George Fox

From New World Encyclopedia

Facsimile of portrait drawn on stone by Thomas Fairland.

George Fox (July 1624 – January 13, 1691), founder of the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as the Quakers), grew up with deep religious tendencies. He struggled to grasp the answers to his spiritual questions of life in order to quench the craving of his ever-searching soul. Living in a time of great social upheaval, he challenged the emerging religious and political establishment by proposing a radical and uncompromising approach to the Christian faith. His journal, which describes his visions, teachings, and frequent imprisonments during his life as a traveling preacher, is a text popular even among non-Quakers for its vivid account of his personal journey.

Fox's teachings opposed the the rationalism common in religion of the time, stressing instead the pursuit of mystical union with the inner light that is Christ. Emphasis on the inner light was balanced by the conviction that this light must shine in the world as Quakers live moral lives and engage in kingdom-building work. Fox's impact on society in his lifetime outweighed the impact of many people of power and influence, and it continues to today through the membership and activities of the Religious Society of Friends, primarily in Europe and the Americas. Members of the fellowship are renowned for their pacifism and their commitment to reconciliation and issues of justice.

Early life

George Fox was born at Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, England (now known as Fenny Drayton), 24 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of Leicester. His father, Christopher Fox, a weaver, was called "righteous Christer" by his neighbors. His mother, Mary Lago, was characterized as "of the stock of the Martyrs." Even from childhood, George Fox was serious about religion. His education was based around the faith and practice of the Church of England, which was the church of his parents. Fox had no formal schooling, but was able to read and write. At a young age, he was fascinated by the Bible and studied it 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; ...inwardly to God, and outwardly to man." (Jones 1908 [1])

As he grew up, he became an apprentice to a shoemaker and shepherd. This suited his contemplative temperament, and he became well-known for his diligence among the wool traders who had dealings with his master. Fox constantly pursued the "simplicity" in life, practicing humility and giving up luxury. The short time he spent as a shepherd was important to the formation of this view. Toward 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 1847, 364)

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. Fox also had friends who were "professors" (followers of the standard religion), but by the age of 19 he had begun to look down on their behavior, particularly 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 [2])

First travels

For this reason, Fox 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 intently 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 smoke tobacco, which Fox detested. Another clergyman, in Coventry, was helpful at first but lost his temper when Fox accidentally stood on a flower in his garden. (Jones 1908, footnote 19 [3])

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 traveling 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 1847, 31–32)

Unique beliefs begin to form

Over the next few years, 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. He called this process "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" so religious experience is not confined to a church building. Indeed, Fox refused to apply the word "Church" to a building. Instead, he used the name "steeple-house," a practice 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.
A female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London

Fox had some experiences among "English Dissenters," which are 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 but he found opposition instead. He argued 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 Religious Society of Friends takes shape

In 1648 Fox began to preach publicly in market-places, fields, appointed meetings of various kinds, or even sometimes in "steeple-houses" after the priests had finished. His preaching was powerful and many people were converted to the spirituality of "true religion." His followers implemented the form of silent waiting. It is not even clear at what point the Society of Friends was formed but there was certainly a group of people who often traveled together. The term "children of the light" was at one time used, as well as simply "friends." Fox didn’t seem to have a desire to found a sect. He only proclaimed what he saw as the pure and genuine principles of Christianity in their original simplicity. As it turned out, he demonstrated great prowess as a religious legislator in the organization that 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, taking strong aim at the requirement to pay tithes to support institutions of the church, and he harshly attacked the "deceit" that characterized the haggling at local market times. He urged his listeners to lead lives without sin although he avoided the 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 1652, he had gathered many other talented preachers around him and continued to roam the northern countryside seeking out new converts 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 such as 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.

In 1652 Fox felt that God led him to walk up Pendle Hill where he had a vision of thousands of souls coming to Christ. From there he traveled to Sedbergh in Westmorland and nearby Firbank Fell and convinced many to accept his teachings on Christ being able to speak to people directly.


At Derby in 1650 Fox was imprisoned for blasphemy. A judge mocked Fox's exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord" by calling him and his followers "Quakers." [4]. He suffered harsh treatment in prison following his refusal to fight against the return of the monarchy. A further conviction came in 1653 in Carlisle, England, where it was even proposed to put him to death. Fortunately, Parliament requested his release rather than have "a young man… die for religion" [5].

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 more vital 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 offenses. Quakers rebelled about the laws forbidding unauthorized worship even though these statutes were very irregularly enforced. Actions motivated by belief in social equality such as 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 like the jailers and his fellow prisoners. He also sought to set an example by his actions by 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 traveling with George Fox intended to overthrow the government. By this time, his meetings were regularly attracting crowds in the 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 a while about the differences between Friends and members of the traditional denominations. He advised Cromwell to listen to God's voice and obey it. According to Fox's journal, "with tears in his eyes (Cromwell) 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 freed from that prison. [6].

This episode may be viewed as an example of what would later be called "speaking truth to power" which is a preaching technique by which Quakers tried to influence the powerful. It is closely related to the ideas of plain, forthright speech that George Fox practiced, but motivated by the worldlier 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 good rapport. Fox felt moved to invite Cromwell to "lay down his crown at the feet of Jesus," which Cromwell declined to do. [7]. Their third meeting was in 1658 at Hampton Court. They could not speak too long because of the Protector's worsening illness. Fox wrote that "he looked like a dead man" [8]. Cromwell died in September of that year.

Suffering and growth

The persecutions of these years, including about a thousand Friends in prison by 1657, hardened George Fox's opinions of traditional religious and social practices. In his preaching, he often emphasized 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 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 would ask where in the Bible could such an injunction be found.

The Society of Friends became increasingly organized 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 commissioned two Friends to travel around the country collecting the testimonies of imprisoned Quakers as evidence of their persecution. This led to the establishment of Meeting for Sufferings in 1675 and has continued each year until the present. [QFP §7]

The Restoration

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 Fox resented. Once again, Fox was released after demonstrating that he had no military ambitions. During imprisonment in Lancaster, he wrote to the king offering advice on governance such as refraining from war, domestic religious persecution, oath-taking, plays, and maypole games. These last suggestions reveal Fox's Puritan leanings, which continued to influence Quakers for centuries after his death.

Charles listened to George Fox on at least one request. The seven hundred Quakers who had been imprisoned under Richard Cromwell were released even 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 repression of nonconformists, including Quakers [9]. In the same year, Fox and Richard Hubberthorne co-authored a statement signed by twelve Friends that the group would never take up arms therefore were not a threat to the newly restored monarch. This statement became the basis for the Quaker "Peace Testimony."

Meanwhile, Quakers in New England had been sent away and Charles was advised by his counselors 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 because he was imprisoned again in 1663 for his refusal to swear oaths. His release in 1666 was preoccupied with organizational matters. He standardized the system of monthly and quarterly meetings throughout the country and extended it to Ireland.

In 1669 Fox married Margaret Fell, 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 for several years in Lancaster alongside Fox. 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

From 1671, George Fox spent two years in Barbados and the English settlements in America. In Barbados, he wrote to the governor and legislature of the island explaining that Quaker principles did not threaten slavery or the economic foundation. He also outlined the sect's religious beliefs and that portion of the document became the basis for the accepted view of Quaker doctrines. [10].

Fox's first arrival on the North American continent was in Maryland, where he participated in a four-day meeting of local Quakers. He remained there while his English companions traveled to the other colonies because he wished to meet with some Native Americans who were interested in Quaker ways. He wrote in his journal that the Native Americans had "a great debate" among themselves about whether to participate in the meeting. Fox was impressed by their general demeanor, which he said was "loving" and "respectful." [11].

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 them were converted while others, including Ranters (a radical English sect) and some Catholics, were unconvinced. He did not seem to mind this as much as he resented the suggestion (from a man in North Carolina) that "the Light and Spirit of God ... was not in the Indians" which Fox refuted [12].

Fox established a Yearly Meeting in Amsterdam for Friends in the Netherlands and German states.

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 of letters, both public and private, as well as books, essays and his “Journal.” Much of his energy was devoted to the topic of oaths since he was 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, Fox visited the Friends in the Netherlands and organized their meetings. He 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. When he returned to England, he stayed in the south 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 declarations 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. Many Friends were released from prison that year.

Death and legacy

George Fox died on January 13, 1691, and was interred in the Quaker Burying Ground at Bunhill Fields in London. The comment at the end of Fox's journal states that "13th of the 11th month, 1690" was the day Fox died. [13] Before 1752, the "Julian" or "Old Style" calendar was used. The first day of the year was March 25 under this calendar and the last day of the year was March 24. Since March was the first month, January was considered the 11th month. Quakers referred to the months by their number, such as "eleventh month" because saying July (Julius), after Julius Caesar, or August, after the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, was considered too pagan or worldly. [14]

George Fox's marker in Bunhill Fields, next to the Meeting House.

Fox's journal was first published in 1694, after editing by Thomas Ellwood, who was 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. His journal was an intensely personal work that appealed to readers. It has been used by historians because of its wealth of detail on ordinary life in the seventeenth century and many towns and villages that 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," skillful 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 tremendous even though not all of his beliefs were welcome to all Quakers. His Puritan-like opposition to the arts and rejection of theological study prevented the development of these practices among Quakers for some time. At the same time, Quakers and others can relate to Fox's religious experience. 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." [15]

George Fox University in Oregon, founded as Pacific College in 1891, was renamed for him in 1949.

See Also

Society of Friends


ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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 0941308057). The linked reference above is to a 1908 abridged version by Rufus Jones, which is also available in print (Friends United Press, 1976; ISBN 0913408247).

  • Barclay, Robert. An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 1678. A systematic treatment of Quaker theology at the end of the seventeenth century; available online. Retrieved November 6, 2022.
  • Ingle, Larry H. First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0195101170. Interpretation of Fox's use of politics within the Society of Friends showing his desire to ensure conformity with his views so the group would survive.
  • Marsh, Josiah. A Popular Life of George Fox, 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 0852453078 [1999 revision]). Retrieved November 6, 2022. Shows a modern Quaker view of Fox, and a great deal of historical information about Friends and their institutions.
  • George Fox, Seeker and Friend by Rufus Jones, 1930. New York & London: Harper and Bros.
  • The Early Quakers By EDWARD GRUBB, M.A. Chapter IV of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Retrieved November 6, 2022.

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2024.


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