Lewis Benson on “that of God”

March 15, 2017 § 3 Comments

Lewis Benson on “That of God”

My post about “that of God” and the soul prompted a fair amount of comment and some interest in Lewis Benson’s essay on the phrase, so I thought I would digest its key points here.

In 1970, Lewis Benson published an essay in Quaker Religious Thought (Vol. XII, No. 2) titled “That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?” He hoped, I think, that this essay would reverse the trend among liberal Friends toward using the phrase as the foundation for their Quakerism, since he felt that “when we jump to the conclusion that “that of God” is the central truth of the Quaker message, then we cut ourselves off from that which Fox made central; namely, the message about Jesus Christ and how he saves men.” (Benson consistently uses “men” to stand in for all people in this essay; I do not change his usage in my quotes below.)

It didn’t work. His opening sentences are at least as true today as they were in 1970: “The phrase “that of God in every man” has been widely used in the twentieth century as an expression which signifies the central truth of the Quaker message. Many present-day Quakers, when asked what the Quakers believe, are likely to reply: ‘They believe that there is that of God in every man’.”

Probably no one knew the work and thought of George Fox better than Lewis Benson. He prepared a massive concordance of Fox’s works and if you look “that of God” up, as I have done, you find more than 700 entries, counting all its cognates, and there are many of those; Benson lists a few in his essay. I am persuaded by Benson’s historical analysis and his critique, and by aspects of his discussion of its implications, and I have taken up his crusade, though for different reasons and with different goals. I feel that his essay is essential reading for any Friend in the liberal tradition. (You can download a pdf file at http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/qrt/topdownloads.html.)

So here are what I think are Benson’s salient points.

How Fox used the phrase “that of God”

Benson: “This phrase belongs to his [Fox’s] pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.

Two salient facts point to an understanding of what Fox means by “that of God in every man”: first, it is not used by Fox to designate the central truth that he is proclaiming; and, second, it is used most frequently to refer to the response that Friends were trying to evoke by word and deed.”

Where Fox got the phrase and the concept

Benson and others agree that Fox got the idea from Romans 1:19: “[Because] that which may be known of God is manifest in them [shown to them]; for God hath showed it unto them.” The context of this declaration in Benson’s essay suggests that this latter clause echoes John 1:9, which was a key passage for Friends: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

Romans 1:9 does not use the phrase “that of God”, but Benson quotes Fox showing how Fox connected the idea with the phrase: “That Fox saw ‘that of God in every man’ in the context of Romans 1 is evident from the following passage written in 1658: ‘So that which may be known of God is manifest within people, wjhich God hath showed unto them . . . and to that of God in them all must they come before they do hold the truth in righteousness, or retain God in their knowledge, or retain his covenant of light . . . ”

What did Fox mean by “that of God”

The phrase “that of God” is not an idea about human nature “but points to the work of God in Christ,” as Francis Hall puts it in his comment after Benson’s essay.

Benson elaborates: “The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator.  We cannot produce the equivalent of this voice and this wisdom from our human resources. It must be heard and received. There is a hunger in every man for this voice and this wisdom—a need to be taught what is right by the Creator. In every man there is a witness for God that summons him to remember the Creator. This is ‘that of God in every man.’ It is not an organ, or faculty, or gland. It is a hunger and thirst that God has put in man.” (emphasis mine)

That of God is not a divine spark inherent in the human, some aspect of the divine in which the human partakes, as we modern liberal Friends tend to believe. Rather, that of God is a yearning for God and for God’s teaching and guidance that was put there as a kind of receptor for the gospel, for God’s wisdom, put there by God.

Answering” that of God

Benson: “The verbs that Fox usually links with ‘that of God’ are ‘answer’ and ‘reach.’ The goal of Quaker preaching, either by word or deed, is to reach or answer something in all men. Fox says, “it is the light that makes manifest to a man when he is convinced: it answers to something, and reaches to something in their particulars.’ “Answering that of God” is not recognizing the divine spark in others, but rather offering ministry that satisfies the yearning in us for God’s truth.

In the famous pastoral epistle that we quote all the time as our source for the phrase, we “will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.” “Cheerfully” here does not mean in a lighthearted mood, but rather so as to cheer in a sense mostly lost to us since the 17th century, that is to spiritually uplift—to be a blessing. It’s also notable that Fox uses “world”, not “earth”, as many liberal Friends today often misquote him. “The world” comes from John’s gospel and stands for the world as it rejected Christ: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” (John 1:9–10)

That which does the answering

Fox: “There is something in man . . . that answers the power which is the gospel.” Benson: “That of God in the conscience is not conscience itself, but the word by which all things, including conscience, were created.” This “word”, of course, is Christ the Word, John 1:3: “All things were made by him; and without hem was not any thing made that was made”.

The twentieth century usage

Benson: “Between 1700 and 1900 “that of God in every man” virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary . . . How did this long-forgotten phrase get into the spotlight and stay in the spotlight?” What happened that modern liberal Friends have turned this phrase on its head and then made it the one slender pillar upon which all Quaker tradition was to balance?

Benson’s answer: “The earliest instance of the revived use of “that of God” that I have been able to discover is found in Rufus Jones’ “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903, in which he expresses his opinion that the “larger truth” implicit in Fox’s early experiences is the discovery that there is a ‘universal principle, that the Spirit of God reaches in every man.’ He then adds: ‘To all sorts and conditions of men, Fox continually makes appeal to ‘that of God’ in them or to ‘the principle of God within man’ . . . In every instance he means that the Divine Being operates directly on the human life.’ In the following year he [Jones] wrote: ‘What was the Inner Light? The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, “Something of God” in the human soul.’ As a consequence of statements like these, the phrase ‘that of God in every man’ began to acquire a meaning for twentieth century Friends that it did not have for Fox. The new ‘interpretation’ made ‘that of God in man’ the central conception around which everything else in Quakerism revolves.”

Benson notes that in the last few weeks of his life, Jones began to have doubts about what he had done. It was only at this late time in his career that Jones actually began to systematically study what Fox meant by the phrase.  Meanwhile, Jones had been propagating his misinterpretation for 45 years.

In his failure to actually study the material he was interpreting, Jones prefigured our own practice. Most Friends use the phrase glibly, having read very little Fox, if any, who are ignorant of Benson’s essay, and haven’t thought through what either Fox or they themselves mean by the phrase beyond the divine spark idea.

The idea spreads

Benson believes that the AFSC is responsible for bringing this understanding of the phrase into common usage. “A major contributing factor in the dissemination of this idea has been the torrent of promotional literature and other publications that flows from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service committee. . . . by frequently reminding us that its central motivating principle is ‘that of God in every man,’ [the Service Committee] has exerted a much greater influence on Quaker faith and thought than anything emanating from the Society itself.” This jives with my sense that you are most likely to see the phrase invoked as the foundation for the peace testimony and our other social testimonies, a topic which Benson takes up at length.

“That of God” and membership

But the phrase has come to dominate our thinking about more than our social witness. Benson: “Among Quakers today there is a widespread belief that the central truth of Quakerism is a principle that is not solely derived from the Christian revelation. . . . for a considerable number of Friends ‘that of God in every man’ is the symbol of a principle that transcends and comprehends Christianity. We know that it is the policy of some Monthly Meetings to make belief in ‘that of God in every man,’ which has been called ‘the Quakers’ creed,’ a primary and essential condition of membership, whereas faith in Christ is regarded as a secondary and non-essential factor in examining prospective members. I maintain . . . there is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.”

My own meeting (Central Philadelphia) does not use the phrase in this way as a credal test in its membership process, but its membership documents are, in fact, full of the claim that our faith rests on the belief in that of God in everyone.

Comments by T. Canby Jones and Francis B. Hall

The Quaker Religious Thought issue with Benson’s essay also includes two comments by these two Quaker thinkers. Jones points out that it’s really hard to distinguish in Fox’s thinking between the Light and “that of God in everyone”.  They have the same source, they work in the same ways. Fox was famously unsystematic in his thinking, and Jones confesses to still being “all hung up” on this distinction, even though he dwelt on the question for pages in his doctoral dissertation. “I can hear Fox laughing,” he says.

I agree with Jones about this. I find it quite hard to follow Fox’s thinking a lot of the time.  But I also agree with Benson about almost all of his points. We misuse the phrase “that of God” these days in ways that do violence to our tradition and to the testimony of integrity.  We have narrowed our belief system down to this one principle and ravaged an ancient and rich tradition in the process. We have forgotten where our “modern” interpretation came from, and when, and we have falsely retrojected it onto our prophetic founder, who, it seems, never meant by it anything like what we mean by it.

But, as my Friend Don Badgley often points out, it’s not what we believe that matters so much as what we have experienced. “Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light?” Whatever “that of God” within us is, a divine spark or an inward yearning for Truth, is it connecting? Are we answering the knock on our heart’s door? Are we rising to face and follow the light, in spirit and in truth?

But while direct experience of the Christ (and I will leave open for now the question of what and/or who the Christ is) may be the main question, the way that we present our beliefs still matters. The way we answer questions about our faith from the public, from newcomers, and from our children. What we say matters. As Fox put it, “What thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”


§ 3 Responses to Lewis Benson on “that of God”

  • Greg Robie says:

    Editor’s note: As the writer and moderator of Through the Flaming Sword, I have edited parts of Greg Robie’s comment to eliminate references Greg makes to individuals by name, except in the cases where those persons’ remarks are part of this thread of posts and comments or are otherwise already public. I felt it was my responsibility as moderator to protect those Friends’ privacy, especially since I suspect that many of them don’t follow this blog and could only find out about Greg’s remarks indirectly and by surprise.


    Good order/Gospel Order is far more transformative than can be imagined within the ‘Light’ theology/TheologyLite that is deluding institutional Quakerism. If one submits to the sword of the Spirit, there is no avoiding the death and rebirth experience of metanoia. The inward perfecting that is the prerequisite to greeting that of G_d in everyone can be avoided within what passes for (liberal) Quakerism today. The pragmatism of this avoidance is even celebrated.

    Don’s addenda is integral to the discernment of spirits. What is done in good faith reflects what is hoped in. To accommodate CapitalismFail, a trusted as-good-as-it-gets that has nothing to do with G__d/Gospel resides in this culture as trusted darkness. Thanks to motivated reasoning, CapitalismFail is the functionally [and unconstitutionally] established state religion of this Nation … Including Quakers. Because both the Devine and the Devil do delta (see https://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/nurturing-the-call-to-vocal-ministry/#comment-2933), isn’t it a darkness which, by pragmatically avoiding fully discerning spirits, can be [piously?] loved as ‘light’? … Or it is easier for a burdened camel to fit through the eye of the needle gate (and/or unburdened and the eye of a needle) than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

    During our last conversation, [one Friend] took umbrage with my assertion that globalized CapitalismFail was, in truth, a failed but trusted human construct that precluded good. This collage of three haiku and an amazing painting is [understatement] unsettling. Are we (including Quakers) destined to learn the hard way that it is impossible to serve both G_d and mammon; that a duality of vision concerning masters is a recipe for ending up in the ditch/over the edge?

    Steven asks in the followup post what’s next (since gravity works!). In terms of the recent bubble-busting [s]election, what Trump overtly pushes, but Obama/Clinton covertly enabled, is “the shuffling madness of the locomotive breath”. I feel liberal Quakers are having the experiences that Steven wrote about concerning the President because of the referenced hunger of this post. But because liberal Quakerism has, and with lots of ‘good’ company, tried the impossible, the hopium the Society has organized around is revealed as the fakeness that it is. And I assume this interest in a “next” is an expression of this: the early awakenings to a death of god experience.

    As I’ve mentioned before in my comments here, Chuck Fager summarized extra-Yearly Meeting gatherings as being about three things: talk, dead quaker money, and sexual hookups. This observation is no universal truth, but sufficiently true to have effected a significant vector-of-spirit driving the train. Reading Josh Browne’s post on yearly meetings, perhaps, with the passage of time Chuck’s insights, at least the first two, apply to any Quaker gathering?

    About a quarter of a century ago the approach I wrote up as my version of the [New York Yearly Meeting] Renewal Committee Report might have yet been an option for “next” and the liberal branch of the Society. But even then it would have needed a radical implementation – like transferring all of the NYYM trust funds to PYM for a generation. The community meditation groups that monthly meeting had/have evolved to be, do not a Society make. So it might simply have hastened what appears to be happening anyway. Given the process that lead to my release from membership and the systemic emasculation of the Yearly Meeting that allowed it, I doubt even the transfer of the busy-ness of the trust funds would have involved sufficiently different thinking to counter the (hen) turkey mentality that guided/guides the train.

    [The Friend previously referred to as “one Friend”] may recall his and my conversation about turkeys and how the sexes are separate except during mating season. By what process, and why, did female spiritual needs and sensibilities come to dominate and define liberal Quakerism? When and why did male spiritual needs and sensibilities become invisible? A male’s bias was revealed to me when I had an opening that maybe the women didn’t so much join the men’s business meeting, when the practice of separate meetings was abandoned, as this alternate view, which I find insightful: men became sufficiently feminized for the women to feel safe joining them. Did women already control Quakerism such that the merging of business meetings was both efficient and inconsequential?

    Anyway, “grow a pair”, is a blue collar way to suggest what is “next”. [I know a number of Friends who have attempted to raise concerns that hens seem to experience as inconsequential]. Steven, you are almost in this category, but seem to have avoided crossing the Rubicon. Without a culture of elders, transforming ministry is exceptional. Within a culture that is all-but-dismissive of support for male spirituality, transforming male ministry is an oxymoron. [. . . All but two of these men] have departed NYYM one way or another. [Those two] needed to switch monthly meetings.

    For almost a decade I have hand shoveled my 400′ driveway. This is a personal discipline I do to experientially remind myself of what less unsustainable life feels like. Had I not done this after this recent storm I might have missed the frozen flowering branch tips I found in the snow; not seen the leaf bud coverings blown into hollows in the two feet of blown white stuff I was moving; failed to notice the lilac buds arrested in swollen green fullness. This is the second year in a row that a hard freeze has followed an “early” warmup. 2017, in spite of last year’s weak La Niña, is currently tracking for another new record warm one as, for the first time, the poles heat anomaly is sufficient to dominate whatever the trends are at the equator. The planetary parameters that frame the “next”, which Steven wonders about, are defined by abrupt climate change. https://youtu.be/d15hVInN0Oo

    A manning up to our apostasy which this metanoia involves is not for the faint of heart. Non-violently and voluntarily walking away from dead quaker money (as well as our own precious ‘personal’ treasure) within CapitalismFail, not because such will change anything, but because it is the holy thing to do, doesn’t preach. But it is the remaining good choice among what physics is going to teach. Such goodness, as faith, will allow us to demonstrate a hope in the human capacity for meekness and repentance … or not.


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself




  • Don Badgley says:

    Friend Don Badgley also says that what you EXPERIENCE must lead to what you DO, how you order your life by living as much as possible in the Light and sharing the good news with others. May I, and may we all, begin to approach that good order.

  • seekerquaker says:

    Thanks for revisiting this topic. It reminds me of multiple discussions with Lewis Benson when we were both at Manasquan Meeting for a couple of years. One of the “proudest” (in a Quakerly way:-)) events of my career was when Lewis and I were recorded as ministers from Manasquan in NYYM. I also took a class from T. Canby when we were Ohio.

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