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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