Early Quakers and the Trinity

By Themis Papaioannou


Mainly because of a misunderstanding of William Penn's book "Sandy Foundations Shaken" some people think that Quakers denied the Doctrine of the Three in One [or Trinity]. This is a mistake. Early Friends did not deny the mysterious doctrine of the Three in One but denied analyzing the Godhead and using terms to describe God not found in Holy Scripture. This was the purpose of William Penn's book "Sandy Foundations Shaken" as we can see by his own words in another of his writings: "Perversion 9: The Quakers deny the Trinity. Principle: Nothing less. They believe in the holy three, or trinity of Father, Word, and Spirit, according to Scripture. And that these things are truly and properly one [spirit]; of one nature as well as will. But they are tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen's, such as distinct and separate persons or subsistences are, from which people are apt to entertain gross ideas and notions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. They judge that a curious inquiry into those high and divine revelations, or into speculative subjects, though never so great truths in themselves, tends little to godliness and less to peace, which should be the chief aim of true Christians. Therefore, they cannot gratify that curiosity in themselves or others. Speculative truths are, in their judgment, to be sparingly and tenderly declared, and never to be made the measure and condition of Christian communion. Men are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice." [William Penn Keys].

In a similar way George Fox wrote, "Of the Word Trinity the Scripture is silent; but the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the Water, Blood, and Spirit, which are one, that is owned by us, as was by the Apostle, which did not give them other Names, as the World doth." [George Fox, Some Principles]. Fox [and others] clarifies that Quakers believed in God the Father, the Divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the "Letter to the Governor of Barbados, 1671".

Isaac Penington also in 1659, in answer to the charges at Boston in New England that the Quakers denied the Trinity, had declared that on the contrary Friends "set their seal to the truth of that scripture I John v. 7 .... That these three are distinct, as three several beings or persons, this they read not" [Works 1681, i. 203]. He also wrote that the "God-Head, which we own as the Scriptures express it, and as we have the sensible, experimental knowledge of it," quoting again I John v. 7. "This I believe from my Heart and have infallible demonstrations of: for I know three and feel three in Spirit" [ibid. ii. 452].

I will close this brief article with the words of Robert Barclay, "There is one God [Eph. 4:6; 1 Cor. 8:4,6] Who is a Spirit [John 4:24] And This is the Message which the Apostles heard of him, and declared unto the Saints, That he is Light, and in him is no Darkness at all [1 John 1:5] There are Three that bear Record in Heaven, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and these Three are One [1 John 5:7] The Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father [John 10:38; 14:10-11; 5:26] No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, but the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him [Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22] The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God [1 Cor. 2:10] For the Things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God: Now the Saints have received not the Spirit of the World, but the Spirit which is of God, that they might know the things which are freely given them of God [1 Cor. 2:11-12] For the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father sends in Christ's name, he teacheth them all things, and bringeth all things to their Remembrance. [John 14:26]" [Robert Barclay, Catechism and Confession of Faith, ARTICLE I. Concerning God, and the True and Saving Knowledge of him]