'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)


  1. Thanks for this very thought-provoking post Stuart. I wasn't familiar with the term 'celestial inhabitation', although the experience of 'Christ who lives in me' has always seemed to me central to a Quaker understanding of Christianity, so it is helpful to see the theology teased out here.The process you describe of downgrading the role of the Spirit to one of rational guidance, rather than radical transformation, is important. It was perhaps given greater momentum by the Enlightenment, and fed into modern secular rationalism too?
    I'm really enjoying this alphabetical series and looking forward to 'D' for... Diggers? Deism?
    In Friendship,

  2. Thanks Craig! Yes, rationalism and Deism played their part but the desire for respectability and religious toleration was probably decisive in the 17th century. I am still discerning what 'D' should be. The Diggers are on the list!

  3. Thanks for this Stuart! I do think that dualism is very present in our local meetings. Silent meeting for worship is often given precedence over all other community activities. I would like to see Quakers eating together every week as a matter of course. Plus there's certainly a lot we can learn from the Orthodox church. That icon of the world full of burning bushes!

    1. Thank Mark! I agree about the Orthodox church. I am about to do some serious engagement with Orthodox theology and spirituality in preparation for a course at Woodbrooke in October. It is maybe not too surprising that some Friends seeking a deeper engagement with a mystical Christian spirituality have moved to the orthodox church.

  4. Thank you Stuart, I think this is avery important entry in your blog and hope that it finds a wide readership. You are putting your finger on a deep and fundamental issue within Christian spiritual understanding. The early Friends really grasped something in this understanding of 'celestial habitation' and it is tragic that it was lost so very early on due to the pressures of conformity. This wholistic understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and physical, so central to the Jesus perspective, almost entirely lost due to the influence of Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, were once again beginning to be recovered by early friends only to be snatched away once more. It is a huge challenge for us not to let it happen again but to establish it a a central understanding of Christian spiritual reality. I felt that each of your Contemporary Significance and Implications really hit the mark; each needing careful engagement and debate to open them up. Your find comment about there being much to learn from ancient and contemporary animism was nothing short of music to my soul!

  5. Thank you Noel! In forging a new nondualistic, Jesus-centred, shalom focused Christian spirituality we do have an mmensely rich and fruitful heritage to draw upon despite the persistent presence of the dualistic error!

  6. Very stimulating, but I have a question about dualism in Fox himself. I was told that in the phrase walking cheerfully over the world the word 'over' actually referred to the action of treading down (the context was how to translate this into German - durch meaning through [the world] and uber suggesting pressing down). So that Fox was talking of suppressing creatureliness, fallenness, that which must be eliminated I suppose for the 'celestial habitation' to take place. Now Paul of Tarsus talks of body (soma), flesh (sarx) and pneuma (spirit) - the body is a given - how else can incarnation take place? - but sarx leads to spiritual death. Thus there is not so much a dualism as a trialogue. Is this reflected in the development of Quaker thinking? An obsession with sarx (creatureliness?) is transcended by the inspiration of pneuma (the work of the Spirit) and might lead to a greater respect for soma (the glory of creation)?

    1. Hi Harvey, my sense is that 'the world' as Fox and early Friends used this term, is not the physical creation but rather fallen and deluded human ideas, ideologies, systems and structures (produced by a turn away from God and towards 'the serpent'). When the divine Spirit indwells the physical creature, the creature's relationship to God and to the creation is transformed (and deluded and fallen human 'notions are driven out). I very much like you final sentence and I think it is consistent with my reading of early Friends. However, I would want to define 'sarx' as alienated and deluded creatureliness rather than creatureliness per se. Stuart.

  7. PS - I think that a positive evaluation of God's good creation can be seen very clearly in James Nayler's tract 'The Lamb's War Against the Man of Sin' of 1658:

    “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”

  8. I have just read your comment on my response re sarx etc. (I have been away in Spain hence the tardiness of this reply). Thanks so much for the Nayler quote from the Lamb's War, very helpful and uplifting. Is there anything you could recommend which would elaborate for me the use of the word creatureliness in early Quaker discourse? It is one of those words, like perfection, which can be very ambiguous and at times quite unhelpful in contemporary discussions of Quaker spirituality.

  9. I agree that the terms flesh and creatureliness are often misunderstood and interpretation ambiguous. The Michele Tartar reference above might help a bit. The issue is very much rooted in the Augustinian and Luther/Reformation reading of the distinction between spirit and flesh in the Pauline epistles. You might like to have a look at what Tim Peat Ashworth has to say about this in his book 'Paul's Necessary Sin'.

  10. Harvey - you might also have a look at Walter Wink's references to 'sarx' in his book 'Engaging the Powers'.

  11. I see this passage as pointing towards what you're finding in later books: [John16.7]: "It is to your advantage that I am going away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." As I read this, it is not about Jesus going off to some nonphysical location where the Spirit might be found and sent to Earth... What it suggests: 'As long as I am with you, you keep looking out at this man here and seeking God that way. When I am no longer physically present, this will force you to look inward; then you find Me where you need to recognize Me.'

  12. Yes, very helpful forrest, thank you!

  13. Thank you Stuart.

    I think 'celestial inhabitation' is a difficult term and can easily be misunderstood. I am not saying you have, but if taken literally, as Patricia Crawford warned ("Women and Religion in England", p. 178), it can lead to all sorts of problems which I think manifest themselves to some extent in Richard Bailey's work.

    Can I take this opportunity therefore to refer you and others to pp. 266-7 of my "The Early Quakers and the Kingdom of God" where I address this particular and very interesting early Quaker experience, indeed even to my footnote 46 on p. 267. I think it is much better, frankly, to address their Christ/Logos mysticism, as I call it, rather than any possible 'celestial inhabitation'.

  14. Hi Gerard,

    I share your caution about the concept of celestial inhabitation. Although it is very interesting, I do think that Richard Bailey's work uses an overly literalistic interpretation.

    God is Spirit and humans are creatures. The Spirit can indwell the created and transform it but that does not make the created divine. I think the Eastern Orthodox distinction between Divine essence and Divine energies is helpful. We can partake in divine energies but not in the Divine essence.

    Of course in 17th century England, to subscribe (as I believe early Friend did) to the Pauline proclamation that 'it is no longer I who lives but it is Christ who lives in me' was regarded as blasphemous.

    Shalom, Stuart.


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