Paul Copeland, NSW Regional Meeting.

If one were to start talking of Robert Barclay many modern Quakers may wonder whom he actually was. While George Fox and William Penn are now noted for their role in early Quakerism, Barclay goes relatively unnoticed. I feel this is because of two factors. First, many of Fox’s and Penn’s best known quotes are pithy and brief. The same cannot be said for Barclay’s; he certainly was prone to prolixity in the grand way of many of his contemporary writers. Some of his writings have one sentence per page, with lots of semi-colons creating a very dense sentence. This makes for challenging reading and the language of the day adds to the cognitive load. Second his content is theologically dense, the work of a Quaker theologian, and many of today’s Quakers seem uninterested in this aspect of Quakerism.

Robert Barclay was born in 1648 and died in 1690, aged a relatively young 42, although not uncommon in the 17th century, by today’s standards this is quite young; he died as a result of fever. Barclay was from a noble Scottish family, his father David Barclay was a soldier and fought for Sweden in the Thirty Years War, and was later a Colonel of the Royalist army in the English Civil war. His father was the subject of Whittier’s poem Barclay of Ury, while his mother Catherine was a third cousin to Charles I.

Robert Barclay was brought up with a Calvinist background, of this Barclay himself says, “My first education from my infancy up fell amongst the strictest sort of Calvanists”1. At an early age though Barclay was sent to Scots Theological College in Paris, which was a Roman Catholic Institution, where his uncle was the Rector. Of the Catholic influence on him Barclay said:

“… and my tender years and immature capacity not being able to withstand and resist the insinuations that were used to proselite me to that way, I became quickly defiled with the pollutions therof”

This rather flowery prose is typical of Barclay’s writings. At the request of his dying mother his father brought him back to Scotland, where Robert deliberately chose not to join with any religious establishment.

In 1665 his father was imprisoned for having held office under the Commonwealth. Here David Barclay was sharing a cell with Quaker John Swinton, who convinced him to the Quaker way. Robert was brought to Quakerism through his father and he joined the Society in either late 1666 or early 1667. His experiences of Meeting for Worship obviously had a profound impact on him. The following words that Barclay used to describe his experience with the Quaker Meeting for Worship are well known and we shall repeat them here:

“For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian; to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.”2

Barclay’s father remained in prison for four years, and Robert was sent back to the estate at Ury. He continued to study widely and in 1670 he married Christian Molleson in Aberdeen, it was the first Quaker wedding in Aberdeen and it led to public disturbances. The next six years leading up to the publication of the Apology saw him travelling in the ministry and answering controversies. In 1676 the Apology for the True Christian Divinity was published in Latin.

In 1682 twelve Quakers under the auspices of Penn established East New Jersey, Barclay was made non-resident governor and this role involved him in a lot of administration. The constitution of this province strongly reflected Quakers views of tolerance. In 1686 his father died and the role of managing the Ury estate fell to him. The last years of his life were spent mainly in quest work amongst friends in Scotland.

Barclay’s Publications

Barclay’s great gifts to Quakerism are his prolific writings that attempt to justify Quakerism to the Christian critics of the day. Barclay’s first well known publication was A Catechism and Confession of Faith published in 1673. In it Barclay uses the Bible as a reference to support the current practices of Quakerism. It covered a range of topics from the knowledge of God, Faith, Resurrection, Worship and many more. Here is a brief extract from Chapter 6 on Faith, Justification and Works.


Concerning Faith, Justification and Works.

Question. What is Faith?

A. Faith is the Substance of things hoped for and the Evidence of things not seen [Heb. 11:1].

Q. Is Faith of absolute Necessity?

A. Without Faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a Rewarder of them that diligently seek him [Heb. 11:6].

Q. Are we justified by Faith?

A. Wherefore the Law was our School-master to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by Faith [Gal. 3:24].

Q. What is the Nature of this Faith that availeth to Justification?

A. For in Jesus Christ neither Circumcision availeth any thing, nor Uncircumcision; but Faith which worketh by Love [Gal. 5:6].

Q. Are Works then necessary to Justification as well as Faith?

A. But wilt thou know, O Vain Man, that Faith without Works is Dead? Was not Abraham our Father justified by Works when he had offered Isaac his Son upon the Altar? Seest thou how Faith wrought with his Works, and by Works was Faith made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled; which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for Righteousness: He was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by Works a man is justified, and not by Faith only [James 2:20-24].

In 1674 Barclay wrote The Anarchy of the Ranters, it was published in 1676. This was then followed by his great tome: Apology for the True Christian Divinity.

The Apology

Barclay’s greatest piece of work is his Apology for the True Christian Divinity. What exactly does the Apology have to say, put simply quite a lot. Any summary of Barclay and his works cannot hope to explain all that the Apology has to say. But with reference to the text we shall let Robert Barclay do that for us. There are fourteen propositions all in the same order as the Westminster Confession. They are3:

· The First Proposition: Concerning the True Foundation of Knowledge [p. 19]

· The Second Proposition: Concerning Immediate Revelation [p. 21]

· The Third Proposition: Concerning the Scriptures [p. 62]

· The Fourth Proposition: Concerning the Condition of Man in the Fall [p. 84]

· The Fifth and Sixth Propositions: Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ, and also the Saving and Spiritual Light wherewith every man is enlightened [p. 96]

· The Seventh Proposition: Concerning Justification [p. 167]

· The Eighth Proposition: Concerning Perfection [p. 205]

· The Ninth Proposition: Concerning Perseverance, and the Possibility of Falling from Grace [p. 223]

· The Tenth Proposition: Concerning the Ministry [p. 230]

· The Eleventh Proposition: Concerning Worship [p. 289]

· The Twelfth Proposition: Concerning Baptism [p. 343]

· The Thirteenth Proposition: Concerning the Communion, or participation of the Body and Blood of Christ [p. 373]

· The Fourteenth Proposition: Concerning the Power of the Civil Magistrate in Matters purely Religious and pertaining to the Conscience [p. 407]

· The Fifteenth Proposition: Concerning Salutations and Recreations, &c. [p. 429]

Personally I have read most from the second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh Propositions. Being interested in theology, I have been in discussions with Christians (often evangelicals), and as they tried to dismantle the basis of Quakerism I turned to Barclay to give me a theological justification behind my faith. The seventh proposition I found particularly rewarding as Barclay delves into the faith and works divide.

The Second Proposition: Concerning Immediate Revelation

The second proposition is important because it is the cornerstone of God providing continuing revelation. Without Proposition 2 and its assertions Ministry would not be coming from God. Let us now examine how Barclay addresses the concept of Immediate Revelation.

Seeing “no man knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son revealeth him”; and seeing the “revelation of the Son is in and by the Spirit” (Matt. 11:27); therefore the testimony of the Spirit is that alone by which the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be only revealed; who as, by the moving of his own Spirit, he disposed the chaos of this world into that wonderful order wherein it was in the beginning, and created man a living soul, to rule and govern it, so, by the revelation of the same Spirit, he hath manifested himself all along unto the sons of men, both patriarchs, prophets, and apostles; which revelations of God by the Spirit, whether by outward voices and appearances, dreams, or inward objective manifestations in the heart, were of old the formal object of their faith, and remain yet so to be, since the object of the saints’ faith is the same in all ages, though held forth under divers administrations. Moreover, these divine inward revelations, which we make absolutely necessary for the building up of true faith, neither do nor can ever contradict the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or right and sound reason. Yet from hence it will not follow, that the divine revelations are to be subjected to the test, either of the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or of the natural reason of man, as to a more noble or certain rule and touchstone; for this divine revelation and inward illumination, is that which is evident and clear of itself, forcing, by its own evidence and clearness, the well-disposed understanding to assent, irresistibly moving the same thereunto, even as the common principles of natural truths do move and incline the mind to a natural assent: as, that the whole is greater than its part, that two contradictories can neither be both true, nor both false.

Barclay goes on to say:

For the better understanding then of this proposition, we do distinguish betwixt the certain knowledge of God, and the uncertain; betwixt the spiritual knowledge, and the literal; the saving heart-knowledge, and the soaring, airy head-knowledge. The last, we confess, may be divers ways obtained; but the first, by no other way than the inward immediate manifestation and revelation of God’s Spirit, shining in and upon the heart, enlightening and opening the understanding.

Barclay then lists a number of past Christians, and often quotes them to support his assertion that the Spirit is the true teacher.  He even quotes the leader of the reformation Luther:

Luther, in his book to the nobility of Germany, saith, “This is certain, that no man can make himself a doctor of the holy Scriptures, but the holy Spirit alone.” And upon the Magnificat he saith, “No man can rightly understand God, or the Word of God, unless he immediately receive it from the Holy Spirit; neither can any one receive it from the Holy Spirit, except he find it by experience in himself; and in this experience the Holy Ghost teacheth, as in his proper school; out of which school nothing is taught but mere talk.”

Barclay then condenses down the argument to five statements:

First, That there is no knowledge of the Father but by the Son.

Secondly, That there is no knowledge of the Son but by the Spirit.

Thirdly, That by the Spirit God hath always revealed himself to his children.

Fourthly, That these revelations were the formal object of the saints’ faith.

And Lastly, That the same continueth to be the object of the saints’ faith to this day.

He then sets out to argue for each statement, which then goes on for eleven pages expanding and explaining all of the points, often using scriptural references to justify his assertions.

Barclay closes the Proposition as follows:

Wait then for this in the small revelation of that pure Light which first reveals things more known; and as thou becomes fitted for it, thou shalt receive more and more, and by a living experience easily refute their ignorance, who ask, how dost thou know that thou art acted by the Spirit of God? Which will appear to thee a question no less ridiculous, than to ask one whose eyes are open, how he knows the sun shines at noon-day? And though this be the surest and most certain way to answer all objections; yet by what is above written it may appear, that the mouths of all such opposers as deny this doctrine may be shut, by unquestionable and unanswerable reasons.

The Third Proposition: Concerning the Scriptures

To get a snapshot of Barclay let us look at some of what he has to say about the Bible, i.e. the Scriptures in Barclay’s words. This is important because in Barclay’s day he was writing against Calvinism which put the Scriptures above all else.

From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints have proceeded the Scriptures of Truth, which contain,

I. A faithful historical account of the actings of God’s people in divers ages; with many singular and remarkable providences attending them.

II. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come.

III. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ, held forth in divers precious declarations, exhortations and sentences, which, by the moving of God’s Spirit, were at several times, and upon sundry occasions, spoken and written unto some churches and their pastors.

Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.4 Seeing then that we do therefore receive and believe the Scriptures because they proceeded from the Spirit, for the very same reason is the Spirit more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale: That for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such.

Barclay then sets out a comprehensive argument through this proposition arguing why the Scriptures are secondary to the Spirit. The continual refrain is that the Spirit is the ultimate rule or lead. This is exemplified in this quote:

“yet we may not call them the principal fountain of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the first adequate rule of faith and manners; because the principal fountain of Truth must be the Truth itself; i.e., that whose certainty and authority depends not upon another.”

Let us not make the mistake that Barclay sees a lack of value in the Scriptures at all, being a man of his day he sees them as the immediate rule after the Spirit. He articulates it as follows:

V. If it be then asked me, Whether I think hereby to render the Scriptures altogether uncertain, or useless?

I answer; Not at all. The proposition itself declares what esteem I have for them; and provided that to the Spirit from which they came be but granted that place the Scriptures themselves give it, I do freely concede to the Scriptures the second place, even whatsoever they say of themselves; which the apostle Paul chiefly mentions in two places (Rom. 15:4): “Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope”; (2 Tim. 3:15-17): “The holy Scriptures are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture given by inspiration from God, is profitable for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good work.”

Barclay sees the scriptures as we perhaps see Ministry, as the children of God being moved by the Spirit and then recording it. Remember that when Barclay wrote it was at a time when there was no question that Paul wrote all of “his” letters, including Hebrews, whereas now quite a number of Paul’s letters are assumed to be pseudonymous, which does not mean they are not from the Spirit, but they perhaps lack the authority that they did in Barclay’s time. Barclay sees the Scripture as Ministry, valuable Ministry but ministry nonetheless. A key to the Quakerism expounded by Barclay and others was that the Scriptures were but a representation of God, they were not above God, nor was spirit led Ministry.

In part 2 we shall look at propositions 6 and 7. We shall then look at the influence early Quaker George Keith had on Robert Barclay and finally we shall try to place the work of Barclay in a more modern setting.

1 Wragge, J. Phillip. (1948). The Faith of Robert Barclay.

2 Barclay, Robert, (2005) Quaker Faith and Practice

3 Page numbers refer to the printed version of Barclay’s Apology from Quaker Heritage Press.

4 John 16:13, Rom. 8:14



Britain Yearly Meeting (2005). Quaker Faith and Practice Third Edition. London. Biddles Limited.

Wragge, P (1948). The Faith of Robert Barclay.Friends Home Service Committee.



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