Universalism and Friends:
An Interview with John Linton
by Larry C. Spears
Thirty spokes unite at the hub of the wheel:
It is the hole in the middle which makes it useful. — Lao-tsu
John Linton, member of London Yearly Meeting and founder of the Quaker Universalist Group, spent September through November  in the United States speaking about Quakers and universalism. Born in 1910, this Britisher says, “I went to college and studied the classics philosophy and ancient history. This gave me a Hellenistic slant, rather than the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective.”
Linton’s varied back ground has included such occupations as school teacher, Indian Army officer, BBC Indian program organizer, and with his wife, Erica Linton, Quaker international affairs representative to India. This last appointment, made jointly by British Friends and AFSC [ American Friends Service Committee ], first enabled him to visit the U.S. and get to know Friends in this country.
In 1977 Linton was invited to give a talk to the Seekers group in Great Britain. As an outgrowth of this address [“Quakerism as Forerunner”]1 he and others formed the Quaker Universalist Group in 1978. In the four years since its formation, QUG has directed a strong challenge to the Society of Friends to broaden its acceptance of seekers from non-Christian traditions and even nonbelievers.
QUG believes Quakerism can offer a spiritual path to all sincere seekers. “As universalists,” says Linton, “we like the Quaker method of meetings based on silence.” Linton believes that universalism has been present in the Society of Friends since its earliest days when George Fox spoke of “that of God in everyone.” QUG believes that all religious experience points toward a source of truth greater than any one religion. “The Society of Friends is still mainly a Christian body,” says Linton, “whereas universalism is post-Christian.’‘
QUG is also concerned with what it perceives as pressure being exerted upon non-Christian members and attenders at some Friends meetings. “Quaker elders try to enforce the Christian viewpoint,” says Linton. “I believe there are seekers who are looking for a place, but they’re put off by Christocentric attitudes within the Society of Friends. We don’t want to alienate Christocentric Friends, but they must become more tolerant.”
How would you describe the Quaker Universalist Group?
QUG is a group of people-mainly, but not exclusively, members of the Religious Society of Friends—who see Quakerism as a spiritual path open to all, whatever their religious affiliation or lack of it. It is run by a committee, but with no paid staff or fundraising apparatus. It publishes two newsletters a year called The Universalist, plus a series of pamphlets—four so far.
What prompted your current visit to the United States?
I was invited by American members of the group to visit the U.S. and talk to any Quaker meetings and institutions who were interested. The letter of invitation said, “The QUG message needs telling….There’s more discussion these days of ‘What do Quakers believe?’ than ever before. Maybe we’ve come to another historic moment in Quaker history.” So my aim is to tell the QUG message to any, Friends and non-Friends, who are ready to receive it.
U.S. Friends have generally been very responsive. Many have said that they were already inclined towards the universalist view, but had hesitated to say so because of fear of offending others.
In your 1977 address to the Seekers you asked whether it has ever occurred to birthright Friends that they may only be Christians because they have been brainwashed. To what degree is Christian indoctrination a part of the Society of Friends today?
There is an element of indoctrination in all Christian denominations inasmuch as the teaching of children in Sunday schools is on Christian lines. For adults, too, the Quaker documents such as the books of discipline2 of the various yearly meetings and Advices and Queries are Christian oriented Bible studies tend to concentrate on the Judea-Christian religious dispensation as the only source of spiritual illumination. This ignores the wealth of spiritual insight to be found in other religious traditions and implies that the Bible has a monopoly of such insight. But in fact, the same spiritual values are to be found in all religions.
Do you think Friends should be evangelistic?
In the normal sense of the word “evangelize,” I do not think Friends should be evangelistic. Nor do I think they should proselytize in the sense of putting undue pressure on people to become members of the Society. But here are legitimate ways of spreading the Quaker message, such as by advertisements and other forms of “friendly persuasion.”
How important do you feel our culture is in promoting the concept of Christianity as having a unique under standing of the Truth? Do you think Christianity is considered to be superior in the minds of most Friends?
Our culture does play a major part in this, through the indoctrination of our children by parents, teachers, or ministers of religion to accept the view that Christianity is the only true, natural, and normal religion. The same is true in other countries and geographical areas, but with the substitution for Christianity of other religious systems. Ninety-eight percent of human beings follow the faith of their ancestors.
“By their fruits ye shall know them” seems to be as good a criterion as any. By this standard, who can say which religion has the best record? If most Friends consider Christianity ethically superior, it is perhaps due more to a process of indoctrination than to any rational assessment or careful study of other religions.
You have said the Society of Friends should “abandon its claim to be part of the Christian church, and move toward a universalist position.” Could you elaborate on that thought?
The belief that Christianity is a unique revelation raises many difficulties. The most obvious is: Why has a benevolent deity split the world up into different and conflicting religious systems instead of making Christianity available.to all? In view of the geographical dilemma and philosophical arguments about the nature of belief, it makes more sense to conclude that Christianity has no more divine authority than other religions. We should look for truth in all revelations If the Society of Friends is concerned with the search for truth, it should not confine itself to one revelation.
Truth is something perceived instinctively and subjectively, and as such it can never be proved. It is concerned with ultimate reality-the state of things as they really are. I am not happy about the word “God” because it conveys the idea of an anthropomorphic father figure. The idea of a creator Spirit is more meaningful to me.
Are we as a species so in need of answers to questions surrounding our existence that we create explanations out of our imagination?
All the explanations come out of our imaginations .But this doesn’t mean that they are untrue—they are more in the nature of intelligent guesses. The very fact of our life on earth makes any thinking person ask what it is all for. From this basic phenomenon arise all the theological questions. Religion may be beyond reason, but it should not contradict reason.
What, if anything, is wrong with a personal philosophy that simply encourages people to enjoy themselves and work to make the world a better place?
Such a philosophy is fine insofar as it goes. But it is not enough for those who have the religious impulse described in Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” This is the impulse which I would describe as “mystical religion.” For those who have it, life is a continuous search going beyond any purely philosophical position.
You have said that you underwent the experience of “conversion” to Jesus Christ. Did you mean that you had what is usually termed a “religious experience”?
As a boy, I was influenced by Sunday school evangelism, and publicly declared that I was “saved.” Later, under the influence of another evangelical movement, I had a conversion experience, but it was short lived. The experience consisted of surrender to emotional and irrational appeals calling for the acceptance of Jesus as Savior. Shortly afterwards, however, my reasoning powers began to assert themselves and to rebel against what I came to regard as spurious religious claims.
How did you come to reject Christianity as your personal belief and adopt an agnostic viewpoint?
When I was an Anglican ordinand, I came to feel a growing rift between the dogmas I was expected to believe and the reality as I saw it. My doubts were later increased by the geographical dilemma as well as by philosophical considerations. I believe Jesus was a great and inspired itinerant preacher of a caliber similar to the Buddha and other founders of new religions. He was a man, not God, and his identification with the Messiah or Christ is only of significance in terms of Jewish theology.
Could you explain the distinction you make between the “theological religions” and “theosophical religions”? ls there any one religion that seems closer to your own beliefs?
Theological religions, in which I include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, tend to rely on dogmatic statements of belief which are required by their members. Theosophical religions, in which I include the Eastern religions, and especially Hinduism, have one great advantage in that they are already universalist. In other words, they claim that truth can be reached from many directions. To this extent, Hinduism is closer to my beliefs.
Where can someone who accepts much of the Friends’ testimonies and concerns, but not God, fit into the Society?
I define an agnostic as one who holds that in the area of religious belief we do not have knowledge. In this sense there is certainly a place for agnostics within the Society of Friends, since we can have strong religious beliefs without claiming to know that they are true. This is the case even with people who hesitate to use the term “God.” In my view, there is a place for all sincere spiritual seekers within the Society of Friends.
Agnostics, in my view, can and should play an active part in meeting for worship, even though they prefer to use the word meditation. Personally, I find the term “worship” acceptable as defining my attitude to all that is good, beautiful, true, and lovely.
How can agnostics come to feel at home within the Society of Friends?
Agnostics will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable when Christian ministry is put over in a proselytizing manner. Advices and Queries also tend to emphasize the Christian view in a one sided way. What is needed is more sensitivity and openness to new light on the part of traditional Friends.
Any final thoughts on QUG and Friends?3
I believe the Society of Friends is so nearly right, it just needs to follow the promptings of the Spirit to their logical conclusion. We hope to persevere in making the universalist understanding of religion more widely known among Friends. Revelation is a continuous process. We may have to rock the Quaker boat, but we do not want to sink it!
Notes & Image Sources
1 “Quakerism as Forerunner,” by John Linton (1977). First given as a talk to the Seekers Association at London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, 1977. Printed in The Seeker, Spring 1977, and reprinted in Vedanta for East and West, Issue 160.
2 See, for example, Quaker Faith & Practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (fifth edition).
Image: “Europe a Prophecy,” by William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image: “The Hound of Heaven” (1965), by William Kurelek (Canadian/Ukrainian , 1927–1977), lithograph on paper.
3 See these additional sources by and about John Linton:
- “A Letter to the editor of the Universalist Friends,” by John Linton, Universalist Friends: The Journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, Number 45, February 2007.
- “Remembering John Linton,” by Rhoda Gilman, Universalist Friends: The Journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, Number 52, August 2010.
- “25 Years of Quaker Universalism,” by Rhoda R. Gilman in Quaker Universalist Conversations (3/2/2011).
Image: “John Linton did not believe that any single religion had a monopoly on truth,” from the obituary by Eleanor Nesbitt in The Guardian (6/17/2010).