Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
Two centuries before Dickens wrote about the Roman Carnival, the seventeenth-century men and women that would bring forth the Quaker movement had been engaged in something like a Lenten practice. George Fox and others subjected themselves to rigorous self-examination that was, in fact, the awareness the Lenten discipline was intended to evoke. That Friends opted to undergo this self-scrutiny in the absence of any cultural prod vouches for their having been guided not by a culturally religious prescription but by "the light of [their] nature," as Paul describes some Gentiles in the book of Romans. They were
their own law, for they display[ed] the effect of the law inscribed on their hearts. Their conscience [was] called as witness, and their own thoughts argue[d] the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus (Rom. 2:14-16 NEB).
Both the Gentiles that Paul refers to in these verses and the early Quakers subjected themselves to the dictate of the pure law of God:
the light in the conscience before faith. And the law is the light and the schoolmaster until faith...men have this light before they believe in it, and are children....then afterwards [to] believe in it; and with it they see the author of their faith, Christ Jesus, from whom it comes" (Works, 3:68).
This standard of righteousness (the law, the light in the conscience, the schoolmaster) when attended to and learned from does ensure that all that must happen, will happen:
Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete. I tell you this: so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened (Mt. 5:17-18 NEB).
In the first few pages of George Fox's Journal, we learn of his attention to righteous behavior. Before he had received faith from Christ, he diligently attended to the light in his conscience, the schoolmaster. He speaks of his early memories of feeling offended at seeing "old men carry themselves lightly and wantonly towards each other" (Nickalls, 1) and of his aversion to "foul ways and devouring the creation":
But people being strangers to the covenant of life with God, they eat and drink to make themselves wanton with the creatures, devouring them upon their own lusts, and living in all filthiness, loving foul ways and devouring the creation; and all this in the world, in the pollutions thereof, without God; and therefore I was to shun all such (2).
Unlike the Roman populace, Fox felt repulsed by self-indulgent, corrupt behavior, and instead was drawn to behaving in a way that is in "unity with the creation." Those who attended to the light in their consciences were, says Paul, "their own law." Within themselves, there would be an honest struggle to discover and live by what was right, even if it required inner conflict: "their own thoughts argue the case on either side against or even for them." Fox engaged in such conscientious self-questioning and argument, as here is shown:
And I wondered why these things should come to me....Then I thought, because I had forsaken my relations I had done amiss against them; so I was brought to call to mind all my time that I had spent and to consider whether I had wronged any....I was about twenty years of age when these exercises came upon me, and some years I continued in that condition, in great trouble; and fain I would have put it from me (Nickalls, 4).
He "would have put it from [him]" because his self-questioning was troublesome, painful to the point of despair. Yet he willingly endured this painful uncertainty about himself; he willingly partook of these sufferings, because he could accept no false solution or relief from them: no provisional cultural, social, intellectually speculative, or theological answer could suffice for him: he honored the truth and endured the cost. Neither able to deny his inner reality nor to anticipate any resolution, Fox simply partook of the suffering: "I cannot declare the misery I was in, it was so great and heavy upon me"(10). Unlike most, he endured this severe tension without resorting to hypocrisy, aggression, legalism, conformity, or dissipation. He partook of the suffering that accompanies knowing oneself to be in existential need with no real solution in sight: in truth, he felt and saw himself as he was—without God.
Fox's misery departed after he had been given faith, immediate knowledge of God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent. At ease in God's love, Fox could now view himself with equanimity:
Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see his love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can get by history or books. That love let me see myself, as I was without him; and I was afraid of all company: for I saw them perfectly, where they were, through the love of God which let me see myself (Works I: 74) [emphasis mine].
Receiving faith through hearing Christ, the Word of God, was the life-changing event for Fox, and so it is for everyone who follows the same excruciating path of partaking of sufferings.
(end of part two)
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