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Review Corner: Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters with the Bible

A beautiful sunset in Malawi. Photo by Tom Gates

In Face to Face, T. Vail Palmer, Jr., unpacks how George Fox and other early Friends used the Bible—and what modern Quakers can do to recapture the transforming power of that 17th century experience.


By Tom Gates

The last thirty years have seen a number of Quaker scholars offer new perspectives on Quaker history, and specifically the unique contribution of the first generation of Friends: John Punshon (1984), Douglas Gwyn (1986, 1995, 2000), Rosemary Moore (2000), Carole Spencer (2007), Gerard Guiton (2012), and others. With Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters with the Bible (Barclay Press, 2016), author T. Vail Palmer, Jr. now offers an important and significant contribution to this scholarly genre.

Palmer’s focus is on understanding how Quakers have read and understood the Bible through the years. He lays out the issue on the first page: Friends have been known throughout their history for “testifying against war and working for peace, recognizing the equality of men and women in Christian ministry, in working against slavery and advocating for social justice.” In support of these positions, early Friends made liberal use of Scripture—and yet it is easy to find Bible verses that directly contradict each of these Quaker teachings. Palmer asks, “How can this be?”

In an extended introduction, Palmer describes his own journey to his current understanding. Raised as a Quaker and a graduate of the George School, he described his adolescent self as a “wistful agnostic,” until in college he happened upon Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, which he says brought him to a “lively experience and belief in God.” After graduation from the University of Pennsylvania (and after a stint in federal prison for refusing to register for the draft during the Korean War), he studied for a year at Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, and eventually completed graduate studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. During his graduate studies, a pivotal influence on him was the Biblical Theology Movement, associated with many of the students of Karl Barth, including Oscar Cullman, G. Ernest Wright, and Bernhard Anderson. Through these teachers, Palmer says he learned that in studying the Bible, “our aim is to enter into the same drama in which the Hebrews and early Christians were involved—to examine the Old and New Testament from within. In a word, the goal of our biblical study is empathy” (p. 32). This approach to the Bible was consolidated in 13 years of teaching philosophy and religion, including introductory classes in the Old and New Testaments, at two colleges in Kentucky and Ohio.

Despite this academic background, Palmer says it took many years for him to connect the importance of empathy in biblical studies to an understanding of early Friends. He had moved to Portland where he served as clerk of the board for the Center for Christian Studies (CGS) at Reedwood Friends Church. In 1991, he agreed to teach a course in how early Friends used the Bible, “a topic I had never seriously studied” (p. 11).

For the course (as well as this book), Palmer relied heavily on his reading of a 1650 epistle of George Fox (Epistle 2) and excerpts from Edward Burrough’s “An Epistle to all the Saints whom God hath called” (1657). “My ‘aha’ moment was when I realized that Fox and Burrough expressed and embodied the very empathy that the biblical theologians recognized as the goal of biblical scholarship. They expected and assumed that their Quaker readers would also stand within the Bible—within the thought- and life-world of the earliest Christians—and look out at the world through the window of biblical faith” (p. 11).

So what exactly does an empathetic reading of scripture entail? The crux of Palmer’s argument is in Chapter 2, where he gives a close reading to the Fox and Burrough epistles. His first impression of both writings was that they were “packed full of biblical references, in a very flowing style” (p. 62). Of course, neither writer uses quotation marks or cites chapter and verse, so Palmer and his class had to go to work with a concordance (implicitly acknowledging that the King James wording, though accessible to Fox’s original audience, is relatively inaccessible to us). In the 44 lines of text in the 1650 Fox Epistle, he counts “at least” thirty biblical references, and in Burrough’s 1657 work, he finds 55 biblical citations in 56 lines of text.

At various points, Palmer describes Fox and Burroughs style as “breathless,” “flowing… and impassioned,” “ emotional, spontaneous, imaginative, sensual.” He concludes that “I now believe that I have finally found the linchpin of George Fox’s understanding of Quakerism; it was his hermeneutical method—his reading of the Bible with empathy, which led to an affective spirituality [a phrase he attributes to Allan Kolp], grounded in biblical symbolism and metaphor” (p. 78).

Fox of course would have scoffed at such notions as “hermeneutical method.” Palmer readily admits that “Fox and Burrough did not have the sophistication to recognize consciously that they were reading the Bible empathetically, . . . by internalizing biblical themes, stories, figures of speech” (p. 91). He agrees with Carole Spencer’s insight that “the Bible was not an external authority but an internalized authority. Quakers lived, breathed and were infused by the words of Scripture.” Doug Gwyn has made a similar point, observing that Fox “does not so much cite scripture as breath it,” which Gwyn refers to as “Fox’s organic use of scripture.”

In my own previous wrestling with this issue, I did not use the term empathy to describe Fox’s approach to Scripture, but instead focused on his recurring use of variants of the phrase “. . . and so I opened the scriptures to them.” Fox claims a “spiritual interpretation” of the Bible: “For the people had the scriptures but they were not turned to the spirit which should let them see that which gave them forth, which is the key to open them, the Spirit of God.” I suspect that Palmer would agree with my conclusion that Fox’s “spiritual understanding of the scriptures . . . is possible only from the inside, when by a process of identification and internalization we come to make the biblical story our own. Fox is reading the Bible not as a story about long-ago events, but as a story about himself.” Palmer approvingly quotes Robert Barclay, that the Scriptures function as a looking-glass or mirror by which we can see ourselves more clearly (p. 86).

Palmer maintains that Fox and other early Friends “did not have the sophistication to recognize consciously that they were reading the Bible empathetically,” and that this may have contributed to how quickly their unique approach was lost in subsequent generations. He traces, in meticulous detail, how even Penn and Barclay (both of whom knew and travelled in the ministry with Fox) began to use the Bible in more conventional ways, to illustrate general logical principles, and eventually as a sourcebook for doctrine. “With the passing of the first generation of Friends, the sense of identification with the New Testament community appears to have been lost. The inability of George Fox and others to articulate the source of their understanding of the Bible was doubtless a major factor. The fact that the early leaders did not criticize Friends like William Penn, Robert Barclay, and John Bellers for using the Bible in a different way may also have contributed” (p. 98).

There is a telling passage in Fox’s Journal that suggests that Fox was perhaps not quite as oblivious to his own method as Palmer implies. “The chief constable and some other professors fell a-reasoning with me in the steeplehouse yard: and I took a Bible and showed and opened to them the Scripture, and showed them chapter and verse and dealt with them as one would deal with a child in swaddling clothes. They that were in the light of Christ and spirit of God did know when I spoke scripture, though I did not mention chapter and verse after the priest’s form unto them.” Fox seems to be saying quite clearly that those who understood him were able to pick up on his biblical allusions and metaphors without him having to spell them out, while his opponents had to be dealt with “like a child in swaddling clothes” by being shown “chapter and verse.” This would imply that Fox was quite capable of citing chapter and verse, but chose instead to “speak scripture” to his followers.

After stating and illustrating his main thesis about early Friends and their unique reading of the Bible, Palmer devotes the second half (or more) of his book to a careful unpacking of how the loss of this in subsequent generations played out, to Friends detriment. One major topic is early Friends defense of women’s ministry, and he traces their arguments from Fox and Margaret Fell (relying largely on vivid biblical examples of women’s ministry), through Penn and Barclay (who both tended to use the Bible as a source from which to derive general principles), to early 18th century Friends Benjamin Coole and Josiah Martin (who were concerned with showing that this particular Quaker peculiarity was in fact a respectable position), with detours through the relevant writings of John Calvin and John Locke.

Much of these later chapters demonstrate a meticulous attention and close reading of primary source material from Friends who are not well known today. For example, the chapter on “Eighteenth Century Antislavery and Quietist Friends” deals not just with John Woolman, but also John Hepburn, Ralph Sandiford, Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, John Churchman, Samuel Fothergill, and Job Scott. Palmer’s method involves taking a close look at extended quotations from each of their writings, to illustrate the at times subtle changes on how Friends’ use of the Bible was evolving. Unfortunately, the long quotes (sometimes running to a page or more) can sometimes seem tedious—and yet in the end his effort to wade through the thickets is rewarded with significant insights.

Relying heavily on Michael Birkel’s A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Wisdom of John Woolman (2003), Palmer credits Woolman with at least a pale reflection of Fox’s empathetic reading of scripture. However, in the end, he concludes that although “an empathetic understanding of the Bible was an important aspect of John Woolman’s spirituality, it was “clearly not the center or linchpin of his understanding of Quakerism,” but rather “a grace note that enriched his theology and spirituality, sweetened the austerity of his lifestyle, and deepened his remarkable sensitivity to persons of all conditions and walks of life” (p. 123).

Palmer quotes a passage from John Churchman’s Journal, describing his ministry given at a general meeting of Friends in England, in which he quotes from John 5: 39-40 (citing chapter and verse) about “searching the Scriptures.” Palmer curiously is critical of Churchman, because his approach “seems to have led him to minimize the historical context of the original passage and instead to ‘spiritualize’ it in applying it to the inward situation of himself” or those he was addressing. Curious, because that would seem to me exactly what Fox so often did: minimize the historical context while applying a scripture passage to his own inward state. Perhaps it would be more accurate to note that Churchman’s ministry demonstrates a mechanical and self-conscious use of scripture, compared to Fox’s more organic and intuitive approach.

In the book’s final chapter, on the background of the Hicksite-Orthodox separation, Palmer cites writings from Abraham Shackleton, David Sands, Hannah Barnard, Henry Tuke, Elias Hicks, Stephen Grellet, William Savery, and John Comly. As in the previous chapter on Quietism, the long excerpts from various Friends writings can be tedious reading, but in the end yield valuable insights. Palmer traces how Quaker attitudes toward the Bible slowly but surely evolved and bifurcated. On the Orthodox side, the Bible became “the authoritative textbook, providing . . . the basic premises from which we can logically deduce the doctrines of a system of Christian theology” (p. 176). On the Hicksite side, it is harder to give a single characterization, but excerpted passages show a tendency to abstraction (by spiritualizing and allegorizing scripture); to radically subordinate scripture to individual experience; and ultimately, to dismiss those portions of scripture (especially in the Old Testament) that were not in accord with general principles of reason and justice. In a telling aside, Palmer relates that his Hicksite great-grandfather from Lancaster PA (where I live) “refused to let his children read the Bible, arguing that those who read the Bible were morally no better than those who didn’t” (p. 9). On both sides of the Hicksite-Orthodox controversy, we have come a long way from Fox.

One senses that Face to Face is the product of a long life of study and reflection, but also for Palmer a labor of love. It provides a valuable addition to recent work on Quaker history, and we can only hope that it receives a wide reading among serious students of Quakerism. After my reading, though, I am left with a couple of questions, which the book does not attempt to answer. First, with Palmer having made a strong case that much of early Friends’ energy and dynamism was connected to their distinctive reading of the Bible, we can ask: which is the cause and which is the effect? Did early Friends’ distinctive reading of the Bible cause that explosion of spiritual energy in the 1650’s; or alternatively, was there some underlying shared spiritual experience that in turn led them to their distinctive approach to the Bible? My own sense is that this is not an either / or question; early Friends’ spiritual experience clearly influenced their reading of the Bible, but their reading of the Bible just as clearly influenced their spiritual experience.

Second, and more importantly: What are the implications for us? Having been brought by Palmer to an appreciation of early Friends’ unique reading of the Bible, what can and should modern Quakers do to recapture the transforming power of their 17th century experience? Early Friends lived in a world that was saturated with the Bible; it provided the language not only of religious discourse, but also of political and even social discourse. Alas, that world is gone forever. Our world is very different: secular, post-Christian, with a plethora of technology that constantly distracts from our feeble attempts at spiritual life. Early Friends’ experience may well have been the product of their unique time in history, with the political world “turned upside down” by the Civil War, pervasive apocalyptic expectations, and the new experience of widespread biblical literacy. Perhaps recapturing their experience is simply not possible in our time.

But the Spirit of course is never static; perhaps our task is to reclaim an organic, fresh and vital reading of the Scripture, informed by and informing our own spiritual experience, as relevant to our own times as early Friends’ reading was to theirs

Buy Face to Face at QuakerBooks.


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