What Do Friends Mean by the Inward Light?

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of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative)

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One name that early Quakers chose for themselves was the "Children of Light," and a common admonition to those seeking divine guidance was to "Stand still in the Light." Quakers often talk about being led by this "Inward Light," or request in prayer that a concern be "held up in the Light." Just what do we mean when we talk like this?

What is it?

The Light is the most important defining characteristic of Quakerism, and it sets our beliefs and practices apart from other contemporary Christian groups. It is perhaps best introduced metaphorically. First and foremost, Quakers agree that the Light is something that illuminates and reveals. Light reveals flaws, and casts shadows where it is obstructed. The Light is a beacon to those seeking guidance. The Light also changes us in significant ways. Exposure to ordinary light in the natural world softens some substances and makes them more malleable. Other substances are hardened and made more rigid and brittle. In a similar way, exposure to the supernatural Light raises the spiritual consciousness of receptive people, and results in spiritual degeneration in those who resist its power. Those people who accept and welcome the revealing Light are at first made conscious of their sins, and then given the spiritual strength to rise above them and become more holy in their walk with God. Those who reject the open hand of God may find, like the Pharaoh of Exodus, that their hearts are hardened and the hand withdrawn.

The Light in Scripture and Quaker writings is clearly named. Jesus Christ said, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life," (John 8:12). John the Baptist "came to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe," (John 1:7). Robert Barclay wrote of other aspects of Jesus and his work as Light: "That for this end God hath communicated and given unto every man a measure of the Light of his own Son, a measure of grace, or a measure of the Spirit, which the Scripture expresses by several names, as sometimes of 'the seed of the kingdom' (Matthew 13:18-19); the 'Light that makes all things manifest' (Ephesians 5:13); the 'Word of God' (Romans 10:17); or ímanifestation of the Spirit given to profit withal' (1 Corinthians 12:7); 'a talent' (Matthew 25:15); 'the Gospel preached in every creature' (Colossians 1:23)."

As Christians, Conservative Quakers identify the Light as both the historical, living Jesus, and as the Grace of God extended to people that simultaneously makes us conscious of our sins, forgives them, and gives us the strength and the will to overcome them. The Light might be explained as the outpouring of the loving influence of God, extended to all people as the means of their potential salvation. We also see the Light as Fox's "That of God in every man," that measure of the Holy Spirit given to us that is sufficient to work our soul's salvation, if we do not resist it.

What does it do?

It is also the Light that teaches us the difference between right and wrong, truth and falseness, good and evil. It guides our conscience, but it is not the conscience itself. Our conscience is our own mental organ which perceives the Light from God, but in different individuals the conscience might be poorly developed or even mistaken.

The work of the Light in our spiritual growth is akin to heavenly sunlight shining through a spiritual window within us, our God-given "measure." The Light shines upon us externally without diminution or division, but the size of our window permits only a portion to penetrate and illuminate us spiritually. The greater the window, the greater our measure of the Light, and the greater will be the identity between our spiritual life and the will of God. As illustrated in the parable of the talents, (Matthew 25:14-30), those who are faithful to their God-given measure will be given more, and those who are unfaithful will have their portion taken away. Those who are attentive to their consciences as their guide to the mind of God will be accepted. Their window will be enlarged, their measure increased, and both their spiritual ability--and their responsibility for being faithful to it--will be increased.

Who is it for?

Quakers view the Light as universal and individually sufficient--it is extended to all people everywhere, and all have been given enough to be acceptable to God, although our measures differ. Even people who have never heard of Christianity in a meaningful way or at all can share in the Light, if they sincerely respond to God's grace. "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:14-16). George Fox also said, "I saw that the grace of God, which brings salvation, had appeared to all men and that the manifestation of the Spirit of God was given to every man to profit withal." The Light shines into all people, whether Christian, Quaker, or not, providing the opportunity for salvation to all who heed it. Fox's mission was "to bring people off from all the world's religions, which are vain, that they might know the pure religion". Nowhere in the doctrine of the Light is there the idea that it is given only to Quakers, or even only to Christians, but nowhere also is the idea that all religions are led by the Light or that the differences lie merely in different words for the same things. Jesus wants us to worship him in spirit and in truth, and Quakers believe that he has taught us the purest way to him, and that he wants us to follow it.

This saving aspect of the Light was fiercely denied by the major competing Christian sects of George Fox's day. The idea that all people were given "a measure of the Light of his own Son," ran counter to the Calvinist belief in man's original sin and total depravity, and his participation in his own salvation in any way denied the Puritan doctrine of total predestination. Anglicans and Roman Catholics opposed the idea that grace was extended to man by God directly without need for ordained intermediaries or traditional sacraments. All rejected the Quaker assertion that God could establish a sinless state of perfection in men and women during this life.

We view the corporate work of Jesus acting through history on the people who are responsive to the Inward Light as the continuing, cumulative revelation essential to the Quaker faith. This is why the meeting community is so important to Conservative Quakers. Each of us has a sufficient measure of the Light of Christ, but together we have a collective power and discernment that is greater than any of us have alone.

As Robert Barclay put it, "By this seed, grace, and word of God and light wherewith we say everyone is enlightened...we understand a spiritual, heavenly, invisible principle in which god as father, Son, and Spirit dwells, a measure of which divine and glorious life is in all men as a seed which of its own nature draws, invites, and inclines to God."

***** Conservative Friends are Quakers who have continued the Christian beliefs and the original practice of waiting worship introduced by the founders of the Society in the 17th century. Ohio Yearly Meeting has maintained this tradition since our organization in 1813. We welcome visitors at any of our meetings and gatherings. Our largest congregation is Stillwater Monthly Meeting, which meets every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at the Stillwater Meeting House, 61826 Sandy Ridge Road, Barnesville, Ohio. Contact Thomas Rockwell, Clerk, at (740) 425-1780 for more information. We have other meetings in the United States and abroad. For contact information, please visit our web site at

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