22 January 2010

Wilburite Friends and the Atonement

Remember old Elias Hicks, the long Island recorded minister who was such a central figure in early 19th century Quaker history? There’s an old story about told about Hicks, making trouble in Philadelphia many years ago. Hicks did this regularly, but one day it finally came to a crisis. Walt Whitman tells it this way:

 . . . a meeting of Friends in Philadelphia crowded by a great attendance of both sexes, with Elias as principal speaker. In the course of his utterance or argument he made use of these words: “The blood of Christ—the blood of Christ—why, my friends, the actual blood of Christ in itself was no more effectual than the blood of bulls and goats—not a bit more—not a bit.” At these words, after a momentary hush, commenced a great tumult. Hundreds rose to their feet . . . . Canes were thump’d upon the floor. From all parts of the house angry mutterings. Some left the place, but more remain’d, with exclamations, flush’d faces and eyes.

Elias was elaborating on his view of the atonement, using terminology from Hebrews 10:4:

For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.

In Hick’s view, the physical body of the Jesus Christ was just a physical thing, like yours and mine. His blood was ordinary blood. As Elias preached here and elsewhere, the important part of Jesus’s sacrifice was inward, not outward:

And what was it that was a Saviour? Not that which was outward; it was not flesh and blood: for "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven;" it must go to the earth from whence it was taken. It was that life, that same life that I have already mentioned, that was in him, and which is the light and life of men, and which lighteth every man, and consequently every woman, that cometh into the world.

As Whitman described it, the Orthodox Friends in waiting worship broke concentration to express cane-thumping disapproval of this heretical doctrine, which seemed to devalue the atoning physical death of Jesus Christ. The story is often quoted to show that Elias denied the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, a denial which would lead to the First Separation of 1827-1828, and the subsequent creation of Liberal Friends as a separate wing of the Society.

Now, I wasn’t there, but I have a very strong suspicion that this furious disapproval was not a united expression, even factoring out the contingent of Elias’s supporters that tried to be present whenever he spoke. In my opinion Elias ran ahead of his guide on some very significant issues, but on this matter the old farmer was mostly right. His views were very similar to those of the earliest Friends, including George Fox, and very similar to many of the Friends also in attendance there in Philadelphia, who in a few more years would be called “Wilburites.”

The Wilburites would themselves break from the cane-thumping Orthodox on just this issue, as well as others. But at that time the future Wilburites and the Orthodox were uneasily united in a front against the creeping Unitarianism that many of Elias Hicks’s followers were running into. I can imagine the Wilburites sitting in that meeting house groaning inwardly, saying to themselves, “Oh, Elias, why does it have to be thee who preaches what we believe?”

So just what exactly did the first generations of Friends see in the atonement? What did the Wilburites think of this idea?

The answer is in two parts, and has to do with how the earlier Friends saw the historical Jesus and the Inward Christ as two manifestations of the same entity: one whose atoning death would both put man in a capacity to be saved, and whose Inward Light would teach him and enable him to do the inward work to then allow it to happen. There are many competing theories about the atonement, but C. S. Lewis said it best:

Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works.

Essentially, atonement theory doesn’t matter. Whether Jesus’s death on the cross was a substitutionary blood sacrifice to appease a wrathful god, or whether it was a ransom of captive hostages, or whether it was a moral example, or whether it was any of the other competing theories, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the Quaker view that something very significant happened there for all people:

(John 1:9) That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

(2 Corinthians 5:19) To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.

The Quakers asserted that the atonement was the essential, timeless, and worldwide universal reconciliation of Jesus Christ, and was provided for all men, everywhere, of every kind of man. It had redeemed all people, had paid the price for all people, had put all people right with God, and it served as an example for all people. The atonement had wiped the slate clean, so to speak, and had given humanity a fresh start, one somehow free from the encumbrance of the sin that came with being a creature born and raised in a fallen world. Importantly, you didn’t have to know about it, understand it, or have faith in it for it to be effective—Christ died for us while we were still sinners, like the apostle wrote. His redemption was a gift for all men and women, freely given, with no strings attached, including the strings of knowledge, understanding, and faith.

So this was the first part of the original Quaker message about the atonement, but only the first. The necessary second part was what got Quakers thrown into prisons, flogged, and executed. It also made the Orthodox thump their canes in disagreement that day in the Philadelphia meeting house when they heard it from Elias Hicks, who was doing no more than asserting a Quaker truth that dated from the beginning of Christianity, but that the Orthodox Friends were beginning to openly reject. This second part was the recognition that the physical death of Jesus Christ, by itself, was indeed ultimately no more efficacious than the blood sacrifice of bulls and goats denied by the author of Hebrews. His physical death in his earthly body set the stage, but it didn’t lower the curtain. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ remits sins, enlightens us, and puts us in a capacity to be made righteous, to actually be justified. But it is the subsequent inward work of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ that actually enables us to be sanctified, to put on Christ, to be renewed inwardly, and then to experience the justified state in which we are saved. By itself, the atonement didn’t save you—what it did was make it possible for you to be saved, to be put into a relationship that you weren’t in before. It was the gift of the Light.

Robert Barclay devotes page after page to this two-fold nature of Christ’s work in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity. A single excerpt will serve, I hope:

By the first of these two . . . we are out into a capacity for salvation, having the glad tidings of the Gospel of peace offered to us, and God is reconciled unto us in Christ . . . By the second, we witness this capacity brought into act, whereby receiving and not resisting the purchase of his death, to wit, the Light, Spirit, and Grace of Christ revealed to us, we witness and possess a real true and inward redemption from the power and prevalency of sin, and so come to be truly and really redeemed, justified, and made righteous, and to a sensible union and friendship with God.

And how do we do this? The answer can be found throughout New Testament Scripture: by not resisting the work of the Holy Spirit, by emulating the Christ, by obedience to his commands, by doing the things he asks us to do, and by accepting the assistance of the Inward Light, that he provides to help us to do it. The Gospels record story after story, parable after parable, teaching after teaching, in which Jesus Christ himself tells us that that we must actively participate with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. Over and over, the Gospels tell us of a Jesus who came with a message for us to actually be something new and renewed, to act, to follow him, not to rest easy in Zion with a hope of glory founded in a passive acknowledgement of imputed justification. The Protestant opponents of Quakerism derided this belief as “works righteousness.” The Quakers countered by pointing out that it was what Jesus told us to do.

This was what old Elias and generations of Friends before him had to say about the atonement. But what did the Wilburites themselves say about the matter? Were they quiet, and content to let the Orthodox thump their canes and carry the flag of Quakerism back 150 years into the Protestant camp of it had left behind? Because, after all, the Orthodox view was essentially Protestant in nature, and would come to another crisis in the Second Separation in just a few more years.

In fact, the Wilburites weren’t shy about expressing their view that the outward atonement was insufficient by itself to provide salvation:

In attempting to counteract the sorrowful effects resulting from a denial of the benefits which accrue to mankind from the sufferings and death of Christ, as the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, the subject has been pressed so far as to give the countenance to the idea that Christ has paid the debt and done the work for us, without us; and that by a profession of faith in and reliance upon him, as their atonement and righteousness, the ungodly may be justified without experiencing sanctification through the power of the Holy Spirit.


There is hence a danger of separating what our blessed Lord has done for us, without us, from what it is indispensible to experience him to do for us within us; and of thinking that a man may be a true Christian because of religious belief, and without his doing the will of God through submission to the power of the cross of Christ.

This was a major point upon which the Wilburites differed from the Orthodox, and could hardly be put more clearly: Christ’s material death, alone, was not sufficient to ensure salvation—he required something more from us than merely showing up, so to speak. The Wilburites explicitly denied the Protestant belief that the death of Christ imputed sufficient righteousness to the faithful, and warned against the hazard of believing in it:

Is it not possible for persons who have been educated in the belief that Christ has suffered in their stead, the penalty due to their sins, and that they are saved by his imputed righteousness, to place their whole reliance for their salvation on his sacrifice, and to conclude that they are perfectly safe, while they are rejecting the visitations and requisitions of his Spirit, and are no better than nominal believers of the truths of the Gospel? Can such a literal belief make them participants of the body and blood of Christ, while they know nothing of the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, not having been made conformable to his death?

Pretty plain speech for 19th century Wilburites, and hard core Barclay, as well. The atonement is the overture that precedes the performance. It is Christ knocking at the door, where he waits, ready to enter. But the actual putting on of Christ is what does the trick: the subsequent washing and sanctification is where the justification comes in.

This two-part view of the work of the historical Christ and the Inward Christ is one that Conservative Friends today sometimes lose sight of. Although we descend from the Wilburites, many of our modern beliefs seem more similar to those of the Orthodox who separated from us than those of the earlier Friends and of the Wilburites who tried to conserve their message. Many of our members seem unaware of the changes and as a result don’t see a difference today between the beliefs of our spiritual ancestors and those who took the Protestant path instead.

But I believe that the original Friends had it right, and that the Wilburite view had it right as well.

Perhaps it’s time to abandon the Conservative reticence to talk about these things, and to spend some time in contemplating just where we came from, where we are now, and where we’re going. Because doing the will of Jesus Christ is what’s it’s all about, I think. And troubled though our beginning was in the 19th century, when it comes to what God expects from us, I think the Wilburites mostly got it right.

And even old Elias Hicks, troublemaker as he so often was, mostly got this one right, too.


Michelle-ozark crafter said...

And thought provoking as well. Thank you!

Bill said...

I'm not sure about how right Elias Hicks was. He also separated the outward and the inward. He devalued the outward reality of atonement, while the growing evangelical tide in the 19th century tended to devalue the inward reality.

The exciting thing about the first generation of Friends was their ability to connect the inward and the outward.

kevin roberts said...

Well, I didn't say he was completely right-- there are lots of places where I disagree with Elias as well. But his take on the atonement was similar to George Fox:

"Do you not see the blood of Christ? See it in your hearts, to sprinkle your hearts and consciences from dead works to serve the living God? For I saw it, the blood of the New Covenant, how it came into the heart. This startled the professors, who would have the blood only without them and not in them."

Hicks didn't deny the atonement, he just pointed out that the ultimately decisive part was what happened in the heart of the believer, not on the hill at Calvary.

kevin roberts said...

By the way, Bill, most of the folks in my neck of the woods consider old Elias an apostate anyway. I've even been hissed before:

"Hicksite! Hicksite!"

And so it goes.

Scot, Jenn, and the whole Hee Haw gang said...

Thank you Kevin, for bringing the issue of blood atonement into the Light. It is a subject that I am eager to discuss, and I am in full agreement with you that there has never been full agreement in Christendom about theories of atonment, or their proper place in Christ-centered theology.
I am still uncomfortable with using any sacrificial language in relation to the execution of the Messiah. I prefer to use sacrificial language in relationship to the life of Jesus. While Paul provides such an example in Philippians, the Gospels provide for an example of his sacrifice of privilege and power through the non-violent inauguration of the realm of YHWH. While the cross is significant because Jesus knew it was the probable outcome of his challenges to Rome and the Jerusalem heirarchy. However, it is the life that he lived that is vindicated by the resurrection, and not his death. It is the faithful life of Jesus that welcomes the Gentiles into the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, thus rendering salvation for humanity a reality in a universal manner. thanks for a great post. scot

Timothy Travis said...

Well said, Bill.

Between the two were such as the Beans and the Hobbs, pleading for balance, as the extremes tore the Society apart and reduced it to its current impoverished condition.

Some continue to aspire to straddle the divides until (in the words of a dear Friend) they close beneath our feet. Some abide in the expectation of the eventual re-uniting of all into whose hearts the Light shines, of all hearts that have been transformed and conformed to and by that Light.

And thank you, Kevin, for this nicely stated piece.

kevin roberts said...

Hey Scot- there's always been tension in Christianity between those who emphasize one half of the business that Jesus was about, and de-emphasize the other half. I know extreme Calvinists who tell me that attempting to conform my life to the commands of Christ is a sin, as it denies the forced conforming of predestination (the U and the I in TULIP). And I've known others who interpret the entire message of Christianity as just a pretty good moral code to follow. I personally do not understand most higher theology, and almost none of it has been revealed to me personally. So I just stumble along and try to listen.

Timothy, I started out as a Beanite as well, and even used to go to work across the street from the College Park Meeting House. I used to chew on the pepper corns from the trees in front of Anna Brinton's old house around the corner. Iowa Yearly Meeting did Joel and Hannah wrong, I think.

What a long strange trip it's been.

Timothy Travis said...

Long and strange...but hardly over...

Stumbling and listening. I like that.



Mik Conover said...

Kevin, this is so timely for me that I must assume Providence. Western Yearly Meeting (which I am a member of, as a member of the dually affiliated 57th St Meeting in Chicago) had a called Meeting Saturday that brought forth for me that divide between minding the Inward Light of Christ, and reliance on statements of Faith. One Christ as the foundation, two very different building blocks. Blood Atonement, which has never played a role in my connection to Christ, seems central to some on the other side the the divide from myself- in a way that seems to have more life than do the statements on pages written 100 years ago, or quoted paragraphs from 2000 years ago. My hope is that; if I can feel the life, power & excitement that Blood Atonement seems to hold for them; I might straddle a foot over that divide. Your posting makes that understanding (perhaps on both sides) feel closer.


kevin roberts said...

Providence is how it works, Mike. I disclaim all responsibility for the timing. I'd been mulling the issue over for a long time, and then all it once, It Was Time to Write It Down.

Bill's earlier point about how the endpoint representatives of the 19th century schisms missed the Golden Mean is correct. The two go together in a certain order, but each depends on the other to work.

forrest said...

What Jesus said about our 'Father' shows clearly that all people's eventual 'salvation' results inevitably from God's fully effective intention. The life and death of Jesus was prominent among the means employed to help us realize that.

A parable: Once upon a time Fred, a homed man, befriended Ralph, a homeless man. One day when Fred stopped by to see how Ralph was doing, he found him waiting for a bus. "I'm leaving here," Ralph told him. "This place is a drag, but it's been good knowing you while I was here. I've never told you this, but I'm actually rich; I just got tired of hanging out with rich people, and the money got in the way with everyone else. But I know you could use some money, so I'd like to leave you a little present." He held out a really grungy looking bank book, which Fred reluctantly accepted. And then the bus came, and that was the last time on Earth they saw each other. "What a crazy old man," Fred thought when he got home. He never did check out the account.

Jennifer Marchman said...

I have been wrestling for a long time with understanding atonement. Thank you for this post. It gives me a new understanding and more to chew on. I'm sure I'm not the only reason you felt led to Write It Down, but... well, very timely. God is good.

Mik Conover said...

Responding to Bill's comment, I do not think too much emphasis can be placed on the power of marrying the Inward and the Outward. In those few instances I have been able to fully follow the Inward Light into and through the Outward action I was called to; I was transformed. Perhaps, Bill, you and your cats have that dorcrtrine in place :).


David H. Finke said...

II've looked, with rejoicing, to the examples being set by younger Friends associated with the recent World Gathering of Young Friends-- our present Publishers of Truth.
They have said, in effect, that we are called not to argue with and convince each other, but rather to love each other. When we truly submit ourselves to the radical workings of Divine Love--as shown pre-eminently in the Jesus of Nazareth, whose Blessed Spirit guides us still--then we become closer to each other, across our outward divisions of tradition & practice & theologizing. THAT, for me, is the work of Atonement.
My parents were liberal, Social-Gospel proclaiming Protestants--practicing the religion OF Jesus rather than a religion ABOUT Jesus. So I've long had an aversion to certain theories of atonement insisting they're the only way of understanding the mystery of what Jesus was about. It is simply repugnant to me to have to affirm these medieval doctrines summarized by Anselm:
God is perfect, and the affront of our sin is so serious that nothing can satisfy his infinite dignity than to sacrifice a perfect one. Hence, God sends his son to be killed to assuage God's offended regal dignity. Who would honor & respect a human father who resorted to such twisted logic? As far back as Abraham the Divine Presence intervened to stop a supposedly-necessary blood sacrifice of a son.
That concept of justice is rooted in one totally foreign to us. In our "nation of laws and not men," we reject that the murder of a rich, powerful person is worse than a nameless vagabond (or do we?) In that pre-democratic jurisprudence, the severity of the punishment must accord with the status of the one transgressed against. Anselm's theory of atonement is based on just such logic. Somehow, the mainstream traditions in formal Roman Catholicism and state-church Protestantism bought that package.
So much of blood-atonement theories seems to derive from the book of Hebrews. I see that book entirely differently. The good news ("Gospel") aspect of it as assurance TO THOSE FOR WHOM ANIMAL SACRIFICE had been necessary and normative: We don't have to do it that way any more!. Set aside all the scriptural & traditional imperatives around blood sacrifice that had seemed so central & mandatory in Judaism! Accept the New Revelation that somehow Jesus has made it obsolete. NO MORE BLOOD! He has taken care of it. He has taken us into a new direction. This I dearly & deeply affirm.
In a Christmas note to Friends this year I had quoted Elias Hicks [Ask me for it at dfinke@iland.net]: It didn't matter what happened on Calvary's hill 2 millenia ago IF something wasn't happening here-and-now in our own hearts. Yes, it sounds shocking. But the call to personal experience, taking up the daily cross of responsibility for discipleship --that is a message of hope & salvation for me. I believe it can be accounted for in Biblical terms, tho not in the narrowly prescribed formulae of 18th-21st century revivalism. If I read Hebrews, I have to also read the Gospel and Letters with the name "John."
The temptation to get sucked back into medieval debates (Anselm v. Abelard at the University of Paris... quite a show!) reminds me of what I often found myself saying 2 & 3 decades ago: Quakerism is not a way of argumentation; it is a way of Experience, and of Testimony.
When our hearts are changed, when we are liberated--set free from the Old Man by God's Power to become New Creatures in Christ--then we have a story to tell. Our radiance will convince more hearts than our logic ever could.
Blessings, -DHF

Mik Conover said...

As always David, the joy in your experince of the Spirit of Christ is evident here. I pray for more of that in myself. We, as rational human beings, find it easy to be drawn into words and set understandings. Rules follow, which often become law. We know what Christ's relationship was to the religous laws of his day- and it was not simple. We need to keep Love and Joy formost in our testimony; but I think we also need to understand the 'laws' that many look to in order to fully engage those folks. We often need to start with their heads in order to get to their hearts. And I often find myself starting with My head to get to MY heart.



John Michael Keba said...

Yet with respect to the "creeping Unitarianism" you mention,

"Consequently, he died for us, for our sake. He was delivered for our sins, not instead of, but on account of our sins. Our redemption or deliverance from sin was through his blood, and our ransom effected by his life... he hath born away our sins on a tree - he hath brought us to one with God, that is, accomplished the atonement."

From A Statement of the Principles of Unitarian Christianity, addressed to the Inhabitants of Greenock and Port-Glasgow, and to the Friends of Free Inquiry throughout Scotland, by a Unitarian, 1816.

Maybe it was Hicks who affected Unitarian thought, and not the other way around :-)

John Michael Keba said...

That was on page 59 of the text, by the way (pg 68 of the pdf file)

Anonymous said...

Or we could consider that Eastern Christianity (such as the Greek Orthodox) have an atonement theory different than Substitutionary atonement.

My knowledge of Hicks is rather limited - I've mostly read work by people like Evans... but, silencing him on this point seems to be an issue of "Are we being sectarian enough"

kevin roberts said...

Folks, I've been out and away in the west the last week or so, 23 days from home today, so I'm behind in catching up here in North Dakota. There's precious little net access in the Rockies for something the size of what I live in.

The atonement in western Christianity is an awkward subject to try to wrap your head around, unless you just take one of the cut-and-dried-this-is-it-no-questions-needed approaches, and deny the ambiguities and mystery. Chrtistology is pretty mysterious to me in most ways. I'm still trying to work through it, and I appreciate the comments that you folks have made so far on it. Thank you.

The eastern views are fascinating to me, and represent a parallel stream that western Catholicism and Protestantism just don't seem to notice. I don't know why.

The connections between Hicks, and the old Wilburites, and the old Friends are things I'm still teasing out. What is important to me is how they go together today, but looking at the old views helps me focus my own thoughts.