Dialogue on Quaker Understanding of Free Will

This is a transcript of a dialogue between Stuart Masters and me that occurred in early to mid-December 2017 in the comment section of Stuart’s blog post “Friends of Martin Luther? Quakers and the Protestant Reformation.” The point I challenged was Stuart’s assertion that by a free act of will man participates in his transformation from sinner to saint. I contended early Quaker understanding held that the will is not free until liberated by Christ.


Pat wrote (quoting from Stuart’s post):

While people may be incapable of transforming themselves, humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice, and when they do, by God’s transformative power, it is possible for them to come into perfect conformity to the will of God (i.e. holiness or perfection).

Stuart, your stating that Quakers believed that “humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice” is not accurate. Nayler writes:

There is no will free for God but that which is free from sin, which will man lost in the fall, when he let in the will of the devil and entered into it; wherein man became in bondage. And all that man in that state knows of the free-will, is that which moves in him against the will of the flesh and of the devil, which is seen in the light of Christ (Works, III, 132-3).

Man is either in the will of the devil or he is in the will of God, the latter moving in him against the will of the devil. There is no neutral state from which man chooses the one or the other. To claim otherwise encourages “self-willed” man to remain self-satisfied, imagining himself in an innocuous, autonomous state, rather than his true state of being poor, helpless, blind, and naked, and without God.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

Thank you for your comment! I am aware of this Nayler passage, which I think comes from ‘Love to the Lost’. However, I cannot believe that Nayler means what you suggest he means.

Since early Friends rejected Calvinist double predestination, logically, they had to accept that there was a degree of human cooperation with God in the salvation process. They much have accepted the need for a human response to the divine offer. If not, there would have been no point launching the massive preaching campaign during the 1650s. The essential exhortation to turn away from carnal things and toward the light of Christ in the conscience, requires a response from its hearers.

I agree that they limited the extent of free will (and saw human wilfulness as a key aspect of sin). However, no free will, no choice to turn to Christ, only God’s action (which in this sense would have to be coercive, and against the free choice of the individual, which then leads to the problem of explaining why God might force this on some but not on others, bringing us back to the issue of predestination).


Pat wrote:

I think if you read through the section titled “Concerning Free-Will” in “Love to the Lost,” you will see that I am correct in saying that Nayler asserts there is either God’s will or the devil’s will, with no free will (in our contemporary understanding of the term as autonomy) that stands apart from the two. The passageway from one to the other is given through the quickening Word of God. Nayler writes:

and as the spiritual man is quickened by the word of God, and that man born which is not of the flesh, nor of the will of it; so is that will seen again in man which is free, wherein the creature is made free from the will of the flesh, which is bondage (133).

As it is not within man’s ability to give birth to himself, it cannot be he who autonomously wills to be born from above; he is born of God. To be born of God occurs not from the will of the flesh, nor the will of man (Jn. 1:13). It was the Word of God that seventeenth-century Friends preached, to the end that others could feel the quickening seed of God within (as they themselves had been given), and feeling that quickening they found entry into God’s will, and thus experienced their freedom, which hitherto they had not known.

So man hath not free-will further than he is free-born from above of the seed that sinneth not (134).

Stuart wrote:

My view has always been that the Early Quaker position was closer to that of Wesley than to Calvin. However, I need to be open to the possibility that their roots in Calvinist Puritanism left a legacy in their faith and practice.

My interpretation of Nayler’s words are that he is emphasising the view that salvation comes by the work of God alone and not by the effort of the individual. I agree with this and feel that it is consistent with the early Quaker position generally.

Early Friends were clearly very ‘black and white’ in their understandings; one was either in darkness or in the light, in God’s will or the devil’s will, in the first birth or the second birth etc… That need not imply that they did not feel that all people were faced with a choice; to turn to God or to remain in darkness. Such a choice presumes a degree (however limited) of free choice.

However, that does not resolve the very serious problem I outlined in my first response, which you have not answered. If humans have no free agency or choice in the salvation process, then we are left with the Calvinist positions of predestination and irresistible grace. This implies that God chooses some for salvation and others for damnation, without any human choice or decision.

I cannot accept that this was the message of the first Friends.



Pat wrote:

The Cain and Abel story offers information on how to understand Friends perspective on God’s acceptance of man, or lack thereof. Following the telling of each brother’s sacrifice, God’s respect to Abel’s but not to Cain’s, and Cain’s anger, He speaks:

If thou doest well, shall thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Gen. 4:7).

What is interesting here is God’s speaking as though Cain knows what doing “well” entails, and is not doing it. The text presents what appears to be identical behaviors between the two brothers: They both bring offerings of their labor, described with almost identical words, but only one’s is accepted while the other’s is not. We can’t see what’s amiss with Cain’s offering, but God can and does, and furthermore knows Cain does as well, and holds him accountable. By having nearly identical descriptions of the brothers’ sacrifices, but God’s judgment differing towards them, we see a narrative device by which the difference between the brothers is located: the difference between them lies within, invisible to us on the outside (and invisible to those who prefer darkness to light) but visible to God, who knows the heart.

Where has Cain failed? A strong clue is the word Jesus uses in Mt. 23:25 to describe his brother: “righteous Abel.” God expects Cain (and each of us) to live up to the capacity given: first, to love truth/righteousness; second, to recognize our limits in knowing truth/righteousness; and third, to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Mt. 5:6), that we might be filled. This love of truth requires an inward sacrifice, and Fox affirms Cain’s lack of it when he wrote in “The Papist’s Strength”: “he [Cain] observed outward things, and comes not to witness the spiritual sacrifice” (51).

“I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not” (Isa. 65:1) is a verse that points to the heeding of the seed of God within before it is known that there is such a thing; it is those who heed and love and seek a place to stand that only truth can provide; that mourn its lack with heart, mind, soul, and strength; it is these who come to be comforted through the mercy of God in His sending of His Spirit. It is not our choice or decision to suffer such need; but sensing its truth, we do not muffle or darken, obscure or deny, but instead, feelingly know the emptiness of the heart, which cannot, should not, and will not be placated by any means at our disposal or will.

Stuart wrote:

I am currently doing research for a book on James Nayler’s theology and so will need to address this matter.

I agree that the work of salvation is God’s work alone, and not about our personal effort, but maintain that, unless we at least have the freedom to respond to God’s offer of salvation, we are left with the irresistible grace of Calvinism.

Early Friends, like many others, separated from their parish churches and were seekers of truth. That seems to imply an act of choice, even if it was divinely guided. Fox exhorts people not to quench the Spirit, which implies a decision not to follow its leadings. The very act of Adam’s disobedience implies making a choice against the way of God.

If no-one has choice, no-one can be held responsible or accountable. They could do nothing else.

Pat wrote:

Your reasoning is sound, Stuart, but it starts from the wrong premise. We are not like a King who sits on a throne deciding and choosing what will be the law of his land: God’s salvation or the devil’s perfidy. Rather we are like a subject deep in a pit with no way out. It is not by choice or decision that we see our pitiful state, because, in truth, it is impossible not to see it—for those who have eyes to see. We do not choose to mourn our condition, as, in truth, it is impossible for a creature not to mourn its captivity—for those who have a heart that feels. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25) Paul is showing the necessity of seeing and feeling our true state, and the means of our deliverance. Truth, truth, truth from first to last, from captivity to freedom!

I’ve tried to show that there is another way to understand the solution to our condition other than (1) a participatory use of human will, or (2) election via the doctrine of predestination. I am convinced that it is the one understood by first Friends, and is also in accord with Scriptures. I’m grateful for this opportunity to have discussed the issue with you.

May the love of Christ be with us.



Thank you Pat, I am certainly willing to take account of the perspective you have outline[d]. In any event, I need to do more work on this issue.

In the love of Christ,


The discussion continued one week later.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

I have been doing some research on how human ‘will’ was understood in the early modern period. It seems that ‘will’ primarily related to human to our emotions, motivation and affections, rather than agency or the capacity to make choices. On this basis, I can agree with what you have said about the position of early Friends without rejecting my belief that Friends accepted that humans could make a choice about whether to respond to God’s offer of regeneration and salvation.

Essentially, I think we were simply defining the term ‘free will’ differently.


Pat wrote:

Stuart, your new definition of “will” does not affect the argument that there is no neutral ground from which to exercise free will, which is the position of first Friends, which I’ve explained. It is not possible to “choose,” because the will is captivated until it is set free by Christ, the truth. Here’s Penington’s clear refutation of the will standing of itself “free to both equally”:

But as for your speaking of free will, ye do not know what you speak of; for the will with the freedom of it, either stands in the image and power of him that made it, or in a contrary image and power…[Mark this.] The will is not of itself, but stands in another, and is servant to that in whom it stands, and there its freedom is bound and comprehended. For there is no middle state between both, wherein the will stands of itself, and is free to both equally, but it is a servant and under the command of one of these powers…such free will as men commonly speak of is mere imagination (Works, I, 77).

 Stuart wrote:

Well we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this issue.

Van Eyck St. Francis [1]















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4 Responses to Dialogue on Quaker Understanding of Free Will

  1. Patricia, I’m very grateful to have been shown this dialogue. Up till now, I’d been inclined to side with Pelagius against Augustine on this issue, which would mean siding with Stuart Masters against Fox, Nayler, and Penington — but one statement of yours convinced me: “There is no neutral state from which man chooses the one or the other. To claim otherwise encourages ‘self-willed’ man to remain self-satisfied….” I’ve been sitting with this statement since early this morning, and, because it answers to my own experience of coming under Christ’s easy yoke, it’s demolished my naïve belief in the free will of fallen humans. In fact I’d go so far as to call that naïve belief one of the devil’s chief anæsthetics to keep fallen humans in denial of their state of bondage.
    To put it another way: once I credit my own clever self with the wisdom and courage to have chosen Christ over Satan, I’ve exalted my own ego and pushed my Savior right out of the picture. Whatever I may think I’ve done, I’ve chosen darkness over the Light and forbidden myself to see that “my deeds are wrought in God” (John 3:21 AV); in fact, I haven’t chosen Christ over Satan at all. I’ve just erected another one of those “high things” that “that exalt themselves against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5) and so given Satan the victory — until, by the grace of God, I come to my senses and credit Christ with the entirety of my repentance and conversion.
    This inclines me to pity rather than condemn evildoers who are “of their father the devil, and the lusts of their father they will do” (John 8:44). Such was I, until the Lord began to lead me out of bondage.
    But I will not jump to Calvin’s odious conclusion that God must have predestined some souls to eternal damnation: how could Calvin have known that? And why did Stuart Masters think that agreeing with Fox, Nayler and Penington’s plain meaning would necessarily lead to a double-predestination theology? If God is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), desires not the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11), and has the all-forgiving nature both displayed by Jesus Christ (Luke 23:34 and John 14:9) and encouraged by Jesus Christ (Matt 6:14), then I trust God’s infinite wisdom and mercy to find some way to rescue every single soul that God has loved into being. To quote God’s ancient friend (Gen 18:25), “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
    *My* moral sense, and compassion, reject double predestination. God, who planted that moral sense and compassion in me, must have an infinitely finer moral sense and deeper compassion than I do. I trust God to have a better plan for erring souls than everlasting torment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, John. Your observation that Christ is to be credited “with the entirety of [one’s] repentance and conversion” is in accord with Quaker experience and doctrine. Here’s a passage from Penington that goes into it a bit more:

    There were sins under the old covenant, and there are sins under the new. The sins of the old covenant did lie upon him that committed them, until they were expiated according to the law of the old covenant; and sins under the new covenant lie also upon the soul and conscience, until they be expiated according to the law of the new covenant; which is until the Advocate interpose and plead with the Father, and give faith and repentance to the soul, and sprinkle upon the heart and conscience that water and blood which hath virtue in it to wash. And if it were not for this after-washing (as I may so say) no man could be saved: but though he were once washed, yet sinning again afterwards, he would die in his sins…unless he were again washed. Oh! blessed be the name of the Lord, for the water and blood of the covenant, and for his continual pouring them out upon the souls of his, in the light that is eternal! (Works, III, 114-5)


    • This is beautiful and comprehensive, Patricia, and speaks very aptly to my condition this morning, as I muse over discouraging evidences that the Old Adam still lives and works in me, and I seem to need continuous washing. I wish that all Quakers might read and consider it. It sent me to the bookshelf to find the work it came out of: Penington’s “Some Things Relating to Religion, Proposed to… the Royal Society.” Serendipitously, my hand turned to the next work in Volume III of his _Works_, and there I read, on p. 146: “Consider well; Doth not God require of the creature in the new covenant what he gives in the new covenant?” Which seems to sum it up very succinctly: if God requires repentance, God also gives the repentance that is required.
      Thank thee!


  3. More commentary on this post may be found on the New Foundation Fellowship website following the post by the same title. The link to that website is located in the blog roll on the Abiding Quaker home page.


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