by Burt Froom
West Mt. Airy: Yesterday and Today
December, 2013 (Article 12)
For the past year in our Yesterday and Today articles, we have been establishing a context for understanding and appreciating this place where we live and work, West Mt. Airy. Going forward, we will be examining the Quaker movement because the faith and convictions of William Penn are the foundations of our city and neighborhood. This article introduces George Fox, the originator of Quakerism. In future articles, we will explore the life and accomplishments of William Penn himself.
We may forget that England had a momentous civil war (1642-1649) more than 200 years before our own. Ours was about the future of slavery and the equality of all Americans. The English Civil War was fought about the powers of Parliament and freedom of religion. In 17th century England, wages were falling and the poor were victimized by the wealthy.
This was a class war, the Cavaliers vs. the Roundheads and the aristocracy vs. Parliament. King Charles I believed in the “Divine Right of Kings.” Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), was a deeply religious Puritan, was Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (republic) of England (1649-1600), and a regicidal dictator. English Protestants were badly divided. George Fox founded the Quakers at this time. Cromwell, who was sympathetic to the Quakers, conferred with Fox on a number of occasions. Let us meet him and try to understand his outlook and contributions to the Quakers of Philadelphia. Larry Ingle, in his book about George Fox, First Among Friends, offers an invaluable resource.
George Fox (1624-1691) was born and raised in the small Puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, England. His father, Christopher, was a successful weaver, placing him at the top of his village’s hierarchy. The family was well off financially. He may have had two looms in his home. George was the oldest of four children and exhibited ambivalent feelings toward his father, who assigned him necessary, demanding, and unpleasant tasks. His relationship with his mother however was tender and she was indulgent toward George. Yet neither offered support for George’s religious convictions. His parents were strongly committed to non-conformist Presbyterianism.
At age 11, George was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and to tend sheep. He lived under his master’s roof. The apprenticeship system was intended to teach and perpetuate the community’s standards and values. Ingle suggests that Fox carried a superior sense of himself through his life from his apprenticeship. He was stocky and strong, and stood more than five feet seven inches tall.
His formal education is unclear. He learned to read and made up his own spelling rules. He was not familiar with classical learning. Fox’s individualism and melancholic temperament gave him a special sense of himself. He wanted to separate from the world. As a young man, he was apparently given a large inheritance that freed him from the need to work for the rest of his life. He left home at age 19 and he ended contact with his parents. He traveled by himself on foot in the English Midlands, but his frustrating despair continued despite his fasting and Bible reading. This was the time of the English Civil War. He was raised in moderate Presbyterianism, which stressed university-educated ministers.
Calvinism of the 17th century was a revolutionary doctrine that leveled differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, men and women, old and young. Fox substituted his own independent judgment for the wisdom and traditions of his small village. He went everywhere preaching his view of the Bible’s message and called on people to rely on themselves and their own experience of the divine. He soon began to gather disciples.
George Fox 1624 – 1691. Picture from George Fox University archives.
And then something momentous happened to Fox! While he was praying, a voice spoke to him, saying, “There is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to your condition.” He had wondered if his life was to be nothing more than a constant search for a wholeness that crumbled when he reached out for it. Now he knew experientially from his own deep and personal experience. His heart “did leap for Joy,” as he wrote in his journal. Now he would live with immense power, as Ingle puts it. Though he was not free of temptations, he had ultimate assurance in God. For this reason, he could never forgive ministers and priests who prevented ordinary people from experiencing the liberation he now knew. He was filled with the greatness of God’s love. Protestantism makes each person’s private encounter with God the final test of authentic faith.
Fox was arrested for the first time for blasphemy and was jailed for a year. It was then that Justice Bennet of Derby applied the label “Quaker” to him and to his followers. It was a derisive label because Fox’s followers quaked and trembled during their worship in their fear of God. Quakers renamed their religious experience: They insisted on calling their worship gatherings, “meetings,” and they called themselves “Children of the Light,” “People of God,” and “Friends of the Truth.”
When Fox and his followers visited a church, they interrupted the church services to accuse, preach, and pray. His sermons were anti-institutional, an intensely personal appeal that called into question the rituals of organized religion. His goal was the immediate experience of God. When addressing people of whatever status in life, Fox insisted on using “thee” and “thou” (“You” was reserved for the aristocracy.) Fox would not remove his hat to anyone, high or low, nobleman or commoner. He demonstrated his contempt for what society expected. He called church buildings “steeple houses,” and regarded women’s opinions as deserving of consideration.
Fox built his theology on his own experience. He completely rejected the validity of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Fox created a system of unity that saved Quakerism from ruinous individualism. Quakerism needed individual freedom and group discipline, and Fox sided with discipline. Needless to say, he was a threat to established religions. For Fox, the real authority for believers was the Holy Spirit, the source of Scriptures, who would lead people into all truth. He insisted that faith should be inward, not external. In his beliefs and actions, George Fox was a true prophet, speaking like the great prophets of ancient Israel. These ideas led Fox to be imprisoned in Derby for almost a year.
His journey to the north of England in 1651 brought Fox to Pendle Hill and he visited Swarthmore, the home of Thomas and Margaret Fell. At Margaret’s church, Fox stood on a seat during worship and lashed out at the minister and congregation. The stranger wore his hair long, in contrast to the short popular Roundhead style of that day.
An important question in the 1650s was this: Is authority found in the leading of the Spirit or in the scriptures? Fox viewed society as corrupt, evil and unresponsive to the requirements of justice. In essence, the question was whether society could be changed peacefully or by force. The Society of Friends was a recognized movement, but now became a sect so it could fight off attacks during the Restoration. Fox was forced to reassess the use of violence and he issued the “Peace Testimony” of 1661 in which he renounced war by Quakers: “…all bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny…and fightings with outward weapons for any end, or under any pretense what so ever: and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Violence was declared to be evil.
By 1660, there were between 40,000 and 60,000 Quakers in England. Fox’s words had a clearly subversive ring and Parliament was determined to muffle such dissidents because they contradicted the allegiance expected of loyal subjects of the monarch. In 1662, Parliament passed the so-called Quaker Act which prohibited more than five persons from gathering for any religious rites contrary to the rites of the Church of England. Punishment for violating the Quaker Act ranged from fines, to confiscations of property and goods, to imprisonment.
This caused increased danger for George Fox and all Quakers. Fox saw clearly that filling up the jails would lead to ultimate victory for Quakers. Fox was jailed some nine times; the longest was for nearly three years. When he was arrested in 1665, he was thrown into Scarborough castle dungeon for a year for wearing his hat and refusing to take an oath. This jailing broke his health. Fox suffered all his life from repeated attacks of depression, the worst in 1670. During this time, Quakers had earned a reputation for honesty, courtesy, industry and thrift that raised them above the humble ranks of their beginnings to the middle classes, where most reside today.
In 1669, at age 45, George Fox married Margaret Fell, a widow ten years his senior, a strong woman from the local landed gentry. They gave their lives to the cause of Quakerism and were often apart. In 1671, Fox traveled for three years with Friends to visit Quakers in the New World. He went to Barbados, Jamaica, Maryland, Long Island, Rhode Island, Delaware, Annapolis, Virginia and Carolina. He also went to Holland and Germany with William Penn in 1677. During this time Margaret was in jail, once again, for 14 months. George was hard at work on his journal.
After the death of King Charles II in 1685, his Roman Catholic brother James II ascended the English throne. The upper classes of England were suspicious of the Catholic James and of his friends, including William Penn. In 1688, James II was driven from his throne in the “Glorious Revolution” that brought his daughter Mary II and her husband William III of Holland, both Protestants, to the throne.
In 1691, George Fox spent his last months in London conferring with Friends, his mind on the Quaker movement and its unity. Says Catherine Owens Peare, “George Fox himself was an amazing phenomenon, a clarifying, unifying genius…His magnetic, almost hypnotic, personality gathered together in one church a host of individual seekers…because he rediscovered in the Christian faith what the Protestant movement had lost – its inner core of mysticism.”
Durant, Wll &. Ariel. (1961). The Story of Civilization: Part VII. New York: Simon and Schuster.
English Civil War. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_civil_war
George Fox. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Fox
History of the Quakers. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Quakers
Ingle, H. L. (1994). First Among Friends: George Fox & the Creation of Quakerism. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Oliver Cromwell. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki//Oliver_Cromwell
Peare, C. O. (1957). William Penn: A Biography. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company.
Puritan. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritan
Restoration (England). (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_%28England%29
William Penn. (n.d.). Retrieved June 5, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn
I want to thank West Mt. Airy resident, Tom Armstrong, a good Friend, who has helped me to understand George Fox, and Jaime Kehler for his contribution to many aspects of this article. In future articles of this column, we will consider the life and career of William Penn, who established Philadelphia as the Quaker capitol.