Garry Trompf. New South Wales Regional Meeting.


The idea of historical recurrence has long pervaded Western thinking, and along with ideas of human progress, regress and also eschatological thought, it has been expressed through various paradigms, some well known and others rather special and easily missed. Within the net-bag of recurrence ideas are cycles (including the famous cycle of governments), spirals, oscillations, and of course striking parallels between two or more incidents or sets of conditions. Not to be neglected are other special ideas, about patterns of rewards and punishments through time, for example, or of Ages or epochal structures succeeding each other in turn, and also claims that past conditions of great value can be imitated, recaptured, or re-enacted. These are ideas that have concerned me over many years of research, and it will be of interest to readers that the founder Quakers harboured concepts that fit within this complex repertory and have genuine significance in the history of Western thought.[1]

The early movement of “the Friends of the Truth” (or Quakers) belongs within a continuing Reformation context, and experienced its greatest growth after the English Civil War, when questions about what constituted ‘the true religion’ (or ‘worship’) were hotly debated, even fought over by the sword. We can thus expect early Quaker preoccupations with time and history to respond to prior and competing religious speculations about these matters, which were also voiced within the ‘seventeenth-century scientific revolution’ emergent in Protestant Northern Europe, and thus in times quite hopeful for some general regeneration of the world. An intensely spiritual group, outstanding Quaker minds did not engage strongly with mainstream historians’ and political thinkers’ concerns with historical recurrence; but once the American colony in Pennsylvania was founded some such engagement was in evidence.

One can notice three basic of ideas of recurrence manifesting among early Quakers. First we find an intriguing version of ‘Age theory’ among them, or the idea that world history fell into three great and successive periods. The most important advocates of a tripartite or ‘Trinitarian’ paradigm of history in the Protestant world in the seventeenth century were the followers of the German mystic (sometime shoemaker) Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), often acclaimed as the founder-figure of modern Christian theosophy or esotericism and a man who received insights from the so-called ‘Joachite’ tradition. As well known, the mediaeval Calabrian monk Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202) had readjusted the Christian synoptic view of history by teaching that it passed through the Ages of the Father (Old Testament conditions), the Son (the time of the Church), and the Spirit (bringing the de-institutionalization of religion). Christ was no longer located towards the end of history in this vision, but in the very middle. By the time of the English Civil War, the “Bemenists” (as the Boehmians called themselves) were among a number of radical groups who threw in their lot with the Friends. Boehme’s works seem to be second only to the Bible in Quaker reading habits.[2] Certainly, founder Quaker and first Friend, former apprentice cobbler George Fox (1624-91), and two early members Isaac Penington (1616-79) and Robert Barclay (1648-90) who felt confident enough to systematize Quaker doctrines on the matter, taught the tripartite Age theory in a particular version.

Whereas, as one can immediately sense, the general Joachite picturing was progressive looking, so that each repeated stage (status) marked steps forward toward higher spirituality, in early Quaker Age theory, which shows an adaptation of the Joachite approach, there is noticeable injection of a cyclical element. The Quaker re-invisagement has three moments – the Age of the Christian Adam, begun in perfection and almost millennium-long in its timing (cf. Gen. 5:5 on his 930 years); the Days of Jesus, the Second Adam, and his Apostles; and the present times, when these earlier perfections are beginning to be re-enacted through embracing the life of the Spirit.[3] The time of the Old Testament and its post-Adamic times is that of the first covenant, which was outward, and therefore the antetype of the inward covenant lived out by Jesus. The Mosaic law, admittedly, was still the “pure and perfect law of God,” which answered “the perfect principle [with]in every one,” but only some, especially the prophets, were “tender” to the light within them, and Israel declined because most kept the Law formalistically or else “their hearts were afar off.” Christ and the early disciples lived the covenant inwardly, without the fetters of the Letter and thus by the Inner “true Light, that lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (AV Jn 1:9). The Age of the Church, “since the Apostles days” and running down to the early Friends’ own pregnant Moment, was by contrast a long period of sad apostasy, whereby Christendom was “built up … with blood and iniquity,” and religious conformity maintained by fallible “doctrines, … creeds, and ordinances, and canons, by force of carnal weapons.” For Fox, who was affected on this point by the sixteenth-century German Spiritual[ist] Sebastian Franck (1499-1542), the sacramental life of this Age had no validity, all the “gifts and sacraments” of the pristine Church going “up into heaven after the death of the Apostles” and lying “concealed in the Spirit” while Antichrist laid waste the world.[4]

The time had come, however, when Paradise was being “Regained”, as Quaker poet Thomas Ellwood (1639-1714) had suggested to John Milton, and the “world turned upside down” (cf. Acts 17:6), so that the apparently lost perfections of pre-lapsed Adam and the earliest Church were being recaptured.[5] The burgeoning Society of Friends constituted the true and new Israel as it had been in the Apostle’s time; totally pacifist and without need of righteous magistrates; no outward sacraments or priesthood were now needed in the Age of the Spirit as they were not in Paradise, God being approached by “the heart” (rather than the “rational principle”) in a continuing revelation (as Franck had long before seen it); and woman, on the same level with man before Adam’s fall, now regained her full equality. Life in the Spirit brought back, in these ‘new times,’ the full richness of Biblical, and especially New Testament experiences of God. Even the distinctive marks of Quaker speech were meant to betoken this.[6]

Here we find the first idea of the Three Ages being integrally related to a second notion of historical recurrence, that of Re-enactment. Quaker ‘living in the Light’ mostly amounted to both an individual and collective re-enacting of Christ’s ministry in spirit. This especially meant a pacifist life. In North America, for example, ‘classic’ Puritan appeal to the Old Testament allowed weapons to be borne for the protection of ‘Zion,’ whereas Quaker Pennsylvania was intended as the decisively “Peaceable Kingdom.” It was a place where “Primitive Christianity revived,” which apart from being neither “Patriarchal [or] Mosaical,” eschewed violence as assuredly did Christ and the early disciples. Moreover, if in other early American colonies, Puritans found it hard to tolerate this quest to re-appropriate Apostolic vitalities, loosened as it was from guidelines of Holy Writ and opposed to church institutionalism, some Quakers were only too willing leave Pennsylvanian boundaries to face persecution and prepare for martyrdom, expecting like early Christians to be stoned in a world of Judaizing reactions.[7]

Women, interestingly, were among those would-be martyrs, and it is important how the Quaker reanimation of primitive Christian energies, in both Britain and America, entailed the recovery of the ‘lost’ female ministries of New Testament times. Margaret Fell (1614-1702) and George Fox seem to have preached the first ‘feminist’ sermons. Note how, beginning with all the ‘hard’ passages – about women to be silent in church, and subjected under male authority – Fox promptly forgets them all and patiently documents all the signs of women ministers found in Acts and Paul’s letters (Priscilla, Euodia, Nympha, etc.). It is no coincidence, then, that female leadership was pronounced among Friends (witness first Margaret Fell herself), and that women were freer to speak by inspiration in Quaker public worship. Re-enacting life in the Spirit not only made a return to New Testament equalities possible but also “restores men and women” together to the condition “before they fell” from Paradise. Liberated and newly confident, it is no wonder that the first great outburst of female writing in world history was the spate of Quaker women’s accounts of their religious experiences. And women wilfully joined men in public acts to signify a necessary spiritual change, and often re-enacted the signs of Old Testament prophets, breaking a pitcher before Parliament, wearing sackcloth and ashes, or facing scorn for exalting James Nayler, when he rode on a donkey into Bristol to be “a sign of the coming of the righteous one.”[8]

What of recurrence ideas among Quakers applying to the tough realities of institutional and political life? Certainly the Church as establishment and rigidifying social fixtures was to meant in Quaker eyes to deinstitutionalize – meeting-houses to replace the rejected “steeple-houses” as symbols of a virtually non-hierarchized worshipping community, and a retrieval of the primitive Way directly under Christ’s head to occur. And politics? In Britain, some important socio-political implications flowed from the Friends’ stances—religious tolerance, pacifism, no judicial or military oaths, no doffing of one’s hat before ‘social superiors’ etc.—but Quakers were always only in a position to pressure governments of a less radical mind. In America, however, William Penn (1644-1718) and his supporters could have their way, and it is remarkable to find what kind of constitutional solution was posited for Pennsylvania. Penn knew about the classical theory of the cycle of governments, and although, as we might have imagined, he does not use this theory to posit the restoration of a long neglected ancient manner of governance, his vision of the course of political forms does combine a longing to regain lost social virtue with value of constitutional balance as found in classical theory. Here we come to our third idea of historical recurrence in early Quakerism.

Considering there are “several admirers of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy,” wrote Penn in his 1682 letters, it is hard to choose between them, and each move from beginning to ruin “like clocks” according to the motion given to them by men. Penn knows of the constitutional cycle from the ancient historian Polybius, because following him he acknowledges that each of the worthy three rules of kings, aristocrats and the populace can lapse into “tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.” What will forestall ruin lies in two conditions: first, that a “Government is free to the People under it,” with “the People as a Party” to its laws; and second, that “men be good,” because good men can cure any bad government, whereas the bad can “warp and spoil” even the best system. Here goodness is not conceived as ‘civic’ (let alone Machiavellian) virtue with any Graeco-Roman classical innuendo: it denotes a sense of virtuousness that was surely the most common one in seventeenth-century political thought, that is, the moral virtue of a Christian person. But what was Penn’s choice as preferred constitutional form? Why, without justifying it, a balance between monarchic, conciliar and popular components: a Governor or his deputy being the “perpetual President;” and both a “Provincial Council” (composed of a Biblically inspired membership of 72) “and a General Assembly,” both to be chosen by “the Freemen” who could sit in them. All were subject to law, moreover, for citizens were only “free by their just obedience,” and license but a “slavery.” The Puritan magistracies may have sown the seed, but now the American Constitution was in embryo – in a Quakerly insight. And as Penn sat with the Delaware Satchama, noting his council of elders, and the assembly of Indians, he saw their political order of things pointing in the same direction, and a vestige of their Hebraic ancestry, “as the stock of the ten [lost] tribes.” “Asia, Africa, and Europe have had … their Day,” as “divers Prophecies” foretold, but if “God’s Providence” was effected “in their Removal,” now it was time for “those desolate Western Parts of the World” to achieve their “Fullness.”[9] Recurrence as a socio-political restitution in a New World, indeed, might be one to end all painful repetitions, and still another image of historical recurrence in early Quakerism to conclude our account.

[1] All the possible variations I have illustrated at length in my work The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, vol. 1: From Antiquity to the Reformation; and vol. 2: From the Later Renaissance to the Dawn of the Third Millennium, Berkeley, 1979-[2013].

[2] Boehme, Sechs mystische Puncte (1620), iv, 3, in Sämtliche Werke (ed. K.W. Schiebler), Leipzig, 1847, vol. 7, p. 92. Böhm’s complete Works were Englished by J. Ellistone and J. Sparrow from 1644 to 1662 (London, 4 vols.), but this does not mean Quakers adopted his grand metaphysical (as against something of his basic macro-historical) framework; N. Smith, Perfection Proclaimed, Oxford, 1989, p. 217.

[3] For details, see Trompf and A. Kasaminie, “The Druze and the Quaker: Reflections on the Social Implication of ‘Mysticism,” Prudentia (Supp. No.: The Via Negativa), Auckland, 1981, pp. 194-6.

[4] Esp. Fox, Doctrinal Books, (Gould edn.), Philadelphia. 1831, Vol. 1, pp. 15, 78; vol. 3, e.g., pp. 94-5, 315 (quotations), Penington, Of the Church, in Works (1680-1), using London, 1761 edn., vol. 2, pp. 74-85, cf. vol. 1, pp. 206-11. See also D. Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (1624-1691), Richmond, Ind., 1986, pp. 99-109.

[5] The History of Thomas Ellwood (1714) (ed. H. Morley), London, 1885, pp. 199-200, cf. also M. Webb, The Penns and the Peningtons of the Seventeenth Century, etc., London, 1867, pp. 188-9. Cf. C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Harmondsworth, 1978, ch. 10.

[6] E.g., J. Nayler, The Lamb’s Warres Against the Man of Sin, London, 1657 (new Israel); Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity, (1678) (London, 1886 edn. used), Prop. VI, sect. 16 (quotation), cf. II, 10, 13, IV, 3 (no priests, etc.); H.W. Brinton, The Religious Philosophy of Quakerism, Wallingford, Penn., 1973, p. 34. Because of the effects of Johann Kepler’s astronomy on Protestant Europe, there was much talk of “New” (including eschatological) “Times” on the earth, especially among Boehmians and Pietists in Germany: M. Jabukowski-Tiessen, “Eine alte Welt und ein neuer Himmel: Zeitgenössische Relexion zur Jahrhundertwende 1700,” in Jahrhundertwenden: Endzeit- und Zukunftsvortsellungen vom 15. Bis zum 20. Jahrrhundert (eds. Jabukowski-Tiessen et al.) (Vertöffentlichen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte, 155), Göttingen, 1999, pp. 173-82. For background to the development of distinctive (quaint) discourse in sectarian Protestant groups, see L. Martin, “The ‘Language of Canaan:’ Pietism’s Esoteric Sociolect,” Aries NS 12, 2 (2012): pp. 237ff.

[7] The “Peaceable Kingdom” was a phrase used for a realized eschatology by Fox (e.g., “A Testimony” [1670s], in Doctrinals, vol. 5, p. 289) (it has a Joachite background); Penn, Primitive Christianity Revived (1702) (Ev. edn., pp. 231ff), p. 254 (Christian ‘primitivism’); T. Holme, The Persecution of them People they call Quakers, etc. London, 1686; cf. C.G. Pestana, Quakers and Baptists in Colonial Massachusetts, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 31ff. (martyrs).

[8] Fox, “The Woman Learning in Silence, etc.” (1660s) in Doctrinals, vol. 4, pp. 104-10; cf. M. Fell, Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed by the the Scriptures, etc. (1667) (ed. D.J. Latt) (Augustin Reprint, 194), Los Angeles, 1979; R. Foxton, ‘Hear the Word of the Lord’: A Critical and Bibliographical Study of Quaker Women’s Writing, 1650-1700 (BSANZ Occasional Publication IV), Melbourne, 1994; W.G. Bittle, James Nayler 1618-1660: The Quaker Indicted by Parliament, York, Eng., 1986, p. 106.

[9] For the above, Penn, ‘Letter to a Friend, 1682’ [which became Pref. to Frame of Government for Pennsylvania], in T. Clarkson, Memoir of the Public and Private Life of William Penn, Philadelphia, 1849 edn., p. 111.

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