The Life of George Fox
Based on George Fox Seeker and Friend by Rufus Jones, 1930, Harper and Bros., New York & London. All quotes are Fox's own words.
George Fox is born at Fenny Drayton ("Drayton in the Clay"), Leicestershire, England, of humble but "honest and sufficient" parents (middle-class family with Puritan leanings). He speaks kindly of his parents and up-bringing in his journals. At some point he was apprenticed as a shoemaker.
The first crisis at age 19: "...the Lord, who said unto me: 'Thou seest how young people go together in vanity, and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all. Then at the command of God, the ninth of the Seventh month, 1643, I left my relations, and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old." The thing that thew him into commotion was the discovery that professions of religion were hollow in the lives of those who composed the Church. A second probable cause was that Fox believed in a religion of life and a faith in the divine possibilities in man's nature, while the preaching in the local church tended to be focused on the depravity of mankind, the domination of Satan and harrowing accounts of eternal damnation. He began three years of wandering about looking for answers.
On the road to Coventry: "...all Christians are believers, both Protestants and Papists" ... it was made clear to Fox "that if all were believers, then would all be born of God and passed from death to life, and that none were true believers but such; and though others said they were believers, yet they were not." Walking the fields it was "opened to him", that "being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to qualify men to be ministers of Christ..."
Fox's description of his moment of revelation: "When all my hopes in them [that is, in priests] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Thus when God doth work, who shall hinder it? And this I knew experimentally. My desire after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book or writing. For though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew Him not, but by revelation, as He who hath the key did open, and as the Father of Life drew me to His Son by His Spirit. Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see His love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can obtain from history or books; and that love let me see myself, as I was without Him." From 1645-1648 Fox continued to find his sense of direction, in conversation with Seekers and in reading the Bible. .
Salvation is for Fox complete normal spiritual health and moral power — a life victorious over man's darker side. The incorruptible seed of God, he maintained, can produce, and ought to produce a full-grown, holy, and sinless life. That exalted claim which Fox made at the outset of his ministry threw all the "professors", he say "into a rage," for they all "pleaded for sin and imperfection. None of them could bear to be told that any should come to Adam's perfection, into the image of God. Then they asked me, If I had no sin? I answered 'Christ, my Saviour, has taken away my sin, and in Him is no sin." This is the break from Puritanism.
Fox described his experiences as like being born again. "Thy name is written in the Lamb's book of Life which was before the foundation of the world, and I saw in this the new birth." Another time a tender voice seemed to say in his soul, "My love was always to thee and thou art in my love." It was through such experiences that his inward man was built. Another opening: "I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that I saw the infinite love of God."
He begins to preach, traveling about and working as an itinerant shoemaker. His ministry is centered in Mansfield and Nottinghamshire. Elizabeth Hooton and Amor Stoddard are two notable converts. The movement is first known as "The Children of the Light", but gradually is called the "Friends" or "Friends in the Truth" derived from John 1:9 ("the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world").
In Leicester at a meeting held in a church to discuss religious issues: A woman asked a question from the first epistle of Peter, "What that birth was — a being born again of incorruptible seed, by the word of God, that liveth and abideth for ever?" The local priest said to her, "I permit not a woman to speak in the church." This brought Fox to his feet, who stepped up and asked the priest, "Dost thou call this place a church? or dost thou call this mixed multitude a church?" But instead of answering him, the priest asked what a church was? to which George replied, "The church is the pillar and ground of truth, made up of living stones, living members, a spiritual household, of which Christ is the head; but he is not the head of a mixed multitude, or of an old house made up of lime, stones and wood." This set them all on fire; the priest came down from his pulpit, the others out of their pews, and the discussion was broken up. (from Janney's Life of Penn)
He interrupts a sermon in Nottingham and is imprisoned. His stay is short and he converts the jailer. The sermon interupted was based on 2nd Peter 1:19 — "We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day-star arise in your hearts." This text the preacher attempted to expound by saying, that the Scriptures were the "more sure word of prophecy, by which all doctrines, religions and opinions were to be tried." George Fox felt contrained to declare to the congregation, that the Apostle did not here allude to the Scriptures, but to the Holy Spirit, which Christ has said shall lead his disciples into all truth."
He speaks after the sermon in Derby and is jailed for a year. His message was that people should stop disputing about Christ and obey him. He again converts the jailer. It is at his trial that Judge Bennett fixed upon his movement the word Quaker after Fox asked him to quake before the Lord. He goes to Yorkshire and is welcomed by the Seekers there (1651). Amongst those convinced then and in 1652 are William Dewsbury, James Nayler, Thomas Aldam, Richard Farnsworth, Thomas Killam, Edward Burrough, John Camm, Richard Hubberthorne, Miles Halhead, Thomas Taylor, Jane and Dorothy Waugh, Ann Audland, Elizabeth Fletcher, Francis Howgill, John Audland and Durant Hotham (although Seekers would need little convincing — this list includes many prominent Quaker ministers). He visits and climbs Pendle Hill (1652) "...and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it...From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered." He preaches at Firbank Chapel in Westmoreland to about a thousand persons. About this meeting Francis Howgill says, 'The kingdom of God did gather us, and catch us all as in a net and His heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land." After this the Quaker movement with Fox at its head becomes a force and many of those present become ministers for the movement.
He meets and convinces Margaret Fell of Swarthmore Hall, who after the death of her husband, Judge Fell in 1658 will marry Fox. Margaret Fell becomes the chief organizer of the Society of Friends.
The movement spreads rapidly from the North country to Bristol and London, carried by numerous Quaker ministers.
Fox meets with Cromwell. The meeting goes well and they part respectful of one another. However, a persecution of Friends soon begins. At a second meeting in 1656 Fox advises Cromwell not to take the crown and pleads for the sufferings of Friends in prison. Cromwell dies 3 September, 1658.
IMPRISONMENTS. After visiting Cromwell, Fox goes north and is imprisoned in Carlisle on blasphemy charges. After he is freed by Justice Anthony Pearson (before being hung) he is imprisoned again in Launceston Castle as a vagrant trouble-maker. They were thrown there into the lowest dungeon, called Doomsdale, from which few return alive (usually reserved for witches and murderers). Fox had offended the judge mightily by not removing his hat. On the wall of the dungeon Fox wrote, "I was never in prison that it was not the means of bringing multitudes out of their prisons." Fox was freed in September 1656. Next he was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, June-September 1660 on charges of stirring up an insurrection against newly restored King Charles II. Charges were dropped after he appeared in London in October 1660. He was imprisoned 1 month in Leicester in September 1662 for refusing to take an oath of Allegience. The longest imprisonment was in Lancaster, beginning in early 1664 and ending in Scarborough, September 1666. Margaret Fell and many other Quakers shared this imprisonment with him. An act for suppressing the Quakers had been passed May 1662. Margaret was sentence to life in prison (the King pardoned her after 4 1/2 years and eventually she was returned her forfeited property). His final, eighth imprisonment began in Worcester, 17 December 1673 and ended in London 12 February, 1675, when Sir Matthew Hale quashed the indictment. During this last imprisonment he wrote his journals.
Fox preaches in Wales, then Scotland. Scots converts include Alexander Jaffray, George Keith and Col. David Barclay (father of Robert Barclay).
The first organizational foundation is laid — plans were worked out for holding meeting for worship, for simple affairs of business, for recording births and deaths, for collections to care for the poor, for those in prison and for those who were engaged in publishing truth. Arrangements were drawn up for dealing with those who walked disorderly and for the general care of the flock and the simple form of Quaker marriage took shape. A 1661 Nottingham court decision made legal the marriage ceremony. People would come to Quaker worship services to hear him speak as he did until the end of his life, but he taught them to value the silent waiting for God. The worship service became a new type of group mysticism.
Publishes Declaration regarding wars and fighting
The Quaker Act passes, making being a Quaker a cause of imprisonment.
Conventicle Acts pass, causing more prisons to fill up with Quakers.
William Penn becomes a Quaker.
Extensive and strenuous journey through Ireland
Fox marries Margaret Fell at Broadmead Meeting house in Bristol. He was to spend only 5 of his remaining 21 years with his wife.
He leaves for America. Jan 1672 — Sets sail from Barbadoes to Jamaica. Next he went to Maryland. He visits with the Indians there. Next he goes to New England via New Castle Delaware, West Jersey (stayed there with the Indians), Middletown in East Jersey, Oyster Bay New York (stayed with Richard Hartshorn), then to Rhode Island. His companions were James Lancaster, Christopher Holder, Elizabeth Hooton (dies in Barbadoes), Robert Widders, George Pattison, John Cartwright, John Burnyeat and others. He then traveled in reverse, again staying with the Indians, this time in today's Pennsylvania, and then back to Maryland where he stayed with John Edmundson and William Willcock. Next he travels to Virginia and Carolina and then back, yet again to Maryland. He sails for England 5 May, 1673, and lands at Bristol, returning from America. See his Letter to the governor of Barbados, 1671.
Visit to Holland and Germany. A second visit was made in 1684.
The last years were burdened with heavy responsibilities, with suffering over persecution, and with the sadness incident to misunderstanding and opposition within the fold. He bore all these things nobly and moved straight forward toward the completion of his work and mission with a manly heart (Rufus Jones).
Fox dies in London. "All is well; the Seed of God reigns over all, and over death itself."
Possible preceding influences on Fox noted by Rufus Jones:
- The Familists: a widespread mystical sect that owed their origin and body of ideas to a Dutch mystic named Henry Nicholas (b. 1501).
- Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) of Silesia, whose works were translated and distributed in England in the 1640s.
- The Dutch Collegians at Rynsburg where Spinoza lived for three years.
- Thomas Munzer, a contemporary of Luther's who first suggested the inward Light as the very principle and basis of a reformed Christianity. Munzer was influenced in turn by John Tauler. Sebastian Frank followed Munzer as an exponent of the Inward Light. Frank in turn was an influence on Jacob Boehme. Frank wrote Of the Tree of Knowledte of Good and Evil which was translated into English by John Everard (1575-1650).
- English exponents of the Inner Light: Giles Randall, Francis Rous, William Dell, John Saltmarsh and Peter Sterry.
A bit more of Fox's religious thinking (according to Rufus Jones)
- Names Fox used for the "Inner Light": "The Christ Within"; "the Spirit of God within us"; "the Light within"
- Fox did not believe in predestination. Every person comes into the world from the creative hand of God with the divine possibility of coming into the condition of Adam before he fell. The individual himself must no doubt first come up through the flaming sword, through struggle, temptation and suffering, but the possibility of that victorious attainment lies within the sphere of the will of everyone who is born. Nobody is doomed to go wrong. No one is fated for evil in advance. No person's destiny is rolled off without the consent of his own will. The key to all doors that open into life or into death for man is in his own hands.
- It is the guiding principle of the light within that makes a man able to choose rightly. He cannot be religiously effective unless there is a seed of spiritual life within him. On this Fox rests his claim that man is the only possible type of temple that really has a true holy place in it. Outward buildings and, books and priests are insufficient. Scripture texts do not work by magic, nor as fetishes. They can be used effectively only as they are spiritually applied.
- Spiritual authority, though, is not infallible. Fox was humble about the quality and range of his own revelations. He does not claim that they are on a level with the revelations given in Scripture. But he did insist that God spoke to him and through him and he is confidently certain that God sends him forth to speak prophetic messages to the world.
- The Friends' form of worship then was designed as an outgrowth of Fox's belief in and his experience of this close, intimate inward relation between God and man. The problem is never one of going somewhere to find a distant or a hidden God. The problem rather is one of human preparation for meeting and communing with a God who is always near at hand but cannot be found and enjoyed until the soul is ready for such an exalted experience.
- Similar to the personality of George Fox, the Friends religion is both an inward religion and a call to action. George Fox spoke out against slavery, for women in the ministry, he saw the Light within the Indians and Africans, and wanted both boys and girls to study everything practical and useful under creation. He was against war, and refused to fight. He believed in treating all men as deserving equal respect, be they king or beggar, since all have that of God in them.
Final note: George Fox was not a polished or gifted writer. His several volumes of journals attest to this.
Information on this page provided by James Quinn. Visit Gwynedd (Pennsylvania) Friends Meeting.