Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College ~ Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19081 ~ USA


Robert Barclay's

Apology for the True Christian Divinity

in Context

          Robert Barclay, the first and greatest of Quaker theologians, systematized the charismatic message of George Fox.  Barclay's most recent biographer, D. Elton Trueblood, asserts that Barclay "saved the Quaker movement from extinction by giving Fox's preaching an intellectual form, capable of rational defense." (1)   Barclay’s best-known work, The Apology for the True Christian Divinity expressed the early Quaker theological consensus of Friends’ beliefs as Barclay heard it preached by Fox and by other Friends. Dean Freiday considers the Apology  to be a “thinking through” of Barclay’s own religious journey, from the strict Calvinism of his youth, through the Roman Catholicism of his education in Paris, to his Quaker convincement.  (2)
          The Apology was completed in 1675 and published in Latin in 1676 (later translated by Barclay into an English edition which was first published in 1678). Barclay, who was himself of aristocratic lineage, prefaced the Apology with a letter to King Charles II, saying that he wished to explain Friends’ theological principles to the King and his people, so that they might find the Quakers to be both wise and learned, and to understand that they held “beliefs agreeable to scripture, reason and true learning.” Barclay wished to persuade his non-Quaker readers that, though Quakers dissented from Great Britain’s established church, they were a peaceful people who should not be persecuted for their beliefs. In the letter, Barclay asserts that: 1) in all the conspiracies contrived against the King, the Quakers had never been found guilty of plotting against him or the government; 2) in the “hottest times of persecution,” the Quakers stood boldly for their faith, and had never hidden from the authorities, “as all other Dissenters have done”; 3) they had never sought to make the King or his government “odious” to the people; rather, their practice was consistent with Christianity and civil society. (3)  
            As a statement of Quaker belief, Barclay’s  Apology for the True Christian Divinity  has been accepted by Friends as a reliable summary of their faith.  "From its first publication, it has received the unqualified approbation of the Society of Friends, as containing a just and correct exposition of their faith and principles…[the Apology] is the only book which has been given by the Society to many of the public libraries in Europe, as well as to some sovereigns and ambassadors, for conveying a correct information of their principles, and for counteracting those misrepresentations with which adversaries… have endeavoured to impress the public mind."  (4)  The Latin edition was considered especially valuable for distribution to the learned men of Europe.
          In the introduction to the most recent (2002) edition of the Apology, Peter Sippel explains that “Barclay's education enabled him to understand academic theology. Most early Quaker publicists used a distinctive Quaker vocabulary which was often misunderstood by educated theologians, whom the Quakers misunderstood in turn. Thus in early debate literature, Friends and their opponents often talked past each other, taking the same words in different senses. Barclay bridges this gap, defending Quaker usage while clearly explaining it for the benefit of those who were accustomed to a different vocabulary.” (5)
          The Apology  takes the form of fifteen propositions, following the general pattern of the Westminster Catechism. Barclay had already published and debated the propositions as Theses Theologicae (published in 1674 and 1675) before putting them into a more complete form in the Apology.  Besides the two Latin editions (1676 and 1729) it has been reprinted/reissued 48 times in English: 16 in Great Britain, three in Ireland, and 29 in the United States; there have two editions in Dutch, four editions in German (one published in Germantown, Pennsylvania), one edition in Spanish, three editions in French, one edition in Danish, two in Norwegian, and two editions in Arabic.  The Pennsylvania German language edition, published by Christoph Saur in 1776, was authorized by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1774 (with the strong encouragement and advice of London Yearly Meeting) to promote the “spread of knowledge of the Principles of Truth, as much as may be in the remote settlements.” (6) The most admired edition seems to have been the 1765 edition printed by John Baskerville in Birmingham, due to the beauty of its printing.
          Two deliberate changes in the texts of the earlier editions have been noted.  In the seventh edition (London : W. Richardson and S. Clark,  1765) was first omitted a sentence on page 340, respecting the imposition of tithes. (7)  A more important excision was made in 1779, when the Morning Meeting declared that the next reprint of the Apology was to omit Barclay’s account of a figure named Hai Eben Yokdan, which had been proven to be false. The story of Yokdan, a “noble savage” somewhat like Robinson Crusoe, was used by Barclay to demonstrate the working of the Inner Light even upon an individual who had been separated from other humans since birth.   Most editions after 1779 omitted this story. (8).  
          There have been numerous versions of extracts from and abridgements of the Apology. In 1815, George Harrison formed an abridgement chiefly from the 1780 edition, but with references to the Latin original. Quotations from the Apology received wide circulation with the vast reprinting of a work by Mary Brotherton Brook (ca. 1726-1782): Reasons for the Necessity of Silent Waiting, in Order to the Solemn Worship of God: to Which are Added, Several Quotations from Robert Barclay’s Apology was first printed by Mary Hinde in 1774, and was reprinted 25 times in English, once in German, and once in French, in editions published in London, Philadelphia, and Dublin, from 1774 through 1877.  
          The Apology came under attack in 1678 by John Brown (1610?-1679) a prominent Scottish theologian.  In 1679, Barclay published a thorough and forceful answer to Brown: Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity Vindicated From John Brown's Examination and Pretended Confutation Thereof, in his book, called, Quakerisme the Path-way to Paganisme…,  a book which Trueblood considers to be in some ways more thoughtful and careful on many questions than the Apology  itself.  (9)  Other non-Quakers were more complimentary.  Voltaire praised the Apology as “a work as well drawn up as the subject could possibly admit.” (10)   Sir Leslie Stephen, writing of the Apology in his article on Barclay in the Dictionary of National Biography considers it “one of the most impressive theological writings of the century.”   
          Barclay's Apology has been the final court of theological appeal for Quakers throughout their history, even during the Society's separations and heresies. (11) Barclay covered his topics so comprehensively that all sides of a controversy were able to quote the Apology in support of their position.   Barclay did have Quaker critics, notably the Beaconites and other Evangelicals in the 19th century, who felt that Barclay underemphasized and disparaged the Bible.   In the early 20th century, criticism from the opposite wing was led by Rufus Jones, who believed that Barclay lacked value to the modern world because of inconsistency in his thought and his use of outworn and discredited forms.  Jones charged that he had led the Society of Friends to Quietism, that he had spent too much effort in attacking doctrines such as predestination which were now irrelevent, and that he de-emphasized the goodness of man. Jones believed it was most regrettable that Barclay’s “early formulation of Quakerism should have been made as an adjustment with the Augustinian and Calvinistic system instead of following the fresh and transforming path which the spiritual reformers, the real forerunners and progenitors of ‘the Children of the Light,’ had discovered.”  (12) (13) Yet all of Barclay's major works were published within George Fox's lifetime, and were given hearty assent by him and by others of the first generation of Quakerism.  After Barclay's death in 1690, in a preface to Truth Triumphant (the collected works of Barclay published in 1692) Fox eulogized him as a man who was “a wise and faithful minister in Christ, and writ many precious books in the defence of the Truth…he was a scholar and a man of great parts…a man of repute among men, and preacht the everlasting Gospel of Christ freely, turning people from darkness to light."  (14)
            Increasingly throughout the twentieth century, Quaker scholars began to appreciate again the value of Barclay's writing.  Howard Brinton, in his introduction to Eleanore Price Mather's Barclay in Brief,  praised him for the "balance which he maintains in distinguishing between the human and the divine, and herein lies his principal message for the present day." (15)
1.  D. Elton Trueblood, Robert Barclay (New York : Harper & Row, 1968)  p. 20.
2.  Dean Freiday (ed.), Introduction to Barclay’s Apology in Modern English (Alburtis, Pa. : Hemlock Press, 1967) p. 3.
3. Robert Barclay, “To Charles II,  King of Great Britain…” in Apology for the True Christian Divinity (New York : S. Wood & Sons, 1827), p. i-ix.
4. “Introduction to the Present Edition,” Apology for the True Christian Divinity  (New York : S. Wood & Sons, 1827) section 7a.
5.  Peter Sippel, Introduction to An Apology for the True Christian Divinity  (Glenside, PA : Quaker Heritage Press, 2002) and
6.  Monthly Meeting for Sufferings Held in Philadelphia and New Jersey, Minutes, 1774, p. 410-413.
7.  Joseph Smith, Catalogue of Friends Books (London : J. Unwin, 1849), p. 182.
8.   For a discussion of the Hai EbenYokdan controversy, including its theological implications and its demonstration of the influence of George Keith on Barclay, see Trueblood, Robert Barclay, p. 158-161.
9.  Trueblood, Robert Barclay, p. 60.
10. Ibid, p. 1.
11. Christopher Densmore, “The Works of George Fox (1831) : a Legacy of the Hicksite Separation.”
12.  Rufus Jones, Introduction to The Second Period of Quakerism by William Braithwaite (London : Macmillan, 1919).  Jones’s introduction was removed from the second (1961) edition.
13. For an extensive discussion of Barclay's 20th century critics, see Trueblood, Robert Barclay,  p. 9-18 and Dorlan Bales, Barclay's Apology in Context : the Quaker Understanding of Revelation in Seventeenth-Century England (Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 1980) p. 6-24.   
14. George Fox in a letter prefacing Truth Triumphant… (London : Printed for T. Northcott, 1692), p. [xxxix].  
15.  Howard H. Brinton, Introduction to Barclay in Brief : a Condensation of Robert Barclay's Apology for  the True Christian Divinity by Eleanore Price Mather (Wallingford, PA : Pendle Hill, 1942), p. 3.