19th-century engraving of George Fox, based on a painting of unknown date.
George Fox (July 1624 – January 13 1691) was an English Dissenter and the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. Living in a time of great social upheaval, he rebelled against the religious and political consensus by proposing an unusual and uncompromising approach to the Christian faith. His journal is a text popular even among non-Quakers for its vivid account of his personal journey.
Fox was born at Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, England (now known as Fenny Drayton), 24 km (15 miles) southwest of Leicester. His father, Christopher Fox, was a weaver, called "righteous Christer" by his neighbours; his mother, Mary Lago, was – he tells us – "of the stock of the Martyrs". From childhood, Fox was of a serious, religious disposition. His education was based around the faith and practice of the Church of England, of which his parents were members; he had no formal schooling, but was able to read and write. Even at a young age, he was fascinated by the Bible, which he studied continually. "When I came to eleven years of age," he said, "I knew pureness and righteousness; for, while I was a child, I was taught how to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful, in all things, and to act faithfully two ways; viz., inwardly to God, and outwardly to man." (Jones, 1908 )
As he grew up, his relations "thought to have made him a priest," but he was instead made an apprentice to a shoemaker and grazier . This suited his contemplative temperament, and he became well-known for his diligence among the wool traders who had dealings with his master. A constant obsession for Fox was the pursuit of "simplicity" in life, meaning humility and the abandonment of luxury, and the short time he spent as a shepherd was important to the formation of this view. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a letter for general circulation pointing out that Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David were all keepers of sheep or cattle, and that a learned education should not therefore be seen as a qualification for ministry. (Marsh p364)
Even so, he felt no shame in friendship with educated people. He frequently visited Nathaniel Stephens, the clergyman of his hometown, to engage in long discussions on religious matters. Stephens considered Fox to be a gifted young man, but the two disagreed on so many issues that he later called Fox a madman and spoke against him in his subsequent career. George Fox also had friends who were "professors" (followers of the standard religion), but by the age of nineteen he had begun to look down on their behaviour, in particular their drinking of alcohol. He records that in prayer one night he heard an inner voice saying, "Thou seest how young people go together into vanity, and old people into the earth; and thou must forsake all, both young and old, and keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all." (Jones, 1908 )
For this reason, he left Drayton-in-the-Clay in September 1643, wandering in a state of mental torment and confusion. While in Barnet, Fox would alternately shut himself in his room for days at a time, or go out alone into the countryside. He thought intensely about Jesus' temptation in the desert, which he compared to his own spiritual condition, but drew strength from his conviction that God would support and preserve him. At times, he attracted the attention of various religious scholars, but he rejected them because he did not feel they lived up to the doctrines they taught. Fox did actively seek out the company of clergy, but "found no comfort from them", as they too seemed unable to help with the matters that were troubling him. One clergyman in Worcestershire advised him to take tobacco (which Fox detested) and sing psalms; another, in Coventry, was helpful at first but lost his temper when Fox accidentally stood on a flower in his garden; a third suggested that bloodletting would cure the "mind diseased". (Jones, 1908, footnote 19 )
Disillusioned and dejected, he returned home in June 1644. But there was no help to be found there either: Fox's family and friends offered either marriage or military service as a solution to his troubles. He soon decided that he would have to go travelling again, but this time with a more questioning approach towards the religious figures he would encounter. Fox was determined to challenge those he disagreed with, rather than shrink away from them. (Marsh p31–32)
Unique beliefs begin to form
Over the next few years, George Fox continued to travel around the country as his particular religious beliefs took shape. In prayer and meditation, he came to a greater understanding of the nature of his faith and what it required from him. This process he called "opening", because he experienced it as a series of sudden revelations of ideas that were already complete by the time he became conscious of them. He also came to what he deemed a deep inner understanding of standard Christian beliefs in creation and salvation. Among his ideas were:
- Christians differ in external practice, but all are considered "saved" because of their belief; rituals can therefore be safely ignored, as long as one experiences a true spiritual conversion.
- The qualification for ministry is given by the Holy Spirit, not by ecclesiastical study. This implies that anyone has the right to minister, assuming the Spirit guides them, including women.
- God "dwelleth in the hearts of his obedient people": religious experience is not confined to a church building. Indeed, Fox refused to apply the word "Church" to a building, using instead the name "steeple-house", a usage maintained by many Quakers today. Fox preferred to worship in fields and orchards, believing that God's presence could also be felt in the natural world.
Fox had some experience among "English Dissenters", groups of people who had broken away from the major churches because of their unusual beliefs. He had hoped that the dissenters would be able to help his spiritual understanding, where the established church could not, but this was not the case: he fell out with one group, for example, because he maintained that women had souls. From this comes the famous passage from his journal:
But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition [address my spiritual needs]. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could 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. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let [hinder] it? and this I knew experimentally [through experience]. (QFP §19.02)
The Society of Friends takes shape
In 1648 Fox began to exercise his ministry publicly: he would preach in market-places, in the fields, in appointed meetings of various kinds, or even sometimes in "steeple-houses" after the priests had finished. His preaching was powerful, and many people were convinced to share his beliefs in the spirituality of "true religion". The worship of Friends, in the form of silent waiting, seems to have been well-established by this time, though it is not recorded how this came to be. It is not even clear at what point the Society of Friends was formed, but there was certainly a group of people who often travelled together. The term "children of the light" was at one time used, as well as simply "friends". Fox seems, however, to have had no desire to found a sect, but only to proclaim what he saw as the pure and genuine principles of Christianity in their original simplicity — though he afterward showed great prowess as a religious legislator, in the organization which he gave to the new society.
Fox's preaching was grounded in scripture, but mainly effective because of the intense personal experience he was able to project. He was scathing about contemporary morality, and urged his listeners to lead lives without sin — though avoiding the Ranter (or Antinomian) view that all acts of a believer became automatically sinless. At the time, there were a great many rival Christian denominations holding very diverse opinions; the atmosphere of dispute and confusion gave George Fox an opportunity to put forward his own beliefs at the frequent meetings between representatives of each sect. By 1651 he had gathered many other talented preachers around him, and continued to roam the country seeking out new converts. They continued to do this despite a harsh reception from some listeners, who would whip and beat them to drive them away.
An interest in social justice was slowly developing, marked by Fox's complaints to judges about decisions he considered morally wrong — for example, his letter on the case of a woman due to be executed for theft. Oppression by the powerful was a very real concern for the English people, in the turmoil of the English Civil War following the excesses of Charles I (executed in 1649) and the beginnings of the Commonwealth of England. George Fox's conflict with civil authority was inevitable.
At Derby in 1650 Fox was imprisoned for blasphemy; a judge mocked Fox's exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord", calling him and his followers "Quakers" — now the common name of the Society of Friends . He suffered harsh treatment in prison following his refusal to fight against the return of the monarchy (or indeed to take up arms for any reason). A further conviction came in 1653 in Carlisle; it was even proposed to put him to death, but Parliament requested his release rather than have "a young man… die for religion" .
The beginnings of persecution forced Fox to develop his position on oaths and violence. Previously implicit in his teaching, the refusal to swear or take up arms came to be a much more important part of his public statements: he was determined that neither he nor his followers would give in under pressure. In a letter of 1652 (That which is set up by the sword), he urged Friends not to use "carnal weapons" but "spiritual weapons", saying "let the waves [the power of nations] break over your heads".
Further imprisonments came at London in 1654, Launceston in 1656, Lancaster in 1660 and 1663, Scarborough in 1666, and Worcester in 1674. Often, Fox was arrested on no charge other than generally causing "disturbance", but he and the other Friends were also accused of more specific offences. Quakers fell foul of laws forbidding unauthorized worship, though these statutes were very irregularly enforced. Actions motivated by belief in social equality — never using titles, or taking hats off in court — were seen as disrespectful. Refusal to take oaths meant that Quakers could be prosecuted under laws compelling subjects to pledge allegiance, as well as making testifying in court problematic.
Even in prison, George Fox continued writing and preaching. He felt that a benefit of being imprisoned was that it brought him into contact with people who needed his help — the jailers as well as his fellow prisoners. He also sought to set an example by his actions there, turning the other cheek when being beaten and refusing to let his captors make him feel dejected.
Encounters with Oliver Cromwell
Cromwell was sympathetic to Fox and almost agreed to follow his teaching – but persecution of Quakers continued.
The Commonwealth had grown suspicious of monarchist plots, and fearful that the large group travelling with George Fox aimed to overthrow the government – by this time, his meetings were regularly attracting crowds of thousands. In 1653 Fox was arrested and taken to London for a meeting with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. After affirming that he had no intention of taking up arms, Fox was able to speak with Cromwell for some time about the differences between Friends and members of the traditional denominations, and advised him to listen to God's voice and obey it. He records that on leaving, Cromwell "with tears in his eyes said, 'Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day together, we should be nearer one to the other'; adding that he wished [Fox] no more ill than he did to his own soul." George Fox was at liberty again .
This episode is often recalled as an example of "speaking truth to power", a preaching technique by which subsequent Quakers hoped to influence the powerful. It is closely related to the ideas of plain speech and simplicity which George Fox practiced, but motivated by the more worldly goal of eradicating war, injustice and oppression.
Fox met Cromwell again in 1656, petitioning him over the course of several days to alleviate the persecution of Quakers. On a personal level, the meeting went well; despite the serious disagreements between the two men, they had a certain rapport. Fox even felt moved to invite Cromwell to "lay down his crown at the feet of Jesus" – which, however, Cromwell declined to do . Their third meeting was in 1658 at Hampton Court, though they could not speak for long, because of the Protector's worsening illness – Fox even wrote that "he looked like a dead man" . Cromwell died in September of that year.
Suffering and growth
The persecutions of these years – with about a thousand Friends in prison by 1657 – hardened George Fox's opinions of traditional religious and social practices. In his preaching, he often emphasised the Quaker rejection of baptism by water; this was a useful way of highlighting how the focus of Friends on inward transformation differed from what he saw as the superstition of outward ritual. It was also deliberately provocative to adherents of those practices, providing opportunities for Fox to argue with them on matters of scripture. This pattern was also found in his court appearances: when a judge challenged him to remove his hat, Fox riposted by asking where in the Bible such an injunction could be found.
The Society of Friends became increasingly organised towards the end of the decade. Large meetings were held, including a three-day event in Bedfordshire, the precursor of the present Britain Yearly Meeting system. Fox also commissioned two Friends to travel around the country collecting the testimonies of imprisoned Quakers, as evidence of their persecution; this led to the establishment in 1675 of Meeting for Sufferings, which has been in continuing existence to the present day. [QFP §7]
With the restoration of the monarchy, the fate of the Quakers was uncertain. George Fox was again accused of conspiracy, this time against Charles II, and fanaticism – a charge he resented. Once again, Fox was released after demonstrating that he had no military ambitions. During imprisonment in Lancaster, he even wrote to the king offering advice on governance: Charles should refrain from war and domestic religious persecution, and discourage oath-taking, plays, and maypole games. These last suggestions reveal Fox's Puritan leanings, which continued to influence Quakers for centuries after his death.
At least on one point, Charles listened to George Fox. The seven hundred Quakers who had been imprisoned under Richard Cromwell were released, though the government remained uncertain about the group's links with other, more violent, movements. A 1661 revolt by the Fifth Monarchy men led to the suppression of that sect and the repression of other nonconformists, including Quakers .
Meanwhile, Quakers in New England had been banished, and Charles was advised by his councillors to issue a mandamus condemning this practice and allowing them to return. George Fox was able to meet some of the New England Friends when they came to London, stimulating his interest in the colonies. Fox was unable to travel there immediately: he was imprisoned again in 1663 for his refusal to swear oaths, and on his release in 1666 was preoccupied with organizational matters — he normalized the system of monthly and quarterly meetings throughout the country, and extended it to Ireland.
Visiting Ireland also gave him the opportunity to preach against what he saw as the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, in particular the use of ritual. More recent Quaker commentators have noted points of contact between the denominations: both claim the actual presence of God in their meetings, and both allow the collective opinion of the church to augment Biblical teaching. Fox, however, did not perceive this, brought up as he was in a wholly Protestant environment hostile to "Popery". He was also more strict in his reliance on the Bible than most of his followers.
In 1669 Fox married Margaret Fell of Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston, a lady of high social position, and one of his early converts. Her husband Thomas Fell had died in 1658, and she had been imprisoned in Lancaster alongside Fox for several years. Their shared religious work was at the heart of their life together, and they later collaborated on a great deal of the administration the Society required.
Travels in America and Europe
In 1671 he went to Barbados and the English settlements in America, where he remained two years. Fox's first landfall on the North American continent was at Maryland, where he participated in a four-day meeting of local Quakers. He remained there while various of his English companions travelled to the other colonies, because he wished to meet with some Native Americans who were interested in Quaker ways — though he records that they had "a great debate" among themselves about whether to participate in the meeting. Fox was impressed by their general demeanour, which he said was "loving" and "respectful" .
Elsewhere in the colonies, Fox helped to establish organizational systems for the Friends there, along the same lines as he had done in Britain. He also preached to many non-Quakers, some of whom were converted; others, including Ranters and some Catholics, were unconvinced. He did not seem to mind this so much as he resented the suggestion (from a man in North Carolina) that "the Light and Spirit of God ... was not in the Indians", a proposition which Fox refuted .
Following extensive travels around the various American colonies, George Fox returned to England in 1673. He was soon imprisoned again, and his health began to suffer. Margaret Fell petitioned the king for his release; this took place, but Fox felt too weak to take up his travels immediately. He compensated by increasing his written output: letters, both public and private, as well as books and essays. Much of his energy was devoted to the topic of oaths, having become convinced of its importance to Quaker ideas. By refusing to swear, he felt that he could bear witness to the value of truth in everyday life, as well as to God, who he associated with truth and the inner light.
In 1677 and 1684 he visited the Friends in the Netherlands, and organized their meetings for discipline. He also made a brief visit to what is now Germany. Meanwhile, Fox was participating by letter in a dispute among Friends in Britain over the role of women in meetings, a struggle which took much of his energy and left him feeling exhausted. Returning to England, he stayed in the south in order to try to end the dispute. Fox's health became worse towards the end of 1684, but he continued his new, more restricted form of activities — writing to leaders in Poland, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere about his beliefs, and their treatment of Quakers.
In the last years of his life, Fox continued to participate in Yearly Meetings, and still made representations to Parliament about the sufferings of Friends. The 1689 Act of Toleration put an end to the uniformity laws under which Quakers had been persecuted, and in that year many Friends were released from prison.
Death and legacy
George Fox died on January 13, 1691 and was interred in the Quaker Burying Ground at Bunhill Fields in London.
His journal was first published in 1694, after editing by Thomas Ellwood — a friend of John Milton — and William Penn. As a religious autobiography, it has been compared to such works as Augustine's Confessions and John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners — an intensely personal work that nevertheless succeeds in appealing to readers. It has also been used by historians because of its wealth of detail on ordinary life in the 17th century, and the many towns and villages which Fox visited.
Hundreds of Fox's letters — mostly epistles intended for wide circulation, along with a few private communications — have also been published. Written from the 1650s onwards, with such titles as Friends, seek the peace of all men or To Friends, to know one another in the light, the letters give enormous insight into the detail of Fox's beliefs, and show his determination to spread them. These writings have found an audience beyond Quakers, with many other church groups using them to illustrate principles of Christianity.
Fox is described by Ellwood as "graceful in countenance, manly in personage, grave in gesture, courteous in conversation." Penn says he was "civil beyond all forms of breeding." We are told that he was "plain and powerful in preaching, fervent in prayer," "a discerner of other men's spirits, and very much master of his own," skilful to "speak a word in due season to the conditions and capacities of most, especially to them that were weary, and wanted soul's rest;" "valiant in asserting the truth, bold in defending it, patient in suffering for it, immovable as a rock." [1694 Journal front matter]
Fox's influence on the Society of Friends was of course tremendous, and his beliefs have largely been carried forward by that group. Not all of his beliefs were welcome to all Quakers, however; his Puritan-like opposition to the arts, and rejection of theological study, prevented the development of these practices among Quakers for some time. The name of George Fox is often invoked by traditionalist Friends who dislike liberal attitudes to the Society's Christian origins. At the same time, Quakers and others can relate to Fox's religious experience, and even those who disagree with him can regard him as a pioneer.
Walt Whitman, who always felt close to the Quakers, later wrote: "George Fox stands for something too—a thought—the thought that wakes in silent hours—perhaps the deepest, most eternal thought latent in the human soul. This is the thought of God, merged in the thoughts of moral right and the immortality of identity. Great, great is this thought—aye, greater than all else." [Essay in November Boughs]
George Fox University in Oregon, founded as Pacific College in 1891, was renamed for him in 1949.
Various editions of Fox's journal have been published from time to time since the first printing in 1694. The John Nickalls revisions of 1952 and following are generally considered to contain the most accurate text (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting; ISBN 0-94130-805-7). The linked reference above is to a 1908 version by Rufus Jones, which is also available in print (Friends United Press, 1976; ISBN 0-91340-824-7).
Other useful sources include:
An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Robert Barclay (1678). A systematic treatment of Quaker theology at the end of the seventeenth century; available online.
First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism, H. Larry Ingle (Oxford University Press; ISBN 0-19510-117-0 [1996 reprint]). Controversial interpretation of Fox's use of politics within the Society of Friends to ensure conformity with his views and the survival of the group.
- A Popular Life of George Fox, Josiah Marsh (London: Charles Gilpin, 1847). Somewhat biased but thorough biography of Fox.
Quaker Faith and Practice, Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. (ISBN 0-85245-307-8 [1999 revision]). Shows a modern Quaker view of Fox, and a great deal of historical information about Friends and their institutions.
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13