Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Historical texts  >  Wm Walwyn, A Still and Soft Voice


From the Scriptures,
Witnessing them to be the Word of God. *

By William Walwyn**

1 Kings. 19. 11. 12.
And he said (to Eliah) come out and stand upon the Mount before the Lord. And behold the Lord went by, and a mighty strong wind rent the Mountains and brake the Rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind came an Earthquake, but the Lord was not in the Earthquake.
And after the Earthquake came fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire came, a still and soft voice. And when Eliah heard it, he covered his face with a Mantle, &c.

Printed in the Year, 1647.

A Still and Soft Voice.

As he who is arrived to the full age of a man, and seriously considers the several passages and progress of his sore past life: what he did or understood, when he was a child, a youth, a young man, a mere man, or before he came to be advised, and to consider all things by true rules of reason: is best able to deal with every one in every age and condition, to show them their vanity, ignorance and mistakings: and to point them out the path of virtue. Experience making the best School-master in things natural and moral.

Even so is it in Religion, he only can best judge, advise and counsel others, who hath observed and most seriously considered the several passages and progress of his own knowledge in things divine: yet who are so forward to judge and comptrole therein, as mere smatterers and such as have left experience.

I suppose it will be acknowledged, by all experienced Christians, that the greatest number of men and women in the world are drawn into the consideration and Practice of Religion by education and custom of the place where they are bred: and that many never have any other foundation, nor motive to continue therein, than the reputation it brings them, all other religions or ways of worship being discontenanced and out of credit. Such as these are Champions for what's in fashion: ever running with the stream, and crying down all contrary minded. Vox populi, Vox dei, the Major voice (than which nothing is more uncertain in Religion) is to these as the voice of God: and when they are zealous for vulgar opinions they think they are zealous for God and his truth: when they revile, abuse, and hale men before the Magistrates, and even kill and destroy them, they think they do God good service: being zealous of the traditions of the times: for though truth should be publicly professed, yet to such as hold it only by education and custom, it is in them traditional, and they are not truly religious, but mere moral christians, utterly ignorant of the clear Heavenly brightness inherent in pure and undefiled Religion.

But though it be evident, that there are too too many who hold their religion on this frail foundation, yet it is very comfortable to behold the sincerity of multitudes of good people in our days who, not content to possess their knowledge in a traditional way, do accustom themselves to try and examine all things.

Yet as it is a hard thing unto men, bred so vainly as most men are, to keep the golden mean in natural or moral Reformations: so is it difficult to preserve from extremes, in matters of religion; the reason is, because in our trials and examinations we have not that heedful care, which is absolutely necessary, to free our Judgements from absurdities or improper things: common and vulgar arguments catching fast hold upon us too suddenly; and so we engage over-violently, averring and maintaining without giving due time to our consideration to work and debate itself into necessary conclusions.

The first sort of these religious persons are deadly enemies to examination and trial of things; we (say they) are not fit to Judge of these matters. Ne sutor ultra crepidam, is commonly in their mouths: the Cobbler ought not to go beyond his last: what are the learned for, if these high things fall within the compass of our capacities, why choose we wise and judicious men, more able than ourselves, but to reform, and settle Religion. If you draw them into any discourse, and endeavour to show them their weakness, their only aim is how to entrap you, in your words, and if it be possible to make you obnoxious to authority.

If their ignorance and superstition appear so gross and palpable, that (in loving terms, and for their better information) you demand how they come to know there is a God, or that the scriptures are the word of God, their common answer is, do you deny them, it seems you do ~ otherwise why do you ask such questions? If they offer to prove by some common received argument, and you show the weakness thereof, they'll go nigh to tell you to your face, and report for certain behind your back, to all they know, or can know, that you are an Atheist, that you deny there is a God, and deny the Scriptures to be the word of God. Nor do they hate any sort of men so much as those who are inquisitive after knowledge, judging them as busy-bodies, men of unquiet spirits, that know not when they are well, or when they have sufficient. For their parts, they are constant in one, for the substance; their principles are not of yesterday but of many years standing, and the most learned and wise are of their way, and why should not others be as well content as they. Is it fit (say they) that every one should follow his own understanding in the worship of God, we see what comes of it; when men once forsake the beaten Road (the Kings high way) in Religion, into how many by-paths, do they run, nay, whether would they not run, if our care were not to hedge and keep them in?

And thus ignorance becomes many times Judge of knowledge: and the most gross and slothful; comptroler of the most active in Religion.

Of this sort of men there are many; and they are made very much use of by worldly Politicians, who have found by constant experience that superstition is the easiest means to lead a multitude, this way or that way as their occasions and purposes may require, and on the contrary, that true Religion is in itself as opposite to their unjust ends, as it is to superstition and therefore if they observe any man who out of the principles of true Religion opposeth their ends, at him they let loose these ignorant and moral christians, furnish them with reproachful tales and falsehoods against him, call him Atheist Infidel, Heretic, Schismatic, any thing: which is as eagerly effected, as wickedly devised, and how to stop these men's mouths is in my apprehension no less a work than to make white a Blackamore.

Those others who are startled in their consciences, and roused by the word of God, out of this worldly way of religion or running with the stream, it is a hard matter to hold them to a due pace, in the pursuit of necessary knowledge or to keep them to a proper Method, or to obtain this of them, that they receive nothing as a truth, which they see admitteth of an absurdity .

But having broke loose from the bands of education and customary religion, through necessity of conscience, and being anew to begin, they are apt hastily to take in that which is first offered with any resemblance of truth, and so in an instant fall into new entanglements.

For if haste make waste in any thing, it is in pursuit after knowledge, and though every considerate man’s experience findeth this a truth, though it be confessed by all that there is nothing of greatest concernment to man than the truth of his Divine knowledge, nothing doth more disturb the mind of man than error and mistaking in religion .

Yet is there not any thing wherein men proceed more irregularly, or more impatiently? Either they are over rash and sudden, or over fearful and irresolute; they approach all discourse with prejudice, and a mind distempered, searching nothing thoroughly or orderly, but content themselves with an overly examination, and (in my apprehension) are not so disingenuous in any thing, as in religion: willingly resigning and forfeiting their understandings, and Judgments, at a cheap rate [as] Esau did his Birthright: and so continue very long (not truly religious, but) superstitious men, always amazed: neither remembering what themselves or others speak. He that once opposeth them hath a Wolfe by the ears, he can neither speak nor hold his peace without damage; they take all things in the worst sense sigh, lament, pity, or censure, all that suits not with their opinion or practice: and talk or report of, any man, anything that comes in their imaginations. Those that come behind them in knowledge are carnal: those before them desperate. And therefore it may be very profitable, that the differences between true Religion and superstition be made known to these times, more fully than it is, the one being commonly taken for the other.

Now both are best known by their effects: for true Religion settleth a man in peace and rest, makes him like unto the Angels, always praising God and saying Glory to God on High, in earth peace, Good will towards men; it is ever provided with good intentions and good desires, and maketh the best construction in doubtful cases. See how true Christian love is described by the Apostle in the 13. to the Corinthians and that is the true Religious man’s Character.

On the contrary, superstition troubleth and makes a man wild. A superstitious man suffereth neither God nor man to live in peace (as one well observeth from experience). He apprehendeth God as one anxious, spiteful, hardly contented, easily moved, with difficulty appeased, examining our actions after the human fashion of a severe Judge that watcheth our steps, which he proveth true by his manner of serving him; he trembleth for fear, is never secure, fearing he never doth well and that he hath left something undone, by omission whereof, all is worth nothing that he hath done.

But generally now-a-days (contrary to former times) the superstitious man’s devotion costs him little, he hath so much worldly wit in his zeal, as to save his purse, hot and fiery against heresy and blasphemy (which are titles he freely bestows on all opinions, contrary to his own, true or false); he will course his poor neighbor out of all he hath, yea out of the Nation, if he can not course him into his opinion: and all upon pretence of doing God service and for the good of his soul.

As for his body, or estate, that's no part of his care; he is not so hasty to run into his poor neighbor's house to see what is wanting there, he [the neighbor] may lay upon a bed, or no bed, covering or no covering, be starved through cold and hunger, over burdened with labour, be sick, lame or diseased, and all this troubles not the superstitious man’s (nor the moral Christian’s) Conscience: he may through want and necessity go into what prison he will, and lay and rot and starve there: and these kind of Religious people are not half so much moved at all, as if he go to another Church or congregation than what they approve; if he do so, up starts their zeal, and after him, watch, spy, accuse and inform: and all for the good of his soul: and for the Glory of God.

One would not think it were possible man could be so blind, or so inconsiderate as to imagine that God would be thus mocked, thus madly served, contrary to the whole tenor of the Scriptures, but such are the effects of educated, customary or superstitious Religion.

Whilst the effects of pure and undefiled Religion are another thing: as Feeding the hungry, Cloathing the naked, Visiting the sick, the Fatherless, the Widows and Prisoners: and in all things walking as becometh the Gospel of Christ: it will empty the fullest Bags and pluck down the highest plumes.

And whoever serveth God sincerely in this Religion shall be known by his fruits: his light shall so shine before men, that they seeing his good Works, shall Glorify our father which is in heaven.

But of these there are few to be found; and as few that truly labour, to reclaim those many thousands of miserable people that are drenched all their life long in gross ignorance, and notorious loathsome wickedness: Yet there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than for ninety nine just persons that need no repentance: Why talk we so much of Christianity, holiness, and saintship, whilst we neglect the lost sheep, or the recovery of our brethren from those Errors of their ways.

The plain truth is, this gross neglect of known duty herein, and the general eagerness in the less necessary parts of zeal and devotion, manifesteth the world is not subdued; that there is little self-denial, little of pure and undefiled Religion as yet in the world: men content themselves with forms of godliness, but are regardless of the power thereof.

And therefore I have been the less troubled in myself for the hard measure I have found: amidst so great a mixture of worldliness, ignorance, and superstitious zeal, why should one look for much ingenuity; these times have but cast an eye towards the material parts of true Christianity. It is not known what it is, in its excellency, the end and issue thereof is too good to be deserved, or discerned, by a people that are not yet broad awake; they strike him that brings them more light, than they can well endure.

All the evil and reproach I have suffered, hath been by occasion of my forwardness to others’ good: my freeness in discourse, though harmless in itself, and intended for good, hath been perverted, misconstrued, and made use of to my prejudice.

I accompt nothing more vain, than to discourse merely for discourse sake; nay, it is painful and irksome to me, to hear a discourse that is not really necessary and useful. Nor do I know that I have ever purposely set my self to debate any serious matter, slightly or carelessly, though cheerfully.

And my manner is, whatever is in debate, to search it thoroughly, being of an opinion, that what is really true stands the firmer for being shaken: like a house that is built upon a rock.

I have been much troubled to observe men earnestly engage to maintain the strongest maxims and principles by weak arguments; the weakness whereof I have endeavoured to manifest, that I might discover the weakness of such practices, and to make it evident that fundamental truths support all things and need no supporters: Thou bearest not the root, but the root, thee.

But this my free dealing (with uncharitable or superstitious people) have found this evil return; they have reported me to deny that there is a God, when I have only denied the validity of a weak argument produced to prove that there is a God; it being too too common to insist upon mere notional indigested arguments. So also have I been most uncharitably slandered to deny the Scriptures to be the word of God, because I have opposed insufficient arguments produced to prove them such: and because at the same time I have refused to show the grounds inducing me to believe them.

Now it hath been my lot to be drawn into discourses of this nature for the most part by timorous, scrupulous, people, in whom I have discovered so much impatience, and discontent at the shaking of their arguments, that I have not discerned any reason to open my self at that time. Yet I never parted with any of them, but I always professed that I did believe, both that there is a God & that the Scriptures are the Word of God, though I judged their grounds not good; and withal, that if they would be so ingenious as to acknowledge the weaknesses of their arguments, I would then show them my ground of faith; or if at any time they stood in need, I would not be wanting to the uttermost of my power to supply them, but I have seldom found any who in the heat of contest and prosecution of dispute have been qualified to receive what I had to say touching this matter, their apprehension and mine being at too great a distance therein.

But I bless God it is not so ill with me as some bad minded men desire, nor as some weak and scrupulous men imagine.

And there are some ingenious men, with whom I have daily conversed, that know I do acknowledge and believe there is a God, and that the Scriptures are the Word of God. Yet the testimony of men in this case to me is little; my own conscience being as a thousand witnesses.

That there is a God, I did never believe through any convincing power I have ever discerned by my utmost consideration of any natural argument or reason I ever heard or read. But it is an unexpressible power, that in a forcible manner constrains my understanding to acknowledge and believe that there is a God, and so to believe that I am fully persuaded there is no considerate man in the world but doth believe there is a God.

And, That the Scriptures are the Word of God I shall clearly make the same profession. That I have not believed them so to be, by force of any argument I have ever heard or read. I rather find by experience, most, if not all arguments, produced in prejudice thereof: (Art, argument, and compulsive power, in this case holding resemblance with the mighty strong wind, the Earth-quake and fire, distracting, terrifying and scorching the minds of men) but I believe them through an irresistible persuasive power that from within them (like unto the soft still voice wherein God was) hath pierced my judgment and affection in such sort, that with abundance of joy and gladness I believe, and in believing have that Peace which passeth all utterance or expression; and which hath appeared unto me after so many sad conflicts of a distracted conscience, and wounded spirit, that it is to me a heaven on earth. It being now long since, I bless God, that I can truly say, My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed, I will sing and give praise. In other respects, I conceive the most holy upon earth, if they give impartial ear to this voice, will find no cause to boast or to find fault with others, but as Eliah to cover their faces with a mantle.

And truly were it not that too too many pretenders to Religion are over apt to receive false reports (which is a most uncharitable disposition) and over prone to make the worst construction, which is altogether unchristian, it had been impossible for any to have abused me in these or any other respects.

But it will be needful for all such seriously to lay to heart, that they ought to do as they would be done unto in all things, that he who seemeth to be religious and bridles not his tongue, that man’s religion is vain.

That he who boasteth to believe a God, and the Scriptures to be the Word of God, and glorieth in his ability of exposition thereof: yet applieth it to the discovery of a mote in his brothers eye, rather than a beam in his own: he whose expressions and actions do demonstrate him to say within himself, Lord I thank thee I am not as other men,extortioners, unjust adulterers, nor as this Publican: This man whoever he be, is not yet got through the lesson of the Pharisees; that were wise in their own eyes, and despised others .

But it would be much more profitable to society and good neighbourhood that there were a more exact accompt taken by every man of his own ways; it is verily thought most men need not go abroad for want of work, if either pride, covetousness, backbiting, unreasonable jealousy, vanity of mind, dotage upon superfluities ~ with hard heartedness to the poor ~ were thought worthy of Reformation.

To be zealous in lip service, or to express our devotion in censuring of others, yields neither honour to God, nor good to man.

Who were more blind, than those who said are we blind, also? The Angel of the Church of Laodicea boasted that he was rich, and increased with goods and had need of nothing, and knew not that he was wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. [Rev. 3: 14-17.]

We have many now-a-days who are doubly unjust and think not of it; they are partial and favourable in examining and correcting of themselves, and severe towards others, when as they ought to be severe towards themselves, and favourable towards others.

And it is a fault not easily mended: it requires a greater power of religion to do it than the most have as yet attained, if one may judge by the Fruits: and therefore it will be good for every one to neglect that which is behind, and to press forward to the mark, for the price of the high Calling of God which is in Jesus Christ: either renounce the Name, or let your practice demonstrate that you are a Christian.

He who greedily receiveth a hard report of his neighbour is not provided of charitable and loving thoughts as he ought; and if he report any evil, before he be certain of the truth thereof, he is a slanderer; and when he is certain it is true, if he report it with delight, it argues him of malice.

He who is glad of his neighbour's defamation, would not be sorry at his ruin: a slanderer would be a murderer but for fear: and therefore, every honest virtuous religious man should shun a slanderer, as he would shun a Serpent.

And thus having said enough to free my self from this slander (if religious people will but study ingenuity, which hath been too much wanting amongst them), the whole course of my actions, writings and discourses, evidencing the contrary to all that thoroughly know me: and this my profession being added to satisfy those but by hearsay: I have done, judging it a small thing to be judged of any, or of man’s judgement. Who art thou that judgeth another mans servant; to his own master, he standeth or falleth. [Rom. 14:4.]

The liberty of my native Country, and the freedom of all conscientious people hath been, and still is precious in my esteem: nor shall I be discouraged (by any the unworthy slanders cast upon me) from a just and due prosecution of both, according to my place and calling. I shall make bold to deceive the deceiver and his instruments therein. I should be glad to see the Educated and customary moral Christians become Christians indeed, and cease to persecute. I should exceedingly rejoice to see the superstitious become really religious, and to see babes become strong men in Christ, and all bend their endeavours to deliver the captive and set the oppressed free, to reclaim the vicious, and to labour [for] the saving of the lost sheep of the house of England: To see Charity abound, and all envy, malice, and worldly mindedness to cease for ever, and not to be named amongst us, as becometh Saints indeed: to see all men ingenious, loving, friendly and tender-hearted towards another; but I must neither be silent, nor slothful till I see it, nor sorrow as one without hope of seeing it: but through evil report, and good report, do my duty ~ patiently expecting a good issue ~ laboring in all estates to be content, knowing there is no temptation hath taken hold upon others but may befall unto me. In the mean time, knowing all terrestrial things to be but vain and transitory, my chiefest comfort is, that I desire to know Nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified: accounting all things as loss and dung, that I may be found in Christ, not having my own righteousness which is of the Law, but the righteousness which is of God in him.

I have no quarrel to any man, either for unbelief or misbelief, because I judge no man believeth anything but what he cannot choose but believe; it is misery enough to want the comfort of true believing, and I judge the most convincing argument that any man can hold forth unto another, to prove himself a true sincere believer, is to practice to the uttermost that which his faith binds him unto: more of the deeds of Christians, and fewer of the arguments would do a great deal more good to the establishing of those that stagger: It being not the leaves but the fruit that nourisheth and carrieth the feed with it. Show me thy faith by thy works; If I have all faith and have not love, I am as sounding brass, or as a tinkling cymbal, if faith work, it works by love. Let us all therefore hence-forth walk in love, even as Christ hath loved, and hath given himself an offering and a sacrifice for us: to whom be glory and dominion for ever. Amen.

By William Walwyn, Merchant:
(there being a Minister of the same name.)


Notes and Links

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Cras eleifend augue nec nulla. Proin sollicitudin. Ut orci eros, venenatis eu, porttitor a, euismod fermentum, leo. Phasellus et augue at risus imperdiet placerat.


A still and soft voice
The above text has been edited modestly so that it may make better sense to the modern reader. Most changes are to punctuation; words are left where they were in the original text. Spelling also is modernized. The original text (including type-setting errors, spelling inconsistencies, etc.) is available here.
William Walwyn (1600-1681)
One of the more religiously oriented of the group that became known as the Levellers, Walwyn was also one of their best writers. In 1645, he had already published the pamphlet, "England's Lamentable Slavery." In 1649 he wrote the deeply anti-war tract, "The Bloody Project."
He wrote "A Still and Soft Voice" in 1647, apparently to clear himself of accusations that he was an atheist. He spends much of his essay characterizing those who would spread such slanders against him, but for the modern reader he also gives a glimpse of "the multitudes of good people in our days who, not content to possess their knowledge in a traditional way, do accustom themselves to try and examine all things."
Also quite interesting for Friends is Walwyn's regard for the importance of personal experience, as valid over and against theological arguments and strong-arm persuasion.
The phrasing in the crucial paragraph is convoluted, but using the metaphor of the "still, soft voice," he suggests that the fact of God's existence and the validity of scriptures speak to him directly, more convincingly than bluster or attempts at intimidation by those who are "religious" for superstitious or power-politics reasons. This is the same awkward spot that our hero George Fox found himself in, at the exact same historical moment (circa 1647), which he resolved with the bold declaration that the voice of God had spoken to him directly. It took Fox another five years or so to find an effective way to convey this insight to others.