by Leonard Kenworthy
Chapter 1, Part One: Friends for Over Three Hundred Years from Quakerism: A Study Guide on the Religious Society of Friends (1st published 1981, now out of print).
In order to understand individuals and movements, they need to be seen against the background of their times and their localities. That is certainly true of George Fox and the early Quaker movement. For them the time was the 17th century; the place — England. That was a boisterous period; a time of tensions and turmoil; an age of argumentation; a century of colonization, conflicts, and changes.
England then was a small and sparsely settled country, with a population of approximately five million persons. But London was already the largest city in the world, with a half million inhabitants. Travel was difficult and limited largely to walking and horseback riding; stage coaches were just beginning to appear.
It was also a period of social stratification. England was like a giant pyramid, with the royal family at the top and the mass of common people at the bottom, with a few small groups in between. Each part of the populace had its assigned place and there was little social mobility. And those at the top were accorded special honors. For example, the common people removed their hats in the presence of the elite and addressed them with special terms of Respect.
Because of the excesses of the 16th century Elizabethan period in dress, art, and music, a large part of the English population in the 17th century espoused Puritanism.
The most revolutionary aspect of that century in England, however, was the fact that for the first time in history the Bible, in the King James version, was available to people who could read. Consequently religion was a major topic of conversation — and often of confrontations. Religious tracts were published profusely and distributed widely. That keen interest in religion led to the formation of many sects, such as the Anabaptists, the Fifth Monarchy Men, the Muggletonians, the Ranters, and the Seekers. In fact, two of the chief characteristics of that century in England were the conflicts over religious beliefs and the clashes over control of the government by various religious groups — the Catholics, the Church of England, and the Puritans.
The drama of that century included in its star-studded cast such persons as John Milton, the poet; William Shakespeare, the playright; Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant political leader; Sir Walter Raleigh, the adventurer and colonizer; and George Fox, the founder of Quakerism.
Fox’s Birth and Early Years
George Fox was born in July of 1624 in the small town of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, England, in the central part of that nation. His father was a weaver whose only outstanding characteristic seems to have been his honesty; we know that he was called “Righteous Christer.” The mother was a good woman, “accomplished above most of her degree.” Consequently there was apparently no reason to pay particular attention to the birth of a son to such a poor, simple, hardworking couple.
Years passed and this unknown lad acquired a little education and became apprenticed to a shoemaker who also kept sheep and cattle. Often George Fox would be left alone in the fields with the animals. At such times he meditated upon the world around him and the people who lived in Fenny Drayton and the surrounding countryside.
He seemed to enjoy that solitude, for even as a child, “he appeared of another frame of mind than the rest of his brethren, being more religious, inward, still, solid, and observing beyond his year.” It disturbed him to see how “lightly and wantonly” many older people behaved and he resolved not to be like them when he grew to manhood. At the age of 11, according to his account, “I knew pureness and righteousness, for while a child I was taught to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things, and to act faithfully in two ways … inwardly to God and outwardly to man.”
Such characteristics were unusual for a young man in his teens and he was subjected to ridicule. Probably that drove him deeper into solitude and developed further his sensitiveness, although he says in his Journal that he merely left his critics alone and went his way.
To such a sensitive youth the world was baffling, and in all of his attempts to bring order out of the chaos in his mind, he was unsuccessful. Some of his friends advised him to marry as a solution to his problems, but he told them that he was “but a lad … and must get wisdom.” Others recommended tobacco and psalm singing, to which he replied that tobacco was “a thing he did not love” and psalms he was “not in a state to sing.” The professors to whom he turned for help “did not possess what they professed “and the ministers he consulted were “empty, hollow casks.”He was a lonely, troubled young man, almost hopeless of finding an answer to-the riddle of life. Physically he was so “dried up with sorrows, grief, and troubles” that he wished he had “never been born” or that “he had been born blind.”
His Great Discovery
Then something happened in 1648, when he was 24. He described that “something” in unforgettable language:
And when all my hopes in them (the preachers) and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I 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.
For years he had wandered in a spiritual desert without any showers of manna to feed his hunger. Now he feasted on manna. For years he had travelled in that desert without water to slake his thirst. Now he had found a spiritual oasis with a perpetual source of water. As the hart panteth after the brook, he had panted after God. And like the psalmist he could now say, “All Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me.”
Fox had made a great discovery – that God lives and talks directly to people today. He is not one who revealed Himself solely to a few prophets in the past: He reveals Himself to anyone who is ready to listen. He is a Living Presence, a Continuing Illumination.
As Elton Trueblood has phrased it, “George Fox … had grasped a great idea, the idea that Christian experience could be couched in the present tense.”
Some Effects of His Discovery
That striking experience had a profound effect upon Fox. Here is how he described what had happened:
All things were new and all the creation gave another smell unto me, beyond what words can utter …. Great things did the Lord lead me into and wonderful depths were opened unto me, beyond what can words be declared.
Spiritually his wanderings in many directions were over. He had found The Trail. Throughout the rest of his life his eyes were fixed on that path and his feet did not fail to follow it.
And his spiritual integration aided his physical integration. Here- tofore he had been a fragmented individual; now he was integrated, complete, whole. Gradually he was transformed from a shy, depressed, physically debilitated young man into a robust adult, able to endure years of arduous travels, physical assaults, and imprisonments.
He knew, too, that this remarkable discovery was something which should not be hoarded; it was something which should be shared. He felt impelled to tell others, that his joy might be their joy, too.
Consequently he set out on a life of travel which led him into many parts of the British Isles; across the Atlantic to the Barbados, Jamaica, and the American colonies; and to what is now The Netherlands and Germany.
From that remarkable experience, and others like it, emerged the Religious Society of Friends, as it was later called, with George Fox as its founder.
The Travels of the Man in Leather Breeches
Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist and historian, once wrote this pungent, perceptive, and provocative comment about Fox:
Perhaps the most remarkable incident in modern history is not the Diet of Worms, still less the Battle of Austerlitz, Waterloo, or any other battle; but an incident passed over carelessly by most historians — namely, George Fox’s making himself a coat of leather.
That suit was not made to attract attention or to make Fox appear bizarre. It was made as a practical measure, providing him with something warm and durable for the days of walking and riding and the many nights he would spend sleeping against the haystacks or hedges, or in the open fields.
Clad in his leather breeches; his long, plain, leather jacket; and his big white hat, he set out on one of the longest, most arduous, and most important journeys in history, lasting for years and taking him to many parts of the English world and of Europe.
He travelled by foot, by horseback, and eventually by boat, meeting and talking with people wherever he could find them — by the roadside, in market places and at fairs, and even in churches, standing on a bench rather than in the pulpit, to preach.
This was a time of religious turmoil and seeking for a more satisfying way of life. Many people were restless and disillusioned with existing creeds and contemporary practices, finding little that was satisfying in the churches of that time. Consequently word often spread that the man in leather breeches was coming, and people turned out to see and hear him. Sometimes the groups were small. But often people came by the hundreds and on occasions by the thousands.
At such gatherings Fox would sometimes sit in silence for a long time, waiting for the leadings of the Spirit.
And the messages came – mighty messages, moving messages, life-sustaining messages, life-transforming messages — and sometimes life-disturbing messages.
At their core was Fox’s certainty that God does not dwell in temples made by human hands, but in people’s hearts. It was apparent to him that we are all created in the image of God and that something of the Divine is implanted at birth in each of us.
Fox had many words and phrases to describe this incredible phenomenon — The Indwelling Spirit, The Light Within, The Light of Christ, The Seed.
We can deny this divinity within us as well as outside us. We can ignore it. We can minimize it. But it is always there, ready to be released.
Hence each of us can make direct contact with God at any time and in any place, without intermediaries.
Thus God’s guidance was available in the seventeenth century as well as in the first century of Christianity. It was available to men, women, and children, and not reserved for the prophets, the apostles, and the saints. And God’s guidance was available to common as well as uncommon human beings, the uneducated as well as the educated, the inconspicuous as well as the conspicuous.
Fox’s messages were also filled with hope because of the transforming love of God. He even believed in the possibility of human perfection or what many of us today would call completeness,
wholeness, or integration.
Fox was an optimist. But he was also a realist. Many of his messages were punctuated with references to suffering and sin. He knew about the imperfections of human beings. Yet he believed such shortcomings could, with God’s help, be overcome. In one of the most famous passages in his Journal, he wrote:
I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love which flowed over the ocean of darkness.
Such was the invincible spirit of this man in leather breeches and his overwhelming belief in the power of love.
His convictions were not the result of biblical scholarship or theological disputations. His convictions and his certainty came from experiences. If one word were sought to summarize his teachings, that word would be “experience.” Over and over he testified that “I came to know God experimentally and was as one who hath a key and doth open,” or “This I new experimentally.” Today we might say “experientially.”
Such were some of his thoughts about the relationship of people to God. But religion to him was much more than that. It involved, also, the relationship of people with other human beings. Once individuals discovered the sources of spiritual power, they would be transformed. They would become new beings. They would be living witnesses to God’s truths. And they could, by example, indicate to others The Way.
To Fox religion was not a creed, not an organization, but a life. In such a life one receives power from God and translates it into love for others — caring, compassion.
In modern language, God is a mighty torrent of water and people are generating plants. Only when the channels are open can this flood of water pour through. People are so equipped that they can change this torrent of water into power and pass it on to others.
Fox phrased this idea in Biblical terms: “I told them this was the word of the Lord God unto them, that they lived in words, but God Almighty looked for fruits among them.” Or, “I saw how people read the Scriptures without a right sense of them, and without duly applying them to others, but did not turn to find the truth of these things to themselves.”
Religion to Fox was a twofold relationship – a vertical relationship to God and a horizontal relationship to other people. Often he referred to these two dimensions as the inward and the outward
Therefore he admonished his listeners to:
Be patterns, be examples, in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…
Thus, while working on their own transformation, people would simultaneously be working on the transformation of society. Taken seriously, the belief of “that of God” in every individual would have far-reaching consequences. You would not kill because in doing so you would be killing something of God in other persons. You would accord equal rights to women and children, because they, too, were endowed with something of the Divine. You would be concerned with the plight of prisoners and the handicapped, because they were also Children of the Light. And you would treat people of other races with respect because they, too, were touched with the Divine.
So the implications of this deceivingly simple doctrine could be extended. Thus Fox and the early Friends became social reformers as well as spiritual regenerators.
Fox and Prayer
Fox was powerful as a preacher, sensitively attuned to the leadings of the Spirit. But he was even more powerful in public prayer. As William Penn testified, “the most awful, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld … was his in prayer”.
The Centrality of Worship
George Fox had found God in the silence of his soul. He had communed directly with the Divine. He was able to do so whenever he was outwardly and inwardly prepared to listen.
Fox believed such experiences were available to everyone. God equips each person so that he or she can hear The Eternal Voice. In modern language, God is like the radio waves which are always there when the human instruments are properly tuned to pick them up. Each of us is a spiritual receiving set.
Fox believed, also, that people can hear God best in silence. They can do this individually and in groups. In fact, a heightened sense of God’s presence is possible when people worship in groups.
Sermons, music, a beautiful altar, and stained glass windows can be hindrances rather than helps to worship. They can distract people from hearing God’s Voice; they can substitute form for
From these beliefs emerged the Quaker meeting for worship — not of silent meetings, but of meetings on the basis of silence, of openness, of searching, of listening, and of expectancy in Divine Guidance. That was a radical departure in seventeenth century England — and even now!
Caring Communities, Fellowships of Friends
Fox also thought of Christianity in terms of group fellowship.
Small groups of individuals and families, bound together in their search for God’s guidance in their lives, were fellowships, caring communities, religious societies of friends.
Therefore people should come together for more than worship. They should come together to carry on the business of the group. They should come together to celebrate the marriages of their fellow-worshippers and friends. They should come together for the burials of their neighbors and friends.
Primitive Christianity Revived
These ideas were not the sole discovery of George Fox. They were not even new. Fox was no religious revolutionary; he was a religious reviver, struggling to rediscover the authenticity, simplicity, power, and vitality of first-century Christianity.
Many of those early Christians had known God directly. He was a power in their lives. They were filled with His love, willing to sacrifice and undergo horrendous persecutions to testify to His all-
pervading, all-satisfying Presence. And their lives were often high testimony to their faith.
Fox burned with a desire to recapture and revive that kind of Christianity.
And his message was Christian. It was not a thin humanism or a vague mysticism; although it was both humane and mystical. In the words of William Penn, it was “primitive Christianity revived.” In the words of Fox: “Christ is come and doth dwell in the hearts of His people …. ” Or, “I declared God’s everlasting truth … that they might all come to know Christ to be their teacher to instruct them, their counsellor to direct them, their shepherd to feed them, their bishop to oversee them.”
Clashes with the Church Authorities
Even though Fox considered himself a religious reviver, most church leaders of his day in England considered him a revolutionist. He was a challenge to their authority, a disbeliever, a rebel, a renegade in their ranks. And that was true of all those who joined with Fox. The contrasts in belief between the church officials and early Friends were often
stark. For example:
- Where they declared the doctrine of human depravity,
– Early Friends proclaimed the possibility of human perfection.
- Where they declared the doctrine of the elect,
– Early Friends declared that all men, women, and children are elect.
- Where they believed that revelations were limited to a few individuals and had stopped hundreds of years ago,
– Early Friends believed that revelations were still occurring and that anyone could have such revelations from God.
- Where they believed in the supremacy of the Bible,
– Early Friends believed in the supremacy of the Inner Light.
- Where they upheld the sacraments as essential aspects of Christianity
– Early Friends considered them as substitutes for the one and only sacrament, a Christian life.
- Where they relied on the preaching of a single individual (a man), in their services,
– Early Friends maintained that all worshippers are potential ministers, including women and children.
- Where they utilized stained glass windows, an altar, and music to promote worship,
– Early Friends considered them deterrents to true worship.
- Where they depended upon a few church officials to make decisions for their congregations,
– Early Friends stressed the inclusion of all members of their groups in making decisions, including women and children.
Was it any wonder, then, that so many of the church leaders and their adherents clashed with Fox and his co-workers?
Clashes with the Political Authorities
Fox and his followers were also in disagreement with the political as well as with the religious authorities. Among the areas in which these two groups differed were the following:
- Where the political leaders demanded that all witnesses take an oath on the Bible to insure truthfulness,
– Early Friends refused to take such an oath, believing it contrary to the injunction not to swear, letting their yeas be yeas and their nays, nays.
- Where they required people to remove their hats in courts and before the Royalty as a sign of respect,
– Early Friends maintained that hats should be removed only in the presence of the Ultimate Authority — God.
- Where they relied upon war as a major means of settling disputes, and required all able-bodied men to enlist,
– Early Friends refused to take part in fighting.
- Where they limited severely the civil liberties of citizens,
– Early Friends worked strenuously to defend and extend civil liberties.
In the light of such challenges by Quakers to the existing political order, it is understandable that so many government officials condemned Fox and his followers and sought in various ways to curb their activities.
In seventeenth century England the Quakers were obviously not only a nuisance, they were a threat to the status quo, religiously and politically. Consequently they were attacked verbally and physically, beaten and stoned. Laws were passed against them and they were often imprisoned.
For example, the Conventicle Act in 1664 made it a crime for more than five persons to meet for worship in any type of service other than that of the Church of England. Because of that act and other stern measures, over 2000 Friends were in prison within a year of its passage. In 1681 there were at least 1000 Quakers in prison and in 1685, approximately 1400. And the prisons in which they were incarcerated were filthy, dank, windy, cold places, unfit for human habitation.
Yet most Friends were able to endure such persecutions and some even deepened their faith because of these tests of their convictions. Those in prison held services and preached to other inmates. And some of those outside the prisons petitioned the government to allow them to replace their fellow-sufferers in jails, although their requests were never granted.
There is even an account of the children of Reading holding meetings for worship while their parents were imprisoned.
To assist the Quaker prisoners, a Meeting for Sufferings was established — a term which continues today as the name for the executive body of London Yearly Meeting.
As the leader of this new movement, George Fox did not escape incarceration. Eight times he was sent to prison, spending six years in jails and prisons, under almost unbearable conditions.
Some Faults of Early Friends
Seventeenth century England was not marked by toleration or tact and early Friends did not always escape the spirit of that age. Despite their message of love and forgiveness, they could be uncompromising and unforgiving. What they considered certainty and conviction, others considered prejudice and fanaticism. In their fervor as new converts, they sometimes provoked opposition and encouraged persecution by their words and deeds.
Nor was Fox without fault in this respect. As Rufus Jones pointed out in his book on The Life and Message of George Fox:
Though usually humble and tender, he yet sometimes was over-conscious of his importance and he occasionally shared the tendency of his age to speak with an air of infallibility and finality. He felt undue satisfaction in the calamities which overtook his persecutors, though we should all admit that it is a very human trait.
Fox and His Co-Workers
Without doubt Fox was the dominant figure in this new movement. Despite his humble background and his lack of education, he was a religious genius. Dependent as this new movement was upon him for its message and its organization, the Religious Society of Friends would never have grown without a large group of conspicuous and able co-worker — ministers, missionaries, evangelists, who travelled far and wide in England and overseas, spreading the new gospel, or the old gospel revived.
Eventually they became known as The First Publishers of Truth or The Valiant Sixty, even though there were at least 66 of them and possibly more. They were from many walks of life, a majority of them farmers and small shopkeepers. A dozen of them were women, including Elizabeth Hooton, the first convert to Quakerism and its first minister [ed. note: Given that Hooten was much older and a well-grounded spiritual leader before she met Fox, it has been suggested that perhaps it was Fox who was, in fact, a first convert of Hooten’s. The central role of Quaker women in early Quaker movement has been systematically under-valued by Quaker historians and the editors of anthologies of early Friends writings.] They were also young men and women, most of them in their twenties or early thirties; a few in their late teens.
Often they travelled in pairs, to aid each other in times of trouble; to provide companionship on their lonely, difficult journeys; and to assist each other in the public ministry.
Fox once stated that “one man, raised by God’s power to stand and live in the same spirit the prophets and apostles were in, can shake the country for ten miles around.” Those itinerant ministers shook the countryside for far more than that distance.
In fact, they were so important that one chronicler of Quaker history, Sidney Lucas, has maintained that “The Quaker movement was primarily one of leaders.”
And Fox had a special gift, it appears, in encouraging and inspiring these co-workers who often possessed gifts he lacked.
The Fells of Swarthmore Hall
Also of great importance to this burgeoning movement were the Fells of Swarthmore Hall. [The Fells were] a wealthy and well-educated family who lived in a large and comfortable manor, the largest in the county of Ulverston, with 13 fireplaces and many servants.
Margaret Fell was an early convert to Quakerism. Her husband, Thomas Fell, never became an adherent, but he used his considerable influence as a judge and political leader to protect the Quakers.
Soon Swarthmore Hall became the unofficial headquarters of the new movement, with the traveling ministers often stopping there for physical and spiritual renewal.
In addition, Margaret Fell became the treasurer of the Quaker group. Then, in later life, after the death of Judge Fell, she became the wife of George Fox, and his co-worker. Often she is called The Mother of Quakerism.
Thus Swarthmore Hall became the hub of the Quaker world in England in the late seventeenth century — the first Quaker Center — the forerunner of Woodbrooke in England, and Pendle Hill, Quaker Hill, and Powell House, in the United States today.
The Importance of the Rank and File of Early Friends
Any movement depends in part upon the caliber of its prominent leaders. But any movement also depends upon its lesser known adherents. So it was with the early Quaker movement. Much of its vitality came from its common as well as its uncommon members, its inconspicuous as well as its conspicuous adherents, its private Friends as well as its public Friends.
Many of these lesser-known individuals discovered that they had been Friends long before they had heard of this new movement. For example, some of them belonged to the Familists, who practiced silence in their worship, rejected oaths and wars, and used only “the plain language.” Others were associated with the Particular Baptists who were opposed to compulsory tithing and paid preachers, and recognized women as well as men as ministers. Still others were from the Seekers, who no longer recognized the sacraments and believed that God revealed himself to people directly.
After examining carefully nearly all of the private Journals of early Friends and many other documents from that period, Howard Brinton reported in a Pendle Hill pamphlet on How They Became Friends, that:
…a careful scrutiny of early Quakerism shows that spectacular events did not constitute the heart and core of the movement. Its real strength lay in the quiet, inconspicuous growth of small meetings in many homes where sometimes as few as three or four waited upon God in silence until one of those present felt moved to speak…These small home-meetings constituted the seed-bed out of which the Quaker movement grew.
One of Quakerism’s most learned and gifted leaders, Robert
Barclay, described his own attraction to the movement in this way:
… I myself, in part, am a true witness, who not by strength of arguments, or a by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by this life; for when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more for this power and life…
Often there was extraordinary power in seemingly ordinary people, a power released by their new faith. And, as Fox recorded in his Journal, “The lives and conversations of Friends did preach.”
Membership was not instituted for 75 years, but it is estimated that there were around 30,000 Quakers in England a decade after the movement began.
The Quaker Movement Overseas
Soon the Publishers of Truth extended their visits to other parts of the world. Two women Friends went to the Barbados and thence to Boston. Others went to France and Holland. Three men and three women even set out to visit the Sultan of Turkey, although only one of them, Mary Fisher, was able to complete the journey and be received by the young ruler.
Eventually George Fox and his companions journeyed to Jamaica, the Barbados, several of the American colonies, and towhat is now The Netherlands and Germany.
Such trips were often long, difficult, and hazardous. Several of them resulted in persecutions for those undertaking them. A few even resulted in deaths. The four best known of those are the hanging of three English Friends and a Friend from the Barbados, in Boston.
But there were dangers lurking inside as well as outside the movement which threatened its existence. How does one control the excesses of ecstatic converts? How does one handle the uninhibited and obviously misdirected “leadings” of the Indwelling Spirit? How does one strike a balance between freedom and responsibility?
Some of these difficulties were brought to a dramatic and almost disastrous climax by a situation involving James Nayler, one of the most able and articulate of the early Publishers of Truth. Exhausted by his imprisonments and by the demands upon his leadership of the movement in London, Nayler succumbed to the suggestion of some of his adoring disciples that he recreate the scene of Jesus riding through the streets of Jerusalem while His followers hailed Him. Yielding to that idea, Nayler rode through the streets of Bristol in a kind of modern miracle play, while his followers flung their coats in his path, and chanted, “Holy, holy, holy.”
Quakers as well as non-Quakers were shocked by this incident. Nayler was arrested, imprisoned, and pilloried for blasphemy and the seduction of the people. He escaped the death penalty by a vote of Parliament of 96 to 82. [ed. note: Others have reported that he escaped the death penalty by only a single vote.] But his forehead was branded with the letter B, he was whipped publicly in London and Bristol, and his tongue bored through with a hot iron.
When Nayler was eventually released, he went to Fox and asked his forgiveness, which was grudgingly given. According to one of the most eminent of Quaker historians, Neave Brayshaw, that was “the only act of his (Fox’s) about which we are seriously grieved.”
One of the legacies from Nayler is the prayer he wrote shortly before his death. It reads in part:
There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it; for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God; its crown is meekness…
Soon thereafter Nayler died. In his account of The Valiant Sixty, Ernest Taylor calls Nayler “gifted, mistaken, repentant – one of the most beautiful spirits who ever lived.”
Fox’s Organization of the Religious Society of Friends
The effect of the Nayler incident on Fox was far-reaching. For a time it looked as if all he had worked for had been undone by this episode. Unchecked, the new movement could be strangled by such events.
He saw clearly that a way must be found to curb individual excesses. Consequently, in an extraordinary revelation or a stroke of genius, Fox decided to strengthen the organizational aspects of the movement and to temper individual leadings with group leadings.
Hence, much of his attention in the coming years was devoted to the organizational structure of the society, stressing the power of local groups or Monthly Meetings as Christian cells, caring communities, religious societies of Friends.
As the Swedish author and Quaker historian, Emilia Fogelklou Norlind, has written, Fox thereby relinquished the leadership of the Quaker movement and thus probably saved the Religious Society of Friends from eventual dissolution. In her words:
To a very considerable extent Fox gave up being the man of power, and in so doing saved Quakerism from the fate which threatens so many groups, namely: “Who can carry on the program when the original strong man is gone?”
More than almost any other religious leader, Fox therefore became the great organizer as well as the great interpreter of primitive Christianity revived.
Most of the sects in England in the seventeenth century eventually disappeared. But the Quaker movement survived because it had an organizational structure as well as a spiritual message.
Other Outstanding Leaders Join the Quaker Movement
Within a few years of the emergence of the Quaker movement in England, several other outstanding persons had joined its ranks, adding greatly to its power and its effectiveness. Particularly outstanding were Isaac Penington, Robert Barclay, and William Penn.
Their personalities, their interests, and their talents differed, but all of them came from prominent families and were men of unusual ability. They were all more sophisticated, more educated, and more reasonable than most of the people in their times, including Quakers. They were less aggressive, less given to confrontation, than many of the early leaders of the Quaker movement.
Isaac Penington’s father had been Lord Mayor of London and a friend of John Locke and John Milton. Isaac Penington became an expert on inward experience and mysticism, whose greatest contributions came through his public ministry, his remarkable letters, and his many publications. He was the literary, mystical interpreter of the new movement.
Robert Barclay was born in Scotland and was educated by both Calvinists and Catholics. His contacts with Quakers impressed him with their rare combination of inwardness and outwardness and he determined to devote himself to the furtherance of this unique way of life. He travelled widely in the ministry, became the governor of East Jersey (although he ruled through a resident deputy), and the expositor of Quaker theology. Despite his abhorence of Calvinist beliefs, he was a staunch defender of religious freedom for everyone.
Of all the early Quakers, William Penn is best known. He was a many-sided man, far ahead of his times. He was a champion of civil liberties (as in the famous Penn-Meade trial in England), the formulator of a plan for A Federation of Europe, a friend of Indians and other minority groups, an educator, a city planner, and the founder of the famed Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania. He was also an interpreter of religion, as in his Fruits of Solitude, No Cross, No Crown, and other writings. Each of these men was enriched by association with the Religious Society of Friends and each, in turn, enriched that expanding group.
The End of an Era
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Quaker movement had come to the end of its first half-century (1650-1700) and possibly the end of an era. Howard Brinton, the outstanding recent chronicler of Quakerism, referred to that age as the heroic or apostolic period.
Isaac Penington had died in 1679. Robert Barclay in 1690. And George Fox in 1691, at the age of 67, a ripe old age in those days, especially in view of the demands upon his body occasioned by his arduous travels, his years of inprisonment, and the many other types of persecution.
By the end of that century, the movement had grown to perhaps 50,000 adherents, some of them in the American colonies. It had survived despite much suffering and some dissensions. But it had done much more than that; it had added a new dimension to the Christian movement and helped to purify the church of its day.
Various names had been given to those early Friends, including The Children of the Light and The Publishers of Truth. But the official name had become The Religious Society of Friends. However, members of that group were increasingly called Quakers, a term originally used as one of derision, but one which came to represent respect.
In a remarkable way that early movement combined a number of strands, as indicated in the chart below:
Rationality & Education + Social Concern + Simplicity +
The Historic Christ & The Inner Christ + Equality +
The Bible + Evangelism & Missions
As we have pointed out in this chapter, there were roles for a variety of leaders, including women, and a special role for the rank and file.
But it was Fox who was the central figure. When he died, he uttered these final words: “I am clear, I am fully clear.” What a magnificent statement from that spiritual giant.
Writing about Fox, William Penn once said, “He was an original, being no man’s copy”. Or, again, “Many sons have done virtuously in this day, but, dear George, thou excellest them
Fox was the prophet and the organizer of this remarkable movement – a Quaker extraordinaire. But Fox is not just a Quaker; he is one of the great Christian leaders and interpreters of all times. Many of his insights and messages are timeless. He belongs to all those, anywhere and at any time, who seek God directly.
The eminent biblical scholar, historian of Christianity, and leading German Quaker, Emil Fuchs, maintained that Fox rather than Luther should be called The Prophet of the Reformation, because Luther’s youthful vision was clouded by his later compromises with the politicians of his day, whereas Fox’s youthful vision was never compromised.
Various non-Quaker historians and philosophers have commented favorably, and at times fulsomely, on the place of the Quaker movement in history. For example, William James, the American philosopher, wrote:
The religion which he (George Fox) founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of sham, it was a religion of veracity, rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.
Some Questions on Quakerism in the 17th Century
- What idea presented in this chapter strikes you most forcefully? Why?
- Which of the quotations cited in this chapter speak best to your condition? Why?
- How would you describe the personality of George Fox as presented here? How do you react to him as a person?
- How do you think an adviser of Fox today would handle his adolescent problems?
- Are there any of the statements in the right hand column on page 10 which you would have qualms in supporting. Why?
- In what respects does the Religious Society of Friends today, as you know it, differ from the movement in the 17th century?
- Do you think you would have joined the Quaker movement in its early days in England? Why? Why not?
A Reading List on Quakerism in the 17th Century
Five books on the history of Quakerism which are still in print are listed here as references. They vary in interpretations and in style. Each has its particular values. More serious students of Quakerism will want to consult other references, especially the Rowntree-Braithwaite-Jones series.
- Brinton, Howard. Friends for 300 Years. Harper and Brothers. 1952.
- Newman, Daisy. A Procession of Friends: Quakers in America. Doubleday. 1972. 460 pp. (Very little on the earliest period in England. More popular in style than the other volumes, written like a novel, concentrating on interesting episodes.)
- Russell, Elbert. The History of Quakerism. Macmillan, 1942. Reprinted in 1980 as a paperback by the Friends United Press.
- Trueblood, D. Elton. The People Called Quakers. Harper and Row, 1966. 298 pp. Reprinted by the Friends United Press as a paperback. 1971.
- Vipont, Elfrida. The Story of Quakerism Through Three Centuries. Friends United Press, 1977. 324 pp. (Originally printed in England by a British Friend. Especially good on the early periods of Quakerism.)
Some References on Outstanding Early Quakers
- Kenworthy, Leonard S., Robert Barclay Speaks. 8 pp. Also in Kenworthy’s Sixteen Quaker Leaders Speak.
- Trueblood, D. Elton. Robert Barclay. Harper, 1968.
- Brinton, Howard H. The Religion of George Fox. Pendle Hill Publications, 1968. 32 pp.
- Fahs, Sophia. George Fox – The Man Who Wouldn’t. Friends General Conference, 1971. 37 pp. For children.
- Jones, Rufus M. The Story of George Fox. 169 pp. Reprinted in 1966 by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
- Kenworthy, Leonard S. George Fox Speaks. 8 pp. leaflet. Also in Kenworthy’s Sixteen Quaker Leaders Speak.
- Kirk, Jack. The First Quaker. Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference, 1977. 13 sessions. (For junior high students.)
- Nickalls, John L. (ed.). Journal of George Fox. London Yearly Meeting, 1975.
- Norlind, Emilia Fogelklou. The Atonement of George Fox. Pendle Hill Publications, 1969. 31 pp. (Largely on the Naylor incident.)
- Vipont, Elfrida. George Fox and the Valiant Sixty. Hamish Hamilton, 1975.
Margaret Fell Fox
- Barbour, Hugh. Margaret Fell Speaking. Pendle Hill Publications, 1976. 32 pp.
- Kenworthy, Leonard S. Kenworthy, Penington Speaks. 8 pp. leaflet. Also in Kenworthy’s Sixteen Quaker Leaders Speak.
- Leach, Robert J. The Inward Journey of Isaac Penington: An Abbreviation of Penington’s Works. Pendle Hill Publications. 1975 reprint. 43 pp.
- Bronner, Edwin B. William Penn: 17th Century Founding Father: Selections from His Political Writings. Pendle Hill Publications, 1975. 36 pp.
- Kenworthy, Leonard S. William Penn Speaks. 8 pp.leaflet. Also in Kenworthy’s Sixteen Quaker Leaders Speak.
- Noble, Vernon. William Penn. Friends Home Service Committee (London). 1971. 32 pp.