The Light: Then v. Now

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Earlier this year, I attended a program at Ben Lomond Quaker Center on “Quaker Revival,” led by Paul Buckley. Paul is a Quaker historian and theologian who lives in Cincinnati and is affiliated with Ohio Yearly Meeting. He translated William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived into modern English in 2018.

Friends, I want to share with you my distillation of two small portions of that rich weekend. Both concern ways that Friends’ conceptions of “The Light” have changed over the centuries.

The first change in Friends’ conception of “The Light” can be described as a “softening” of the concept. Buckley has detected this trend through a method of text analysis similar to the one used by the Jesus Seminar and  through his own work modernizing the language of William Penn.

The Jesus Seminar was a project of seventy-four Biblical scholars who used their collective expertise from 1985 through 2006 to attempt to determine the authenticity of more than fifteen hundred sayings that have been traditionally attributed to Jesus. They produced their findings in 1993 in The Five Gospels, a compilation of their translations of the texts they deemed to be authentic, as well as a description of their methodology. (This document was published commercially in 1996.)

The Jesus Seminar worked from original language texts and used several criteria to determine the authenticity of each Gospel passage. The scholars assumed that the Gospels are fallible historical artifacts, which contain both authentic and inauthentic materials. In many instances, the scholars distinguished between more authentic and less authentic tellings of the same incident. For example, where Luke wrote that Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you;” Matthew wrote that Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you.” This is an example of a “softening” of Jesus’s message – from more authentic to less authentic. Matthew’s version conveys a softer message, and the Jesus Seminar determined it to be less authentic. The scholars concluded that Jesus’ sayings were frequently softened to suit contemporary
times and attitudes.

Paul Buckley undertook a similar project with William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived, written in 1696. He worked from the original text and used historical methods to determine ways that individual words have changed in meaning from 1696 until today. Then he attempted to choose the modern English words that best convey the original meanings in the text, and he constructed his translation from those words.

This effort revealed to Buckley that the process of “softening” has also occurred in Quaker understandings of the Light. Take, for instance, the term “Inner Light.” Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice defines the Inner Light as: “The term that represents the direct, unmediated experience of the Divine. Similar terms used in Quaker writings include Christ Within, Light of Christ, Inward Light, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Truth, Divine Principle, Seed, Guide, Inward Teacher and ‘that of God in every person.’”

The term “Inner Light” dates back to Quakers’ earliest days, as does the term “Inward Light.” However, before the nineteenth century, “Inward Light” was far more commonly used in Quaker writings. Then, by the middle of the nineteenth century, “Inner Light” had become the dominant phrase. “Inward” implies a gift, given from the Divine. It can be unpredictable, a little mysterious. What will it reveal? It is stronger than I am. “Inner” implies ownership. It’s my light. I can control it. Its purpose is to help and serve me. The harder, stronger version of “The Light” has faded from use, and the softer version is almost universally used now.

Consider the common expression, “to hold in the Light.” This is the definition in Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice: “to desire that divine guidance and healing will be present to an individual who is in distress or faces a difficult situation; also, to give prayerful consideration to an idea.”

Surprisingly, this phrase only first appeared in Quaker writings about forty years ago. Nowadays we tend to think of the Light as love and grace and everything good, but early Friends believed the “Inward Light” illuminates the dark places of our souls, exposes the corruption that needs to be healed. To experience the searching of that Light can be painful, especially when we’re feeling resistant to change.

In Primitive Christianity Revived, Penn writes, “For the people called Quakers, the foundation of all religious belief is this: God, through Jesus Christ, has placed a guide in each person to show them their duty . . . Although [this guide] is found within all people, it does not belong to them. It is from God and of God . . . By some, it is called the Light of Christ or the Light Within . . . it is in us, not of us, but of God . . .” If the Light is not of us, if its ownership is in the Divine, then using the phrase “hold in the Light” seems rather presumptuous and out of our league.

Another softened use of the term “Light” can be heard among Friends in the popular gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine.” Although cute when Quaker children perform it, this song does not describe Quaker faith. For Friends, the Light is hardly “little” and never “mine.” As a Civil Rights anthem that encourages the faithful to shine as a city on the hill, it has its place. But these lyrics belong in Rise Up Singing, not in Quaker hymnals.

For early Friends, the Light was less about empathy and encouragement, and more about transformation – about becoming whole, healthy, fully human persons. Perhaps experiencing this difficult healing was one of the reasons why early Friends developed convictions that were strong enough to withstand prison, or to leave home and travel out into the world and share their good news.

Early Friends held a midweek meeting for worship called “Meeting for Sufferings.” This was a meeting in which Friends would share in a worshipful and supportive context what the Light was illuminating for them personally, sort of a combination of “worship sharing” and meeting for worship. Redwood Forest Meeting has experimented with this practice for about a year, and Friends who have attended have found it to be helpful.

A second major change in Friends’ conception of “The Light” came about with the invention of the light bulb.

Imagine yourself back in 1650 England. For much of the year, it’s dark by 4 PM. Imagine walking to another Quaker’s home for an evening meeting for worship. Maybe the moon is full or maybe it’s absent. Maybe the moon is shining, but maybe its light is obscured by an overcast sky. Perhaps you carry a candle or an oil lantern, but its light isn’t very bright and it doesn’t extend very far. It’s very dark. It’s that darkness that’s key to understanding a major difference between how early Quakers related to the Light and how we do today.

Quakers in the 1650s had had almost no control over light, whereas today our control of light is virtually unlimited (unless there is a power outage). We can flick the lights on and off at our whim. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. The electric light bulb wasn’t invented until the 1870s, and rural electrification didn’t get started until the 1930s. So, throughout the whole 360 years of Quakers, only the most recent decades have seen universal, artificial light. Today, our night is totally lit up in most places. Even in the wilderness, we have flashlights, headlamps, and clickers to start our campfires.

Think about the last time your only source of light was a candle or a campfire. Remember what it was like to get up and walk away from that light. It was very black. The light from the candle or campfire extends out a certain distance, and then it gets very dark. You can look back and see a definite boundary between where the light stops and darkness starts. Early Friends experienced this every day of their lives; they identified light and darkness as joined together, side by side. Separating the two was difficult. That impression was reinforced by the first story in Genesis. This is from The New International Version:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night”. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.

Then on the fourth day,

. . . God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth. And it was so. God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from darkness. And God saw it was good. And there was evening and there was morning – a the fourth day.”

So, out of the six days it took God to create the world, two full days were taken up with separating light from darkness. Fully a third of the week, which implies it wasn’t an easy task. Although most of us don’t take Genesis literally, it is one of our culture’s most ancient texts, and it carries important symbolism. For early Friends, this symbolism was reinforced by personal experiences of light and dark being bound together. Early Friends understood the difficultly in separating them. We modern Quakers don’t have that personal experience. For us, light is easily controllable, and we almost never experience true darkness.

The symbolism of light and dark bound together, hard to separate, is also found in the ancient symbol for yin/yang: a circle filled by two droplets, white and black, each containing an opposite-colored dot in its center. This image traditionally represents the interrelationship of good and evil, light and darkness, order and chaos. Even though such pairs of concepts are typically considered to be opposites, the yin/yang depicts forces that are deeply intertwined, interconnected, and complementary to each other. Take the example of “order and chaos.” In a well-balanced life, family, community, nation, or world, you will find order and chaos equally in play, neither overpowering the other. When order overpowers, the result is tyranny. When chaos overpowers, the result is anarchy. Balance is best.

Standing with one foot on each side of that spinning boundary, a person is balanced and most alive, alert, human, and connected to the fullness of the Divine. Perhaps that is what the early Friends felt when they were shaking from the Inward Light, while it was illuminating the darkest places within them.

I am thankful for Friends like Paul Buckley who can bring early Quaker writings into modern English. Early Friends wrote of profoundly rich experiences of the Light, experiences that seem to have carried more energy than the softened understandings we generally use today. After participating in Paul Buckley’s workshop, I’m more drawn to the rich, original meanings than I am to the easier, contemporary ones. Reading and understanding early Quaker texts can help us protect our faith from the intrusions of contemporary culture and industrialization. We may feel tempted to create meanings that are comfortable. But if we can accept discomfort, then maybe the Inward Light will reveal the places that need illuminating, so that we can heal and grow into balanced people who can be patterns and examples for a balancing world.  ~~~

Paul Harris is retiring this year from a forty-four-year career in architecture and will wait for Spirit to guide him to the next adventure.  He has three grandchildren, ages four, four, and two, and he cares for two of them one day each week.  He is a member of Redwood Forest Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA (PYM).