Posted on 19 March 2021
Of all the Quakers who formed the Society of Friends George Fox (1624 – 1691) is arguably the most influential.
Fox was a man very much moulded by the religous times and historical events he lived in. He was born in Drayton-in-the-Clay (now known as Fenny Drayton), in Leicestershire, England. His father Christopher was a weaver and Fox was first apprenticed as a shoemaker then a farmer. However, since childhood, Fox had been drawn to a religious path. He recalls in his journal “when I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness”.
This is an curious statement given that Fox’s childhood environment was a hotbed of reform and rebellion against the Church of England. Fenny Drayton was a Puritan village at the time, meaning that many of the villagers sought reform within the church of England by making it pure again. Pureness in this context meant a simple and plain life that rejected opulence and the perceived indulgences of the church of England.
Fox’s father dies and leaves him a substantial legacy – which will support Fox throughout most of his life. The young Fox begins questioning the religious leaders of his community looking for guidance but is left unsatisfied. As the English Civil War Period (1642 – 1651) begins, aged 19, Fox goes travelling around the country seeking answers to ending the turbulence and strife of war-torn life.
He journeys towards London in a state of mental torment passing through many towns on the way. It’s during this period that Fox’s own religious beliefs begin to form and include:
- Rituals can 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 and children.
- 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 would just as soon worship in fields and orchards, believing that God’s presence could be felt anywhere
The Children Of The Light
After briefly returning home, Fox becomes restless again and leaves to travel once more up and down the country – further shaping his own spiritual path away from the church.
During Fox’s travels, his preaching had attracted a small band of followers. They called themselves the Children of the Light.
By 1647, Fox and the Children of the Light had been preaching the message, which is known today as “what you seek outside yourself is available within.” It was also in 1647 that they began calling each other ‘Friend’ taken from the line in the Gospel of John “you are my friends.” Thus they also called themselves Friends of the Truth.
By the end of the decade the bloody war was over. The king had been executed, Cromwell became Lord protector and England was declared a republic. Society had been struck down by its own sword and it left many people seeking answers.
In 1650, George Fox was arrested on a charge of blasphemy in the town of Derby. However Fox told the judge he should ‘tremble at the word of the Lord’. Afterwards Fox and his followers were contemptuously called Quakers and the name stuck.
His teachings made Fox and his followers deeply unpopular with the authorities and he was arrested and imprisoned several times. However Fox continued to travel around England preaching and the Quaker movement continued to grow.
Fox and The Children of the Light then cross paths with the Westmoreland Seekers in the north of England. Both groups unite and Fox became the spearhead for a burgeoning movement that sought a new identity in post-war England.
Upon his travels he comes to Swarthmoor Hall, Cumbria, the home of Margaret Fell and her husband Thomas Fell. Margaret has her Convincement to become a Quaker while he delivers his ‘What can thou sayest’ sermon.
So naturally the number of Seekers had swelled and in 1652 an estimated 1,000 of them gathered at Firbank Fell, Cumbria to hear Fox preach. Many Seekers were so inspired by the words of Fox that the course of their history would change forever.
Expanding The Quaker Movement
The situation grew worse when King Charles II was restored to his throne in 1660. The new government was very suspicious of radical religious groups.
During the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) Quakers were frequently imprisoned. Nevertheless the Quaker movement grew rapidly in England in the late 17th century and it spread to other countries.
The first Quakers went to North America in 1656. In 1681 William Penn founded the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile the Quaker movement spread to Ireland, Holland, Germany, Barbados and Jamaica.
George Fox himself traveled to Barbados in 1671. In 1672 he traveled to Jamaica then to mainland North America. In 1673 Fox returned to England where he was imprisoned for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown.
Meanwhile on 27th October 1669 George Fox married Margaret Fell. His wife, Margaret Fell (1614-1702) was a great Quaker preacher in her own right. In 1666 she had published a pamphlet called ‘Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures’, which argued that there is no reason why women cannot be preachers.
Death And Legacy
Shortly after the Act of Toleration was passed, in 1691 George Fox, Seeker and Quaker, died aged 66 (his gravestone shows the date according the Julian calendar).
The Seekers would gather in a great number for the last time to attend his funeral.
Mainly due to Fox and his inner circle of friends, the Quakers had become highly structured, organised, nationwide and masterful campaigners.
Everything the Seekers lacked.
No doubt Fox’s funeral inspired more Seekers to follow Quakerism.Image from www.spectator.co.uk/