Quaker Universalist Fellowship

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William Penn, Quaker Universalist

by E. L. C.

William Penn, whose 350th birthday has been celebrated this fall, is best known as a man of action in a political arena--a courtier, statesman, lawgiver, city planner. Also, of course, a Christian and a Quaker. But a mystic? A universalist?

Yes, says Elizabeth Gray Vining in her Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#167, available from Pendle Hill, Wallingford, PA 19086) entitled "William Penn: Mystic." In this study she has mined his voluminous writings--many of them tedious, many with a simple beauty--and has revealed his persistent expressions of a deep belief in the universal "Light, Spirit, Grace, and Truth [that] is given to every man and woman to see their way to go by." She presents him as a representative of the mysticism and universalism that was part of 17th century Quakerism. The material that follows is paraphrased or quoted from a 1969 pamphlet that is well worth reading in its entirety. The author comments:

Penn used the word mystical... in a letter to Dr. Hasbert, a physician in the city of Emden: "Oh how many profess God and Christ according to the historical knowledge of both but never come to the mystical and experimental knowledge of them!" Whereas [Robert] Barclay used the word to distinguish between Quaker mystics who stayed in the world and the Catholic mystics who withdrew into monasteries, Penn's use of it sums up in capsule the whole essence of Quakerism and the conflicting strains that have caused tension in it as in other religions down through the ages: the historical authoritarian on the one hand, the experiential and mystical on the other. He made it quite clear how he stood in regard to mystical versus historical Christianity and he contrasted "the carnal and historical Christian of the outward courts and suburbs of religion" with the man whose "mind is kept stayed upon the Light."

Having had an early mystical experience that led in later years to an "inward persuasion" William Penn urged others to seek authentic spiritual experience by turning inward. Even when threatened at a very young age with life imprisonment in the Tower of London, he was clear about his inner conviction: "My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man." In his writing he gave directions for the spiritual journey:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for their purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men; but what they look for is in themselves, though not of themselves, but they overlook it. The voice is too still, the seed too small and the light shineth in darkness; they are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil. But the woman that lost her silver found it at home, after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., truth, truth in the inward parts, so valuable in the sight of God....

Therefore, O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you....

The light that seekers would experience as they turned inward was known by many names: the Word, the Truth, the Seed, the Holy Divine Principle. Elizabeth Gray Vining describes the significance of this divine reality for Penn and the early Quakers:

The Light was universal. The Eternal Christ visited the hearts of men before the historical Christ lived and died in Palestine. It was in this assertion of the universality of the Light that early Friends differed most from Protestants of their day and aroused the greatest antagonism. Perhaps Penn went further than many other Friends in asserting that in all ages men had had enough of the Holy Spirit for their salvation, although he never wavered in his belief that the Light was Christ and that Quakerism was a Christian movement. At this point Penn touches most closely the thought of many modern Quakers, who also see the Light as universal and who find a welcome kinship between Quakerism and the mysticism of some eastern religions.

In a letter to his children Penn described the Light in terms that may have taxed their youthful minds:

That blessed principle, the Eternal Word... is Pythagoras's real light and salt of ages; Anaxagoras's divine mind; Socrates's good spirit; Timaeus's unbegotten principle and author of all light; Hieron's God in man; Plato's eternal, ineffable and perfect principle of truth; Zeno's maker and father of all; and Plotin's root of the soul....

To Penn, the Light was its own authority and always revealed itself anew to seekers. Continuing revelation was one of the foundations of Quakerism and a concept unacceptable to 17th century Christianity. The traditional Christian, Penn said, denied "in his ignorant and angry mind any fresh manifestations of God's power and spirit in man in these days, though never more needed to make true Christians." In his counsel and advice to others, Penn spoke of living expectantly and trusting one's own experience:

To have religion upon authority and not upon conviction is like a finger watch, to be set forwards or backwards as he pleases that had it in keeping. It is a preposterous thing that men can venture their souls where they will not venture their money; for they will take their religion upon trust but not trust a synod about the goodness of half a crown. Wait and watch unto His daily and hourly visitations to your souls. Don't bow down thyself before thy old experiences but behold the arm that has helped thee and that God who has often delivered thee. Remember that the manna descended from heaven daily; that is daily must be gathered and eaten, and that manna that was gathered yesterday cannot serve today for food....

In the end Penn found the sum of it all in the simplicity and power of love, that "religion itself is nothing else but love to God and man." Among the aphorisms in his book, Some Fruits of Solitude, is this bit of gentle wisdom:

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here make them strangers.

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