As we discussed in the last blog post, George Fox moved from an understanding of God formed in Calvinism to a new way to understand, know, and experience God. When Fox started preaching in 1647 people gathered to seek something new due to their dissatisfaction with religion. Fox wasn’t trying to build a church but to share the message he felt God had given him for the whole world. He believed the world would hear this message and become the True Church with Christ as the head. All the deceit he saw in the church came from people betraying the basic principles of Christianity. The only way out, in Fox’s opinion, was an inward submission to God, acceptance of God’s grace, and listening to Christ’s voice in the inner self.(1)
Fox focused on people and not on forming a theological doctrine. He felt Christ, the Light within each person, would teach each person, just as Christ had taught him. As Christ met people, they would be convicted of sin, which would lead to true repentance. The work was God’s. Fox understood the Light within is the one who “guides, warns, encourages, speaks, chastens, cares.” (2) It illumines the Scripture and is the Christ we seek. Fox’s understanding comes from John 1:9 and 8:12.(3)
In contrast to Puritanism, Fox believed it didn’t matter if you had a pure heart or agreed outwardly to doctrine. What mattered was how one responded to the Light. So, Fox didn’t point people to Scripture or the cross but to the inner light, bringing their lives to this Light.
Puritanism, on the other hand, taught a morality code without assurance of salvation. People did not know if they would gain eternal life since it was uncertain if they were one of the “elect.” Puritanism was a response and reaction to the hierarchical churches’ actions due to power and control. Yet, they created rules, a form of control, in their desire for people to do “right.” This may seem like it comes from good intentions, but acting as morality police for other people doesn’t work. One of Fox’s main complaints with the Christian church was their interest "in a savior who could forgive sin but not in a Christ with moral power to overcome sin.” (4) Unfortunately, judging others in this way often leads to dehumanizing those who are not like us.
Fox believed we all the Light of God within us. We have different measures of light based on our own journeys. Some teach we have just a fragment of God, but Fox states it is a presence of God. There is only one true Light, and we enjoy this fullness of God in community. We can’t practice our faith journey in isolation but we need community around us. (5) As we become reconciled to God and creation, this Light is the source of truth, the power to act on that truth, and unity with God and others.(6)
If every person has the Light within, then all are created equal without regard to race, gender, or anything else. Fox criticized meetings that didn’t allow women to speak and supported many women in leadership roles. This understanding was also behind his unwillingness to fight since “that of God” was in every human. The social inequalities so firmly in place were abhorrent and needed to be eliminated. This understanding led to a different way of speaking to one another without the social constructs formed to keep people in place, such as titles and removing one’s hat.(7)
Fox sensed God revealing things to him, “openings.” He experienced this Inner Light through seeking God and studying the New Testament. His understanding of God changed. Fox taught the physical practice of the sacraments remaining in Protestantism kept people from experiencing the real meaning represented. He didn’t disagree with the historical creeds but rejected them since they were formed for political and diplomatic reasons. Those who held to them used them as a test of orthodoxy and killed those who disagreed. Fox felt these practices were not from the spirit of Christ but were in actuality “devilish.”(8) Due to these doctrinal issues, Fox spent time in prison for having beliefs outside of what was considered orthodox during this time.
It is entirely impossible to speak to all the aspects of George Fox’s ministry or of the efforts of his followers. It was a movement that spread from living out the implications of what Jesus lived out among us. This goes well beyond what we know to be right by allowing the effect of God’s gaze of love to impact those around us. For Fox, and those who were affected by his life and teaching, it made a difference. They lived out that difference in ways that had harsh implications for their own lives. Yet, they lived out precisely what they believed. They did not follow rules or debates over doctrine but stood courageously in knowing that there is “that of God” in every human and that that statement of truth matters.
Quakerism has struggled since this time to remember this truth and to live in a non-hierarchical understanding of leadership and worship. Throughout history, Quakers, like other denominations, have split and split again. We all still struggle with perceptions that have impacted Christianity all through history. What is the authority of Scripture as we understand who God is, who we are, and who is the “other?” Are some on the outside based on our understanding of Scripture? I would have to say that I have found a home in Quakerism and even more so after studying George Fox, even in this limited time. His understanding of church, of God, and of humankind resonates deeply in my heart, as home for me.
(1) John Punshon, Portrait In Grey: A Short History of the Quakers (London: Quaker Home Service, 1984), 43–44, 46.
(2) Ibid., 36.
(3) Ibid., 48–49.
(4) Wilmer A. Cooper, A Living Faith: An Historical Study of Quaker Beliefs (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1990), , 13.
(5) Punshon, Portrait In Grey, 50.
(6) Cooper, A Living Faith, 13.
(7) Rufus Jones, “Introduction,” in George Fox, An Autobiography (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903), 34-35.
(8) Punshon, Portrait In Grey, 47–48.
This phrase was a question asked by George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, during the 17th Century and seems to be still pertinent today. During this last semester, I studied the Reformation period and wrote my summary essay on George Fox. I included the context of the time along with his life story. I found it quite impactful and decided to share pieces of it here with you.
Outside of Quaker circles, George Fox is not widely known. His life was one of seeking out God and then faithfully following the God he discovered. As he sought out God and lived out his life as faithfully as he knew, people were impacted. What he discovered about God’s character changed how he viewed, lived around, and ministered to people. Even though we haven’t heard much about him in Evangelical Christianity, his thoughts have impacted what we hold true about God.
To understand Fox’s story, we first need to look at the context of the time in which he lived. The 17th Century wasn’t a time when religion was neglected. In fact, religion was generally on everyone’s minds. People talked about doctrine and the practice of living out one’s faith. They argued over the rightness and the wrongness of minute points of doctrine, religious understandings, practices of worship, and proper dietary restrictions. When a public meeting on religion was offered, people attended in crowds. Many came to enjoy the debates and to judge for themselves the validity of the arguments presented.(1)
We see arguments throughout Church History, one side claiming rightness over another. This time, in particular, was a time when people believed in religious liberty for themselves but were unwilling to grant it to others. Intolerance ruled when it came to understanding God and living a life of faith. People felt it not only their right but their duty to enforce their own convictions on one another.(2)
Quakerism, as a movement, started during the English Civil War, when religion was breaking away from the institutional church, the economy was suffering from inflation and depression, and there was a political revolt against the Stuart Monarchy. British historian Christopher Hill is quoted as saying “the world turned upside down.” Quakerism was a response to this tumultuous time. William Penn suggested that Quakerism was “primitive Christianity revived.” It is thought of as a way of life in contrast to living out a set of beliefs, theology, or doctrine. As Fox and his followers shared what they felt were God’s revelations for them and the world, they faced many trials with the religious and legal authorities.(3)
Let’s enter Fox’s journey as he started seeking answers to tough questions. He attended the local parish with his parents until he was 19. At this time, he stopped attending because he became more confused and acted on his feelings of spiritual unrest. He could not understand why religion did not make “bad” people “good.” Those in the church talked about faith and God, yet they looked just like the world. Fox started going around seeking answers from the different streams of Christianity. No one could speak to his “condition.” With no answers that met his questions, he left his friends and family to wander for three to four years. He sensed this move to be commanded by God.(4)
During this time, he read Scripture and sought God. He continued to ask ministers and professors questions and discussed with them his findings. They would reason with him but did not have answers for what he was seeking. God met him in his questions but outside of the leaders of the church or academia. He called these new understandings from God, “openings.” In a world dividing between Protestants and Catholics, he sensed God tell him that all Christians were believers, born of God. Also, he sensed that it wasn’t an education that qualified one to be a minister of Christ in contrast to this commonly held belief.(5)
Understanding that God did not approve of men as ministers due to education and that God did not dwell in specific buildings, brought a freedom to Fox that opened a way to discover God outside of both of those culturally approved means.(6) In anguish at times, Fox continued seeking answers from God to appease his soul hunger. In this place, he sensed God met him and wrote this oft-quoted phrase.
And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.(7)
In this place as a “heart hungry seeker,” Fox became a “joyous finder.” Other seekers who desired a satisfying experience with God listened to Fox and joined together in small groups. Next time we will discuss more of Fox’s message to a culture being greatly influenced by defining moral rightness and wrongness.(8)
(1) Walter R. Williams, The Rich Heritage of Quakerism (Newberg, Or.: Barclay Press, 1987), 13.
(2) Ibid., 24.
(3) Wilmer A. Cooper, A Living Faith: An Historical Study of Quaker Beliefs (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1990), 2.
(4) Williams, The Rich Heritage of Quakerism, 3-4.
(5) George Fox, George Fox, an Autobiography (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903), 66; Punshon, Portrait In Grey, 41, 74-75.
(6) Ibid., 76.
(7) George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, ed. John Nickalls (Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 11.
(8) Williams, The Rich Heritage of Quakerism, 5.
We’ve spoken about Hildegard of Bingen in my last couple of posts. If you haven’t followed along, you might want to look back over them. Previously, we talked about the cultural context of Hildegard’s time in history as well as her ability to be a voice to those around her. During this time, it was unheard of for a woman to be in a place of influence.
Hildegard’s writing, Scivias, opened room for her voice as a woman, due to its endorsement by the Pope. As she was writing it, Hildegard wrote the Abbott of the monastery, who oversaw her convent, about her sense that God was inviting her to establish a convent. The Abbott tried to discourage her and Hildegard became severely ill. He finally relented at her bedside when he was unable to lift her head.
Once given permission, she immediately got up and arranged everything that was required. Eighteen nuns moved with her. The new facility had running water, a scriptorium (a place for copying manuscripts often in a monastery), which gave authority to her work, and a document that established its independence from the monastery.(1)
Hildegard continued to struggle through sickness as her convent grew even more independent of male-dominated leadership. She was a gifted leader who courageously spoke to those in authority with what she sensed from God. She was a product of her time in understanding gender roles, yet she was able to speak to both secular and religious leaders, calling them out on their lax and immoral behavior.(2)
In one way she encouraged women to be submissive in society, but she did not hold herself to that same standard due to her understanding of becoming a “spiritual man.” The thought during this time was that a celibate, cloistered woman gained the position of a “spiritual man.” She viewed her weakness as a woman making God’s power visible.(3)
As time went on, Hildegard’s writing and fame increased. She began preaching tours through Germany, Switzerland, and France. Hildegard left behind copies of her sermons for those who were moved by her teachings.(4) A woman teaching outside of her convent was unheard of at the time. Women were not allowed to hold a priestly office, preach, or be a spiritual counselor.(5) Extraordinarily, Hildegard was able to complete four preaching tours.(6)
Hildegard had courage and boldness in the face of injustice. One story concerns an excommunicated nobleman she allowed to be buried in the convent cemetery. Those in authority demanded that she remove the man’s bones from their grounds. Hildegard refused, and she and her convent were punished by not being allowed to take the sacraments.(7) Limiting sacraments as a place of worship was a real hardship for the nuns. Hildegard, at age 81, removed everything that could have been used to dig the man up. Through this time, she wrote continuous letters and eventually the punishment was lifted. She died soon after, in 1179.(8)
Hildegard considered herself a person like Moses as she called the church to reform and to a new age of the Holy Spirit. In this, she hoped to be a voice into a new morality and a changed understanding of how God and humankind relate.(9) She continually called others to live a life of intense virtue. Anything short of that, she considered lukewarm. Hildegard had singleness of purpose and would threaten people to increase their level of commitment.(10)
Beyond the Scivias, she wrote two more volumes: ethics and a scientific treatise. She wrote nine books on nature, a holistic book of healing, liturgical poetry, music, visionary tracts, and the first morality play.(11) We have over 400 letters written to secular and religious leaders, as well as lay people.(12) In addition to her writing and teaching, she formed two convents which housed 80 women in each.(13) Others viewed her as a spiritual mother and cherished friend.(14)
There is a lot of information available on Hildegard, which is impressive considering she was a woman in the Middle Ages. One could judge her for her tendency to support the class and gender hierarchies during her time. It is essential to consider the cultural understandings that surrounded her and informed her view of the world and God. It is astonishing to see the boldness and courage she used to speak to those in power and how much authority she was granted.
In truth, it was due to both her outspokenness and the endorsement of those in authority that gave her the ability to be published and to preach. Her ability to be bold and walk in how she sensed God leading allowed her to be such an example for those who followed after her. As time goes on, we see other female religious writers allowed a platform.
Hildegard is an example of living a life of faith. However, it is essential to understand her life within her own culture and to recognize her courage and faith. What is the invitation for us in our own time? It will probably look different than Hildegard’s. Can we accept the invitation to refuse to accept the status quo? Are we being invited to speak to a new and fresh relationship with God? These are good questions, and we have an excellent model to follow.
Note: The image at the top is Hildegard praying to the Holy Spirit. The other image is a piece of art, created by Hildegard, depicting the six days of creation.
(1) Katharina M. Wilson, Medieval Women Writers (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984), 110-11.
(2) Julia Dietrich, “The Visionary Rhetoric of Hildegard of Bingen,” in Listening to Their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women, ed. Molly Meijer Wertheimer (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 201.
(3) Ibid., 204, 210.
(4) Carol P MacCormack, “Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century Holistic World View,” Blossoming of a Holistic World View (Landenberg, Pa.: Quaker Universalist Fellowship, 1992), 2.
(5) Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 3.
(6) Wilson, 112.
(7) Ibid., 114.
(8) MacCormack, 2.
(9) Ibid., 208.
(10) Elizabeth Dreyer, Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2005), 95.
(11) Ibid., 77; Dietrich, 199.
(12) Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman, vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 4.
(13) MacCormack, 1.
(14) Dreyer, 95.
This year, I am studying church history and the development of theology through time. I started with Jesus and the Early Church and will finish this summer with American Church History. It has been an incredible journey of seeing God meet humankind through history - even through humankind’s imperfect efforts of living a life of faith the “right” way.
One quote that seems to summarize the purpose and gift of looking through history caught my attention.
…a visit to the past provides distance and a vantage point from which to comprehend the present. (1)
It is on this journey through the past which allows us to see the thread of legacy that defines our Christian faith. How the people in history have shaped our view of God, ourselves, and how the world works, has been an insightful experience. It is from that perspective, I would like to share how certain individuals in our past have shaped our views as well as how they invite us to look at the understandings we hold to be true.
Would you join me as we discover more about one such individual, Hildegard of Bingen?
To fully explore her story will take a few blog posts. We will look at Hildegard’s story, the context of the world she lived in and how that impacted her views, as well as her many and varied contributions. Hildegard was a prophet, scientist, mystic, visionary, poet, dramatist, musician, composer, and theologian. She was indeed a Renaissance woman.
Let’s explore more about her…
In 1098, Hildegard was the 10th child born to an aristocratic, upper nobility family in Bermersheim, Germany. (2) At eight-years-old, her parents dedicated her to religious life. Some view this as a means of education for a gifted young girl in that time. Others suggested she was a tithe to the church, being the 10th child. (3) It seems we honestly do not know her parents’ motives.
Sending a young child to live in a monastery would be unheard of today. However, during the Middle Ages, women were considered weaker and lower than men. This understanding impacted their ability to receive an education as well as their ability to teach or stand in their authority. Women had to know their place in society due to being judged for their emotionality.(4) Men were able to pursue a university education and teaching positions yet, this was entirely out of the question for women. Wealthy families interested in an educational opportunity for their daughters sent them to convents at a young age.(5)
Jutta von Spanheim, a family friend, was only six years older than Hildegard and lived as an anchorite connected to a Benedictine monastery.(6) An anchorite is someone who has decided to pursue a religious life of solitude, prayer, and study. During this time, choosing this kind of life meant a young woman could be free to pursue her relationship with God and not a life devoted to marriage and family. She could choose her own way to live. Those who chose a religious life were considered more spiritual, or closer to God, than those outside the church.
Jutta taught her young student to read using the Latin Bible and to recite the Benedictine office, specific prayers at specific times. Through time, other young women joined Jutta and Hildegard. When Jutta died in 1136, the other sisters asked Hildegard to be their new abbess, their leader.(7)
Learning Latin and reading the Bible would not have been available to a girl outside the convent. We will see this later as a gift that allowed Hildegard to write, speak, teach, and influence the religious authorities of her time. Remember, women were considered less than men and were not allowed education or the ability to teach or influence thought.
In fact, during the Middle Ages, laypeople did not have access to the Bible. The Church authorities felt they needed to protect others by controlling the interpretation of Scripture. The printing press and the translation of Scripture into German came a few centuries later.
Imagine being a gifted and intelligent girl, curious about God and the world around you, yet not free to pursue an education or to able to choose how to live your life. Leaving your home and family at eight-years-old being the way that gave you that right. I would imagine young Hildegard soaked up all she could even within any confusion caused by this change in her life. Hildegard seemed to truly embrace her journey due to the other nuns asking her to take the abbess role after Jutta passed.
As we continue this series, we will see how Hildegard influenced the world she lived in, even as a lowly woman. It is quite a story. So, to be continued…
Note: The picture at the top of this post is a portion of one of many of Hildegard of Bingen’s paintings. Here it is in full. This one depicts the choir of angels and is from her Rupertsberg manuscript.
1. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd edition, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 2.
2. Katharina M. Wilson, Medieval Women Writers (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984), 109.
3. Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman, vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5,11.
4. Elizabeth Dreyer, Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2005), 76.
5. Ibid., 18.
6. Ibid., 78.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!