The Early Quaker Movement: Pauline Christianity Revived

This essay was first published in the Friends Quarterly, May 2016.


Many Liberal Friends are deeply suspicious of, if not downright hostile towards, the apostle Paul. He is often accused of being an authoritarian misogynist who side-lined the simple teachings of Jesus, and established an institutional form of Christianity which was obsessed with rigid hierarchy and doctrinal orthodoxy. However, it is important to recognise how a specific interpretation of Paul, shaped in particular by Augustine and Luther, has dominated Western Christianity. During the last forty years, however, new perspectives on Paul have emerged, informed by a greater sensitivity to his Jewish context. We need to accept that Paul is a complex and disputed character, and that our received assumptions should be treated with caution. This is particularly the case for Friends, given the real significance of Paul’s writings for the early Quaker movement. When American Friend Mark Wutka analysed the information compiled by the Quaker Bible Index Project to identify the hundred most frequently quoted Bible passages in the writings of early Friends, he found that a whopping seventy-six out of a hundred came from the Pauline corpus.[1] So what is going on here? Why was Paul so important to our founding Mothers and Fathers?

The apostle Paul’s writings are the earliest in the New Testament and so give us an invaluable insight into the character of the embryonic Christian churches.[2] The first Friends believed that, based on their life-changing spiritual experiences, they had rediscovered the lost way of primitive Christianity. In trying to make sense of these experiences, it seems that they recognised something in Paul’s letters that looked very familiar to them. Here was a charismatic, spirit-led community with no fixed hierarchy, no set-apart priesthood, and no New Testament, in which women clearly held positions of authority.[3] Here were churches gathered under the direct inspiration and leadership of the Spirit of Christ. Paul himself, unlike the other apostles, had not known Jesus in his earthly life, but had instead encountered the risen Christ and proclaimed his living presence in spirit within the midst of his people. This seems to have been the experience of early Friends too. In line with their reading of Paul, they rejected the primacy of both the institutional church and the Bible as sources of authority, in favour of the authority of Christ as inward teacher and the only head of the church. They frequently used Paul’s writings in order to justify their position. George Fox in particular demonstrated a  strong identification with Paul. Like the apostle, he travelled as an itinerant minister, established gathered churches, and wrote pastoral epistles of spiritual encouragement, guidance, and admonishment to these communities.

The Apostle Paul and the Quaker Way

The Quaker way was founded on a particular understanding of what it means to live in the new covenant that was established by the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a covenant in which the human relationship with God is founded on a direct, inward encounter with Christ in Spirit rather than via the mediated outward forms of Temple, Law, and priesthood. It is important to understand how Paul described the key differences between the old and the new covenants, and the implications this had for the faith and practice of both the early church and the early Quaker movement. Arguably, early Friends were convinced that they were reviving the long-lost way of the Pauline churches.

A New Definition of What It Means to be People of God

…a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.” (Romans 2:29)

The apostle Paul argued that, in the new covenant, there was a new definition of what it meant to be a member of God’s people. Previously, this status had been marked rather narrowly by outward and physical distinctions such as ethnicity and circumcision. In the new covenant, everyone who turns to God’s Spirit, and allows it to transform them, is one of the people of God, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. What had previously been outward, physical, and limited, was now inward, spiritual, and universal. The Christian universalism of the early Quaker movement is based on this understanding of the new covenant. Margaret Fell tells us that George Fox was preaching on Romans 2:29 when she experienced her convincement in Ulverston Church in 1652.

We are the Temple of the Living God

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16)

Early Friends proclaimed that, although in the old covenant God dwelt in the outward and physical Temple in Jerusalem, in the new covenant God dwells within human bodies, as the temple of the living God. So again, what had been physical and limited, was now spiritual and universal. In defending this position, they frequently quote the apostle Paul. Despite this, the proclamation that God lived within them got early Friends into serious trouble in the 17th century, as the case of James Nayler’s conviction for horrid blasphemy amply demonstrates.

Christ Within is our Inward Teacher

For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Another dimension of the new covenant, described by the apostle Paul and proclaimed by early Friends, is that it is now possible for all people to experience Divine indwelling in which Christ acts as inward teacher, king, counsellor, prophet, priest and redeemer. The great claim of the first generation of Friends was that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’. This is what Paul meant by being ‘in Christ’, and what early Friends referred to as the ‘Inward Light’ of Christ. Such a direct inward presence had precedence over the physical or ‘carnal’ sources of authority in the old covenant, such as the human priesthood, the physical temple, the outward law, and the written Scriptures.  

The Living Spirit Rather Than the Dead Letter

“…our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

The apostle Paul made a clear distinction between the outward law of the old covenant, which had a temporary constraining and protective role, and the life-giving Spirit of the new covenant, in which God’s Law is written on people’s hearts. Early Friends argued that they were living in the power of this life-giving Spirit, which had the power to teach and transform all people, and bring them into a living relationship with God.  A key message of the early Quaker movement was that people needed to turn away from the impotent outward practices of the old covenant, and rely instead on the power of the living presence of God within them.

Spiritual Death and New Birth

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14) “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The apostle Paul describes the cross as the transformative power of God which, through an inward and spiritual process of crucifixion and resurrection, could put to death the evil and darkness in each human heart and give birth to a new life in harmony with God, with other human beings and with the rest of creation. Early Friends interpreted their life-changing convincement experiences in these terms. What Jesus had been through in the flesh in the old covenant, all people could now experience inwardly, and spiritually in the new covenant. In this sense, the early Quaker movement was very much a ‘born-again’ movement.

Transformation, Liberated from Sin

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

Early Friends proclaimed that it was possible to be liberated from sin in this life. In seventeenth century England, this was an claim. However, they were able to point to the writings of the apostle Paul to defend their position. Paul described the experience of inward crucifixion and rebirth in the Spirit as a process that freed people from the Law of sin and death. Based on their own experiences, Friends believed that by revealing evil and darkness and purging it, the Light of Christ leads to a new life in intimate relationship with God. This suggests that the primary defining characteristic of sin is a broken relationship with God. In the new covenant, as Christ comes to dwell in people’s hearts, it becomes possible for everyone to live in an intimate relationship with God.

A New Way of Living, the Fruit of the Spirit

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 3:22-23)

Both the apostle Paul, and early Friends, argued that the process of new birth, as an inward spiritual experience, would inevitably be reflected outwardly in a new way of living. Indeed, this was to be a key test of the authenticity of the transformation experience. The new life would look very different from the old one, which was based on the dominant ways of the world. Instead of hatred, sorrow, frustration, violence, cruelty, greed, dishonesty, hard-heartedness, and instability, the person living in the new birth would instead live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The connection between these characteristics and the life and teachings of Jesus is clearly no coincidence.

Overcoming Old Human Divisions

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.” (Galatians 3:28)

The apostle Paul suggests that life in the new birth not only changes individual behaviour, but also transforms wider social relationships. The life ‘in Christ’ is one that transcends the old divisions of human culture based on ethnicity, religion, social status, and gender. God’s people, living within the new covenant, will find that their unity in Christ undermines the things that had previously divided them. This links directly to the long-standing Quaker testimony to the spiritual equality of all people, and in particular, to the active role of women as ministers, prophets, and elders within the early Quaker movement.

A Peaceable People

 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:17-18)

For early Friends, another essential dimension of new life ‘in Christ’ was the rejection of violence, and a commitment to living peaceably with others. Again this is something they could see in the writings of the apostle Paul. The Law of the old covenant sought to restrain human violence, but in the new covenant, God’s people are disarmed by the Lord. The process of spiritual rebirth removes the motivations that lead to violence, and enables people to ‘live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’. The people of the new covenant are engaged with God in the Lamb’s War, fought for the kingdom of heaven, using only spiritual weapons and not the outward ‘carnal’ weapons of the old covenant (2 Corinthians 10:4). Some have argued that, because Paul did not known Jesus in the flesh, he was unaware of his teachings. However, chapter twelve of his letter to the Romans reads as a condensed version of the Sermon on the Mount.

No Special Times and Seasons

“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)

Early Friends refused to observe special times and seasons, believing that the outward festivals, ceremonies, and Sabbath of the old covenant (the shadows) no longer applied, because they had been replaced in the new covenant by the real living presence of Christ in Spirit (the substance). The above passage shows the connection between Paul’s teaching and this early Quaker testimony. If full communion with God is now possible inwardly and spiritually, at all time, and in all places, then special festivals and ceremonies become superfluous.


“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

The charismatic signs that occurred in the worship and practice of early Friends were regarded by their opponents as evidence of disreputable religious enthusiasm. As a result, Friends were labelled pejoratively as ‘Quakers’. In response, Friends defended themselves by pointing to the many biblical examples of holy people throughout the ages who trembled in the presence of the Lord. This included Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11), and the above passage taken from Philippians which associates trembling with the experience of salvation.

An Egalitarian Community with a Diversity of Gifts

“But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

In rejecting the rigid hierarchy, and the priesthood/laity division of the institutional church in favour of a flatter, more organic community structure in which the gifts of all members are recognised and valued, early Friends could again find support in the writings of the apostle Paul. In particular, they found Paul’s use of the body analogy in his first epistle to the Corinthian church, helpful in this regard. The Quaker model of a relatively flat, non-hierarchical structure in which roles are assigned through a process of discernment of spiritual gifts, involving the whole community, seems to closely reflect Paul’s vision.

Unprogrammed, Spirit-Led Worship

But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:28-33)

Finally, Paul’s writings offer a vision of worship that has real resonance for Friends. Based on the above passage, theologian and Bible Scholar, Morna Hooker, has stated that:

“The principle on which worship (in the Pauline churches) was conducted seems to resemble the one followed by the Society of Friends, who have no set form of worship, but who gather together in silence in the presence of God, waiting for individual members of the congregation to be stirred to speak”.[4]

Quakers tend to think of their form of worship as unique, but it may simply be Pauline Christianity revived.


It seems to me that the writings of the apostle Paul were far too important to our founding Mothers and Fathers for us to allow our interpretation of him to be dictated by those who do not share our theological and spiritual orientation. In the early Quaker movement, we see a revival of the radical, egalitarian, and spirit-led character of the Pauline churches. It may well be that Paul’s message was so revolutionary that it had to be controlled and domesticated by the institutions of mainstream Christianity. In England in the 1640s and 1650s, young men and women experienced the spiritual empowerment required to break free of that controlled, and domesticated view. As a result of their life-changing spiritual experiences, they understood Paul in an entirely different way. Can we rediscover the apostle’s radical vision for ourselves today?

My colleague, Timothy Peat Ashworth, has written an excellent scholarly text, which interprets the writings of the apostle Paul in a way that is broadly consistent with the understanding of early Friends.[5] He is currently writing a popular version of this work. In the meantime, if you are interested in further reading, I would recommend Quaker scholar Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People, Michael J Gorman’s Reading Paul and Rowan Williams’ Meeting God in Paul.[6] I will leave the final word to Paul himself. This powerful message of hope and encouragement is taken from his letter to the Romans:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

[1] See -
[2] The current scholarly consensus is that Paul authored Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon but that 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Hebrews were not written by Paul. The authorship of Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians is disputed.
[3] In chapter 16 of his letter to the Romans, Paul refers to a number of women who were clearly important to his ministry and/or significant people within the churches he had established.
[4] Hooker, Morna (2003) Paul: A Beginners Guide, One World, pp.150-151.
[5] Ashworth, Timothy (2006) Paul’s Necessary Sin: The Experience of Liberation (Ashgate).
[6] Ruden, Sarah (2011) Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Image), Gorman, Michael J. (2008) Reading Paul (Paternoster) and Williams, Rowan (2015) Meeting God in Paul (SPCK).


  1. I think you have articulated a central reality of our Friends tradition. We express our faith, in the lived experience of the holy spirit, not in a particular scripture, creed or liturgical action but in action of the holy spirit.

    What attracted me to Quakerism was how the holy spirit, brood over the silence in worship. Gently nudging Friends toward restoration and healing, towards experiential knowledge of Jesus. I found the benches and architecture of the meetinghouse become signs, or at least reminders of holy spirit presence in the gathered meeting for worship. The real presence of the holy spirit is encountered in, with, and under the silence of unprogrammed worship. This is sacramental, indeed.

    George Fox's epistles (#47). I think I have it memorized. It goes like this:"A measure of the living Spirit and power is known to everyone. With it you are kept diligent, quick, and lively to walk in the Life. Know a measure of that Spirit that exercises meekness, truth and faithfulness in you. Take heed of judging the measures of others; everyone mind your own. And though the way seem to thee diverse, yet judge not the way lest though judge the Lord. Know ye not that several ways has God to lead his people out by, yet all are but one in the end?As you grow in the way, the way of peace will be more prized by you and the perfect bond you will come to know."

  2. Dear Paul,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I agree!

    Shalom, Stuart.


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