George Fox (1624-1690)
Preacher, founder of the Quakers
George Fox was born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire in July 1624. His father was a weaver and was clearly a very godly man as he was known as ‘Righteous Christie’ and his mother was known for her piety. They were members of the Church of England and gave their son a good religious education. Fox was known as a serious boy who concentrated on religious subjects and made comments and observations that were thought, ‘beyond his years.’ Until 11 he had a basic education that did not go much further than to teach him to read and write and he spent most of his time reading the Bible. Following the truths of the Bible he wanted to live a pure and righteous life and some of his relations thought he should go into the Church but the decision was made for him to become a shoemaker and grazier. Much of his time was spent looking after the sheep and this suited Fox’s contemplative nature. As a young man Fox gave up his trade so that he could continue his religious studies and he spent a lot of time with the local vicar, Nathaniel Stevens, who thought very highly of his parishioner.
One night Fox was in prayer when he felt God say to him, ‘Thou seest how young people go together in vanity, and old people into the earth; therefore thou must forsake all, both young and old, and be as a stranger to them.’ (Fox wrote a detailed Journal/autobiography that is the main source of information on his life.) As a result of this he left home and spent the next few years wandering the country, leading a solitary life, spending much of his time in prayer and fasting. During these times of prayer he received revelation from the Lord on religious matters that would eventually form the basis of Quaker beliefs. These revelations would come as complete entities, the main ones being:
Christians were ‘saved’ because they passed form death to life, their hearts were regenerated. This had nothing to do with the outward observances of different Christians which were therefore irrelevant. He realised that to be a minister of the gospel one had to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It did not matter how much University learning you had, if you did not have the Holy Spirit then you were not qualified. Therefore you did not need to be a University graduate to be a minister and you did not have to be a man! God created the world and so is not confined to be in church buildings. ‘It was immediately shown to me that the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands but, that He dwells in the hearts of his obedient people.’
Fox now stopped going to his parish church; deciding that it was better to be in solitude and hear and receive guidance directly from God; ‘relying wholly on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ It must have been difficult for him to have stopped fellowshipping with his friends and family but he clearly felt that it was more important to hear God for himself rather than hear a man tell him what God was saying. During these years of seclusion Fox was tormented by temptations and despair and could find little peace. He tried to get advice from different clergymen but none of them understood what he was going through and just showed there general ignorance of matters spiritual. Finally ‘The Lord opened me that I saw through all these troubles and temptations. My living faith was raised, that I saw all was done by Christ the Life, and my belief was in Him.’ These years were a time of testing, cleansing and preparation for Fox and a time when the Lord gave him greater understanding of the Bible and gave him direct revelation through the Holy Spirit. In 1647 Fox stepped out and began to preach.
Fox lived at a time when it was dangerous for anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Fox for more). For centuries English men and women had lived under the priests of the Catholic Church. Generally speaking the priests were ignorant and the bishops ignorant and corrupt. Everyone had to go to church and give ‘tithes’ from their income to pay for the dissolute lives of the priests and in return they took Mass. The situation changed when Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1526 and the people were then able to read (those who were educated) for themselves the truths of the Bible that had been kept from them for a thousand years. Knowledge is power and with the people more knowledgeable this meant that the bishops started to lose their power and their hold over the people of England.
On the accession of Edward VI in 1547 there was a desire for reform and a new Prayer Book was introduced, everything was reversed in 1553 on the death of the King and the accession of his sister Mary. The new Queen was a dedicated Catholic and she tried her best to remove all signs of Protestantism from England by putting Catholics in power and burning many Protestant bishops, priests and lay people. Many escaped the fires by going to Europe and there they learned of the fullness of the Reformation that began with Luther and then taken on by Calvin, Knox and others.
Mary died in 1558 and her sister Elizabeth (1558-1603) became Queen. There was great hope that Elizabeth would fulfil the dreams of the Protestants who returned from their self imposed exile. However Elizabeth was a Queen who wanted total control over her country and that included the Church. She was at heart more of an Anglo-Catholic and by the time the radical exiles returned the new structure was in place. It was still a State Church and some reforms were instituted, but it was a long way from what many were hoping for. The Queen insisted upon rigid conformity; people were compelled to attend their parish church and they had to adhere to the liturgy of the Prayer Book. For those whose minds were opened through reading the scriptures there was no liberty of conscience and nonconformist congregations sprung up with those attending becoming known as Puritans.
By the time Elizabeth died in 1603 the two main Puritan parties were the Presbyterians and the Independents. The Presbyterians believed in a rigid church structure and the Independents believed in more of a Congregational model which allowed congregations to choose their own pastors and make decisions for themselves. Puritans wanted to see the power of the bishops reduced, a change in church ritual and education of the clergy but the new King, James I, believed in the divine right of Kings and the bishops supported him in this so there was no hope of change. James said many times, ‘no bishop, no king,’ so rigid conformity remained and several Puritans fled to the Continent. Under Elizabeth Puritans were only really interested in religious reform but under the Stuarts they increasingly gravitated towards Parliament and political reform because none of their demands were being met. They also began to show a new moral code which is why people began to link Puritans with anyone who took life too seriously.
Charles I succeeded on the death of his father in 1625. Charles believed passionately in the Divine right of Kings and like his father he believed that Parliament should be a docile committee to do his wishes. When Fox was nine William Laud, who was a very high churchman, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud felt that he needed to force everyone to worship in the same way, to impose uniformity on the Church and because of his High Church ideals the Puritans were concerned that the Church was being turned towards Catholicism. He made matters worse by being intolerant to any opposition. In 1637 Laud punished three Puritans who criticised his plans for the Church by cutting off their ears and branding them on both cheeks. The Independent Puritan had to choose between resistance and emigration.
Because of a war with Scotland, James had to call Parliament in 1640 to obtain money; it was full of Puritans and is known to history as the Long Parliament. Almost its first action was to abolish all the laws brought in by Laud and after much argument with the King the English Civil War began.
By 1647 the Civil War had been won by Parliament; the King was in custody and although the legal Church of England until 1660 was Presbyterian, there was tolerance towards Independent congregations. Oliver Cromwell was happy to allow freedom of conscience so long as it wasn’t Catholic, Episcopalian (High Church) or disruptive of society. The Presbyterians were losing support because they were trying to impose a rigid orthodoxy of their own and the Independents, who were strong in the army, were losing support because of their abuse of military power. By this time there were many people around the nation who had been reading the Bible and although realising that their beliefs did not match the Anglo-Catholic dogma that had been forced upon them, they could not identify themselves with Presbyterians or Independents so they were ready to attach themselves to a party that they could identify with. Consequently many different sects started at this time.
Due to his character and his preaching Fox attracted large crowds; the power of his preaching coming from his passion for the Lord that in turn came from his personal experience of Jesus. A doctrine he formulated on his travels was that through the redeeming power of Christ our sins can be forgiven in this life; he attracted much opposition because of this. It was during this period that he spent 14 days under the power of the Spirit, seeing visions of him leading many to Christ. As a result of these visions he believed that Christianity was between the soul of man and God and therefore there was no need for ceremonies in worship. He advocated at a service just waiting in silence until God spoke to his people. Two other doctrines that led the Quakers into innumerable persecutions were that under God all people were equal and so Quakers would not take their hats off or bow to anyone, be they bishops, judges or King. This sounds ridiculous in these days but the customs at that time were to make many protestations in greeting someone that most people did not mean and the Quakers wanted to show that they loved everyone equally and did not need to make a show of it. The second doctrine was that they refused to take any oath because it says in the Bible (Matt 5:37) simply let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’, ‘no’ and (Matt 5:34) Do not swear at all. Quakers later became well known for not lying and for being trustworthy.
In 1649 Fox was on his way to Nottingham to a meeting of ‘Friends’ which is what they called themselves, and he felt the Lord tell him ‘to go and cry against yonder great idol and the worshippers therein.’ He went to his meeting but still felt he needed to visit the church so he went there and arrived in time for the sermon. During the sermon he felt the Lord’s power on him and he stood up and accused the speaker of scriptural error. At that time people could question and debate with the speaker but only after the meeting, unless invited to do so; to interrupt a meeting was punishable with imprisonment and that is what happened to Fox. This is the only recorded instance of him interrupting a meeting. As soon as he was released from prison he went to address people in another church but they beat him up, put him in the stocks and stoned him out of town. This is the sort of treatment he experienced on many occasions.
While in Derby in 1650 Fox spoke at an assembly, giving them some ‘home truths’ which resulted in his companion and himself being hurried off to the magistrates and imprisoned for six months on a trumped up charge of blasphemy. The companion recanted and was released. Fox stayed the full six months, after which the magistrates offered him a Captaincy in the army as some newly levied forces said they would only serve under Fox, but he refused and they put him in prison for another six months, this time with the common felons. Fox spent the time writing letters and ministering wherever he could, the magistrates releasing him finally in late 1651 without any trial.
On his release he went home to Leicestershire and then to Staffordshire, holding meetings all along the way. On seeing Lichfield in the distance the Lord told him to go there. About a mile from the town the Lord told him to take off his shoes, which he did giving them to some shepherds, and when he got to the city the Lord told him to go up and down the streets crying, ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield.’ He writes ‘I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me a great channel of blood running down the streets, and the market place appeared a pool of blood.’ He went out of the town in peace, retrieved his shoes but could not put them on for some time, even though it was winter, as the fire of God was on him. He believed that he was asked to do this because in Roman Times 1,000 martyrs were killed at Lichfield. Historians have not been able to find a record of this so there may have been another reason or perhaps it is just not recorded.
As Fox went up and down the country preaching he did not ask for money from anyone as Quakers believe that ministers should earn money to keep themselves.
An example of how he was often treated was at Tickhill where he spoke to some people in the church. He caused such a storm that they went to throw him out and the clerk hit him on the face with his Bible so fiercely that Fox bled profusely. He was dragged along the street and they beat him until he was covered with bruises. A magistrate offered to punish the perpetrators but Fox forgave them.
In 1652 Fox came to Pendle Hill and the Lord told him to go to the top of it. Once at the top the Lord showed him where he must go next in his ministry and he had a vision ‘of a great people, in white raiment, coming to the Lord.’ From here he went to Westmoreland and areas of Cumberland and Lancashire where he had great success in his ministry, with many joining him. It was in Ulverston, Lancashire that he met for the first time Judge Fell and his wife Margaret. Margaret soon became a Quaker (incidentally the name ‘Quaker’ came about because Fox told one of his judges that he should quake at the power of God) but her husband never did although he remained sympathetic to their cause. From now on Swarthmore Hall became the headquarters of the Quakers. The Fells were well respected in the area and they held a lot of influence so they were able to protect Fox and his leaders from a lot of persecution. Swarthmore Hall was a safe haven where the Quakers could have meetings and plan for the future. Fox went with some friends to the local church at Ulverston, but Lampitt the vicar, jealous of the fact that he had lost the whole Fell family to Fox, stirred up a mob to attack the Quakers with ‘stones, hedge-stakes and holly bushes. Fox was knocked out and when he came around a man struck him violently on the hand so that his whole arm went numb, however the power of God healed him.
These next few years were a time of great growth for the Quakers and of great persecution. It is probable that the resentment to ecclesiastical authority that had built up over many decades meant that anyone who preached that Christ was the only authority was very popular. Fox’s message of holiness must also have been attractive. The opposition came mainly from local worthies and was not on a national level, in fact Fox had a long meeting with Cromwell in 1654 and Cromwell was impressed by him. Quakers were irritatingly ‘in your face;’ they never held back and were quite happy to tell you that you were wrong. Telling people that Christ was the only authority over them would not have gone down well with the clergy and magistrates which is where their main persecution came from. Local authorities must also have been concerned about the violent response that often met the Quakers as there was always a concern about riots and uprisings in the 17th Century.
Between 1652 and 1664 Fox was imprisoned five times. In 1653 he was speaking at a church in Carlisle to great effect but a rabble broke up the assembly and Fox was escorted away by soldiers. Next morning he was summoned before the magistrates and committed to jail as a ‘heretic, a blasphemer and a seducer.’ He was put in the worst part of the jail and was brutally treated being often beaten by the jailer, during which he used to sing Psalms. His enemies tried to get him hanged but they could not find anything to legally charge him with and after several months, on hearing that his case had come to the ears of those in Parliament, they released him.
While in Cornwall in 1656 Fox and a friend were arrested and taken to a magistrate who imprisoned them in Launceston Jail for having long hair. They were in jail for nine weeks before being escorted to trial by a body of soldiers. The judge became very heated because they refused to take off their hats and they were indicted for treasonable plots to overthrow the state by force of arms. Nothing could be proved so the judge fined them 20 marks for not taking off their hats and sent them to prison until the fine was paid. They refused to pay this unjust fine and they were put in a foul dungeon that was the main sewer for the prison. They often were abused by the jailer and eventually the injustices that were being done to them were made known to the townspeople and eventually to Cromwell who ordered their release.
Fox continued to have meetings all over the country. In 1660 he was back at Swarthmore Hall but by this time Judge Fell had died and with him his protection. He was arrested and kept a close prisoner in the ‘Dark House’ in Lancaster Castle. He was charged with ‘endeavouring to raise insurrections in that part of the country, and to embroil the whole nation in blood.’ While in prison he regularly preached to people through the cell bars. Margaret Fell went to London to petition Charles II who had recently been restored to the throne on the death of Cromwell and the King said he would hear the case in London. Fox was released and told to go to London to be tried. He had no guard and preached many times on the way to London where he went to Westminster Hall to be tried at King’s Bench. He was found innocent and released after being a prisoner for 20 weeks. In 1662 he was imprisoned in Leicester jail with many other Quakers and had some large meetings in the prison yard with people coming from the town and the surrounding country to hear him. He had become so famous by this time that people flocked to hear him. They could not find anything to charge the Quakers with and they were freed.
The Parliament of the new King was very Episcopal in its make up and against all sects except their own and in 1662 it passed the Quaker Act that made it illegal for more than five Quakers to worship together and to refuse to take the oath of Allegiance. Unlike the other sects the Quakers continued to meet quite openly and during these next years many hundreds were imprisoned and 32 died in prison.
1663 again found Fox at Swarthmore Hall and again his enemies plotted his downfall. He was arrested and examined but they could not find any legal way of putting him in prison so they told him to take the oath of allegiance and supremacy, knowing that he could not do this because of his faith and they imprisoned him in Lancaster Jail. He had been in prison for nine months when he was moved to an old tower in the prison where he could not keep his bed linen from getting damp and whenever fires were lit below his room filled with smoke and he nearly suffocated. He was there the whole winter and his body, being subjected to so much cold and wet, became swollen and numb. Even though the judges acknowledged that the indictment against him was full of errors, they still kept Fox in prison. Around April 1665 he was transferred to Scarborough Castle even though he could hardly stand or walk. He was put into a room that was exposed to the sea and the wind and rain came into every part of it, and from the exposure his fingers swelled to double their usual size. He was allowed no visitors and lived on bread and water. He was eventually able to get a letter he had written explaining the injustices against him to a friend, who gave it to another friend who was part of the court, who gave it to the King. Fox’s friend, Marsh, spoke persuasively in his favour and Charles II ordered Fox’s release on 1st September 1666.
Fox suffered greatly in his latest imprisonment and all because he refused to take an oath. It is difficult to understand why the Quakers went to such lengths to avoid taking an oath even though it is mentioned in the Bible. It also says, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ so I would have thought that responding to a law of the land that did not compromise a key part of their faith would have been acceptable. Many Quakers went to prison because they refused the oath and it was a really easy weapon for their persecutors to use. Perhaps they would have put them in prison anyway, after all Fox was imprisoned illegally on several occasions. I cannot go into detail here but Fox notes in his biography many instances of the death or ruin of those who persecuted him, clearly they were judged for attacking the Lord’s anointed.
Over the next few years Fox organised the different Quaker groups into the Society of Friends. Many groups had risen up over the previous 15 years and there was a shortage of leadership (mainly because most of them were in prison) and organisation. Fox was a great organiser; he first established monthly meetings, then regularised marriage procedures and created Quaker schools. In 1669 Fox married his old friend Margaret Fell who had also been put in Lancaster jail. In 1670 there was a Conventicle Act passed that increased the penalties for holding meetings, particularly the sequestration of goods and meetings were broken up and some Meeting Houses destroyed. Imprisonment increased.
Fox travelled to the West Indies and America in 1671 with 12 other ministers to encourage those Quakers who had gone to live there. He returned in 1673 and later that year was put in prison again. He conducted a meeting in Worcestershire and was resting afterwards at his host’s house when he was arrested under the Conventicle Act. This was again an illegal arrest because it had to be done at a meeting but the meeting had ended. Fox and his wife’s son-in-law were put in Worcester jail. After several hearings he was sent to London for trial at King’s Bench and 14 months after his arrest the judges decided that there were so many errors in the indictment that he should go free.
During the next ten year Fox spent most of his time looking after the affairs of the Quakers. He wrote many letters to Quakers overseas, he spent a lot of time in London trying to minimise the persecutions that were still many and varied, he twice visited the Continent and he was much involved with the organisation of the Society of Friends. The King died in 1685 to be succeeded by his Catholic brother James II. Fox and the other Quaker leaders petitioned the King for the release of 1,460 Quakers who were in prison and James acceded to their request and they were all released. For the rest of his life Fox was chiefly in London looking after the Society’s affairs. He continued to write numerous letters and religious papers to all parts of the world. The infirmities of age slowed him down but he continued to go to meetings and continued to carry out his duties. On 13th November 1690, George Fox died after attending a meeting in Gracechurch Street. He was buried in the Quaker burial ground at Bunhill Fields, London.
Fox was great man, despite all the trials that were put against him he persevered to the end. I think one could use the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7 about Fox, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ How many of us today would carry on while suffering the persecutions he did. His heart and mind were always on the Lord and he achieved much. At the time of his death there were an estimated 50,000 Quakers in this country and many others abroad; this proved to be the zenith of the movement, but it was built on solid ground by Fox and the Quakers still exist today in many countries.
Recommended Reading: A popular life of George Fox by Josiah Marsh published in 1847. This book is full of excerpts from Fox’s journal and is very detailed although a little biased in favour of Fox.