Friday, July 7, 2017

George Fox and Prophetic Awakening

George Fox as John the Baptist, a Voice Crying in the Wilderness

“Our strength as a Religious Society comes from our connection with the Spirit, its presence and guidance….Why have Quakers been in the forefront of social movements? Early Friends developed practices that helped guide us to incrementally understand the Spirit’s intentions. These practices help us, both individually and corporately, to notice the unfolding revelations of the Spirit. Individually, we become conscious of concerns and leadings. Corporately we seek the guidance of Spirit and as we surrender to it, we come to unity on a way forward.”—Diego Navarro, presiding clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting.

The theme for this year’s Pacific Yearly Meeting annual gathering is “Awakening to the Presence.” I don’t know about you, but I often prefer to lay in bed and sleep. Awakening can be a pain. Most of us are annoyed when the alarm goes off and we’re forced to leave our dream world and our comfortable bed and face reality. That’s why many of us have an alarm clock, preferably one with a pleasant sound, like a harp. In the moral and spiritual world, prophets are our alarm clocks. Their job is to help wake us up to the Presence of God when we’d prefer to sleep in. And that’s one reason they aren’t popular.
George Fox described the role of a prophet in this passage from his Journal.

“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His [God’s] power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round.” Journal, Chapter V.

When it came to waking and shaking people up, Fox was more like a fire truck siren than an alarm clock!
A couple of things worth noting about this passage. First, Fox is audacious enough to claim that God speaks directly through him. As I will explain later in more detail, this assertion makes it clear that Fox saw himself as a prophet. Prophets speak God’s message to God’s people and to leaders. (For those who want to know more about Fox and Biblical prophets, I recommend Bill Durland’s article “Was George Fox a Prophet?” which is available online.)[1]
 Second, Fox believes that men and women can be prophets and apostles if they live in the same Spirit that inspired the early church. This radical egalitarianism is the fulfillment of a prophecy by Joel that early Christian took to heart:

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I [God] will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” Joel 2:28 (ASV) 

Early Christians felt that this prophecy “came to pass” in their Spirit-led community (Act 2: 17). During meetings for worship, early Christians “prophesied,” women as well as men. This is a point that Margaret Fell emphasized in her radical pamphlet, “Women Speaking Justified and Allowed by Scripture.” Among other things, she points out that “Philip the Evangelist…. had four Daughters which were Virgins, that did prophesie’ ( Acts 21: 8-9). Fell’s pamphlet explores biblical examples of women’s empowerment and is a classic work of feminist theology.
Finally, Fox makes it clear that anyone who truly lives in the spirit of early Christians will shake people up. That, to me, is the heart of Fox’s message and of his life. And I’d like us to explore what this means for us today.
We’re living in a time of crisis not unlike the period in which George Fox lived. We are seeing an effort to destroy a century of reforms that began with the Progressive Movement in the early 20th century. The Puritans of the 17th century saw a similar deconstruction of their efforts to radically transform government.  After a bloody Civil War, Puritans executed King Charles 1 in 1649 and established a theocratic government, with Oliver Cromwell as the Lord Protector, in 1653. After Cromwell’s death, this experiment came to a crashing halt in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II as king of England. The Puritan hope of creating a New Jerusalem, the ideal society, in England, was crushed. The old order was restored. Quakers were also committed to creating a new order and had to reassess their efforts to bring God’s Kingdom down to earth. Some chose the path of quietism, withdrawing from the world to create an alternative society where they could live faithfully.  Others continued to be a prophetic voice.  
We are faced with a similar choice today.  Will Quakers reclaim our historic role as a prophetic religion, or will we choose to be quietists? Can we do both?
Before discussing the prophetic role of Quakerism, I’d like to examine the prevalent view that Quakers are, or were, mystics. There is some truth to that statement. I’ve studied and written extensively about Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton, theologians who saw Quakerism as a mystical religion. However, it is important to note that in order to make that claim, they drastically altered the definition of mysticism to make it a group as well as individualistic experience. They also  claimed that mystics could be activists, for which there isn’t much historic precedent. Van Rad, an Old Testament scholar, wrotes: “The mystics always remained within the accepted dogma of their own day, whereas the prophets, precisely within their inaugural vision, were led out to new vistas of belief.” [2]
We need to ask ourselves: did early Friends behave more like mystics or prophets?  The dictionary definition of a mystic is “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.” In other words, mystics are contemplatives who have direct experiences of the Divine. Unlike prophets, however, they don’t usually rock the existing order.
Early Quakers had direct experiences of the Divine, and practiced a contemplative form of religion, but they also tried to inaugurate a new social order, the Kingdom of God, or what William Penn later called the Holy Experiment. They were extremely vocal about their vision for a new kind of religion, and a new kind of society.
Fox and early Friends believed they were living in the same spirit that inspired the prophets and apostles to start the Jesus movement. So we need to reflect on the meaning of the words prophet and apostle. The dictionary definition of a prophet is an “inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God.” An apostle is someone who feels “sent or led by God to inaugurate a new movement, a great moral reform or an important new belief or system.”
I realize that most Quakers today see themselves in much more modest terms. Many like quiet worship because it offers comfort in a busy world. They are uncomfortable with activists who rock the boat. They fit the definition of quietists.
Others are drawn to Quakerism because of our history of social justice and peace making. They see themselves as activists.
Contemporary Quakers live in an uneasy tension between these two approaches to Quakerism.
If we look to the example of George Fox and early Friends, I think we can find a balance between the activist and contemplative aspects of Quakerism. Both were present among early Friends, and both are needed today. Quakerism cannot fly without two wings: the contemplative and the activist.
What I’d like to do in this limited time we have together is share some of the characteristics of Quaker prophetic ministry, and some of the methods used by early Friends to bring about personal and social transformation. We’ll look at some passages from Fox’s Journal that illustrate what it means to be a Quaker prophet and discuss queries about them in small groups. I hope you’ll take this pamphlet to your home meeting and use it in your adult study. This is a part of our Quaker tradition we need to study and learn from. If you’d like for me to lead such a study, please feel free to invite me. My email is:

First, let’s review the characteristics of a Quaker prophet:

1.    A prophet is a man or women who believes that he or she is sent or led by God to proclaim a vision of a new kind of society and worship that is consistent with God’s intention and will.
2.    A prophet offers comfort to those who are oppressed or “in the dark”, helps people to connect with their inner wisdom and light, and warns the privileged and powerful that they face serious consequences if they don’t practice their religion authentically or work for economic and social justice.

The prophetic activism of early Friends derived from a direct experience of God’s presence, power, and voice speaking to them during times of worship or reflection. These epiphanies sometimes occurred during meetings for worship, and sometimes occurred when engaged in ordinary activities, like taking a solitary walk. Most of Fox’s recorded “openings” took place while engaged in solitary reflection.
The word “opening” was used by Fox to describe an insight, or revelation, which comes from God. In his Journal, he uses this phrase sixteen times to describe how God gave him a new understanding or commanded him to take action. 

In my next blog post I'll discuss passages which I have taken from the 1903 edition of Fox’s Journal, edited by Rufus Jones and available online through the Project Gutenberg. These passages illustrate the various ways that George Fox and early Friends sought to bring about personal and social transformation--a prophetic awakening of individuals and society.

[2] Quoted in Durland’s “Was George Fox a Prophet?” Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 43, Article 2.  Geyhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. II: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D.<.G. Stalker (NY: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 62.

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