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Historical texts  >  Primitive Christianity Revived, William Penn  >  Introduction to the 2004 Web Edition


Primitive Christianity Revived...

By William Penn.

From a reprint edition, including a Brief Memoir of Penn, by James M. Brown, 1857.


Introduction to the Web Edition, 2004.

Why put this old book on the web?

There are several reasons to put this edition of Penn's Primitive Christianity Revived on the web. First, readers may want to see how Penn supports his claim that Quakers had reconstituted the early Christian movement. Second, those interested in intellectual history may be interested to compare Penn's warrant for Quakerism, written in the 1690s, with the warrants asserted by the first wave of Quakers. Third, modern-day Friends today may use Penn's classic work to ask themselves, "What has become of Quakerism?" -- contrasting our Religious Society of Friends against the understanding that the early generations of Friends had about their religion.

Finally, and serendiptiously, this particular source—an 1857 reprint edition of Penn's book—has an answer to charges contained in another work on this same website, T. B. Macaulay's History of England.

Primitive Christianity Revived?
Flyer advertising this book.

Having scanned and OCR'd the book, indexed and meta-tagged it, I've also read it through a couple of times. As a summary, I would say it isn't quite what we might expect from the title. There's a premise, which might be stated here explicitly, that the bible gives a full and accurate representation of the early Christian movement. From our vantage in the early 21st century, we might note that Penn lacks the perspective many of us take today, after three centuries of historical, archeological, and hermeneutic inquiry into the nature of early Christianity.

We might say, rather, that Penn focuses the theology of early Christians, as given in the Bible, and how that theology is manifested in the tenets of faith and practice held by Quakers in the late 1600s. This is well and good, but it tends to neglect the experience of the first generation of Friends, who sought to follow the divine Spirit "experimentally," and who found themselves as if by accident on the same ground as the early Christians, which they were able to confirm by reference to scripture. In other words, early Quaker faith and practice did not derive simply from a closer reading of the Bible than other professed "Christians" had given it, but from turning to and utterly trusting the inward guide.

Earlier Quaker insights, and Penn's formulation

In a phrase that serves today as a touchstone for the Quaker approach, George Fox remarks, "This I knew experimentally." Or, as we might say today, "I knew it from my own personal experience, rather than from someone else's instruction or from reading it somewhere." * 

In his journal, Fox writes:

Now the Lord God opened to me by His invisible power that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ, and I saw it shine through all; and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the Light of life, and became the children of it; but they that hated it, and did not believe in it were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man; neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw, in that Light and Spirit which was before the Scriptures were given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all, if they would know God or Christ, or the Scriptures aright, must come to that Spirit by which they that gave them forth were led and taught. * 

And in the part of Fox's journal known as his commission, he writes, "I was sent to turn people from darkness to the Light... I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth." † 

Penn standing with document in right hand, native Americans in background.
William Penn, 1644-1718.

Nowhere in his work Primitive Christianity Revived, does Penn state so clearly that Friends were led by the Spirit before they found confirmation of their leadings in Scripture. Bear in mind that Penn wrote his book nearly fifty years after Fox's earliest moments of insight, which occurred while Penn himself was still in diapers. In the early 1690s, Penn was writing for an audience that no longer anxiously sought to follow the Spirit through tumultuous times. His explanation is after-the-fact, and he tends to deal mainly with aspects of Quaker faith and practice by which Friends were already widely known, such as their use of terms like "inward light," showing where these are found in scripture.

What has become of Quakerism?

Several chapters late in Penn's book, however, give us insights into the spiritual and sociological condition of the Religious Society of Friends in Penn's time and since. Chapters 8 and 9 are an important reference in considering how Quakers downplayed the "passion" of Jesus, his death on the cross and his final resurrection, which today gets such a strong emphasis from the "Mel Gibson" school of christianity.

Chapter 10 of Primitive Christianity Revived has a lot for Friends today, perhaps especially for those who have retained the "waiting" mode of silent, unprogrammed worship. Early sections set the standards for ministry, and explain the tacit assumptions that are still widely held, to a greater or lesser extent, in unprogrammed meetings.

The most cogent query for modern Friends comes in Chapter 10, where Penn tries to answer an objection made by his contemporaries that, without a religious hierarchy and a paid priesthood, the Society of Friends might slide into carelessness and "do-it-yourself" styles of religiosity.

Obj. But does not this sort of ministry, and worship, tend to make people careless, and to raise spiritual pride in others, may it not give an occasion to great mischief and irreligion?

Would "unprogrammed" Friends today be satisfied by Penn's answer to this objection (as given in the last section of Chapter 10)? What answer might we make, in light of the experience acquired in the last three centuries?

Penn's Treaty with Indians
Penn's Treaty led to seven decades of accord with the indigenous peoples of Pennsylvania.

For those who know the history of Friends, we might say that Friends did try to stay the course that Penn describes in this chapter, but that difficulties emerged over time that seemed to force new approaches, attempted in different ways by each of the branches of the Religious Society of Friends that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. The question then would be whether any of these changes satisfactorily meet the objection that Penn entertained, while still sustaining the essentials of the faith described in Penn's work as a whole.

Chapter 11 identifies and briefly defends what had become for Penn's contemporaries the main characteristics of the sect, many of which persisted until at least the late 1800s. Overall, Penn's short book sketches many aspects that are still recognizable in the modern Religious Society of Friends – the emphasis on the "Divine Light" as a necessary and sufficient guide (with many provisos and qualifications, for which see the first seven chapters of the book), the de-emphasis on the "blood of Christ," the Quaker style of worship, and many of the testimonies.

[Penn's writings] present an evolving understanding of how God relates to humanity and how the Religious Society of Friends would relate to the world surrounding it. More than The Journal of George Fox or Robert Barclay's Apology, they set the direction for the development of that faith community for the next one hundred and fifty years and, consequently, the shape of that religious body today.

So writes Paul Buckley in his introduction to a collection of five of Penn's works, including "Primitive Christianity Revived," which Buckley recently translated into modern English and had published by the Earlham School of Religion. This is an interesting way to frame the questions posed above, effectively putting the Quakers of the 1700s and earliest part of the 1800s into a pivotal position.

Macaulay's accusations against Wm. Penn
T.B. Macaulay
T.B. Macaulay

For several years, the Street Corner Society website has had T. B. Macaulay's History of England, which gives an overview of the period in which the Quaker movement first erupted and then consolidated, but from a perspective that is decidedly unsympathetic to Friends. A guide to Macaulay's history, also at this site, points to each instance where Penn is mentioned. It was hoped that the charges against Penn, contained in that 1849 book, would be understood in the context of Macaulay's general approach.

Although a "liberal" by his contemporary standards (and perhaps even by ours) Macaulay seems to dance around the deep challenges that Friends presented to the British establishment of the late 1600s. ††  William Penn, as a statesman and an effective advocate for the Quaker approach, becomes the main target for Macaulay's discomfort. The excesses of his treatment of Penn point to deeper biases in his consideration of the accord reached in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Macaulay was writing at a time when the British Empire, having taken a heavy blow in the American Revolution, was once again expanding around the world, and Macaulay himself was personally involved in setting much of the new framework of understanding. (For instance, Macaulay led a commission to India that decided that English would be the language of instruction in the education system there!)

This book contains a refutation of Macaulay's charges against Penn, in chapter 5 of James M. Brown's "Memoir of Penn," written to introduce a 1857 reprint of Penn's Primitive Christianity Revived. The refutation, by the way, appears to be excerpted from William Hepworth Dixon's Life of Penn, but with only cursory attribution. (At some point, I'll find an original of Dixon's book and check it against Brown's.)

(These paragraphs are being written and rewritten. Comments are welcome. - Kirk Wattles <CONTACT>)


Notes and Links

 *  - On the Quaker threat to the establishment.
One wonderful work on how deeply Quakers threatened the establishment of 17th-century Britain is found in Doug Gwyn, The Covenant Crucified (1995).
 **  - This I knew experimentally
In Fox's classic narrative statement of his moment of revelation, in Chapter 1 of his Journal.
 †  - ... neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures ...
From Fox's Journal, Chapter 2, in the paragraph beginning "Now the Lord God opened to me by His invisible power..."
 ††  - I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures
This is the main paragraph of 'Fox's commission,' marked in the web edition of Fox's Journal with a pink asterisk.