In ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ (Qf&p), the ‘book of discipline’ of Quakers in Britain, there is no chapter dedicated to sin or evil. Quakers are not known for their sin-talk. Early Quakers would accuse the Calvinists of ‘preaching up sin’. In Qf&p, there are Edgar B Castle’s words that ‘to contemplate evil is a poor way of becoming good’ (26.69). However, Qf&p does have quite a bit to say about sin and evil, and I’ve put this summary together as part of my work on Quakers and racism. I find sin-talk to be a useful theological tool when talking about racism from a faith perspective, and I want to better understand how Quakers do sin-talk in our book of discipline.
Qf&p is an anthology of different voices, so it doesn’t give us a unified or systematic explanation of sin and evil, but there are some general patterns to how evil and sin are understood. This blog post is a summary of these patterns. I gathered these passages together by searching for ‘sin’ and ‘evil’. I also searched for ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’, as Quakers have used the metaphor of darkness as synonymous with sin and evil. However, darkness is more morally ambiguous than sin and evil. Sin and evil are almost always spoken of in negative terms, whereas darkness is sometimes treated in a more neutral, even positive way. I’ll begin with these neutral and positive understandings of darkness, before moving on to darkness as it relates to sin and evil.
Darkness as a natural process
There is darkness as a natural part of being alive, or a natural process we need to work through at different times in our lives. There is reference to the ‘dark night of the soul’, from the writings of Spanish mystic John of the Cross. This ‘dark night’ is a necessary part of spiritual growth. T Edmund Harvey speaks of the difficulty of silent prayer and periods of spiritual dryness that are characteristic of the ‘dark night’ (2.31). Margery Still speaks of the dark night of bereavement, and the necessity of ‘experiencing the loss to the full when the time has come. A readiness and an openness to the approach of that dark night are necessary’ (22.81). Pat Saunders speaks of our passing through a ‘dark night of our planetary soul to a new period of harmony with the God that is to be found within each of us’ (29.03). [This third example I’m not sure about, as I suspect we’d want to name the human-made climate crisis as an evil, and as a result of sin, rather than any sort of natural process to be journeyed through.] There is also talk of darkness in a manner similar to Jungian psychoanalysis, where our darkness, our ‘shadow side’, is not necessarily thought of as evil, but is to be integrated into a complete personality. Lorna M Marsden writes that ‘in this century we have been newly filled by the conscious knowledge of our own darkness… It is by encounter with our own darkness that we recognise the light. It is the light itself which shows us the darkness – and both are summoned within us’ (21.10). Similarly, Jo Farrow writes that George Fox ‘found that, having faced and acknowledged his dark self, he came upon a more liberating truth at the heart of himself… Both [darkness and light] are symbols of the unconscious and of the contradictions and polarities of our being – our dark negativities and our shining possibilities’ (26.29). The most positive description of darkness in Qf&p, again as a natural process, is S Jocelyn Burnell’s: ‘Although we tend to equate evil with darkness, we should remember that in the plant world roots grow in the dark. Darkness (and shadows) are as much a part of the natural order as light’ (22.50). This chimes with the only positive description of sin in Qf&p, in Kenneth C Barnes’ words that ‘our sins have been said to be stepping-stones to God’ (21.07). [Here sin is thought of as ‘mistakes we learn from’. Although I think God can bring good our of evil, it’s problematic to say evil is necessary to bring about good. Also, I think the best understanding of sin is relational – sin is broken relationship. So from that perspective, sins are always stepping-stones away from God.]
Rejecting harmful sin-talk
As well as describing darkness as a natural process, there are a number of passages that state what is not sinful. A Quaker understanding of sin is shaped by rejecting harmful, sinful theologies of sin, specifically around sexuality and relationships. The characterising of natural, wholesome sexuality as sinful or evil is harmful (22.13; 22.17), as is a focus on sin when a marriage breaks down (22.76). Homosexuality in particularly can’t be thought of as inherently sinful (22.15). Conflict is not to be equated with evil, and to do so works against our efforts for a peaceful world (24.22).
Undeserved and unavoidable suffering
In between darkness as a natural process, and darkness as synonymous with evil and sin, is a ‘grey area’. This is darkness as undeserved suffering, and the suffering that is an unavoidable part of life. Darkness is that which is sad and sorrowful (22.26), feelings of isolation (21.20) and the fear of death (21.52). It’s a ‘thick night’ (20.23) of spiritual trial, and physical suffering (20.21). There are the dark moments of marriage breakdown and divorce (10.23; 22.78), and the darkness of an aborted pregnancy (22.56). The world is a dark place (20.39), filled with those who are in need and suffering oppression and deprivation (24.45). There is the experience of being called evil and sinful for taking a stand for truth (19.42; 23.41). God doesn’t promise that we will live free from evil (22.70), but no matter how dark the situation, God is with us in it. ‘We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there’ (29.01). This was the experience of James Nayler, who felt God near him when he ‘was beset in darkness (20.21), and of George Fox, who exhorted Friends to ‘sing and rejoice… for the Lord is at work in this thick night of Darkness that may be felt’ (20.23).
Darkness as the opposite of light
For early Friends, darkness was almost always spoken of as the opposite of light, and therefore synonymous with sin and evil, everything that was anti-God. From now on, I’ll be treating these three terms as interchangeable. George Fox saw ‘the ocean of darkness and death’ as in opposition to the ocean of God’s infinite love (19.03). Robert Barclay saw darkness as irreconcilable with light, as Christ is with antichrist (24.02). William Penn equates darkness with death (22.95), and Job Scott spoke of God defeating the powers of darkness (20.02). Similarly, James Nayler saw the Spirit of God as the antithesis of evil (19.12), chiming with the words of the Friends World Committee for Consultation in 1976, that ‘the life and power of God are greater than evil (23.31).
Darkness only revealed by the light
As well as darkness being the opposite of light, darkness needs to be revealed by light. The difference between good and evil is not immediately apparent to us, and we need the light of God to tell the difference (19.43). George Fox wrote of God revealing the origin of evil as springing from the human heart and mind (19.03). William Dewsbury experienced the light revealing the evil in his heart (19.05). Thomas Ellwood experienced the Divine Light of Christ revealing and fighting against the evil within him (19.15). Similarly, Samuel Bownas speaks of the Spirit of Christ having victory over his evil deeds (19.60). Thomas R Kelly describes God as ‘the revealer of light and darkness’ (2.10). Jo Vellacott speaks of a resistance to the Light, because ‘I perhaps don’t altogether want to take the demands involved, don’t want to see all the dust in my life’ (20.05). This understanding is perhaps most familiarly captured in Advices and Queries No.1, which tells us God’s light ‘shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Taking a different approach, John Wilhelm Rowntree speaks of how the crucifixion of Jesus reveals sin, for in it we see ‘the nature of God’s relation to sin, of the pain we inflict on his heart by our own wrongdoing… the hatefulness of the sin that caused [the crucifixion]’ and are called ‘to hate the sins that made him mourn, to scale the barrier of sin’ (26.49).
Passages from the early 20th century onwards show a shift from evil within the individual, to the revealing of social evils. William Charles Braithwaite speaks of how deep-rooted evils ‘lurk unsuspected in the system of things until men of keen vision and heroic heart drag them into the light, or until their insolent power visibly threatens human welfare’ (23.05). Although here Braithwaite doesn’t mention God as the revealing power, elsewhere he says ‘the faithful following of the Light that illumines the alert conscience still seems to many of us the truest way for securing this deeper experience and for recognising and combating the evils that menace social and international life’ (23.13). Braithwaite’s contemporary Joseph Rowntree speaks of revealing evil in the same manner, and the need to search out the underlying causes of weakness and evil (23.18). This concern with social evil is reflected in Richard Hilken’s words in 1992/3: ‘To change our attitudes to housing will be no less of a challenge to us than slavery was for the reformers, not only because institutional evil is hard to recognise but also because so many of us benefit personally from the present situation’ (23.23).
What is sin?
Specific evils and sins named are personal pride, the vain use of resources and economic inequality (20.29), exploitative relationships (22.38), torture and slavery (23.31/30), homelessness and unjust land owners (23.23), unemployment (23.69), war (23.92; 24.04) armaments (24.40), and nuclear weapons (24.41). Sin occurs in our thoughts and words (20.11). It is experienced as a sense of failure (26.10). Sin is spoken of as a breaking of relationship. If we are intimately connected to each other in a web of divine love, sin is the tearing of this web, or attempting to withdraw from it (26.35). Sin separates us from God’s presence (19.05). Because we are connected in this way, we are affected by the sins of others: ‘the dimming of the Light anywhere darkens us all’ (23.09). Because sin is relational, it is social, and so can occur on a national, even global scale, in our social institutions (23.08) and the sphere of international relations. (24.24) Although Mary Hughes could speak of sinners as those who ‘dupe and bamboozle’ (18.13), there is generally a sense in Qf&p that we are all sinners. George Fox saw a universality to sin, saying that ‘all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been’ (19.02). Elizabeth Fry saw the belief that ‘all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23) as part of the humility required for prison visitors (23.98). We sin when we accept unjust systems (25.12) and we all know the sin of moral failure (18.20).
The way out of sin
The good news is that, not only does the light reveal the darkness, God is with us in the darkness, and God’s light can lead us out of it. George Fox believed he ‘was sent to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus’ (28.03). William Dewsbury speaks of his will becoming aligned with God’s (19.45). James Nayler speaks of waiting in patience ‘till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee’ (21.65). William Penn speaks of how the Light of Christ ‘leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light’ (26.44). Janet Scott affirms that ‘if we follow the leadings of this Spirit faithfully we are led out of sin into unity with the divine will; that this unity leads us into love of and care for all humankind, who are our kin’ (27.26). She points to Jesus as a symbol of the ‘creativity of love which remakes hope out of despair, promise out of sin’ (26.50). Sheila Bovell speaks of God treading the Way [of the dark road] with us, holding us when we faltered, giving us the strength to go hesitatingly forward’ (22.83). Edgar B Castle quotes Isaac Penington that when he searched ‘for the least of all seeds… which was its turning against sin and darkness; we came by degrees to find we had met with the pure living eternal Spirit’ (26.69). This is echoed by London Yearly Meeting’s words in 1943 that through Christ ‘we know that God dwells with men and that by turning from evil and living in his spirit we may be led into his way of peace’ (24.09).
Corporate worship plays a particular role in the weakening of evil. Advices and Queries No.9 asks Friends to ‘yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find “the evil weakening in you and the good raised up”.’ These words appear again in 2.42. This is a much-loved quote from Robert Barclay, who wrote that ‘when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up’(19.21). J Ormerod Greenwood writes that ‘we sit in silence so as not to trip over words; and we trust the good in each other which is from God, so that we may be kept from the evil’ (2.68).
Once evil has been exposed and weakened inwardly, it must be confronted. This might be through holding one another accountable within the Quaker community. Men’s monthly meetings were established in part to ‘cherish the good and reprove the evil’ (19.49). Joshua Barber is spoken of as being ‘a terror to evil-doers’ in his openness to truth (18.05). However, the confrontation of evil is mainly spoken of within Qf&p as Quakers confronting evils within the non-Quaker world. William Penn spoke of how Christians should ‘guide the vessel’ of the world, to prevent it from being ‘driven by the fury of evil times upon the rock or sand of ruin’ (23.02). Eva I Pinthus writes that ‘actively confronting the evil in this world’ is an imperative for Quakers (23.04). Roger Wilson speaks of relief workers as finding themselves ‘in the centre of the world’s evil’ (24.30).
A key Biblical text for Quakers in confronting evil are the words of Paul in Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ This is referred to again and again. William Penn writes that ‘a good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it’ (24.03). It is perhaps in this vein that Edgar B Castle writes ‘to contemplate evil is a poor way of becoming good’ (26.69). The Yearly Meeting has repeatedly affirmed throughout the 20th century that ‘evil can only be finally overcome by good’ (23.94). This is also the maxim for Quaker attitudes to criminal punishment (23.02) and is one of the roots of Quaker peacework (24.15). Echoing Friends’ words on the crucifixion of Jesus, Roger Wilson writes that ‘it is ultimately the power of suffering in love that redeems men from the power of evil’ (24.24). Another key Biblical text for Friends is John 1:5 – ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ There is a hopefulness to this text, that not only will the light ‘always shine and lead many into the world of need, that they may bear it up into the heart of God’ (26.62), but the victory of the light means that ‘no man is ever utterly lost, and however deep he is sunk in evil, the only just approach to him is to work for his recovery’ (23.95).
- Darkness is an ambiguous symbol within Quakerism, and is not always negative in the way that ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ are usually used.
- In a world full of sinful sin-talk, it’s important to state what is not sinful and evil.
- The world is full of undeserved and unavoidable suffering, not all of which can be related to sin and evil.
- God is with us in our suffering and struggles.
- There is evil in the world, that which is in opposition to God. The roots of evil are in the human will, in the heart and mind. Sin, a condition of moral failure and broken relationship, touches all people.
- When we attend to God’s light, the evil within us is revealed and weakened, and can be addressed and overcome.
- We can confront evil in the world, overcoming it with good, with the confidence that the light the enlightens every person can never be fully extinguished.
Some thinking out loud:
There are positive ways of talking about darkness, and this might be particularly important in relation to Quaker talk about racism. Although the Quaker association of darkness with evil and sin is Biblical (and so predates the modern understanding of race) in a context of white supremacy where value is assigned according to the ‘lightness’ or ‘darkness’ of your skin, speaking about darkness purely in a negative way could be problematic.
In terms of unavoidable, undeserved suffering, I suspect more of this could be thought of as sin-derived than is normally the case. I don’t mean things like attributing natural disasters to gay marriage. Rather, some suffering that is thought of as a purely individual problem (such as poor mental health) might be better attributed to living within an unjust (and therefore sinful) system.
I wonder how many passages in Qf&p speak to the realities of sin and evil without using those words? There may be much implicit sin-talk that I’ve missed. One example is the 1991 Epistle of Black, white, Asian and mixed-heritage Friends:
Our Society is often blind to the gifts and richness of other traditions and this cultural chauvinism impedes its development. Racism within the Society of Friends is perhaps more damaging because it is unconscious and springs from stereotyped assumptions: ‘And no harm is meant by it. Harm may be done but it is never meant’ (10.13).
To my mind, this passage is speaking about sin, and how we can sin without intending to – in the way that William Penn was able to write so eloquently about good and evil and still ‘own’ enslaved people. It strikes me that (at least in how they’re represented in Qf&p) early Friends were concerned with combating evil and sin within the individual, and 20th century Friends were concerned with combating evil and sin in the (non-Quaker) world. In our conversations about racism, perhaps we need to rediscover the early Quaker experience of the light revealing our own internal darkness, and find helpful ways to talk about the evil that we unconsciously do, yet are still responsible for. I also think we need more on how individual sin and social sin are related (which we get some of in 23.23). Systems are made up of individual people after all.
I wonder how sin and evil will feature in the new ‘book of discipline’?