Opening the Scriptures, Then and Now

By Stephen W. Angell

From East Africa to the Midwestern United States, the first decade of the twenty-first century has proven to be a momentous time for the Religious Society of Friends. In Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, to which I belong, Friends have been discussing whether our minute on environmental sustainability should include the concept of “stewardship,” that is, a concept of human responsibility for the world based on the belief that God is the owner and creator of the world and indeed of human beings. Not all Friends in Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting are comfortable with the Christian implications of this concept.

In Western Yearly Meeting, the Yearly Meeting Executive Committee this spring asked pastor Phil Gulley to participate in a “clearness committee.” Some Friends in that Yearly Meeting have asked that Phil’s recording as a pastor be removed, because he has authored books in support of the thesis that God will save every person. They do not see these books to be in accordance with Quaker theology.

(Note: The Western Yearly Meeting Executive Committee brought up on the floor of their 2007 Yearly Meeting a minute to remove Phil Gulley’s pastoral credentials. Phil was present for much of the discussion, but he did not speak. Needless to say, many other people did; and there was considerable expression of sentiments both in favor of removing Phil’s credentials, and also in opposition to the Executive Committee minute. The clerk properly discerned that there was no unity on the issue. The meeting could not agree to agree, nor could it agree to disagree; the matter was sent back to the Executive Committee for further laboring.

Sources: Conversations with Susan Lee Barton, David Edinger, and Jay Marshall, August 2007.)

In Indiana Yearly Meeting, Friends have been discussing whether it is appropriate to give meetings the liberty if they choose to administer the outward sacraments, and, if so, under what conditions. According to the Superintendent of that Yearly Meeting, Doug Shoemaker, the discussions held throughout the Yearly Meeting on this topic have been “vigorous and polarizing.”(IYM Minutes, 2006, 20)

The board meetings of Friends United Meeting, held in East Africa in February 2007, featured that body’s reaffirmation of the Richmond Declaration of Faith, over the objection of every representative of FUM’s five united, or dually affiliated, yearly meetings. Much of the discussion on Quaker blogs of this action have focused on what the Declaration has to say about the Bible. Can the Declaration’s characterization of the place of Scripture in the faith of Friends be considered “Quakerly” or not? (Maurer’s and Massey’s comments in Taber’s blog)

And throughout much of the Quaker world, there continues to be debates on the propriety of “same sex” marriage. The Friends for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer Concerns currently lists 120 monthly or yearly meetings, widely geographically dispersed, that have approved minutes that would allow same sex marriages to be held under their care. Many other Friends continue strongly to disagree with same sex marriages. Indeed, a sermon preached at the Friends United Meeting board sessions in East Africa, mentioned above, opposed same sex marriages in the strongest terms, citing the first chapter of Paul Epistle to the Romans.

These diverse events in the world of Friends do not necessarily have much in common, but one commonality is that all are rooted, in some way or another, in how Friends interpret the Bible. Friends interpret the Bible in a multiplicity of ways, something Paul Buckley and I attempted to demonstrate in our recent collection of essays from Earlham School of Religion Press entitled The Quaker Bible Reader.

Are there distinctively Quaker ways of reading the Bible? This is a matter that Nancy Bowen and I attempted to address in a classroom filled with sixteen students, in a two-week intensive course we conducted this past January on “Quakers and the Bible.” Given the controversy and contention within the Quaker world on matters that are more or less directly related to the various Quaker interpretations of the Bible, it might be appropriate to review some of the history of Quaker Bible interpretation that I presented in that classroom forum.

This is, of course, a huge topic, and I intend to be brief. Thus, I will be presenting mostly pointers, and it may well be that the most valuable contribution that this article will make is the bibliography at the end for your further reading.

Seventeenth Century

For George Fox, the Holy Spirit is that which opens the Scriptures to our understanding. Without Spirit-led opening, the Scriptures are of no use; with Spirit-led openings, they can be enormously helpful, not only to oneself, but to others to whom one ministers. This is stated early in his journal:

I was to direct people to the Spirit, that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and so up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth. . . . These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter; but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate spirit and power, as did the holy men of God by whom the holy scriptures were written. Yet I had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, they were very precious to me; for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth; and what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to them.”

According to Fox’s mystical understanding, the openings from the Spirit came first, and the consultation of the book later. It was a wonderful discovery to him that his Spirit-led openings and what he found in the Scriptures was “agreeable.” Fox’s openings could be specifically “in the Scriptures,” as he stated several times in his journal, but they did not have to be specifically there: Fox had “openings of that divine word or wisdom and power by which [the works of creation] were made,” for example, as well as openings “of outward things relating to civil government,” so the Spirit could open one’s understanding to any needful aspect of the world in which one lives.

Still, the synergy of Spirit and Scripture was a reliable part of Fox’s life, if requiring occasionally some diligence to uncover. Once what Fox “saw in the pure openings of the light without the help of any man” he was ignorant of where it could be found in Scriptures, but “afterwards, searching the scriptures, I found it.” A contemporary Friend might be tempted to say that Fox’s unconscious mind had been at work, but of course Fox had no such explanation available to him. It was all wondrous, marvelous discovery. (Digital Quaker Collection)

There was a Scriptural basis for the term “openings.” While Tom Gates calls our attention quite rightly to the story of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus “opening the scriptures” to his female companions, (Luke 24:32) one might well offer the Book of Revelation as an additional allusion for Fox: “I had great openings concerning the things written in the Revelations . . . I told [the priests and professors that] Christ could open the seals.” (Rev. 5:9-8:1) Indeed, with the frequency of occurrence of the word “open” in the book of Revelation, one can recognize a strong apocalyptic tinge to Fox’s use of this word. (Digital Quaker Collection)

These openings often had a cascading effect, one that is explored by Michael Birkel to great effect in his Engaging Scripture: Reading the Bible with Early Friends. Birkel teases out the numerous Biblical allusions in the writing of Fox and other early Friends, and points to the inspired connections that they drew between widely dispersed portions of Scripture. The cumulative effect could be very powerful, especially in the Scripture-saturated culture of seventeenth-century England. Birkel asks whether twenty-first century Friends could recapture this aspect of early Quaker culture. We have far less Scripture committed to memory than did they, but Birkel offers a “Meeting for Reading” as a way to get at the power of the Biblical immersion that formed the writings of early Friends.

In a recent examination of Quakers’ reading of the epistle to the Colossians, I argue that the most important aspects of the Quaker engagement of that text was their universalizing and spiritualizing tendencies. In Colossians 1:23, for example, Paul stated that the hope of the gospel has been “proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” Early Quakers accused their predestinarian Presbyterian opponents of ignoring this verse, but also implied that it had been mistranslated, because the Greek preposition en has here been translated as “to.” Many seventeenth-century Quakers wanted to maintain that what Paul had really stated was that the gospel was proclaimed “in every creature under heaven” – an assertion that made much sense to Christians who related most strongly to an Inward Christ, but little sense to other Christians who did not share that understanding. The early Quakers also related strongly to Colossians 1:27, which stated that Christ is “in you, the hope of glory,” interpreting that this meant that the glorious Christ was in everyone, except perhaps persecutors and “reprobates” (an exception allowed by an otherwise similar 2 Cor. 13:5.) (Angell, “Universalising,” 37-47)

Many of the early Quakers’ other favorite verses were ones that promoted an internalized, spiritual, inward, mystical and holiness-oriented Christian faith, as Fox’s writings, including his last catechism, show clearly. The gospel was not to be understood as a form of literature, but rather it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Rom. 1:17) The church is not a building, but “the people of God, which he hath purchased with his own Blood.” (Fox’s conflation of 1 Pet. 2:10 and Acts 20:28). The Word of God is not the Bible, but rather Christ; the Bible is merely the “words of God.” The cross of Christ, in Fox’s words, “is the Power of God, and this is foolishness to those that perish.” (A paraphrase of I Cor. 1:18). (See St. Laurent) The true circumcision is inward (Rom. 2:29), the true baptism is spiritual (John 1:33), and the true law is written on the heart. (Jer. 31:33). We must be guided by the Spirit of Truth, which leads us into all truth. (John 4:24)

A recent Quaker scholar, Maurice Creasey, summed up this persistent inward orientation of early Friends as “a transforming and creative personal acquaintance with and relation to Christ in the Spirit.” (Dandelion, 21) And the Bible, as read and interpreted by Friends, both pointed to this form of faith, and confirmed it after its arising.

Quakers faced a similar series of dilemmas relating to Bible verses that seemed to contradict one another. Along these lines, we might note that early Quakers tended to give an expansive reading of 2 Cor. 3:6, which states that God has made us “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This verse, if “letter” is taken to mean “Scripture,” obviously places strong limits on the use of Scripture while extending preference to Spirit, at the very least. One thus is not surprised that it is a favorite of early Quakers, appearing as an allusion in the postscript of the Letter from the Elders of Balby, cherished by many contemporary Friends:

Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.

 By way of contrast, 2 Timothy 3:16 was less beloved by early Friends. It is customarily translated as follows: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Their problem here was with the word all. When they cited this passage, they often emphasized the second clause, finding no difficulty in approving Scripture for teaching, reproof, or training in righteousness. When they addressed the first clause, they often merely affirmed that “scripture” was divinely inspired, finding no need to modify “scripture” with any adjective.

Robert Barclay and George Keith, correctly perceiving the Greek original to yield translation possibilities other than the ordinarily preferred one, argued for this alternative translation in a debate with Scottish ministers: “Every scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (Presumably there could be scriptures which were not inspired, and were not as useful.) This was only a small part of their overall debate, but they ended up with several convincements to Quakerism among their opponents after the debate had ended!

Robert Barclay’s writings, and especially his Apology, have a more rationalist tone than Fox’s mystical one. This may not be because of Barclay’s inability to appreciate truth inwardly perceived; quite the contrary, Barclay’s tone seems to be a deliberate choice, one designed to convince non-Quakers through rational argument.

The attraction that both Quakers and non-Quakers have felt toward Barclay’s writings is based precisely on his success in pre-enting rational arguments for his faith. But in translating Fox’s mystical language into his own rational language, Barclay inevi-ably changes, subtly or not-so-subtly, the ideas that he presents.

I will give only one example here. We have noted above the delightful serendipity that Fox experienced when, as he was reading the Bible, he found confirmations of the openings that had been granted to him by the Spirit. That of course would lead one to suspect that Fox believed always that openings from the Spirit would conform in some manner to the Scripture. Perhaps, as in the previous example, one verse (2 Cor. 3:6) could be interpreted broadly while another (2 Tim. 3:16) would be construed more narrowly, or a plausible alternative translation pursued, but the openings of the Spirit would still conform with Scripture in some way.

Most of Barclay’s writing about Scripture interpretation emphasizes that the Spirit is the “first and principal leader” for Christians and the Scripture only a “secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit,” something in line with the dominant thrust of most early Quaker writing. He described the Scriptures as “only a declaration of the fountain, but not the fountain itself.” (Barclay, 62-63)

Still, he wanted to work something into his text about the agreement of the Spirit and Scripture – something he believed would always happen. In Proposition Three, Section Six, he makes the case this way:

We do look upon them [the Scriptures] as the only fit outward judge of controversies among Christians; and that whatsoever doctrine is contrary unto their testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false. And for our parts, we are very willing that all our doctrines and practices be tried by them. . . . We shall also be very willing to admit it as a positive certain maxim, That whatsoever any do, pretending to the Spirit, which is contrary to the Scriptures, be accounted and reckoned a delusion of the devil.” (Barclay, 77-78; Emphasis in the original.)

Barclay succeeds in making his point in no uncertain terms, but at the cost of sacrificing some or all of the sense of wonder, marvel, and serendipity at the pleasing agreement between the openings of the Spirit and the words of Scripture that accompanies Fox’s descriptions of the same point. Barclay’s writing is carefully balanced, but future Quakers would wrest out either his definitive statement of Scripture as a “secondary rule,” or his characterization of any action contrary to Scriptures as “a delusion of the devil,” and seek to cudgel Quaker opponents on the basis of a very partial picture of Barclay’s message.

Eighteenth Century

Much of the focus of scholarship on eighteenth-century Quakers has focused on John Woolman. In many ways, Woolman’s writing retains and deepens the mystical focus of Fox and most other seventeenth-century Friends. Woolman’s concern becomes how to read the Bible, and, indeed, to promote Bible readings, in a way that encourages and nurtures saintliness.

Michael Birkel’s A Near Sympathy: the Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman explores several of Woolman’s uses of Scripture, perhaps most notably his modeling of himself on the prophet Jeremiah, who like Woolman, symbolized his testimonies with concrete actions (Woolman wore undyed clothes to protest the manufacture of indigo dye with slave labor; Jeremiah broke a potter’s jug to signify to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that God would break their city because they had forsaken God; there are other examples for both).

Another milestone in eighteenth-century Quakerism was the production of a new translation by a Quaker schoolmaster, Anthony Purver (1702-1777). His New and Literal Translation of all the books of the Old and New Testaments was published in 1764, and, while it has not been thoroughly studied, it seems to be in strong continuity with the contentions of the Quaker founders. For example, in relation to Col. 1:23, it stated that the hope of the gospel was proclaimed “in every creature under heaven.”

The advent of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 helped to bring about another era in Quaker Biblical interpretation.

1790 to 1840

One question that was not definitively dealt with by Quaker interpreters of the Scriptures before 1790 was whether it was possible that certain Scriptures could be closed. Did Quakers have faith that they could or would have openings on any or all parts of Scriptures, or were there some parts that would never yield a spiritual opening, and, in effect, were closed?

Tom Paine’s readable Age of Reason (1795) scandalized much of the English-speaking world, but it sought to present rational arguments to doubt or reject many parts of Scripture. (Paine’s father was a Quaker.) Quaker arguments for the limitation of Scripture applicability were more narrowly focused than Paine’s blockbuster work; Friends such as Abraham Shackleton of Ballitore, Ireland, and Hannah Barnard of Hudson, New York, focused their searching on whether a loving God could ever have ordered indiscriminate slaughter, as God was described as ordering in parts of the Old Testament. Barclay presented the wars of the Old Testament Jews as lawful in a previous dispensation, but unlawful in the era of Christ, with its “more perfect, eminent, and full signification of charity. . . . Something is expressly forbidden by Christ, which was granted to the Jews . . . because of their hardness.” (Barclay, 467, 471) Friends such as Barnard and Shackleton wanted a more consistent portrait of God’s loving character, even if it came at the expense of sacrificing spiritual significance for some parts of Scripture. Both Shackleton and Barnard were disowned, as Jody Cross-Hansen has shown in the last issue of this journal, but their example influenced future liberal Friends such as Elias Hicks and Lucretia Mott.

In the diverging world of Friends in the early nineteenth century, some of those who would come to the Orthodox side came to put less emphasis on the spiritual searching that resulted in the openings of the Spirit, and more emphasis on assuming that study of the Scripture would assuredly yield valuable truths. Here Joseph John Gurney was very influential. Gurney’s best work was published by a hostile publisher, Hicksite Isaac Hopper in New York. Gurney’s most intimate thoughts on the Bible were confined to a privately circulated manuscript, and Hopper managed to procure a copy.

Undoubtedly aware of Gurney’s troubles with those (who eventually formed the Wilburite party) questioning his innovative form of Biblical interpretation (innovative, that is, for Quakers), Hopper published Gurney’s Brief Remarks on Impartiality in the Interpretation of Scripture in 1840. In his preface, Hopper charged that “the author is not one in sentiment with Friends, though he is now traveling as an acknowledged minister among the Society usually denominated ‘Orthodox Friends.’” (Gurney, [3])

The writing is indeed a systematic demolition of the inward, mystical faith and interpretation of Scriptures, as preached by early Friends, and handed down, with few exceptions, to Gurney’s time itself. The pamphlet is closely argued and difficult to quote from, but here is a short selection related to Friends’ doctrine of the inner light:

Christ is here [in the Gospel of John] called the light, because it is from him that men derive the light of an eternal influence. . . . The whole misinterpretation which I wish to notice, is that of certain writers [Gurney does not specify, but surely he meant to include Fox, Barclay, and Penn] who appear to suppose that because Christ is called the light (i.e., the enlightener), he is therefore to be identified with the influence which he bestows; in short, that the light of the spirit of God in the heart of man, is itself actually Christ. The obvious tendency of this mistake, is to deprive the Savior of his personal attributes, and to reduce him to the rank of a principle. [Emphasis in the original.] (Gurney, 8)

Gurney was the first Quaker in nearly two centuries to advocate in print that the Greek preposition en in Col. 1:23 be translated as “to:” that is, his preferred translation had Paul asserting that “the hope promised by the gospel . . . has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” Gurney noted that “some persons” (he might as well have stated, every previous Friend who commented on the issue) had supposed that “’the gospel’ here signifies an internal principle, . . . which must, as they presume, mean in or within every creature.” To argue his contrary position, Gurney specified a few other texts in Scripture (out of the thousands that en is used) where the context would demand that the preposition be translated as “to.” (Gurney, 7-8)

While errors in interpreting the Bible “by no means indicate an unsound faith in those who have been betrayed into these errors,” Gurney believed that “the errors themselves are dangerous, that they are spots in the religious profession of those who fall into them, and that they ought to have no place whatever within the borders of our society, will, I hope, be cheerfully allowed by all who pray for its peace and prosperity.” (Gurney, 15)

Gurney believed that his thorough assault on the doctrine of the inward Light and many other spiritualized, mystical interpretations of early Friends restored a proper balance to Quaker Biblical interpretation and preserved its spirituality within proper bounds, but Gurney’s many critics saw him instead as standing Quaker Biblical interpretation on its head, and exchanging its consistent inward focus previously to an equally consistent emphasis on the outward facts of the Bible, characteristic of the Puritans and other opponents of early Friends.

There were some limitations to Gurney’s onslaughts against Friends’ spiritualized faith; he grudgingly accepted Quaker doctrines that the observance of the sacraments, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were to occur inwardly rather than outwardly. Some of his Friends, most notably, Isaac Crewdson , a textile manufacturer from Manchester, England, believed that Gurney was not being consistent enough in his assault on the spiritualized doctrines of early Friends. Crewdson was a leader of the “Beaconite” faction in the 1830s that, among other things, utterly denied the existence of an inward light of Christ, and advocated the outward observance of the sacraments.

A London Yearly Meeting bitterly divided between evangelicals and traditionalists held together under the rain of charges from the Beaconites, and the Beaconites decided to separate from the main body. But, in the midst of this controversy, Gurney managed to move the yearly meeting more towards his evangelical doctrines, especially on the interpretation of the Bible. Gurney succeeded in getting approval for this minute from London Yearly Meeting in 1837, the year after the Beaconite secession:

It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; and therefore the declarations contained in them rest on the authority of God Himself and there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever; that they are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus: being the appointed means of making known to us the blessed truths of Christianity; that they are the only divinely authorized record of the doctrines which we are bound as Christians to believe, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions; and that no doctrine which is not contained in them can be required of anyone to be believed as an article of faith; that whatsoever any man says or does which is contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion. (Russell, p. 347)

Undoubtedly this minute will look very familiar to some twenty-first century Friends, and that is almost surely because in 1887, half a century after its original approval in London Yearly Meeting, an evangelical English Friend, Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, contrived to incorporate nearly all of it in the new statement of faith for the Gurneyite branch of Orthodox Quakerism, the Richmond Declaration of Faith.

Historian Elbert Russell, who quotes this influential minute at length, notes that while it makes use of Barclay, it also substantially changes Barclay’s meaning. Russell wrote, “The word ‘outward’ is omitted from Barclay’s statement that ‘there can be no appeal from them to any other outward authority whatsoever.’ The idea that Christians are bound to believe any doctrines is a new one; and that in the Society of Friends any theological doctrines as such are required to be believed is revolutionary.” Rufus Jones characterized this minute as “a complete triumph for the Evangelical wing of the Society.” (Russell, p. 347)

While twenty-first century Friends may be hazy on the early nineteenth century roots of the evangelical revolution within the Orthodox branch of our religious movement, we certainly live with the consequences today. Several of the yearly meetings that participated in the Richmond Conference of 1887 never approved the Richmond Declaration of Faith; and attempts within the past quarter-century to obtain a reaffirmation of the Declaration from Friends United Meeting have proved divisive and exceedingly controversial.

While liberal Friends, led by Barnard and Shackleton, were outspoken against the closed nature of certain Biblical passages that have always been at best peripheral to Friends’ witness, the party that followed Joseph John Gurney on the matter of Biblical interpretation were outspoken in the closed nature, to them at least, of certain parts of the early Quaker witness which other Friends had felt had been central to that witness. The “vigorous and polarizing” debate noted by Doug Shoemaker in Indiana Yearly Meeting on these doctrinal issues relating to outward sacraments is nothing new; we have been living with this kind of polarization for about two centuries now. (IYM Minutes, 2006, p. 20) Is it possible to get past the areas that are closed to us in order to explore new openings of the Spirit for Friends in this century?

Contemporary Friends’ Dilemmas

Now we can return to the contemporary Friends’ dilemmas with which this essay began. Is there anything that this history of the first two centuries of Quaker Biblical interpretation can tell us about our own time?

Take Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and some of its members’ concerns about the use of the term “stewardship” to bolster its minutes on environmental sustainability. “Stewardship” implies a creator God, who grants us the use of this beautiful earth, but on the condition that we understand ourselves to be tenants; ownership of the earth lies with God. Thus one might meditate on Psalm 104, especially verse 24: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all: the earth is full of your creatures.” For Quakers who operate out of a framework of environmental stewardship, verses like these emphasize our responsibility for treating God’s creation with the utmost care and respect.

One source of opposition to a yearly meeting doctrine of environmental stewardship would come from non-theists, for whom the idea of a personal God intimately involved in the world’s creation is quite problematic. For them, avoidance of the term “stewardship” would be preferable. But, of course, from this perspective, the Scriptures have only the most limited relevance. If the testimony of the prophets and apostles to God’s presence among us no longer has meaning, then it would appear that most of the Scriptures must remain closed to us, and we must look for openings elsewhere.

In the controversy involving pastor Phil Gulley in Western Yearly Meeting, the books he wrote (with a co-author, Jim Mulholland, who, while also a pastor in Western Yearly Meeting, is an ordained Baptist, and hence not subject in the same way to the Yearly Meeting’s strictures) are very strongly based in the Scriptures. In fact, the first book by Gulley and Mulholland (If Grace is True: Why God will Save Every Person) has a long list of Scriptural references at the end, supporting the authors’ opening that salvation, in some mysterious way, has to be universal. One verse cited by Gulley and Mulholland is Col. 1:20: “Through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Of course, there are other Scriptural passages, including some in the Gospels themselves, that do not support the doctrine of universal salvation. From the Sermon on the Mount, for example, one finds this: “Enter through the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14) Some of Jesus’ parables, such as the one concerning a royal marriage (Matt. 22:2-14), present this theme very prominently.

How does Gulley’s and Mulholland’s exegesis fit into the Quaker patterns of Scriptural interpretation discussed here? Their selectivity would not necessarily appear to be a problem in itself; after all, Quakers from Fox’s time on have always been selective in the ways we have appealed to Scripture. Even early Friends, as we have seen, gave expansive readings to Scriptural passages that they favored and narrow readings to ones that they found more difficult.

Gulley and Mulholland are no exception here. The fact that their selectivity downplays portions of the gospels may cause more Quakers to pause, as the gospels are often seen by Friends as the core of the Scriptures underlying Quaker testimonies. Early Friends, especially Fox, wrote little about hell and less about heaven. While Fox was certain that persecutors of Friends would end up in hell, he had far less anxiety about his own future state, if only because (for early Friends) the state of life after convincement seemed so much like heaven, and this even when Quaker witness landed them in English dungeons.

Convincement was a greater transition than heaven. Like Barnard and Shackleton, Gulley and Mulholland display an admirable concern for portraying God in a consistent manner. If God is love, why would a loving God not find a way to save all people? If Fox and other early Friends were to weigh in on Western Yearly Meeting’s debate on theology, they might not side so much with Gulley and Mulholland, or with their opponents, as to wish for less debate on this particular issue. They might well maintain that it is more important how we embody God’s love in this lifetime rather than theorize (or Fox’s term here, “be high in notion”) about what form God’s love will take in a future life. (Digital Quaker Collection)

The Scriptural subtext of the sacraments debate in Indiana Yearly Meeting has been especially interesting to me. Some passages of the New Testament offer strong support for Quaker testimonies of an inward practice of the sacraments; others are less clear in this respect. This has led to some intriguing methods of Scriptural interpretation for Friends, when it comes to matters of sacraments.

For example, reflecting on the book of Acts, which records Christians engaging in both Spirit and water baptisms, George Whitehead, an early Friend, asserted that water baptisms had been performed by the first generation of Christians “for the sake of some that were weak or young in the truth, and not wholly redeemed out of the state that such carnal or weak ordinances related to, which were upheld in the time of the Churches infancy.” (Underwood, 74) Quakers pointed out, with considerable justification, that the reflections by prophets and apostles on the matter of circumcision had shown a similar progressive trend throughout the Scriptural canon; why should we not assume that kind of progressivity with respect to baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

Of course, Christian churches (and more particularly, the evangelical and mainline Protestant churches with which Indiana Yearly Meeting’s pastoral churches have much in common) have almost uniformly advocated a more literal and less canonically contextual reading of many of the key passages relating to the practice of sacraments. There can be little doubt that, for many Indiana Friends, the contemporary cultural context is crucial, in relation to how they wish to live out their testimonies on the sacraments.

In particular, if in an evangelical Protestant Midwestern culture, outward baptism is normative as to how one enters into a church communion, there are many Indiana Friends (indeed, just about half) who want that option available for themselves to offer to potential converts. In other words, the case for change asserts that the cultural context may require a specific, less counter-cultural, kind of Scriptural interpretation on the sacraments, if Indiana Friends are to reverse their long-term decline in members. The relationship between contemporary cultural context and Scripture openings has always been one difficult to discern, and the discernment seems to be no less difficult here.

If there is anything that I would wish for, it would be that Friends would read the Scriptures more often and more diligently, and furthermore, in weighing their leadings and discerning openings, that they consider carefully and tenderly the multiple ways that Friends have engaged in Scriptural interpretation.


Angell, Stephen W. “The Catechisms of George Fox: Why they were written in the first place, what was contained in them, what use was made of them, and what we can learn from them today.” Quaker Theology 5/2 (Fall/Winter, 2003).

Angell, Stephen W. “Universalising and Spiritualising Christ’s Gospel: How Early Quakers Interpreted the Epistle to the Colossians,” Quaker Studies 11/1 (Spring 2006): 34-58

Barclay, Robert. Apology for the True Christian Divinity. Glenside, Pennsylvania: Quaker Heritage Press and Peter D. Sippel, 2002. [Original date of publication, 1678.]

Birkel, Michael L. Engaging Scripture: Reading the Bible with Early Friends. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press and Earlham Press, 2005.

Birkel, Michael L. A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2003.

Buckley, Paul and Stephen W. Angell. The Quaker Bible Reader. Richmond, Indiana: Earlham School of Religion Press, 2006.

Cross-Hansen, Jody, “Putting the Bible in Perspective: Hicksites and the Theological Treatment of the Bible in Progressive Reform,” Quaker Theology 7/2 (Winter 2007).

Dandelion, Pink. An Introduction to Quakerism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Earlham School of Religion. Digital Quaker Collection.

Gates, Tom. Opening the Scriptures: Bible Lessons from the 2005 Annual Gathering of Friends. Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2006.

Gulley, Philip and James Mulholland. If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003.

Gurney, Joseph John. Brief Remarks on the Impartiality in the Interpretation of Scripture. New York: Printed for Isaac T. Hopper, 1840.

Minutes, 2006, for Indiana Yearly Meeting; Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting; and Western Yearly Meeting.

Purver, Anthony. A New and Literal Translation of All the Books of the Old and New Testament, with notes critical and explanatory. London: W. Richardson and S. Clark, 1764.

Russell, Elbert. The History of Quakerism. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1979. [Originally published, 1941.]

St. Laurent, Simon, “Fox’s Speller?” in Light and Silence: Reflections on Quakerism

Taber, Will. “Back from Africa with a Broken Heart.” (See also comments by Johan Maurer, Marshall Massey, and others.) In Growing Together in the Light.

Underwood, T. L. Primitivism, Radicalism, and the Lamb’s War: The Baptist-Quaker Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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