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Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel

The Place of George Fox in Christian History: a review of Lewis Benson's first of ten Moorestown Lectures

It would seem reasonable to suppose that, nearly three centuries after the death of George Fox, there would be some measure of consensus among church historians concerning the place he should be assigned in Christian history. But this is not the case. They all agree that he has an assured place in history, but there is an astonishing variety of theories purporting to tell us exactly what that place is.

...[M]ost writers about Fox begin by rejecting his own self understanding as incredible, not even plausible. They tell us that Fox was mistaken in his understanding of his role and function, and that this misunderstanding must be corrected by his modern interpreters. (Rediscovering the teaching of George Fox, p. 1)

This is the beginning of Lewis Benson's first of ten lectures given at Moorestown, New Jersey in 1982. (See the new entry in Lewis Benson Writings under the Resources tab. Note: this entry also includes the introductory material.) In The Place of George Fox in Christian History, Benson asserted that Fox's message was not a variant on Protestant or Catholic themes. In this first lecture, Benson looks at Fox's claim that the whole of Christendom was and had been in a state of apostasy since the days of the apostles. What did Fox mean by the accusation of apostasy? Did his accusation have any basis in fact? Has anything of substance changed in the intervening years or are we just as open to the charge as was Christianity in the 1600s?

Before we can decide what Fox's place in history is, we need to know what Fox and the other early Quakers saw as being their appointed task. We can then look as the historical record to see if they lived up to that task.

If Fox's place in Christian history is what he understood it to be, his message is no less important for us today than it was in the 1600s.

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Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 10thMo. 15, 2016 at 17:01

Here's a major portion of the introduction that I posted on Quakerquaker.org, which provides additional description of this first lecture in the series:

In this first lecture, "The Place of George Fox in Christian History," Benson states his intention for the series: "to focus on Fox's actual teachings as revealed in his writings," thereby addressing two problems: 1) scholars' mistaken interpretations of Fox's teaching, and 2) widespread lack of familiarity with our Quaker heritage. These lectures provide an excellent opportunity for Friends to familiarize themselves with significant portions of early Quaker understanding, as Benson's scholarship is thorough; his interpretation is sound; and his presentations are clear and coherent.

Benson's intention, though, is not solely to inform. Rather, through presenting the knowledge and wisdom that original Friends embodied, he seeks to provide a source "from which we can draw inspiration for a movement of Quaker renewal today."

"The everlasting gospel Fox preached is no longer a part of any living Quaker tradition," Benson asserts. Just as the gospel was lost soon after the initial apostolic work done in the early centuries of the Christian movement and later recovered in the seventeenth century, the gospel is once again lost in every branch of present-day Quakerism and likewise once again needs to be recovered. Friends of the seventeenth century model for us a recovering of this lost gospel power that was originally preached by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament.

Friends' rediscovery of this ancient gospel led them inevitably to proclaim it and thereby challenge their contemporaries to likewise find and enter into right relationship with their Creator. Quaker gospel ministry was a recovery of the original apostolic witness: the good news and manifestation that the living Christ is available to us yesterday, today, and forever. The recognition and experiential knowledge of Christ is the Quaker message and heritage. Through reviewing Fox's teaching, Benson informs us of the power that began the Quaker movement and, as a true prophet, urges us to claim it yet once more:

The Quaker world today is divided into adherents of three nineteenth-century traditions: conservative, evangelical, and liberal. And it is taken for granted by many that Quakerism must be defined as a pluralistic society in which these three traditions are maintained in balance. But none of these traditions, nor all three taken together, have the strength to support a vigorous witness for these times, or for the century that lies ahead. The men and women in each of these traditions are equally the rightful heirs of the rich legacy which Fox’s message and teaching has to offer. Our message to all the Quakers is: claim your inheritance. 

Comment by Ellis Hein on 10thMo. 16, 2016 at 12:45

Thanks, Pat, for this additional information on Lecture one. Your comment reminded me that these lectures are the result of Lewis Benson's lifetime of study, thought, and presentations. I can see in these lectures many of the ideas Lewis drew upon for his various articles and Quaker Religious Thought and other presentations I have access to. Perhaps it would be accurate to state that in these 10 Moorestown Lectures and in the five Moorestown Lectures that followed we have the distillation of Lewis' life and thought in one or two coherent publications. All those arguments against what he presented, all the opposition he received in trying to bring to light the truth about Fox's message and its relevance for the world today have enriched and made stronger the things Lewis presented in these 10 lectures.

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