“The Early Quakers and the Kingdom of God: Peace, Testimony and Revolution”*

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

This hefty work serves to introduce Australian Friend Gerard Guiton to the Quaker scholarly world concerned with the origins of the Religious Society of Friends. It is heralded with sparkling back cover endorsements by three distinguished Friends of a programmed orientation, recorded ministers all, Douglas Gwyn, Englishman John Punshon, and Arthur Roberts of Evangelical Quaker lineage. With the exception of Gwyn, whose three works appropriate the language and to some extent the approach of the 19th Century radical thinker Karl Marx, these accolades are appropriate given that Guiton’s main targets are those who have been influenced by what he labels the “Marxist school” of historiography.

    What especially bothers Guiton about the Quaker scholars seduced by Marx is what he sees in their alleged failure to understand the period from about December 1659 to January 1661. (He names but does not engage Rosemary Moore and me for appropriating some of the interpretation of Marxists Christopher Hill and Barry Reay in their books The World Turned Upside Down and The Quakers and the English Revolution.) To some extent, Guiton’s concerns may arise from the failure of the Quaker scholars he mentions to write as anachronistically as he is wont to do. He insists, persistently and irritatingly, on calling his chosen thirteen-month period the Friends’ “Pentecost-Paracletal moment’” (for this example, see p. 391) “paracletal,” a word absent from the Oxford English Dictionary.
    As Guiton views it, the much-hallowed Quaker “Peace Testimony” of January 1661 amounted to a restatement of Kingdom aims and hence a victorious summing up of the previous decade, rather than an example of Quakers turning-inward and becoming less involved with the broader world. (Even “Peace Testimony” is an anachronism, however popular, when speaking of early Quakers, for it was a phrase unused in Quaker vocabularies until almost the 20th century; until then it was more aptly the testimony against war or carnal weapons.) And he has no problem in placing some of the earliest Quakers, Richard Hubberthorne and George Bishop, in “the nonviolent army of the Friends (p. 100).”
    Let it be said, right up front, that Guiton has examined the most extensive list of sources, especially secondary, that I have ever encountered in a book on this period, including my own or Rosemary Moore’s. His research is nearly unsurpassed. Would that he had used this collection to better effect.
    His thesis is that the earliest Friends, from 1647 to 1663 –it remains a puzzle why he chose the latter date–sought to propagate their views that God’s Kingdom had come and that God’s followers were called to live the “Jesus Way” (another anachronism) by following Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Guiton’s basic problem is that he writes not as an historian but as one with an interest in theology so narrow at times that he is willing to limit his interpretations to the earliest Friends’ writings rather than examine their actions. To historians, past scribblings are of course vitally important, but they never tell the whole story; to flesh out meaning they insist that one must look at what people actually do.
    Guiton avers early on, on pp. 27 and 28, that modern Friends have little understanding of their early forbears, but hopes that this ignorance may change with a renewed interest in history. Yet lamentably, he opines, history is “merely a story, a thing from long ago,” that flippantly “can be set aside” and ignored. “Rather than a ‘history’, then,” he writes, “the first Friends initiated a continuing theology, which among its many attributes, identified the Kingdom/Rule of Love as a discrete entity.”Their theology, he holds, transcends mere time and space and awaited a subsequent observer like himself, more closely attuned to theological nuances than relating mere stories, so as to reintroduce the “singular pre-eminence for the Covenant of Peace” into modern day Friends’ teaching and preaching ministries.
    This rendering of the past, even the theological past, will simply not do and fails to convince. First, Guiton has ironically created the story he tells from the 1650s, a theological one to be sure, but history nonetheless. Second, and more critically, because of his lack of interest in stories, he cannot address how subsequent Friends strayed from the true theology that he posits at their beginning. Likewise he sees no evolution in Friends’ stance on war as they reacted to events beyond their control. He may call the first generation’s take on war the “Jesus Way,” but he has no interest in showing how they arrived at it or how they applied it or more significantly, whether they consciously and perversely chose to undercut and ignore it, so as to leave their descendants blinded to their past.
    He may have looked at Meredith Weddle’s seminal and nuanced Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century as well as other secondary sources, such as Moore’s and mine; they all add grace to his bibliography but he simply dismisses the details they elicit to paint a fuller and more complete study than he delivers or can conceivably deliver given his self-imposed blinders.
    Uninterested in history, Guiton takes liberties with factual details. Examples of this approach abound, but let’s look at one of the more egregious: on p. 76, he asserts that George Fox was “familiar” with the 1641 edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. There is absolutely no evidence that the Quaker Fox ever read this book, but in footnote 62 on the same page, Guiton allows that he “might have read this edition” before he marched into Lichfield crying “Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield,” yet another supposition with no basis in fact. Nearly 400 pages later, in a listing of published Quaker condemnations of war and carnal weaponry, item number four turns out to be – you guessed it – Fox’s Lichfield screed, which has nothing on its surface to do with war.
    It’s as though Guiton is so anxious to prove his points about the centrality of the Kingdom motif that he is willing to go to any lengths to do so. Take his use of Sarah Jones, a relatively obscure woman about whom almost nothing is known, even where she was from, author of This Is Lights Appearance, in 1650. Because her book preceded the Quaker announcement of the Kingdom theme, Guiton has her meeting Fox (p.151), apparently to pass along her insights, even though not a shred of evidence exists to support any contact between the two. The fair-minded reader must ask if this is the kind of scholarship from which theological truth emerges.
    Despite all my numerous misgivings, there is nothing wrong with the idea that the earliest Quakers sought to establish the Kingdom of God. In fact, twenty years ago I published an article, “George Fox, Millenarian,” which made exactly that point and which Guiton finds obvious reasons to cite approvingly. What I have problems with is his steady insistence on treating this central theme nonhistorically and to suggest that Quaker perceptions about it and their opposition to war and carnal weapons never changed. Human beings simply do not operate in any such fashion. We live in space and time despite Guiton’s asseverations to the contrary and if we are anything other than automatons, we react to changes in our surroundings, and we revise the presuppositions that we bring to each day’s new and unanticipated developments. Hence the earliest Quakers zigged and zagged toward the 1661 testimony against war, they infiltrated the New Model Army to make recruits, and some of them disagreed for – nonpacifist reasons, let it be said – with the testimony. It is not Marxist to put it that way; it is the truth as we know it.
    Guiton and those who seek some kind of “spiritual” interpretation of the world that humans create may wish it otherwise, but that’s not the way this historian sees us living our lives, either past or present.


*Gerard Guiton, The Early Quakers and the Kingdom of God: Peace, Testimony and Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Inner Light Books, 2012. 506 pp. $45 hardback, $25 paperback.

Leave a comment