Thursday, 19 November 2015

‘V’ is for 'A Visit to the Spirit in Prison' by Sarah Blackborow

The first part of this post was originally published in The Friend on 16th October 2015.

Sarah Blackborow (d. 1665) was a prominent Quaker minister in London during the 1650s and 1660s. She helped to establish a meeting at Hammersmith and was probably influential in the development of separate women’s business meetings. She wrote and published the tract A Visit to the Spirit in Prison in 1658. It is a good example of the kind of early Quaker writing that combined strong words of warning and admonishment with positive and joyful messages of spiritual guidance and encouragement. She also uses a feminine image of God. Below is a simple summary of Blackborow’s message.

Turn to God’s Spirit within you - all people can find God’s true and faithful witness within them if they are prepared to see and hear. You should turn to the Light and give up your wicked ways. Those who are in the Light have a duty to condemn all false practices. The clergy preach for money and persecute righteous people because they are following their own spirit rather than the Spirit of God. This is the way of the world, not the way of God. Quakers are a poor, despised and persecuted people who have been sent by God to take people away from all false practices and bring them to the Truth.

Salvation is available to everyone - the eternal love of God is in all people, and everyone is offered the opportunity to receive this gift and be brought into communion with God. I know this is possible because it has happened to me. It was not always an easy path because, at first, the Spirit revealed all my sins and darkness. I was lost and confused. However, I was given the power to overcome sin, and the mysteries of God’s everlasting kingdom were revealed to me. When I first met Quakers they turned me to the Spirit of God within me and I ministered to them in return. It is the Spirit of Jesus within each of us that can turn us away from outward things and toward the seed of God deep within us. So, I encourage everyone to turn to the Light of Christ Jesus within you. He is the Prince of peace. His love is eternal and beyond limits.

Salvation brings great love and joy - having experienced God’s Spirit cleansing me of all evil and darkness and having received God’s everlasting love, I now feel a great love for all people and want everyone to benefit from this too.  In love, I implore you to worship the living God and attend to God’s Spirit within you. Why do you talk about your fear of God but refuse to submit to his transforming power? Words are not enough; real transformation in the power of God’s Spirit is what is required. Your continued disobedience causes me great pain. What can I do to help you see the Light? Christ is near you in Spirit; do not ignore him. Allow Christ to rule within you and humble yourselves before his mighty power. The spirit of this world is a poor and temporary thing compared to God’s eternal presence and power.

Choose the way of God not the ways of the world - there are two ways: the way of eternal, unchangeable truth and the way of outward, corruptible things. You have to choose. If you love the one way, you will hate the other. Will you choose the way of resurrection and life or the way of darkness and death? Don’t be distracted and misled. Turn away from the many and varied ways of the world and face up to God’s witness within you. Pay attention to it and live with it. Follow divine leadings and know God’s power. This is the only way to eternal life. If you are faithful, you may well experience suffering, but you will also be given the strength to endure this and be delivered from all trouble. But you must stick with it. The love of God will be with you and will comfort you. It will lead you out of the changeable ways of the world and to the eternal life. This Spirit will crucify your darkness, enabling you to break free from the things that prevent you from entering the Kingdom of God.

Sit at the feet of your Inward Teacher - If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others; stop worrying about your reputation and turn instead to the Light within you, which will show you the truth. If you are willing to submit to your inward teacher and accept what is revealed and what is taught, you will hear God’s voice calling you to the heavenly dwelling place. Turn to the Light of Christ, which reveals all evil and darkness. Give yourself fully to this Light, whether it praises you or condemns you. For this is your true Mother, who has conceived you and who loves you.  This is what love really means, but too many people are preoccupied with their own wisdom and their earthly riches, so leave no room for God. Christ is trying to make a dwelling place within you but he is left rejected and homeless.

Be thankful for God’s love and grace - people have drifted far away from God. This makes them spiritually dead and miserable. They have lost the guidance of God and so stray further and further away from the eternal being, and into captivity to earthly and temporary things. But, because of his great love for the world, God sent his Son to liberate people from this bondage. Now everyone has a measure of the Spirit of Christ within them which acts as a witness to God in the human conscience. If you pay attention to the measure of Light you been given, you will come to understand how things really are. You will become sensitive to the work of the Light in your consciences which reproves you when you do wrong. If you pay attention to God’s leadings and are obedient to them, you will gain the power of God to overcome sin. You will become aware of your feelings and impulses as they arise and understand what motivates you. You will receive the faith of Jesus, be given the ability to discern right and wrong and become what God really intended humans to be. We should all give thanks and praise to God for offering us such an invaluable gift.

Sarah Blackborow’s tract is a classic description of Quaker spirituality. She makes clear that access to the kingdom of God is available to all because everyone has the Holy Spirit within them. This Spirit has the power to destroy evil and raise up a new life in harmony with God, with other humans and with the rest of creation. She describes a convincement process that was common among early Friends. First, the Light reveals the darkness within, causing a spiritual crisis. However, if the person sticks with their discipline and practice, a sense of great joy, love and liberation is experienced. This is only possible when the individual turns away from the temporary and changeable things of the physical world and focuses instead on God as an eternal and unchanging Spirit. If we wish to enter the kingdom of God, we must all sit at the feet of our inward teaching and follow the divine guidance we receive.

If you would like to read the original tract, use this link to the Earlham School of Religion Digital Collection:


The tract is also available in the excellent book Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings, 1650-1700 edited by Mary Garman, Judith Applegate, Margaret Benefiel and Dortha Meredith (pp.47-57)


A Visit to the Spirit in Prison and an Invitation to all people to come to Christ the light of the World, in whom is life, and doth enlighten every one that cometh into the World. And a warning to all people to take heed how they join any longer with that which turns them from him

Sarah Blackborow (1658)

A Modern English Paraphrase

All people can find God’s true and faithful witness within them if, with divine assistance, they are prepared to see and hear. This is far better than what is offered by you clergy who preach and teach for money taken from others. It is not right that righteous people (Quakers) are put into prison because God calls them to criticise you in this way.  The righteous must always do what God leads them to do. You should turn to the Light and give up your wicked ways. Those who are in the Light have a duty to condemn all such false practices.

You clergy who preach for money and persecute righteous people are following your own spirit rather than the Spirit of God. This is the way of the world not the way of God and your actions reveal this fact. For example, if righteous people come into your church services to ask questions or express what God has given them to say, you react with impatience and anger and encourage the people who are present to attack them. God has sent a poor, despised and persecuted people (Quakers) to take your congregations out of your churches, away from your false teaching and to bring them to the Truth.

The eternal love of God is in all people, including the clergy, and everyone is offered the opportunity to receive this love as a blessing and to be brought into communion with God. I know this is possible because it has happened in my own experience. It was not always an easy path because the Spirit at first revealed all my sins and darkness to me. I was lost and confused. However, I was given the power to overcome sin, and the mysteries of God’s everlasting kingdom were revealed to me. When I first met the servants of the living God (Quaker ministers) they turned me to the Spirit of God within me and I ministered to them in return. This convinced me of the rightness of their way. It is the Spirit of Jesus within each of us that can turn us away from outward things and toward the seed of God deep within us. Having experienced this I began to understand that I had always had this seed within me, even in my earliest childhood.

I encourage everyone to turn to the Light of Christ Jesus within you. What a difference it would make if every person and every nation came to know Christ within them and to obey him! He is a great counsellor. He is the Prince of peace. His love is eternal and beyond limits.

Having experienced God’s Spirit cleansing me of all evil and darkness and having received God’s everlasting love, I now feel a great love for all people and want them to benefit from this experience too.  In love, I implore you to worship the living God and attend to God’s Spirit working within you. You have ignored this for too long. Will you continue to profess your faith in God while at the same time refusing to embrace and possess God’s Spirit and the change that it brings? Why do you talk about your fear of God but refuse to submit to his transforming power? Words are not enough, real transformation in the power of God’s Spirit is what is required. Your continued disobedience causes me great pain.  Isn’t it about time you turned to the Spirit of God within you and allowed it to reveal your darkness and transform you? Your fine words will not help you when you face God’s judgement. The righteous ones are concerned for your salvation. They can see the state of your soul which is caught up in sin and the unhealthy way of life that this produces. I lament for your souls. 

What can I do to help you see the Light? Christ is near you in Spirit, do not ignore him. Turn to him and recognise how things really are. Your concern for comfort and pleasure prevents you from understanding this. Allow Christ to rule within you and humble yourselves before his mighty power. Why do you oppose God? Has this ever resulted in anything good? If you would only obey the leadings of the Spirit, you would understand what stand between you and salvation. The spirit of this world is a poor and temporary thing compare to God’s eternal presence and power. I am worried that you might face punishment. My concern is to help you overcome your current state and feel God’s Spirit working within you which enables you to distinguish between right and wrong. When you resist the work of Christ within you, you are led instead by the many lords of this world and the way to salvation and resurrection remains a mystery to you.

You choose to ignore your inward teacher because you don’t want to be confronted with your darkness. You would rather stay in the dark than turn to the Light. God’s wisdom is available within you but you prefer to remain focused on outward things. This is the reason you make no progress. There are two ways: the way of unchangeable and eternal truth and the way of changeable and corruptible things. You have to choose one or another, there is no other option. If you love the one way, you will hate the other. Will you choose the way of resurrection and life or the way of darkness and death? Those of you who, prompted by the Spirit, seek the living God but are distracted and misled by the clergy and by outward forms, stop being deceived. Turn away from the many and varied ways of the world and face up to God’s witness within you. Pay attention to it and live with it. Follow divine leadings and know God’s power. This is the only way to eternal life. If you are faithful, you may well experience conflict and suffering but you will be given the strength to endure this and you will be delivered from all trouble. But you must stick with it. The love of God will be with you and will comfort you. It will lead you out of the changeable ways of the world and to the eternal life.

This Spirit will crucify your darkness, enabling you to break free from the things that prevent you from entering the Kingdom of God. You must stick with your guide and keep on the right path. Any faith you still have in the ways of the world is misplaced and dangerous because you may be tempted to turn back and move further away from God. You must not be deceived by the teachers of the world. They will send you on a wild goose chase and down a blind alley. You will lose sight of the cross, which is God power, working to transform you and free you from the ways of the world. The light of Christ will never deceive you but without this light you will achieve nothing. All the clever ideas of the world will not help you. You will be like the builders of Babel who rejected the corner-stone which is required if the building is to stand. All your ways will be lost in the confusions and delusions of Babel. If you want to see the glorious city of God, all the false buildings of Babel must be torn down and their false foundations removed.

If you rely on the second-hand ideas and words of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. This way is the way of deception; you cannot really know God in your own will or the will of others. When you do this, you are killing the witness of God in you just like Cain killed Abel. Turn away from the teaching of others; stop worrying about your reputation and turn instead to the Light within you, which will show you the truth. If you are willing to submit to your inward teacher and accept what is revealed and what is taught, you will hear God’s voice calling you to the heavenly dwelling place. You must surrender to this cleansing and purifying process even if it is a painful experience. Change direction and turn to the Lord. The Spirit will help you discern right from wrong and protect you from the spirits that seek to deceive you.

Turn to the Light of Christ which reveals all evil and darkness. Give yourself fully to this Light whether it praises you or condemns you. For this is your true Mother, who has conceived you and who loves you.  This is what love really means but too many people do not understand. They are too preoccupied with their human wisdom and their earthly riches and so leave no room for God. Christ is trying to make a dwelling place within you but he is left rejected and homeless. Christ is the Light, there is no darkness in him, but the darkness always resists him. Many people seek Christ but they are not prepared to fully submit to him and accept his teaching. Our Lord who is loved by the Father and came to earth to gather us all and bring us into the kingdom, is a light in the darkness, strength in weakness, wisdom in foolishness and life in death. He is here for all of us; men and women, sons and daughters. So love the Spirit that brings you to Christ. My heartfelt desire is that you all come into his embrace.

People, through their own actions, have drifted far from the presence of God. This leaves them in a kind of spiritual death where they are miserable and cannot understand the state they find ourselves in. They have lost the guidance of God and so stray further and further away from the eternal being, and into captivity to earthly and temporary things. But, because of God’s great love for the world, God sent his Son to liberate people from this bondage. Now everyone has a measure of the Spirit of Christ within them which acts as a witness to God in the human conscience. Unfortunately, most people remain oblivious to this gift which has the power to bring them into communion with God. They refuse to see and they refuse to hear. They talk about Christ but do not to possess him and are therefore not convinced by him. If they love, believe in and obey the Light then they will come to know the difference between darkness and light, good and evil. The first, earthly birth and nature leads to death but the second, spiritual birth and nature leads to heaven and to life.

If people pay attention to the measure of Light they’ve been given, they will come to understand how things really are. They will become sensitive to the work of the Light in their consciences which reproves them when they do wrong.  Those who turn away from this guidance, achieve nothing at all. On the other hand, those who pay attention to God’s leadings and are obedient to them, benefit from the power of God to overcome sin. They become aware of their feelings and impulses as they arise and understand what motivates them; they receive the faithfulness of Jesus, they are given the ability to discern right and wrong and to become what God ultimately intended humans to be. We should all give thanks and praise to God for offering us such an invaluable gift.

The End.