George Fox and His Journal
by Wilbur Edwin Henry
Chatham Summit Meeting
The Journal of George Fox reveals George to be a Christian Puritan, a biblical literalist whose beliefs easily align with modern Fundamentalist literalism. He believes in witchcraft and faith healing and he was a conduit for that healing. He expelled “witches” from meetings. He is skeptical of science and bloodletting medicine. He describes visions. He writes frequently of divine retribution exacted here on earth.
From the Midlands of England, he had no university training. A weaver’s son and apprentice of tradesmen, as a youth and later in life he reports deriving income from cattle and sheep trading.
Young George (he preferred George) was a prodigy of scripture. He became disenchanted with the worldliness of the “priests,” as he calls paid clergy and “professors,” i.e. lay ministers. He finds many money-obsessed and subject to vice.
His epiphany was that each and every person is infused with the living Jesus Christ equally. Scriptures reinforce his conviction and he wields them with uncommon familiarity. He believes the Truth was always known in him and so is known in every person, Christian or not, man or woman. The Holy Spirit makes us all equals in the eyes of God. All must be truly loved. He rejects his contemporaries’ hierarchical and exclusionary religions. In this, we recognize the faith we Friends strive to practice today.
It is important to understand the world of George’s ministry. Christians and Muslims were still in ferocious, crusading wars on the European continent. Muslim domination of Western Europe was not a remote prospect. The Ottoman siege of Vienna was broken only as late as 1683, one year after the founding of Philadelphia by our Friend, William Penn. Muslim pirates from North Africa were a powerful maritime menace. George reports being chased unsuccessfully by a Muslim pirate when he journeyed to North America in 1672. Slave trading and the African Diaspora were accelerating. War and atrocity were widespread, and precious few enjoyed freedom from them.
Bitter and bloody civil war divided England. George’s “professors” were usually loyal to militant Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell. “Common prayer men” were devoted to the Church of England. There were a smaller but significant number of Roman Catholics, reviled by Puritans and the Church of England alike. These wars were horrific, genocidal affairs, and perceived enemies were easily convicted and executed by gruesome hangings, burnings, and quarterings. Though charged and facing death many times, George’s resolve to remain non-political saved him from execution and the movement grew and spread worldwide under both Parliamentarian and Royalist regimes when life was very cheap.
George ministered against paid clergy. George cites Matthew 10:8, “…freely ye have received, freely give.” Churches he calls “steeple houses,” and he does not accept the sanctity of buildings. He entered “steeple houses” at first day services, waited for the priests to finish their sermons, then rose to deliver his epiphanies to the congregations and priests. He explained the Truth: that the true Teacher comes from within, not from the pulpit. He was beaten frequently and savagely, arrested and imprisoned.
Through this dangerous time George managed to earn the respect of both soldiers and constables. Hostile magistrates issued warrants for his arrest with intentions of killing him, but when the constables had conveyed him to the issuing authorities, sometimes after days of walking, they, the constables, often compellingly advocated for George’s safety. Jailers, initially cruel, often turned loving. On one occasion, Cromwellian authorities sought to press his fellow prisoners into military service. The prisoners, surely some veterans, agreed to serve as soldiers if George was made their commander. He refused. That refusal later served as evidence in his favor when he was accused by officials of the returned King. Perhaps no example of his appeal to men of arms is more impressive than his meeting with the militarily talented Oliver Cromwell. George, incarcerated, was accused of declaring against Cromwell when “Oliver Protector” agreed to meet him. After a long conversation, Cromwell released him, pronounced him a true Christian, and cleared him of all charges.
Our early Friends were not passive in spreading the egalitarian ideal. They did so with evangelical zeal. The Quaker insistence on equal treatment for all went so far as to use the informal “thou” rather than the formal “you” when addressing those who perceived themselves as superiors. This became a very serious matter in hierarchical mid-17th Century England. It was intensely disrespectful to refer to one’s betters as “thou” (subjective) or “thee” (objective). It may be the reason “thou” is no longer part of the English language. It was simply too appalling to be addressed informally by those considered lesser beings but was marginally tolerable to address underlings with the formal and respectful “you.” Nor would Friends doff their hats, nor engage in obsequious banter, e.g. “your servant…” etc., all considered extraordinarily rude by English society at that time.
Philadelphia is the birthplace of our nation. After many hard fought arguments, some ongoing, and a ferocious civil war, the equality of all souls is a basic tenet of today’s United States Constitution. The self-evident rights of all people are in direct accordance with George Fox’s ministry. The freedom from religious oppression, codified in the First Amendment, that no person be forced to celebrate a faith opposed to one’s conscience, was drawn directly from Charter of Privileges, written by Our Friend, and George’s devoted follower, William Penn. The Liberty Bell was cast in commemoration of the Charter’s fiftieth anniversary and bears the inscription from Leviticus 25:10: “…proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Our primary Law, today’s Constitution, mandates equality for each person. That makes all Americans who abide by our law and believe in this equality, Quakers.
Please read The Journal of George Fox.