Who was George Fox?
"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." ~ Walt Whitman, American poet
Birth date: July, 1624
Birth location: Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, England
Family: wife, Margaret Fell; no children
Death date: January, 1691
Death location: London, England
George Fox was born to Christopher Fox and Mary Lago, the eldest of four children. When he was young, Fox worked for George Gee, a shoemaker and a farmer. He also spent time as a shepherd and the fact that biblical figures such as Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David also tended animals did not escape his notice and reflection. As he spent time in the fields, Fox recognized the profit of simplicity in the Christian life and in preparation for Christian ministry. After he spent one evening with some religious friends who were drinking alcohol, Fox was determined to live a holy life of Christian service.
Depressed by Warfare
Fox left home in 1643. The English Civil War (1642-1651) was underway, which pitted the Parliamentarians against the Royalists in a fight for control of the kingdom. As Fox traveled the country, he encountered soldiers in virtually every town, which left him depressed and consequently, reclusive. He sought out the help of clergy, but was largely dissatisfied with their advice, which included suggestions of smoking tobacco and bloodletting.
Despite his internal struggles, Fox's spiritual life deepened. He was fascinated with the Bible, spent significant time in prayer, and developed the strong conviction that the Church of England should not interfere in religious matters.
In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly. He developed a following that called themselves "Children of Light"and "Friends of Truth."
The later term would later be reduced to simply, "Friends." Fox preached from the Bible, encouraged his followers to live holy lives, and was unafraid of criticizing the immorality he saw in English society and railed against the injustices wrought by English rulers.
Fox was incarcerated on multiple occasions thoughout his life. The second time he was imprisoned, charged with blasphemy, was at Derby in 1650 at which time he appeared before a judge. One tradition says that when Fox suggested the judge "tremble" before the word of God, Fox was mocked and called a "Quaker."
Fox had strong conviction to not participate in the war and his testimony of peace would come to permeate the Friends movement. In a letter he wrote to Friends, he implored them to not take up arms,
That which is set up by the sword, is held up by the sword;
and that which is set up by spiritual weapons,
is held up by spiritual weapons, and not by carnal weapons.
The peacemaker has the kingdom, and is in it;
and has the dominion over the peace-breaker,
to calm him in the power of God.
And friends, let the waves break over your heads.
There is rising a new and living way out of the north,
which makes the nations like waters.
Do not hurt the vines, nor the oil,
nor those who know that 'the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness if it.'
The days of virtue, love, and peace are come and coming,
and the Lamb had and has the kings of the earth
to war with, and to fight with,
who will overcome with the sword of the spirit, the word of his mouth;
for the Lamb shall have the victory.
And are not some like Ephraim, with a miscarrying womb?
Who have not brought forth the substance, the birth from above;
but have brought forth children to murder?
Fox continued to travel and preach, sometimes to a thousand people at a time. He was also arrested frequently for crimes such as blasphemy and refusing to take oaths. When he was arrested in 1653, it was proposed that he be put to death. Parliament rejected the proposal and freed him. Fox was arrested several more times in the 1660's and 1670's. Yet bars could not impede his mission. Even in prison, he preached to jailers and convicts.
When the English, Scottish, and Irish monarchies were restored in 1660 under Charles II, Fox was accused of conspiring against the English leader. Parliament also established the law that religious meetings of more than five people that were detached from the Church of England were illegal. Friends defiantly continued to meet and many were imprisoned as a result, including women and children.
Fox married Margaret Fell on October 27, 1669. She was 10 years older than him and had eight children. Fell advocated for women in the preaching ministry, a conentious issue among Friends at the time, which had the support of Fox.
Fell was also incarcerated for her beliefs.
Fox traveled to America in the 1670's. He gave guidance to Friends concerning women in ministry and doing outreach to Indians. He also spent time preaching to non-believers, some of which became Quakers. After a few years, Fox returned to Europe were he continued to travel and experience imprisonment. Toward the end of his life, he focused on writing his journal, but he continued to preach, travel, and participate in meetings.
Fox died on January 13, 1691. He journal was published in 1694 and included a preface by William Penn. Hundreds of Fox's letters were also published posthumously.
The Act of Toleration, granting non-conformists the freedom to worship in England, passed in 1689, which permitted Quakers to worship freely.
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George Fox. The Journal. Penguin Classics. 1998.