Government and the State in Early Quakerism

This article was first published in Anabaptism Today, Volume 1, number 2 (2019)

The status of the sword of earthly government and the appropriate relationship of Christians to temporal authority has been a significant focus for scholars of Anabaptist history and theology, particularly in the work of James M. Stayer and Gerald Biesecker-Mast.[i] It has been suggested that early Anabaptists and Quakers shared ‘fundamentally the same theology, which grew in different cultures and therefore acquired slightly different shapes’.[ii] It may be that, since Quakerism emerged within the more pluralistic and democratic context of seventeenth-century England, its attitude towards the world was less hostile and polarised than that of early Anabaptists.[iii] This article summarises the range of positions on the sword, separation and nonviolence that existed during the Reformation, provides an analysis of James Nayler’s political theology, and highlights the similarities that can be discerned between his vision and that of a number of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century.

The Sword, Separation and Nonviolence in the Reformation

Catholic Christendom recognised two swords: that of the church, which used force to maintain and defend the faith; and that of the temporal authorities, whose power was used to maintain social order. This position was based on the two swords of Luke 22:38. Such a view was justified by theologies which both legitimised the role of the sword within a Christian society and validated the involvement of the Christian believer in these practices. During the Reformation, an alternative vision developed among reformers, which acknowledged only one legitimate source of coercive authority – the worldly sword of Romans 13:1–5.[iv] How was this understood and put into practice by the reformers?

The magisterial reformers

Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin all relied upon the secular powers to support and defend their religious reforms. Zwingli adopted what Stayer calls a ‘realpolitik’ position in which the political sphere was to be informed by a Christian ethic but only as far as this was effective.[v] In contrast, Luther worked with a fundamental dualism between the public sphere of the sword, and the spiritual sphere of the gospel. Both kingdoms were ordained by God, but served entirely separate, albeit complementary, functions. A Christian could legitimately operate in both spheres despite their very different functions and ethical standards.[vi] Calvin’s position sits somewhere between that of Luther and Zwingli. None of the magisterial reformers questioned the involvement of Christians in temporal government, including participation in the use of lethal force in matters of criminal justice and war.

The radical reformers: Anabaptists

Like Luther, most Anabaptists adopted a ‘two kingdoms’ position. However, rather than viewing these kingdoms as separate but complementary, they tended to regard them as mutually exclusive and in conflict. Christ had inaugurated a new covenant. The old ways of the world had been superseded by the new way of Christ and the kingdom of God. This position implied the separation of church and state and the rejection of a territorial definition of the church in favour of one based on the voluntary association of believers. However, sixteenth-century Anabaptism was not homogeneous. In terms of the sword, separation and nonviolence, a number of distinct positions can be identified:

In the context of the German Peasants’ War, Balthasar Hubmaier adopted a realpolitik position, influenced by Zwingli.[vii] This was short-lived and had minimal influence on the long-term development of the Anabaptist tradition.

Nonviolent radical separatism
By contrast, the nonviolent separatism of the Swiss Brethren, associated with early leaders such as Conrad Grebel and Michael Sattler, established the dominant orientation of surviving Anabaptist groups. This position, set out in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, made a fundamental distinction between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of Christ and placed them in an antagonistic relationship. The limited use of the sword was divinely ordained for the good but was outside the perfection of Christ, which was characterised by nonviolence and enemy love. Hence, it was unacceptable for a Christian to hold office within earthly government. The true church had to embody the nonviolent way of Christ as a visible alternative to the violent ways of the world.[viii]

Nonviolent moderate separatism
The Swiss principle of radical separation was moderated by other Anabaptists such as Pilgram Marpeck and Menno Simons who believed, at least in principle, that it was possible for a Christian to act as a righteous magistrate or ruler. Marpeck was willing to participate in government administration himself. However, because God’s people chose patience and the cross, rather than violent resistance, when earthly authority overstepped its limited role, true believers should admonish it and leave judgement to God.[ix] Menno Simons criticised rulers for their unjust actions but did not consider them non-Christian simply by virtue of their office.[x]

Crusading apocalyptic struggle
The revolutionary mysticism of Thomas Müntzer exhibited an antagonistic attitude towards worldly authority and advocated an outward holy war to destroy the godless in preparation for Christ’s return.[xi] This influenced the development of a crusading apocalyptic expression of German Anabaptism represented by Hans Hut and Bernhard Rothmann. This was associated with the short-lived Anabaptist kingdom of Münster and various revolutionary Anabaptist movements active in the 1520s and 1530s.[xii]

Spiritualised apocalyptic struggle
Müntzer’s mystical theology and spirituality also inspired the emergence of a nonviolent interpretation which spiritualised and internalised his vision of holy war.[xiii] This spiritualist Anabaptist position, associated with such early leaders as Hans Denck, Clements Adler and David Joris, retained the dualistic and antagonistic vision of the Swiss Brethren, along with a commitment to moderate separation and non-resistance.[xiv] Rather than physical holy war, the apocalyptic crusade was understood primarily as a struggle within the hearts of people between the ways of the world and the way of Christ. Inward personal transformation would inevitably lead to outward social transformation.[xv]

Introducing James Nayler and the Early Quaker Movement

The Quaker movement emerged during a watershed period in English history. Although Henry VIII had separated the English church from Rome in 1534, the primary motivation was personal and political, rather than a desire for religious reform. This fuelled religious and political conflict within the country for the next 150 years. A Puritan movement developed which sought to purify the English church of all traces of Catholicism, and reform it along Calvinist lines. A fundamental stand-off between King Charles I and the old feudal order, and Oliver Cromwell and a Presbyterian-dominated Parliament prompted the English Civil Wars (1642–51), the execution of the defeated king (1649), and the establishment of a short-lived Commonwealth (1649–60). In the decades leading up to the English Revolution, a radical anti-Calvinist form of Puritanism emerged, influenced by continental Anabaptist and spiritualist writings which were circulating within the religious underground.[xvi]

This seems to have provided the theological framework within which the Quaker movement developed. Many radical Puritans, who would later become Quakers, fought within the Parliamentary armies. For example, James Nayler served as a quartermaster under Lord Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell between 1642 and 1651. The conflict was understood in apocalyptic terms by both Calvinist Puritans and radical Puritans. However, disappointment with the Commonwealth settlement, and the indirect influence of Anabaptist and radical spiritualist ideas, prompted a reassessment of the role of physical force in ushering in the kingdom of God. Hence, during the 1650s, Quakers evolved into a peaceable people and found themselves at odds with their former Puritan comrades-in-arms, who were now in power.[xvii]

James Nayler was one of the leading early Quaker ministers. During the 1650s, he became the most prolific published writer and the most proficient theologian of the movement. The Puritan minister, Francis Higginson, stated that he was the Quaker’s ‘principal spokesman’.[xviii] Nayler was born into the parish of West Ardsley near Wakefield in West Yorkshire in 1618. He and his family were small-scale tenant farmers. He appears to have been a mainstream Puritan separatist and a member of an independent church. With the outbreak of the first Civil War in 1642, aged twenty-four, he joined the parliamentary army and rose through the ranks and became quartermaster in Christopher Copley’s regiment.

The experience of life in the parliamentary army exposed him to radical religious and political ideas and he gained a reputation as a charismatic preacher and leader. In early 1652, he experienced a divine call to ministry while at the plough and spent the rest of his life as an itinerant preacher. Nayler was quickly recognised as a gifted leader, preacher and writer. In 1655 he became the principal Quaker representative in London, which was both a centre of political power and a hotbed of radicalism. His London ministry appears to have been extremely successful. However, a conflict developed among Quakers in the city between those who wanted to assert greater order and reassure the authorities that the movement was not a threat to the Commonwealth, and those who were committed to maintaining absolute surrender to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a sharp distinction between the ways of the world and the way of God’s kingdom. Some regarded Nayler as the leader most likely to uphold an uncompromising position.
In the context of internal strife, growing political controversy and fervent apocalyptic expectations, Nayler and a group of his followers enacted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a prophetic sign at Glastonbury, Wells and Bristol on 23 and 24 October 1656. The group was arrested in Bristol and Nayler was subjected to a show trial before Parliament, a body which had no judicial authority. He was convicted of ‘Horrid Blasphemy’ and narrowly escaped execution. Instead, he was whipped through the streets of London, branded with the letter B on his forehead, had his tongue pierced with a hot iron, and was transported back to Bristol to be whipped symbolically through its streets, before being imprisoned at Bridewell at Parliament’s pleasure. The authorities felt that if they destroyed Nayler, they would destroy the Quaker movement. He was disowned by many leading Quakers and the story of his sign, which spread all across England and Europe, presented him as a false messiah. In 1659, Nayler was released from prison and returned to preaching in London, again to great success. In October 1660 he set out on foot to visit his family in Yorkshire, but was attacked and beaten en route. He died as a result of his injuries on 21 October 1660, aged 42 years.

When the histories of the movement’s beginnings were written, Nayler was largely written out of the story. Quaker leader, George Fox, refused to allow Nayler’s works to be published during his lifetime. However, interest in Nayler grew in the twentieth century. In particular, Friends have been inspired by the deep spirituality revealed in his latter works, summed up in his final testimony:

There is a Spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatsoever is of nature contrary to itself; it sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it or can own its life. It’s conceived in sorrow and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression; it never rejoiceth but through sufferings, for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken; I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.[xix]

Although his Quaker ministry lasted only eight years, his written works fill four volumes. These volumes contain 130 published works and include a mixture of theological tracts, disputations and epistles of spiritual counsel and encouragement. Carole Spencer has argued that Nayler ‘is the strongest representative of the Anabaptist model of following the suffering Christ, even to the willingness to embrace humiliation and martyrdom’. [xx] The following analysis of his approach to the sword, separation and nonviolence draws on writings from all four volumes of his collected works, which were written and published between 1653 and 1660.

The Role of Earthly Government within a Fallen World

Nayler believed that, since fallen humanity had become a disorderly presence within the creation, the negative implications of this needed to be constrained. Therefore, God established earthly government to control evil and encourage good. However, the scope of this authority was strictly limited. It was ordained expressly to protect the poor and weak, not to exercise control over matters of conscience or enable some people to amass great wealth and power.
The fall and the first birth

Human life in the fall is dominated by pride, selfishness, greed and dishonesty. The poor, powerless and righteous, along with the rest of creation, tend to suffer at the hands of those who take advantage of life in the first birth in Adam:

The first man is proud and lofty, exalted above his brethren, a self-lover, lives to the flesh, and follows the lusts of the flesh in all things, and brings forth fruit to the flesh in all things … but as to uprightness, holiness and purity he is an enemy, a hater, a persecutor, a scorner, a railer, unreasonably covetous, would have all the earth and heaven too, would live in pleasure all his life and yet die the death of the righteous, would be an oppressor here and hereafter; and upon him lies all the righteous blood that has been shed from the first till this day. (WJN, 1:51–2)

A limited role for earthly government

God’s primary purpose in allowing earthly government, therefore, was to protect the outcast, the poor and the helpless. This power is to be used expressly to end oppression and release people from bondage, and can only be exercised as God intended when those in power act under divine guidance:

Is it not the principal end of magistrates to judge the cause of the strangers, poor, and helpless, to relieve the oppressed and set the prisoners free, etc? And how you do this, let that of God in your consciences judge for him, till he appear to plead the cause of him that hath no helper in the earth. (WJN, 2:236)

He warns earthly rulers not to overstep the limits of their authority. God has given them a specific task to fulfil: to control evil, encourage good, and protect the innocent from injustice and oppression.

You are to punish sin in whom it is, without respect of persons: and if you be faithful herein you will find work enough in the nation. And you are to encourage them that do well and deliver them from the power of cruel and bloodthirsty men that oppress them. (WJN, 1:182)

Hence, an explicit distinction is made between the ministry of Christ, and the sword of the magistrate. The former is focused on promoting new birth in Christ and the coming kingdom of God. The latter seeks to control evil and encouraging good until the kingdom comes:

Is not the work of the ministry to preach the gospel? Is not the sword of the magistrate appointed to the punishment of evildoers, and to the praise of them that do well? (WJN, 1:2).

No jurisdiction over matters of conscience

When earthly government goes beyond its divinely ordained limits, and attempts to control matters of conscience and constrain the ministry of God’s people, this obstructs the coming of the kingdom:

O blind people, where would you have him to have his kingdom, when you would have the magistrate to limit him whom he shall send to declare his will?’ (WJN, 1:254).

Nayler points out that in the New Testament accounts, neither Christ nor his apostles used earthly authorities to enforce matters of belief and conscience. Therefore, to do so is contrary to the way of Christ:
Did ever Christ Jesus require it at the hand of any magistrate to interpose with his carnal weapon betwixt his ministers, in anything about his spiritual kingdom? Or did ever any of his ministers seek such a thing from them? Is not this to deny the judgment and power of Christ in themselves, who is the only judge and lawgiver to all his own servants in whom he is known? (WJN, 4:237).

The Corrupted Nature of Earthly Government

Although God ordained earthly government to control evil and encourage good in the context of the fall, Nayler believes that sinful humanity, under the influence of the serpent, has corrupted this authority by over-extending and misusing it. Proud and greedy men have abused their power for selfish ends, leading to the oppression of others, especially those who are poor and powerless. Such power has also been used illegitimately to control matters of belief and conscience. As a result, God’s people are condemned as a dangerous threat to social order. Corrupt government uses its powers against them, and God’s people are unfairly persecuted.

The fall of the earthly powers

Having lost God’s rule within them, and being under the influence of the serpent, those in power have invented laws and institutions furthering self-will rather than God’s will. These have been used throughout history to persecute and kill God’s people, who are invariably accused of jeopardising social order:

And therein hath the serpent beguiled the creature, by getting into somewhat of the form once used with the saints (whilst God dwelt therein) and to that adds inventions of his own, called decency and order and the like, and with this hath deceived the creatures so as to serve his ends, to shed the blood of their brethren under a pretence of error and blasphemy, and denying ordinances and worships, and as being leaders of dangerous sects and heresies, denying government, turning the world upside down, and the like. (WJN, 3:98)

The corrupted laws and institutions of the fallen world have exceeded the divinely ordained limits of earthly government. Rather than controlling evil, promoting good, and protecting the innocent, they are used to oppress the poor and weak and persecute the just. This is the devil’s work, which resists God’s will:

for many times the persons who should have set up that power which is of God have set up their wills instead of it, and so have turned the edge of the sword (put into their hands) against them that do well. (WJN, 1:527–8)

The violence of the earthly powers

Any religion that is based on physical conflict, violence and persecution is a false religion and contrary to the way of Christ. This can never lead to true peace, because the seeds of its own destruction are contained within it:

for how is it like that ever that religion can reconcile to God, which sets you a-killing one another to uphold it? Are you like to obtain peace in that spirit which in your hearts is the cause of enmity and war, or obtain unity from that root which hath thus scattered you in its fruits and offspring? This is like the false prophets of old, who would ‘bite with their teeth and cry peace.’ (WJN, 4:311)

The earthly powers often use the example of the kingdom of Münster to justify persecuting Quakers and other radical religious groups. However, Nayler notes that it is the earthly powers, rather than Quakers, who use violent force to get their way. Such bloody violence makes the powers contemptible before God:

and you tell of the actings of Münster being remembered by you; but sure it is for imitation, for your cruelty to those few who have come amongst you have not come short thereof, and yet you are not satisfied with blood, and when in rage you do this, are not ashamed to say that they who bear all your wrath are they that make the magistrate a man of blood and contemptible. (WJN, 4:402)

The pride and greed of the earthly powers
In addition to the improper use of violence, those in power are preoccupied with their own social status and not with doing God’s will. Their pride, greed and selfishness prevent them from being ruled by God. Those not ruled by God cannot rule for God:

So that he that is a self-lover, or proud, or covetous, or respects gifts or rewards, cannot rule for God, nor he that respects persons cannot rule for God, nor with God, who is no respecter of persons, but only hath respect to such as walk in obedience to that just principle of himself. (WJN, 3:86)

He condemns corrupt rulers for their cruelty, greed and hard-heartedness. They amass earthly possessions, live a life of comfort and luxury and are obsessed with reputation and status, and this leads inexorably to social conflict and warfare. Such rulers are oppressors and persecutors, exploiting the poor and needy:

Is he now become proud and lofty in flesh after the world, cruel and covetous and hardhearted, subtle and crafty to deceive the simple, strong and violent to trample on the helpless? … Doth he now delight in earthly glory, strife and exaltation? Is the weapons of his warfare now become carnal wherewith he overcomes his enemies … will he now turn oppressor of that which is tender in conscience, and grind the face of the poor, or pervert the judgment of the needy? (WJN, 4:103)

The Divine Rule of Christ the King

Nayler believes that, in the new covenant, Christ is the only true king. Therefore, the authority of human rulers is limited. Since the inward rule of Christ is the only true government, the authority of earthly government is circumscribed. Christ is now the eternal ruler, lawgiver and king. Those in whom Christ rules have no need for external constraint or encouragement because, in Christ, they live under divine rule.

The new covenant

As a result of the incarnation, a new covenant has been established in which humanity can again enjoy a direct and intimate relationship with God in Spirit. In the new covenant, Christ has become the substance of all outward practices and ceremonies associated with the old covenant. Only Christ has the power to transform the human creature. This new relationship is both enacted by Christ and exists in Christ. It is the means by which people come to participate in the new birth. They then reveal the way of Christ in their lives and become vessels through which he acts in the world:

Is not Christ the ordinance and the end of all ordinances … and so the shadow is come into the substance, the end of all shadows … for the outward makes nothing perfect, but the inward doth all that come unto it and abide in him. (WJN, 2:207–8)

And this we witness to be that covenant and that power by which we are entered into that inheritance which is eternal and are made partakers of the divine nature; which nature is righteous, merciful and just, meek and patient, faithful and diligent to the obedience of the cross, long-suffering, full of love, moderation and temperance, and in all things thereby are transformed into his likeness, so far as we are entered into and abide in this covenant. (WJN, 2:218)

Christ the king

The hope of God’s people is founded upon Christ’s inward rule, which brings eternal life and inaugurates his kingdom on earth. As eternal king and saviour, Christ liberates his people from sin. Nayler therefore exhorts all people, including human rulers, to let Christ reign within them as king, governor and lawgiver:

he is an everlasting king and savior in his people, to wash, to order, to judge, to give laws and statutes, to save and redeem from every particular sin, in every one of his, from one generation to another, by his present indwelling, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, where he is manifest in flesh to take away sin. (WJN, 3:249)

Wherefore arise out of the flesh you rulers and people and receive your king … Why will you not turn to him who calls you in Spirit; what a shame is this that you are called Christians and know not your anointing, Christ in you? (WJN, 4:106–7)

The rule of God

If the only just government is the inward rule of God through the indwelling of Christ as king and governor, those in power are only Christian governors to the extent that they submit to the rule of God. The higher power (Rom. 3:1), therefore, is God’s rule in the human conscience:

There is no just government but what is of God, and in whomsoever he (having called them) placeth his power and authority … And none can deserve the name of Christian governors but who by him are governed and do receive his authority, with subjection thereto in Spirit. Therefore saith the apostle, ‘Let every soul be subject to the higher power.’ (WJN, 3:83)

God’s rule is not achieved by the outward physical sword, but rather by Christ’s spiritual sword, which has the power to defeat the devil and destroy sin and evil within people:

But this seed is that which is appointed to bruise thy head and lay all thy pride in the dust. And the voice of this seed is terrible to thee where it speaks; for it never speaks good concerning thee, but evil. And this seed is Christ, who is risen in his saints to discover and destroy thy kingdom by the sword of his mouth and by the brightness of his coming. (WJN, 1:53)

New birth, new allegiance

Those who have died to the first birth in Adam and been born again in Christ are ruled by God’s eternal Spirit. Those who remain in the first birth continue to be ruled by the earthly spirits. Life in the first birth is contrary to the will of God, in bondage to the ever-changing fashions and customs of the world. Only those who are inwardly ruled by God’s Spirit enter Christ’s kingdom and become members of God’s people:

the children of God are led by his Spirit of which they are born; and the children of this world, by the spirit of this world, are captivated into the world’s ways and fashions, and love of it, wherein is the serpent’s seat and kingdom wherein he rules, and wherein his power is seen in all who are disobedient to the light of Christ the new man. (WJN, 3:98)

Nayler’s overall message, therefore, is that the kingdom of God will be realised on earth when Christ rules within his creatures in Spirit. All people, whether they are rich or poor, powerful or powerless, must surrender their wills and allow Christ to reign instead. No person, or system, or institution is acceptable to God unless it is ruled by Christ:

There is no kingdom nor people can truly be said to be the Lord’s and his Christ’s, but as they come to be guided and governed by the law of his Spirit in their consciences, which Spirit and anointing all must wait for, even from the king that sits on high to the least place of government in any people, that with it all may know judgment and to do justice, which is of God and not of men. (WJN, 4:275)

The Lamb’s War to Enact Divine Rule

James Nayler lived in a time of feverish apocalyptic expectations and, like others, believed that the coming of the kingdom of Christ was imminent. He regarded the Lamb’s War as a crucial aspect of this process. Its purpose was to free people from bondage to the worldly powers so that Christ might rule within them. Hence, the Lamb’s War is primarily an inward struggle to determine which power rules within the creature. As such, it is essentially a spiritual conflict. Since this war is about inward transformation, it does not involve physical coercion, which is the way of the fallen world and not the way of Christ.

God will overturn earthly power

God will continually overthrow earthly powers and governments until the government of Christ is known in people’s hearts.

And you that are in power, mind the promise of the Father, at the coming of Christ to his kingdom, ‘I will overturn, overturn, overturn, till it come into his hand whose right it is, and upon his shoulders shall the government be established (he that hath an ear to hear, let him hear).’ (WJN, 1:185)

The purpose of the Lamb’s War

The Lamb and his followers seek to eradicate the corrupted ways of fallen humanity so that God can rule again within his creatures. This is a spiritual struggle in which Christ wrests control of the creation from the powers of evil and brings it back under the reign of God:

and whatever the god of this world hath begot in men’s hearts to practice or to plead for, which God did not place there, all this the Lamb and his followers wars against, which is at enmity with it both in themselves and wherever they see it; for in the work of God alone is his kingdom, and all other works will he destroy. (WJN, 4:3)

The Lamb destroys sin and disobedience and reconciles his people with God. All that stands between them and God is eradicated so that Christ can dwell within them. The followers of the Lamb take part in this struggle. They join the Lamb in making war against the spiritual powers of darkness using his spiritual weapons. The objective is to bring all creatures under the rule of Christ:
That’s the spiritual weapons which captivates every thought to the obedience of Christ, and this is the true warfare … And only these weapons are effectual to cleanse the heart of all that exalts against the life and knowledge of God, and to make way for his appearance, which no man’s words who is in the same evils hath power to do; for this power is only in Christ, his light and life. (WJN, 4:13)

The nonviolent nature of the Lamb’s War

The Lamb will not harm people or the rest of creation. The purpose of his war is not to kill people, but to liberate them from bondage to sin and evil and bring them into the love and everlasting peace of God’s kingdom. This cannot be achieved by physical coercion. It requires a voluntary change of heart:

And as they war not against men’s persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men’s lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God. (WJN, 4:3)

The Way of God’s People in the World

Living in the new birth in Christ implies absolute loyalty to God’s kingdom, rather than to the kingdoms of the world. God’s people may be located within the fallen world, but they are spiritually and ethically separated from it. Although willing to be subject to worldly authority, should these powers act against God’s will, they will resist nonviolently and, if necessary, endure persecution and suffering for their testimony. Like the holy people of the past, they may be used by God as prophets to convey divine condemnation.

God and world in conflict

Since the way of Christ is incompatible with the ways of the world, and the ultimate allegiance of God’s people is to the rule of God, conflict with the two kingdoms is inevitable:

The second man … looks at that which is eternal, for he knows that he cannot have both; for to be a friend to the world is the enemy of God. (WJN, 1:52)

You that are at peace in the world’s ways and fashions, invented and maintained by the man of sin, you are not in his kingdom. (WJN, 4:15)

Establishing the rule of Christ

The hope of God’s people is founded upon the inward rule of Christ. This brings eternal life and the way of God’s kingdom on earth. Christ is more powerful than all of the worldly rulers because only he can liberate people from sin and reconcile them with God:

the hope of all our glory is Christ within, and the increase of his government is Christ within, of which there is no end, and with that Spirit is all righteousness established, the kingdom of God upon earth, and eternal life. (WJN, 4:101)

Spiritually separate from the world

When people are ruled by Christ, they become spiritually separated from the fallen ways of the world. Christ reveals the divine nature and teaches them how to worship God in Spirit and truth. They know Christ to be the divine substance which the types and shadows of worldly religion merely represent figuratively. Nayler pleads with his readers to participate in the glory and eternal life of Christ by coming out of the world, separating themselves from its ways, and accepting suffering and rejection:

As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God, who are begotten of the royal Spirit, not of the earthly, but of the heavenly, a seed separated from the world, to serve in Spirit, who have the royal law written in their hearts, and the royal worship in Spirit and power. (WJN, 2:263)

Subject to worldly authority

Unjust magistrates should be obeyed insofar as they fulfil the limited role given them by God. However, if they seek to force people to contravene divine law, God’s will should be obeyed over human laws. In addition, earthly rulers and governments have no jurisdiction over faith and worship. When it comes to matters of conscience, God’s people will obey God rather than the world:

But if it be said, must not men own wicked magistrates? I say, they are to be owned and obeyed in all things, as they are appointed by God; for God limits them and hath set bounds to them, though they know it not; and so far as they command the will of God they are to be obeyed for conscience sake; but when they are contrary to God, and command that which God forbids, and forbid what he commands, then God is to be obeyed, and man denied for conscience sake. (WJN, 3:84–5)

Willing to suffer under evil powers

Christ overcomes evil by patient suffering. This is the antithesis of the ways of the world. When the Spirit of Christ rules within people, their lives reflect the way of Christ. This includes rejecting all forms of vengeance; loving and praying for enemies; and being willing to suffer. Christ is the prince of peace, and his peace is revealed in his people:

And it is laid upon us by the same Spirit of Christ not to sue any man at the law, nor to seek to avenge ourselves of such as seek to wrong us, but to love our enemies, and pray for them that despitefully use us and hate us; and so from all men to suffer for peace sake. (WJN, 4:287–8)

Overcoming evil with patient suffering

Christ overcame the earthly powers of his day by patient suffering. Therefore, God’s people will also overcome evil by patiently accepting the hatred and violence the world inflicts upon them without returning it in kind. In this way, evil is defeated by goodness:

The second man … bears all the venom the serpent can cast upon him with patience and thereby overcomes him and bruises his head, and is made perfect through suffering, and counts it joy, and rejoices in the cross and loss of all things that are visible, but looks at that which is eternal. (WJN, 1:52)

No compromise with evil

Quakers have chosen not to support those in power because they are not ruled by God. The Commonwealth authorities seem obsessed with power and status, and rule with violence and cruelty. In contrast, the sword of God’s Spirit brings peace and justice:

And this is the cause why we have chosen rather to suffer under every power that yet hath risen than to join in with them, because we have not heard the voice of the holy one in the midst of them. (WJN, 4:278)

Prophetic messages to the powers

As well as resisting rebellious powers nonviolently and accepting the consequences, the people of God may be called to communicate divine condemnation to the rich and powerful, in the form of prophetic exhortations. Here are several examples of Nayler’s prophetic utterances.

He informs the Commonwealth authorities that, having neglected the work God gave them to do, they have become just like all the rulers of old – full of pride and oppression. They have ruled in their own wills rather than in God’s will, ignoring the needs of the poor and powerless. As a result, they have frustrated the salvific work of God:

But seeing you have forgotten the Lord … and are become exceeding high and cruel as others, and the poor are not delivered by you from the hand of the oppressor and him that is too strong for him, neither have you cheerfully gone on in unity in the work of the Lord and his will, but stand up in your own wills, opposing the deliverance of the righteous seed. (WJN, 1:202)

Nayler urges all people, including human rulers, to let Christ reign within them as their king. This is the only way to true peace. How can they call themselves Christians when they ignore Christ’s governance and leadership?

Wherefore arise out of the flesh you rulers and people and receive your king; long hath he been rejected and thrust out of the throne of judgment, for which you have no peace nor establishment. Why will you not turn to him who calls you in Spirit; what a shame is this that you are called Christians and know not your anointing, Christ in you? (WJN, 4:106–7)

Finally, right at the end of his life, and following the restoration of the monarchy, Nayler delivered the following prophetic message to the recently crowned King Charles II:

Wherefore O king seek the fear of the Lord, and not pleasure, do justice and judgment in this thy day, relieve the helpless oppressed and break the yoke of bondage that lies upon the poor, and bring judgment into the gates, and let not justice be sold, lest the meek of the earth cry to God against thee. (WJN, 4:408–9)


Having explored James Nayler’s attitude to the sword, separation and nonviolence, it is now possible to consider how it relates to the Anabaptist tradition. Where does his view fit within Reformation thought, and can it be located within the range of positions adopted by Anabaptist groups in the sixteenth century? We have seen that he believed that earthly government had been ordained by God within the conditions of the fallen world. The scope of its power, however, is narrowly defined, being focused primarily on protecting the poor, the oppressed and the just, from cruel and bloodthirsty men. It has no jurisdiction over matters of faith and conscience. Although government was created for the good, it has become corrupted by the very evils it was set up to control. In exceeding the limits of its role, the fallen nature of government is revealed in its extreme use of violence and by the pride and greed of those in power who use their authority for selfish ends rather than to do God’s will.

However, the incarnation has brought a fresh opportunity. In the new covenant, Christ is king and God rules again within his creatures. If Christ is king, then the authority of earthly rulers is severely circumscribed. If God’s government is known within each creature, then the purpose of earthly government is superseded. Therefore, those who have died to life in the first Adam and been born again in Christ have a new allegiance to Christ and the kingdom of God over earthly rulers and the kingdoms of the world. It is through the Lamb’s War, as an inward and spiritual conflict, that this is achieved. The Lamb’s War is a struggle over who rules within the creature: the spirits of the world or the Spirit of Christ. By its nature, this war is nonviolent, since it aims to achieve a voluntary change of heart. The people of God, living in the kingdom of God and ruled by Christ, are spiritually separated from the ways of the world. While they accept subjection to earthly government, when it oversteps the limits of its authority, they are willing to admonish it and resist it nonviolently. Loyalty to the kingdom of Christ is likely to result in persecution at the hands of the world. However, God’s people are prepared to endure this without seeking vengeance, because it is by patient suffering that Christ overcomes evil and establish his kingdom.

James Nayler’s approach to the sword, separation and nonviolence would not have been out of place within the diversity of positions taken by sixteenth-century Anabaptist groups. Like most early Anabaptists, he assumes a dualistic and antagonistic relationship between the ways of the world and the way of Christ and between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. While his position is radically separatist in spiritual terms, he takes a more moderate attitude to involvement with the world. Because his faith in the transformative power of Christ is so strong, he is willing to accept that a Christian might hold office within temporal government. When people are genuinely ruled by Christ, they will conduct themselves in a Christ-like manner in whatever role or position they take on.

Nayler’s apocalyptic spiritualism fits most closely with several nonviolent expressions within German, Austrian and Dutch Anabaptism. Particular resonances can be seen with the mysticism of Hans Denck, the new covenant vision of Clements Adler, and the spiritualism of David Joris. Like these Anabaptists, Nayler internalises and spiritualises Müntzer’s conception of holy war, and shares his mystical focus on the need to turn away from creaturely attachments in order to experience the birth of God within.[xxi] It might be argued that the early Quaker position, revealed in Nayler’s writings, represents a re-emergence of spiritualist Anabaptist emphases that had largely disappeared within continental Europe. There is no clear evidence to suggest that he had access to primary Anabaptist texts. It is more likely that these aspects of his theology and spirituality were influenced indirectly via the radical form of Puritanism that emerged in England in the early seventeenth century.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, as end-time expectations were not realised and persecution intensified, the Quaker movement had to adapt itself in order to survive. The apocalyptic pronouncements and prophetic warnings of the first decade waned, and attention turned instead to preserving Quaker peculiarities and arguing for religious toleration. Like later Mennonite communities, Quakers ‘struggled less against the social order and worked instead to open up spaces within which their unique religious practices could be tolerated.’[xxii] This change is reflected in Robert Barclay’s Apology, published in 1676, in which he addresses the issue of government exclusively in terms of freedom of conscience.[xxiii] In addition, a number of people of high birth, such as Barclay and William Penn, became influential Quakers in the Restoration period. Penn was a personal friend of James, Duke of York (who was to become King James II) and in 1681 the king made him proprietor and governor of the American colony of Pennsylvania. In 1698, John Archdale became the first Quaker to be elected to the English Parliament. However, because this required him to swear the oath of office, he was not able to take up his seat. By the end of the seventeenth century, Quakers had arrived at a position similar to that expressed by Dutch Mennonites in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith. They recognised the value of civil government and appreciated its protection while, at the same time, holding fast to their conviction that the true people of God would not fight with carnal weapons.[xxiv]


[i] James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1972); Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2006).
[ii] John Howard Yoder, Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 239.
[iii] Yoder, Christian Attitudes, p. 235.
[iv] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, p.329.
[v] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, p. 28.
[vi] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, p. 36, 38.
[vii] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, p. 105.
[viii] Biesecker-Mast, Separation, pp. 103, 105.
[ix] Biesecker-Mast, Separation, pp. 127–8.
[x] C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1995), p. 215.
[xi] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, pp. 73–4.
[xii] See Snyder, Anabaptist History, pp. 144–53.
[xiii] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, pp. 147–8.
[xiv] Biesecker-Mast, Separation, pp. 122, 170.
[xv] Biesecker-Mast, Separation, p. 170.
[xvi] See David Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil War England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 2004, pp. 73–103.
[xvii] See Rosemary Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000).
[xviii] Moore, Light, p. 21.
[xix] James Nayler, and Licia Kuenning, eds, The Works of James Nayler (4 vols; Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 2009), 4:382. All subsequent quotations from these works are referenced using the following abbreviation system: Works of James NaylerWJN, volume – 1 to 4: page number.
[xx] Carole Dale Spencer, Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), p. 73. In her book, Spencer explores the ways in which holiness has been revealed in Quaker faith and practice across time and in different places. She identifies four models of holiness: 1. Sacramental/Symbolic (Christ for us); 2. Experiential (Unus spiritus); 3. Contemplative (Union with God); and 4. Ascetical (Imitation of Christ). She suggests that ‘Nayler is perhaps most unique in his manifestation of Quadrant 4 holiness: The Ascetical Imitation of Christ’.
[xxi] Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, pp. 73–4.
[xxii] Biesecker-Mast, Separation, p. 196.
[xxiii] Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002), pp. 407–28.
[xxiv] Biesecker-Mast, Separation, p. 200.


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