A QUAKER APPROACH TO THE BIBLE
by Henry Joel Cadbury
© 1953, Guilford College. Reprinted by permission.
A long generation has passed since Henry Joel Cadbury, then Hollis
Professor of Divinity, Harvard University and one of the eight
translators of the American Standard Revised Bible, delivered
the 1953 Ward Lecture at Guilford College (Guilford NC). Liberal
Quakerism, under the influence of the egalitarian revolutions that
began in the 1960s, has undergone substantial changes. But Cadbury’s
lecture, A Quaker Approach to the Bible, remains a vital
exposition of what might be called a Quaker distinctive, a way of
distinguishing the Religious Society of Friends from other religious
bodies rooted in the Christian tradition. This Quaker distinctive was
first seen in one Samuel E. Fisher, Quaker and author of A Rustic Alarum to the Rabbles
which Christopher Hill has called the most radical Bible criticism of the 17th century.*
For people raised in one part of the Judeo-Christian tradition
seeking some understanding of another part, a natural opening question
is, What does the Bible mean to you? A thoughtful answer may elicit
dismay, enlightenment, or no more than mild interest. We think Cadbury
will enlighten many.
The Quaker Universalist Fellowship is a body within the Religious
Society of Friends committed to seeking out and making known the
commonalities between Friends and people of other faiths. We sponsor
this reprint because questions about the Bible continue to be asked,
and time has proven Cadbury’s answer timeless. We hope our decision
will be of help to those seeking to understand Quakers and their ways
of thinking about the divine spark in all of us.
QUF is especially grateful to Guilford College and the Ward Lecture
Committee for granting us permission to reprint this important lecture.
Kingdon W. Swayne, clerk
*The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill (London 1972), pp. 186-207.
A QUAKER APPROACH TO THE BIBLE
Henry Joel Cadbury
In the Society of Friends unanimity is not expected and certainly it
does not exist on such matters as the role of the Bible in religion.
This paper is therefore not called The Quaker
approach. Another reason is that whatever viewpoint is characteristic
of Friends, whether ancient or modern, it is no monopoly of theirs, but
rather is widely shared. For the ancient period this has been shown by
numerous modern studies, notably by Rufus M. Jones and Geoffrey F.
Nuttall. The latter, in his book on The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience arranges
Seventeenth Century English religious thought in such a way as to show
how Quakerism had much in common with all Puritans but stood rather to
the extreme of a graded spectrum. Probably the same holds true today.
William James was right in saying, So far as our Christian sects today
arc evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to
the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long assumed. This
lecture may therefore be found acceptable to Christians of many other
churches, while presenting the kind of viewpoint to the Scriptures that
is congenial to the genius of the Quaker tradition.
At first sight, the Quaker view of the Bible seems to be one of
less regard for it than is found in other groups. This is due to
various historic influences, but principally because other sources of
revelation have been recognized by Friends. The moment any new or
unfamiliar source of authority is admitted, the traditional sources
seem to be belittled or to be actually attacked. In so far as Quakerism
has emphasized the contemporary presence of the Holy Spirit, the
immediate guidance of God, or the universality of the saving Light of
Christ, all outward and traditional media of religion appear to suffer
some eclipse. The historical Christ and the historical revelation, the
church and its sacraments and its clergy, and even its sacred book by
sheer contrast with the core of Quakerism acquire an appearance of
inferiority. At this point our forefathers three centuries ago were
merely carrying forward by logical steps what the Reformation had begun
but had left unfinished. Perhaps the question that really needs
explanation is why Friends did not proceed still further.
With regard to the Scriptures, Friends used various contrasts. Many
of these were not. unique in their day. They were parallel to the
spiritual wing of Protestantism in seventeenth-century England with its
anticlericalism, its emphasis upon religious experience, and its
revival of belief in the Holy Spirit. The scriptures appear relatively
external, literal, traditional. Paul himself had contrasted the letter
and the spirit. While the kinship between experience today and that of
the classical past was accepted, emphasis upon the past seemed to
weaken the present. It was felt to be important to know the experience
realized in oneself today rather than to recognize its validity in the
past. The latter could even at times interfere with the former. Friends
were concerned to point to the more significant channels of religious
Fox, for example, at his first recorded public utterance, which led
to his first imprisonment, contradicted the minister in the church at
Nottingham for claiming that the sure word of prophecy mentioned in 2
Peter 1:19 was the Scriptures by which they were to try all doctrines,
religions, and opinions.
He reports in his Journal:
Now the Lord’s power was so mighty upon me that I could not hold, but was
made to cry out and say, Oh no, it is not the scriptures, and I told
them what it was, namely the Holy Spirit by which the holy men of God
gave forth the Scriptures, whereby [i.e., by the Spirit] opinions,
religions and judgments were to be tried; for it led into all truth,
and so gave the knowledge of all truth. The Jews had the Scriptures and
yet resisted the Holy Ghost and rejected Christ, the bright, morning
star.... As I spoke among them, the officers came and took me away and
put me into a nasty, stinking prison.1
Margaret Fell reports the first time she met Fox, hearing him speak at the church at Ulverson:
The first words he spoke were as followeth. He is not a Jew that is one
outward... but he is a Jew that is one inward.... And then he went on,
and opened the Scriptures and said the Scriptures were the prophets’
words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke
they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord. And said, Then
what had any to do with the Scriptures but as they came to the Spirit
that gave them forth? You will say Christ saith this and the apostles
say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and
hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly
from God, etc.? This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart, and
then I saw clearly that we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew
again and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, We are
all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words,
and know nothing of them in ourselves.2
It is interesting to know in these days of book-burning and even of
Bible burning that the early Friends were suspected of such practices.
I am not sure that it actually happened, or if so that more than one or
two fanatical cases occurred. One rather ill-balanced Friend, John
Pennyman, at least talked about burning a Bible in public and said he
might do so if he was moved to do so by the Lord. The famous Henry
Moore wrote, I do not think that it is so far from the spirit of a real
Quaker to burn the Bible, whereas the letter of it is so little
believed by them. For the unbelief takes away the very sense of the
Bible, the fire consumes only the paper.3
Characteristic of the churchman of that time was the use for the
Scriptures of the phrase the Word of God. This Fox and Barclay and
others objected to, partly because the Scriptures themselves use that
term of Christ. In our day more than ever, a Bible-centered theology
loves to use that term.
Characteristic too of that time was the treatment of the Bible as
the only rule of faith and conduct. The Quaker by denying its sole and
ultimate authority seemed to others nothing less than blasphemous,
while the rule which he claimed in its stead, the experience of present
guidance, seemed to others much too subjective, untrustworthy and
lacking in uniformity and precision. In spite of frequent charges of
setting themselves up against the authority of the Bible, the Friends
for many generations gave precedence to the source of inner guidance,
first in the individual and then -- and this was an important check --
in the concurrence of the group of Friends. It was quite clear to them
that the inner Light would never lead into obvious sin.
Two oft-quoted passages from George Fox indicate in different but
charmingly naïve manner how loose he sat to the current bibliolatry.
The Scriptures were for him a confirmation rather than a source of
truth. You can appeal to revelation in spite of them. Describing one of
his early openings, he says, ‘This I saw in the pure openings of the
light, without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to
find it in the Scriptures, though afterwards, searching the Scriptures,
I found it.4
Later he writes An Encouragement to all the Faithful Women’s
Meetings in the World. After citing scores of examples from the Old
Testament and the New he concludes, And if there were no Scriptures for
our Men and Women’s Meetings, Christ is sufficient, who restores man
and woman up into the image of God to be helps meet in righteousness
and holiness, as they were in before they fell.5
What might be expected to result from the Quaker attitude toward
the Bible has not always followed. One would naturally look for neglect
and even hostility. Instead Friends have not infrequently respected and
used the Bible as much as did their contemporaries and opponents.
Neglect of the Bible among Friends has existed but rarely as a reasoned
policy. They were never averse to using it in argument with those who
professed belief in its authority. This was manifestly clear in the old
debates, as when George Fox, confronted with persons who believed that
women had no souls, no more than a goose, simply quoted the well known
words, And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord. This use must not
be regarded as merely accommodation to the opponents as an argumentum ad hominem. In
fact, some of our Quaker beliefs seem at first sight to rest upon
biblicism and a literalism that could carry conviction neither with
ourselves nor with our opponents today. Our objection to oaths has
never seemed to Friends to demand a more explicit reason than the two
clear passages, one in Matthew and one in James, which forbid oaths.
Friends of old made merry with the fact that they were ordered to swear
upon a book that says Swear not at all, and said that if Friends were
imprisoned for refusal, the Bible itself ought to be imprisoned too. No
matter what reasoned or concurrent or unconscious bases our Quaker
pacifism has today, our predecessors in that faith, both Quaker and
pre-Quaker, found sanction enough for it in the New Testament and even
in the Old -- the Golden Rule and Thou shalt not kill.
As a matter of history it must be admitted that Friends made --
selectively, like other people -- a considerable use of the Bible, and
as the Devil is said to do, could quote Scripture to their own purpose.
In doing so they showed that they could not fully escape the practice
of their surroundings and did not wish to do so. Where their
environment was less Biblical than it was in seventeenth-century
England, they consciously or unconsciously altered their behavior. And
since it was part of their belief that saving knowledge was vouchsafed
to people outside the pale of Christendom -- even to the heathen Turk
or American Indian -- they adjusted their appeal to the conscience, or
to that of God in every man. Fox even quotes the Koran instead of the
Bible in writing to the Great Turk.
Of course, their opponents accused Friends of neglecting the Bible,
and perhaps we are still suspected of unsound views regarding it. It
was said in the old days that in Friends schools, instead of Bible
reading, Fox’s Journal held
the place of honor. But this Friends denied. It seems shocking to some
people no doubt that in our unprogrammed meetings the Bible is not in
evidence, is not read aloud, and is sometimes little quoted. I am not
defending this absence, still less the reduced practice among Friends
of family Bible reading, as was once widely characteristic.
Perhaps this decline is not so recent as we think. Joseph John Gurney visiting
in America in 1837 observed Friends here:
By far the greatest deficiency which I can see prevailing is a want of
diligence and regularity in the family reading of Scripture. ... There
are some things in the habits of the people unfavorable to this
practice. They breakfast at seven o’clock in the morning and when one
party has finished another sits down, and so on for a considerable
time. The same is for tea or supper -- the six o’clock evening meal --
and also at half past one dinner. I fail into their hours and modes of
living with little difficulty, and am in excellent health. As to wine
or beer they are pretty nearly articles unknown. I think I shall learn
to do without stimulus.6
One can understand Gurneys’ nostalgia for the leisurely simultaneous
meals at Earlham Hall, which permitted an orderly period of worship for
the family and for a whole troop of household servants. But he
understood the difficulties in the different American scene.
What Friends often thought of their opponents was that for all
their use of the Bible they were the ones who neglected it. One recalls
the words in the Gospel, Ye search the scriptures because ye think in
them ye have eternal life, but ye will not come to me that ye may have
life. With their belief in the continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit
-- the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Scriptures -- Friends have
appealed for the experience as well as for the knowledge of the
Scriptures. Just as many Puritans hesitated to sing David’s Psalms
without sharing David’s spiritual state, so Friends complained against
taking the words of Scripture without knowing the experience first hand
as stealing. We are all thieves, sobbed Margaret Fell, when she first
heard the Quaker message.
In modern terminology, the danger of the outward Scripture is the
danger of sheer nominalism. Taking their words and phrases as
authoritative sometimes becomes a substitute for the experience itself,
which they merely describe. Friends are only too aware of the ease with
which verbal or mental acceptance can exist sided by side with actual
ignorance or practical rejection. Again in our time doctrines (what Fox
called notions) can usurp attention to the detriment of the living
experience -- profession for possession. Such fashions are sometimes
even popular, as what is called today Biblical Theology. There is
symbolism for us in the story of Sceva’s sons in the Book of Acts. They
undertook to cast out demons by pronouncing the name of the Lord Jesus
over those who had evil spirits, saying, I adjure you by the Jesus whom
Paul preaches. But the evil spirit answered them, Jesus I know and Paul
I know: but who are you? One recalls the disastrous outcome of this
effort. Such is the futility of attempting to make profit of others’
It is not that the Bible is harmful in itself. It is misused as a
substitute for what it bears witness to. Why trim yourselves with the
saints’ words, asked Francis Howgill three centuries ago, when you are
ignorant of the life?7 And a more recent Friend has written:
Men substitute tradition for living experience of the love of God. They
talk and think as though walking with God was attained by walking in
the footsteps of men who walked with God.8
In a noteworthy and well written essay, William Penn, referring to the critics of Quakerism in his day says:
With loud voices and clamorous tongues they thus exclaim against us, after
this unruly and unjust manner, the Quakers deny the Scriptures; the
Quakers say it is dangerous to read them; but I say in their name,
Blessed are they, who reading, truly understand and live according to
William Penn continues by pointing our that respected representatives of
orthodoxy have clearly understood, like the Quakers, that the
Scriptures are of no value unless you share by experience --
experimentally is the seventeenth-century word -- the same things done
in you by the Spirit. In the same way the Scriptures are to be
understood only in so far as one is himself in the Spirit which gave
them forth. One of the curious non-Quaker testimonies to this effect
that an earlier Friend quotes is a conversation in Amsterdam with an
unnamed Jew, who appears with great probability to have been the now
famous Baruch Spinoza.10
It has not followed from the Quakers’ approach to the Scriptures
that they have thought meanly of knowledge of the Bible, both technical
and popular. They have insisted that such knowledge did not of itself
equip men for the service of God. Hence in the early days their strong
words about theological schools, which they consistently call by the
term -- the Scriptural term -- a cage of unclean birds, with their
emphasis upon the Biblical languages, Greek and Latin and Hebrew. Fox
reminds his readers that knowledge of these languages is associated
with the unsavory figure of Pilate who used them in the inscription on
the cross. What the Friends criticize in such learning is again in its
substitution for the real essence of the Scriptures. James Naylor
comments on the requirement for professional ministers of such a pitch
of learning and so many years at Oxford or Cambridge and there to study
so long in books and old authors. And all this to know what unlearned
men, fishermen, ploughmen and herds-men, did mean when they spoke forth
the Scriptures, who were counted fools and madmen by the learned
generation.... And when you have brought them to this height of
learning, yet the scripture is a book sealed to all their wisdom and
Yet like so many of their contemporaries the early Friends were
well acquainted with the Scriptures, encouraged like knowledge in their
children, and to this day have cherished both a simple and a more
advanced study in the field. Some of the early Friends had before they
joined the Society a really extensive theological education12
-- Barclay, Fisher, Keith, and Penn, for example. This they used to good
effect. I expect only in our time has such equipment by several members
of the Society been matched.
Of Quaker Biblical scholars through the three centuries I cannot
here speak. Even the simple-minded have brought to the book curiosity
and concern -- interest in its history and contents. I am personally
glad that George Fox is on record as recommending the translation of
the New Testament into every man’s language and mother tongue,13
and for a man of so limited opportunity he shows unexpected interest in comparing
the English translations available to him.14
Holding, as they did, that the revelation of God was not limited to
Scripture, early Friends were not impressed by the arbitrary limits of
the Bible canon. In using the Old Testament apocrypha they were not
unlike other Protestants of their day, for the Protestant aversion to
those books has increased more recently. Friends’ curiosity about still
other books, lost or professing early date, was a natural expression of
their feeling that Divine revelation neither began with Moses nor ended
with the Apostles.15
This approach to the Bible may be stated positively in various
ways. One way we might name Operation Mirror. Robert Barclay wrote:
God hath seen that herein we should see as in a looking-glass the
conditions and experiences of the saints of old, that finding our
experiences to answer to theirs, we might be time more confirmed and
comforted and our hope of obtaining the same end strengthened.... This
is the great work of the Scriptures and their service to us, that we
may witness them fulfilled in us, and so discern the stamp of God’s
Spirit and ways upon them by the inward acquaintance we have with the
same Spirit and work in our hearts.16
Or one might name this approach Operation Dictionary, though the
dictionary, like the Bible, us often misunderstood. The dictionary is
not the authority which dictates how words ought to be used. It is
rather the record of how words are used and what they commonly mean. In
like manner, the Bible is not the dictator of our conduct and faith. It
is rather the record of persons who exemplified faith and virtue. It
does for religion that which the dictionary does for speech. Its value
consists in its agreement with experience, or with truth, as Friends
used to use the word. What is true in the Bible is there because it is
true, not true because it is there. Its experiences answer to ours,
that is, they correspond to ours. This is the repeated discovery of
generations of Bible readers. I meet that in Scripture, said Coleridge,
which finds me.17
We rarely go to the Bible to look up an answer to a question
directly. In that respect it is not as convenient as a dictionary. I
don’t know that any index could be devised to make the Bible yield easy
answers to questions we set it. In a much richer way, it brings answers
to questions we are not directly asking, and so it can keep on doing if
we have ears to hear and eyes to see through all the changing
circumstances of our life.
Such an approach to the Bible is not easy to exploit to the full.
At best the Bible is a difficult book, often confusing, often
ill-edited, often obscure. When I hear people talk about the simple
gospel I wonder if they are not people easily satisfied. I think I
sympathize a bit with Dr. Samuel Johnson, when Mrs. Knowles, a Friend,
justified the move of young Jenny Harry from Anglican to Quaker with
the words, She had the New Testament before her. Madam, said Johnson,
she could not understand the New Testament, the most difficult book in
the world, for which the study of a life is required.
But to appropriate the Bible, or rather to have it appropriate us,
is far more exacting, as it is far more rewarding than some other ways
of using the Bible. We do not depend on some kind of magical effect,
expecting a text here and a text there to operate like medicinal pills
in almost supernatural manner. We must have much more range and
Men talk about the Bible as revelation. It is much more important to know
from the Bible how God reveals than what
God reveals, if we want to share its experiences and not merely its
expressions. In the same way, one might rather aim to understand how
Jesus thought than what he thought, if our wish is to learn to think
for ourselves as he did.
To fail to make this approach is to be satisfied with the second
best and automatically to exclude the very best. How much the Bible has
to teach when taken as a whole, that cannot he done in snippets! There
is its range over more than a thousand years, giving us the perspective
of religion in time, growing and changing, and leading from grace to
grace. There is clear evidence of the variety of religious experience,
not the kind of straightjacket that nearly every church, even Friends,
has sometimes been tempted to substitute for the diversity in the
Bible. To select from it but a single strand is to miss something of
its richness. Even the uncongenial and the alien to us is happily
abundant in the Bible. The needs of men today are partly to be measured
by their difficulty in understanding that with which they differ. At
this point the Bible has little or no service to render. It requires
patient insight into the unfamiliar, and provides a discipline for the
imagination such as today merely on the political level is a crying
need of our time.
Further, the Bible is a training school in discrimination among
alternatives. One of the most sobering facts is that it is not on the
whole a peaceful book -- I mean a book of peace of mind. The Bible is
the deposit of a long series of controversies between rival views of
religion. The sobering thing is that in nearly every case the people
shown by the Bible to be wrong had every reason to think they were in
the right, and like us they did so. Complacent orthodoxy is the current
villain in the story first to last, and the hero is the challenger,
like Job, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul.
To grasp these wider meanings of the Scriptures will need more
familiarity in the first place. How to recall our generation, both
younger and older, to this literacy is an urgent problem. We shall
need, however, more than superficial verbal knowledge. For many years I
have been occupied with the translation of the biblical books from
Greek to English. Few that have not tried it know the difficulty of
this task in many facets and on many counts. That is, however, merely a
transfer of words to words, from one language to another.
Conscientious, technical labor is required if this translation is to be
worthily performed. This approach I have been discussing goes much
deeper than that. It is translation from the language of life, from
words to flesh. I am impressed with the value here also of the
conscientious effort no less than that of the linguistic translator.
For such results from the Bible are intrinsic, not imputed. They are
genuine not imitative, factual not verbal. They come unconsciously
rather than as specifically sought, and they recognize rather than
exclude the other media of divine revelation.
Books of Discipline of sundry Yearly Meetings.
Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 1676 and later editions, Proposition III.
A Reasonable Faith, by three Friends. Revised edition, 1885, last chapter.
J. W. Graham, The Faith of a Quaker, 1920, pp. 137-143.
H. G. Wood, Friends and the Scriptures, 119261.
A. N. Brayshaw, The Quakers: Their Story and Message, Third Edition, 1938, Chapter IV.
Rufus M. Jones, A Call to What Is Vital, 1948, Chapter IV.
M. A. Creasy, The Contribution of Bible Study to the Life of Our Meetings, 1949.
C. M. Woodman, Quakers Find a Way, 1950, Chapter II.
A. W. Swayne, The Use of the Bible in Religious Education (with an up-to-date genera bibliography of books for teachers and for children), 1951.
1. Journal, ed. 1901, i. 43.
2. Ibid. ii, 512
3. M. II. Nicolson, Conway Letters, 1930, 306.
4. Journal i. 34
5. Epistles, No. 320 (1676)
6. Journal of Friends Historical Society, xxxii, 1935, pp. 40f., a letter about Ohio Yearly Meeting.
7. Francis Howgill, A Lamentation for the Scattered Tribes, 1656.
8. William Charles Braithwaite, Spiritual Guidance in Quaker Experience, 1909.
9.The Invalidity of John Faldo’s Vindication, 1673 (Works, ed. 1726 ii 357).
10. See my article in Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies of the Warburg Institute, London, i., 1941, pp.130 - 132.
11. Works, p.43.
12. There is an interesting statement of his problem by a Friend
three centuries ago who apparently became one while actually training
ministers at Trinity College, Cambridge -- James Jollie in Journal of Friends Historical Society, xxv, 1928, 54f.
13. Gospel Truth Demonstrated, p.742
14. See my George Fox and Seventeenth Century Bibles in Journal of Friends Historical Society, xxi, 1924, pp. 1-8.
15. See my essay Early Quakerism and Uncanonical Lore in Harvard Theological Review xl, 1947, pp 177-205
16. Apology, Proposition III, Sect. V.
17. S. T. Coleridge, London Discourses, 1. 102.