Robert Barclay — First Quaker Theologian

October 30, 2022

Barclay College was named in honor of Quaker’s first theologian. If you’ve wondered who he was, read on.

Robert Barclay:1648-1690

Robert Barclay was born in Gordonstown, on the north coast of Scotland. His father was Colonel David Barclay, who sat in two of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliaments. Robert was related to the House of Stuart through his mother, Catherine, of the Gordon family. The Barclays owned a great estate, Ury.

Robert was raised a strict Calvinist but studied in Scots Theological College, a Roman Catholic school in Paris. His uncle, another Robert Barclay, for whom he was named, was a teacher there. But he returned home at his dying mother’s request. Two years later he came under the influence of the Quaker, John Swinton, when visiting his father in prison at Edinburgh Castle. Swinton was a cell mate of Colonel Barclay. The exposure to Swinton and his Quaker beliefs was crucial to Robert’s own faith. He was convinced that he should become a Quaker in 1666 when worshipping with Friends and experiencing a “secret power” causing him to feel the evil in him weakening and the good raised up.

Robert Barclay married Christian Molleson in 1670. Their wedding was conducted in the traditional Quaker manner. Robert and Christian merely stood together in the presence of other Friends gathered for worship and declared their vows to each other. It was considered scandalous, be- cause a clergyman was not present. Robert and Christian be- came the ancestors of the Barclays in the banking firm and the Gurneys of Earlham.

In his Quaker ministry, Robert experienced severe im- prisonment in Aberdeen. He traveled with George Fox, William Penn, and George Keith to Holland and Germany, where they promoted the beliefs of Friends. Barclay was also appointed Governor of East Jersey (now a part of New Jer- sey).

Robert had a brilliant mind and wrote an apology, which was an intellectual formulation and defense of the Quaker faith. The full title of his work is An Apology for the True Christian Divinity Being an Explanation and Vindication of the Principles and Doctrines of the People Called Quakers. The Apology was published first in Latin in 1676, when he was only twenty-seven years old, and then in English in 1678. The Apology set forth the beliefs of Friends in a systematic way in fifteen propositions. In it he contended that the true knowledge of God is the height of all happiness. He affirmed the belief that God can speak to everyone through inward and unmediated revelation. He referred to John 1:9, which claims that the saving light of Christ enlightens everyone. Therefore, every person has the possibility of salvation. Barclay could not accept the notion that people, who lived before the Christ of history, or who, by misfortune, never heard of Jesus, are condemned. Christ has witnessed inwardly to everyone, yet each person must respond positively to Christ’s inward leading, and not resist it. Barclay’s emphasis on the inward light of Christ in no way diminished the importance of the Scriptures. Evidence is his quoting numerous passages from the Bible in each proposition. Throughout the Apology, Barclay emphasized the inward experience of the Christian faith, particularly in worship, baptism, and communion. In his fifteenth proposition, he appealed to Christians to have a living reverence for God and to be leavened with the evangelical spirit. 

Only weeks before the death of George Fox, Robert died at the early age of forty-two, when on a visit to Scotland. Christian continued much of Robert’s work after his death. The addition of Robert Barclay to the Quaker movement, during the years of fierce persecution, was central to the survival of Quakerism. Indeed, he made a permanent contribution to Quaker theology, and the Apology remains a foremost theology book for Friends today.

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About the Author
David Kingrey, D.Min.

David Kingrey has been a Friend his entire life. He received the degrees of Bachelor of Arts in Religion, Master of Ministry, and Doctor of Ministry. A Recorded Minister in the Friends Church, David has served in leadership in Friends Churches for more than fifty years. At Barclay College, David has chaired the Bible/Theology Department. He has also served as Director and Professor of the Quaker Studies and Spiritual Formation concentrations in the School of Graduate Studies. David is currently Chair of the Biblical Studies Online Program. He has ministered and built friendships with the larger family of Friends in six continents and has co-authored three books: Now Is Tomorrow; Team Ministry, and The Heart of Friends; Quaker History and Beliefs. His favorite pastime is relaxing with his family. David is married to Carol, and they have two sons, David and Scott.

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