I posted about the autobiography of Quaker pioneer Richard Davies, arguing that this should be read both as a highly informative spiritual text and a prime historical source. Often, the book – the Convincement – reveals the processes by which an educated and curious seventeenth century Christian moved to some radical positions that in some ways seem far ahead of their time. That is especially true of attitudes towards the Bible.
Reading Richard Davies sheds light on what at first sight seems like a significant historical mystery. In the early seventeenth century, Puritan ideas spread throughout the British Isles, and some center sin particular became very active and influential. By the 1630s, some towns and their churches were producing radical and dissident leaders in sizable numbers. What united those Puritans was a strong belief in Reformed theology, in Calvinism, and in an absolute reliance on the authority of Scripture. Sometimes, those early Independent churches spawned more radical movements, commonly Baptist. But if we move the story forward to the crisis years of the 1650s, something quite surprising happens. There were new movements, variously named Quaker, Seeker, Antinomian, or Ranter, which actively challenged those old Puritan ideas, and rejected orthodox readings of scripture. And in virtually every case, those new movements grow directly out of the old hard line Puritan groups and families. At first sight, that looks less like a transition than a radical reversal.
To understand what is happening, we should read Richard Davies, who in the years after 1647 associated with various extreme Puritan and Baptist groupings, including that of notorious extremist Vavasor Powell. Through the early 1650s, though, we see him studying Scripture carefully and mulling on what he finds. And through those scriptural meditations, he comes to reject standard approaches to scripture itself. I don’t claim that the trajectory that he took was absolutely standard or normal, but it does fit well with many other examples we see.
How, then, did Davies move beyond scripture, at least as his contemporaries understood it? In his mid-teens, under Vavasor Powell, he was a devout reader and preacher of the Bible, but realized that there must be more to faith: “We were diligent in searching the scriptures, which was good in its place; but the main matter and substance of pure religion, is the enjoyment of eternal life to the soul from Christ.”
Even with all the prayers and Bible reading, religion had become a mere formality, “dead and formal, carnal and airy.” But things then changed:
Upon a certain time we had a meeting at Hugh David’s, a tenant of Charles Lloyd’s, of Dolobran, where one of our Independent teachers, who was a great scripturian, was preaching, and I writ after him; and in his sermon he said, “The time would come, that there would be no need of the scripture, any more than another book” : at which I very much stumbled ; and after the meeting I asked him, When would that time be? He said, When the Lord would make a new covenant with his people, as is said in Jeremiah, xxxi. 33, 34. I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel ; after those days, faith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, saith the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and J will remember their sin no more.
It seems that he knew not that day come then, though he was a great preacher. I thought it would then be a happy day, when God would be the teacher of his people himself; that we need not teach every man his neighbour, or his brother, saying, Know ye the Lord but that we should all know him, from the least to the greatest.
Such a reading made excellent sense given the millenarian mood of the time, the sense that the familiar age was drawing to its close, and God would create a new dispensation. This was around 1657, when Davies first heard of the imminent arrival of Quakers from the north, an event that orthodox Puritans interpreted as a sign of the End Times. They quoted Matthew 24, about the coming of false christs and false prophets.
Davies, though, was intrigued and excited by his encounters with the new sect. Far from outright denying the scripture, as popular rumor claimed, they could actually find a surprising range of texts to support their doctrines. But such reading should only be done in the Light that believers would receive. Startled and excited, Davies returned to his Bible, and focused on certain texts above all. These included Jeremiah 31, about the new covenant, and also John 6, “And they shall all be taught of God.”
One of his greatest and most surprising sources, though, was the opening verses of the Gospel of John, about the Word that was with God, and was God.
I desired of the Lord, that I might be farther satisfied by himself, as to those things ; first, Whether the scriptures were the word of God, as was said and preached unto us they were, and the way to life and salvation? Then the first chapter of John came under my serious consideration in my meditation, ….. I considered that the word was in the beginning with God the Father, and that no part of the scriptures were written until Moses, who we understand was the first writer of those scriptures w e have ; the apostle tells us here, that the law was given by Moses but grace and truth came by ‘Jesus Christ : in this word there was life; Paul tells us, that the letter killetb, but the Spirit giveth life; now this life is the light of men, and the word was before the scriptures were written. [my emphasis]
By this we may see the word of God is Christ Jesus, that was with the Father before the world began, without him there was not any thing made that was made. The history that Moses gives us, is said to be written about 3000 years after the creation of the world, therefore the scriptures cannot properly be the word of God.
I, with many more, was under that mistake that the Jews were in, who thought they might have eternal life in the scriptures ….
So it is the grace of God that brings salvation, and not the bare historical knowledge of the scriptures. Too many take a great deal of pride in a literal knowledge of them ; some for their gain and profit ; others take pleasure in them, by wresting them to vindicate their false and erroneous opinions, that gender to strife and contention, and take little or no notice of that meek, holy, lovely spirit os life that gave them forth, for they are of no private interpretation but holy men of God spake them as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
Men may have a great literal knowledge of the scriptures, and yet remain in error, because they know them not, as they ought to do, nor the power that was in the holy men that gave them forth ; so I may say, as Christ said to the Jews, You err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God, Mat. xxii,29. So that which gives the true knowledge of God, and a right understanding of the scriptures is the power of God.
The Word that was Christ long predated the word that was in the scriptures, and which was merely a human construction. The Inner Light, the Holy Spirit, comes first, and only thus can the scriptures be read.
This approach appears in other Quaker writings and statements of these years. See for instance this declaration by some other Welsh Quakers who faced trial in the later 1650s:
The Scriptures we own to be the words of God which are a declaration of the Word of God, which was from the beginning, before Scriptures were written, and is as a hammer and a sword dividing asunder between the marrow and the bones, and to this the Scripture stands a witness for us.
From that stance, Richard Davies rejected most of the orthodox practices of his time, including water-baptism and the Eucharist, and also rejected such signs of social inequality as using formal titles of respect in speech. There would only be “thee” and “thou.”
It would be easy to imagine the account of Richard Davies that we might find from a hostile controversialist or a legal proceeding, which might say simply that he rejected the Bible, or even Christianity as such. He was not. He was rather moving beyond a literalist or fundamentalist reading, placing his main source of authority within himself. And in so doing, he demonstrates some subtle historical and theological approaches.
Then as later, the question arises: without the definite authority of Church or Scripture, what limits exist to moving outside historical interpretations of Christian orthodoxy altogether? That question would become very pressing indeed a few decades later, as the Enlightenment reached its height.
From Inner Light, to Enlightenment.
Richard Davies, then, was thoroughly immersed in scripture, and secure on that foundation, he moved beyond historic orthodoxies. Parallels elsewhere are not hard to find, especially in North America. Witness for instance the evolution of older Congregationalist churches into Unitarian and Universalist groupings. But that, as they say, is another story.