A common version of the rise of the Quaker movement has George Fox wandering north from the English Midlands, receiving a vision atop Pendle Hill in 1652, and soon after finding welcome among a radical group known as the Seekers. As his message then ignites them, the Society of Friends is born and spreads amid a flurry of controversy and persecution.
Many contemporary Friends are quite fond of the term, “Seekers After Truth,” another name for those English radicals, by the way – and that serves to reinforce this view of history.
I’ve leaned toward a somewhat different take, especially in regard to the Mennonite-tinged General Baptists in England who shaped Fox’s growth in the half-dozen years before his 1652 Pendle Hill epiphany.
While history can be quite fascinating on its own terms, my bigger interest is on the continuing impact on thought and action in the present, and that’s where I find myself quite intrigued with Douglas Gwyn, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Wallingford, Pa., 2000), now that I’m finally getting to it.
While I’d been influenced by some of his earlier writings, this one somehow flew past my must-read pile – in part because it was published just as I was entering my second marriage, along with all of its challenges, and in part because of the ways the title seemed to focus on the Seekers version of the story.
Ah! To leap ahead all these years!
Now that I’ve finally read the book, let me say, it’s far-reaching and profound – much different from my expectations of being focused exclusively on the Seekers. Along the way, he engages topics I’ve written about extensively, adding many welcome insights and prompting me to rethink some of my assumptions and conclusions.
The opening chapter, “A Looking-Glass for Seekers: The American Culture of Seeking Today,” looks at the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s as parallels to the revolutionary upheavals of the mid-1600s in Britain, a position I’ve long argued. If anything, the conflicting differences in the kinds of hippies he identifies have grown in the 17 years since the publication of his book.
Gwyn then moves to a sequence of Spiritualists he identifies as “seekers” and the ways their thinking and practice evolves to a point that many key Quaker tenets are already in place before Fox and his colleagues. These chapters explore Caspar Schwenkfeld and Sebastian Franck in northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation of the 1520s and ’30s before shifting to England, with its own powerful voices in John Saltmarsh, William Erbury, William Walwyn, and Gerrard Winstanley, among others. To be candid, I was familiar only with Winstanley, along with a passing knowledge of the five Schwenckfeld churches in Pennsylvania.
From there he plunges into the more familiar chronology of the early Quaker movement itself and its rivals, albeit with his own insights and welcome details.
For one thing, he gives more information more on the short-lived General Baptists than I’d uncovered elsewhere, as well as on the Calvinist-leaning Particular Baptists, the kind who now exist widely throughout America.
While it is easy to perceive this work as a history, I’m more inclined to view it as an exploration of an emerging theology, especially as Gwyn tackles one of the thornier issues that’s long spurred critics of Quaker thought – atonement. Or, more broadly, the crucifixion, resurrection, and atonement. While I’ve long argued that early Friends did not dare to fully articulate their understanding in face of the Blasphemy Acts of the time and then declined to do so once they’d gained respectability, Gwyn sees them experiencing the historic events of Calvary within their own actions and suffering for faith. As I’ve contended, their failure to clearly state their alternative theology then set the trajectory for misunderstandings that would rip through the Society of Friends in the early 19th century, something that Gwyn confirms in his examination of the controversy surrounding George Keith in the 1690s as Gwyn turns to struggles that beset the Quaker movement as it coalesced into a disciplined organization out of its many radical, freethinking strands:
Clearly, there are major dangers on both sides of this schizoid split between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right action), between gospel and gospel order. For American Friends, the theological questions fended off in the 1690s would come back after 1800 to wreak havoc on them in the Hicksite controversy, leading eventually to separation in 1827.
On a personal level, I’ve come to value Gwyn as a fellow traveler in arcane investigations, Quaker and counterculture. Turns out he lived in Bloomington, Indiana, the same time I did, and we have similar leaps to both coasts (seminary in New York, for him, while it was Upstate New York and then the yoga ashram in the Pocono mountains for me) and then the Far West (his Berkeley, California, as a Quaker pastor, while I was in the Pacific Northwest). We’re both in New England these days and have had close conversations with both Asian practices and Friends rediscovering the writings of George Fox.
I intend to draw much more from his Seekers Found volume over the coming months. His insights are too pertinent to be overlooked.
For my own reflections on alternative Christianity, take a peep at my new book, Religion Turned Upside Down.