Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004
Messiahs of Every Age: A Theological Basis of
Nineteenth-century Social Reform -- 2
In the same way that Jesus proclaimed the in-breaking of the reign of God to be possible and real in his time, Mott expected evidence of it in her time. Mottís reference to proclaiming liberty to the captive was a repetition of the Gospel of Lukeís words describing Jesusí mission. ". . . The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, . . . he hath sent me to . . . preach deliverance to the captives, . . ." (Luke 4:18ab KJV, in turn a quotation from Isaiah 61) By referring to this passage Mott implies that "we ourselves" may be the ones upon whom the Spirit of the Lord is. Those engaged in reform movements were to be as active as Jesus in ushering in the kingdom of God.
In a speech to the semi-annual Unitarian Convention in 1846 Mott decried "the ambiguous and deceiving phraseology" which served to "perpetuate the erroneous views which prevail in Christendom, of the divinity of Christ, and the vicarious atonement." (Greene 53) To a congregation of medical students three years later she preached:
"In the view of many, the gospel is not preached, unless it embrace a certain scheme of salvation and plan of redemption. Faith in Christ has become so involved with a belief in human depravity and a vicarious atonement, imputed sin and imputed righteousness, that a discourse is divested of the character of gospel preaching, . . . if this scheme and planĖthis system or theory, be not embraced.Ė
"I confess to you, my friends, that I am a worshiper after the way called heresyĖa believer after the manner which many deem infidel. While, at the same time, my faith is firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrine preached by Jesus, . . . ; especially the great truth that God is the teacher of his people himself; the doctrine which Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom of God is within manĖthat there is his sacred and divine temple." (Greene 83)
Mott claimed that her preaching was of the true gospel, even though (or perhaps especially because) she took a different stance regarding the person and work of Jesus. Like practitioners of the liberal theology which developed throughout the nineteenth century, Mott preferred to emphasize the scientifically plausible events of Jesusí life, and thus focused more on his teaching than on accounts of miracles and other extraordinary events. She noted herself, "I confess to great skepticism as to any account or story, which conflicts with the unvarying natural laws of God in his creation." (Hallowell 315)
Lucretia Mottís christology and soteriology emerge from the principle that, as theologian Daniel Migliore put it, "The doctrines of the person and work of Christ are inseparable. . . . We cannot speak meaningfully of anyoneís identity, and certainly not of Jesusí identity, apart from that personís life act. Personal identity is constituted by a personís history, by his or her life story." (Migliore 143) In Mottís reading of the Gospels, Jesus relieved peopleís suffering and brought "glad tidings of great joy." (Luke 2:10) (Greene 186) Jesus ministered to both the body and the spirit, and this ministry constituted his identity.
The version of Quaker theology which formed the background for Mottís own life acts acknowledged the need for salvation; was wrought by "obedience to the law of justice and of goodness in the soul," not by the actions, life, or death of someone eighteen centuries distant. (Greene 238)
Mottís understanding of both the need for and means of salvation was intrinsically linked to her view of humanity: sinful, but without having lost the original created goodness; estranged from God, but with the divine spark still alive within and able to be fanned into a brightly burning flame by oneís attentiveness to it. As neglect or ignorance of the laws of nature might lead to consequences which, by some, are interpreted to be the result of sin, so redemption from this sin lies in education and moral progress. Similarly, ignorance or neglect of Godís call for justice and righteousness might be rectified by education, persuasion and receptiveness to the urgings of the Spirit.
The doctrine of vicarious atonement does not change ignorance; herein lies its great harm. Mott considered vicarious atonement a gloomy doctrine (already a downfall in her eyes, since Christís mission was one of "glad tidings of great joy") because atonement leads to a sense of fatalism: either Christ has redeemed or has not; the individual cannot change this. Atonement as conceived of by evangelical Christianity led neither to an increase in knowledge of Godís laws or of the laws of nature, nor to incentive to change oneís behaviour. Ultimately the rupture of Godís and natureís laws persists, leading to the same consequences and results. Vicarious atonement had not brought individual salvation from ignorance or neglect, nor the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. It is no wonder that Mott considered atonement an "absurd doctrine." (Greene 137)
Moreover, Mott considered the soteriology of her contemporaries to be not only worthless, but dangerous. It was of great concern to her that people not be trapped into inaction by this theology. She wrote to Irish Friends:
". . . as to theology, I am sick of disputes on that subject; though I cannot say just as my husband hasĖthat he Ďdoesnít care a fig about itíĖfor I do want those I love to see their way out of the darkness and error with which they are surrounded. Moreover, I think there is so much harm done by teaching the doctrine of human depravity and dependence on a vicarious atonement, that I feel constrained to call on all, everywhere, to yield such a mistaken and paralyzing dogma (emphasis mine)." (Hallowell 209)
Salvation for humans would come through the faith of Christ, not faith in Christ. By this, Mott meant a faith like that of Jesus. She quoted from Paulís letter to the Galatians (2:20): "Faith of Jesus Christ is faith in the truth, faith in God and in man. The life that I now live in the flesh, said the Apostle, I live by the faith of the son of God. . . . Well what is this other than a faith similar to that which Jesus held, the faith of the son of God." (Greene 124)
Mott also liked to quote from the writings of William Penn, and was sometimes chastised by those who took offense, not realizing that it was with the words of one of the founders of their tradition that they disagreed, rather than with Mott. A statement of Pennís which got her into trouble with her co-religionists more than once was, "It is time that Christians were judged more by their likeness to Christ than their notions of Christ." (Greene 107)
Pennís statement underlay her christology, in that she viewed Jesus to be a human who followed the Inner Light to perfection. He was Christ because of his response to the Holy Spirit, his obedience to God and to Truth. (Greene 86) Mott spoke against the divinization of Jesus as it was commonly expressed and understood. She did not believe his divinity a unique and inherent quality, but one developed through his responsiveness to Godís will. His close communion with God, his living out of "peace on earth, good will to men," (the message proclaimed by angels at his birth, according to Luke 2:10) were redemptive. Jesus embodied what is possible for all of humanity; in the fullness of his humanity is found the fullness of his divinity.
Mottís theology of the person and work of Jesus Christ connected her anthropology with her eschatology. To Mott, Christís divinity is connected with "that divine humanity which we may find in all Godís creatures everywhere, . . ." In her local Quaker meeting in September 1849 she preached,
"This creed based upon the assumption of human depravity and completed by a vicarious atonementĖconnected with a belief in mysteries and miracles as essential to salvationĖforms a substitute for that faith which works by love and which purifies the heart, leading us into communion with God and teaching us to live in the cultivation of benevolence, to visit the widow and the fatherless in their affliction and to entertain charitable feelings one unto another." (Greene 97) She considered any faith or religion which hindered the living out of Godís will to be false religion. A faith like that of Jesus would lead each person toward their own divinity as each lived into the increasing fullness of Godís reign."
Mott looked on those who acted out the vision of Godís kingdom as children of God, messiahs. In March 1869 she stated,
"I look to this class [reformers] for such changes in the commercial world, in the monetary system of the country, in all the relations of capital and labor, in all the influences around usĖ. . . to remove the terrible oppression, the terrible wrongs which so large a part of our fellow human beings in this and other lands are groaning under, . . . I say the only means I know of appointed by God in any age of the world, is the faithfulness of His children, the obedience of those who are sent, the Sons of Him in every age, the Messiahs of their age, who have gone forth proclaiming greater liberty, greater truths to mankind, greater duty for that entire community." (Greene 335-6)
The kingdom of God was characterized by justice. Realization of Godís reign would be effected by faithful participation in removing oppression and establishing justice. Such an understanding required Mott to be involved in social reform movements. She manifested a "faith which works by love . . . leading into communion with God."
Lucretia Mott was herself one of the Messiahs of her age.
Greene, Dana, ed. Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980.
Hallowell, Anna Davis. James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.
Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. reprint ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.