The Logic of Gift: Some Notes on Recovering a Radical Quakerism

The Hollowness of the Feast

Sometimes it is difficult to fully appreciate how radical early Quakers were. Consider the following. In a touching scene from George Fox’s Journal, the Quaker founder recalls his deep distress at the way in which his society celebrated the Nativity of Christ. As Fox recounts:

When the time called Christmas came, while others were feasting and sporting themselves I looked out poor widows from house to house, and gave them some money. When I was invited to marriages (as I sometimes was), I went to none; but the next day, or soon after, I would go and visit them, and if they were poor I gave them some money; for I had wherewith both to keep myself from being chargeable to others and to administer something to the necessities of those who were in need.[1]

Image result for Christmas stuart englandOn the surface, this episode is illustrative of a simple moral lesson about the hollowness of Christmas, which many (even in the rich West) can doubtless identify with. While a swathe of the community feasts in warmth and plenty, there are many who sit alone, cold, poor, and hungry. Who will make the feast of Christmas known to them? But when we dig into the sacred meaning of Christmas in 17th century England, we can detect in Fox’s actions something far more countercultural than mere festive charity. When Fox was a boy, Christmas was not merely a celebration of the Incarnation, it was a reaffirmation of another kind of sacred body (that of the monarch). It was a time when the political order would reveal afresh the religious justifications of its existence. At the heart of this sacred order was the Eucharist. Just as the priest received the veracity of the wine and host from Christ, so the faithful received the grace of Christ from the priest, so that they might pass this grace onto others (through penance and good works). In this network of giving, the King (as a representative of Christ on earth), was understood as the supreme political giver, providing order and stability through his favour and leadership. His supreme gift was his dedication to the service of the people. At Christmas this civic theology of kingship was on full display, as the court lavished gifts on subjects, while the king recieved gifts in return.

Image result for marcel mauss youngWhat kind of community (at least in theory) is being illustrated here? As the anthropologist, Marcel Mauss argues in his classic study The Gift, the earliest human societies were organised by an ethic of symbolically charged obligatory exchange of gifts. Today we tend to think of gifts as things we volantarily give to our nearest and dearest. Not in archaic societies, says Mauss. In ancient contexts, giving was frequently something one did in public as part of one’s expected civic duties. Thus, the ‘gifts’ circulated represent more than mere products to be utilised for personal use, but rich symbols of ‘social life’. By being drawn into networks of giving each member of the community felt themselves ‘enmeshed with one another…. that they are everything to one another.’[2]  This link between giving and identity is expressed in the ancient belief that ‘things sold still have a soul. They are still followed around by their former owner, and they follow him also’.[3]  When a subject was offering a gift to his king, it was not merely an act with a monetary value, but an expression of the faithfulness of the subject (his social value). Symbolically, something of the subject’s intent was left behind in the gift. Thus, according to this rationale, no transaction or acquisition was regarded as separate from the needs of the community. All acts of giving had the function of renewing the social order. To refuse to give (or take too much)[4] meant a magical repudiation of a tribal myth, an act which would rebound on the refuser. In such a system, all must give in order to maintain the stability of the community.  As Mauss observes: ‘Gifts to humans and to the gods…serve the purpose of buying peace between them both.’[5]

Such a moralising discourse of exchange contrasts roundly with what Mauss regards as the secular practice of legal economy. Here communal exchange is replaced by an ethically neutral price mechanism and the fluctuations of supply and demand. Any unpredictability or excess in this market arrangement is deferred, not to a sacred conception of god and tribe, but to the processes of law.  The logic of gift remains even in a Capitalistic economy , but it mostly recedes to the private sphere as philanthropy. It no-longer orders the imaginary and structures of society. As Mauss articulates the contrast: ‘[we] live in societies that draw a strict distinction…. between real rights and personal rights, things, and persons. Such a separation is basic: it constitutes the essential condition for a part of our system of property, transfer, and exchange.’[6] If the ethic of the gift economy assumed the enchanted merging of the self with others, modern economics involves the fostering of calculation and individual interest in the conduct of social life.

Quakers, Priests, and Spiritual Gifts

Image result for 17th century church of englandWhile contemporary theorists have rightly cautioned against taking Mauss’s analysis as a universal statement of ancient human culture, his approach does offer us some key insights into the radical nature of early Quakerism. If we read the above extract through the lenses of the theory of gift, we can understand Fox’s act as more than an expression of spiritual disillusionment over Christmas in 1647, but a coherent expression of his re-commitment to mutality in a society that had abandoned it. What Fox wanted, was peace between God and humanity through just exchange among and between God’s children. Yet, such concord was simply not possible while some were left out of this redemptive process of exchange.  His society might have parodied the sacred concord of God, but was simply not enacting it. True, the institutional churches of Fox’s day tried to offer the faithful selected windows into a sacred reality filled with grace, but didn’t want that reality to change things in real-time. Fox desired above all, to turn such a complacent religiosity on its head. Grace wasn’t just personal, it was political.

Evidence for the working out of such a commitment can be seen throughout the writings of early Friends.  Perhaps the most vivid example is discernible in the first-generation Quaker rejection of paid and rofessionalised priesthoods. While there is doubtless a strong Protestant pedigree to this position (Luther’s priesthood of all believers) there was also a deeper theological rationale bound up with restoring the ‘giftedness’ of grace.  As Fox notes in one epistle on this subject, ‘Christ said to his apostles, disciples, and ministers, when he sent them forth to preach the gospel, freely you have received, freely give’.[7]  In this regard Fox frequently connected the priests of his own time with these stern words of Christ thrown at the Pharisees:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew, 23:13). So, what does Fox want instead? While he tends to connect the anti-gift economy of the priests with the Law (‘tithes and offerings’) what Fox was in fact proposing was a return of the Torah’s gift’s economy where holy things are given, outside the demands of pure monetary exchange.  For Fox, those who dissent from this logic of gift are reframed as the heirs of Simon Magus, one who would have ‘bought’[8] the gift of grace rather than receive it thankfully (Acts 8:9-24). In the attempt to hoard power for himself, Simon violates the very nature of the Spirit which is mutal gift through the body of the Church. Once a person is given the free gift of the Spirit, Maussian logic dictates that it must then be given to others.

Yet this insistence on the logic of gift extended well beyond matters of Church government to include the shape of Quaker mission itself. When early Friends read Luke-Acts they saw the disciples exercising the power of Jesus (bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit) in ways which radically undercut the ecclesial structures of their own day. For the formal institutions of Medieval Christendom, the powers of the Spirit were always channelled via numerous forms of mediation, which in turn could be subject to supervision and policing. The Eucharist is a classic example of this process of domestication. To many ordinary people in pre-modern Europe, the Eucharist was a source of magic power, able to cure sickness, ward off bad luck and curse the sinner. There are stories of the Host striking those who had stole it blind. Thus, the Eucharist should only be taken sparingly under the guidance of the proper authorities, such was its power as a vortex of God’s edification and judgement. But this way of treating holy things sat uneasily with the story of Spirit-led action in the early Church. If God had offered his gifts freely to all through the Holy Spirit, why was a single class of priests said to control and exercise them? The first Friends concluded that the Spirit’s power could not be monopolised and that the old ‘magic’ of the Eucharist could now be exercised through their own bodies in mission or in worship. The breaking of the spiritual monopoly had several radical manifestations in the life of Fox and other early Friends, including the recovery of spiritual gifts thought by many contemporaries to be extinct among post-apostolic Christian world. Among Fox’s Spirit-led powers was the ability to read souls and detect witches. As Fox relates in his Journal:

And as I was sitting in a house full of people, declaring the word of life to them, I looked at a woman and discerned an unclean spirit in her. I was moved of the Lord to speak sharply to her; and told her, she was a witch. Upon hearing this, the woman went out of the room. Now since I was a stranger there, and I knew nothing of the woman outwardly, the people were amazed by my calling her a witch and told me afterwards that I had a made a great discovery because all the country believed she was a witch. The Lord had given me a spirit of discerning, by which I many times saw the states and conditions of people, and I could try their spirits.[9]

Alongside such psychic capabilities Fox was credited (and credited himself) with the divinely sanctioned ability to heal afflictions through the medium of touch[10], word, and prayerful intent[11] Such restorative power could even operate at distance if a patient’s distress was known to Fox (see the Gospel parallel in Matthew’s story of the Centurion’s servant). While Fox regarded his powers as direct revivals of Apostolic gifts, such an aptitude places the early Quaker leader in continuity with that class of English folk magicians known as the ‘cunning folk’. As well as providing medical services for their local community, cunning men and women were also reputed to be able to find witches.[12] Such a similarity of function was not lost on opponents of the early Quaker movement, who frequently denounced Fox as a sorcerer. Such were the consequences of the Quaker democratisation of the divine gifts of God.  It was easy to see why someone who exercised spiritual power outside the domains of conventional authority could be deemed a wizard or sorcerer.

Creation as Gift:  Nature and Economy

Image result for adam naming the beastsAny consideration of miraculous healing among Friends naturally leads us to consider Quaker attitudes of giftedness in relation to creation. For early Friends, other Christians did not err simply because they had hired priesthoods, or because they refused to believe that God’s spiritual gifts were offered to all. They were also in error because (like the rest of humanity) they had forgotten that the world was a gift of God. A key part of Fox’s mystical conversion experience in the 1640s was a recovery of this perception, something which had tangible results for shape of his faith. As Fox recounts,

The creation was open to me; and it was showed me, how all things had their names given them, according to their nature and virtue. I was at a stand in my mind, whether I should practise physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord. But I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall.[13]

Being able to perceive spiritual evil and mend physical malady was thus intimately linked to recovering this mystic way of seeing the cosmos. Once one knew the name and virtue (property) of each created thing, one lived again like the namer of the animals (Adam) in peace with God and creation (Genesis 2:19). In this vein, Fox understood the healing arts (physic) to be a redemptive Gospel science which had its roots in the harmonious life of pre-fall humanity, a harmony early Friends sought to restore. As James Naylor expressed this vision in The Lamb’s War:

The Lamb’s quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: “For we war not with flesh and blood,” nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.[14]

In seeking to liberate creation from the powers of evil Naylor and other Friends stood firmly against the new contractual theory of property which held that God’s promise of dominion in Genesis meant that the human desire to accumulate and own was right and natural (even if it dispossessed others). Much like John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, Naylor felt that humanity’s authority over the world was derived ultimately from God and not brute force alone. This insistence on the givenness of creation thus had political implications for early Friends. Primarily it ruled out the kind of mercantile Capitalism Friends would later make their own. In the fiendish capacity of the new merchant economy for impoverishing people and the earth, Naylor observed a hubristic denial of the gift economy. As Naylor wrote in 1671:

[All] hearts are full of oppression, and all hands are full of violence, their houses are filled with oppression, their streets and markets abound with it, their courts, which should afford remedy against it, are wholly made up of iniquity and injustice, and the law of God is made altogether void, and truth is trodden under foot, and plainness is become odious to the proud, and deceit set on high, and the proud are counted happy, and the rich are exalted above the poor and look to be worshipped as God, which if any refuse a snare is laid, and bonds and imprisonment is appointed for them as not worthy to breathe in the air, and no law, equity, nor justice can be heard for their freedoms, and this is not done by an open enemy, for then it had not been so strange unto thee, but it is done by those who pretend to be against oppression; and for whom under that pretence thou hast adventured all that is dear unto thee to put power into their hands; and now thou criest to them for help but findest none that can deliver thee. Oh foolish people, when will ye learn wisdom? When will ye cease from man, who is vanity, and the sons of men who are become a lie?[15]

Instead of acknowledging oneself as part of the divine order (Mauss’s blending of self and community) the egoistic person attempts to separate himself from the world through violence and gain. So where does this analysis leave us and our Quakerism? Like the circularity of the gift economy itself, Naylor brings us to where we began, to the widows and the poor left out of the feast. To declare that God gives freely, involves more than removing paid priests, more than getting some spiritual highs (powers of vision and healing). It involves speaking out for justice in a society where things which were once common gifts are becoming increasingly privatised.  All other riches bestowed by God are subsets of being faithful to this call. As Paul reminds us: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Midst greed and avoidable scarcity, real needs cry to be met, needs which extend beyond personal rights and secular contracts. There is God’s covenant of justice which precedes our temporary deeds of power and ownership. In the 1640s the lure of privatisation involved the dispossession of the people from their land and the scourge of backbreaking poverty. Today the gifts of God are obscured by new clouds, the operation of international Capital and pervasive consumerism. For Friends seeking to renew their faith in a century of cynicism and insubstantial spirituality, one could find no better starting-point than returning to the early Quaker language of gift. In experiencing various layers of the Quaker understanding of giftedness, we are invited into a mission of healing bodies, souls, and in modern parlance whole ecosystems. And what is more, whenever we sit together in Worship, we renew this invitation and this radical mission.

[1] George Fox, A journal or historical account of the life, (London: W. & F.G. Cash, 1852), p. 52

[2] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, (London: Routledge, 1954: 2002), p. 43-4

[3] Mauss, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, (London: Routledge, 1954: 2002), p. 84.

[4]  Mauss, The Gift, p. 90.

[5] Mauss, The Gift, p. 21-22

[6] Mauss, The Gift, p.90.

[7] George Fox, Gospel truth demonstrated, in a collection of doctrinal books, given forth by that faithful Minister of Christ George Fox, Vol. 111 (New York: Isaac Hopper, 1831), p. 476

[8] Fox, Gospel truth demonstrated, in a collection of doctrinal books, given forth by that faithful Minister of Christ George Fox, Vol. 111 (New York: Isaac Hopper, 1831), p. 476

[9] George Fox, A journal or historical account of the life, p. 204

[10] George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, vol. II. ed. Norman Penney, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911, p. 227

[11] Fox, George Fox’s Book of Miracles, ed. Henry Joel Cadbury, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 101

[12] Alison Rowlands, ‘Not ‘the Usual Suspects’? Male Witches, Witchcraft, and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe’, in Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, ed. A. Rowlands, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 15

[13] Fox, A journal or historical account of the life, p. 85

[14] James Naylor, ‘The Lamb’s War’, in Early Quaker Writings, 1650-1700 ed. Hugh Barbour, Arthur O. Roberts, (Wallingford: Pendle Hill Publishing, 2004), p. 115.

[15] James Nayler, ‘Over the Ruins of this Oppressed Nation’ in Works of James Nayler, Volume I, (Farmington: Quaker Heritage Press, 2003), p. 197