What’s in a name? Well quite a lot it would seem when it comes to movements of religious reform and renewal. The Anabaptists called themselves ‘brethren’ or ‘children of light’, Quakers called themselves ‘children of light’ or ‘friendsof the truth’ and the Methodists began as ‘the Holy Club’. In each case the best-known and most enduring name for these movements was first used as a term of abuse by their opponents:
- Anabaptist - means re-baptiser (i.e. someone who is baptised as an adult after having been baptised as an infant). This was regarded as a capital offence throughout most of the history of Christendom.
- Quaker – was a term used ‘in scorn’ for the physical shaking or quaking in the power of the Lord that marked the process of inward crucifixion and spiritual rebirth experienced by early Friends.
- Methodist – was a pejorative reference to the rigorous and highly ordered system of spiritual disciplines practiced by members of the Holy Club that included Charles and John Wesley and other early Methodist leaders.
The names chosen by groups and those given to them ‘in scorn’ by opponents can tell us a great deal about their spirituality and theology and how they were perceived by the wider society out of which they emerged. Quakers actively chose to be known as ‘Friends of the Truth’ and so in this post I want to explore what this name has to say about the nature of Quakerism and the early Quaker movement.
C. Friends – The Biblical References
The language of early Quakers was almost entirely drawn from the Bible and so, in trying to assess what the use of the name ‘Friends of the Truth’ has to say about their theology and spirituality, we need to look at a number of key passages from the scriptures that had particular resonance for the movement.
1. John 15:13-20 – The Foundational Text
It is commonly argued that ‘Friends’ as the official name for Quakers comes from this passage. So let’s have a look at it and consider what it tells us about the nature of this friendship:
13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
18 ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. John 15:13-20
So based on this passage we can see that Jesus associates friendship with:
- Those who have a direct and intimate relationship with God - friendship implies divine immanence; being in a relationship with God, involving communion, intimacy, love and commitment.
- Those who are taught ‘the truth’ by Jesus – friendship implies a teacher-pupil relationship. Jesus teaches the way of God (the truth) to his disciples (those who follow Jesus as teacher).
- Those who accept Jesus’ teachings and put them into practice – friendship implies not just receiving Jesus’ teaching but crucially also putting those teachings into practice. The teaching is worthless unless it is acted on.
- Those whose loyalty is to the way of God rather than to the ways of the world – Friendship implies a relationship of loyalty. There is a stark choice to be made because it is not possible to serve both God and the world.
- Those who are willing to face death out of love for God and neighbour – friendship implies being willing to follow Jesus in all things including facing the hatred and persecution of the world which may ultimately result in the loss of one’s life.
2. Abraham and Moses as Old Covenant Examples
The idea of being a ‘friend of God’ does not originate in the New Testament. We see it first in the Hebrew Scriptures where this status is applied to both Abraham and Moses:
11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Exodus 33:11
8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; Isaiah 41:8
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Hebrews 11:8-10
21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. James 2:21-24
In these passages, being a ‘friend of God’ implies four key characteristics:
a) Being in a direct and intimate relationship with God.
b) Being willing to listening to and hear what God is asking one to do.
c) Being prepared to have faith and trust in God’s guidance.
d) Being willing to put God’s commands into practice whatever the consequences.
3. The New Covenant – All Can Have a Direct Relationship with God
The divine intimacy associated with being a friend of God takes on a whole new dimension as a result of the incarnation and the establishment of the new covenant:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. Hebrews 1:1-2
16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:16-18
7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ John 14:7
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. John 16:13
28Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Joel 2:28
In the old covenant only a few chosen prophets enjoyed the kind of divine intimacy that made them ‘friends of God’. However, with the coming of Christ (the Word made flesh) and the establishment of the new covenant, it is possible for all people to become ‘friends of God’.
a) God now speaks directly to people through the Spirit of Christ.
b) At Pentecost the Spirit was poured out on all flesh.
c) Through the Spirit of Christ all people can know God.
d) Therefore all people can now be ‘friends of God’ if they receive this Spirit.
5. The New Covenant – All can be Sons and Daughters of God
Similarly, as a result of the incarnation and the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh, it is now possible for everyone to become sons and daughters of God by faith (i.e. through an intimate hearing and obeying relationship with God):
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29
1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he[a] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-4
This again points to a reciprocal relationship of intimacy, love, communication, guidance and obedience.
4. The Dangers of Friendship with the World
In the new covenant, by the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ, it is possible for all people to become ‘friends of God’. However, because the ways of the world are contrary to the ways of God, it is not possible to be both a friend of the world and a friend of God. This is a matter of loyalty and a choice has to be made between the two:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? James 4:1-5
D. Early Quaker Writings
Having considered the key biblical references, let’s now look at a number of passages of early Quaker writings from George Fox, Margaret Fell and William Penn.
1. Friends in the Truth
In this first passage, a letter written to Friends in 1553, George Fox emphasises the importance of following divine guidance leading to a faith that communicates itself to others through a visibly transformed life. He makes clear that Christ is a friend of their souls because Christ is the source of their inward spiritual transformation and changed outward life.
P. S.—Friends, a warning from the Lord to you all, in wisdom to walk, that ye may adorn every one, what ye profess [Tit 2:10], that the measure of God's spirit in every one ye may answer. And know the Lord to guide your understandings, and let his wisdom be justified by you all [Mat 11:19], and ye in the measure of the spirit of God in unity kept; that ye may see righteousness spring and flourish among you, and no deceit stand, nor nothing that is deceitful; but with the eternal judge it down, and keep it down, that nothing may live that is for the sword, which would defile the land [Num 35:34]. Therefore in that which is eternal, dwell, as a royal priesthood [1 Pet 2:9], in that which comes from him by whom the world was made; who to all your souls is a Friend [John 15:15], from whence the refreshing is received. So the Lord God Almighty preserve and keep you all, that in his life, dread, and power ye may be preserved.
George Fox – Epistle 33 (1653)
In this second passage another letter written to Friends, this time by Margaret Fell in 1658, a link is made between the inward transformative power of Christ within the new covenant with the faithfulness of Abraham. Being a Friend of God requires the faithfulness of Abraham who heard God’s call and was obedient to God’s command. So in the new covenant, to be a Friend is to hear the inward call of Christ, to dwell in his Light and follow his commands.
So Friends, here is your way, by which this you must enter, even by the spirit of God in your hearts, this is he that works the works of God in you, God is a spirit, and it is truth in the inward parts that he looks at, and it is the Law written in your hearts that is his Covenant, and it is Circumcision that is of the heart, that worships God in spirit, which is the seal of this Covenant, to which the promise of God remains, to Abraham and to his seed forever. Know ye therefore that they that are of the faith, the same as the Children of Abraham, and they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. Abraham was the Friend of God (James 2:23) and ye are my Friends saith Christ, if you do whatsoever I command you (John 15:14), so dwelling in the Light, there is the Command of the Lord received, there is the will of the Lord done, and his work wrought, abiding in the Light, there is the unity of faith, which worketh by love, by which the just lives…
Margaret Fell – Epistle 77, To Brethren and Sisters (1658)
Our third passage is taken from a section of William Penn’s tract Sandy Foundation Shaken from 1669 in which he argues against the doctrine of imputed righteousness. Penn is rejecting the idea that ‘the elect’ are justified in sin without there being any real change in themselves because they benefit at second hand from what Jesus achieved in his death and resurrection. Instead, using the passage about friendship from John’s Gospel, Penn argues that justification must always involve a real change in one’s life and relationship to God. In particular it requires us to hear Jesus’ teaching and keep his commands in this life. Rather than being an ‘imputed’ transaction, the relationship has to be genuine and meaningful. This is what early Quakers meant when they talked about the need for real ‘possession’ as well as mere ‘profession’.
6. Ye are my Friends if ye do whatsoever I command you (John 15:14). We have almost here the very words, but altogether the same matter , which affords us thus much, without being Christ’s Friend, there’s no being justified, but unless we keep his Commandments, it’s impossible we should be his Friends; it therefore necessarily follows, that except we keep his Commandments, there is no being justified: or in short thus, If the way to be a Friend is to keep the Commandments, then the way to be justified is to keep the commandments, because none can obtain the quality of a Friend, and remain justified, or be truly justified, whilst an enemy, which he certainly is, that keeps not his Commandments.
William Penn – Sandy Foundation Shaken (1669)
Finally, some thirty years later, George Fox again writes to Friends to communicate the same basic message.
And the apostle saith, ‘That Abraham was called a friend of God [Jas 2:23]. And Christ saith to his disciples, ‘Ye are my friends, if ye do whatever I command. Henceforth I call you not servants, for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doth. But I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you [John 15:14f]. Here Christ called his disciples sometimes friends, and sometimes brethren, as before; as in John 15:19 and Hebrews 2:11-12.
And as many as received Christ, to them he gave 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 [John 1:12f]. These are they that declared the generations of Christ.
George Fox – Epistle 402 (1685)
2. The Faith of Abraham
We can see the important example of the faith of Abraham in James Nayler’s description of his epiphany at the plough that led to his Quaker ministry. This demonstrates two points of key significance for early Friends:
a) The need for an intimate hearing and obeying relation with God.
b) The need to give absolute loyalty to the way of God over the ways of the world.
Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. Genesis 12:1-3
I was at the plow, meditating on the things of God, and suddenly I heard a voice saying unto me, "Get thee out from thy kindred and from thy father's house"—and I had a promise given in with it. Whereupon, I did exceedingly rejoice, that I had heard the voice of that God which I had professed from a child but had never known him.
James Nayler – Saul’s Errand to Damascus (1653)
B. Children of Light
Before finishing, I just want to mention briefly the use of ‘Children of Light’ which was perhaps the earliest name adopted by Quakers and one that connects them to the early Anabaptist movement that developed in Europe some 120 years earlier. The name is drawn from two passages within the Pauline epistles:
5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 1 Thessalonians 5:5
8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Ephesians 5:8-10
Again the name suggests an intimate relationship (being the child of a parent), connection to Christ who is the Light and obedience to divine teaching and commands. It is also clear that this name remained important to Friends throughout the 17th century. Here we have two of Fox’s epistles that make reference to being ‘children of Light’; one from the beginning of the movement in 1652 and the other from towards the end of Fox’s life in 1684.
But ye all, in whom the immortal seed is brought to light, who are raised up to sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus [Eph 2:6], and are become children of the day, walk as children of the day, and as children of the light [1 Th 5:5], and ‘let your light so shine before men, that they may glorify your Father, which is in heaven.’ [Mat 5:16] All loving the light, ye love the one thing, which gathers your hearts together to the fountain of light and life [Psa 36:9]; and walking in it, ye have unity one with another, and the ‘blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth you from all sin.’ [1 Jn 1:7].
George Fox – Epistle 20 (1652)
Now, dear friends and brethren, if it doth please the Lord to try you, who are the believers in the light [John 12:36], and children of the light and the day [1 Th 5:5] of Christ: I say again, if it please the Lord, and it be his will, to try you in stinking prisons and dungeons, Bridewells, houses of correction, and suffer you to be put in such places, who are his sheep and lambs, plants and branches; I say, the Lord can sanctify all such places for his people, his children, his sons and daughters, and make all pleasant to them:
George Fox – Epistle 398 (1684)
It is interesting to note that the name ‘children of light’ was also used by early adherents of the other historic peace church tradition, the Anabaptists. Here is the opening letter to the Schleitheim Confession which is the earliest statement of faith of those individuals and groups that went on to form the Amish, the Mennonites and the Hutterites.
May joy, peace and mercy from our Father through the atonement of the blood of Christ Jesus, together with the gifts of the Spirit – Who is sent from the Father to all believers for their strength and comfort and for their perseverance in all tribulation until the end, Amen – be to all those who love God, who are the children of light, and who are scattered everywhere as it has been ordained of God our Father, where they are with one mind assembled together in one God and Father of us all: Grace and peace of heart be with you all, Amen.
Opening Letter to the Schleitheim Confession (1527)
E. Summary and Conclusion
Early Quakers did not choose the name ‘Friends of the Truth’ randomly or because it sounded good. It is clear that this name communicated something quite vital about their experience, their spirituality, their theology and their witness in the world. It spoke of a people who experienced a direct and intimate relationship with God, who felt that they were being taught ‘the truth’ by Christ in Spirit and who recognised the importance of putting Christ’s teachings into practice. This implied loyalty to the way of God rather than to the ways of the world and a willingness to face death at the hands of the world out of love for God and neighbour. This name therefore said quite a lot about the essentials of the Quaker way.