An Interpretation of Quakerism

by Rufus Jones

The Light Within, which is the central Quaker idea, is no abstract phrase. It is an experience. It is a type of religion that turns away from arid theological notions and that insists instead upon a real and vital experience of God revealed to persons in their own souls, in their own personal lives. Christ no longer stands for a being who came to the world to effect a mysterious scheme of salvation, a scheme to be mediated henceforth by an authoritative church, after he himself had withdrawn into the heavens from which he came. Christ is God eternally being revealed—God in immediate relationship with human beings. Christ by his coming did not change the divine attitude; he revealed God and made the fact forever plain that God is self-revealing and inwardly present wherever a human life is open and receptive. We no more need to go somewhere to find God than the fish needs to soar to find the ocean or the eagle needs to plunge to find the air. If that is true, it is a great and momentous truth, worth struggling for and suffering for. The pioneer Quakers believed with all their minds and strength that something like that was true, that they had discovered it, tested it, and were themselves a demonstration of it. I feel as sure of it today as they did in their day. It is not an outdated faith. It is a present experience. There are many of us who can say today: “This is what I have waited for and sought after from my childhood. This is [God]. There is no other. I have met with my God; I have met with my savior.”* In fact, we have much more ground in philosophy and psychology than the first Quakers had for holding that truth about the nature of God.


It is not a faith, as some have assumed, which involves pantheism, any more than any other religious view does. Our human personality is real if anything is real. It does not merge or fuse or lose its identity or cease to be mine or thine by acceptance of this faith that God is continually revealing God’s life and love and spiritual power in persons like us. It does not mean that the world about us is not real, nor that pain is not real, nor that evil and sin are not real facts. There still are, and for the present there must remain to be, some mysteries of life attaching to our nature as persons, too deep for our plummet. Let them wait for the fuller light which we have every reason to expect. Meantime, we shall do well to proclaim with conviction and demonstration this main truth that God is not absentee, not unknowable, but already revealed, as truly as light or electricity or gravitation or life is revealed, and revealed in the only way in which God could be fully revealed, namely in a person. And furthermore, we shall do well to declare, so that others will believe it, that the revelation of God is still proceeding, that we have found God ourselves and have living relationship with God and are sure that the spiritual nature of human beings has access to God. This kind of experience, the very basis of religion—is what “Inner Light” means to us now.

It is, of course, not a substitute for history—the slow verification of truth by historical process; nor is it a substitute for scripture, the loftiest literary expression of religious experience. There is no “substitute” for either of those ways of divine revelation. No one who neglects the unfolding of the will and purpose of God in history and in scripture can ever make up for this neglect by stressing the claim to be the recipient of private revelation. No one can break the organic connection with the spiritual movements of the past, and confine the self to this thin channel of supplies, without suffering loss. But at the same time, it is clear, on the basis of the Quaker faith, that scripture cannot be thought of as the one source of truth and revelation, the one and only word of God. It takes its place rather as a pattern of spiritual literature, rich with the experience of saintly human lives and raised by unmistakable inspiration to an incomparable religious value.

Another main feature of Quakerism is the experiment which it has made, and is making, in the practice of lay religion. Quakerism proposes to drop overboard the whole heavy load of theological “notions,” including the innate depravity of people; it proposes also to jettison every shred and relic of priestcraft, everything that implies sacerdotalism or religious mediation for one person by another. Every person is assumed, in this bold experiment, to possess spiritual capacity and, since God is spirit, can come without mediation into a direct living relation with God. There are no “favorites,” no persons who have exclusive privileges and so can do the “sacred things” for others. All people must be religious for themselves or they will never have the fruits of religion. Life is essentially sacramental and many of the most common things of daily life bring us to the consciousness of the real presence so that, here again, there is felt to be no need for special sacrament or for a privileged mediator. Ministry is a very varied service. Anyone who can be a Christian can be a minister of some sort. There are many types, many forms, many degrees of it. But like life itself, spiritual value will be determined largely by personal faith, qualities of character, dedication of spirit, sensitiveness to guidance and willingness to pay the cost of excellence. This venture of faith in the experiment of lay religion is one of the most original, one of the boldest, and one of the most crucial attempts that Quakerism has made.

The Quakerism of the past has not only refused to narrow down its sacramental experiences to rare occasions, it has refused to limit “divine service” to a few selected seasons and localities. It has endeavored to carry the consciousness and inspiration of God into all the activities of life and to raise the tasks of daily work and business to a spiritual level and to turn them into avenues of ministry and service. This ideal is distinctly a very live ideal today.

Finally, I want to speak of the Quaker faith that Christ’s way of life is a practical method for the guidance of life in the world today. His teaching and his sacrificial dedication to the central principle of it inaugurated a new kingdom, a new type of society, a new world, a new method of dealing with evil and a new constructive force. Friends have gone far towards taking it seriously, i.e., towards actually trying it. Insofar as they have accepted his ideals and appreciated his spirit, they have seen that war and the method of hate and vengeance are impossible. They feel that, no matter what happens, that way of solving world problems cannot be taken. A new way must be found and it must be a way that overcomes evil with good, that conquers darkness with light, that defeats error with truth and that achieves its gains and advances by the mighty cooperative power of love.

The practice of this constructive way of life is at this present critical moment the main business of Quakerism. This “way” is not marked out by clear, defined guideposts or finger pointers. Like all spiritual ventures, it involves risk and danger; it calls for great vision and for creative, road-making work. We cannot walk by texts; we must walk by faith. It is no doubt true that many Friends in the past have made much of definite texts. Certain positive sayings of Jesus have settled the entire case for them and have furnished the ground and basis of their refusal to take part in war and for their positive way of life. This, however, always turns out to be unsubstantial ground. Literalism is at best a poor basis for religious faith, and legalism, i.e., obedience to command, is bound to be an immature form of ethics. No text, furthermore, can be cited which is not open to many and diverse interpretations. We have seen in these years of conflict every peace-laden text in the New Testament quoted from the pulpits of war defenders and interpreted so as to justify or hallow participation in the battleline. Our gospels are not written in the exact, precise language of science. They are expressed in the free, natural style of intercourse and conversation, of life and movement, of inspiration and literature. These words cannot be held to have one sole meaning. They must be seen, as all the greatest things in the world are seen, with every varying personal perspective and with many shades of individual color. It is true of scripture as of the Holy Grail that one sees indeed what one sees.

It is a type of life which arrests the Friend of today. It is a vision, an ideal, a spirit, which possesses the soul. It is the ineffaceable impression of Christ’s venture which holds one. A person may be wrong in the interpretation of this life, of this ideal, of this divine person, but whether right or wrong, one sees what one sees, and one cannot do otherwise than follow one’s vision.

*Isaac Penington, 1616-1679


Rufus M. Jones (1863-1948) was brought up in a rural Quaker community in Maine. For many years Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College, he was also an eminent historian and an authority on mystical religion. His wide influence as an author and speaker was enhanced by a gift for apt and humorous illustration. He made a great contribution toward ending the divisions among American Friends and toward creating the world community of Friends.

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