“Let the holy seed of life reign” Perfection, Pelagianism, and the early Friends

John Connell


“For this was the error of Pelagius, which we indeed reject and abhor, and which the Fathers deservedly withstood, that man by his natural strength, without the help of God’s grace, could attain to that state so as not to sin.”
– Robert Barclay

One of the theological distinctions that set the early Friends apart from most of their contemporaries was an insistence upon the possibility of eventual sinless perfection for the believer through obedience to the light of Christ. But this controversial position also opened up the Friends to the charge of Pelagianism. [Denial of the doctrines of original sin and predestination, and the defense of innate human goodness and free will.] Was this accusation correct? The issues involved in such a charge cover the areas of sin, grace, free will, and human nature. George Fox, Robert Barclay and William Penn all battled the accusation that they were Pelagian in their theological anthropology, their understanding of human nature as created by God.

Pe·la·gi·an·ism/pəˈlāj(ē)əˌnizəm/noun: the theological doctrine of Pelagius and his followers, in particular the denial of the doctrines of original sin and predestination, and the defense of innate human goodness and free will.”

This accusation was usually lodged in direct connection with their assertion that a state of perfection for the believer was attainable. But are there differences in their view of perfection and that of Pelagius? And if so, are these differences substantive enough to differentiate Friends from a truly Pelagian position? A careful examination will demonstrate that in fact there are differences, and that they are substantive differences indeed.

Not only can it be demonstrated that these Friends were not guilty of being Pelagian in regards to the doctrine of perfection, but it will also be made manifest that in fact the early Friends had set forth a middle position. A position that seeks to avoid the extremes reflected in the arguments of both Augustine and Pelagius by articulating a uniquely new and innovative theological anthropology.
To begin, we will very briefly frame the context of the great debate between Augustine and Pelagius before moving on to examine how the views of these early Friends fit into that debate.


In his book Pelagius:A Historical and Theological Study, John Ferguson reports that little is definitively know of Pelagius’ (c.354-c.418 C.E.) background, except that he came from the British Isles to Rome around 380 C.E.1 But once there, he soon made a good name for himself as a teacher of moral precepts. What critics he had seem to have been a result of his imperious manner of instruction. “His asceticism was widely famed and admired . . . If he had a moral fault it lay in a real or apparent lack of humility.”2 Pelagius reacted strongly against the culture he encountered at Rome, including the one within the Church. “The moral laxity of the time shocked him into calling his contemporaries to a stricter ascetism and a deeper loyalty to the Gospel.”3

Whether a direct result of the situation he found at Rome or not, it is clear that Pelagius was very concerned with the problem of sin. But unlike his great antagonist Augustine he sees the cause of this problem not in the nature of man, but in the moral choices of man. Pelagius believed in a strong connection between faith and works. “He asked whether sin could be defined in terms which made it an inextricable portion of human nature and therefore inevitable, or whether on the other hand sin did not always imply a degree of moral responsibility and of blameworthiness.”4 Pelagiu s denied that there is an inherent flaw in the nature of the human will (depravity), and that the sin of Adam has forever distorted the will of man so that he is naturally inclined to sin (original sin). Such a concept was anathema to Pelagius’ view of human free will and individual responsibility for sin.

Pelagius believed that a condition of sinlessness was possible, but his insistence on this view came with a rather large caveat. As Ferguson writes, “Pelagius’ denial of original sin and his asseveration of the possibility of sinlessness did not involve him necessarily in maintaining that any individual had in fact achieved such sinless living.”5 Ferguson also notes that in addition to his rejection of human depravity as a reason for maintaining the possibility of sinlessness, Pelagius asserts that scripture commands it. “In the Old and New Testaments alike moral commandments are laid upon us unquestionably and absolutely. We are to be holy as God is holy, perfect as he is perfect, without spot or blemish. If these commands are impossible of fulfillment, why are they enjoined upon us”?5 In addition, Pelagius also argued that scripture attributes this state of perfection to certain biblical figures (e.g. Enoch).7

But at the heart of the issue is Pelagius’ view of the role of divine grace in human choices. He saw grace as an external aid from God in helping us to make moral choices for the good, but that the responsibility of evil ultimately rests with us since the will is freely our own. “This I stated in the interest of free will. God is its helper whenever it chooses good; man, however, when sinning is himself in fault, as under the direction of a free will.”8

This view of Pelagius brought him into direct conflict with Augustine (354-430 C.E.). Augustine taught that the inheritance of original sin had resulted in human depravity; where our will is in bondage and fundamentally corrupted. This corruption is such that we cannot resist sin, respond to God, or choose the good at all, unless God first bestows an interior work of grace on us in order to regenerate our fallen natures.9 Augustine states it this way,

“Whence the apostle says, ‘When ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.’ Behold, they are shown to have been by no means able to serve sin except by another freedom. They are not, then, free from righteousness except by the choice of the will, but they do not become free from sin save by the grace of the Saviour.”10

This idea that our will was free, yet only so within the context of its overall bondage to sin, was the issue of greatest dispute between Augustine and Pelagius. Augustine taught that our will was free in that we could choose that which we wanted, but our fallen nature left us in such a state that we only wanted selfishness and evil while unregenerate. In contrast, Pelagius believed our free will was perfectly capable of choosing right over wrong if we tried hard enough.

Augustine felt that Pelagius’ view regarding the free will of man seriously misjudged the fallen state of our human nature. If Pelagius was right, he argued, man is able to reconcile himself to God in the strength of his own will. He quotes Pelagius, “The man who hastens to the Lord, and desires to be directed by him, that is, who makes his own will depend upon God’s, who moreover cleaves so closely to the Lord as to become (as the apostle says) one spirit’ with Him, does all this by nothing else than by his freedom of will.” But Augustine objects to this indignantly stating, “Observe how great a result he has here stated to be accomplished only by our freedom of will; and how, in fact, he supposes us to cleave to God without the help of God: for such is the force of his words, by nothing else than by his own freedom of will.”11

Augustine emphatically maintains that it is by divine grace alone that our depravity is overcome: “For the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord must be apprehended, as that by which alone men are delivered from evil, and without which they do absolutely no good thing, whether in thought, or will and affection, or in action;”12

The salient point of diversion between Pelagius and Augustine centers on the apparent conflict between their ideas of our will and our human nature. Is our will actually free and able to make moral choices? Can we choose to cleave to God in the strength of our free will? Or is the will in bondage to our depraved natures, and incapable of choosing to cleave to God unless supernaturally aided? Inherent in this dilemma is that the two options appear to be mutually exclusive. One must either choose one option or the other since they cannot both be true. However, what if this dichotomy proved illusory? Could it be possible to affirm both positions? An examination of what early Friends believed will be helpful in sorting through this dilemma.

Human Nature

To begin with, a crucial distinction can be observed when comparing Pelagius’ view of our human nature to that of the early Friends. Unlike Pelagius, George Fox’s acceptance of the possibility of perfection did not also necessarily entail a rejection of the depravity of human nature. In fact as Douglas Gwyn notes concerning Fox, “He tends more toward the simple biblical view of the light of God versus the darkness of the world. His view of human nature is summarily unhopeful, viewing it as utterly dark.”13 Despite what some of his critics may have alleged, Fox did not believe that the power of man’s natural rationality could lead him to God. Gwyn continues, “Hence there is not even a faint glimmer of what might be called a primeval, natural light in the human condition as far as Fox is concerned. Fox places no stock in rationality, stating that the mind can only wander fruitlessly in regard to salvation.”14

Fox was adamant in his insistence upon the necessity of the inner light of Christ for moral choices that would be pleasing to God, and that its absence left only darkness in the individual. Fox taught,

“That God is light, and in him is no darkness at all; and that he has sent his son a light into the world, to enlighten all men in order to salvation; and that they that say they have fellowship with God, and are his children and people, and yet walk in darkness, (viz. in disobedience to the light in their consciences, and after the vanity of this world,) they lie and do not the truth. But that all such as love the light, and bring their deeds to it, and walk in the light, as God is light, the blood of Jesus Christ his son should cleanse them from all sin.’”15

It is clear that Fox didn’t believe humans were capable in their own nature or power of making right moral choices. While he may have rejected some of the conclusions that Augustine (and Fox’s Puritan contemporaries) drew from the reality of original sin (like Predestination), he nonetheless held to a view that reflected a similar diagnosis of the problem regarding our fallen nature, “Now death having passed over all men, and all were concluded under sin, and all died in Adam, so that condemnation must come upon all men, so that all were baptized or plunged into death, sin, and evil, by disobedience to God’s command and ordinance.”16

It also seems clear that William Penn took a similarly dim view of human nature. In fact, he openly cited man’s depravity and the need to counteract it in his defense of the institutions of government.

“For this Cause they have Sessions, Terms, Assizes and Parliaments, to over-rule Men’s Passions and Resentments, that they may not be Judges in their own Cause, nor Punishers of their own Wrongs, which as it is very incident to Men in their Corrupt State, so, for that Reason, they would observe no Measure; nor on the other Hand would any be easily reduced to their Duty. Not that Men know not what is right, their Excesses, and wherein they are to blame: by no Means; nothing is plainer to them: But so depraved is Human Nature, that without Compulsion, some Way or other, too many would not readily he brought to do what they know is right and fit, or avoid what they are satisfy’d they should not do:”17

Like Fox, Penn wholeheartedly rejected notions that Christ’s death persuaded God to pardon human sins, and that this pardon was divinely transferred, or imputed, to believing humans. Penn wanted nothing to do with such imputative theories of man’s justification. This was similar to Pelagius’ position. But for Penn this rejection of imputation was because he viewed these theories as deceptive ideas that encouraged complacency in regards to one’s own sin, and that they were foreign to the teaching of scripture. In no way did his rejection of these theories of an imputed righteousness reflect a denial of the corrupt state of man’s fallen nature however. Rather, he simply believed that they were,

“Dangerous, because it begets a confident Perswasion in many People of their being Justified, whilst in Captivity to those Lusts, whose Reward is Condemnation; whence came that usual Saying amongst many Professors of Religion, That God looks not on them as they are in themselves, but as they are in Christ; not considering that none can be in Christ, who are not New Creatures, which those can’t be reputed, who have not disrob’d themselves of their old Garments, but are still inmantled with the Corruptions of the Old Man.”18

Robert Barclay gives us the most explicit statements of the early Friends’ view concerning human nature thanks to his systematic treatment of it.

“All the descendants of Adam, that is, all of mankind, are in a fallen, demoralized, and deadened state. They are deprived of sensing or feeling the inward testimony or seed of God (Rom. 5:12, 15). They are subject instead to the seed of the serpent, sown in men’s hearts while they remain in this natural and corrupted state. Not only their words and deeds, but their thoughts are evil in the sight of God while they remain in this state. In this state man can know nothing correctly. Even his thoughts of God and spiritual matters are unprofitable to himself and others until he has been disjoined from this evil seed and has been united to the Divine Light.”19

Barclay draws copious scriptural support from both Old and New Testaments to support his case for man’s depravity. He notes the explicit and inarguable logic in particular of the Apostle Paul regarding this subject in Rom. 3:10-18, and he asks:

“Could anything be more definite? He seems to be particularly careful to avoid ascribing any good to natural man. He shows how polluted he is in all his ways. He shows how void he is of righteousness, of understanding, of the knowledge of God. How lost he is, and in short, useless. Nothing could be said which would more fully confirm our judgment that if this is the condition of natural man, he is incapable of one single correct step toward heaven.”20

We see then that the early Friends can be clearly distinguished from Pelagius by their belief in the hopeless condition of man’s fallen nature. As modern commentator Wilmer Cooper confirms, “Other early Friends had equally strong views about the chronic nature of sin. Isaac Pennington believed that humanity was by nature in “a state of sin and darkness; a state accursed from God; exposed to his wrath and most righteous judgments, both here and hereafter.”21


While it has been demonstrated that the early Friends accepted a very Augustinian understanding of depraved human nature, it would be a mistake to assume that this point alone renders them strictly Augustinian in the matter. Augustine felt that the logical conclusion of this hopeless view of human nature required a correlative view of the absolute divine sovereignty of predestination. In other words since man is helpless to save himself apart from God’s grace, that must mean that God “predestines” who he will “elect” to save via that grace and whom he will damn as a “reprobate” by withholding that grace.

This view was strenuously objected to by the early Friends for several reasons. For one, as Barclay states, as a distortion of God’s sovereignty that implies divine responsibility for sin:

“For if God has decreed that those foreordained to damnation shall perish without any regard to whether they committed evil deeds, but merely because he wishes it to be; and if he also decreed long before they were born that they were predestined to wicked ways; who was the first author and cause of this, if not God who willed it thus and decreed it so?”22

In his agreement with Barclay on this point, Penn presents the opposite side of the same coin by protesting that this view would also remove all human responsibility for their own acts of good or evil:

“If Righteousness or Wickedness are the Grounds of God’s Rewarding or Punishing the Souls of Men, then is there no Predestination previous, without Consideration had to their Works; . . . If Man may turn from his Righteousness and Wickedness, then are the Means no more inevitably Predestinated for Men to use, than before-mentioned; but Men may turn from either, and accordingly they will be rewarded; therefore no such Predestinated Damnation or Salvation.”23

In Barclay we see an attempt to definitively set Friends apart from both sides in this debate, viewing each as extreme positions. First, as we read in the epigraph, he denies the Pelagian position: “For this was the error of Pelagius, which we indeed reject and abhor, and which the Fathers deservedly withstood, that man by his natural strength, without the help of God’s grace, could attain to that state so as not to sin.”24 Likewise Barclay also seeks to distance Friends from Augustine’s view of predestination via original sin:

“Others again will needs run into another extreme, (to whom Augustine, among the ancients, first made way in his declining age, through the heat of his zeal against Pelagius ,) not only confessing man incapable of himself to do good, and prone to evil; but that in his very mother’s womb, and before he commits any actual transgression, he is contaminate with a real guilt, whereby he deserves eternal death: in which respect they are not afraid to affirm, That many poor infants are eternally damned, and forever endure the torments of hell. Therefore the God of truth, having now again revealed his truth (that good and even way) by his own Spirit, hath taught us to avoid both these extremes.25

Clearly then the early Friends sought to avoid these extremes as distortions of the truth. While Pelagius was seen as giving man too much credit for his own redemption, Augustine was seen as attributing injustice or capriciousness to God. But what alternative is left? If our wills are indeed corrupted by our depravity so as to be unable to move towards God without his pre-emptive aid, does that not make our salvation a predestined product of God’s will alone just as Augustine concluded? For help in answering this we must look to the early Friends understanding of election and reprobation.

Election and Reprobation

The early Friends certainly affirmed both election and reprobation. But rather than use man’s depravity as a pretext to assign responsibility to God for placing men in these states, they rather affirm man’s free will as a factor in the process. Fox asks, “And so, is it not through unbelief in the grace and the light of Christ, that is the cause now of people’s condemnation and reprobation, and not of their election in the grace?”26

In addition, Friends asserted the universal availability of God’s grace in the light of Christ. Fox writes, “But if they walk despitefully against the spirit of grace, that is poured upon all flesh, they go into reprobation and condemnation, from the election; and then God is just in judging them, according to his mercy upon all, and his grace that hath appeared unto all, that would teach all, and bring their salvation.”27

It will be noticed that Fox here is choosing to define election via negation. In other words, he defines it by stating what it is not. He uses the word “unbelief,” and the phrase “walk despitefully against the spirit of grace” in order to define reprobation, while refraining from discussing active belief as the causal force of election. At the same time he also asserts the universality of God’s grace. This appears to suggest that for Fox, election is the starting position for all at some point unless actively resisted. That all people receive grace unconditionally via the light, and do so by the sovereign will of the Creator and through no action of their own. However response to that light is not compulsory, either by virtue of God’s sovereign decree or the limitations of their depraved nature; but rather is left to the creature whom may choose whether or not to resist it. Thus, culpability for humans is found in a negative or resistive response to grace, as opposed to merit being assigned to the individual for a positive choice to actively exercise belief.

Barclay similarly describes the process with added precision,

“That to this end God hath given to every man a measure of the light of his own Son–a measure of grace–a measure of the Spirit. Thirdly, That God, in and by this light, invites, calls, exhorts, and strives, with every man, in order to save him: which light received, and not resisted , works the salvation of all; but that it may be resisted , and then it becomes man’s condemnation.”28

Much like Fox, Barclay is asserting that active belief is a product of the supernatural grace of God working within humans (Ephesians 2:8), while active disbelief or resistance is a product of the human will, thus producing culpability (Acts 7:51).

William Penn states it in even stronger and more emphatic terms:

“Those therefore who are Regenerated by the One Holy Seed, which Seed is Christ, Elect and Precious, God makes His Vessels of Honour for ever; and they who have spent their Heavenly Portion, defil’d themselves, resisted the Heavenly Invitations, and are become One Spirit with the God of the World, who Rules in the Hearts of the Children of Disobedience, such Adulterated Ones God separates from him, as Vessels of Dishonour and Wrath, sitted for Destruction (but by themselves, not from the Lord.)” 29

Thus for these early Friends, our regeneration is solely the work of God and his sovereign will, but our condemnation solely the work of our own free will. This “volitional bifurcation” would appear to surpass the entire Augustine/Pelagian debate.

But this may beg the question, how did the early Friends come to affirm both poles of this antinomy? How exactly did they acknowledge the inability of the human will to overcome our depraved human natures (Augustine), while at the same time asserting human responsibility in their response to God’s grace (Pelagian)?

The answer can be found in the words of George Fox, “For God hath made all nations of men of one flesh, blood and mould, and would have them all to repent, and live to Christ; for they all died in Adam, and their minds are reprobated from God; but the election is in Christ, his grace: and so it lies in the two seeds, and not in persons.”30 As will be shown, the Quaker understanding of the “two seeds” forms the linchpin between what most in the Church have seen as seemingly incongruous ideas.

The debate over human free will versus the sovereign will of God that has raged throughout the centuries presumes that such a contest of wills is a zero sum game. Or to put it another way, that salvation must be 100% of God, and 0% of humans or else God is not sovereign. The reason being that if it is even 1% of human beings and 99% of God, then God cannot be a truly sovereign God because his will could be thwarted by the failure of man to do his 1%. Theoretically, that would mean that God could have sent Jesus to die on the cross “for the sins of the world,” but not a single human could opt to accept his sacrifice. Thus no person would ever have been saved, rendering God utterly impotent to save anyone without the help of human beings. Reformed theologians have long argued that this makes a man or woman’s will the determinative factor in salvation since the process could never gain efficacy without his or her consent.31

But Friends seem to challenge this assumption by postulating two seeds, or wills, operating within the individual; both a fallen human will, and a second incarnational will of Christ. This makes perfect sense when considered in the light of the early Friends primary emphasis upon the direct revelatory experience of Jesus Christ. A concept that is succinctly, clearly, and quite literally illustrated in Fox’s statement that, “Christ is come to teach his people himself”32 This model of parallel volition appears to avoid what has been historically considered an unavoidable contradiction. In order to grasp this more fully, it will be beneficial to further explore the early Friends understanding of the “two seeds.”

The Two Seeds

Like most Christians, the early Friends traced the Gospel message of salvation in Christ back to Genesis 3:15; often called the Proto-evangelium.33 “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” The early Friends understanding of this passage differed from their contemporaries. Most Puritans would have understood the seed of the woman to represent the entire human race descended from Adam as John Calvin had argued,34 while the seed of the serpent is sin, or perhaps the followers of Satan.35 But Fox identifies the seed of the woman instead with the eternal Christ himself, and the seed of the serpent with our fallen and depraved natures inherited from Adam. “When you are born again, ye will know election and reprobation; for the election stands in Christ, the seed, before the world began; but the reprobation lies in the evil seed since the world began.”36 [emphasis mine] Rather than two external realities or entities in conflict, Fox understood the two seeds as internal to each individual. But the two seeds are clearly not of the same origin, and that appears to be what produces the conflict.

The two seeds appear to be at war within the individual for control. Douglas Gwyn observes that, “The conflict between the seed born according to the Spirit and the seed born according to the flesh (see Gal, 4:24-31) is a battle waged upon a human battleground . . . There can be no peace as long as two wills compete for supremacy within.”37 But this is not a battle for outright conquest, but rather a quest for co-operative submission. Victory seems to be found more in the act of surrender than in an act of forcing capitulation. As Fox writes,

“And therefore, all men being enlightened by Christ, who hath tasted death for all men; and God’s grace hath appeared unto all men, to teach, and bring their salvation; and he hath poured his spirit upon all flesh, and so his mercies are upon all; and therefore must all believe in this light, if they will be grafted into Christ Jesus, and receive the grace and the spirit, in their own hearts, at home, if they will come to the election in Christ, from whence this grace, light, truth and spirit comes;”38

Christ is clearly the assertive partner in this transaction while the person is urged to embrace passivity in the sense of relinquishing control of self or ceasing all resistance. “Let the holy seed of life reign over death and the unholy seed in you all.”39 These two seeds then seem to represent for early Friends the will of our fallen nature, and the will born of the light. But we must dig a bit deeper to learn how the light and the two seeds all interact.

The Light and the Seed

As was mentioned earlier, Fox believed that obedience to the “light of Christ,” which is universally available, is the only means by which humans may escape the darkness of their fallen nature and its correspondingly corrupted will. As Gwyn notes in his analysis of Fox’s message, it is an abandonment of one’s self to the light that produces a correlative rise of another will; one born of the seed lodging within.

“If the individual perseveres in standing before the light of God’s judgment throne, giving up the self, then Christ the revealer comes to be revealed. This is the pivotal point of salvation as not only the will of the flesh and the power of sin are judged, but a new will and power are raised up in the seed, the new person in Christ. Fox describes this in his own experience as my inward mind joined to his good seed,’ and as an inward life’ springing up in him.”40

It becomes clear then that the early Friends were affirming a supernatural work of grace visited upon the individual to overcome the depraved will, but one that requires the volitional co-operation, or non-resistance, of the individual as well. William Penn puts it thus,

“Now it is the same blessed Seed of Light, Life and Grace, which from God the Father is sown in thy Heart, and which hath moved and wrought there the Change which thou hast witnessed from the Spirit of this World: Turn to it, watch in it, that by it thou mayst be kept from all that it discovers to be contrary to God; especially from thy self, from thine own Runnings, Willings, and Strivings: For whatsoever is not born of the Spirit is Flesh; and that inherits not the Kingdom of God; but all that sow to it shall inherit Corruption.”41

Again we get a strong sense of surrender of the self; “especially from thy self” Penn says. In essence what is being described is sacrifice; the sacrifice of self-will to a will that is born of another. As perhaps the apostle Paul would say, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” (Gal. 2:20)

Turning to Robert Barclay, we again see this principle of a divinely intervening grace and a human volitional act held in a co-operating tension.

“When we speak of the seed or light we understand a spiritual, celestial, and invisible principle, a principle in which God dwells as Father, Son, and Spirit. A measure of this divine and glorious principle exists as a seed in all men which by its nature draws, invites, and inclines the individual toward God. Some call this thevehiculum Dei, or the spiritual body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, which came down from heaven, and on which all who have faith are fed and nourished with eternal life. . . where the seed is received in the heart and allowed to bring forth its natural and proper effect, Christ is resurrected and takes shape as the new man which the scriptures so often speak of: Christ within, the hope of glory.”42

Wilmer Cooper calls Barclay’svehiculum Dei,“the divine receptacle or conveyor, which by God’s grace makes possible the divine-human encounter. Fox frequently used the term that of God in everyone’ to suggest the same meaning.”43 Gwyn in his discussion of the great revelatory import of this for the believer calls it a “prophetic Christology.”44

This is a truly radical interpretation of incarnational Christianity. Oneness with Christ is achieved through the spiritual and volitional proxy of the seed. Direct access is available not through the application of scripture reading, nor the vicarious celebration of the sacraments, nor even the intercessory work of the priesthood. But rather it is achieved through a true union with Christ via a giving over of self-will to the internal testimony of the divine will.

Surrender of one’s inner life to the moving of this divine principle within provides the impetus for transformation of the individual. Christ speaks prophetically in and through those who are truly yielded to his presence. The submission of one’s own will doesn’t leave a vacuum, but rather provides room for the operation of the divine will. “And be not conformed to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Rom. 12:2)

The early Friends understanding regarding the process of the “holy seed” of Christ reigning over the “unholy seed” of our fallen nature was not only incarnational in operation, but potentially universal in scope. As Gwyn explains, “The incarnation of Christ, the seed, is the incarnation in a oneness of experience and obedience that gathers people out of many conditions male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free (Gal. 3:28).”45

In other words a unity is produced by the common experience of, and obedience to, the seed of Christ. Disunity is produced by the diverse self-wills of a community simultaneously striving for expression. However a community that has collectively submitted to the single will of the incarnated Christ will be in harmony, just as the members of one body are in harmony under a single head. (Rom. 12:5)

This radically incarnational understanding of the indwelling of the believer has many significant implications for Friends, but it bears particular significance in clarifying how they came to understand the idea of perfection.


As was mentioned at the outset, the early Friends’ insistence on the possibility of reaching a state of perfection made them vulnerable to the charge of Pelagianism. However, having gained an understanding of the incarnational nature of the relationship between the believer and Christ in the seed, one can easily see how this becomes a logical inference that the early Friends were able to draw. As Fox states,

“O therefore feel the grace and truth in thy heart, that is come by Jesus Christ, that will teach thee how to live, and what to deny. It will establish thy heart, season thy words, and bring thy salvation, and will be a teacher unto thee at all times. By it thou mayest receive Christ, from whence it comes; and as many as receive him, to them he gives power not only to stand against sin and evil, but to become the sons of God:”46

The early Friends also saw ample scriptural warrant for holding that such a perfected state was possible. As Penn comments concerning John’s first epistle,

“They that deny Perfection from Sin, deny the End of Christ’s (Chap 3. ver. 4, 5, 8, 9.) Coming, if this Beloved Disciple may be Judge; for faith he, Christ was manifested to take away our Sins; and whosoever abideth in him, sinneth not: For this Purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the Works of the Devil; and whosoever is born of God, doth not commit Sin.”47

Nonetheless, it does seem that Friends sought to define their understanding of perfection as something less than absolute. Fox writes,” so let every one be faithful according to his proportion of faith that God hath given to him; and as God hath dealt to every man a measure of faith, in that let him walk, and keep in the unity, and edify one another as faithful witnesses, and ambassadors, and messengers, for God is faithful, that hath promised;”48

Barclay seems to qualify his understanding of perfection even further: “This is not a perfection that has no room for daily growth. It is by no means a claim to be as pure, holy, and perfect as God. It is a perfection that is proportional to a man’s requirements. It is sufficient to keep him from transgressing the law of God and to permit him to do what God requires of him” And in reading farther, Barclay seems to assign different degrees of perfection,

“Those who have attained a measure of perfection must be diligent in their attention to that of God in their heart. If they are not watchful they may fall into iniquity and lose it. Many good and holy men have had their ups and downs of this kind. . . Even though a man may reach the state where he is capable of resisting sin but sins anyhow, nevertheless a state can be attained in this life in which it becomes so natural to act righteously that a condition of stability is achieved in which sin is impossible. . . I have to be modest and merely say that it is attainable, because I confess ingenuously that I have not yet attained it.”49

This last statement of Barclay’s regarding the potentiality of sinlessness echoes Pelagius’ own statement on the matter. In fact, Barclay’s entire defense of the possibility for perfection is identical to Pelagius’; as both also cite the fact that scripture would not demand it if it were not possible, and in fact some in Biblical history were shown to have achieved such a state. (e.g. Enoch).50

Still, if it can be granted that the Friends did affirm the possibility of perfection in the same sense that Pelagius understood it, does that in itself make them guilty as charged of Pelagianism? Thoughtful consideration of the evidence points to a decisive no. Pelagius’ claim for perfection was based on his denial of the limits imposed on our free will by the distortions of a depraved and fallen nature, and that mankind was capable of achieving such a state “by nothing else than by his own freedom of will.” But it has been shown that Fox, Barclay and Penn all deny such a position.

Rather the early Friends affirm with Augustine the hopeless state of our natural will in its fallen and corrupted state, and the need for a supernatural work of grace in order to even take a single step toward God. At the same time they also affirm the presence of a second will; the seed of Christ, born of the light, and received and attended to via our co-operative intent which makes possible the eventual mastery of that corrupted will even to the point of possible perfection. Thus the Friends have in fact charted a “third way” that both avoids and resolves this apparently intractable conflict.


In conclusion, it is submitted that George Fox, Robert Barclay, and William Penn were innocent of the charges of Pelagianism lodged against them by their opponents. And that their belief in a doctrine of potential perfectionism is in no way evidence to support such an accusation. It is also maintained that these early Friends understood the positions of both Augustine and Pelagius to be distorted extremes which fail to adequately describe the authentic human condition, and God’s approach to its redemption.

Both human free will and divine sovereignty were affirmed in the redemptive process by the early Friends. At the same time, the helplessness of human depravity, the essential nature of divine grace, and human responsibility for sin are all accounted for. The two seeds provide an easily understandable model of theological anthropology which neither impugn the justice of God nor arrogate undue credit to humans for their own salvation. Moreover, the radically incarnational understanding of the vehiculum Dei provides a coherent explanation of, and defense for, the early Friend’s incarnational and prophetic Christology.

Most notably, the Friends insistence on the absolute need for attendance to the light of Christ, as the means of stripping away the bonds of the carnal nature and bringing forth the mature manifestation of Christ the seed in one’s own experience, charts a pathway for truly effective discipleship and union with Christ. In addition, unity of the community is achieved only when its members are gathered in the light, each submitting their individual wills to the leadings of the single and unifying divine will. Thus the early Friends bequeathed a great gift of understanding regarding our redemption as both individuals and as a community. A redemption which they believed was not reserved for some future time, but could be wholly experienced in the present moment. A redemption of power, unity, and wholeness; both with God and each other. It was precisely this redeemed and unified community George Fox had in mind when he wrote:

“O Friends, let Righteousness flow amongst you all, Truth and Equity, Uprightness and Holiness, which becomes the House of God; and live in the holy Order of the Life, Spirit and Power of the everlasting God. Keep in the Faith that works by Love, that purifieth your hearts, the mystery of which is held in a pure conscience; which Faith brings you to have access to God, and gives you victory over that which separates you from God.”51

It remains to be seen if Fox’s vision for such a community can be achieved on a large scale and lasting basis among Friends. But it does appear clear that if the vision for such a community is to be realized, it must first begin with each individual’s willingness and commitment to “Let the holy seed of life reign”.


Augustine, St. “Against Two Letters of the Pelagians.” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. V, edited by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971.

Augustine, St. “On Rebuke and Grace.” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,edited by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971.

Augustine, St.“On the Grace of Christ.” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,First Series, Vol. V, edited by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971.

Augustine, St. “On the Proceedings of Pelagius.” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,First Series, Vol. V, edited by Philip Schaff. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.
Barclay, Robert. “Apology For The True Christian Divinity.” InTruth Triumphant,Vol. 2. Digital Quaker Collection, 1831.

—.Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. Edited by Dean Freiday. Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 1991.

Barclay, Robert. “Truth Cleared of Calumnies.” InTruth Triumphant, Vol. 1. Digital Quaker Collection, 1831.

Calvin, John.Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008

Cooper, Wilmer A.A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1990.

Davis, John J.Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 1998.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. “Pelagius, Pelagianism.” InEvangelical Dictionary of Theology,2nd ed, 897-898. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Ferguson, John.Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study.New York: AMS Press, 1978.

Fox, George. “Election and Reprobation Clearly Discovered, and the ignorance of many concerning Election and Reprobation of persons, Manifested.” InWorks of George Fox,Vol. 5. Digital Quaker Collection, 1831

—. Epistle to be read in all the assemblies of the righteous. Digital Quaker Collection, 1666.

Fox, George. “Journal or Historical Account of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, of George Fox.” InThe Works of George Fox,Vol. 1. Digital Quaker Collection, 1831.

Fox, George. “Truth’s Triumph in the Eternal Power.” InWorks of George Fox,Vol. 4. Digital Quaker Collection, 1831.

Gwyn, Douglas.Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox(1624-1691). Richmond, In: Friends United Press, 1986.

Henry, Carl F.H.God, Revelation and Authority.Waco, TX: Word Publishers, 1979.

Kurian, George T, ed.Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary.Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.

Penn, William. “Author’s Life.” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 1. Digital Quaker Collection, n.d.

Penn, William. “Brief Answer to a False and Foolish Libel, call’d, The Quaker”s Opinions.” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 2. Quaker Digital Collection, 1726.

Penn, William. “Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe.” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 2. Digital Quaker Collection, n.d.

Penn, William. “New Witnesses prov’d Old Hereticks.” InCollection of the Works of William Penn, Vol. 2. Digital Quaker Collection, n.d.

Penn, William. “Plain Dealing with a Traducing Anabaptist.” InCollection of the Works of William Penn,Vol. 2. Digital Quaker Collection, n.d.

Penn, William. “The Sandy Foundation Shaken.” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 1. Digital Quaker Collection, n.d.

Sproul, R.C.Chosen By God.Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1986.


1. John Ferguson,Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study(New York: AMS Press, 1978), 39-45.

2. Ibid., 46.

3. Ibid., 46.

4. Ibid., 160.

5. Ibid., 166.

6. Ibid., 167.

7. Ibid., 165.

8. St. Augustine, “On the Proceedings of Pelagius,” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,First Series, Vol. V (Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971), 185.

9. Walter A. Elwell, ed. “Pelagius, Pelagianism,” InEvangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 897-898.

10. St. Augustine, “Against Two Letters of the Pelagians,” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. V (Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971), 378.

11. St. Augustine, “On the Grace of Christ” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,Fist Series, Vol. V (Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971), 226.

12. St. Augustine, “On Rebuke and Grace” InNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,First Series, Vol. V (Peabody, MA: Eerdmans, 1971), 472.

13. Douglas Gwyn,Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox(Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1986), 87.

14. Ibid.

15. George Fox, “Journal of Historical Account of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, of George Fox,” InWorks of George Fox,Vol. 1, 1831 [Digital Quaker Collection], 26.

16. George Fox, “Election and Reprobation Clearly Discovered, and the ignorance of many concerning Election and Reprobation of persons, Manifested.” InWorks of George Fox,Vol. 5, 1831 [Digital Quaker Collection], 410.

17. William Penn, “Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 2 [Digital Quaker Collection], 840-841.

18. William Penn, “The Sandy Foundation Shaken” InCollection of the works of William Penn, Vol. 1 [Digital Quaker Collection], 263.

19. Robert Barclay,Barclay’s Apology in Modern English,edited by Dean Freiday (Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 1991), 66.

20. Ibid., 68-69.

21. Wilmer Cooper,A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs,2nd Edition (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2006), 71.

22. Barclay,Apology,1991, 75.

23. William Penn, “New Witnesses prov’d Old Heretiks” InCollection of the Works of William Penn, Vol. 2 [Digital Quaker Collection], 165.

24. Robert Barclay, “Apology For The True Christian Divinity” InTruth Triumphant,Vol. 2, 1831 [Digital Quaker Collection], 262.

25. Ibid., 96.

26. Fox, Election and Reprobation, 397.

27. Ibid., 396.

28. Robert Barclay, “Truth Cleared of Calumnies” InTruth Triumphant, Vol. 1, 1831 [Digital Quaker Collection], 54.

29. William Penn, “Plain Dealing with a Traducing Anabaptist” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 2 [Digital Quaker Collection], 183.

30. Fox, Election and Reprobation, 396.

31. For an excellent, in-depth, and highly readable examination of this problem and defense of predestination from the Reformed perspective see: R. C. Sproul,Chosen By God(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986).

32. Fox, Journal, 337.

33. Carl F.H. Henry,God, Revelation and Authority,Vol. III (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979), 104.

34. John Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion,translated by Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 306.

35. John J. Davis,Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis(Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 1998), 93.

36. Fox,Journal,90.

37. Gwyn, 71.

38. Fox, Election and Reprobation, 406.

39. Fox,Journal,223.

40. Gwyn, 68-69.

41. William Penn, “Author’s Life,” InCollection of the works of William Penn,Vol. 1 [Digital Quaker Collection], 81.

42. Barclay, 1991, 85.

43. Cooper, 18.

44. Gwyn, 120.

45. Ibid., 70.

46. Fox, Journal, 193-194.

47. William Penn, “Brief Answer to a False and Foolish Libel, call’d, The Quaker”s Opinions,” InCollection of the works of William Penn, Vol. 2, 1726, [Quaker Digital Collection], 672.

48. George Fox, “Truth’s Triumph in the Eternal Power,” InWorks of George Fox, Vol. 4, 1831 [Digital Quaker Collection], 287.

49. Barclay, 1991, 156-157.

50. Ibid., 161-165.

51. George Fox, Epistle to be read in all the assemblies of the righteous, 1666 [Digital Quaker Collection], 3.

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