The Light—A Short History

May 29, 2016 § 13 Comments

I feel called to a vocal ministry of teaching, which means that sometimes I feel led to share some aspect of Quaker tradition in meeting for worship. This morning, the doctrine of the Light pushed against my Spirit-prompt for a good while, but it never felt right to deliver it. As often is the case, I just kept thinking about it and now here it is.

One of the most distinctive features, and one of the most important features, of the Quaker way is the doctrine of the Light. The Light is that mystery within the human that makes it possible to commune directly with the Divine.

Some Quaker writer—I can’t remember who—describes three phases in the history of the Light among Friends, the Light, the Inward Light, and the Inner Light. I would characterize them this way:

  • the Light—the light AS Christ,
  • the Inward Light—the light OF Christ, and
  • the Inner Light—the light BEYOND Christ.

The Light—AS Christ

For George Fox, James Naylor, and many other early Friends, the Light was Christ—not just the light of Christ, but Christ himself. As Jesus says in John 8, “I am the light, and whosoever follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall walk in the light of life.”

For Fox the experience of the Light was a kind of mystical union with Christ, a putting on of the spirit of Christ, the “celestial body” of Christ, as one writer put it, so that one became Christ-like. As Fox put it, “I was in that state which Adam was in before the fall, a state in Christ Jesus that could not fall.”

This was close to blasphemy, and indeed, Naylor was famously tried, convicted, and punished for blasphemy, and Fox was accused three times, tried twice, and convicted once himself. The only reason Fox got off the second time was that Judge Fell, his close associate and then-husband of Fox’s future wife Margaret Fell, was the chief magistrate in the case. Fox and Fell put their heads together and found a loophole in the blasphemy law that got Fox off on a technicality. Fell was such a senior magistrate that his ruling was a more or less binding precedent, and the third time Fox was accused, the prosecutor didn’t even bring the case to trial, knowing he would lose. Nobody tried to accuse Fox again, legally, though his critics continued to accuse him of blasphemy in other public venues.

The Light—OF Christ

A lot of Friends were even nervous about this doctrine. After Fox and Naylor died, Friends put this interpretation aside. As the movement withdrew from the world into the quietist sectarianism of the early 18th century, the understanding of the Light underwent a doctrinal transformation. The Light became the Inward Light, the light OF Christ.

Now, Christ was understood to be outside the human, just as he was for other Christians, but his light shown into the human heart. Its function was to drive away the darkness, to reveal to us our sins, to warn us of sins we were about the commit through the light in the conscience, and to give us strength to overcome the temptation to sin. The Inward Light was a kind of wifi connection to the spirit of Christ, a conduit through which flowed the truth, life, and power of Christ into the human.

The Light—BEYOND Cbrist

This is how we understood the light for the next two hundred years, until Rufus Jones redefined Quakerism around the turn of the 20th century as a mystical religion and reinterpreted Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” to be a kind of divine spark on the model of neoplatonic philosophy and gnosticism. The Inward Light now became the Inner Light. The Inner Light was an aspect of the divine that dwelt inherently in the human, a kind of receptor that allowed the greater divine spirit to merge with the lesser spirit of the individual human in mystical experience.

In a sense, we had come full circle to Fox’s understanding of a radical indwelling of the divine in the human, but for Fox that indwelling was Christ and he was too practically-minded, rather than metaphysically minded, to fuss much about how that worked, or what might pre-exist in the human to make it possible. Jones was much clearer about that.

However, the universal, pre-existent, inherent divine spark that Jones gave us was now virtually independent of Christ. It existed before Jesus was born, it was inherent in all humans, and it was behind all mystical experience, regardless of the tradition of the mystic. So as the 20th century progressed, the Inner Light became increasingly detached from Christ in (liberal) Quaker understanding, and it also became less and less about sin, about revealing sin and strengthening us against it. Instead, more and more we understood the Inner Light as a vehicle for mystical experience, spiritual guidance, and continuing revelation without any explicit connection to Christ.

And that’s where we are today.


§ 13 Responses to The Light—A Short History

  • […] The Light — A Short His­tory. […]

    • Greg Robie says:

      Martin, any thoughts about how that theological evolution provided cover for the devotion to wealth to take hold in the soul of the RSOF (concurrently with the wider society)? I think back to your early writing on modern Ranterism. Increasingly cut off from any common understanding of the Guide, a corruption, and the abandoning of the Meeting for Discipline, would, as a probable consequence, nurture modern Ranterism. An unconscious grafting onto the vine of the greed-is-go[o]d meme of CapitalismFail would keep such a social grouping alive…even if such would, due to the need to maintain piety (homeostasis), be Ranteristically, denied. Simplistically, isn’t the proponderance of lifeblood coursing through the veins of the ossified and tiny RSOF the DeadQuakerMoney of CapitalsimFail?

      To the degree this is so, my experience suggests to me that it is an intractable dynamic. Isn’t the Society is structured to implode with CapitalsimFail in the triggered abrupt climate change*? To the degree light has become darkness, seeing Light is a challenge (see collage: And, as a matter of integrity, should the capital “S” should be lowercase?


    • Greg Robie says:

      Martin, any thoughts about how that theological evolution provided cover for a devotion to wealth to take hold in the soul and sensibilities of the RSOF (concurrently with the wider society)? I think back to your early writing on modern Ranterism. Increasingly cut off from any common understanding of the Guide, a corruption, followed by an abandoning of the Meeting for Discipline, would, as a probable consequence, nurture modern Ranterism; inspire a morphing Light theology to increasingly include privileged systemic darkness as light. Such would effect a denied and unconscious, thanks to motivated reasoning, grafting onto the vine of the greed-is-go[o]d meme of CapitalismFail and would keep such a social grouping alive…even if such would, due to the need to maintain piety (homeostasis), be not talked about, well, Ranteristicly. 😉

      Simplistically, isn’t the proponderance of lifeblood coursing through the veins of the ossified and tiny RSOF the DeadQuakerMoney of CapitalsimFail? To the degree this is so, my experience suggests to me that the condition is an intractable dynamic; that the impetus for the cycling between conservative and liberal, relative to an orthodox center, which John Punshon talked about, is a morphing adaptation to basically stay put and pious. Because of its psychological and fiscal dependence on DeadQuakerMoney, isn’t the Society structured to implode with CapitalsimFail in the triggered* abrupt climate change? To the degree Light has morphed to become functional darkness, and done so, unawares, seeing Light is a challenge (see collage at


  • treegestalt says:

    “Sin” is definitely a big difficulty, in the sense that “Sin is not a thing yet we see its consequences everywhere.”

    If you stick with the logical assumption that neither “the Fall” nor “the natural self” were either accidental, mistakes by God, nor anything outside of God’s plan for human development — you get a much more coherent picture of the universe than if you conceive of God’s necessary presence in us as some sort of add-on from ‘Outside’. But it’s a complex picture that doesn’t lend itself to easy definitions.

    My best guess about “Sin” would be “what people do when we don’t know what we do.”

    That is, we may know perfectly well that we’re making an atomic bomb, or we’re nailing some poor jerk to a cross to make him die painfully, but “Hey, it’s a job, and something awful will happen to me if I don’t do it.”

    Or we may be doing something perfectly normal like driving to Meeting, but that’s part of some vast implacable collective activity that’s making the planet literally uninhabitable, or at the very least is likely to lead to a catastrophic collapse of the human population, far beyond anything the Nazis had in mind. Yet we’re nice, middle-class people, either denying the long-range effects outright, or crossing our fingers and saying “My part in this is insignificant; and it’s the only way I can live in this situation and carry out the tasks God intends for me.” It seems to me that “Sin” is a very appropriate word for this sort of misdoing as well.

    Or you may have someone who’s been raised to think of himself as an evil person, and ever since “feels good about himself when he can pull off something truly rotten.” And yet that sort of person is likewise behaving automatically, according to a mistaken view of his actual self and our actual situation.

    We’re looking at all this (rightly and necessarily) from a limited and vulnerable human point of view; while God can see outcomes far beyond what we take for death, far into a future that’s effectively infinite by any sense of time we can imagine. So we should be ‘agin Sin’; and find some examples of it utterly horrifying — yet blame and revulsion have not worked particularly well for us in dealing with our God-given flaws, as tiny or as overwhelming as these might be.

    Estrangement from God is definitely at the root — yet estrangement from parents is likewise a natural and necessary element of growing up and developing an identity of our own. No parent enjoys those periods of estrangement; but we wouldn’t want the kid to grow up to be a zombie either. The process has turned out well when we can (regretfully) recognize each other as very much alike, and reconcile with each other despite that…


  • What Fox and the early Quaker movement were proclaiming was a solution to the problematic condition in which we all initially find ourselves, a false autonomy whose prototype is the Fall. Sin is the condition where the love of deceitful autonomy trumps the love of truth: we aren’t autonomous gods; we are creatures who are dependent upon God. It is in this breaking the law of our being that we become broken people. Lewis Benson quotes Fox and comments:

    ‘Adam broke the law before it was written, and was reproved.’ To live by the voice and command of God is to live by the light. The Bible says, ‘The law is light’ (Pr. 6:23).

    So it is the need for and true realization of our human dependent relationship upon God that first Quakers discovered and proclaimed as the right state and the fulfillment of each person’s being. It’s always been a hard sell, for it strikes at the shaky foundation of the natural self, which is–and must be–continually shored up by any means, regardless how false and destructive. Modern Friends claim of an inherent, inner light is one such bastion.

  • Don Badgley says:

    This trinity of Friends’ interpretations of the Light is helpful. Quakerism has evolved and has also devolved over the centuries. Much of Quakerism today (both liberal and Christ centered) is far more dependent upon history, tradition and its standing as a quaint religion than it is on the Truth of the Light as our Source and Guide.

    In the modern world, it is important to recognize that for good or ill, the name Christ carries all the weight of centuries of Christian doctrine, rigid creed and religious errors that render that name difficult for many Friends and a stumbling block for others. It is just a word and a name – but it is not the Word. Christ is not a name Jesus ever used for himself.

    I am certain that Fox and many others throughout the years have experienced what Jesus experienced, that then led Jesus into a ministry intended to lead others to that same experience; the experience of the Light by which they would be saved and know peace. Thus, after 1600 years of Christian history, Fox experienced and named the Light AS Christ. In that experience he became “Christ.”

    It seems to this Friend that all three, AS, OF and BEYOND, are correct and that none comes close to capturing the Experience of communion with the Light that then transforms us and orders our lives. We cannot truly name it. This Light belongs to no religion. It is eternal, infinite and immanent. Thus it is within us and beyond us and it is us.

    Jesus called it by many names but its manifestation was the saving Oneness of Love. Absent that Light as the centerpiece of our faith, “Quakerism” rightfully dies. That hardly matters because the Light (“the spirit of Christ”) by which we are guided is not changeable. If that Light once again becomes our Truth and message to the world we will experience our revival as a faith community.

    • Greg Robie says:

      “AS, OF and BEYOND”
      The Ocean of Light turns dark
      So we call it ‘light’

      The intended insight of this haiku is that the morphing of the experience of ______ from one thing to another solves a [psychological] problem. In our case, as privileged devotees of CapitalismFail, it is sleeping well at night (& I’m not!).

      Might this post, and the one on Quakers and money, enlighten if considered together? To what degree is the evolution in light theology, as spun by Steven, in fact, another of that proverbial ’only’ constant: change? Does Don make a helpful point: these differences coexist, but probable not in a single meme. To what degree does the Religious Society of Friends, but for its numerical insignificance, function as the intractable religious handmaiden (loyal opposition) of worldly power that the Church of England was when Fox–convincingly–fancied something else? Hasn’t the RSOF tried to do the impossible: be a slave to two masters? Has it “succeeded” in this impossibility by engaging in some serious motivated reasoning?

      By our fruits we are known: …and I substituted ‘Hope’ for ‘Christ’ (that was used in the original QuakerWanda version) in an effort to become all things to all people so that some may be saved [from themselves]! 😉

      • treegestalt says:

        Clement Wood’s preface to the old rhyming dictionary does a good job of explaining the distinction between poetry & verse; your piece strikes me as heavy verse or worse; but you have some serious points, although I do disagree.

        Rather than theological differences, I’d say that class membership is the strongest determinant of the LiberalFriendish tendency to political conventionality; I think that’s equally echoed at the Friends Church end of the theological spectrum — going, that is, by what people post on sites like

        My own Meeting used to suffer from having a larger percentage of Phds than any other, as one member occasionally bragged. So the overall class membership, while not ‘wealthy’, was certainly up there among the low-flying academic “retainer” classes — the sort of group whose children might hope to save the world incrementally by going to work for the World Bank (with a straight face.) It was one of our more pious members who spoke against taking any stand against Predident Clinton’s unprovoked bombing of some Middle-Eastern city back in his reign, arguing that “They might know Something We Don’t.”

        (A big chunk, but there may be agreements across our theological gulf:

        Interesting that God should have us both share writings about hope (and the right foundation thereof) around the same time here:

        We trust in oracles of stone,
        in names of air, electrical
        abundances of nothing

        yet faith eludes us; hope
        remains a treacherous
        enticement to futility
        and vain regrets. Faith

        I tell you truly
        is different — That lost sense
        disparaged and counterfeited; credulity
        usurps its place, sets us to building
        houses of despair, where faith
        would break the eggshell prison
        from inside, and free us all.

        [me, recently posted at ]

  • Thank you, Steve (also John). I found an article by Elise Boulding that articulated John’s question — written in 1949 in either “The Friend” or “Friends Intelligencer”. The title was “Where is our sense of sin?”

    I was reminded this weekend of Lewis Benson’s careful work on Fox’s writings. I find considerable gloss in Jones’ work… and wonder at times if intellectual clarity results in sacrifice of complex meanings.

    • I’ve been thinking about sin along these lines a lot lately, myself. I attended a dinner after a lecture at the Shumaker Institute with members of the New York City bioregional movement some time around 1984, and asked mentioned to Thomas Berry the negative opinion I had of sin. He answered, “No, Steve, sin is at the core of everything,” or something to that effect. I was surprised, because he never mentions sin in the essays we were then reading that ultimately became The Dream of the Earth. I was so taken aback that I couldn’t answer. But obviously, that claim has stuck with me ever since.

      Meanwhile, one of the reasons I can’t call myself a Christian is its preoccupation—I would even say obsession—with sin, which feels pathological to me. By this I mean believing that sinfulness is the defining trait of human nature, the essential problem to be solved, the rightful (almost exclusive) focus of true religion.

      The sin-judgment-salvation paradigm just does not work for me. There is so much more to human nature that is just as inherent as sin: love, community, creativity, fear, the survival instinct . . . And there are so many positive directions that “true” religion could focus on: health, creativity, continuing revelation, guidance, both personal and collective . . .

      Not that sin doesn’t exist, as some Friends seem to feel. How often do you hear Friends exclaim that the New Testament word for “sin” means to miss the mark, as though to sin was just to make a mistake. No, to sin is to deliberately do the wrong thing.

      So I do think we (liberal) Friends need to rethink sin. We need to address is with a new understanding that still honors our tradition, if that’s possible. I believe it is possible. I believe sin does exist and it is important and the “problem” of sin deserves our attention. But it is just not the only thing that really matters.

      I think I feel another post coming on.

  • Greg Robie says:

    Whoops! Touch screen misfire. I was mostly done, but I may need enough more work that I will send it again. =)

    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself


  • treegestalt says:

    I find “a kind of receptor” to be an interesting way of phrasing this… To a first (& only?) approximation, “I” seem to be “a kind of receptor plus what’s received…” while “Spirit” ought to mean something ~ “the receptor and-also the creator of what’s-received.”

    So — not quite the same thing, but intriguingly tricky to untangle.


  • Thank you for this, Steve! Particularly for your observation, “the Inner Light became increasingly detached from Christ in (liberal) Quaker understanding, and it also became less and less about sin, about revealing sin and strengthening us against it.” The longer I live among Friends, the longer I see it as a major weakness of our tradition that we have no custom of mutual confession and absolution of sins, we don’t talk about our bondage to sin and our liberation from it — it’s like “sin” is too unfashionable a word for us to use. As a result, we can live in denial of that bondage, or try to compensate for it by acting super-good, or deal with it in our private devotions but not talk about it among Friends, or impute it to the world’s “bad guys” and set ourselves up as the moral superiors of others, telling the world’s warmongers that we live in that power that takes away the occasion of all war. But do we?

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