Inward Matters

April 17, 2019

Levi Pennington

Without the leadership of Levi Pennington and Milo Ross, it is unlikely that George Fox University would exist today. One would certainly want to acknowledge that many contributed to the mission over time, but these two leaders shaped the character and vision of the college. One can say, at the very least, that without their leadership the mission and vision of George Fox would be quite different. 

To state the obvious, Levi Pennington lived in a different era. The pace of life was slower, although in many ways the culture he lived in was changing rapidly. He grew up in an age when horse travel was normative and lived to see the transportation revolution, first with the automobile and then with the airplane. News traveled slowly throughout the country, by printed page at first and then by radio and later television. A person who lived in 1500 might have recognized Pennington’s boyhood world but would have no context for the society of his retirement.

I think, most importantly, Pennington was part of the generation of letter writers. He wrote thousands of letters to friends, family and people who wanted to just know about the college. Even he did not understand how many would view his letters after his death. He burned most of his correspondence, especially family letters, between 1920 and the mid-1940s. He had no context for understanding why anyone would want to know what he and his daughter were talking about. He noted that he simply did not want to leave his family with the task of cleaning up once he was gone! 

One of the things President Pennington did exceptionally well was help constituents understand what it meant to be a Friend (Quaker). He often reflected on how difficult it was to answer the question, “What do Friends believe?” In answering one letter where he was asked what Friends believed about “life after death,” Pennington wrote that it was a very difficult question to answer: “There is probably no statement I could make about all future life that would be accepted by all Friends . . .” (letter to Parker Palmer, May 18, 1965.) In fact, one of his frustrations over time was the tendency of the Quaker movement to split into factions: “Quakerism’s high regard for individualism and complete autonomy, resulting from an insistence upon something of God in all men, has tended to fragment the movement.” This, of course, is true of much of Protestantism as well. 

Pennington articulated what he believed to be at the core of the Friends movement in a letter to the Cox family:

“The views of Friends on the outward ordinances (the Eucharist and baptism for example) differ from those of every other denomination, so far as I know, and differ most widely from those of the Catholics . . . nearly all Friends agree on the non-essential character of the outward ordinances . . .   Personally, I do not expect that Friends’ views on the ordinances will be widely accepted. There is too much love for outward show, too much difficulty in accepting the reality apart from its symbol.

A Friend believes that religion is definitely an inward thing, and that no outward thing can produce a change in a man’s soul. A man could go down to the river Jordan, a dry sinner and come back a wet sinner; he could partake of bread and wine in a church a thousand times and never have communion with God. But a man could find acceptance with God while dying of thirst in the desert or while hanging on a cross, and he could have communion with God while starving to death in India and China.” 

For Pennington, the irreducible element of Friends’ beliefs was the conviction that one’s soul is transformed only by the presence of the Spirit of God. While other denominations used “symbols” to represent that transformation, the Friends focus on the inward experience alone. (Obviously, the nature of the sacraments is a complex issue and one that Christians have discussed extensively for centuries). At the same time, he begrudgingly noted that the Friends’ position on the sacraments would probably always be a minority view because of the importance of symbols to people. Although this might seem like a small point, the recognition that other Christians might never share Friends’ understandings of key Christian sacraments enabled the college to embrace people with significantly different perspectives. 

Pennington certainly understood the importance of unique Friends’ commitments, but he also recognized what the Friends shared with others. Writing to Harlow Ankeny in 1965, he said, “Great as are the needs of mankind, physical, mental, social, economic and what not, the supreme need is spiritual. ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.’ The command to go into all the world is as real today as when Christ gave it.” All people needed to know Christ personally and their souls transformed by the power of God. The call to preach the gospel was paramount in Jesus’ teaching and a call to all who claimed the name of Jesus. Evangelizing the world was a commitment Friends’ share with the rest of Christendom. 

In the late 1940s the leaders of Pacific College were considering a name change. Many suggestions were made, and a number of possible names contained the word “Friends.” In a letter to then-President Gervais Carey, Pennington wrote: “The word Friends in the name of the college is objectionable on the same ground. Then to put the denominational name into the name of the college would narrow its influence and appear very decidedly . . .” The college leadership at the time balanced his concern by changing the name to George Fox College – retaining a sense of Friends’ history but also committing to a Christian university that emphasized what it “shared” with the rest of Christendom. 

Our vision today is not a narrow, sectarian vision. It is one that invites Christians, from a variety of different perspectives, to enter into a community that seeks to influence culture by preparing the next generation of Christian leaders for the challenges of today and the future. Pennington could easily have argued for a uniquely Friends education. In our region, many denominational colleges have taken such an approach. Instead, he carefully crafted a “vision” that embraced Friends commitments but gave primacy to the shared Christian commitment to the Great Commission. We continue to build on that Christ-centered foundation.