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Robert Barclay, Champion of Quaker Ideal

May 03, 2010
Robert Barclay, Champion of Quaker Ideal

Robert Barclay made Quaker thinking logically defensible when the movement was only about a quarter of a century old. Some think he saved it from extinction. Up till that time, although it had won a few notable converts (among them William Penn, Isaac Penington, Thomas Ellwood and a number of businessmen) it had mostly attracted persons of little stature and a disproportionate number of delusional individuals and lunatics. Some of these paraded stark naked through town "as a witness" and entered traditional churches in undress to warn of the wrath to come.

Robert himself, although greatly mortified by the exercise, felt compelled to walk through Aberdeen once, dressed in sackcloth with ashes on his head. He explained in a published letter how he had felt constrained by God, as a prophet of old, to do this. It was the only time he acted in such a manner.

Born on this day, December 23, 1648, Robert received four years of training in Paris where a wealthy uncle offered to make him his heir if only he would join the Roman Church. Meanwhile, Robert's father, David Barclay, had become a Quaker. His dying wife made him promise to bring Robert home, which David did, personally fetching him from France. The boy was soon won to his father's convictions. Scholarly from his youth up, he became the theologian of the Quaker viewpoint. His was not merely a bookish faith however; he went to prison several times because he was a Quaker./p>

Barclay argued that the only real Christianity is that in which the Spirit of Christ is present. Since the Bible must be interpreted and brought alive by the Holy Spirit, even its words are secondary to inner illumination. Any merely historical or liturgical faith is dead. Any worship which lacks Christ's presence is a sham. Faith must be something experienced.

Spiritual-minded men do behold the glory and beauty of God, in respect whereof and for which all the glory of this world is despicable to them; yea, even as dross and dung. And they also hear God inwardly speaking in their souls words truly divine and heavenly, full of virtue and divine life; and they savour the taste of divine things, and do as it were handle them with the hands of their souls. And those heavenly enjoyments do as really differ in thier nature from all false similitudes and fictitious appearances of them, which either the mind of man by its own strength can imitate, or any evil spirit to deceive man counterfeit; as a true man differs from the dead image of a man; or true bread, honey, wine or milk doth differ from a mere picture of those things.

His Apology for the True Christian Divinity has undergirded Quaker thinking ever since it was penned. One Scotsman declared that Barclay was the only great original theologian that Scotland ever produced. However, his influence was not through his theology alone. In his own age, he was active in national affairs and negotiated in behalf of King James II. When he died at the young age of 42, he had fathered nine children. His offspring were ardent Quakers, and their descendants were prominent among the famous Quaker families of subsequent centuries: the Barclays, Gurneys and Frys.


  1. Barclay, Robert. An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/
  2. "Barclay, Robert." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  3. Trueblood, D. Elton. Robert Barclay. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.
  4. Various internet articles, such as the biography at Wikipedia.

Last updated June, 2007.


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