George Fox (1624-1691) is widely regarded as the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Fox was raised in the Anglican Church but was dissatisfied with his spiritual growth. At the age of 19, he left home to wander the English countryside in search of a greater spiritual understanding. In 1647, Fox reported that he heard God speak to him, an event which radically changed his beliefs about man's relationship with God.
Although other religious dissenters were emerging at the time, Fox is generally credited with starting the Quaker movement. In 1652 after receiving a vision that allowed him to "see in what places he had a great people to be gathered", he came across groups of Seekers whom he convinced in such numbers that they provided the effective start to the movement.
Fox was born in July 1624 in Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. His father, Christopher Fox, a church warden known as righteous Christer, was a weaver. He himself was apprenticed to a shoemaker. From about the age of 19, as the English Civil War was developing, he began wandering on a personal religious quest, in the course of which he received what he called "openings" of personal revelation, "the Light". Around 1646/47 he began to "declare truth", engaging in preaching. Once the Civil War was over, there was considerable freedom for nonconformist preaching. Nevertheless his activities resulted in imprisonments in Nottingham, where he had interrupted a church service, and Derby, where he was imprisoned for nearly a year because of the nature of his preaching. These did nothing to deter him.
Preaching "the Truth"
In 1651 Fox was in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, where he found groups of religious and political radicals, and convinced others, establishing several Meetings which worshipped in the Quaker manner, there and in West Yorkshire. In 1652 he went up Pendle Hill on the Lancashire border, and later recorded, "I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see a-top of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered."
He later went into Lancashire where he encountered various groups of Seekers, whom he succeeded in unifying with his own movement. Here, as in Yorkshire, he recruited future Quaker leaders and preachers, and he also met and "convinced" Margaret Fell, the wife of Assize Judge Thomas Fell. Their house, Swarthmoor (or Swarthmore) Hall, provided a stable centre for later mission work.
Fox had met with James Nayler during his travels in Yorkshire, and Nayler subsequently what he heard as a direct call from God which led him to joing up with Fox. Within a short time he was seen, at least by non-Quakers, as Fox's equal in the Quaker movement and this balance continued until the events which led to Nayler's disgrace in 1656. Between them, in 1654 they organised a great missionary effort, with many Quaker ministers going out from the north over the whole of England. Fox himself was part of this effort, and his life became a succession of journeys and imprisonments. As numerous Quaker meetings came to be established, he also had to spend more time in work to hold the movement together, sending out many letters and calling occasional "general meetings".
In 1655, during the Protectorate, Fox was arrested in Leicestershire and taken to London, where eventually he had a meeting with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. According to Fox's Journal, they had a long conversation on matters of religion, after which he was released. After that London became his base of operations.
Fox was in prison in Launceston in Cornwall when the behaviour of Nayler and his supporters began to disrupt the Quaker movement, and to be a scandal to it, because he did nothing to restrain the excessive and demonstrative adulation he received. The two eventually had an unpleasant confrontation in Exeter, where Nayler was imprisoned. Fox then returned to London, and Nayler, who was released from prison in Exeter shortly afterwards, entered Bristol in a manner widely considered blasphemous, resulting in his arrest. After Nayler's trial and condemnation by Parliament, Fox's position as leader of the movement was unassailable, despite later challenges by John Perrot and in the 1670s by Wilkinson and Story.
After the return of Charles II in 1660 the enactment and enforcement of penal laws against religious dissent led to systematic persecution which put a stop to the rapid growth of the Quaker movement. Fox suffered his longest imprisonment, of 31 months, in 1664-66, first in Lancaster then in Scarborough. On emerging from this, he was left as the only prominent member of the original leadership.
It had become apparent that the movement was not going to sweep the country, and in 1667 Fox realised that it had to become an organisation. His Journal records: "And the Lord opened to me and let me see what I must do, and how I must order and establish the Men's and Women's Monthly and Quarterly Meetings in all the nation, and write to other nations, where I came not, to do the same." The work took him around the country. There was a certain amount of opposition to this imposition of discipline, but it enabled the survival of the movement, when other sects dwindled away.
In 1669 Fox married Margaret Fell whose first husband had died in 1658. For the most part he continued to be based in and around London, while she lived in the north at Swarthmoor Hall. In 1671-73 he visited the West Indies and the American "plantations". In his absence, disputes had sprung up, and these eventually led to what became known as the Wilkinson-Story separation, which was not resolved until after his death. He continued to be active for a while, but came to spend more time in the London area, in a state of poor health. He died in 1691 and was buried in Bunhill Fields.
Fox produced many letters, pamphlets and books, many of them dictated rather than written with his own hand. His Journal, the only one now widely read, was published after his death, edited by Thomas Ellwood.
Appearance and character
Fox was taller than average height, strongly built, and resilient. His appearance was striking because he wore leather breeches and doublet, and grew his hair long, this being the royalist (cavalier) fashion, rather than the more puritan one. In later life his face, body and hands became swollen, probably due to some medical condition. His eyes were often mentioned as being disturbing. William Penn in his preface to the published version of Fox's Journal wrote of him: "The most aweful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer."
Fox's latest biographer attempts no overall description of his character. Among his contemporaries he usually excited either respect and affection or hatred.
- Braithwaite W.C., The Beginnings of Quakerism. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press. 1955. Ingle, H. Larry, First Among Friends. Oxford University Press. 1994
- Hoare, Richard. Balby Beginnings: the launching of Quakerism. Sessions of York. 2002
- The Journal of George Fox. ed J.l.Nickalls. Cambridge University Press.1952
- Hill, C. The Experience of Defeat. Faber and Faber 1984
- Ingle, H Larry, First Among Friends: George Fox and the creation of Quakerism. Oxford University Press. 1994
- Journal, ed Nickalls, p511
- Journal ed Nickalls, p xliv
- e g Ingle p 139