In this posting I want to look at how the early Quaker commitment to the spiritual equality of all people impacted on their attitudes towards and relationship with people of other faiths and ethnicities. In particular I will look at Quaker engagement with Judaism, Islam and Native Americans. Finally I will look at the issue of slavery which seems to have posed a particularly difficult dilemma for George Fox.
B. Spiritual Equality in the New Covenant
Like all other essential features of the early Quaker vision, the commitment to the spiritual equality of all people is based on the new covenant apocalyptic. If at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, then God might teach, transform and speak through any person God chooses regardless of class, status, education, gender, ethnicity or religion. This is reflected in the following four Bible References:
28 Then 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. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. Joel 2:28-29/Acts 2:17-21
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Acts 10:44-46
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:28-29
34 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: 35 but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. Acts 10:34-35
This understanding of the new covenant enabled early Friends to undermine many of the social distinctions of their day. We can see this in relation to issues of faith and ethnicity.
C. Other Races and Faiths
1. Early Quakers and Islam
Justin Meggitt has provided a fascinating insight into Quaker interactions with Islam in the 17th century in his recent book Early Quakers and Islam. He explains that between the 16th and the 18th centuries over one million Europeans found themselves sold in the slave markets of North Africa. Of these about 5-10% came from the British Isles (Meggitt 2013, p.19 & 21). This became known as ‘Barbary Slavery’ and was practiced by both Muslims and Europeans. By 1675 there were about 20 Quakers enslaved in Algiers (Meggitt 2013, p.44) and a number of George Fox’s epistles were addressed to Quaker slaves in Barbary including his final epistle in 1690 (Meggitt 2013, p.42). In this small but fascinating book Justin Meggitt engages in an exercise of ‘micro-history’ in which a focus on the small scale and specific can enable bigger questions to be posed. (Meggitt 2013, p.17). Using the example of Quaker-Muslim encounters in the seventeenth century he seeks to consider how differences in religious experience and belief can impact on interfaith relations, specifically Christian representations of Islam and relationships with Muslims in the early modern period. In particular he asks why the representations of Islam in the writings of early Quakers were so different from those dominant in Europe at the time. Meggitt suggests that this can be understood on two main levels:
1. The Quaker Apocalyptic – Because early friends believed that the new covenant had been established where God writes his law on people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31) and that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on all flesh at Pentecost (Joel 2 & Acts 2) this “removed any particular preferential place for Christians, moving the locus of faith from a response to propositional knowledge of the Christian gospel to response to an experiential dispensation that they believed was available to all people” (Meggitt 2013, p.57).
2. Religious Toleration – At a time when Quaker worship was unlawful in England, the Quakers in Algiers, although they were in bondage, were allowed the freedom to worship in the manner of their choosing. This led George Fox to write in a letter to Quaker slaves in 1683, “I think you have more liberty to meet (for worship) there than we do here; for they keep us out of our meetings, and cast us into prison and spoil our goods” (Meggitt 2013, p.54).
It seems clear that early Quakers were able to free themselves to a significant extent from the highly negative European attitudes and representations of Islam that were common at the time. Meggitt includes the following two examples. After her audience before the Turkish Sultan Mehmet IV in 1658, early Quaker minister Mary Fisher wrote “they are nearer the truth than many nations, there is a love begot in me towards them that is endless”. It is worth noting that she had previously suffered beatings at the hands of Quaker opponents both in England and in the American colonies (Meggitt 2013, p.60). In Fox’s epistle of 1680 To the Great Turk and King in Algiers he includes thirty direct quotations from the Qur’an in arguing that Muslim treatment of Quaker slaves fell below the moral standards that their sacred scriptures demanded of them (Meggitt 2013, p.66).
2. Early Quakers and American ‘Indians’
The significance of the early Quaker new covenant apocalyptic can also be seen in Fox’s arguments with opponents about the spiritual equality of Native Americans. This can be seen in the following extract from his Journal:
Not far from here we had a meeting among the people, and they were taken with the truth; blessed be the Lord! Then passing down the river Maratic in a canoe, we went down 'the bay Connie-oak, to a captain's, who was loving to us, and lent us his boat, (for we were soaked in the canoe, the water splashing in upon us). With this boat we went to the governor's; but the water in some places was so shallow that the heavily loaded boat could not pass; so that we took off our shoes and socks and waded through the water for quite a distance. The governor and his wife received us lovingly; but a doctor wanted to dispute with us. Truly his opposing us was of good service because it gave us the opportunity to explain many things to the people concerning the light and spirit of God. The doctor denied the light was in everyone and affirmed it was not in the Indians. Upon which I called an Indian to us, and asked him,' whether or not when he lied of did wrong to anyone, was there not something in him that did reprove him for it?' He said, 'there was such a thing in him, that did reprove him; and 'he was ashamed when he had done wrong or spoken wrong.' So we shamed the doctor before the governor and people; so much so that the poor man stretched his arguments so far that he ended up denying the scriptures (Fox 1975, p.642).
3. Early Quakers and the Jews
From the late 1650s through to the 1670s Margaret Fell acted as the primary Quaker spokesperson for the Jewish international mission (Kunze 1994, p.215). Her interest in engaging with the Jewish communities in Europe was an expression of her apocalyptic vision (Bruyneel 2010, p.17). This was based on the Apostle Paul’s prediction in his Epistle to the Romans that in the end times the Jewish people would come into the Christian community (Romans 11). However, because of their new covenant understanding, Friends did not see it as necessary for the Jews to convert to Christianity. Instead what mattered was turning them to their inward teacher (the Torah of the Heart). Fell wrote the following five letters to the Jews in which she demonstrated a good deal of religious sensitivity. For example she only used biblical quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (Ross 1984, p.95):
- For Manasseth-ben-Israel, the Call of the Jews out of Babylon (1656)
- A Loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham (1657)
- A Call to the Universal Seed of God (1664)
- A Call to the Seed of Israel (1668)
- The Daughter of Sion Awakened (1677)
This again demonstrated the ability of early Friends, because of their new covenant apocalyptic understanding, to rise above many of the limitations imposed by their cultural context. There is evidence to suggest that this position was also held by other religious radicals during the 16th century European Reformation. George Williams in his book The Radical Reformation notes that “Muntzer, Franck, Castellio, Coornhert and with reserve Denck regarded Muslims along with Jews and righteous pagans, as already a part of the Ecclesia spiritualis insofar as they conformed to the inner Word (Williams 2000, p.1226). In his tract Entblossung Thomas Muntzer writes:
“If we Christians should ever want to unite…..with all the elect of all dispersions, races and religions…we must know how a man feels who was brought up among unbelievers, but has come to know the true work and the true meaning of God (the Holy Spirit) without having been assisted by any book” (from a footnote in Williams 2000, p.1226).
D. The Problem of Slavery
Despite this commitment to spiritual equality early Quaker leaders did not necessarily regard this as inconsistent with the practice of keeping slaves. In her book George Fox and Early Quaker Culture Hilary Hinds addresses the problem that slavery posed for the early Quaker movement (Hinds 2011).
- Variations in Quaker Travel Narratives - Hinds claims that Quaker travel narratives recording visits to Barbados in the seventeenth century were quite distinct in character and represented a somewhat exceptional example in which the pervasive early Quaker fusion of spiritual and social distinctions was absent. She notes that the Barbados narratives are extremely bland and lacking in detail compared to other Quaker accounts of the time. Hinds proposes that an explanation for this can be found in the fundamental conflict that existed in the circumstances Quakers found in Barbados between their commitment to universal spiritual equality and the personal interest of some Friends in the slave-based economy.
- George Fox and ‘Covenant Slavery’ – Faced with this situation, George Fox asserted the spiritual equality of slaves but at the same time advocated a form of ‘covenant slavery’ which sought to ameliorate the worst excesses of the practice in order to stabilise social relations and maintain public order. Hinds argues that since the principles of spiritual equality and those of covenant slavery were incompatible, they had to be kept separate and this quite exceptional disconnection of the spiritual and the social domains explains the uniqueness of the Barbados accounts. This highlights how early Quakers tried to negotiate the apparent conflicts associated with their claim to live simultaneously in the heavenly life of the spirit and amongst the still fallen life of the world.
- Spiritual Equality is not Social Equality - However, the argument that the Quaker response to Barbadian slavery was entirely exceptional is hard to sustain. Although the commitment of early Friends to spiritual equality was radical and ground-breaking for its time, it in no way implied an inevitable reordering of existing social relations and structures. This equality was based on the assertion that Christ might speak through any human vessel whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female. In Quaker practice this did not necessarily challenge the established roles of women or servants within society or the family. The Advices of the Elders at Balby written in 1556 quotes the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 6:5-8) to exhort servants to obey their masters.2 By the late 1670s, at the time when Fox was dictating his Journal, in the Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Robert Barclay states that social and economic inequalities were ordained by God. This is not to deny however that the unusual character of the Barbados narratives may be understood as a response to the particularly brutal circumstances Quakers encountered on that island.
It seems clear that, although the new covenant apocalyptic understanding enabled them to rise above much of the prejudice and injustice of their day, early Friends remained people of their time and place and were only partially liberated from the limitations that this time and place imposed on them. Such an observation should prompt us to ask searching and discomforting questions of ourselves; how far has the Spirit liberated us from the ways of the world? To what extent do we remain implicated in prejudice, cruelty, injustice, oppression and the destruction of God’s good creation?
Barclay, Robert (2002) Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Quaker Heritage Press)
Bruyneel, Sally (2010) Margaret Fell and the end of time: the theology of the mother of Quakerism (Baylor University Press)
Fox, George (1975) The Journal of George Fox, edited by John L. Nickalls (London Yearly Meeting)
Hinds, Hilary (2011) George Fox and Early Quaker Culture (Manchester University Press)
Hinds, Hilary (2011) George Fox and Early Quaker Culture (Manchester University Press)
Kunze, Bonnelyn (1994) Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Stanford University Press)
Meggitt, Justin (2013) Early Quakers and Islam: Slavery, Apocalyptic and Christian-Muslim Encounters in the Seventeenth Century (Swedish Science Press)
Ross, Isabel (1984) Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (Sessions of York)
Williams, George Huston (2000) The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition (Truman State University Press)