Early Quakers like George Fox packed their writing with biblical allusions. The reason why they did it, though, is profound. Michael Birkel explains in this week’s QuakerSpeak.
For me, it is immensely rewarding to read early Quaker writings, particularly ones that are invitational to the profundities of the inward life, and over the years as I’ve become further acquainted with them, I’ve become persuaded that it’s useful to hear the biblical echoes and imagery that are just scattered throughout them, because when we explore those passages and understand those allusions, it opens up new worlds of possibility for us.
How George Fox Fit 7 Bible References into a Single Sentence
My name is Michael Birkel, I live in Richmond, Indiana, where I am a member of Clear Creek Friends Meeting, part of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, and I work at the Earlham School of Religion where I teach courses in spirituality and interfaith studies.
And so I’d like to walk us through just a few phrases, a short passage from a letter by George Fox in 1663 to Quakers who were in prison. They were being persecuted for their faith, they were suffering for their fidelity to their community, and he wrote to offer them consolation and hope and joy.
“Sing and rejoice, you children of the day and of the light, for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. Truth does flourish as the rose. Lilies do grow among the thorns, the plants atop the hills, and upon them the lambs do skip and play.”
It’s beautiful imagery. That’s a wonderfully consoling letter to those who are in prison. However, if you listen to this with an ear for the biblical imagery that’s in it, you hear a much deeper message.
“Sing and rejoice,” it begins. You can debate whether they rejoiced much, but I think you can generally agree that the early Quakers were not renowned for their choral work. And so maybe he’s quoting the bible. In fact, he is. He’s quoting Zechariah, one of those little minor prophets near the end of the Hebrew scriptures. Chapter 2, verse 10, which begins “sing and rejoice” and it is written to people who are in exile, assuring them that God is with them and that they will come home. So it’s a message of consolation and a promise of liberty to those who are captive.
So “sing and rejoice, ye children of the day and of the light.” “Children of the day and of the light” is one of the ways that Paul describes the believers in the first epistle to the Thessalonians in chapter 5. I probably don’t need to say much to Quakers about the light, but just to let you know that it’s what one of my Quaker historian friends would say is one of the biblical “doo-wops,” one of the verses peeking through the background of the text of this letter.
“The Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt.” That, actually, is from the book of Exodus and it is one of the plagues. Frogs, flies and so forth, and one of the plagues was a plague of darkness. The darkness, it said, was so thick that it could be felt. However, the children of the Hebrews who were faithful to their Gods experienced light in that time of darkness. Here is George Fox writing to these prisoners—and prisons were very dark back then—and he’s promising them that the light is with them.
He goes on to say that “truth shall flourish like the rose.” Flourish like the rose is a passage from Isaiah, chapter 35: another scriptural passage that speaks to exiles saying that you are suffering now, but you will have liberation, you will have freedom despite your present captivity.
“The lilies do grow among the thorns.” That is a phrase from the Song of Songs, which is a short book in the Bible that’s filled with love poetry, and in the history of the Christian church and in the Jewish synagogue, the Song of Songs was understood to be a love song between God and the community, or a mystical love song between God and the soul. In the Song of Songs, the speaker says my beloved is “like a lily among the thorns.” I think for me it hints at a profound intimacy of divine presence that can be felt, even though they are in a very bleak situation, imprisoned for their faith.
And the letter continues: “the plants shall grow atop the hills.” This, I believe, is a reference to a passage in the book of Jeremiah, written during a time of war, saying to those who are in exile (again) that you shall come home and you shall plant your crops on the hills and you shall harvest them—which is not what happens when an invading army comes through and eats all your produce. So, again, it’s a message of homecoming and of renewal and of comfort.
And he says,“Upon them the lambs shall skip and play.” Well, the Song of Songs describes the beloved again as skipping like a gazelle on the hillside. Or it could also be a reference to Psalm 114, which in fact is a retelling of the story of Exodus. Once again, a story of release from captivity.
And so what’s happening in this letter? If you take out the biblical allusions, you’re basically left with a few conjunctions and some random punctuation. And believe me, punctuation was really random in the 17th century. And so by catching all of these allusions, by hearing these biblical echoes, you encounter a kind of layered-ness of meaning. Not that he was writing in a secret code, but rather he was using what early Friends experienced as the language of the soul, because for them the biblical story was not just something that happened long ago, it was something that happens within each reader. It is re-lived. Each of us has our own exile, each of us has our own exodus as well, each of us has a return to the land flowing with abundance.
And so what’s the value of hearing those biblical echoes is that I think we can appreciate the depth of the experience that early Friends had and we can feel even more fully invited into them.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
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- How many of the biblical references could you spot when Michael first read the quote? What new meaning did the letter take on when you came to understand the context?
- Michael Birkel says that “the biblical story was not just something that happened long ago, it was something that happens within each reader. It is re-lived. Each of us has our own exile, each of us has our own exodus as well.” Have you ever read the Bible from this perspective, relating each story to your own life? How might that change your relationship with the Bible?