Tuesday, 6 March 2012

In Unity with Creation: the experience of early Friends

In a startling Journal description of his spiritual transformation experiences, George Fox wrote that “all things were new, and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter”. He explained that “[t]he creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue” and that “the admirable works of the creation, and the virtues thereof, may be known, through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made”. He finishes by asserting the potential universality of this experience because “as people come into subjection to the Spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the Word of wisdom that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being”. It is clear from these words that the creation and his relationship to it were crucial aspects of Fox’s spirituality. This appears to be equally true for a number of other early Friends. In this article I will attempt to use their own words to outline the radical understanding of the order of creation that characterised the Quaker movement during the 1650s and early 1660s.

For the first Quakers, the biblical narrative of creation, fall and restoration was enacted experientially in their lives. What they believed to be unfolding cosmically was also taking place in microcosm within them. They had been created, they had fallen and Christ had come to restore them again into the paradise of God. This vision and understanding gave rise to three principal understandings. Firstly, that human reason alone is incapable of comprehending the divine wisdom and order of creation, since this can only be known by revelation through Christ. Secondly, that in their own wills humans are incapable of living in harmony with the wisdom and order of creation, since only Christ has the power required to bring people into such a state of being. Finally, that right relationship with and right use of the creation is only possible in the divinely order life established by Christ. So what do the writings of early Friends tell us about this new vision and understanding of the creation and the human place within it?

In the beginning, the creation was made good and God gave it a definite order. Being divinely guided and in a state of unity with God enabled humans to represent the divine image within creation:

In the beginning God made all things good, so did he man, whom then he made in his own image, and placed in him his own wisdom and power, whereby he was completely furnished with dominion, power and authority over the works of God's hands, knowing the nature and use of each creature, by what God had placed in him of himself, who in that state was the son of God, whose seed was in himself. James Nayler – Love to the Lost (1656)

So both the earth and the sea, and all things therein, are kept in their order by the word and power of God, by which they were made, by which they were upheld. So all the works of the Lord praise him, and so do all men and women that are in the truth, which makes them free from him that abode not in the truth, in whom there is no truth. George Fox – Concerning Such as Cry Against Orders (1684)

Humans lost their state of unity with God in what became known as ‘the fall’. Turning away from God, they fell out of harmony with the order of God’s good creation. This led humanity into a dysfunctional relationship with the rest of creation characterised by “oppression, cruelty and hard-heartedness”:

When the pure creation was finished…it rested in the holy order of life, and was in the pure harmony and oneness with the Creator…There was a part that did not keep its station, but moved out of the wisdom, and brake the order, and did aspire towards the equality of the Holy Essence, for which cause it was cast down by the power, and driven into the lowest part of creation, and was there to have its place and habitation at the furthest distance from God. William Smith – The New Creation Brought Forth (1661)

And (man) being possessed with evil and corrupted, he makes all creatures evil in his exercise of them, and he corrupts them and perverts them to another end than wherefore they were created…and they become a curse unto man and not a blessing, though in themselves are neither cursed, nor evil, nor defiled…and ruling over them in oppression and cruelty and hard-heartedness, and not in the wisdom of God…and this ought not to be for it is out of the covenant of God, in which all creatures were made, and in which all stand, except the creature man, who degenerated out of God’s covenant. Edward Burrough – A Discovery of Divine Mysteries (1661)

Christ has come to restore the state of unity between God and humanity. When humans are renewed and guided by the Spirit of Christ, there is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The Spirit reveals the true order of creation and enables people to live in harmony with it. This includes understanding how the creatures should be used to the glory of God. Unity with God re-establishes right relationship with and right use of the creation:

The Lamb's quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: "For we war not with flesh and blood," nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace. James Nayler – The Lamb’s War (1657)

And wait all in the light for the wisdom by which all things were made, with it to use all the Lord's creatures to his glory, and none to stumble one another about the creatures, for that is not from the light, for which end they were created, and with the wisdom by which they were made, you may be kept out of the misuse of them, in the image of God, that you may come to see, that the 'earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof,' and the earth may come to yield her increase, and to enjoy her Sabbaths; and all such that walk contrary to the light, may be turned to the light, that with the light they may see and condemn that which is contrary to it. So that in the wisdom of God you may all be kept. George Fox – Epistle 33 (1653)

As the global ecological crisis deepens, the early Quaker understanding of the order of creation presents itself to contemporary Quakers with ever-increasing relevance. Indeed, these early Quaker insights anticipate in a number of ways recent developments in Green theology and biblical scholarship. This will be considered in more detail in the next article.


Note: I am grateful to Anne Adams and Geoff Morries for their pioneering work in this area. See Adams, Anne (2011) Is There Not A New Creation? the experience of early Friends (Applegarth Publications) and Morries, Geoffrey (2009) From Revelation to Resource: the natural world in the thought and experience of Quakers in Britain and Ireland 1647-1830 (unpublished PhD thesis).

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