On winter mornings, while his father thumped away at his loom, and weak sunlight filtered through the many-paned windows of their shop in Drayton-on-the-Clay, George Fox learned how to read. His parents did not send him to school.
By the time he reached his late teens, George was glad he knew how to read. Everyone in his native Leicestershire had things to say how one should believe, which side one should take in the dispute between Parliament and the King, and how best to reform the Anglican church. George questioned them all. After his nineteenth birthday he left home for Northampton. He spent time with his uncle, a Baptist, and met “dreamers and prophets” of various descriptions. But none convinced him of speaking the clear truth. In his confusion and inner distress he talked with pastors and priests. One told him to start smoking tobacco and sing psalms to “get over it.” Another told him he should get himself bled. Finally George turned from them in disgust and began to read the Bible for himself.
“I fasted much,” he wrote, “and walked abroad in solitary places many days. I often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on. I walked mournfully about by myself in the night, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me.”
Little by little, as George read the Bible, a glimmer of understanding lit his soul. But no breakthrough occurred until it dawned on him that only one person, Christ Jesus, could tell him what to do and where to go. He began to listen to Christ, the Living Word, the Holy Spirit, speaking within him, and it dawned on him that the Spirit of Christ is a completely safe and reliable guide. Once he understood this, his heart “did leap for joy” and he knew he needed no more earthly guides or mediators, for the “seed of God” was within him.
With unspeakable joy, George praised God and knew for the first time that God loved him. He wrote:
When I came home, I was taken up in the love of God. I could not but admire the greatness of his love, opened unto me by the Eternal Light and power. Then I saw clearly that all was done, and to be done, in and by Christ, and how he conquers and destroys the tempter (the devil) and all his works. . . . I saw all was done by Christ and I believed in him. . . . My secret belief was established, and hope underneath held me like an anchor to the bottom of the sea. It anchored my immortal soul to Christ and caused it to swim above the sea (the world) where raging waves, bad weather, storms and temptations abound. . . . I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love that flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that I saw the boundless love of God, and I had great openings.
George Fox’s “openings” into the light and presence of God, soon affected all of England, especially the Seekers. Transformed from a troubled youth into a radiant witness of Christ, George spoke earnestly to them, and many were convinced. Besides this he entered churches, town halls, and market places—invited or not—to cry out a warning: “Seek the spirit and grace of God within you, and the light of Jesus in your hearts, so that you may know Christ, the free teacher. Seek him and he will bring you to salvation and open the Scriptures for you.”
Driven from one town with sticks and dogs George promptly reappeared in another. Thrown into jail, punched in the face, thrust into stocks and beaten with rods—the more he suffered for the cause of Christ the more he rejoiced in fellowship with him. On a climb to the top of Pendle Hill, a high point above the sea in Lancashire, George looked out over England and heard the call of Christ in 1652. In his journal he wrote what he sensed that to be:
I was to bring people off from Jewish ceremonies, and from heathenish fables, and from men’s inventions and windy doctrines, by which they blew the people this way and that, and from sect to sect. I was to bring them off their beggarly rudiments, with their schools and colleges for making ministers, and from all their images and crosses, their sprinkling of infants, their holy days (so called) and their vain traditions the Lord’s power was against. In his fear and authority I was moved to declare against them all, and against all who preached for hire. . . . There on top of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord, and the Lord let me see from the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.
The people who saw the light with George Fox gathered in congregations they called the “Society of Friends.” Within a few years their numbers grew from a handful of men and women to thousands upon thousands, in some regions the greater part of the population. Suddenly it was no longer George Fox alone, but hundreds of men and women who hurried through the British Isles and Europe, proclaiming the great day of the Lord. In his journal, George described many events like what happened at St. Mary’s church in Nottingham:
Now as I passed to Nottingham on a First Day in the morning with Friends to a meeting, when I came on top of a hill and looked upon the town, the great steeplehouse struck at my life when I spied it—a great and idolatrous temple. And the Lord said unto me, “Thou must go cry against yonder great idol, and against the worshippers therein.”
I said nothing of this to the Friends that were with me, but went on with them to the meeting, where the mighty power of the Lord God was amongst us. Then I left the Friends sitting in the meeting and went away to the steeplehouse. And when I came there, all the people looked like fallow ground, and the priest like a great lump of earth stood in his pulpit above. He took for his text these words of Peter: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts.” And he told the people that the Scriptures were the touchstone and judge by which they were to try all doctrines, religions, and opinions, and to end controversy.
Now the Lord’s power was so mighty upon me and so strong in me that I could not hold, but was made to cry out and say, “Oh no! It is not the Scriptures!” I was commanded to tell them it was the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the Scriptures, whereby opinions, religions, and judgements were to be tried, for it leads into all Truth, and so gives the knowledge of it.
I told them how the Jews had the Scriptures, yet resisted the Holy Ghost, and rejected Christ the bright morning star. I told them how they persecuted Christ and his apostles, and took it upon themselves to try the apostles’ doctrine by the Scriptures, but how they erred in their judgement, and did not try them aright because they tried them without the Holy Ghost.
Now, as I spoke thus amongst them, the officers came and took me away and put me into prison, a pitiful stinking place where the wind brought in all the stench of the privy. . . . But that day the Lord’s power sounded so in their ears that they were amazed at the voice and could not get it out of their ears. . . . And the head sheriff and his wife and all their family were wrought upon by the power of the Lord to believe in the Truth.
On the weekend of Pentecost, 1652, George Fox spoke to a large congregation of Seekers in Sedbergh, Yorkshire (around a thousand people). Their leader Francis Howgill and a great number of others became convinced Friends. From here he travelled through the Pennines and Westmoreland to Dolgelly, in Wales. There two priests insisted that Christ the man—not the Spirit of Christ—is the one that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. About this event George Fox wrote:
I took a Bible and let them see that created and natural lights are the sun, the moon, the stars, and the elements. But the true light to which John bore witness is Christ the Word, by whom all things were created. He is the light in man and woman, the true light that enlightens every man that comes into the world. He is the divine light from heaven that lets them see their evil words and deeds. . . . This light shines in the darkness of their hearts and the darkness cannot comprehend it. But where God commands it to shine out of the darkness of their hearts, it gives them the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus their Saviour.
So I opened the Scriptures to them and turned them to the spirit of God in their hearts that would reveal the Scriptures to them and lead them into their complete truth. I turned them to that which gives every one the knowledge of the Saviour who died for them—the Saviour who is their way to God and who makes peace between them and God.
The people received our words and with hands uplifted blessed and praised God, and the priests were quiet all the while. So I brought them to be sober, that when they spoke of the things of Christ their Saviour they might speak of them with reverence and fear.
In “a little paper to people in the dark” George wrote:
The mighty day of the Lord is coming . . . when the secrets of everyone’s heart shall be revealed with the light of Jesus who lighteneth every man that cometh into the world. . . . If you hate this light it will be your condemnation. If you love and come to it, you will separate yourselves from the world with its teachers and ways of deception, to learn of Christ who is the way to the Father.
In a letter to Friends, George wrote:
So all my friends that be to the light turned—Christ Jesus the Saviour of your souls—stand still in the light. There you will see your salvation. Waiting in the light you will receive the power of God that is the Gospel of peace. Shod with that Gospel, you will know that in one another which raiseth up the seed of God and sets it over the world and the earth to crucify its affections and lusts. Then Truth will reign and encircle everything. All friends be low, and stay in the life of God. . . .
Friends, though you may have tasted of the power and been convinced and have felt the light, yet afterwards you may feel winter storms, tempests, and hail, and be frozen in frost and cold and a wilderness and temptations. Be patient and still in the power and light that doth convince you. Be quiet in it, so you may come to the summer, and so your flight be not in the winter.
If you remain still in patience that overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flight. The farmer, after he hath sown his seed, is patient.
The power and the light will let you see through the winter’s storms. It will let you see beyond all coldness, barrenness, and emptiness. And the same light and power will go over the tempter’s head. Standing still in the light you will see the Lord’s strength. You will feel the small rain . . . In the power and light God will reveal his secrets to you. He will inspire you and present you with gifts that will fill your hearts with his love.
All men and women who became convinced Friends recognised one another as equals. They also looked at unbelievers and enemies as equals in the sight of God: “All are sinners but all may repent and come to the light. . . . There is that of God within all men.” For this reason the Friends did not pay special honours to the rich and powerful. Nor did they despise the poor. They refused to take off their hats to anyone, but insisted on showing kindness and respect to all. In their meetings all had equal liberty to speak.
In straight-forwardness and simplicity the Friends did not use the plural “you” to address one another (a form of verbal honour). They spoke to all in the singular “thee” and “thou.” Not infrequently this earned them a fist in the mouth, or even imprisonment. George Fox found himself in jail eight times, once in Cornwall’s notorious Doomsday dungeon without windows or toilet facilities, and once in Lancaster for a two and a half years. But following the gentle voice of Christ, the Friends refused to defend themselves or resist their captors. George Fox wrote:
Stay away from conspiracies, from mobs, and self defence, all of whom are to be found among Adam’s fallen sons who destroy men’s lives like dogs and beasts and swine—goring, rending, and biting one another, destroying one another and wrestling with flesh and blood. From whence come wars and murders but from lust?
Now all this appears among the descendants of Adam who fell. From the Adam who never fell comes peace and life. You are called to peace. Follow it, for peace comes from Christ, not from Adam who fell. All who think they fight for Christ are deceived, for his kingdom is not of this world. His servants do not fight. Fighters don not come from Christ’s kingdom but from without it, for his kingdom stands in peace and righteousness. Fighters act with lust, and all who destroy men’s lives do not have the mind of Christ who came to save men’s lives.
All who confess Christ yet use carnal weapons, wrestle with flesh and blood and throw away weapons of the Spirit. They throw Christ’s doctrine away and act in the flesh because they are tired of suffering. All who take revenge on others, all who do not turn the second cheek when struck on the first, and all who fail to love their enemies, stand outside of Christ.
This I charge you: Live in peace. Live in Christ, the way to peace, and seek the peace of all men in him. As I said before, among Adam’s fallen race there is no peace. But you are descendants of the Adam who never fell. In him is peace. In him it is love that overcomes, not hatred with hatred, nor strife with strife. Therefore live the peaceable life. Do good to all men and seek the welfare of all.
Moved by Christ to return good for evil, the Friends did so, even if they gained no earthly advantage. George Fox wrote:
Christ who commanded us that we shall not swear at all (Matt. 5:34) hath also commanded us that we shall not kill (Matt. 5:21). So we neither kill men, nor swear for nor against them. This is both our principle and practice, and hath been from the beginning, so if any suspect us of preparing to take up arms or make war, it is without any basis in fact. We have no such plans nor have we ever had any, for that would be contrary to the Spirit of Christ. It would be contrary to his doctrine as well as to the practice of his apostles. It would be totally contrary to him for whom we suffer and endure all things.
Men come against us with clubs, staves, and drawn swords. They come with pistols cocked, to beat, cut and abuse us, yet we have never resisted them. On the contrary, we have offered them our hair, our backs, and our cheeks.
Consider these things, ye men of understanding. Those who plot and raise insurrections, the tumultuous ones, and those who fight with swords, clubs, staves, and pistols one against another are of the world. But the Lamb hath redeemed us from the unrighteous world and we are not of it. We are heirs of a world in which there is no end and of a kingdom where no corruptible thing enters. Our weapons are not carnal but spiritual, mighty through God to the pulling down of Satan’s strongholds.
Satan is the author of wars, fighting, murder, and conspiracies. But our swords are broken into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks, as prophesied in Micah 4. Therefore we cannot learn war any more, neither can we rise up with outward weapons, though you have numbered us among the transgressors and conspirators.
Out of prison in 1671, George Fox set out on a long difficult voyage to Barbados and Jamaica. Off the coast of Cuba he nearly perished in a storm at sea. Travelling through the Carolinas to Virginia he held fascinating meetings with North American Indians, and from there found his way through Maryland to New York and New England. Everywhere he pointed men, including black slaves and Indians, to the light of Christ within them. In his journal he wrote:
On the 25th of the 9th month we passed down the River Maratick [Roanoke River] in a canoe, and went down Cone-oak Bay [now Edenton Bay, North Carolina] to a captain’s house who was loving and lent us his boat, for we were much wet in the canoe. The water came upon us in waves, and when we came to the governor’s house, the boat being deep and the water shallow, it would not swim. I had to take off my shoes and stockings and wade through the water a fair distance to the governor’s house, who with his wife received us lovingly. And there was a doctor that did dispute with us, which was of great service and an occasion of opening to many people, concerning the Light and Spirit of Christ.
The doctor denied that all men have this Light within them. So I called an Indian and asked him when he lied, or treated another unlike he would want to be treated, if there was not something in him that reproved him for it. The Indian said, yes, there was such a thing in him. He said he feld ashamed when he did such things. So we proved the doctor wrong in the sight of the governor and all the people.
After his two years in America, George Fox found situations still growing worse in Europe. By 1686 around one thousand four hundred Friends lay in English jails. But his confidence in Christ and his Kingdom could not be moved. When not visiting friends, writing, or encouraging the brothers in his London home, he travelled to the Netherlands and Germany to make contact with more who sought the Truth.
In his final years, George Fox suffered from failing health—no doubt due to his travels and harsh imprisonments. He regretted his loss of strength and mobility, but of his life’s work and of the Society of Friends he had no regrets. Shortly before his death he wrote:
This we can say to the whole world: We have wronged no man’s person or possessions. We have used no force nor violence against any man. We have been found in no plots, nor guilty of sedition. When we have been wronged, we have not sought to revenge ourselves. We have not made resistance against authority, but wherein we could not obey for conscience’ sake we have suffered, no doubt the most of any people in this nation. We have been accounted as sheep for the slaughter, persecuted and despised, beaten, stoned, wounded, stocked, whipped, imprisoned, haled out of synagogues, cast into dungeons and noisome vaults where many have died in bonds, shut up from our friends, denied needful sustenance for many days together, with other like cruelties. And the cause of all this our sufferings is not for any evil, but for things relating to the worship of God and in obedience to his requirings of us, for which cause we shall freely give up our bodies a sacrifice, rather than disobey the Lord. For we know, as the Lord hath kept us innocent, so he will plead our cause, when there is none in the earth to plead it. So we in obedience unto his Truth, do not love our lives unto death, that we may do his will, and wrong no man in our generation, but seek the good and peace of all.
On the thirteenth day of the first month, 1691, (Friends did not use the names of weekdays and months because of their pagan significance) George Fox died in London. An eye-witness recorded the meeting held in the Friends’ meetinghouse at Whitehart Court on the day of his burial:
A very great concourse of Friends and other people of divers sorts assembled together. . . . The meeting was held about two hours with great and heavenly solemnity, manifestly attended with the Lord’s blessed presence and glorious power. . . . After the meeting was ended, his body was borne and accompanied by very great numbers of people
to the Friends’ burying ground where after a solemn waiting upon the Lord and several testimonies borne concerning him, his body was decently committed to the earth.
George Fox had worked with singular effect in England and abroad through many years. But when he departed the Lord’s work continued without a hitch. He had built no hierarchy under himself. No leadership conflict developed after his passing because he had never been the “head” of the Society of Friends. All he had been was a member of the body of Christ, faithfully pointing to him.
Main source: Nickalls, John L. (editor) The Journal of George Fox, Society of Friends, London, 1975