The Experience of the Light Within
Early Friends referred to their inward experience of God in several ways. They spoke of the Seed, the Divine Principle, that of God in every one, etc. But their most common title was the Light of Christ Within or simply the Light Within, a metaphor probably suggested by the gospel of John (John 1:4-9). The important thing is not the name but the experience of divine guidance which if faithfully followed leads to growth in Christian living.
This inward revelation has not been thought of as opposed to God's outward or historical revelation in Jesus. The two have been considered as different expressions of the same reality. Friends experience God both inwardly and outwardly, both in the "inward vision" and in history.
Friends feel that this experience of inward guidance not only leads them into right paths; it is also the basis for Friends coming together as a Society. In a gathered group it is the basis of their unity. They feel that as they follow divine guidance, they are bound together in a loving fellowship, that the Light Within brings them into relation with One who is greater than any individual. In this respect early Friends were to be distinguished from similar movements of the seventeenth century, such as the Ranters, for whom any individual leading was valid. Because Ranterism was extreme individualism, it could find no basis for unity and did not continue as a movement.
Friends also feel that God gives light "in some measure" to each of us. George Fox called upon Friends to "answer that of God in every one." By this he meant that in dealing with others we should be aware of the Light which God has placed within them and should respect it. In the Quakers' experience this is likely to lead to a response in the same spirit. At least this has been the Quakers' faith as William Penn and John Woolman approached the Indians, as Mary Fisher approached the Sultan, Elizabeth Fry the inmates of Newgate Prison, Samuel Tuke the mentally ill, and Rufus Jones the Gestapo.
In the following selections Friends have endeavored to portray this experience.
Every Man Enlightened By Christ
Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God, or Christ, or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by.
George Fox: Journal, ed. John L. Nickalls, 1952, p. 33 (entry for 1648).
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 men by an authoritative church, after He Himself had withdrawn into the heavens from which He came. Christ is God eternally revealing Himself. God in immediate relationship with men. Christ by his coming did not change the divine attitude; He revealed God as He essentially was and is, and made the fact forever plain that He is self-revealing and inwardly present wherever a human life is open and receptive. We no more need to go somewhere to find Him and 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 mind and strength that something like that 'as 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 He. There is no other. I have met with my God; I have met with my Saviour."
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 are revealed, and revealed in the only way in which He could be fully revealed, namely, in a Person. And furthermore we shall do well to declare, so that men will believe it, that the revelation of Him is still proceeding, that we have found Him ourselves and have living relationship with Him and are sure that the spiritual nature of man has access to Him. This kind of experience, the very basis of religion is what "Inner Light" means to us now.
Rufus M. Jones: An interpretation of Quakerism, 1936, pp. 1, 2. (Wayfarer series, no. 1.) Home Service Committee, London Y.M.
A Measure of God's Light To All
And this I declare to all the inhabitants in England and all that dwell upon the earth, that God alone is the Teacher of His people and hath given to everyone a measure of grace, which is the light that comes from Christ, that checks and reproves for sin, in the secrets of the heart and conscience; and all that wait in that light which comes from Christ which is the free grace of God for the power of Jesus Christ to destroy sin and to guide them in obedience to the light, so shall they come to know the only true God and Father of Light, in Christ Jesus who is the way to Him. And this I witness to all the sons of men, that the knowledge of eternal life I came not to by the letter of the Scripture nor hearing men speak of the Name of God. I came to the true knowledge of the Scripture and the eternal rest...by the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
William Dewsbury: Works, 1689, p. 54.
Known By Those Who Are Obedient
The main differences between ourselves and most other bodies of Christians arise from the emphasis we place on the Light of God's Holy Spirit in the human soul potentially in all human souls, and known in actual experience as these are turned towards the Light and are obedient to it. This direct contact between the Spirit of Christ and the human spirit we are prepared to trust to, as the basis of our individual and corporate life.
From this source all our special "testimonies" flow. The Light of Christ in the soul may be experienced by all: no form of the Divine Grace is the monopoly of priestly caste, through whom alone it can be ministered to others; all believers are called to be priests and in this as in all the service of the Church men and women are equally called to partake. Anyone may experience "the anointing," and, if this is known, may be called to minister to others of what God has given. We believe in the ministry as a spiritual service for God and men, free and open to any, whether men or women, who are truly followers of Christ, who know His Life in their souls, and hear His inward call. While the Life will necessarily find expression in some kind of human organization, this must not be allowed to cramp the freedom of the Spirit. It is not the organization, but the Life, that will safeguard the Christian community from error and schism. As the Light of Christ is known and followed, as men and women truly live their own life with God, they will be kept in unity with Him and with one another.
Paper presented to London Y. M., 1920, by a commission in connection with the World Conference on Faith and Order.
Not a Substitute for Christianity
The actual mystical views of any given period, the symbolism through which these inward experiences are expressed, the "revelations" which come to mystical prophets, all bear the mark and color of their particular age. There are no "pure experiences," i.e., no experiences which come wholly from beyond the person who has them.
The greatest danger from mysticism, and there are dangers, is just this of becoming relatively detached from the experience of the race, the illumination of the great revealers of the past. To sever one's roots in history and in the slowly-gathered content of religious faith, "to build all inward" and to have no light but what comes "pure" by the inward way, is to suffer shrinkage, and to run the tremendous risk of ending in moral and spiritual bankruptcy, with only vagaries and caprices for assets. The sane 'mystic does not exalt his own experiences over historical revelation, he rather interprets his own openings in the light of the 'master-revelations. He does not foolishly conclude, because he has a vision of his own, that "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" is out-dated and unnecessary, any more than the artist, with a "gift" of his own, concludes that he had no need of the inspiring guidance of the old masters. Mystical religion, instead of making the soul independent of Christ and of earlier revelations, rather insists that every hint of the Divine meaning that has come in any age, through any person, is precious, and that the supreme unveiling of the nature and character of God, the highest exhibition of the range and scope of human possibility in 1I1e person of Jesus Christ, is unspeakably important for anyone whose main concern is to be a son of God. This religion of first-hand experience is not a substitute for Christianity; it is Christianity alive and vocal in personal experience and in individual love.
Rufus M. Jones: Studies in mystical religion, 1909, pp. xxxiii-xxxv.
Faithful in Humble Stations
To most of us are given some common little jobs every day of our lives. To a very few comes the call to do something extraordinary, some great task. The world abounds in men and women who find happiness and opportunities for self-expression in being faithful in the humble stations of life which are theirs at a given time. If we are loyal to the truth as we see it, and respond with our might in the "common" situations in day-to-day living as we face them, the glow of the grace of God deepens and nurtures our faculties for insight and for recognition of the true worth of things and of men.
Ranjit Chetsingh, "The ground on which you stand is holy ground," in Friends World News, Spring 1975, p. 2.
The Spirit's Guidance is Consistent
Friends have been convinced that our God is a God of order and not of confusion. As George Fox wrote to King Charles in 1661 about Friends' attitude to war: "The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it." That is, the Spirit's guidance is consistent, not leading one person to follow one path and another person an opposite path. Thus, one person's guidance may be expected to supplement that of another. As we learn to trust one another's perception, we discover that guidance may be a group experience as well as an individual one. The testimony against war was an early example of this.
George A. Selleck, "Four questions for Quakers." Address at N.E.Y.M., 1978. Quaker Life, February 1979, pp. 18-19.
A "New Man" Was Born Within
By 1660 [Fox] had taught some 50,000 Friends, as he called them, to sit in silence under the inwardly search lighting truth which showed up every act or impulse of self-will or self-righteousness. Naturally, they quaked, struggled and despaired for months, upheld meanwhile by fellow-quakers alert to self-made escapes, until finally a "new man" was born within, able to respond freely to positive leadings of the Light, and joy broke through. The Light was also the Spirit of Christ, whose power and judgment Friends had found to be loving.
Hugh Barbour, "William Penn, model of Protestant liberalism," Church History, June 1979, p. 158.
The Light Becomes Glorious
The blazing discovery which Quakers made, long ago, is rediscovered again and again by individuals and sometimes by groups. The embers flare up, the light becomes glorious. There is no reason why it cannot break out again, today, with blazing power. The world needs it desperately. All that I would say to you about the past is directed to you in the present. Ask yourself: Am I down in the flaming center of God? Have I come into the deeps, where the soul meets with God and knows His Love and power? Have I discovered God as a living Immediacy, a sweet Presence and a stirring, life-renovating Power within me? Do I walk by His guidance, feeding every day, like knights of the Grail, on the body and blood of Christ, knowing every day and every act to be a sacrament?
Thomas Kelly: The eternal promise, 1966, p. 48.
Living From the Center
THE HOLY SPIRIT is a mighty, rushing wind, and the river of life. It is the pulsing, moving, living, vibrant flow of the power of God. When we are caught up in it we feel the ecstasy of heaven and know that all things are possible, even to the moving of mountains. We know as well that in most of our living we are separated, even alienated, from this power of God and that the very purpose of life is to come ever more fully into harmony with Him so that we rest in the strength of His Being and move in the 1�Y of the flow of His Spirit. When we have become one with His Spirit, it is no longer we who live but the power of the Spirit that lives through us. This is the Kingdom of God, union with God, life in the presence of God, and this is the richness of God's infinite love. This is living from the Center.
Francis B. Hall: Living from the center, 1980, p. 6.