Rufus Jones on George Fox

September 3, 2016 § 5 Comments

I have been reading Rufus Jones’ The Faith and Practice of the Quakers, which I find is really good. My goal has been to find definitively, if I can, where and when Rufus Jones reinterpreted Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” to mean a divine spark on the model of the neo-Platonic philosophers and gnostics. I think it’s actually in Studies in Mystical Religion, written in 1909, which I am also reading. Faith and Practice was written much later, in 1927.

I wanted to pass on the two paragraphs that appear below about George Fox because they are so wonderfully written and so insightful, and because they touch on my search in a manner that seems to contradict the impression I have about the divine spark idea. I have replaced Jones’s generic “man” in the text with gender-inclusive alternatives because I don’t want his language to interfere with our reading. And I have colored the text that I want to discuss after the excerpt.

We have in Fox a man who felt himself called to be a religious reformer. He was a mystic, not a scholastic or a rationalist. He was a prophet, not a priest or a scribe. He new extremely little Church history; he had as good as no theological learning; he was not even well versed in the literature of the movements which prepared the way for his mission. He well nigh knew the Bible by heart, but he had no historical knowledge of its background and no critical insight into the original meaning of texts or the purpose and significance of the different books of the great volume which he loved. He depended on flashes and openings and he turned most naturally to the luminous passages which proclaimed inward religion and announced the light and guidance of the Spirit. Under the constructive and integrating power of his experiences and his convictions, he became a strong and vigorous personality. He was changed from a weak, shy and timorous youth to a robust and fearless man. When once he had unsealed his commission and felt assured of his call, there was nothing on earth that could daunt him or terrify him. His greatest danger was not from without; it was from within. He broke with external authority; he had at the first few good counsellors; he was subject to visions; he was swept with enthusiasms; he was living in a time of seething dreams and expectations; he was visited by ranters and fanatics, yet he kept his head and, with slight exceptions, maintained his balance. Each year saw him growing steadier and wiser, and he came through the turmoils and the testings with sanity, poise and judgment. William Penn very finely says of him: “I write my knowledge and not report, and my witness is true, having been with him for weeks and months together on diversse occasions, and those of the nearest and most exercising nature, and that by night and by day, by sea and by land, in this and in foreign countries, and I can say I never saw him out of his place, or not a match for every service or occasion.”

When Fox started forth, in 1647–48, to be, as he believed, the prophet and apostle of a new and complete reformation, his battle-idea was the continuous revelation of God’s will in the soul of [the human]. He had been convinced by his own experience, by the testimony of those whom he met among the spiritual sects, and finally by the great seeds in Scripture, that there is a direct illumination from God within [the human’s] inner being. He met the Calvinist theory of a congenital seed of sin in the new-born child by the counter claim that there is a seed of God in every soul. This “seed” or “light”, which he proclaimed, was thought of as a capacity of response to divine intimations and openings, a basis of inward communication and correspondence between God and [the human] and a moral searchlight revealing to [us] the absolute distinction between right and wrong, making the path of righteousness and truth unmistakable. When he began his itinerant ministry, he had not thought through the implications of his discovery ; he had, of course, made no psychological or philosophical analysis of the ground for such a faith—he had merely leaped to the height of his great conviction, and he felt at once that it put Christianity on a new basis of authority. The master key was in the hand of the individual [person]. Nobody else could “open and shut”. The significant and eternal realities are those inward decisions, when the soul says “yes” or “no” to God. Fox no doubt overstressed the range and scope of inward guidance. He made it more specific, concrete and detailed than most of us find it to be. He thought that the organ of revelation in us was like a new sense that opened up a whole new world of life, and the scenery and circumstance of it, in minute detail, could infallibly come through to us. He made communication easier and more common than the facts will warrant, but at all events, the momentous truth seemed clear to thim that religion rests in the last resort not on a book or on a church but on the fundamental nature of [a person’s] inner being.

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§ 5 Responses to Rufus Jones on George Fox

  • vombutch says:

    I lament the switch, in understanding, from that(love) of God to the inner lights, of reasonable faith, of that(Light) of God. After all, modern scientific analysis has proven the depletive property of energy, or spark; whereas little light has been shed on the gathering/unifying property of love.

  • It was good to see the Bassuk article frequently affirmed references to Lewis Benson’s assertion of the difference between the original prophetic and the more recent mystical understanding of the faith. Benson called the mystical interpretation into question early in his book “Catholic Quakerism” (now re-titled “A Universal Christian Faith”) describing mystical Quakerism’s major premise as understanding the light

    as signifying the spiritual potentiality in human life, [referring to] that part of man’s nature which has kinship with the divine. As this premise became widely accepted the term inner light became the most commonly used expression for the central principle of the Quakers, and this inner light came to be associated more and more with man’s highest spiritual potential and less and less with the unique savior, Jesus Christ (2).

    In identifying the light with human spiritual potential rather than the prophet/savior come to restore and teach us himself, Quaker faith lapses into a spiritual state that earliest Friends realized Christ was come to release us from: the state humanity ever falls into when believing they themselves are “as gods, knowing good and evil”(Gen. 3:5).

  • Thanks for this passage, Stephen. I look forward to reading what you have to say about it.
    Recently I read a couple books by Rufus Jones. In Quakerism: A Spiritual Movement (the collection of six prefaces he wrote to Quaker histories), in his essay on The Second Period of Quakerism, he writes about how Robert Barclay, in his Apology, explained Quaker faith in relation to the theologies of the Protestant Reformation and in so doing, “The division of natures, the dualism between God and man, is here stated as sharply and violently as it can be stated.” (154) Jones felt that although Barclay had experienced the Light with others of the first generation, his way of framing Quaker faith relied on his formal theological training, and it shaped and seriously limited Quaker theology. For centuries afterwards, Jones says, Quakers “never got beneath the ancient presuppositions. The deeper questions of the real nature of God and man and their fundamental relation to one another never got adequate treatment. We find nobody breaking loose and doing down to the deeper level. … What I regret most is that the early formulation of Quakerism should have been made as an adjustment with the Augustinian and Calvinistic system instead of following the fresh and transforming path which the spiritual reformers, the real forerunners and progenitors of “the Children of the Light,” had discovered. That latter course would have meant a different history and, I believe, a greater career for the movement–a real day-dawn and day-star rising for spiritual religion.” (160)
    His essay on the Beginnings of Quakerism might be helpful in your search. He has a lot to say about George Fox.
    In his essay on Quakerism as brought to the American colonies, he writes, “The movement was hampered from the start, and in every stage of its history during the period of this volume by the imperfect conception of the Inward Light, and of the whole relation between the Divine and the human, which was consciously or unconsciously adopted. This was perhaps inevitable, as every movement is necessarily more or less bound up with the prevailing ideas, the intellectual climate, of the age in which it takes its rise. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a dualistic universe was taken for granted. There was a sharp distinction, a wide chasm, between the “natural” and the “supernatural.” The urgent question with everybody was–not how the entire universe from material husk to spiritual core could be unified and comprehended as an organic whole, but how the chasm which sundered the two worlds could be miraculously bridged. … What they wanted to say was that God and men were in direct correspondence, and that man at his best could lay hold of life and light and wisdom and truth which ordinarily transcends his narrow finite self. Of such heightened correspondence there is plenty of evidence. The only pity is that their wrongly-formulated theory so often stood in their way and hampered them and prevented them from a normal use of all their capacities. (173-175)

  • Thank you so much for this, Steve!

    I find this part of Jones’s dialogue with Fox particularly interesting: “Fox no doubt overstressed the range and scope of inward guidance. He made it more specific, concrete and detailed than most of us find it to be. He thought that the organ of revelation in us was like a new sense that opened up a whole new world of life, and the scenery and circumstance of it, in minute detail, could infallibly come through to us. He made communication easier and more common than the facts will warrant, but…”

    When we hear a prophet calling us to heed the “specific, concrete detail” of our inward guidance, or to exercise our organ of revelation so as to perceive the scenery and circumstance of a whole new world of life in minute detail, and we find ourselves unable, I think our natural response, if we believe such a prophet and especially if we’ve been horrified by our condition, is to fall to our knees, weeping before God, “Open our organ of revelation, we beg you! Purify our intentions so that we’ll never abuse our ability to see into that whole new world! Strengthen our hearts so that we’ll be able to tolerate what we see there, without falling into laziness, faint-heartedness, terror, self-loathing, or despair! Guide our steps closely, so that we’ll never again walk in a manner unworthy of what we’ve seen!”

    It’s nice to have a Rufus Jones to comfort us for still being children when George Fox is calling us to follow him into adult life, but perhaps we need third voices counseling trust and patience; God hears our prayers and will indeed bring us to adulthood: “Greater works than these shall he do,” said Jesus (Jn 14:12 av), “because I go unto my Father.”

    As for our being horrified by our condition: if you haven’t been horrified yet, just tell God that you’re ready to give up your comforting illusions.

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