At the time the letters were written, Voltaire had already had two spells of imprisonment in the Bastille for his advocacy of toleration and enlightenment. He was released from prison on condition that he left France and he chose exile in England. He was taught English by a Quaker and became sympathetic to the Quaker outlook. The extract from the first letter (below) deals with the Quaker attitude to Baptism. *******************************************************************
I believed that the doctrine and the history of such extra-ordinary people were worthy of curiosity. To find out about them, I visited one the most eminent Quakers in England (Andrew Pitt) who had been in commerce for thirty years, but had decided to limit his wealth and wants, and had retired to the countryside close to London. I went to seek him out in his retreat which was a small house, well-built and clean and without ornaments.
The Quaker was a fresh-faced old man who had never been ill, because he had never known passions or intemperance. I have never seen in my life a nobler or more engaging countenance than his. He was dressed, like all those of his religion, in a plain coat without pleats in the sides or buttons on either the pockets or the sleeves. He was wearing a large hat, with turned down brim, like our clergy. He received me with his hat on his head, and came towards me without the slightest inclination of his body, but there was more politeness in the open, humane expression on his face than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and carrying the head-covering in one's hand.
"Friend," he said to me, "I see thou art a stranger. If I can be of any help to thee, thou hast only to speak." .
"Sir," I said, bending forwards and sliding one foot towards him according to our custom, "I flatter myself that my just curiosity will not displease you and that you will give me the honour of telling me the details of your religion."
"The people of thy country," he replied, "make too many bows and compliments. But I have not yet seen any who have the same curiosity as thee. Come in, and let us dine together first.".
I made still more unwanted compliments, because one cannot get rid of bad habits suddenly. After a healthy and frugal meal, which started and ended with a prayer to God, I set about questioning my host. I started with the question that good Catholics have put more than once to the Huguenots:.
"My dear Sir," I said to him, "are you baptized?".
"No," replied the Quaker, "and neither are my brethren.".
"My God!" I replied, "then your are not Christians.".
"My son," he replied in a gentle voice, "do not swear. We are Christians and try to be good Christians, but we do not think that Christianity consists of sprinkling cold water on the head.".
"Good Heavens!" I replied, shocked at this impiety, "have you then forgotten that Jesus Christ was baptized by John?".
"Friend, no more swearing," said the benign Quaker. "Christ received baptism from John, but he never baptized anybody. We are not disciples of John but of Christ.".
"Alas," I said, "you would surely be burned in countries of the Inquisition, you poor man. For the love of God, how I wish I could baptize you and make you a Christian.".
"Were that all," he replied gravely, "we would willingly submit to baptism to comply with thy weakness. We do not condemn anyone for using the ceremony of baptism. But we believe that those who profess so holy and so spiritual a religion as that of Christ must abstain, as much as they can, from Jewish ceremonies.".
"What! Baptism a Jewish ceremony!" I exclaimed. ".
Yes, my son," he continued "and so Jewish that several Jews today still use the baptism of John. Consult antiquity. It will teach thee that John only revived this practice, which was in use a long time earlier amongst the Hebrews, in the same way as the pilgrimage to Mecca by Muslims is copied from the Ismaelites. "Jesus was willing to receive the baptism of John, in the same way that he submitted to circumcision.
But circumcision and the washing with water must both be superseded by the baptism of Christ, this baptism of the Spirit, this washing of the soul, which is the salvation of mankind. Thus the fore-runner, John, said: "I baptize you to the truth with water, but another will come after me, mightier than me, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with fire and the Holy Ghost." 'Likewise, the great apostle to the gentiles, Paul, wrote in Corinthians:.
"Christ has not sent me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel." 'Indeed, this same Paul only baptized two people with water, and this was in spite of his inclination. He circumcised his disciple, Timothy. The other apostles also circumcised all who wanted it.
Art thou circumcised?" he added.
I replied that I did not have that honour.
"Ah well," he said, "Friend thou are a Christian without being circumcised, and I am a Christian without being baptized."