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Dialogue on Quaker Understanding of Free Will

This is a transcript of a dialogue between Stuart Masters and me that occurred in early to mid-December 2017 in the comment section of Stuart’s blog post “Friends of Martin Luther? Quakers and the Protestant Reformation.” The point I challenged was Stuart’s assertion that by a free act of will man participates in his transformation from sinner to saint. I contended early Quaker understanding held that the will is not free until liberated by Christ.

(This essay was first posted at Abiding Quaker where it is followed by several comments.)


Pat wrote (quoting from Stuart’s post):

While people may be incapable of transforming themselves, humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice, and when they do, by God’s transformative power, it is possible for them to come into perfect conformity to the will of God (i.e. holiness or perfection).

Stuart, your stating that Quakers believed that “humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice” is not accurate. Nayler writes:

There is no will free for God but that which is free from sin, which will man lost in the fall, when he let in the will of the devil and entered into it; wherein man became in bondage. And all that man in that state knows of the free-will, is that which moves in him against the will of the flesh and of the devil, which is seen in the light of Christ (Works, III, 132-3).

Man is either in the will of the devil or he is in the will of God, the latter moving in him against the will of the devil. There is no neutral state from which man chooses the one or the other. To claim otherwise encourages “self-willed” man to remain self-satisfied, imagining himself in an innocuous, autonomous state, rather than his true state of being poor, helpless, blind, and naked, and without God.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

Thank you for your comment! I am aware of this Nayler passage, which I think comes from ‘Love to the Lost’. However, I cannot believe that Nayler means what you suggest he means.

Since early Friends rejected Calvinist double predestination, logically, they had to accept that there was a degree of human cooperation with God in the salvation process. They much have accepted the need for a human response to the divine offer. If not, there would have been no point launching the massive preaching campaign during the 1650s. The essential exhortation to turn away from carnal things and toward the light of Christ in the conscience, requires a response from its hearers.

I agree that they limited the extent of free will (and saw human wilfulness as a key aspect of sin). However, no free will, no choice to turn to Christ, only God’s action (which in this sense would have to be coercive, and against the free choice of the individual, which then leads to the problem of explaining why God might force this on some but not on others, bringing us back to the issue of predestination).


Pat wrote:

I think if you read through the section titled “Concerning Free-Will” in “Love to the Lost,” you will see that I am correct in saying that Nayler asserts there is either God’s will or the devil’s will, with no free will (in our contemporary understanding of the term as autonomy) that stands apart from the two. The passageway from one to the other is given through the quickening Word of God. Nayler writes:

and as the spiritual man is quickened by the word of God, and that man born which is not of the flesh, nor of the will of it; so is that will seen again in man which is free, wherein the creature is made free from the will of the flesh, which is bondage (133).

As it is not within man’s ability to give birth to himself, it cannot be he who autonomously wills to be born from above; he is born of God. To be born of God occurs not from the will of the flesh, nor the will of man (Jn. 1:13). It was the Word of God that seventeenth-century Friends preached, to the end that others could feel the quickening seed of God within (as they themselves had been given), and feeling that quickening they found entry into God’s will, and thus experienced their freedom, which hitherto they had not known.

So man hath not free-will further than he is free-born from above of the seed that sinneth not (134).

Stuart wrote:

My view has always been that the Early Quaker position was closer to that of Wesley than to Calvin. However, I need to be open to the possibility that their roots in Calvinist Puritanism left a legacy in their faith and practice.

My interpretation of Nayler’s words are that he is emphasising the view that salvation comes by the work of God alone and not by the effort of the individual. I agree with this and feel that it is consistent with the early Quaker position generally.

Early Friends were clearly very ‘black and white’ in their understandings; one was either in darkness or in the light, in God’s will or the devil’s will, in the first birth or the second birth etc… That need not imply that they did not feel that all people were faced with a choice; to turn to God or to remain in darkness. Such a choice presumes a degree (however limited) of free choice.

However, that does not resolve the very serious problem I outlined in my first response, which you have not answered. If humans have no free agency or choice in the salvation process, then we are left with the Calvinist positions of predestination and irresistible grace. This implies that God chooses some for salvation and others for damnation, without any human choice or decision.

I cannot accept that this was the message of the first Friends.



Pat wrote:

The Cain and Abel story offers information on how to understand Friends perspective on God’s acceptance of man, or lack thereof. Following the telling of each brother’s sacrifice, God’s respect to Abel’s but not to Cain’s, and Cain’s anger, He speaks:

If thou doest well, shall thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Gen. 4:7).

What is interesting here is God’s speaking as though Cain knows what doing “well” entails, and is not doing it. The text presents what appears to be identical behaviors between the two brothers: They both bring offerings of their labor, described with almost identical words, but only one’s is accepted while the other’s is not. We can’t see what’s amiss with Cain’s offering, but God can and does, and furthermore knows Cain does as well, and holds him accountable. By having nearly identical descriptions of the brothers’ sacrifices, but God’s judgment differing towards them, we see a narrative device by which the difference between the brothers is located: the difference between them lies within, invisible to us on the outside (and invisible to those who prefer darkness to light) but visible to God, who knows the heart.

Where has Cain failed? A strong clue is the word Jesus uses in Mt. 23:25 to describe his brother: “righteous Abel.” God expects Cain (and each of us) to live up to the capacity given: first, to love truth/righteousness; second, to recognize our limits in knowing truth/righteousness; and third, to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Mt. 5:6), that we might be filled. This love of truth requires an inward sacrifice, and Fox affirms Cain’s lack of it when he wrote in “The Papist’s Strength”: “he [Cain] observed outward things, and comes not to witness the spiritual sacrifice” (51).

“I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not” (Isa. 65:1) is a verse that points to the heeding of the seed of God within before it is known that there is such a thing; it is those who heed and love and seek a place to stand that only truth can provide; that mourn its lack with heart, mind, soul, and strength; it is these who come to be comforted through the mercy of God in His sending of His Spirit. It is not our choice or decision to suffer such need; but sensing its truth, we do not muffle or darken, obscure or deny, but instead, feelingly know the emptiness of the heart, which cannot, should not, and will not be placated by any means at our disposal or will.

Stuart wrote:

I am currently doing research for a book on James Nayler’s theology and so will need to address this matter.

I agree that the work of salvation is God’s work alone, and not about our personal effort, but maintain that, unless we at least have the freedom to respond to God’s offer of salvation, we are left with the irresistible grace of Calvinism.

Early Friends, like many others, separated from their parish churches and were seekers of truth. That seems to imply an act of choice, even if it was divinely guided. Fox exhorts people not to quench the Spirit, which implies a decision not to follow its leadings. The very act of Adam’s disobedience implies making a choice against the way of God.

If no-one has choice, no-one can be held responsible or accountable. They could do nothing else.

Pat wrote:

Your reasoning is sound, Stuart, but it starts from the wrong premise. We are not like a King who sits on a throne deciding and choosing what will be the law of his land: God’s salvation or the devil’s perfidy. Rather we are like a subject deep in a pit with no way out. It is not by choice or decision that we see our pitiful state, because, in truth, it is impossible not to see it—for those who have eyes to see. We do not choose to mourn our condition, as, in truth, it is impossible for a creature not to mourn its captivity—for those who have a heart that feels. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25) Paul is showing the necessity of seeing and feeling our true state, and the means of our deliverance. Truth, truth, truth from first to last, from captivity to freedom!

I’ve tried to show that there is another way to understand the solution to our condition other than (1) a participatory use of human will, or (2) election via the doctrine of predestination. I am convinced that it is the one understood by first Friends, and is also in accord with Scriptures. I’m grateful for this opportunity to have discussed the issue with you.

May the love of Christ be with us.



Thank you Pat, I am certainly willing to take account of the perspective you have outline[d]. In any event, I need to do more work on this issue.

In the love of Christ,


The discussion continued one week later.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

I have been doing some research on how human ‘will’ was understood in the early modern period. It seems that ‘will’ primarily related to human to our emotions, motivation and affections, rather than agency or the capacity to make choices. On this basis, I can agree with what you have said about the position of early Friends without rejecting my belief that Friends accepted that humans could make a choice about whether to respond to God’s offer of regeneration and salvation.

Essentially, I think we were simply defining the term ‘free will’ differently.


Pat wrote:

Stuart, your new definition of “will” does not affect the argument that there is no neutral ground from which to exercise free will, which is the position of first Friends, which I’ve explained. It is not possible to “choose,” because the will is captivated until it is set free by Christ, the truth. Here’s Penington’s clear refutation of the will standing of itself “free to both equally”:

But as for your speaking of free will, ye do not know what you speak of; for the will with the freedom of it, either stands in the image and power of him that made it, or in a contrary image and power…[Mark this.] The will is not of itself, but stands in another, and is servant to that in whom it stands, and there its freedom is bound and comprehended. For there is no middle state between both, wherein the will stands of itself, and is free to both equally, but it is a servant and under the command of one of these powers…such free will as men commonly speak of is mere imagination (Works, I, 77).

 Stuart wrote:

Well we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this issue.

Views: 267

Comment by Ellis Hein on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 2:38

Writing from experience, I can say that I have been confronted with Christ's reproof and subsequent command of what and how to change. I can also say that I acknowledged the truth of the reproof and accepted his authority to cause me to change. I have also observed others teetering on the brink of accepting Christ's reproof and his authority to bid them change. Some of these I have seen refuse.

Let me be a little more specific, if that will help. When I was a young adult, I was bringing the milk cow in for evening milking. We had to cross a creek bed lined with cottonwood trees three times. At each crossing the cow could out maneuver me and my horse (she did not have to regard low hanging branches) and head back to the far end of the pasture. After much work and building anger on my part, I finally got the cow close to the barn. There was a small enclosure near-by and the cow dashed into it rather than go to the corral. I jumped off the horse, grabbed a stick, and had every intention of giving that cow "what-for". The cow stood looking at me as I approached, stick raised. But before I could strike a blow a voice spoke to me saying, "Is this how you want me to treat you?" I saw in an instant all those occasions I had used convenient opportunity to not follow what Christ wanted me to do. I dropped the stick, gave the cow a pat, and went back to my horse. The cow walked out of the enclosure and walked to the corral.

Now, using my example above, if you wish, where does will come in or not come in to my actions. Perhaps this discussion will be clearer when applied to a concrete example and we can get to questions like why should we care whether we exercise free will or not? There is more at stake here than a discussion regarding a historical belief.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 11:36

Had early Friends not considered it necessary to correct error in their contemporaries' understanding, we would not have as many of their writings as we have today. 

Right understanding is important, Ellis, because honoring the truth is necessary to coming into the knowledge of God. Loving the truth allows one to be brought to the Light. Wrong understanding, avoiding the truth ensures one will remain in darkness, even if seeing oneself otherwise. You ask: "Why should we care whether we exercise free will or not?" I answered that question in my first response:

Man is either in the will of the devil or he is in the will of God, the latter moving in him against the will of the devil. There is no neutral state from which man chooses the one or the other. To claim otherwise encourages “self-willed” man to remain self-satisfied, imagining himself in an innocuous, autonomous state, rather than his true state of being poor, helpless, blind, and naked, and without God. 

The gospel work is to present the truth, especially when there's wrong understanding in those who claim to be presenting the tenets of the faith. 

Comment by Ellis Hein on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 12:25

Yes, all this I understand. But can you apply what you have been stating to a concrete example such as the one I have supplied? I don't see how you have addressed Stuart's question, if I understood it correctly. Did I have the freedom to choose between beating the cow or not beating the cow? If that is not free will or freedom of choice, then what is it?

In the interest of hearing what you have to say, I will stop with this. 

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 13:13

Had you beat the cow, you would have been manifesting your wrath (sin), and its father, the devil, and therefore, captive to the devil, you'd not have been free. Had you not beat the cow, you would have been manifesting your restraint from expressing the wrath that was in your heart. As wrath (sin) was in your heart, you were captive to the devil, even restraining your behavior. Had you stepped aside, counted to ten, and composed yourself to the point of losing your wrath (sin), you would have been captive to the devil because you were acting from self-discipline, and like the Law, self-discipline can only restrain the commission of sin but cannot make one free. Only in receiving the inward, conscious living law (Christ), which overcomes the law of sin and death within, does one become free. To die to the self (both to sin and to self-discipline) that Christ may live within. That is the fulfillment: freedom of being, and freedom of will, as the early Friends knew and argued. (See Penington, I, 77; Nayler, III, 132-3.)

Comment by Ellis Hein on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 14:06

Thank you. I hope this makes it clearer to all readers

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 19:57

No need to patronize our readers, Ellis. I'm sure they're capable of requesting clarification themselves, if needed.

Comment by Ellis Hein on 7thMo. 10, 2019 at 23:19

No patronizing was involved. Just acting according to promptings I received.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 7thMo. 12, 2019 at 19:51

More commentary on this post may be found at Abiding Quaker.

Comment by Brenda Redshaw on 9thMo. 29, 2019 at 16:18

Patricia l am with you on this. There is not a neat dividing between Arminianism and Calvinism. The early Quakers believed in the Day of the Lord, when each man would have the truth of the gospel revealed, not as prevenient grace but as a specific time of revelation where the light can either be excluded or accepted. This has nothing to do with the will of man but the condition of his heart and a heart can be too hard for the light to enter in.

It is entirely up to God when the Day comes to each man.

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