An undated letter of Samuel Fisher from the 1650s is addressed ‘To All the House of Jacob scattered upon all the face of the earth so that they might listen to the voice of the light that in the hearts and turn from their evil ways.’1 It was written as part of a larger Quaker effort to engage the Jews of the Netherlands. If the work was ever translated, the effort has not survived the centuries. This essay is an effort to fill that gap.
Quakers and Jews
Interest in Jews was widespread in England in the mid-seventeenth century. Some Christians wanted the Jews to be allowed to settle once again in that country, from which they had been expelled by royal decree of Edward I in 1290. In the eschatological fervour of the seventeenth century it was thought that the readmission of the Jews, who it was hoped would then convert to Christianity, would help to usher in the Second Coming. In some ways, this is akin to twenty-first-century Evangelical Christians’ support for the modern state of Israel. Many who shared such apocalyptic views, in both historical periods, were not sympathetic towards actual, living Jews, or for that matter much interested in Jews except as an abstraction that was necessary for an end-time scenario. Early Quakers could be on both sides of this issue. Friends such as George Keith, who at one point had a great interest in both Jewish Kabbalah and in apocalyptic timetables,2 showed interest in the conversion of the Jews as an eschatological phenomenon but no inclination to meet living Jews. Others, such as Samuel Fisher, William Caton, John Perrot and John Luffe, met with actual Jews to bring them the Quaker message and to turn them to the Light.3
Since Quakers were hardly structured as a separate sect in the 1650s it is questionable whether they were seeking to convert Jews to Quakerism as an identifiable Christian denomination. They were devoted to the idea of converting Jews to the Light in their consciences, which in early Quaker understanding was Jesus Christ. Samuel Fisher and John Stubbs reported in a letter from Venice on the 18th day of the 4th month (that is, June) 1658 that they received a ‘quiet hearing’ from
especially the Jewes, who though Zealous of their circumsision, yet deny not the light in ye conscience to be the chiefe teacher without obedience to which all outward observations avayle not, nor yet deny us accesse to speake as freely as wee can desire, both in their synagogues & elsewhere, but rather desire discourse with us. Loving us not a little in that they see us against the Popish superstitions, fopperies, and Images, with some or other of them we have dayly discourse upon the change as we are made to meete them who delight to hear of any hopes of an admission for them to live in England, which might tent much to the conversion of some among them, if such a thing might come to passe.4
Similarly, in a letter from Rome dated ‘the 7th day of the 6th moneth 1658’ (that is, 7 August) Fisher and Stubbs report of their positive experiences among the Jewish communities from Amsterdam to Rome.5
Samuel Fisher’s Letter ‘To All the House of Jacob’ was published in Hebrew. While very rare, this was not a singular effort to reach Jews in their ancient language. Margaret Fell composed A Loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham6 in 1656, which was printed in a facing-page edition of English and Hebrew. In fact, she had hoped that Fisher, who was one of the few early Friends acquainted with Hebrew, would translate that treatise,7 but he did not prove up to the task.8
Samuel Fisher’s grasp of Biblical Hebrew was, nonetheless, impressive. Prior to his joining the dissenters (first the Baptists, later Quakers), he had earned a master’s degree at Oxford. He used his scholarly prowess to produce the enormous work for which he is best known: his Rusticus ad Academicos.9 This lengthy work is a profound work of textual criticism as well as an effort to articulate a Quaker understanding of Scripture, in which he challenges notions of a divinely preserved biblical text and subordinates the scriptures to the divine source, the Light of Christ, that inspired them, a source still directly available to believers. This Light was the only infallible teacher, because the scriptures had been miscopied and mistranslated across the centuries.10
Contents of the Letter
Even though the Bible was relegated to a secondary status in authority, it was still valuable and reliable insofar as it was accurately handed down. Fisher’s appreciation for scripture is evidenced in his Letter: almost the entirety of the text consists of biblical quotations and allusions.
Fisher’s Letter is shaped by repeating themes. Some are deeply eschatological: day (as in the Day of the Lord), judgment, burning and fire. Related to judgment are recurring themes of divine anger and mercy. He makes constant contrast between the righteous or good, on the one hand, and the wicked or evil, on the other. He points out a way or path to righteousness and calls his readers to walk in it. In the biblical Hebrew that he employs the chief term for interiority is ‘heart’, which appears some 15 times. The light to which he beckons his readers dwells in the heart. The ‘light in the heart’ is his way of translating the early Quaker expressions ‘the light within’ or ‘the light in the conscience’. Samuel Fisher urges his readers to wait, to seek this light and to return to it. In biblical Hebrew the heart is the seat of intellect and the organ of moral discernment. Consonant with ancient understanding, the seat of feelings in Samuel Fisher’s text is the kidneys, as seen in his use of Jer. 17:10.
Other repeating terms include those that refer to exterior religious practices, such as burnt offerings, sacrifices, incense and circumcision. As a Quaker, he rejects such outward observances and summons his readers within. Quakers were just as dismissive of Protestant or Catholic rituals and practices as they were of ancient Jewish customs. Finally, his language of judgment should be noted. Echoing particularly the prophets, he refers to his audience as stubborn and rebellious. God cries to them, but they do not listen. As a result, unless they change their ways, when they call to God, God will not listen to them. These words are directed to Jews, but early Quaker writings more often directed such sharply judgmental language to other Christians.
One scholar has described the text as ‘written in Fisher’s inimitable style, one run-on sentence, with many digressions’.11 Fisher’s style may have been inimitable in that no other early Quaker is known to have composed in biblical Hebrew, but it is not in fact one run-on sentence. The phrases can be lengthy, but the text is regularly punctuated with the colon-like sof passuq (׃) that marks the end of a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures and here serves the function of a period or full stop. As for digression, this is hardly inimitable. Like many early Quaker texts, Samuel Fisher’s Letter is a patchwork of biblical quotations. In this case, scriptural references make up nearly the entire composition. These writings were often organised by clusters of biblical words and images, and those noted above, such as judgment, good and evil, and the day of the Lord, provide structure to Samuel Fisher’s writing. Also as is found in early Quaker writings,12 sometimes the subject turns upon images in one verse that effect a transition to another focal image. In the following example the word ‘wicked’ is a central motif, but the word ‘cup’ is a pivot point upon which attention turns from Ps. 11:6 to Ps. 75:9. The image of chaff serves as a kind of inclusio or envelope structure.
The wicked will be like
chaffthat the drives away; the wicked will not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For God knows the way of the righteous, and the way of the wicked will perish. [Ps. 1:4-7] The wicked shall be turned to hell, and all the peoples that forget God, both the Jews and the gentiles. [Ps. 9:17] Upon the wicked, God will rain snares of fire and brimstone; a scorching wind will be the portion of their cup. [Ps. 11:6] For ready is a cup in the hand of the Lord and the wine is red, full of mixture, and he will pour out from it; but all the wicked of the earth will drain its dregs and drink it. [Ps. 75:9] Therefore hear this word which I am speaking to you from the Lord, for I love your souls, sons of Jacob, the word which the Lord calls through the hand of the prophets of old, saying, ‘Gather yourselves together, gather, before the decree comes to be and a day has passed like chaff, before the Lord’s anger comes upon you.’ [Zeph. 2:1-3]
In a second example the word ‘light’ is dominant, but the occurrence of ‘path’ in Ps. 119:105 takes Fisher’s attention to Jer. 6:16.
And now, house of Jacob, come, and let us walk in the light of the Lord, [Isa. 2:5] no longer in darkness and in paths of darkness as in the former days. Rather in the light of the Lord who is in the heart, and he is enlightening everyone one who is in the world. Behold this light is come to you in your heart, the one enlightening and the one who judges every word of your mouth and every thought of your heart. This is the law of God that is a lamp for your feet and a light for your paths. [Ps. 119:105] And the light will bring you to the ways and paths of old. This is the good way, which the Lord spoke for love of you by the hand of Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ask for the paths of old. Where is the good path? and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. [Jer. 6:16]
A comparison of Fisher’s Letter with Margaret Fell’s A Loving Salutation to the Seed of Abraham among the Jews reveals common themes: the coming Day of Judgment, walking in the Light, the Light in the conscience, circumcised hearts, rejection of sacrifices and burnt offerings, the inward law (though this looms much larger in Margaret Fell’s treatise), divine nearness, a stubborn or rebellious people and a gathering of nations (again, a much more central theme in Margaret Fell’s work). It is likely that Samuel Fisher had seen Margaret Fell’s tract—as noted above, her correspondence suggests that she had hoped that he would translate it into Hebrew,13 which he did not do—but this is not conclusive evidence of direct influence on his Letter.
Scriptural Verses that Appear Elsewhere in Samuel Fisher’s Writings
A search of Samuel Fisher’s other uses of the biblical verses that appear in his Letter yields surprisingly limited overlap. His magnum opus, Rusticus ad Academicos, shares only three: Ps. 11:6, Isa. 55:6-7 and a very brief allusion to the new moon, Sabbaths and solemn assemblies of Isa. 1:13.14 In the 15-page Christ’s Light Springing—half of which space is taken up by the Latin translation of the work in facing columns—three other verses appear: The ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’ of Joel 2:31 is briefly mentioned, as is the cup of red mixed wine of the Lord’s wrath of Ps. 75:9 and the people’s refusal to hearken to the trumpet of the Lord’s warning from Jer. 6:16.15 Given that the biblical references in Christ’s Light Springing are overwhelmingly from the New Testament, the appearance of these three verses may suggest that they are particularly attractive to Samuel Fisher when he is concerned to threaten divine judgment, as he is in both Christ’s Light Springing and in his Letter.
Letter from Samuel Fisher.
To All the House of Jacob scattered upon all the face of the earth so that they might listen to the voice of the light that in the hearts16 and turn from their evil ways.
Listen, sons of Israel, House of Jacob, give ear, repent, and turn from the wickedness of your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, which all the evil and the doers of iniquity do not know. For behold, the day is coming to burn as an oven and all the arrogant and all doers of evil will be stubble. And the day comes that will burn them up and will not leave them root or branch.17 The great and terrible day of the Lord is coming,18 and the Lord will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with his truth,19 who with it20 searches the heart, testing the inward parts.21 He comes to bring every deed into judgment, against every concealed thing, whether it is good or evil,22 to give to a man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. Happy are the righteous, for [God] is good to them on that day, for they shall enjoy the fruits of their deeds.23 Woe to the wicked, for it will be will with him, for the reward of his hands will be given to him.24 Woe to those who proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to their soul, for they have rewarded themselves [with] evil.25 The wicked will be like chaff that the wind drives away; the wicked will not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For God knows the way of the righteous, and the way of the wicked will perish.26 The wicked shall be turned to hell, and all the peoples that forget God, both the Jews and the gentiles.27
Upon the wicked, God will rain snares28 of fire and brimstone; a scorching wind will be the portion of their cup.29 For ready is a cup in the hand of the Lord and the wine is red, full of mixture, and he will pour out from it; but all the wicked of the earth will drain its dregs and drink it.30
Therefore hear this word which I am speaking to you from the Lord, in my love for your souls, sons of Jacob, the word which the Lord calls through the hand of the prophets of old, saying, Gather yourselves together, gather, before the decree comes to be31 and a day has passed like chaff, before the Lord’s anger comes upon you. Seek the Lord, seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger.32 You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped iniquity, you have eaten the fruit of lies; because you trusted in your own way.33 And now sow for yourselves for in righteousness and reap according to mercy.34 Break up your fallow ground; it is time to seek the Lord, until he may come and rain righteousness upon you.35
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, who will abundantly pardon.38 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.39 Who is the one who desires to see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears to their cry.40 They cry and the Lord hears and delivers them from all their troubles.41
For the face of the Lord alone is against evildoers, to cut off remembrance of them from the earth.42 And now, house of Jacob, come, and let us walk in the light of the Lord,43 no longer in darkness and in paths of darkness as in the former days. Rather in the light of the Lord that is in the heart, and he is enlightening everyone one who is in the world.44 Behold this light is come to you in your heart, the one enlightening and the one who judges every word of your mouth and every thought of your heart.
This is the law of God that is a lamp for your feet and a light for your paths.45 And the light will bring you to the ways and paths of old. This is the good way, which the Lord spoke for love of you by the hand of Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ask for the paths of old. Where is the good path, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. And they said, we will not go and hearken to the sound of the trumpet. And they said we will not hearken. The Lord will bring evil upon you, fruit of their thoughts, for they have not hearkened to my word or my law but have rejected it.46 And the Lord will reject your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, saying,
Of what use to me is incense that comes from Sheba or sweet cane from a distant land?47 Know that if you do not truly amend your ways and your doings, if you do not truly execute judgment between a person and one’s neighbor,48 and if your hands are full of bloodshed and your hearts are full of deceit and oppression and violence, then your burnt offerings will not please the Lord, and your sacrifices will not be sweet to him. Incense is an abomination to him, the Lord cannot endure new moons and Sabbaths and the calling of assemblies, and solemn assemblies with iniquity.49 If you multiply prayers, he will not hear.50 The Lord called and there was no answer; he spoke and you did not hear; but you did evil in his sight and did not choose that in which he delighted, but rather you chose your ways and your detestable things and the delight of your souls.51 And you, do not trust deceptive words that cannot profit,52 saying, We are the circumcised. The ark of the covenant of the Lord, Temple of the Lord, Temple of the Lord.53 Does the Lord take as much pleasure in burnt offerings and your sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice and to listen [is better] than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.54
The day is coming in which they will no longer say ‘the ark of the covenant, the temple of the Lord’ and it will not come to mind, but they will not remember it and will not visit, and they will no longer act and will no longer walk after the stubbornness of their heart to do evil. Rather, circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and remove the foreskins of your heart, lest the anger of the Lord come forth like fire and burn, and none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.55 For thus says the Lord to the wicked, What does it mean for you to recite my statues or to take up my covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline and cast my words behind you.56 I will reprove and lay a charge before you. Consider this, you who forget God, lest he rip you apart and there is none to deliver you.57 All the meek of the earth, who have done justice,58 all who listen to the voice of the Lord and walk in the light of the Lord in the heart and to the word of the Lord and to the commands of the Lord, which [word] is not distant but rather very close, in the mouth and in the heart, so that you may do it.59 They will be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger.60 Then God will punish and judge against all the circumcised with the uncircumcised. And the wicked nations are the uncircumcised of flesh, and the Jews the uncircumcised of heart.61 And all the uncircumcised of the ears [are those] who are unable to attend and whom the word of the Lord to them is as a reproach and they refuse to attend and they turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears from hearing. And they set their hearts as an adamant stone, not to hear the law,62 which it pleased the Lord to send, with his spirit and he gave into their hearts. And there will come for them a great wrath from the Lord and because he called and they did not listen; thus they will call and he will not listen. And know that the Lord of hosts tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and lover of violence.63
Consider, please, and be turned, sons of Israel, and remember that you are stubborn.64
From a lover of your soul,65 whose name is Samuel Fisher