Who are these people? What do they care about? These are more difficult questions, reading the text, than what does it mean. Perhaps I can only say what it means for me- a Postmodern view- but I might learn a little of the writers.
I am reading Chapter 1, Christian Doctrine, of Christian Doctrine, Practice and Discipline, published by London Yearly Meeting in 1861. It is a book of extracts from the epistles and minutes of the yearly meeting, not as now including writings of individual Friends. The interaction is between the text and Me: what I notice depends upon what I know, and what I care about.
What I know: Quakers are certain we are “non-creedal”, but this did not mean without belief. The first document is an extract from an epistle of George Fox and others to the Governor of Barbadoes in 1671. It is a statement of belief echoing the Nicene Creed in its language- “visible and invisible”- even as it uses different words deliberately to make it personal- “We do own and believe in God, the only wise, omnipotent and everlasting God”. The Creed is expanded, to include more of the life of Jesus.
“We call the Holy Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles called them… the words of God.” I find the Bible inconsistent, a record of continual searching for God, getting closest in Jesus- but I don’t know how far Inerrancy was disputed at the time: that is, I cannot read this as taking a side in a debate, because I do not know whether it existed as a debate, for Fox.
I care about substitutionary atonement, a Protestant doctrine but not the only Christian understanding of the death of Jesus. I care because I reject it. Some words seem to support that doctrine- Jesus “is the propitiation for… the sins of the whole world”. I cannot be certain, but am suspicious. I like to read later words “at the great day of judgment, when every one shall be rewarded according to the deeds done in the body” as not requiring faith in Jesus to be saved, but this is not a statute, nor a full declaration of every religious belief, so I cannot say that.
In 1671 in England and its colonies, the Anglican church was imposed, as the authorities blamed the civil wars from 1641 on religious dissenters- with some reason. Fox is concerned to tell the Governor that he is Christian. Possibly this is because he declares he believes it his duty to preach the faith to the “Negroes and Indians” on the Island. He does not call for their freedom, whether because he did not think this right, or because he did not think it possible: but preaching to them means seeing them more like human beings, less like livestock.
Oh! I so want them to be Liberal, nice people like me! So I fear they are not, and read with suspicion. What is the problem they sought to address? Why did Friends in 1861 feel the need to quote these passages? I think, to show that they had always had orthodox Evangelical belief: the Bible is “the only divinely authorised record of the doctrines of true religion” they said in 1836.
I can debate with them when they say whatsoever any man says or does which is contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion. Is there anything in Quaker Faith and Practice 1994 which is “contrary to the Scriptures”? It seems to me that they are concerned to preserve doctrine according to the scriptures against Quakers disputing it, as the epistle is addressed to Friends. Even here they say the Holy Spirit influences our hearts, and enlightens our understandings.