George Fox (documented by Sheila Coles, Woking, 2014)
Why – The journal – Brief biography – Use of language – Joylessness –
Other religious groups at the time – Quaker admin – Persistence –
Wrongs done to him and other Friends – What happened to opponents and threats to opponents – Charismatic happenings – George Fox and the bible – Similarities and dissimilarities – then and now
My degree subject was history though I never ‘practised’ after leaving college. Part of that discipline was to go back to the original documents wherever possible. So that’s what led me to approach the journal or at least Vol 1, to see what George Fox (GF) actually said, not just edited highlights.
GF started to work on his journal at Swarthmoor Hall in 1675 while he was recovering from one of his periods in prison, much of it apparently being dictated. He lived another 15 years, but it was not published till 3 years after his death in 1694, having been edited by his friend Thomas Ellwood, with a preface by William Penn. He had drafted a shorter journal in the mid-1660s but otherwise it appears to have been from memory. So much of it was compiled 30 or more years after the events described. Apparently parts of the journal were not in fact by Fox at all but were constructed by its editors from diverse sources and written as if by him.
In brief the journal consists of a diary and copies of letters he wrote to both opponents and early Friends and was written to give what was considered an historical account of his life, travels, preaching, sufferings, Christian experiences and labour of love in the work of the ‘ministry of that ancient, eminent and faithful servant of Jesus Christ, GF’. However, though it is roughly chronological, it is primarily written to witness to the power of God as manifested in his life’s
events. In it his evolving theology, details of early Quaker administrative structures, some of which we would recognise today, the wrongs done to him and other early Friends, charismatic behaviours, including healing, and his undisguised joy at the untimely end that befell some of his opponents are all jumbled up together. And through it all shines the character of GF – sincere, fearless, self-righteous, obstinate, judgmental, and of his gifts – his preaching ability, his skill at winning people over through theological debate, his tirelessness, his way with words and his Bible knowledge. And although GF early in the journal claims the Lord showed him his ‘words should be few and savoury’ p68, he was very much a man of many words. And not just in the journal. In the course of my researches in the Surrey History Centre, looking at early minute books of local meetings, one contains a letter of advice to the Horsham Monthly Men’s Meeting in 1668 from GF. It covers 4 ½ pages in the most minute writing I have ever seen, and very hard to read, but a third of the way down page three I was able to decipher 19thly!
Born 1624 (just before the death of James I), Drayton, Leics. Married Margaret Fell of Swarthmoor Hall 1669, 9 years after the death of her first husband, Thomas Fell. Died at relatively young age of 66, in London in 1691.
His father, Christopher, was a weaver and his mother, Mary, was ‘of the stock of martyrs’. He had a devout upbringing and as we will hear later was clearly steeped in the Bible.
He was clearly a very upright young man and reported that in 1643 aged 19 he was disgusted by a drinking competition between a cousin and some of the latter’s friends. In Sept that year he left his family and started to travel about. He worked variously as a shoemaker, a wool dealer and a grazier. He was always seeking a spiritual path that would make sense to him and gradually rejected the conventions of organised religion. Rather than going to church he stated that he would rather go into the orchard with his bible.
He came to various conclusions, among them that being ‘bred’, i.e. taught, at Oxbridge did not make a minister (or a professor, as he routinely called such scholars); that God did not dwell in temples made with hands; that people ‘needed no man to teach them, but as the anointing teacheth them’ quoting 1 John 2.27; that as all Christians (regardless of denomination) are believers, all are born of God
1647 Started preaching. And just to set this in context, the Civil War had already been going for 5 years but there is very little direct reference to it in Fox’s writings.
Use of language
The journal is not an easy read. It has taken me the best part of two years just to get through Vol. I, and then re-read it to make notes. There are two more volumes of the journal, plus three of ‘doctrines’ and two of Epistles which I have
yet to read. However, my first motivation for persisting was the wonderful, colourful use of language. Very much a man of his times, much of it is phrased in biblical language, and I do not pretend to have got more than a handful of his references. There are not only direct quotes, often without book, chapter or verse but much is just expressed in the language and vocabulary he would have been familiar with from his on-going and in-depth reading of the bible. The Tyndale bible was published in 1526 and The King James in 1611 and in the absence of much other reading matter at the time he obviously became steeped in it. Even in the first few pages words like ‘comforter’ familiar from ‘Job’s comforters’, ‘lusts of the flesh’ (1 John 2.16), ‘groanings’ (Rom 2.26) are everywhere. But it was his vivid use of negative description that first had me making notes. I have over 100 of these, but just as a few examples –
‘Rude’ is one of his favourite words as in ‘the rude people stoned me out of town’ p96. ‘The people began to be very rude’ p95. ‘The rude baser sort of people plotted together’ p161 and in 1653 ‘one night we lay at Farnham, where we had a little meeting. The people were exceedingly rude – They called for faggots and drink, though we forbade them and were as rude a people as ever I met withal’ p321. And likewise ‘Halifax was a rude town of professors’ p194. He was, I have to say, equally unimpressed with the people of Basingstoke, ‘where as I passed out of the town, I spoke to the people and told them they were a shame to Christianity and religion’ p324.
‘Jangle/jangling’ are also favoured words, to describe people of whose arguments or talk he disapproved. ‘There he did stand till it was almost night jangling and opposing me’ p194; ‘the priest came to a meeting and fell to jangling’ p171; the priest of the town made a great jangle’ p227.
Nor was he above a bit of casual prejudice against the Scots. ‘a company of bitter Scotch priests, Presbyterians, made up of envy and malice who were not fit to speak of the things of God they were so foul mouthed’ p180; ‘the Scots being a dark and carnal people’ p358;’ The highlanders who were so devilish’ p357; ‘In Scotland there is a thick cloddy earth of hypocrisy and falseness which is a-top’ p361; ’Scots priests drew up a number of curses to be read in the churches, and all the people were to say amen’ p350.
Other words which are instantly recognisable as Foxian are ‘notion’ and ‘notionist’ e.g. so and so ‘was a high notionist’ p178; ‘dark’ as in ‘a very dark priest began to babble’ p336 or ‘Coventry where the people were closed up in darkness’ p242; he found Totnes ‘a very dark town’ p247.
And for general aspersion he was never short of vivid insults either. ‘Judas son of perdition’ p97; ‘a greedy dumb dog’ p170; ‘some men have the nature of swine, wallowing in mire, some have the nature of a horse to prance and vapour’ p107; ’Jewish and heathen ceremonies and traditions’p130; ‘thou child of darkness’ p170; thou child of the devil. Thou enemy of righteousness’ 169; ‘thy profession and preaching stink before the Lord’ p119; ‘you are filthy dreamers’ p436; and by way of a bit of bathos ‘he was of a peevish nature’
In general anything that indicated being light or chaffy (and of course chaff was frequently used in the bible as a metaphor for worthlessness) was on the disapproval list too, as in ‘a light chaffy person’ p287; ‘he had a light chaffy mind’ p210; I was moved in the Lord’s power to thresh their light, chaffy minds’ p352; ‘a light scornful chaffy man’ p211.
Being non-judgmental was not a characteristic of early Quakers, or at least not of GF.
He seems too, to have had a real gift for infuriating people. ‘They all kicked and yelled and roared and raged and ran against the life and spirit’ p120; He went down in a rage p160; The priests were in such a fret and a rage that they foamed at the mouth for rage against me p174. My own favourite though I think is ‘I showed the soldiers the baseness of their carriage towards us’ and ‘they walked up and down the house in their dumps, being pitifully blank and down’ p251.
He does of course have an equally personal vocabulary to denote approval, but it is somewhat smaller. Especially favoured is ‘tender’, still in use today. ‘a tender youth’; ‘several of the priests were made tender’; ‘she was an honest tender woman’;
‘Loving’ is common too. ‘Some people were made loving that day’; ‘Justice Rollinson’s priest was very lowly and loving’.
People of whom he approved were, amongst other things, ’ very sober people’; had ‘stayedness of mind’; were ‘nourished with the sense of love’; ‘watchful and chaste above common-prayer men, presbyters and independents too’; ‘a pretty people’ ; ‘solid men’; ‘a thundering man against hypocrisy, deceit and the rottenness of the priests’.
And meetings are variously described as ‘blessed’, ‘glorious’, ‘heavenly’,’ great’ and ‘precious’.
As just mentioned earlier, he disapproved of anything that appeared to take life lightly, reflecting some of the preoccupations of the Puritans of the time, to the extent that he appears pretty joyless to us. He speaks in one place of ‘the captain (who) was the fattest, merriest, cheerfullest man, and the most given to laughter that ever I met with. – But I admonished him to come to sobriety and the fear of the Lord, and sincerity – He afterwards was convinced and became a serious good man and died in the truth’ p251. Seems almost a pity. And ‘I was sorely exercised – in testifying against wakes, feasts, may games, sports, plays and shows ‘ which he considered ‘trained people up to vanity and looseness’ p92. And very similarly ‘drunkenness, oaths, plays, may games, with such like abominations and vanities are encouraged or go unpunished’ p 413. Again he refers to ‘the foolish pleasures of the world, as bowling, drinking, hunting, hawking and the like’ p295. Though he was not entirely intolerant of alcohol, (mainly, I suppose because water was so often likely to make people ill or even kill them) advising elsewhere only that publicans ‘should not let people have more drink than would do them good’ p 92. And of his opponent Rice Jones and friends he says ’so he and they were turned to become vainer than the world:’ and greatest depravity of all ‘many of his followers were become the greatest foot-ball players and wrestlers in the whole country.’ p363. So presumably GF would not have approved of the form of the Christmas truce during WW1
Other religious groups of the time
Speaking of the Puritans, this might be the moment to list all the other religious groups he refers to that operated at that time, apart from the ‘Episcopal men ‘of the established church and Roman Catholics. He mentions Presbyterians, Independents , Seekers, Baptists, Socinians, Brainists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Armenians, Fifth Monarchy men, Familists, Ranters, Muggletonians, (sounds like something out of Harry Potter), Levellers, Anabaptists, heathens and Jews; and still manages to leave out the Diggers or True Levellers, unless I missed that reference.
GF himself was very clear that Quakers were not a sect. ’Quakers are not a sect but are in the power of God which was before sects were’ p408.
There are random references to Quaker admin. E.g. in 1658. ‘After some time we came to John Crooks where a general yearly meeting for the whole nation was appointed to be held. This meeting lasted three days’ p364.
1659 A yearly meeting was held in the orchard of John Killan.
On 28th of 11th month 1660 first request for an account of sufferings to be sent ‘that it may be delivered to the king’ p420.
He comes over at times as having been persistent, or obstinate, in the face of persecution to the point of provocation. ‘They (8 priests) would have had me go into the steeple house. I refused to go and got on a hill and there spoke to them and the people. – Then they fell a pushing of Friends to and fro, to thrust them from me and to pluck me to themselves. After a while several lusty fellows took me up in their arms and carried me to the steeple house porch, but the door being locked they fell down in a heap, me under them, As soon as I could I got from them to my hill again’ p243. At Beaumaris he records ’Soon after came other friendly people and told me if I went into the street they would imprison me also (as well as John ap John). Upon this I was moved to go and walk up and down in the street and told the people what an uncivil, unchristian thing they had done in casting my friend into prison’ – So after a while they set John ap John at liberty ‘ p337. Another time having been let go by a bailiff ‘As we rode out of town it lay upon me to hide to his house to speak to him and let him know he was going against the Protectors instructions, and ‘When we were quite out of the town I told Friends it was upon me from the Lord that I must go back into the town again’ p242. Which he did. And yet again ‘they threatened to apprehend me with their warrants if ever I came there (Theobald’s Park). Yet after I was set at liberty I was moved of the Lord to go to Theobald’s’ p211. ‘I told them it was upon me from the Lord to go back again to Johnston (the town out of which we had lately been thrust’ p359. And finally on this subject ‘Now there were great threatenings given forth in Cumberland, that if ever I came there again, they would take away my life. When I heard it I was drawn to go into Cumberland’ p123.
And even when his life was not being threatened, he did not seem able to help having the last provocative word.’ Then he (the governor in Tenby) asked me whether I owned election and reprobation? Yes said I and thou art in the reprobation’ p332. Cromwell remonstrated with him saying ‘we quarrelled with the priests. I told him I did not quarrel with them, they quarrelled with me and my friends’ p209. On another occasion he noted ‘When he (the jailer) struck me I was moved to sing in the Lord’s power which made him rage the more’ p182. You can imagine how irritating that would be.
Wrongs done to him and other Friends
I can only touch on this briefly, because he himself gives so many examples, but just to give you a taste. ‘We have been counted as sheep for the slaughter, and despised, beaten, stoned, wounded, stocked, whipped, imprisoned, haled out of synagogues, cast into dungeons and noisome vaults, where many have died in bonds shut up from their friends, denied needful sustenance for many days altogether, with other like cruelties’ p423. When he was imprisoned in Launceston in 1655, the jailer ‘put us down into Doomsdale, a nasty stinking place where they used to put witches and murderers after they were condemned to die. The place was so noisome that it was observed that few that went in did ever come out again in health. There was no house of office in it; and the excrement of the prisoners that from time to time had been put there has not been carried out (as we were told) for many years’.—They lit a fire with some straw to try to mask the smell but the smoke went into the rooms above ‘which put (the jailer) in such a rage that he took the pots of excrement from the thieves and poured them through a hole upon our heads in Doomsdale, till we were so bespattered that we could not touch ourselves nor one another’ p260.
This was only one of many times he was imprisoned. On another occasion near Nottingham ‘officers came and took me away, and put me into a nasty stinking prison; the smell whereof got so into my nose and throat, that it very much annoyed me’ p94. ‘For crying against such (drunkards and swearers of oaths) many are cast into prison, and for crying against their pride and filthiness, their deceitful merchandise in markets, their cozening, their cheating, their excess and naughtiness (bathos again!), their paying at bowls and shovel boards, at cards and at dice, and their other vain and wanton pleasures’ p136.
What happened to opponents and threats to opponents
In one place he says of those who imprisoned him ‘I should leave them to the Lord; if the Lord forgave them I should not trouble myself with them’ p417.
However, frequently he seems to be of the opinion that the Lord cannot have forgiven them because they come to a sticky end. Of one opponent he records ‘At last one day in his preaching he cursed the light and fell down as dead in his pulpit. The people carried him out, laid him upon a gravestone and poured strong waters into him, which fetched him to life again: and they carried him home but he was mopish (lovely word) and never recovered his senses’ p351. And of the jailer who treated him so badly in Launceston jail he records, not without satisfaction you feel, ‘the head jailer, we were informed had been a thief, and was burned both in the hand and in the shoulder; his wife too, had been burned in the hand’ p261. Elsewhere he noted that ‘many false prophets have risen up against me, but the lord hath blasted them and will blast all who rise against the blessed seed’ p398. ‘Another of these rude butchers, who had also sworn to kill me, having accustomed himself to thrust out his tongue in derision of Friends when they passed by him, had his tongue so swollen out of his mouth that he could never draw it in again, but died so’ p200. And of Adam Sands the ‘child of the devil’ mentioned earlier, ‘This Adam Sands afterwards died miserably’ p169.
Some of his most strident opprobrium was kept for former Friends, who, as GF describes it so colourfully, ‘ran out’. ‘He (John Perrot) with Charles Bailey and some others, turned aside from the unity of Friends and truth, Whereupon I was moved to give forth a paper, declaring how the Lord would blast him and his followers if they did not repent and return, and that they should wither like the grass on the house top; which many of them did.’ p430. And of James Naylor ‘who ran out into imaginations’ he says of his followers ‘There were some who had run out with James Naylor that did not come to the meetings (in Bristol) to whom I sent word—and they never prospered after’ p322.
In wrangling with an opponent called Rice Jones he advised him ‘This seed, Christ Jesus, the seed of the woman, which should bruise the serpent’s head, shall bruise thy head and break you all in pieces’ p364. And in writing to Judge Sawrey on one occasion, he told him, inter alia, ‘But God hath shortened thy days, limited thee and set thy bounds, broken thy jaws,…How wilt thou be gnawed and burned one day, when thou shalt feel the flame and have the plagues of God poured upon thee… Thou shalt not prosper. This Justice Sawrey, who was the first persecutor in that country, was afterwards drowned’ p164/5
In one commentator I read (can’t remember where unfortunately) that some editing was done on the original text to remove references to miraculous healings and general ascetic or charismatic behaviour as it might have put off would be converts or give the wrong impression of the Quakers. However, some material of this nature did get through. GF tells us that on one occasion he fasted for 10 days. P173. Another time he took off his shoes in the middle of winter outside Lichfield and walked a mile into the city where he ’went up and down the streets and into the market place, crying with a loud voice ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield… As I went crying thus through the streets, there seemed
to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace; … afterward I came to understand, that in the emperor Diocletian’s time, a thousand Christians were martyred in Lichfield ….So the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord.’ p121. And after describing his famous vision on Pendle Hill in 1652 when he saw ‘a great people to be gathered’ he does add that he had ‘eaten or drunk but little for several days before’ p140. And he was not the only early Friend to indulge in extreme behaviour of this nature.
He records that ‘William Sympson was moved of the lord to go at several times for three years naked and barefoot before them as a sign to them; … telling them ’So should they be stripped naked as he was stripped naked… and sometimes he was moved to put on hair sackcloth, and to besmear his face and to tell them ’So would the Lord besmear all their religion as he was smeared’ p427/8.
‘Another Friend Robert Huntingdon was moved of the Lord to go into Carlisle steeple house with a white sheet about him…to show them that the surplice was coming up again (I am not entirely sure what that means); and he put a halter about his neck to show them that a halter was coming upon them; which was fulfilled on some of our persecutors not long after.’ p428.
He also made some claims to be able to tell the future (apart from predicting the untimely end of some of his opponents), as in predicting in 1653 that the Long Parliament would break up in two weeks’ time, with the speaker plucked from his chair, as indeed happened. He claimed too, to have had advance awareness of the end of James Naylor. ‘As I passed him, I cast my eye upon him, and a fear struck into me concerning him’ p244.
He also claimed various miraculous healings, both of himself and others, as in the case of Richard Myers ‘who had long been lame of one of his arms. I was moved of the Lord to say’ Prophet Myers, stand up upon thy legs.. and he stood up and stretched out his arm that had been lame a long time, and said ‘Be it known unto you, all people, that this day I am healed.’ p173. Again, Col. West a JP, having heard GF and ‘having long been weak in body, blessed the lord, and said the Lord had healed him that day’ p158. On one occasion when he was attacked he says ‘my hand was so bruised, and my arm so benumbed, that I could not draw it to me again… But I looked at it in the love of God (for I was in the love of God to them all that had persecuted me) and after a while the Lord’s power sprang through me again, and through my hand and arm, so that in a moment I recovered strength in my hand and arm in the sight of them all’.p155 And after he was beaten up in Walney Island but ‘indeed the Lord’s power healed me again’ p157.
GF and the bible
GF seems almost unaware of how steeped he was in the bible, claiming to speak from the heart ‘this I saw in the pure openings of the light without help of any man; neither did I then know where to find it in the scriptures; though afterwards searching the scriptures I found it’ p89. He did also say though ‘I
had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, they were very precious to me’ p90. And he drew a distinction between the bible as ‘the words of God’ and Christ who is ‘the Word’. I cannot begin to list all the biblical quotations GF used (well over 50 before I stopped count), even if I had the patience to look up all the pieces he quotes but for which he does not give the reference. However, there are some which stand out as being the most frequently used or most beloved of GF. Matt 23, which lists the 7 woes of the scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites is a favourite, as is his use of the phrase from Isaiah 58.5 ‘Bow down his head as a bulrush’ describing those who fast and repent outwardly but do not carry out the actions of those who genuinely repent.
Similarties and dissimilarities – then and now
Apart from his judgmental and vengeful observations quoted above, some of the other things GF says sound strange to modern Quaker ears, and yet others have a truly modern ring to them. I can only give a few examples. A full analysis could be the subject of one or more Phds.
In more than one place he argues that true faith would make one free from sin in this world p104 and p226 ‘but they (some Justices) did not like to hear of Christ’s teaching his people himself, and making his people as clear whilst here upon the earth as Adam and Eve were before the fall.’
And on some things, such as salvation, he would sound entirely orthodox to modern evangelical ears but perhaps going further than non-credal Quakers would today. ‘There is no salvation by any other name under the whole heaven, but by the name of Jesus’ p153. ‘Christ Jesus, who died for them, that they might hear him and receive salvation by him’ p135. ‘I saw that Christ had died for all men, was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men and women with his divine and saving light; and that none could be true believers , but those that believed in it’ p90. He talks too of ‘admonishing and warning people, as I went, to turn to Christ Jesus, that they might receive salvation’ p135.
Another observation that surprised me was when GF described how on one occasion at least, he kneeled to pray. ‘As I was kneeling down to pray to the Lord to forgive him’ p109 – ‘him’ being Justice Bennet of Derby whom GF credits as being the first to call Friends Quakers, in 1650. I have to say, Justice Bennet did not appear to appreciate this intercession on his behalf. ‘He ran upon me, and struck me with both his hands, crying ‘Away with him, jailer: take him away, jailer’ and committed GF to prison for another 6 months.
It appears GF also believed in witches. He accused a woman of being a witch because he ’discerned an unclean spirit in her’ p177
But in other areas his teachings seem to be entirely at one with Quaker views today. ‘Do good to all, though especially to the household of faith’ p403 and when Cromwell wanted to have a collection for the relief of Protestants persecuted in Poland and Bohemia he wrote to the protector saying ‘We see it good to administer to the necessities of others, and to do good to all, and we… are willing to join and to contribute with you to their outward necessities’ p378. He also suggested that Friends offer to take the place of others in prison p238.
And there is much on the benefit of silence as a way of coming to an understanding of God’s message, though occasionally you feel there may be an element of theatricality to it. ‘I sat on a haystack and spoke nothing for some hours; for I was to famish them from words. The professors would ever and anon be speaking to the old priest (one of GF’s converts) and asking him when I would begin and when I would speak. He bade them wait; and told them, that the people waited upon Christ a long time before he spoke. At last I was moved of the Lord to speak’ p131. Once he got going though he seems to have been able to speak easily for three hours, as he records in several places.
The reputation Quakers have for integrity seems to have been there from the beginning, and it would appear it came from GF himself. He reports very early on in the journal that people would say ‘if George says verily there is no altering him…. People generally had a love for me for my innocence and honesty.’ P68. And it is notable that even his enemies though he could be relied on to keep his word. On one occasion, while he was a prisoner, he was to be sent to London to have the case heard there. However, his jailer was unwilling to pay the cost of the armed escort that would have been usual. The final compromise was that GF undertook to get himself there alone, and to be in London by a certain date, which he duly was. ‘But afterwards … people came to have experience of Friends’ honesty and faithfulness… that they kept their word in their dealings … if they sent a child to their shops for anything they were as well used as if they had come themselves’ p191.
However, it is on the peace testimony that one can really see a straight line of descent from GF to the present day. It seems the peace testimony was only set down clearly in 1660 when Friends wrote to Charles II to refute accusations of trying to overthrow the restored monarchy. However, in that letter GF states quite firmly ‘this was our testimony (not to fight) above 20 years ago’ p425. And numerous times in the journal we come across sayings such as ‘live in love and peace with all men’ p389. ‘All that pretend to fight for Christ are deceived; for his kingdom is not of this world and therefore his servants do not fight’ p388. ‘In the postures of war I never learned; my weapons are spiritual’ p408. And best known of all perhaps ‘Stand in that by which ye may take away the occasion of wars’ p390.
And clearly as anyone who has been to a Quaker business meeting will have observed, modern day Quakers take seriously the injunction ‘Friends be not hasty, for he that believes in the light makes not haste’ p196.