Poet Flannery O’Connor once said of Communion, “If it’s only a symbol, then to hell with it.” That appears to be exactly what the Quakers thought of all Sacraments. If baptism and communion are only signifying something symbolically, as the Calvinists had reduced them to, then why bother?
Parts of the Northwest Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice would ring true for most Christians: the dual human and divine nature of Jesus Christ, His miraculous conception and birth, the gift and workings of the Holy Spirit, the inspiration and revelation of Scripture, the fall of man and redemption by God’s only son. Yet the definition of baptism is first where Friends begin to part ways with other Protestants as well as Catholics: “We believe the Christ’s baptism to be the inward receiving of the Holy Spirit, whereby the believer is immersed in Jesus’ power, purity, and wisdom.” What they do not add, though imply, is the omission of water in any form—dribble, squirt, sprinkle, or immersion.
The phrase “inward receiving” adequately describes the way Friends view all Sacraments. I have heard Quakers say they have not abolished the Sacraments, but simply stripped them of unnecessary outward disguise. There is still baptism, but in its true spirit form, omitting the water. There is still communion, but in its spirit form, omitting bread and wine. There are some Quaker churches that baptize its members and offer the symbolic form of Communion. But in my experience within the Northwest Yearly Meeting, baptism and communion as they are understood and practiced by most Christians were not present.
In the Declaration of Faith Issued by the Richmond Conference in 1887, Friends explained their view of Sacraments as follows:
We would express our continued conviction that our Lord appointed no outward rite or ceremony for observance in His church. We accept every command of our Lord, in what we believe to be its genuine import, as absolutely conclusive. The question of the use of outward ordinances is with us a question, not as to the authority of Christ, but as to His real meaning.
For this reason, the same verses I remember using to support not baptizing—John 3:5-6, I Peter 3:21, Eph 4:5, I Cor 12:13—are the same verses I would now use in support of baptism. It is that very question of Christ’s “real meaning” that has rent asunder God’s great church, and while His “real meaning” is there for plain view in Scripture, history gives evidence of another necessary authority to sort out the confusion. I would gradually see the need for some kind of authority, other than Scripture, once I began to look at the historical course of the Christian church. But my wrestle with Baptism was the first great struggle that propelled me into further study of my own faith and practice. When I realized how clear Jesus’ command was to baptize, my entire understanding of “sacrament” was forcibly and significantly changed. But as it was the first struggle, it was also the most difficult.
As my friend Justin set out on his own quest for Truth, he began to read the Scriptures for the first time of his own accord. It was exciting to watch him discover the Bible. Of course he had been hearing Scripture most of his life in Mass, but it came to life for him when he opened his own Bible. After school, we would meet at local coffee shops to study and finish homework. I was in the habit of having my Bible with me, and Justin usually pulled out his Bible intermittently to read, highlight, and take notes. When he began reading the Gospels, one of his first questions for me was about baptism. He asked with all sincerity why we Quakers did not baptize.
“We baptize, but not with water,” I responded.
He looked confused. “How can you baptize without water?” I quoted the same verses I had always heard in defense of the Quaker view of baptism.
The first was from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3:1-21. It is an exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee. He tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is understandably confused, for no one can “reenter his mother’s womb.” But Jesus explains that one needs to be “born of water and Spirit,” for “what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit.” When Nicodemus asks how this can happen, Jesus goes on to explain the salvation of man, leading to that famous verse all we Protestants memorized, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” In this specific passage, I understood that to have been “born of water” was our first birth, but to be “born of spirit” was our second and our life in Christ.
The second was I Peter 3:21: “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” What I focused on as a Quaker was on the latter part of the verse, specifying that baptism was not intended for the body, but for the soul. The power and significance of baptism was spiritual, rendering the water unnecessary. Other verses seemed to suggest the same: I Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” and Matthew 3:11, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” These specifically mentioned “Spirit,” and even in the Gospel of Matthew John the Baptist makes a distinction between his water baptism and Jesus’ baptism of the “Spirit.”
Perhaps the most surprising to me in retrospect was Ephesians 4:5. St. Paul is writing about unity within the body of Christ and encourages Christians in verse 3 to “preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace,” which included “one baptism.” As a Quaker, I saw through my narrow Evangelical Protestant lens all the arguments between my Protestant brethren. I didn’t see one baptism, but many. Some churches baptized as babies, some as children, others whenever the person saw fit. Some sprinkled, some dunked, some used pools, some fresh water. And there appeared to be a good deal of passionate belief behind each of these methods of baptizing. Casting off the water entirely appeared to solve this problem—one baptism to me signified the spiritual re-birth.
When Justin reminded me that Jesus was baptized, in my eyes it only proved my point. Jesus was sin-less, so there was no need for repentance. His baptism was one to initiate his ministry, something I had heard Quakers support, though I had never seen it done. But in looking at the passage, Jesus’ words to John the Baptist, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” did bring up questions in my mind. For which purpose did it serve? And the effect of His baptism—the Heavens opening and God’s favor resting upon Jesus—was unmistakable.
I was surprised that the Quaker view of baptism wasn’t Justin’s natural conclusion as he read through the New Testament. Even though I did not let on to my doubt, for the first time I began to wonder about the legitimacy of the Quaker claim. No one had ever challenged me before. However, I desperately wanted to prove the Quakers right. I no longer concerned myself with convincing Justin; the objective now was to convince myself.
I found an opportunity to enrich my understanding of Quaker thought and history when I decided to write my U.S. History research paper on the Quaker involvement in the Underground Railroad. I was—and still am—very proud of my Quaker heritage in their opposition to slavery and their very active role in its abolition. As I studied, I read through Barclay’s Apology. I had expressed an interest in reading this book before, but I was encouraged to wait until college, when it would be required reading (under the assumption that I would naturally attend the Quaker university). But as I had urgent questions, it could not wait for college.
Robert Barclay was an educated and influential Scotsman who was one of the Society of Friends’ apologists in the seventeenth century. Concerning baptism, he wrote, “And this baptism is a pure and spiritual thing, to wit the baptism of the Spirit and fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins” (Twelfth Proposition: Concerning Baptism). Yet as this baptism is “pure and spiritual,” I was uncertain as to when it took place. Perhaps it was when I had asked Jesus “into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior,” which was the act by which, I was taught, one accepted salvation. But I had done this twice, once in the second grade at the urging of my Sunday School teacher, then again at thirteen when I felt a need to “recommit” my life to Christ after a particularly frightening sermon. Though the verses of baptism were explained to us, there was never clarification of its importance or when this occurred in the life of a Christian.
As I began to read through the Gospels on my own, scouring it for evidence in support of Quaker practices, I wondered what the Apostles’ understanding of Jesus’ command to baptize (Matthew 28:19-20) had been. Even I knew this passage from Scripture as “the Great Commission,” the moment when Jesus sent out the disciples to all the nations, baptizing new believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Surely if they had understood the Lord to mean spiritual baptism, as opposed to water baptism, I would see examples of it in Acts, a book I had never really studied in-depth before. Once I had my evidence, I could know for certain that the Quakers were right in their interpretation. And if that were true, then the bulk of Christendom was mistaken about baptism. I shuddered to think that the Quakers might be wrong. For if they were, I would not want to be counted among them.
My inquiry into baptism raised two colossal questions: one as to the true nature of Sacraments and what Jesus intended; and secondly, the issue of authority. My knowledge of Christian history ended with the Bible and began again with George Fox in the seventeenth century when people were “called of God to the dispensation of the Gospel now again revealed; and, after a long and dark night of apostasy, commanded to be preached to all nations” (Barclay, An Apology to the True Christian Divinity). I had never before considered the great weighty reality of assuming the church had long been in apostasy before the revelations of God to George Fox. I had never before been so aware of the great many other churches within the Protestant realm. It was like tip-toeing around the perimeter of my world, wondering about what stretched beyond the fog. I was frankly a little scared to go any further, yet uncomfortable where I was.
It was while reading the introduction to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis that I could justify my recent uneasiness and discomfort. Lewis uses the analogy of a hallway with many doors to describe Christianity at large. I can’t describe how flabbergasted I was at how true this analogy was to me at that time. My little world had been so entirely Quaker that I never considered there were other possibilities. I resonated with Lewis’s description; I felt a little lost and alone in that great hallway. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the Friends church anymore, but I was in no way ready to leave it. In my trepidation at what I might find, I began to pray more often, more fervently, more ardently, and tried to more patiently listen.
I had been taught as a Quaker to feast on the Word of God. I was encouraged, even as a child, to read, study, and apply it to life. I began to embrace those Quaker traits as I delved into Scripture in search of clarification about doctrine. I would find quiet and privacy in my room or outside on my family’s five acres of forest to read, study, and pray. I also spent more time at St. James. I kept a journal to record my reflections and questions. I clung to Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” Most often I prayed not to be led into falsehood; I prayed God would lead me into Truth. And I trusted He would.