BY HUGH ROC
Douglas Gwyn’s thesis (Gwyn, 1986) that Quaker theology originates in imminent apocalyptic expectation has achieved a degree of influence. In its own right, Gwyn’s work stands as an expression of passionate personal conviction. Gwyn makes an empathetic bridge across the generations to relate his own sense of portentous times in the twentieth century to the circumstances of early Friends amidst the portentous events of the English Civil War. Through adoption by Pink Dandelion Gwyn’s apocalyptic thesis has been incorporated into the framework of what I call the Woodbrooke interpretation of Quakerism that has been under construction for the past twenty years. It is this quasi-official account of Quakerism that is currently being presented to the public in the Oxford and Cambridge introductions to the religion (Dandelion, 2007, 2008).
This essay is written in the belief that the apocalyptic thesis is a diversion. To the extent that it is taken to offer closure on Quaker theology it stands in the way of continuing the search for a satisfactory understanding of Quakerism. A striking difficulty stands out. Even if Quaker origins were to be successfully explained as apocalyptic we would still lack an understanding of the theology. We would stand in need of an additional explanation to account for the fact that out of the “overwhelming number” (Baumgarter, preface 1999) of millenialist sects that have arisen within Christianity, Quakerism is one that survived. The placing of Quakerism as a commonplace occurrence in Christianity serves only to highlight the lack of identification of what is theologically unique about Quakerism.
Critical examination of the apocalyptic thesis is needed. To state my two objections at the outset: first, Gwyn takes the visitation of Christ as teacher to be the same as the second coming of Christ as judge. In essence, Gwyn mixes up a Pentecostal experience of renewed spiritual strength with the apocalyptic Day of Judgement. The apocalypse in Gwyn’s usage names something that is not the apocalypse at all.
My second objection relates to Dandelion’s employment of an endtime/meantime dynamic to explain theological shifts throughout Quaker history. It seems obvious that there would have to be an adjustment from the excitement of immediate anticipation to the accommodation of delay and that this would show up as theological change. But this mistakes the distinctive psychology of the Christian apocalypse. In this psychology, the imminent return of Christ, from its very inception, was mixed with the certainty of Christ’s return. It is the certainty that provides the staying power in the Christian apocalypse and underwrites its special character that I name the “relaxed apocalypse.” In this relaxed apocalypse, the distinction between endtime and meantime does not drive any theological dynamic because the meantime, for Christians, already is the endtime.
The examination of the apocalyptic thesis is approached here first by looking at Gwyn’s presentation. Dandelion’s development of the thesis is taken up after this and more detailed consideration is given to what it is in the Christian apocalypse which renders it incapable of the explanatory dynamic presumed of it.
Gwyn’s presentation of the apocalyptic thesis
Gwyn’s attraction to apocalyptic was produced by a combination of four influences. These are: his sense of a present day approaching catastrophic culmination; his visionary inclination; the scholarly rediscovery of apocalyptic as the theological framework of the New Testament and the interaction of Christianity with Marxism.
In a retrospective Gwyn tells us of his own sense of apocalypse.
I write  as corporate and military interests have taken decisive control of the federal government of the United States. . .the Antichristian forces of finance-driven capitalism, multinational corporations and techno-militarism have reached a decisive stage of conflict with the needs of the world’s majority of people. . .I was called to be a minister in September 1968. If ever there was an apocalyptic year in my lifetime, it was 1968. It was a crisis point of conflict and change in American society and around the world. That year included the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the May riots in Paris, the rampage of the Cultural Revolution in China. . .and much more (Gwyn, 127, 1986).
Gwyn’s degree studies coincided with a time of renewed academic interest in apocalyptic, which, after its initial discovery around the turn of the century, had been put into the shade by Rudolf Bultmann’s existentialist interpretation of Christianity. As Gwyn reports, “the growing scholarly consensus on apocalyptic eschatology as the organising principle of Jesus’ and Paul’s preaching was compelling to me” (128, 1986).
This struck a chord both with Gwyn’s character and with his feelings of doom at “the buyout of American politics. . .by transnational corporate interests” (129, 1986). “I began to experience a profound unease. I felt something stirring both in me and in the world. . .I saw apocalyptic as the basis for a biblically grounded environmental concern. It is probably also true that the apocalyptic seer’s panoramic distance and hallucinogenic intensity of insight matched my personality traits” (128, 1986).
These influences all come together for Gwyn in a Marxist interpretation of Christianity. Gwyn reports that he was “strongly influenced by Christopher Hill’s Marxist analysis and revolutionary interpretation of seventeenth century Puritans and more radical groups”(130, 1986). But he was disappointed by Hill’s lack of theological discernment in Friends revolutionary vision (130, 1986).
“Marxists, such as Hill. . .have not grasped the true political meaning of early Quaker witness. . .The Quaker phenomenon as a mass movement with a well-organized network and a sweeping culture critique supplied the key mediating term between local praxis and state politics. The Quaker confrontation with the false authority of the clerical establishment and its magisterial enforcers made the Lamb’s War the most serious threat to the new capitalist class, as it sought to consolidate its gains from the Civil War” (135, 1986).
It was against this background that Gwyn first read the Journal of George Fox. He writes that he was “stunned by Fox’s apocalyptic language. . .it was a remarkable, seventeenth century parallel to Jesus and Paul’s preaching of the kingdom of heaven, divine judgement and a new creation in present unfolding terms” (129, 1986).
For another person, it is possible to read Fox’s Journal without being struck by the apocalyptic language. It is true that the Journal is sprinkled with vocabulary taken from the Revelation to Saint John, such as the Lamb’s War and the people in white raiment, but Fox’s usage is not necessarily as Gwyn takes it. For instance, Fox’s preaching characteristically warned people to repent because the day of the Lord is coming. “As I was going along the town, preaching and speaking, I warned the priest that was in the street and people to repent and turn to the Lord. . .I declared God’s everlasting Truth amongst them and warned them to repent, and that the day of the Lord was coming on all sin and wickedness” (Nickalls, 91, 1952). Fox’s prophetic relative in this is John the Baptist with his call “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near,” (Matthew 3.2) and as Luke tells us “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke, 3.3). Jesus comes to Fox in the guise of teacher for preparation against that day, but he has not yet come in his capacity as judge of the living and the dead.
Fox’s experience can be satisfactorily interpreted as a new occasion of Pentecost. The spirit of Jesus, working through Fox, gave renewed strength to a whole movement. I agree with Geoffrey Nuttall that the messianic aspects of Quaker writing are part of the “widespread extravagance with which language was used at this period” (Nuttall, 182, 1992). The fact, for instance, that Margaret Fell addressed Fox as “O thou bread of life” 1 does not lead us to conclude that she thought he was Jesus.
Gwyn is able to name a Pentecostal experience as an apocalyptic experience by making use of the ambiguous meaning of the word apocalypse. The apocalypse proper is defined by the Day of Judgement. It is on this occasion that God will reveal his overall plan for the rectification of the moral deficit of human existence. This God will do retrospectively by judging the dead, and by using his power to break the forces of antichrist. Theologically speaking the apocalypse is a logical imperative of monotheism. It is the answer to the problem posed by the writer of Job. Humans see that evil is rewarded and goodness is punished but if God is both good and all powerful this cannot be the final outcome of human life. God’s moral purpose in creating the world must one day be revealed to us. The apocalypse represents that occasion.
The word apocalypse, however, contains the ambiguity that the Greek means revelation. The great apocalypse of Saint John incorporates this ambiguity in its title, “The Revelation to Saint John.” Other revelations, however, may not be apocalyptic. It is this ambiguity that makes it plausible for Gwyn to decouple the second coming from judgment but nevertheless keep the name apocalypse. Gwyn uses apocalypse in this sense of revelation. He states, “Apocalypse as revelation itself leads us to conclude that Christian apocalyptic is most basically a matter of present experience, rather than speculation upon the future” (xxii, 1986). In this definition, Gwyn discarded what theologically is signified by the apocalypse and substituted a spiritual experience of “the Word” under the name Apocalypse. The result is a hybrid that seems somehow to combine an inward spiritual experience with an objective political event. The title of Gwyn’s book Apocalypse of the Word, names this uncertain hybrid.
Does it matter that Gwyn swapped Pentecost for the apocalypse? Both are occasions of energization which may be taken to have the same result in motivating Christian lives. The significant point is that Gwyn makes use of the apocalypse to take the religious high ground from which to complain about today’s Quakerism in a way that would not be possible with Pentecost. The presentation of early Friends implementing the Christian Marxist political utopia of the Kingdom of God is used to berate today’s Liberal Friends for lack of such activity.
The apocalypse, for Gwyn, frames a corporate vision of early Friends that has now degenerated into “individualistic relativism” (214, 1986). The apocalypse frames a “world-transforming fervor of early Quakerism” (216, 1986) that has now sold out in a plastic response to cultural-religious norms. The apocalypse frames “the lack of prophetic power [which] is seen so acutely in the modern Society of Friends” (214, 1986). “Liberal Quakerism, that has proven ultimately unfruitful, partakes of an early twentieth century optimistic humanism that seems woefully inadequate to the problems of this nuclear age” (215, 1986). Gwyn is an ideological relative of Terry Eagleton for whom Christianity is a cosh to beat the self-satisfied new atheists with their “rationalist utopia” (Eagleton, 8, 2013).
A useful perspective on Gwyn’s Marxist theology is provided by its relation to the mainstream of twentieth century liberation theology. Gwyn is part of the movement in theology which, ever since the Marxist attack on capitalism was first formulated, has wished to frame Christianity as the original Marxism. This was decisively stated early in the century by Karl Kautsky’s interpetation of Jesus (Kautsky 1972 ). Gwyn’s immediate context of inspiration, as he tells us, is the liberation theology of the seventies (Gwyn, 134, 2004).
The Marxist Christian takeover of the Kingdom of God in liberation theology requires a particular theological maneuver regarding the apocalypse. To place that maneuver in context it is necessary first to record twentieth-century theology’s distaste for the apocalypse. Gwyn cites Ernst Käsemann as the scholar “who has done more than any other modern New Testament interpreter to further our understanding of early Christian apocalyptic” (Gwyn, xxi, 1986). What Gwyn did not mention is that Käsemann was dismayed that Christianity was born out of apocalyptic. Käsemann saw apocalyptic as a later imposition, alien to the thought of Jesus, which could not be made relevant for today (Käsemann, 1969). In this Käsemann obeyed the trend of twentieth-century rejection of apocalyptic which began simultaneously with its discovery.
Albert Schweitzer felt apocalyptic made Jesus “a stranger to our time” (Schweitzer, 401, 1960). As a rational humanist himself Schweitzer welcomed the end of supernaturalism in a Christianity understood as a purely ethical religion of “Reverence for Life” (Schweitzer, epilogue, 1955). Klaus Koch surveyed the revival that Gwyn refers to in his book The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic (Koch, 1972). The English title misrepresents the impetus of Koch’s survey which was to show the comprehensive theological embarrassment at the subject. The original German title Ratlos would have been better translated Not a Clue What to Do with Apocalyptic.
But supernaturalism aside, what made apocalyptic abhorrent to twentieth-century theological ambition, under pressure from invidious comparison with Marxist social optimism, was the suggestion that the ultimate defeat of the forces of antichrist was God’s prerogative and not within the capacity of humans. This seemed to concede all to Marx’s complaint that religion is the opium of the people. A way out of this had to be discovered.
Faced with the insurmountable conclusion that apocalyptic did originate Christianity, what I call twentieth century ‘apocalyptic resistance theology’ took over the meaning of the apocalypse by re-interpreting it. 3 The crucial twist was made by Jürgen Moltmann in his seminal Theology of Hope (Moltmann, 1972). Moltmann pirouetted on the word hope and turned hope for God’s initiation of his kingdom to mean hope for human initiation of the kingdom. Moltmann provided the answer to Christian Marxist dreams. He had formulated humanist theology’s Socialist Kingdom of God.
Gwyn is part of this resistance theology. This rejection of the apocalypse and the conversion from God’s action to human action is what Gwyn is doing where he claims Fox’s declaration of the fulfillment of apocalyptic expectations. According to Gwyn “Christ had come to lead his faithful in new paths, thus setting up a new order and government. This announcement of a present spiritual return of Christ placed emphasis upon apokalypsis in its basic sense of revelation, transcending the Puritan inclination toward speculation on dates. . .etc.” (Gwyn, 30, 1986).
To conclude the discussion of Gwyn, he takes the religious high ground of the apocalypse to make his complaint against liberal optimistic humanism. Ironically his theology turns out to be built upon that same twentieth century humanism in its appropriation of the apocalypse. 3.
Pink Dandelion’s Endtime Meantime Theological Dynamic
Dandelion has identified four main theories of Quakerism in the intellectual record: the mystical experience theory, associated with Rufus Jones, and more recently Carole Spencer; the fulfilled realisation of the Puritan hope to be guided by the Holy Spirit, promoted by Geoffrey Nuttall and Hugh Barbour; the truly prophetic proclamation of the Christian message, promoted by Lewis Benson; and the theory of apocalyptic expectation, promoted by Douglas Gwyn.
Dandelion finds that “Gwyn’s framework is compelling” (Dandelion, 5, 2007). Dandelion builds upon Gwyn’s work by adding the factor of delay in the second coming. This proposes a dynamic of expectation turning into disappointment, a dynamic of original enthusiasm turning into quietism. As Dandelion reads Robert Barclay’s Apology, it is a change from “the fearless sense of being a vanguard people” to emphasis on “fear and sobriety” (57, 2007).
Dandelion frames this dynamic using the shorthand of transition from endtime to meantime. It is this dynamic that Dandelion applies to explain theological shifts in the history of Quakerism. As he announces, Gwyn’s framework is compelling, “particularly when laid out across time to explain the current challenges facing Quakerism (4, 2007). . .” The history of Quakerism is best understood in terms of its changing relationship to this founding experience of endtime and the necessary internal shifts which take place as a sense of endtime is replaced by one of meantime”(30, 2007).
My aim in this second half of the essay is to show how the distinctive psychology of the Christian apocalypse does not support this proposed dynamic. Dandelion’s application of the meantime/endtime dynamic ought to be presented first.
Three themes are taken to be set up by this dynamic. Christian diversity is charted as a story of different perspectives on timing. It is charted by different approaches to the best way to wait and it charts a change of relationship out of alienation from “the world” to accommodation within the world (5, 2007).
Various results are put forward. The Quaker rejection of externals such as churches, priests and sacraments is presented as a function of living in the endtimes. These externals are considered to be meantime devices. They are “outward means other Christian groups had traditionally used to help humanity remain faithful both remembering the first coming and anticipating the second coming, in between times, i.e. in the meantime” (34, 2007). “Quaker worship was a second coming, or endtime liturgical form”(36, 2007) in which these past devices are rendered redundant.
The Quietist third period of Quakerism is presented as another meantime adaptation. “The Quakers moved from a position of being co-agents with God released from the possibility of sin to a group of people, literally world — and God-fearing, potentially preoccupied with their propensity to sin” (60, 2007).
The peculiarities of dress and speech are also presented as “meantime practices [by which] Friends helped each other remain faithful by visibly and audibly separating themselves from the world” (64, 2007).
My reservation about these Endtime/Meantime propositions is that they all have good alternative explanations. This reservation is compounded by a notable weakness in the theory. The sense of Endtime had, in Dandelion’s estimation, “already waned in the mid-1650s” (42, 2007). That is, almost as soon as the movement got started. Yet the Endtime meantime dynamic is proposed to sustain shifts in theology for the next three hundred and fifty years even to the extent of bearing on “current challenges.”
Sociology possesses a surer explanation of the process of initial hyper-enthusiasm evolving into lower levels of enthusiasm. This is Max Weber’s theory of routinisation. Weber identified that it is natural for the energy of charisma, which founds movements, to settle into more sustainable forms. The omission of so insightful a theory, relevant to the Quaker case under discussion, is cause for suspicion of a thesis which proclaims that it is “informed by a sociological approach to theology” (1, 2007).
To give examples of these alternative explanations, it is in the light of Weber, rather than the evaporation of apocalyptic immediacy, that we can see the purchase of land for burials and the building of meeting houses (47, 2007). The abandonment by Quakers of liturgical forms is well explained by the focus of Quakerism on the spirit of religion instead of its man-made forms. As Fox reports he refused to touch or taste the doctrines and commandments of men which he knew “perished with the using” (Nickalls, 168, 1952). Plain dress is one statement among several Quaker practices that refuse culturally constructed social hierarchies which contradict the equal value of every person. Barclay’s omission of the second coming from his Apology, taken as evidence of his adaptation to the meantime, (23, 2008, 57, 2007) is explained by its irrelevance to his treatise. The Apology is concerned to stake out Quaker theology in relation to Calvinism. My impression from this series of alternative explanations is that the meantime thesis is generating the evidence rather than vice versa.
My central complaint, however, about the Endtime/ Meantime dynamic is that it discounts the obvious explanation of Quaker history. The history of Quakerism is accounted for by the permanently unresolved tension between whether the religion is defined by the spirit of peace and unity, or by doctrinal tests. For me the whole matter is symbolized by the case of Hannah and Joel Bean, longstanding Quakers deprived of their status as ministers through doctrinal tests (Fager, p 53 ff, 2005). This tension surfaces as early as the dispute with George Keith (1638-1716). It runs through the dispute between Elias Hicks (1748-1828) and the Orthodox party. It runs through the dispute over Isaac Crewdson’s doctrinal ministry (Wilson, 1990). It runs through the Richmond Declaration of Faith and the failure of the Manchester conference to endorse the Declaration. It continued to run through the Jones/ Braithwaite formulation of Quakerism as a mystical religion in opposition to doctrinal statements. The matter continues to run with undiminished vigor in what Chuck Fager identifies as the “Ex-Quaker evangelicals’” distancing from the Religious Society by abandoning the use of the name “Quaker” for “Friends Church” (Fager, 138, 2005).
I call this tension between possession and profession the permanent schizophrenia of Quakerism. In this perspective, the religion displays only one long droning theological period, not the “three distinct theological phases” (Dandelion, 3, 2007) engendered by the Endtime/Meantime scenario.
These anomalies thrown up by the endtime/meantime thesis are symptoms of a fundamental problem. The historical fact of the delay in the second coming of Christ does not have the explanatory power expected of it. This is because of its relative unimportance in the context of the overall apocalyptic scheme of which it forms part. It is this minor role that needs to be explained.
Dandelion cites Albert Schweitzer as his authority that Christianity was created as a religion of waiting. His perception is that “founded on the promise of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. . .the history of Christianity has been about delay” (Dandelion, 5, 2007). Unfortunately Schweitzer, for all his genius, is not a good authority on this because of his blind spot. Although he discovered the apocalyptic origins of Christianity he dismissed rather than investigated the apocalypse. Schweitzer had no analysis of the particular psychology of the Christian apocalypse as compared, say, to the Jewish apocalypse.
In order to consider that psychology it is necessary first to dismiss the idea that the apocalypse is the catastrophic end of the world. As already stated, the apocalypse is the eventual revelation of God’s moral plan for the world. The cataclysm described in the Revelation to John is one culturally limited attempt to imagine how that event would come about. John tries to envision the two features of transition that would be necessary to implement the wonderful new state of affairs. He seeks to show how the change from one world order to another could happen and he also imagines how the powers of antichrist might be defeated, be they the Roman oppressors in the case of his own church, or the empire of technomilitary capitalism in the case of Gwyn.
Spectacular breakdown has proved a compelling way to imagine that defeat. But catastrophe is not the essence of the apocalypse. Jesus, in his declaration of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, also declared the apocalypse: God was about to implement his plan.
Christianity was founded at the moment that, after his death, Jesus himself was declared to be the apocalypse. God showed that he had a plan of redemption for the world through Jesus. God declared his hand on the apocalypse and assured Christians that the matter was at last under way. The imminent second coming of Christ which completes the event sits within this apocalyptic framework.
Yet imminent second coming is from the very outset mixed with the certainty that Christ will come again. Certainty is a close relative and fair substitute for imminence. This easy substitution means that the loss of imminence has little influence on the psychology. The matter is exemplified in Paul. Paul has to explain disappointed expectation to the Thessalonians because some of the faithful have died while waiting (1 Thessalonians, 4.13). But Paul himself seems untroubled because of his sense of baptism in Christ (Romans, 6.3) and “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1).
Here the second coming is itself only a minor element in the Christian apocalypse. The major element is that Christ has redeemed the world. Christians have therefore already received the greater part of their apocalyptic inheritance. Their focus is on their joy and redemption in Christ. Compared to this the second coming has no more significance than the decoration on the apocalyptic cake that Christians are in the process of enjoying.
The psychology of the Christian apocalypse is that believers live in the assurance that God is taking care of the overall plan. In the meantime, which for Christians is also the endtime of history, the role of believers is to contribute their talents to the working out of God’s purpose. Christians are energised and motivated by their apocalypse. The buoyant motivation generated and permanently sustained by the Christian apocalypse is the religion’s attractive feature. This buoyant motivation belies the assumption that, disappointed by delay in the second coming, special compensations are needed “to help humanity remain faithful. . .in the meantime” (Dandelion, 34, 2007).
To state my objection to Schweitzer, Christianity is only in a formal sense a religion in waiting. Christ is the apocalypse now. The second coming is a coda. In practice Christianity is a religion of busy activity in the service of the apocalypse. To say of Barclay and his friends that they “were firmly pressing the snooze button of the alarm clock of the second coming” (Dandelion, 58, 2007) is to misinterpret the energising forces of the Christian apocalypse. Christianity has never been a religion of waiting or snoozing.
It is the context of the second coming that prevents that event having the explanatory power that might appear at face value. The scholarly attempts to extract explanatory power from the delay in the Second coming have yielded little result. Martin Werner’s de-eschatologising thesis was discreditable because he sought to prove a superior ethical Protestantism over a superstitious Catholicism (Werner, 1957). Hans Conzelmann showed in exact detail how Luke displaced the imminent expectation in Mark in order to establish the mission of the church, but, for the reasons stated above, no deeper theological insight can be made of this (Conzelmann, 1969).
Where is the value of the apocalyptic thesis? It has appeal to a certain nostalgic spirit in today’s Quakerism which seeks to recreate what it sees as the good old days of vanguardism. As Dandelion explains “Quakers ceased to operate as a ‘second coming church’ and joined the rest of Christianity in the ‘meantime’” (62, 2007). “In the nineteenth century. . .Quakers took their place amidst Christianity rather than as its vanguard” (4, 2007).
There is a further dimension to the value of the thesis. It is put to use against today’s liberal Quakerism. As Dandelion points out ‘the meantime may be the only time for these kinds of [Liberal Christian] groups” (5, 2007). That is to say that Liberal Friends never will enjoy the full measure of spiritual uplift experienced by the first Quakers. More than that however “for those without a first coming a second coming makes no sense” (135, 2007). In terms of the endtime/meantime scheme Liberal Friends have “fallen off the chart” (135 and pictogram fig 3.1, 2007). The apocalyptic thesis is a device which portrays Liberal Friends in stark disconnection from early Friends.
To gain an overview of the apocalyptic thesis, it is best appreciated in its home environment of the Woodbrooke interpretation of Quakerism. The founding assumption of that interpretation is that Liberal Quakerism is an alien species with no relation to the origins of Quakerism. Liberal Quakerism is “the most radically deviant form of Quakerism to date. . .reaching out into new. . .interpretative identities that fly in the face of Quaker tradition” (Dandelion and Collins, 37, 2009). The apocalyptic thesis is a set piece in the Woodbrooke repertoire that proves that assumption.
1. Margaret Fox quoted by Nuttall from the Spence Manuscript.
2. A more detailed account of this can be found in (Rock 2014) chapter 1.5 The Apocalyptic Resistance Theology of the Twentieth Century.
3. In order to avoid possible misunderstanding I should make clear that I consider it natural that Friends may be inspired to political action by their religious convictions. My position is that there are many ways to support this theologically but we should not attempt this by rupturing the meaning of the apocalypse.
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