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Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel

This came out of a chat with some Friends at the Meeting I attend.  They were encouraging me in the Bible reading I was doing and I mentioned that I had been reading Acts chapter 10 and that it was a favorite of mine.  I also mentioned that it was one Biblical account Early Friends used for rejecting water baptism.  Some of them went and read the passage and one asked me how it could be interpreted as a case against outward baptism.  And how did I know Early Friends thought so?  I responded by email roughly as follows


Hello Friends,


One of you asked to hear more about what I hinted about early Friends and baptism after I commented on the story of Peter and Cornelius, so I decided to take the opportunity to say some more


First, a few notes about Early Friends writings, particularly those of George Fox.  George died in 1691, but many of his writings had already been collected and many others were preserved, one way or another.  You many have heard of his Journal, which was first published in the 1690s.  It includes a long preface by William Penn and a shorter one by Margaret Fell Fox, plus tributes by a variety of other Friends.  But there were a lot of other pieces that were gradually collected together over the next decades.  One of the oldest of these is a long book published much earlier called The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded: And Antichrist's Kingdom Revealed unto Destruction.  Usually, this mouthful is called The Great Mystery for short.  I don't know the year of publication, but it is what is referred to as a Doctrinal publication which was part of the voluminous published works by Friends and their opponents making their case for their beliefs and their arguments with each other.  It wasn't just Friends and their opponents that did a lot of publishing.  Print was a media of choice for all groups.  The King James Bible went to print just before Fox was born, putting the Scriptures in the hands of more English speakers than ever before.  It was a heady time, the exchange of ideas and beliefs was possible on a scale not seen before.  Remember that one of Gutenberg's first full scale projects was the printing of the Bible in vernacular German.  As printing technology spread around Europe (at what would seem a snail’s pace to us),  the exchange of ideas and interpretations of religion and the Scriptures were some of the hottest selling topics for nearly two hundred years after the printing press started cranking out books in Europe, and among English speakers, even longer.  The break of the English Crown from Catholicism, the ascent of the Scottish Stuarts to be English royalty (supposed Protestants but often secretly Catholics), the descent into the civil war and then the dictatorship of Cromwell, with most of the combatants enthusiastically convinced of their version of the Faith...  Well, book publishers did well; there was lots to argue about.


The Mystery's title is a reference to the infamous whore described in the book of Revelation which has fascinated believers and scholars since that book began to circulate in the first century.  George's interpretation is that the Whore represents the institutionalized Church that had submerged true Christian faith to its own interests.  His argument goes back to the time of the apostles.  He (and other Friends) point out creeping trends that left the church open to Constantine as protector and outward warfare as justified by the early 300s AD.  It is a rather dense work and many don't get much further than Edward Burroughs's introduction which is one of the most moving accounts of the early Quaker experience among all the writings by early Friends, and that is saying something as there are many extraordinary accounts.


In the next decades after Fox's death and during the gradual passing of other early Friends leaders, a lot of extant pamphlets and letters began to be gathered by Friends, especially by wealthier Friends who had the leisure to work on this effort.


In the early 1800s as the Orthodox/Hicksite splits began to erupt into the open causing so much grief, both sides tried to claim they were the true inheritors of the Early Quaker movement by a flurry of publishing/republishing of Early Friends writings.  If I have the story right, it was the Hicksites who were the first to press with an almost comprehensive collection of Fox's extant writings.  It is in eight volumes and is often referred to as the 1831 edition.  The first two volumes contain the Journal, the last two are the collected pastoral Epistles.  Volume 3 is The Great Mystery.  Volumes 4-6 are called the Doctrinals, a collection of other short books and pamphlets Fox wrote as tracts and answers to the arguments of Friends opponents.  So, at least half of the 8 volumes are explicitly doctrinal, and you will find quite a bit of similar material in the unabridged versions of the Journal and the Epistles.


Now, to the point.  One of the doctrinal pamphlets has a name something to the effect of The One True Baptism.  Fox was not the only Early Friend to take up this argument but this is perhaps the most cogent example.


But, another aside, regarding Baptism.  Baptism did not start with John the Baptist, although he may have understood it better than most of his predecessors.  It is a version of one of the Jewish rites of cleansing and had several implications.  It was a symbol of cleansing, an outward public expression of repentance.  It was a testimony of being set aside for God, making something or someone holy, dedicated to God.  It was also a part of the rites when someone became a convinced convert to Judaism, It was a pretty serious public declaration by any standard.


So, John comes along and baptizes and it is revolutionary.  He is not doing it as part of the temple cultus and the established religious leaders are on a continuum from cautious to outrage.  Luke is careful to note John's priestly lineage, perhaps as a counter to ongoing efforts to debunk him.  John's call for repentance is in lines with the most radical of the Old Testament Prophets, Repentance means doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly.  It is not just outward adherence.  It was laying depth charges at the basis of the religious establishment.  It also got John in trouble with Herod (the Roman puppet ruler in Galilee).  I have not heard anything to corroborate this, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Romans approved of John's imprisonment and death.


So, back toward the main point.  John is recorded in the New Testament as saying, "I baptize you with water, but one is coming after me who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."  This wasn't completely a new idea.  The whole history of Judaism included people, especially those regarded as prophets who had something of such an experience.  John's listeners would have understood this as coming into spiritual power, therefore dedicated to God, thoroughly cleansed.  Fire was a powerful cleansing agent; just a question of whether you would survive the technique.


My favorite Old Testament account of such an experience is in Numbers, chapter 11.  Moses is getting pretty weary of trying to deal with everybody's problems.  I can't remember if this is the same passage where his father-in-law tells him to trust some other leaders or another occasion, but in any case, God goes along with the plan to distribute the leadership.  He tells Moses to gather 72 men and he will distribute some of the spirit (and burden) that is on Moses to them.  So, seventy of them show up for the event, but two don't for some reason.  God nevertheless keeps to the agreed plan and the seventy take right off prophesying ecstatically.  BUT, and this gives the account authenticity for me, the same thing happens to the two that didn't show up for the ceremony.  They proceed to prophecy out in the camp in the midst of all the ordinary folks.  Joshua is outraged and cries, "Stop them my lord Moses!"  Moses in obvious relief gives this answer, verse 29:  But Moses replied, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"


Later history has the number of prophets increasing.  We read of bands of them here and there.  And later yet, some of the writing prophets look forward to a universal prophetic experience.  According to Luke, Peter quotes Joel on this topic on the Day of Pentecost.  So, John's hearers would have had some inkling of the implications of John's pronouncement.


Now, even a bit closer to the point.  Even after the Pentecost experience, the early church did not dispense with water baptism, it was still a powerful testimony of conversion and cleansing and it was costly.  The church's opponents could keep track of who had been publicly baptized with a bit of detective work.  I bet Paul had a lot of collected intelligence at his disposal when the persecution broke out after the stoning of Stephan.  One thing that would have infuriated the established religious leaders was that Christian leaders who were not Levites (the priests were a subset of the tribe of Levi) were baptizing people.  An alternative power center was growing fast in Jerusalem.


But God is ahead of developments and understandings, as usual.  The story of Cornelius shows this in many ways and its details were preserved lovingly because it had so many implications.  Peter had come a long way already.  According to Jewish practice, dead bodies are supposed to be buried in less than 24 hours after death.  Read the part in Acts just before the account I mentioned.  Peter is travelling about preaching and checking in with prior converts.  The believers at Joppa hear he is in the area and rush to get him because one of their beloved women leaders has died.  The clock is ticking.  So Peter runs back with them.  But he doesn't tell them to get her buried before it is too late or berate them for keeping a dead body about the place.  It is an opportunity to further the Gospel.  Peter starts with prayer and when he sees through this proceeds to call her back.  Next, he hangs out with Simon the Tanner for a long time.  Tanners deal with a lot of dead bodies.  Ya have to work hard to stay or get ceremoniously clean after such work, even if they are animals allowed by the Law, but Peter isn't deterred by this, or just makes a quick pop in, he hangs out with the guy and his family.  Then he has this vision about the unclean animals, told at least twice in chapter 10 and referred to again in chapter 11.  Why was it so important?


So, back to the story of Cornelius.  Peter shows up at Cornelius' house and asks why they sent for him.  Cornelius verbalizes some revolutionary things.  An angel has already visited him (though he is uncircumcised).  His story is pretty convincing since he then knew exactly where to find Peter.  He gathers his friends and family many of whom were probably "God Fearers", folks who were partly convinced about Jewish faith but had not undergone all the religious rites.  Finally, and this is my favorite part, Cornelius declares that they are all gathered in the presence of God already, even before Peter and his contingent show up.  Reminds me a bit of the Seekers at the time Fox shows up in Westmorland, but even more dramatic.  The account says that as Peter begins talking, the Holy Spirit comes on them.  The Jewish Christians that came with Peter are astonished.  Peter describes the scene later as being just as dramatic, just as mind-blowing as that at Pentecost itself.  He himself is amazed and a sort of an afterthought says they better baptize these folks with water.  That in itself would have pushed the envelope since there is no record that Cornelius and the group went on to be initiated into Judaism. 


Luke is careful to record this story before he goes on to include some introductory notes about the church in Antioch.  He says that Jewish believers dispersed from Judea because of the persecution were telling the good news to other Jews wherever they went, but that some of those who went to Antioch started telling the gospel to non-Jews.  I believe that might have happened even before Peter met Cornelius, but the beautiful part of the story is that God started with Peter where he was and took him a lot further.


More could be said about water baptism.  Paul was ambivalent and regretted having baptized folks when they used it to lord it over others who not been baptized by him.  Baptism became "institutionalized” In the first three hundred years it was still a risky thing to be baptized; the Roman state could mark who had been for periodic persecutions.  But after Christianity became the state religion, it became a way of marking who was included as full citizens, and who was excluded, and the latter could be singled out for persecution.  Baptism became a Sacrament, undoubtedly meaningful to some but what if somebody was missed?  Well, the answer to that is infant baptism!  There were groups who doubted the efficacy of that, e.g. the Anabaptists (which was a derisive term meaning re-baptized).  Such groups believed baptism only made sense as an adult choice, but since everyone had already been baptized as infants, they were flaunting the Church's Sacraments by being baptized again and they were in a sense rejecting their citizenship in a "Christian" state.  Anabaptist is now a term of pride among Mennonites and Brethren, much as Quaker has turned from taunt to a matter of pride for some Friends.


By the time Fox and the Friends came on the scene, there was a lot of water under the bridge (pardon the pun).  They knew that it was the spiritual baptism that makes us citizens of heaven and that was a higher calling than citizenship in any state.  While other groups argued about what kind of water baptism should be performed and when, Friends said this missed the point.  John had pointed to something that would replace water baptism and they knew it by experience.


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