Taken from a writing on George Fox, the founder of Quakerism:
The early Quakers went to what many consider extremes when they practiced "going naked for a sign," a practice that had George Fox’s approval, even though he does not seem to have indulged in it himself. This is more shocking to modern readers than it would have been in the seventeenth century, and still more than in medieval culture.
Already in the ancient times of Greece and Rome public nudity had more than one meaning. The Romans may have seen it as a sign of being, like slaves, less than fully human; but they also used the nude artistically, as in the villas of Pompei, to decorate their homes. Greek art, like Greek sports, celebrated the esthetics of the nude human body. In Sparta nudity had even been a mark of equality between males and females. Among the ancients and through most of the Middle Ages being barefoot was believed to have special efficacy in prayer.
It is hardly surprising that, theologically, Christian thought has been caught between contradictory interpre-tations of the symbolic meaning of nudity: Must it be a sign of the shame of Adam and Eve, as in Genesis 3:10-12? Can it not be lived as a testimony to the pre-lapsarian innocence that humankind hopes to recover, as a return in the grace of God to Paradise before the awareness of shame, as in Genesis 2:25?
In the early Church the nudity of baptism signified the recovery of innocence by the baptized, as Cyril of Jerusalem explained it in his Mystagogical Catecheses. Something of this may have been in the mind of the Priscillians, if it is true that, like some Manicheans, they practiced liturgical nakedness.36 In the fourteenth century, however, Jean Gerson (1363- 1429) had denounced the nudism that seems to have been a common practice among a group of béghards that he called the Turlupins.37 In England itself the Adamites were said to do everything naked."38 The recovery of baptismal innocence seems to have been one reason for nakedness.
Another reason was prophetic. Among the Anabap-tists "going naked for a sign" had been done in Amster-dam, and even, strikingly enough, in the month of February!39 In fact there had been somewhat similar incidents in the life of Francis of Assisi. In the month of August 1207, as he repudiated the mercantile way of life of his family, Francis shed all his clothes and stood naked in front of many witnesses, including the bishop. Later Francis ordered Brother Rufino "to go to the Cathedral of Assisi wearing only his breeches, and preach in this manner;"40 and then "he stripped himself of his own habit" and followed Rufino to the cathedral.
That the telling of this episode is extant in several early versions that do not entirely tally may suggest that the story-tellers tried in diverse ways to conceal the fact that Rufino and Francis were without clothes. In these and similar cases chosen nudity or near-nudity had a prophetic intent. As in the title of a pamphlet by John Toldervy, it signified "the Naked Truth laid open,"41 as well as total self-abandonment in the hands of God.
A third possible reason does not seem to have motivated such movements. This is the radical poverty of those Jain monks who do not wear clothes because they have renounced the appropriation of any thing whatsoever.
Whatever the more or less equivocal antecedents of "going naked for a sign," it requires nakedness of self to be covered by the mantle of faith, nudity of spirit to receive all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, total self-abandonment to life in the Father’s all-embracing love. Only the eyes of a pure mind can look at the woman in heaven of Revelation 12:l: she was "clothed with the sun," that is, she was nude.
For what it's worth.
William R. Martin, Chairman
Continuing Care, Inc.,
a 501-c-3 Not for Profit Religious Corporation