A Word from the Lost (review)

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A Word from the Lost
written by David Lewis
reviewed by Jim Anderson

Nayler – this name brings to mind, if not in much detail, the ride into Bristol and the quotation, “There is a spirit that I feel . . .” David Lewis’s book is a fine remedy for this common shortfall in knowledge about James Nayler. It is a brief but remarkably rich account of a Nayler text, Love to the Lost, and its context. Lewis’s book is a theological exploration of Nayler’s writing and much more – including historical, biographical, and political accounts that bring the religious and personal dimensions of Nayler into meaningful connection.

Lewis takes on three tasks: to explore Nayler’s thought; to set that thought beside the evolution of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Discipline; and to reflect, as a result, on how Quakerism has changed over the centuries and where it has landed, at least in Britain. Lewis surrounds his discussion of text with ample, though brief, accounts of the economic, political, and environmental changes that occurred in the century leading up to Nayler’s time; he offers a short but detailed history of the civil wars that arose in the mid-1600s; and, helpfully, he provides a review of Nayler’s life. These short contextual supports are remarkably informative and in themselves make the book a rich resource.

Nayler was a powerful preacher, but his surviving writings are not extensive. Lewis proposes that Nayler’s 1656 tract, Love to the Lost, offers us what Nayler might have preached in his day, a conception of Quaker faith that Carole Spencer (quoted in Lewis’ text) calls “incarnational holiness.” Lewis notes that Nayler’s account of Quaker faith is free of much that represents Quakerism today: meetings for worship, the testimonies, elders and ministers, and so on. Lewis says Nayler preached of “the Quaker ship before the barnacles, fresh from the shipwright’s bench.”

Lewis devotes fourteen short chapters to commentary on Nayler’s Love to the Lost – taking Nayler’s chapter titles as his own, such as “Concerning the Fall of Man,” “Concerning Faith,” “Concerning Redemption,” and “Concerning Christ Jesus.” In between, Lewis offers chapters of reflections on Nayler, his time, his politics, his relation to Martha Simmonds, and so on. Within these reflections, always, Lewis has an eye on how British Friends have held to or departed from Nayler’s ideas over time, as the interplay of history and theology have reshaped their Disciplines. At one level, this interplay is the topic of the book, and the initial vehicle of its exploration is Nayler’s effort to live and speak his truth in his time. As such, reading Lewis’s book challenges us to consider how we think and speak about our own deepest experiences, and how language and culture transmit these accounts across the centuries.

Nayler was Fox’s equal as a founding leader of the Quaker movement. He is not only a charismatic, prophetic, and powerfully gifted minister in our history, but he also comes to us as a tragic figure, beset by inner struggles, and his failings and vulnerabilities make him more accessible to us. Lewis helps us get inside this elusive figure. He also helps us see beyond the easy myths of our faith’s beginnings, uncovering and illuminating complexities that can help us make sense of that founding century and relate it to our own. Lewis reminds us that “several mountain ranges stand between us and Nayler,” yet he often is able to use Nayler, and the time since then, to illuminate our present experience. Among the book’s various strengths, this is one that may impress and stay with readers the most.  ~~~

Jim Anderson is a member of Chico Friends Meeting (PYM).

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