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.
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.