Ohio Yearly Meeting. The primary doctrines of the faith are all included: the Word of God is Christ (not the Bible); the Spirit of Christ is universally bestowed; salvation entails obedience to the living God (not intellectual assent to doctrine); only in the daily cross of Christ can evil be overcome. In addition to presenting the central beliefs, the book examines particular tenets that have arisen from the faith: that gospel ministry is oracular, that the Scriptures are esteemed and studied, that baptism and communion are inward occurrences, and that females and males have equal spiritual potential in substance and practice. Pertinent passages from the Scriptures and Friends writings are frequently cited and paraphrased to supplement the editors’ descriptions and explanations.

Some present-day misconstructions of Quaker faith are addressed. For example, in the fourth section of the first chapter, Lewis Benson is quoted contrasting the ethic of obligation with the ethic of idealism: the former being a principle grounded in divine Will as opposed to the latter, which is based in human values. A later discussion in chapter seven on testimony versus testimonies furthers the discussion, and the difference is then illustrated in later sections where the original peace witness and the contemporary peace testimony are each described.

I found the essay on clerking substantial in identifying gifts needed for clerking, responsibilities of both clerk and meeting while conducting business, and helpful practical advice for maintaining order, and writing or modifying a minute. Throughout the book, practical advice is regularly offered and always purposeful.

The roles of elders, overseers, ministers, and teachers are each described: their work, the strengths and gifts necessary, and the typical dangers encountered. A chart at the end of chapter six compares the different functions and orientations of each, providing an easy reference to Friends who are not practiced in identifying these gifts and are unfamiliar with their specific benefits to the community.

Though Traditional Quaker Christianity is intended to convey the tradition among Conservative Friends, it may find readers among Liberals and Evangelicals. Should another generation of Quakers come forth and undertake the restoration of “the desolations of many generations,” they could find this book a resource for building up a Quaker Christian society. Here they would find stated the purpose and aim of the society, means to realize that aim, practices to support those means, and generally a structure provided in which a people of God could arise, flourish, and serve the cause of Truth.

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The New Way

The following is based upon ministry given in a Philadelphia meeting on 11/5/17.

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There is a story about Jesus that takes place after he’d been ministering for a while. He was at home, visiting with his brothers shortly before a festival was to occur in Jerusalem. His brothers were planning to go to the festival, but Jesus was not planning to go with them. The brothers spoke to Jesus, perhaps to chastise him for not going, or perhaps to mock him. They said to Jesus, if you have a message for the people, why don’t you go to the festival and give it? No one who wants to be known acts in secret. Show yourself to the world.  Jesus responds by saying: “My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready”(Jn. 7:6).

What Jesus is saying here is that he must wait for guidance before he acts; he doesn’t act on his own power and volition, as do his brothers, but he waits until he’s been given understanding from God for what he is to do, and when he is to do it. It is a new way to be, to regulate one’s life. And this is the content of Jesus’s ministry: there’s something new.

When I come to meeting, I arrive early and, a little while later, listen as people begin to enter  the meeting room and settle in. I like to hear all the sounds: the coughing, the sniffling, the shuffling of feet. These are cozy human sounds; there’s a warmth in hearing them, like sitting in front of a fire. And then there are the messages: people’s opinions and ideas. People have always had opinions and ideas. They, too, are human, a natural part of us. Some may be good ideas and some not; some may be productive and others destructive; some dutiful and others careless; some creative and others unimaginative, but whatever their qualities, they are all ideas. They come with our being human, along with all the other capacities that have been given to us by our Creator.

When Jesus spoke about his time being “not yet come, but his brothers’ time being always ready,” he was making a distinction between the new nature and power he’d been given by God–an inspired, divine nature–and the old human nature in which we are confined to knowing and receiving only human ideas and opinions.

To inform, to manifest, and to witness to this new way of being–partaking of the divine nature–was the purpose of Jesus’s ministry; it is the new way given by God.

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Stages of the Work

In his booklet “A Revolutionary Gospel,” Lewis Benson writes of three stages of work that seventeenth-century Friends undertook: the first in the sequence was turning people to Christ through preaching the Word (the substance of vocal ministry), which reached to the witness of God in others (convincing/convicting of sin); the second stage was settling and establishing the newly convinced, which entailed repentance and amendment of life; and the third was building on this newly laid foundation, thereby enabling the Church to form and become a witness to the society at large of the new order of righteous community.

Many in our meetings today are not yet convinced—have not moved into the first stage—and therefore the second and third stages of development (settling and building) go largely undiscovered. The work for any who have been inwardly convicted of truth and have learned the necessity of silently watching for its promptings for guidance to speak in meeting have before them the work of the first stage: turning people to Christ, the truth, through giving voice to the power and spirit of the Lord that can reach to the witness of God in everyone. This was the vocal (gospel) ministry as it was at first, and is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Benson concludes the segment on stages of the work with a paragraph that reminds; reassures; and, yes, comforts us that our time is not the only time of mistaken notions of individualism:

A fairly large segment of first-generation Quakers misunderstood the nature of the Quaker revolution. They thought it was leading to an individualistic righteousness and a loose association of free-wheeling religious individualists. They failed to catch the vision of a great people gathered to God by Christ who would learn together, obey together, witness together and suffer together. However, faithful Friends, who had grown up in the truth, became builders of the new righteousness and the new community (p.11).

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Moses and the Burning Bush

[The following is based upon vocal ministry given on Twelfth month, the 31st.]

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed (Ex. 3:2).

One of the significant things about the burning bush that Moses saw was that it continued to burn. The bush burned and was not consumed. And so, Moses was drawn to look at it: he’d not seen anything like it before. For fire burns while it has fuel: wood, gas, or some other material. But when the fuel has been consumed, the fire goes out. The fuel is finite, and once it is gone, the fire no longer burns.

We humans are like fire in that we have a finite amount of substance to fuel our lives. We have limited time to live; our understanding is limited by history and circumstance; our capacity to love is limited by our affections, and often fails when we come into conflict with others. Our life powers are limited, much to our chagrin.

Moses was a man who was intensely aware of his limitation: he couldn’t speak properly; he had run away from his people whom he knew to be suffering; he had even killed a person. He felt his shortcomings keenly. When God spoke to him from the burning bush and told him that he would send him to Pharoah to liberate the Israelites, Moses–feeling his limits and doubting his ability–replied:

Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? (11)

Because Moses felt and knew his limitation, he was prepared to become a spokesperson for God (a prophet); his sensing the truth of himself readied him to respond to God. We, too, may heed the promptings of truth about ourselves, and be led by the seed of God within. We, too, may be given to see the light, to know eternal life that is beyond our finitude; we, too, may be delivered from captivity and led into the promised land.

Contrarily, we may be hemmed in, enslaved by the inward Pharoah. Who is this Pharoah within, who will not let us go? He it is who would prevail; who would control and dominate; and who’d refuse to see what is, in truth, immediately before him.

To Moses, who saw his limitation and confessed his need for strength, God replied: “Certainly I will be with thee (12).” The power and wisdom of God, Christ the light within, visits, empowers, and sustains our lives indefinitely, eternally. Like a fire whose fuel is not consumed in burning is the life he brings to us: a life whose substance is not consumed in time, but is eternal.

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