Tuesday, 21 January 2014

'C' is for Celestial Inhabitation

In this posting I aim to explain the importance of celestial inhabitation to first generation Quakers and indicate why this understanding was suppressed by later Friends. I want to argue that this caused a significant change in early Quaker theology that had a number of negative implications and suggest that Friends might wish to revisit the vision of celestial inhabitation and consider whether it has something to contribute to our contemporary faith and practice.

1. The Early Quaker Position

A. Introduction

Early Quakerism was founded on a dramatic experience of Christ returning in Spirit to teach and transform his people so that they could say like the apostle Paul “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Such an experience of intimate union with God has been called celestial inhabitation. This was a highly controversial position to hold within seventeenth century Puritan England. The dominant form of Calvinism rejected the idea of divine immanence and the possibility of liberation from sin in this life. Therefore the claim that Christ might dwell within a person (what Richard Bailey has called a ‘Christopresent theology’) was regarded as blasphemous and got many early Friends into trouble with the authorities, most notoriously in the case of James Nayler who was convicted of ‘horrid blasphemy’ and endured a most brutal punishment. Here we see James Nayler, at the beginning of his Quaker ministry responding to the accusations of Quaker opponents:

And thou art offended at the "knowledge of Christ within the saints"; art not thou ashamed to profess the Scripture and deny what they witness? Which of the saints did witness any other knowledge of Christ after his ascension but as he was revealed in them? And all that know him in Spirit know him within them; and is there any Christ but one? Because thou sayest, "they know no other Christ but a Christ within them"; and thou that knows no Christ but without, ye know him not but by hearsay; and then art not thou that notionist thou speaks on? James Nayler – A Few Words Occasioned (1653)

In making sense of their spiritual experiences, early Friends found plenty of references within the New Testament that appeared to validate their understanding of celestial inhabitation. Writing in his Journal, George Fox argued that the Quaker position was no different to that of the apostle Paul:

Paul saith, “The first man is from the earth, earthly (1 Cor. 15:47). “And as we have born the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly (1 Cor. 15:49). And “we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7). “And I live” he said, “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. 2:20) who is the life of all God’s people. George Fox - Journal

Based on the testimony of scripture, Fox and early Friends believed that celestial inhabitation was a normal experience within the early church where individuals and communities were led by the living presence of Christ dwelling within them:

The scriptures saith God will dwell in men, and walk in men … Doth not the Apostle say, the saints were partakers of the divine nature? And that God dwells in the saints, and Christ is in them, except they be reprobates? And do not the saints come to eat the flesh of Christ? And if they eat his flesh, is it not within them? George Fox – Great Mystery of the Great Whore (works volume 3, pp.181-82)

B. The Incarnation – Heaven and Earth Unite

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

For early Friends, a crucial implication of the incarnation was that, in the person of Christ Jesus, heaven and earth were united. The ‘epistle’ to the Hebrews had great resonance for them, partly because of its vision of the new covenant (see below) but also because of the way in which the incarnation was seen to break the boundaries dividing spirit and matter, heaven and earth. In this sense, Christ acts as a bridge between the divine spiritual realm and the created physical realm and in doing so he sacralizes the material creation by his divine indwelling. So although the language of early Quakerism sounds very dualistic, in fact the experiences of Friends enabled them to transcend dualistic thinking in this way.

C. The New Covenant

Early Quaker understandings were based on a fundamental distinction between the old and the new covenants that can been found in the writings of the apostle Paul and in Hebrews. In the old covenant the relationship between humanity and God was regulated and mediated through outward forms (e.g. outward law, temple, priests and sacrifices) whereas in the new covenant these are all fulfilled inwardly and spiritually by Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In the new covenant, by his own sacrifice, Christ ended the old form of law and fulfilled it by writing it on people’s hearts. A life lived in unity with God was now possible because Christ could dwell within the hearts of his people.

D. The Significance of Pentecost

At Pentecost the spirit was poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:1-21) ensuring that entry into the new covenant in which heaven and earth overlapped was available to all people. Early Quakerism was Pentecostal in the sense that it was characterised by a transformational experience of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within people as an inward teacher, priest, prophet and king.

E. The Body as the Temple of God

God is spirit (John 4:24) and humans are flesh. However, as we have seen in the incarnation and the new covenant, Spirit and flesh become one (heaven and earth meet). In the new covenant, God’s dwelling place is the human tabernacle, people are gathered into a temple of living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5) and Christ dwells within them in their measure (Ephesians 4:7). The physical Quaking of early Friends can therefore be understood as an external manifestation of the breaking open of the creature and of the Spirit pouring in (as heaven and earth connects).

F. The Body of Christ

It is quite normal for Christians to refer to the church as the body of Christ. However, for early Friends this was understood in an almost literal sense. More than in merely a metaphorical sense, Christ was seen to be the head of the church, controlling both the individual and corporate body. The true church became Christ’s body continuing his work within the world.

9. The Transformation of the Whole Creation

Another defining feature of the early Quaker vision was the belief that in Christ people were restored to an Edenic state of innocence in perfect harmony with God and with the rest of the creation (Moore 2000, p.83). This was a restoration of God’s original intention for the creation. Humanity had been created to reflect the nature of God in creation but a loss of union with God threw the created order into disarray, a state of affairs characterised by separation, disunity, disorder and disharmony (Wilcox 1995, p.21 & 25). Through the indwelling of Christ this gulf was bridged. Early Friends felt that the wisdom and order of creation was revealed to them, that they were brought into harmony with this wisdom and order and could understand and practice right relationship with and right use of the creation

3. The Biblical References

Let us now look at a number of biblical references that early Friends used to support their belief in celestial inhabitation:

a.  God’s promise is that we will transcend human limitations and come to share in the divine nature:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)

b.  God’s temple is now the human body and the Holy Spirit dwells within it:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:19)

…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)

c.  Christ dwells within us in part but this can grow until it reaches fullness:

“one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:5-7)

…until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)

d. When Christ dwells within us we are transformed and Jesus becomes visible again in our own lives:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

4. The Quaker Rejection of Celestial Inhabitation

During the 1650 the emerging movement had been on the offensive. However, with the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 Quakers (along with other dissenting religious groups) suffered severe persecution at the hands of a government that was committed to imposing the establish church and cracking down on nonconformity. Hundreds of Friends were imprisoned and most of the first generation leaders lost their lives due to the terrible prison conditions of the time. In such circumstances it is not surprising that corporately Quakers became concerned to manage their public image and campaign for religious toleration. In the face of accusations of doctrinal heresy, religious enthusiasm and political subversion, Friends began to emphasise their orthodoxy, their peaceable intentions and their respectability. In these new circumstances the celestial inhabitation and the ‘Christopresent’ theology of the 1650s seemed far too unorthodox, threatening and enthusiastic to a Quaker movement that was losing its charismatic fire and becoming an ordered community. As a result, Friends suppressed this aspect of the early Quaker vision and in some cases censored and altered earlier writings that were regarded as unsafe. Michelle Tartar has argued that in Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity Quakers turned to a traditional theology of dualism (radically separating the spiritual and the material/bodily) “Severing the ‘inward’ from the ‘outward’, Barclay disempowered the original Quaker notion of celestial flesh by replacing Fox’s literalization of the spirit with a more traditional and figurative hermeneutics of religious worship.” The ‘corporeal’ experience was replaced by a rational/ philosophical one (Tartar 2004, pp.93-94). It can be argued that the legacy of this transformation in Quaker theology has had a number of negative implications (Johns 2013, pp.7-15). These include a tendency:

i)         To mistrust the human body and suppress active physical expression.
ii)        To neglect the goodness of the physical creation in favour of a disembodied spiritual realm.
iii)       To adopt an inward-looking and introverted spirituality.

Although this transition did not undermine the basic Quaker commitment to the spiritual equality of women, it may well have resulted in greater restrictions on a woman’s ability to express herself and take the role of prophet. The radical freedom of the 1650s was strongly predicated on the assertion that it was Christ living through the human vessel. In such circumstances gender distinctions were deemed irrelevant.

5. Contemporary Significance and Implications

In revisiting the vision of celestial inhabitation and considering whether it has something to contribute to contemporary Quaker faith and practice, Friends (particularly those within the Liberal strand of Quakerism) might like to consider a number of queries:

a.   Overcoming dualism – Is our faith and practice based on an artificial separation between the spiritual/heavenly and the physical/earthly? Does our focus on the inward and the spiritual lead to a neglect of the physical, the bodily and the natural?  What might a spirituality founded on the unity of spirit and matter and heaven and earth look like?

b.   Valuing the material creation – Is our corporate concern for the beauty and variety of the creation (e.g. Advices and Queries no. 42) consistent with a faith and practice which sometimes focuses on the inward and spiritual at the expense of the outward and the physical? How can we bring these two aspects of Quakerism into greater harmony?

c.   Valuing the body and physical expression – Is our faith and practice weakened by a neglect of the body and an avoidance of physical expression? Can we find a way of holding together inward contemplative practice and outwardly embodied physical expression? Can these two dimensions of human life be united within our spirituality?   

d.   The possibility of real transformation – has our vision of the power of the Spirit become too limited and domesticated? In focusing on a more ‘realistic’ role for the Spirit as a source of guidance, have we neglected its more radical transformative potential? Does the vision of new birth through the power of the Spirit have any meaning to us today?

e.   Heaven on earth – do we merely pay lip service to the idea that it is possible to create heaven on earth or do we really believe it? How might the early Quaker experience of living in the place where heaven and earth meet, inspire our witness today? Can we again be a people who embody this vision?

f.    Learning from other faith traditions – can we find inspiration in other faith traditions? How do we relate to other spirit-led churches such as those based on Wesleyan holiness (e.g. Methodism and Pentecostalism)? Can we find inspiration in Eastern Orthodox pneumatology in which the Holy Spirit fills all things and humans and the whole creation are on a path towards deification (theosis)? Can we learn from ancient and contemporary forms of animism?

6. References

Bailey, Richard (1992)      New Light on George Fox & Early Quakerism: The Making and                                                         Unmaking of a God (Edwin Mellen Press)   

Dandelion, Pink (2004)     The Creation of Quaker Theory: Inner Perspectives (Ashgate)

Fox, George (1975)          The Works of George Fox, eight volumes (AMS Press)

Johns, David L (2013)       Quakering Theology: Essays on Worship, Tradition and Christian                                                       Faith (Ashgate)

Moore, Rosemary (2000)  The Light in their Consciences: Faith, Practices, and Personalities in                                                 Early British Quakerism, 1646 -1666 (Pennsylvania State University                                                   Press)
Nayler, James &
Kuenning, Licia (2003-9)  The Works of James Nayler, four volumes (Quaker Heritage Press)

Nickalls, J Ed. (1997)      The Journal of George Fox (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting)

Spencer, Carole (2007)    Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster Press)

Tartar, Michele L (2004)  ‘Go North!’ The Journey towards First-generation Friends and their                                                      Prophesy of Celestial Flesh (in Dandelion, P. 2004)

Wilcox, Catherine (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth Century English                                                        Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press)

Thursday, 9 January 2014

'B' is for Born-Again Quakerism


Most people associate the idea of being ‘born again’ with a certain kind of conservative evangelical Christianity. However, the experience of being born again through the inward transformative power of the Spirit of Christ was an absolutely essential aspect of early Quaker faith and practice. First and foremost, this was not about becoming a member of the right religious club or signing up to the right set of beliefs or doctrine. Instead it pointed to a real experience of change in which people’s relationship with God, with other humans and with the rest of the creation was fundamentally transformed.

In one of his earliest tracts, George Fox explained the early Quaker position:

“Christ said, unless a man is born again of water and of the spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God, nor enter into it. So no man in his first natural birth can see the kingdom of God, nor enter into it, nor know the things of God. For those who see the kingdom of God, they must come to the spirit of God, and the spiritual birth by which the things of God are known, and the kingdom of God; and John the divine said, he was in the kingdom, then he saw it. And the apostle Paul said, God has translated us into the kingdom of his dear son. And so then these [the apostles] saw the kingdom, and were in it. And as many as receive Christ, he gives them power to become the sons of God; even to them that believe on his name, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. This is the birth that sees, and enters God's kingdom.

George Fox – To All That Would Know the Way to the Kingdom (1654)

The Biblical References

This vision of spiritual rebirth can be seen in two key biblical passages:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit; what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I tell you that you must be born from above.” 
John, 3:5-7, NRSV

“You have been born anew, not of perishable, but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” 
1 Peter 1:23, NRSV

James Nayler’s Contribution

Perhaps the most thorough early Quaker examination of the distinction between the first birth in the flesh and the second birth in the Spirit can be found in James Nayler's tract A Discovery of the First Wisdom from Beneath and the Second Wisdom from Above or The Difference betwixt the Two Seeds, The one after the flesh, the other after the Spirit which was published in 1653. An on-line version is available on the Quaker Heritage Press website. See the link below: 


A. Introduction

For Nayler, the heavenly and spiritual reality represents the ‘Truth’. Alienation from God and a focus of the first birth on thing that are not God is merely a temporary corruption of the divine order of creation, a form of delusion that is destined to be destroyed with the coming of the kingdom of God. False religion is man-made within the conditions of the first birth and is focussed outwardly (on earthly, material, carnal, corruptible and fallen things). True religion comes from God, bringing a second birth and is focussed inwardly (on heavenly, spiritual, eternal and incorruptible things). People a free to choose between the two. For Nayler, false man-made religion is a form of idolatry because it involves worshiping something other than God.

The movement from the first birth to the second birth requires the crucifixion of the ‘carnal man’ and the resurrection of the ‘spiritual man’. This is not achieved by human effort but is the work of Christ within each person. Nayler argues that those who believe that sin is inescapable in this life deny the possibility of a transformed life. As a result they excuse sinfulness and have a low expectation of human conduct. He makes clear that in the new covenant God’s temple or tabernacle is the human body. This raises the question of who dwells and rules within the human tabernacle; is it God or is it the serpent? Everything that is opposed to God must be removed from the human tabernacle if God is to enter and dwell there.

B. Key Points in Summary

Here is a summary of the key points in The Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin:

1. We are all born physically but we must also be born again in Spirit

  • The wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God are in conflict with one another.

  • The wisdom of the world enslaves us but the wisdom of God sets us free.

  • There is no point professing our belief in Christ outwardly unless we are taught by him inwardly. Possession is more important than profession.

  • We must let God teach us what form of worship is acceptable. Outward and                 manmade worship is a form of idolatry.

  • The Light brings us into the new covenant where God’s law is written on our hearts.

  • The Light protects us from the evil ways of the world.

  • The Light enables us to distinguish between what is from God and what is contrary to God.

  • The Light brings us to the cross where our disobedient earthly nature (the first birth) is crucified and a new spiritual nature (the second birth) in is raised up in communion with God.

  • The earthly nature and the heavenly nature are opposed to one another.

2. Distinguishing between life in the first birth and life in the second birth

The First Birth

The Second Birth

In the first birth people:

·        Focus on outward things and physical enjoyments, especially the accumulation of wealth and power.

·        Worship a God far away, who is only known to them by what other people have said and written about God.

·        Use their earthly knowledge for corrupt purposes to gain early power and wealth (e.g. fraud, oppression and violence).

·  Are proud and concerned about earthly reputation. They want to grasp the earth’s resources and this leads to war, conflict and oppression. They persecute God’s people.
In the second birth people:

·        Focus on God and heavenly things and reject physical enjoyments in favour of invisible riches.

·        Worship a God who is in an intimate relationship with us inwardly and listen to God’s direct teaching.

·        Are transformed by power of the Spirit and given the ability to overcome the sin and evil of the world.

·       Are humble, meek and full of love for all regardless of status. They are willing to suffer persecution and humiliation because this is how evil is defeated. They are made perfect in suffering.

3. Christ has come to destroy evil, to free the oppressed and imprisoned and to establish the kingdom of God

  • God is against those who seek worldly wealth and fashions and demand that               others worship them.

  • God is against those who overindulge in food and drink when so many of the poor are in need.

  • God is against those who swear oaths, take the name of God in vain and ignore his commands in the way they live their lives.

  • God is against those who scorn and mock others and indulge in pointless sports and activities.

  • God is against those who cheat and oppress the poor in order to gain earthly               wealth.


I want to argue that the possibility of spiritual rebirth remains essential to the Quaker way today for two main reasons:

1. The conviction that all people can change for the better – we need to hold onto the conviction that, however violent, cruel, greedy and uncaring some people appear to be, no-one is beyond redemption. Humans are not entirely determined by their genes, by their culture or by the powers, institutions and ideologies that dominate the world. We must continue to affirm that there is a Spirit available to everyone that has the power to teach and transform us.

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”

Advices and Queries No.1

2. The conviction that the peaceable kingdom can be realised on earth – we need to hold on to the conviction that, despite the continued existence of war, torture, injustice, hunger, hatred, oppression, animal cruelty and environmental destruction in the world today, it is still possible for the whole creation to be transformed and for God’s peaceable kingdom to be realised on earth. We must continue to affirm that there is a Spirit that is available and active in the world that has the power to transform all things.

“Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives…

Oppression in the extreme appears terrible: but oppression in more refined appearances remains to be oppression; and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive. To labour for a perfect redemption from this spirit of oppression is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in this world.”

John Woolman, 1763 (QF&P 23.14)

Thursday, 2 January 2014

A is for Anabaptism

Anabaptist groups along with the Quakers form what has been called the 'Historic Peace Churches'. This means that they are communities and groups that have held a long-term corporate commitment to nonviolence and a testimony against war. Today Anabaptist groups include The Mennonites, The Hutterites, The Amish, The Bruderhof and The Church of the Brethren. In the context of Post-Christendom, many people are exploring the contemporary relevance of the Anabaptist tradition. Those who remain within their own faith community but are strongly influenced by Anabaptism are sometimes called 'Neo-Anabaptists'. Today there are a number of British Quakers who would regard themselves as Neo-Anabaptists.

The Anabaptist movement emerged in Northern Europe in 1520s, a period of significant social, political and religious turmoil linked to the mainstream Reformation (Luther, Zwingli & Calvin), a radical Reformation (Karlstadt, Muntzer & Schwenckfeld) and the Peasants’ War. The early Anabaptists were radical Christian groups who rebelled against the existing state-church alliance (Christendom). They rejected the idea that a Christian was one simply by birth and infant baptism; it required the voluntary choice of an adult believer. Many anticipated the imminent return of Christ and sought to re-establish the church along New Testament lines.They suffered very severe persecution at the hands of both Catholic and Protestant authorities (between 20 and 40 thousand Anabaptists were executed in the 16th and early 17th centuries).


When considering the experience, belief and practice of the early Anabaptist and Quaker movements, a large number of important similarities can be observed.

A. Christendom

Both groups firmly rejected Christendom which involved the binding together of church and state/empire, the belief that a whole nation/empire could be ‘Christian’ and the assertion that the entire population of a state/empire were members of the church. Christendom was created when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Anabaptists and Quakers believed that Christendom fundamentally undermined and perverted the true nature of Christianity.  


1. The Possibility of Regeneration – Both groups were strongly opposed to the doctrines of predestination and total depravity of human nature. They believed that although humans are inclined to disobedience and rebellion, sin is freely chosen rather than transmitted genetically. They asserted that God’s grace was a living power that could transforms sinners here and now and therefore that the believer could be regenerated (achieve actual righteousness) in this life rather than merely benefiting at second hand from Christ’s death on the cross (imputed righteousness). Crucially, both groups believed that Inward change would always be reflected outwardly in a transformed life.

2. The Power of the Holy Spirit – Both groups held a strong conviction that the Holy Spirit had the power to regenerate believers. They understood this as the birth of Christ within by baptism in the Spirit. Spiritual baptism was regarded as sufficient for salvation and so did not depend on any outward act or sign. Therefore in both movements there was a marked emphasis on direct experience of the presence of Christ working within people to transform them and not just on the death of the historical Jesus.

3. Crucifixion and Resurrection – Both groups understood regeneration in terms of a spiritual participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was strongly influenced by the writings of the apostle Paul with his emphasis on dying with Christ and being raised with him in a new life. Both Anabaptists and Quakers emphasised the importance of dying to the old self so that the divine will might be born in each believer, an experience of the crucifixion of the old ‘fleshly’ self and the raising up of a new regenerated self.

C. The Church

1. Anti-Clerical and Anti-Sacramental - Both groups were strongly anti-clerical and anti-sacramental. Since they believed that the Holy Spirit was directly available to all, Anabaptists and Quakers did not recognise the need for set apart priests to give them access to God or to enable them to receive God’s grace through outward sacraments.

2. Membership of the Church – Both groups believed that an individual becomes a Christian by conscious choice based on convincement and transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we have already seen they rejected the idea that people were Christian simply because they were born into a state or empire that called itself Christian. Anabaptists and Quakers expected the experience of repentance and regeneration to bind people into a disciplined community of believers under the headship of Christ.

3. Mutual Support and Discipline – Both groups were committed to a vision of church as the visible gathering of the saints in the world based on mutual aid and mutual discipline. This included following Jesus’ guidance found in chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel in which mutual and corporate admonishment and ‘the ban’ or ‘disownment’ was used as an aspect of community discipline.

4. Communal Discernment – Both groups recognised the importance of communal testing and discernment of God’s will within the gathered community. Anabaptists particularly valued congregational interpretation of scripture under the guidance of the Spirit and Quakers developed a decision-making method based in a practice of worship. In both cases Spirit-guided discernment was central to the practice of the whole community.

5. The Incarnational Body of Christ – Both Anabaptists and Quakers regarded the church as the body of Christ in the almost literal sense that Christ was the head and the members of his body were collectively called to continue his work of salvation and reconciliation in the world. This was a Christocentric and incarnational vision of the church in which there was to be real unity between the inner life and outer witness.

D. The Scriptures

1. The Word and The Letter – Both groups made a clear distinction between the letter (to be read and preached) and the living Word (that leads to spiritual rebirth and regeneration). Anabaptists and Quakers believed that the letter of scripture functioned as a witness to Christ the true and living Word.

2. The Spirit Interprets the Scriptures – Both groups emphasised the essential role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting the scriptures. Without the Spirit the Bible was just a dead letter.

3. Immersion in the Biblical Narrative – Both groups immersed themselves in the biblical narrative. Anabaptists and Quakers were sufficiently grounded in the scriptures that they could enter into the life of the Bible on a daily basis. In addition, their writings often consisted of a patchwork quilt of biblical references stitched together.

4. A Christocentric Approach – Both groups place the person of Jesus Christ at the centre of their reading of the scriptures. They gave priority to the example and teachings of Jesus and read many aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures as ‘types and shadows’ of Christ the spiritual substance.

5. A Test of Correct Practice – Both groups used the Bible and in particular the example and teachings of Jesus as a test of correct practice. For example, Anabaptists and Quakers rejected the practice of infant baptism and argued that such a practice did not feature in the New Testament.

e. Spirituality

1. Both Catholic and Protestant – Both groups combined a commitment to the restoration of the apostolic church (and therefore to more rigorous reform than the mainstream reformers) and the spiritual ideals of monasticism, mysticism and late medieval piety (which the mainstream reformers rejected as too ‘Catholic’).

2. Baptism of the Spirit – Both groups gave absolute priority to baptism in the Spirit and regarded this as a pre-requisite for all other aspects of the faith and practice of the true Christian and the true church.

3. Yielding to the Will of God (Galassenheit) – The spirituality of both groups emphasised the denial of self and the achievement of a state of yieldedness or abandonment to the will of God. For Anabaptists and Quakers the spiritual practice focused on the removal of all barriers between the believer and God (a process of self-emptying to create the space for divine indwelling).

4. Flesh and Spirit Distinction – Both groups maintained a strong distinction between the flesh and the spiritual (or the first birth and the new birth). Using the imagery of the apostle Paul, the Anabaptists and the Quakers argued for the need to renounce the flesh and to turn instead to the spirit.

5. Contemplative and Prophetic – Both groups asserted the inextricable bond between inward truth and outward witness, faith and practice, word and deed. Inward transformation and regeneration would always be reflected in a transformed life in the world. In this sense Anabaptist and Quaker spirituality was both contemplative and prophetic.

6. A Spirituality of Suffering – Both groups expected that baptism and regeneration would lead to conflict with and suffering at the hands of an as yet unregenerated world. Anabaptists and Quakers did experience very severe persecution and suffering. They regarded this as a sign of their unity with Christ and as confirmation that they were indeed the restoration of the true church.

7. Spontaneous and Emotional Worship – Both groups rejected rigid liturgy and priest-led ceremony and gave priority instead to multi-voiced worship based on spontaneity (e.g. extemporaneous prayer) and an emotional response to the working of the Holy Spirit within their community and their lives.

f. Christian Life and Ethics

1. Rejection of Violence and Warfare – Both groups maintained a strong commitment to nonviolence in which weapons are rejected and enemies shown love. This was regarded as the fruit of Christ’s Spirit being born within the believer.

2. Refusing to Swear Oaths – Both groups refused to swear oaths due to a commitment to truth-telling and the importance of observing Jesus’ commands (i.e. Matt 5:33-37)

3. Equality Before God – Both groups believed in the equality of all people before God. Anabaptists and Quakers proclaimed that God was no respecter of persons and emphasised the importance of humility and the denial of self. Those who asserted their social ‘superiority’ were guilty of pride.

4.A New Monkery’? - Opponents accused both groups of representing a new form of ‘monkery’ or ’monkish holiness’ due to their belief in genuine spiritual transformation and regeneration in this life. In many ways Anabaptists and Quakers were uncloistered monastics living within the world but not of the world.

g. The World and the kingdom of God

1. The World-Kingdom Distinction – Both groups maintained a sharp distinction between the fallen and evil world and the coming Kingdom of God. Anabaptists and Quakers felt that they could participate in the Kingdom of God even in this world as a foretaste of what would eventually come to be for the whole world.

2. Who is Really Lord and King? – For both groups the ultimate question was, who is really Lord and King – Caesar or Christ? Anabaptists and Quakers were steadfast in their determination to proclamation Christ as Lord and King even when this brought them into conflict with those in power and caused them great suffering.

3. Limited Role of the State – Both groups recognised the legitimate role of the state in maintaining social order and controlling evil. However, Anabaptists and Quakers did not believe that political authorities had any right to interfere on matters of faith and conscience.

4. The Kingdom Here and Now – Because both claimed to have experienced real regeneration, they believed that it was possible to live to some extent within the Kingdom of God here and now. Hence, there is an element of realised eschatology in the theology of Anabaptists and Quakers.


Despite the wide range of similarities in the experience, belief and practice of the early Anabaptist and Quaker movements, a number of important differences do exist. In some cases however these differences are a matter of emphasis rather than fundamental disagreement. 

A. Religious Authority – Spirit or Letter?

Both groups recognise that there is a dynamic relationship between the scriptures and the Holy Spirit. However:

1. Anabaptists - have tended to regard the Bible as the final authority in matters of belief and practice while at the same time recognising the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate the individual and sustain the gathered community.

2. Quakers - have given priority to discerning the leadings of the Spirit of Christ within the community while at the same time using scripture when defending key aspects of witness (such as rejecting infant baptism and not swearing oaths.

At root, this difference appears to be a matter of emphasis rather than fundamental disagreement.

B. The Church Ordinances – Baptism and Lord’s Supper

1. Anabaptists – despite giving priority to the inward regenerating work of the Spirit within the believer, were committed to water baptism of adult believers as a public witness to regeneration, an outward memorial Lord’s Supper and foot washing. They argued that ‘external witnesses’ (the ordinances) were indissolubly linked to inner realities and important for community cohesion and public witness.  

2. Quakers - believed that both baptism and the Lord’s Supper were inward and spiritual experiences (being baptised in the Holy Spirit and feeding on the bread of life) and that the outward symbol was both unnecessary and potentially harmful if it distracted attention from the inward work of the Spirit of Christ. They argued that since inward regeneration was sufficient, there was no need for outward ceremonies. The most important external witness was instead the life of the community and the individual believer in the world.

The key difference focuses on how the inward experience of Christ’s regenerating Spirit should be expressed outwardly. For Anabaptists the outward ordinances play a vital role in linking, making visible and strengthening the inner and outer realities that make up the church. For Quaker this is regarded as unnecessary and a return to the outward practices of the old covenant.

C. Style of Worship

Although both groups rejected complex liturgy and ceremony in favour of a simpler and more spontaneous form of worship, there were important differences of practice.

1. Anabaptists - The reading and interpretation of the scriptures and communal singing was at the centre of Anabaptist worship.             

2. Quakers - the centre of worship for Quakers was expectant waiting on the Spirit of Christ for guidance and transformation. Singing was less important in Quaker worship although ‘singing in the Spirit’ was a practiced.


Both groups were suspicious of creedal formulations of faith. However, Anabaptists were generally more willing than Quakers to indicate their adherence to the ecumenical creeds (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed).

5. Trading and Private Property

Both groups were concerned about the plight of the poor and made prophetic pronouncements about this to those in power. However:

1. Anabaptists - have tended to maintain a stronger emphasis on the provisional nature of possessions and property and have given greater emphasis to holding things in common. They were deeply suspicious of retailing, ‘merchandising’ and banking.

2. Quakers – were more concerned about poverty and the dangers of concentrated wealth. They tended to be small scale farmers and traders and so were not opposed to private property. They held a more ‘distributionist’ approach to the ownership of land and other assets, believing that ownership should be spread as widely as possible.

6. Suffering and Martyrdom

Although both groups gave a prominent place to suffering and martyrdom in the life of the true Christian, Anabaptists gave a much stronger emphasis to martyrdom than Quakers. This reflected differences in the scale and severity of persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries.

7. Christian Involvement in Government

Both groups were wary of the corruptions of the world. However, Anabaptists tended to reject involvement in government as a matter of principle whereas Quakers took a more positive view about the possibility of achieving positive change by political means.

8. The Fall of the Church

While both groups link the fall of the church with the ‘Christendom shift’, Quakers tended to identify a much early date for ‘the apostasy’.  For early Friends, the church began to fall at the end of the 1st century when Christians began to pay more attention to what the apostles had said about Christ than to the living Spirit of Christ dwelling within the midst of his people.