Robert Barclay wrote, "When I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up." Barclay's allegiance to the Quaker cause was not won by "strength of arguments," but by the transforming power of direct experience.
This emphasis on experience was typical of early Friends. Although Friends did not hesitate to quote Scripture or to engage their detractors in theological debate, the engine which drove the early Friends was their direct experience of Christ's presence.
Like other Friends of his generation, Robert Barclay understood that logical arguments were of limited value in promoting faith. Logic can, however, dismantle the spurious accusation of others and make credible a perspective on faith that might otherwise be dismissed out of hand. This is the task of Barclayís Apology: to persuade thoughtful people to take the Quaker perspective seriously.
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Robert Barclay was a Scot. His aristocratic family was Roman Catholic. During the earliest years of the Quaker movement, young Robert lived in France. He was sent to Paris to attend Scot's College, a Roman Catholic seminary in a staunchly Catholic nation. In fact, Scot's College operated in the hope of one day returning all of Scotland to the fold of Rome.
Barclay's uncle was the Rector of the school, and very fond of young Robert. The uncle even offered to make Robert his sole heir if the boy would stay with him in Paris. However, Robert Barclay's mother died when he was about 15. Her dying wish was that he return to Scotland. When Robert's father came to Paris to retrieve him, he decided to return home.
For the next four years, Barclay continued his studies in Scotland. He taught himself Hebrew, sharpened his skills in Greek, studied the Scriptures and early church writings. After rejecting Catholicism, Barclay was not yet ready to join with another group. Instead, he listened to all sides and was dedicated to seeking the truth wherever it could be found.
Meanwhile, Robert's father became a Quaker. The senior Barclay had been a professional soldier, fighting on behalf of the Crown during England's Civil War. In the tumultuous aftermath of that war, the elder Barclay found himself imprisoned for supporting the wrong side. And who should he meet in prison but one of the many Quaker leaders who were also imprisoned during this time!
Barclay's father became a convinced Friend in 1666. Feeling himself touched by the power of Quaker worship, Barclay also joined the Friends in 1667 (while his father was still in prison).
In 1670, Robert was married to Christian Molleson. They were married in the manner of Friends. This meant that no clergyman officiated at the wedding. Instead, the bride and groom simply made their commitments to one another. This counter-cultural display was shocking to their neighbors! Members of the clergy considered it an attack on their authority. Some even wanted to charge Robert with the crime of "unlawful marriage."
Tension and mistrust strained the relationship between Quakers and the rest of society. Each side wrote pamphlets, attacking the beliefs and practices of their opponents. Often, these attacks were very personal. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that these pamphlets had titles, like, "Why My Adversary Is a Stinking Dirty Dung Beetle in the Service of Evil."
In the context of this great tension, Robert felt compelled to walk through the streets of Aberdeen covered only with sackcloth and ashes. He meant this to serve as a warning, calling his neighbors to repentance. It is interesting to contrast the image of Barclay as scholar with this image of him marching down the streets of Aberdeen. It is also interesting to note that this sort of thing only happened once.
As his thinking developed, Barclay devoted more attention to the need for spiritual order. He argued that freedom without accountability leads to chaos, not to Truth. In part, this was a response to the challenge of Ranterism. The Ranters placed the highest possible value on liberty and unrestrained expression. In 1674, Barclay wrote The Anarchy of the Ranters to distinguish Quaker thought and practice from the rampant individualism of the Ranters.
In 1675, when he was still only 27, Barclay wrote his master work, the Apology. The Apology was an instant success. Voltaire sang praises to its elegant use of logic. George Fox commended it for its thorough and authoritative expression of Quaker faith. Quaker ministers carried it with them for their own edification and to pass along to others (it was hoped that Barclay's convincing text might attract thoughtful people to the truth).
While the Apology is Barclay's greatest achievement as a scholar, it is far from his only lasting contribution.
Like many other Friends, Barclay spent time in prison for his beliefs. He traveled to Holland and to Germany, carrying the Quaker message to the continent. In 1682 he was appointed the Governor of East New Jersey.
He wore a waistcoat made of green brocade and carried an ivory handled walking stick. He was a real person. More than simply words, Barclay left the legacy of a life devoted to service. He died in 1690, not quite 42 years old.
Here are a few questions:
1. How do you interpret Barclay's decision to walk through the streets of Aberdeen in sackcloth and ashes? What counsel would you give to someone contemplating a similar action today?
2. What is the right balance between freedom and order in spiritual matters? What happens if people can believe anything they want? What happens if people have to believe the "party line?"
3. Some (including Elton Trueblood) have suggested that the Apology made it possible for the Quaker movement to survive. Do you think a popular movement needs a "scholarly" or "respectable" anchor in order to survive?
Continue reading Proposition One