Friends of Martin Luther? Quakers and the Protestant Reformation
This article was first published in The Friend on 27 October 2017.
Early Friends were part of what has been called the Radical Reformation. Dissenting groups, such as the Anabaptists and Quakers, agreed with Luther and Calvin about the need for reform, but wanted more substantial change than the mainstream reformers were prepared to contemplate. At the same time, these groups retained a commitment to certain aspects of the Catholic heritage that Luther and Calvin rejected. Luther’s starting point was to argue that the Church had become greedy and corrupt, concerned only for its own wealth and power, and that the selling of indulgences (a payment to the Church that purchased an exemption from punishment for some types of sins) was an example of this corruption. There is no reason to believe that early Friends would have had any disagreement with Luther’s ninety-five theses. Such a critique of the abuse of wealth and power in the Christendom Church was shared by all the Radical Reformation groups. However, as time went on, the reformers developed doctrines and practices that served to distinguish Protestantism from Catholicism. Firstly, in place of the Catholic emphasis on the role of the church, its priesthood and sacraments in offering people access to God and the source of salvation, the Protestants asserted that everyone had a direct relationship with God and that salvation was by faith alone, albeit subject to God’s predestination. Secondly, instead of the authority of tradition (i.e. teachings agreed by the Church hierarchy), the Protestants gave priority to the authority of the Bible. Thirdly, rather than accepting the possibility of holiness (i.e. through the Church, people could come into perfect conformity to the will of God), the Protestants asserted that human nature was totally depraved (i.e. so corrupted by sin that people were incapable of responding to God’s call). Freed from the confines of a single institutional Church, the Protestant movement resulted in the fracturing of Christendom and, as a consequence of ongoing doctrinal disputes, produced further separations and the formation of many new denominations. The Quakers developed as one, among many, of these new groups.
The Quaker movement, as it emerged in seventeenth-century England, represented a particular response to the Reformation. Early Friends rejected what they called ‘man-made’ religion. They proclaimed that God was available to everyone inwardly; that the living Word of God had priority over both the institutional church and the Bible; that Christ had come to teach his people himself as eternal priest, prophet and king; that the church was not a physical building but rather a temple of living stones; that all people were of equal value before God; that liberation from sin was possible in this life, and that the kingdom of God was currently being established, first within God’s people, and then within the world. These positions were common within the Radical Reformation, and Quakers shared a family resemblance with the various Anabaptist groups who, along with Friends, became known as the Historic Peace Churches.
Quakers found themselves in accord with Luther, Calvin and other Protestant reformers on a number of significant points. They agreed with their criticisms of a Christendom Church corrupted by wealth and power and went further with a more general condemnation of all institutional Christianity. They agreed that all people could stand in a direct, unmediated relationship with God and went further by asserting that the Spirit of Christ was available to everyone, including Jews, Muslims and Pagans. They agreed that all believers were part of the priesthood and went further in affirming the capability of all people, including women, to be prophets and preachers. They also agreed that the Bible should be available in local languages and that all believers had the right to interpret it, and went further by denying that formally educated scholars had any privileged role in this.
Despite these many important points of agreement, based on their life-changing spiritual experiences and their discernment, Quakers became highly critical of a number of Protestant doctrines associated with Luther and Calvin. Although they accepted the reality of human sin and darkness, they could not accept that liberation from sin was impossible in this life. Although the salvation process was God's work alone, people were faced with a simple and limited choice: surrender themselves to God by waiting on the Light of Christ or remain in disobedience and darkness. While people were incapable of transforming themselves, they could at least choose to surrender to the power of God within them. When this is done, it becomes possible to come into perfect conformity to the will of God (i.e. holiness or perfection). They also denied that God predestined some people to salvation and (in the case of Calvin) the rest to damnation. Because the Holy Spirit had been poured upon all flesh at Pentecost, and because they believed that this Spirit had the power to transform, Friends affirmed that salvation was available to everyone without exception. Because of this, Friends also rejected the idea that salvation came by faith alone, where this meant belief in the atoning work of Christ as a remote legalistic transaction. Quaker experience implied a genuine participation in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as an inward and spiritual experience of regeneration. Quakers challenged the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura and proclaimed that, since Christ was the Word of God, and this Word inspired the writing of the Scriptures, the Bible could only ever be a secondary authority. Finally, Quakers rejected the mainstream Protestant view on the relationship of church and state. Luther’s position was based on the idea that God ruled via two kingdoms; a secular kingdom based on law and government: and a spiritual kingdom based on the gospel and grace. This led him to advocate a state-church alliance and to justify its use of violence. Quakers accepted the existence of two kingdoms. However, they believed that the earthly and the heavenly kingdoms were fundamentally in conflict with one another, and that Christ had returned in order to replace human power structures with the peaceable kingdom of God. They, therefore, opposed any formal relationship between state and church and the use of coercion or violence in matters of faith and conscience.
So, although Radical Reformation groups emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, they were often at odds with the mainstream Reformers. Because of its emphasis on discipleship and spiritual regeneration, Luther dismissed the Anabaptist movement as a ‘new monkism’. Anti-Quaker writings in the seventeenth century made similar accusations about Friends (e.g. the tract The Perfect Pharisee under Monkish Holiness from 1654). However, with the appearance of the Wesleyan Methodist movement in the eighteenth century, a Protestant group developed which, while strongly influenced by Luther, also affirmed the universal availability of salvation, the possibility of holiness, and the binding together of piety and social action. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the Wesleyan tradition has exercised such a profound influence on global Quakerism during the past two hundred and fifty years.