The Lamb’s War: How Primitive Quakers Turned the World Upside Down
For radical early Quakers like James Nayler, resistance was a way of life. In the “Lamb’s War” on Satan, they were called to open hearts, not end lives.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
James Nayler was among the “primitive Quakers” who formed that unique sect’s first generation of light‐bearers. He was born in 1616 in Yorkshire and joined Parliament’s army in 1642 (he was a quartermaster–the man responsible for doling out meager rations to a long‐suffering humanity). The English Civil Wars were a profoundly transformative series of events. King Charles clashed with the Parliament and both sides sent thousands and thousands of soldiers to their deaths. What was all the fighting for? Why did they have out this most deadly war in all of English history?–For many common folk and their sympathizers, the Levelers held the answer. At the Putney Debates (1647), radicals in the New Model Army seized their opportunity to press a series of truly revolutionary demands on the Cromwellians in leadership. The king was a captive, still firmly in possession of his head, and Cromwell’s men were willing to make a deal that would preserve Charles’ place and enlarge the lords’ own powers. The Levelers met them with demands that the House of Lords be abolished, the suffrage universalized, the monarchy and its corporate spawn were to be abolished, and all oppression done away with it. As a political program, Leveling died as Cromwell and his goons picked off its most important adherents (royalists murdered the Leveler’s main spokesman at Putney, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, while trying to kidnap him). As a cultural matter, though, the Civil Wars unleashed an antinomian, leveling spirit that even the Lord Protector could not hope to contain. He had managed to take a king’s head, but he could not silence men and women like James Nayler who no longer believed the falsehoods and lies which drove men to violent deaths.
Nayler was among the first to join with George Fox in what only gradually became known as the Quaker movement. As part of the “Valiant Sixty”–the first itinerant Quaker preachers–Nayler conducted his ministry in a way that bothered even many of his fellows. He took the doctrine of the “inner light” a little too seriously; from time to time he seemed to think of himself as Christ. To more staid, conservative Quakers like Fox Nayler’s pretensions to messianism seemed terribly self‐important to the point of blasphemy. Who was James Nayler to seriously compare himself to Christ? When Nayler and a group of followers staged a reenactment of Christ’s Palm Sunday walk through Jerusalem, the Cromwellian state took care of Fox’ Nayler problem. Parliament tried him itself, convicted him of blasphemy, and sentenced him to be branded with a “B,” tortured in other various ways, and imprisoned (at hard labor) for two years. When he was finally released, Nayler emerged a bit of a broken man; his spirit clearly affected by the ordeal, his inner light perhaps just a bit more dim. He died in 1660 from wounds taken during a roadside robbery.
We will have more to say about Nayler the man and his legacy for both Quakerism and the deep history of liberalism, but for now we begin with his most important, characteristic work: “The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin.” “The Lamb’s War” has it all–It weaves an apocalyptic vision of God and Satan’s cosmic battle with the public’s own historical memory and the sense that they themselves are the agents of change. Nayler begins by identifying Jesus as the Lamb. The Lamb is at war with Satan, “the spirit of this world.” We mere mortal earthlings are here to be part of the struggle, and nothing more. Our inner lights push us toward the Lamb and his holy, spiritual, peaceful regiments; the drive for selfish gain and worldly power pushes us to serve the Beast. Nayler urged his Quaker audience to do their part as good little lambs: lay down your lives, if need be, to always do what is right and good and avoid doing any evil.
London: Printed for Thomas Simmons. 1657.
The Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin
The End of it, the Manner of it, and what he Wars against; His Weapons, his Colors, and his Kingdom and how all may know whether they be in it, or no; and whether the same Christ be in them that is, was, and is to come, and their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to him.
The Lord God Almighty, to whom belongs all the kingdoms in heaven and earth, doth nothing therein but by his Son, the Lamb; by him he creates and governs; by him he saves and condemns; judges and justifies; makes peace and makes war; and whatsoever he doth, he is at his right hand in all places, who in him hath long suffered the burden of iniquity, and oppression of wickedness that hath abounded for many generations, till it be come to the full measure, as in the days of old; and now his appearance in the Lamb (as ever it was when iniquity was full) is to make war with the god of this world, and to plead with his subjects concerning their revolt from him their creator, who ordered their beginning and gave them a being, and their breaking the order that was in the beginning, and giving up their obedience to the worldly spirit, and the inventions thereof, till they become so far one with it as that it hath not only defiled their souls and bodies, blinded their eyes, stopped their ears, and so made the creature utterly unprofitable to God and unfit for a temple for him to be worshipped in, or to hear the voice or understand the mind of the eternal Spirit, by which they was created, but that they are also become open enemies to every check and reproof of that Spirit which should lead them to God and doth testify against their evil deeds, and are not afraid to speak against it as a thing not worth the minding, nor able to lead them in the way of truth. Thus hath God lost the creature out of his call and service, and he is become one with the god of this world, to serve and obey him in ways that despite the Spirit of grace, and now use the creation against the creator. Now against this evil seed, and its whole work brought forth in that nature, doth the Lamb make war to take vengeance of his enemies.
The end of his war is,
To judge this deceiver openly before all the creation, showing that his ways, fashions and customs are not what God ordered for man to live in, in the beginning, to bind him and to redeem out of his captivity all who will but believe in the Lamb, & are weary of this service and bondage to his enemy, and who will but come forth and give their names and hearts to join with him, and bear his image and testimony openly before all men, and willingly follow him in such ways as wherein the Father hath given him victory over this power, for himself and all that follow him, to redeem them to God; and the rest who will not believe and follow him, and bear his image, them to condemn with the destroyer into everlasting destruction, and to restore all things, and make all things new, as they were in the beginning, that God alone may rule in his own work.
The manner of his war is,
First, that he may be just who is to judge all men and spirits, he gives his light into their hearts, even of man & woman, whereby he lets all see (who will mind it) what he is displeased with, what is with him, and what is against him; what he owns, and what he disowns, that so all may know what is for destruction, to come out of it, lest they be destroyed with it, that so he may save and receive all that are not willfully disobedient and hardened in the pleasures of this world, against him; all who are deceived, who are willing to be undeceived; all who are captivated, who are willing to be set free; all that are in darkness, and are willing to come to light: in a word, all that loves righteousness more than the pleasures of sin, that he may not destroy them, nor they fight against him, and know not, but that he may receive them, to be one with him against that which hath misled and deceived them. And as many as turn at his reproof, he doth receive, and gives them power in spirit and life to be as he is, in their measure; but all in watching and wars against that which hath had them, and now has the rest of the creation in bondage, that he may restore all things in their former liberty.
What they are to war against,
And that is, whatever is not of God: whatever the eye (which loves the world) lusts after, whatever the flesh takes delight in, and whatever stands in respect of persons (as saith the Scripture), the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life; these are not of God; and whatever the god of this world hath begot in men’s hearts to practice or to plead for, which God did not place there, all this the Lamb and his followers wars against, which is at enmity with it both in themselves and wherever they see it; for in the work of God alone is his kingdom, and all other works will he destroy. So their wars is not against creatures, they wrestle not with flesh and blood which God hath made, but with spiritual wickedness, exalted in the hearts of men and women, where God alone should be, and pleaded for, by which they become enemies to God, and their souls are destroyed. Indeed, their war is against the whole work and device of the god of this world, his laws, his customs, his fashions, his inventions, and all which are to add to or take from the work of God, which was in the beginning; this is all enmity against the Lamb and his followers, who are entered into the covenant which was in the beginning, and therefore no wonder why they are hated of the god of this world and his subjects, who comes to spoil him of all at once, & to destroy the whole body of sin, the foundation and strength of his kingdom, and to take the government to himself, that God may wholly rule in the heart of man, and man wholly live in the work of God.
What their weapons are,
And as they war not against men’s persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men’s lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God. Their breastplate is righteousness and holiness to God; their minds are girt with godliness, and they are covered with salvation, and they are taught with truth. And thus the Lamb in them, and they in him, goes out in judgment and righteousness to make war with his enemies, conquering and to conquer, not as the prince of this world in his subjects, with whips and prisons, tortures and torments on the bodies of creatures, to kill and destroy men’s lives, who are deceived and so become his enemies; but he goes forth in the power of the Spirit with the word of truth, to pass judgment upon the head of the serpent, which doth deceive and bewitch the world, and covers his own with his love, whilst he kindles coals of fire on the head of his enemies; for with the spirit of judgment and with the spirit of burning will he plead with his enemies: and having kindled the fire and awakened the creature, and broken their peace and rest in sin, he waits in patience to prevail to recover the creature and slay the enmity by suffering all the rage and envy and evil entreatings that the evil spirit that rules in the creature can cast upon him, and he receives it all with meekness and pity to the creature, returning love for hatred, wrestling with God against the enmity, with prayers and tears night and day, with fasting, mourning and lamentation, in patience, in faithfulness, in truth, in love unfeigned, in longsuffering, and in all the fruits of the Spirit, that if by any means he may overcome evil with good, and by this his light in the sight of the creature, that the eye may come to be opened which the god of this world hath blinded, that so the creature might see what it is he thus hates, and what fruits he himself brings forth, that the creature may be convinced he is no deceiver, but hath with him the life and power of innocency and holiness, in whom he rules; and this preaching hath a power in it to open the eye of all that are not willfully blind, because they love the deeds of darkness, and such are left thereby without excuse forever; and thus he in his members many times wrestles and preaches to the spirits in prison, with much longsuffering towards the world, a nation, or a particular person, before he gives them up and numbers them for destruction; yea, sometimes till their rage against him, and cruelty exercised upon his members be so great that there be no remedy, as in the days of old (2 Chron. 36:15–16).
And these fruits are his colors he holds forth to all the world in such as he reigns in.
As they come to obey him, he covers them with love, gentleness, faith, patience, and purity, grace and virtue, temperance and self‐denial, meekness and innocency, all in white, that follow him, in whom he is, who walks themselves as he walked, in all things conforming to God, with boldness and zeal, owning the Lamb to be their leader, with him testifying against the world, that the deeds thereof are evil, themselves the meanwhile covered with his righteousness against all the storms and tempests that they must be sure to meet withal who bears that testimony which the Lamb hath ever borne, in whom he appeared to the convincing of the world, that he is the same that ever he was from the beginning, that all that will believe and loves holiness may see where it is to be found, and come forth to him & be saved, that the whole world become not as Sodom in the day of wrath, which ever comes upon a people or a nation after Christ hath thus appeared and been rejected thereof.
What his kingdom is.
The power, the glory, and compass of it is not comprehended with mortal understanding, which was before all beginnings, and endures forever, who orders and limits all spirits in heaven and earth, who rules in the rulers of the earth, and in all heavenly places, though many spirits knows him not till they have felt his reproof for their rebellion against him; his sufferings are free for love’s sake, which is naturally in him to the creation, being his offspring, for which cause he becomes meek and lowly, that he may bear the infirmities of the creation, which doth no way take from his power, who is equal with the Father, but doth manifest his power to be unlimited, in that he beareth all things, his dominion he hath amongst the heathen, and his hands is in the counsels of the kings of the earth, and there is no place where he is not, who descends below all depths, and ascends far above all heavens, that he may fill all things.
But his kingdom in this world, in which he chiefly delights to walk and make himself known, is in the hearts of such as have believed in him, and owned his call out of the world, whose hearts he hath purified, and whose bodies he hath washed in obedience and made them fit for the Father to be worshipped in; and in such he rejoices and takes delight, and his kingdom in such is righteousness and peace; in love, in power and purity, he leads them by the gentle movings of his Spirit out of all their own ways and wills, in which they would defile themselves, and guides them into the will of the Father, by which they become more clean and holy; deeply he lets them know his covenant, and how far they may go and be safe; he gives them his laws and his statutes, contrary in all things to the god of this world, that they may be known to be his before all his enemies; if they keep his counsel they are safe; but if they refuse he lets them know the correction of the Father; his presence is great joy to them of a willing mind; but with the froward he appears in frowardness; the kisses of his lips is life eternal. But who may abide his wrath? The secrets of the Father are with him, and he maketh all his subjects wise; he makes them all one heart, and with himself of the same mind; his government is wholly pure, and no unclean thing can abide his judgments. As any come into his kingdom they are known, and their change is to be seen of all men. He keeps them low in mind, and a meek spirit doth he beget in them; and with his power he leads them forth against all the enmity of the evil one and makes all conditions comfortable to them who abides in his kingdom.
Now are these the last times, and many false Christs there must appear and be made manifest by the true Christ, with their false prophets, false ways, and false worships, and false worshippers, which though they be at wars one with another, yet not the Lamb’s war. Now seeing he hath appeared who is from everlasting and changeth not, here is an everlasting trial for you all, all sorts of professors, whether you profess him from the letter or the light; come try your Christ, measure your life, and weigh your profession with that which cannot deceive you, which hath stood and will stand forever; for he is sealed of the Father.
Now in truth to God and your own souls, prove your work in time, lest you and it perish together. First see if your Christ be the same that was from everlasting to everlasting, or is he changed according to the times, in life, in death, in peace and wars, in reigning, in suffering, in casting out and receiving in; and if you find the true Christ, then prove your faithfulness to him in all things. Doth him whom you obey as your leader lead you out to war against this world, and all the pride and glory, fashions and customs, love and pleasures, and whatever else is not of God therein? and to give up your lives unto death, rather than knowingly to yield your obedience thereto? Doth he justify any life now but what he justified in the prophets and apostles, and saints of old? Doth he give his subjects liberty now to bow to the god of this world, and his ways, in things that he hath denied in the saints of old, and for denying whereof, many both then and now have suffered? Is he at peace in you, whilst you are in the fleshly pleasures, or whilst you have fellowship with the unclean spirits that are in the world? Doth he not lead out of the world, and to strive against it in watchings, fastings, prayers, and strong cries to the Father, that you may be kept, and others delivered from the bondage and pollutions of it? Is his kingdom the same in you? And doth he give out the same spiritual laws against all the laws and customs of the man of sin in you, as he hath done in his subjects in all ages? Doth he beget in your hearts a new nature, contrary to the world’s nature in all things, motions and delights like himself, whereby he works out the old nature that inclines to the world and can be at peace therein, and now your peace is wholly in him, and that which crucifies the world to you, and you to it, is your joy and delight? Hath he called you out of this world to bear his name before the powers thereof, & put his testimony into your hearts, and the same weapons into your hands, as was used by the saints of old against the powers of darkness, whereby you have power given to overcome evil with good; and many other fruits you may find, which he ever brought forth in his chosen, whereby they was known to be in him, and he in them, for which the world hates them; by all which you may clearly know if he be the same in you today as he was yesterday in his people, and forever; for he changeth not, nor conforms to the world, nor the will of any creature, but changes all his followers, till they become in all things like himself; for they must bear his name and image before all men and spirits.
Now if you profess the same as was, and is, and is to come, the same forevermore, the same Christ, the same calling in you that was in all the people of God, then prove your faithfulness in answering and obeying. Who is it that sees not that wars is begun? and to whom hath not the sound gone forth? The children of light hath published the gospel of light through the world, and the prince of darkness hath showed his enmity against it; the Lamb hath appeared with his weapons as before‐mentioned, in much longsuffering, and the god of this world hath appeared to withstand him with his weapons, and hath prevailed unto blood with much eagerness; and the Lamb hath prevailed unto suffering with much meekness and patience, each of them in their subjects, in whom these contrary spirits acts one against another; and now see what part you take, who hath hired you, and whose work are you in, or are you idle, looking on? Or are you gone out with the beast of the field, and regards nothing but your bellies and pleasures? Doth it not greatly concern you to try your estate, seeing all must come speedily to an account for their lives and service? Are you such as spend your time and strength in watching and praying to the Father of spirits for yourselves and the people of God, that they may be kept in the time of temptation and assaults of the evil one, who seeks his advantage on the weak brethren, and for your enemies, that they may be delivered from under his power, who are captivated by him at his will, to fulfill his lusts and envy, and satisfy his wrath upon the innocent? And do you deny yourselves of your pleasures, profits, ease and liberty, that you may hold forth a chaste conversation in the power and life of gentleness, meekness, faithfulness & truth, exercising a conscience void of offense towards God and all men, that thereby you may shine forth in righteousness, so as to convince your enemies whom you pray for, thus following him who lays down his life for his enemies? Is this your war? and these your weapons? Is this your calling? & are you faithful to him that hath called you hereto, so as you can by no means bow to the god of this world, nor his ways, though it were to save your lives or credit in the world, or estates, & yet can serve the meanest creature in God’s way, though to the loss of all? I beseech you be faithful to your own souls herein: do you find nothing in you that calls or moves this way, or reproves the contrary? If there be, are you not such as quench the Spirit, & put out your own eye, & denies the Lamb’s call against your own lives? & if there be not, then are you not dead members, cut off from Christ, & all your profession is but a lie, & without Christ you are in the world? O that you would prove your own selves; for there be many deceitful workers at this day of his appearance, who do the work of the Lord negligently & deceitfully, & many do their own work instead of his, & many are called, & for a while abide, but in the time of hardship prove deceitful, & return to serve in the world again, and take pleasure therein; others are called & convinced, but come half out of the world, even as far as they can do it without loss or shame, but keep their covenant therewith still, in what makes most for their gain, or earthly advantage or credit: others have answered their call, & been faithful in the whole covenant of the Lamb against the prince of this world, so far as they have seen; but not minding the watch against the enemy, & not keeping low in the fear, & zealous in the light, have suffered the simplicity to be deceived, & are led back to the old beggarly rudiments of the world again, & take that for their perfection & growth, which once they had vomited up; & these expect great things in their work; but they are blinder than the rest, & more to be pitied, because of the simplicity that is deceived. Many other grounds there be that brings not fruit to perfection, who are not found faithful to him that hath called them therein; so that now truth is, that many are called, but few chosen and faithful; many are ashamed at the Lamb’s appearance, it is so low & weak & poor & contemptible, & many are afraid seeing so great a power against him; many be at work in their imaginations, to compass a kingdom to get power over sin, & peace of conscience, but few will deny all to be led by the Lamb in a way they know not, to bear his testimony & mark against the world, and suffer for it with him. Now deceit hath taught you to say, and maybe you think it also, God forbid but you should suffer with Christ till death, but come to the trial in deed and truth. Doth not he suffer under all the pride & pleasures of the flesh, by all manner of excess, by all manner of customs & fashions not of God but of the world? Is not all against him that is not of him and the Father? Is not the lust of the eye, and of the flesh, and pride of life, his oppressors? And do you that live in these things and fashions, and plead for them, suffer with him by them, or war with him against them? then would you be weary of them, and not practice nor plead for them against him: this you will find true in the end, you cannot suffer with him and serve his enemies.