On 13th January George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, is commemorated. His is a story of searching for an authentic faith, one true to what he read in the Bible, one which helped his life to make sense. George lived in a turbulent time and suffered imprisonment eight times on account of his challenging of the status quo but he still managed to spread his message throughout England and into Europe and America.
George Fox, whom we commemorate today, was born in 1624 to a weaver who lived in Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. No one seems to know if he went to school but he claimed at the age of 11 that he knew pureness and righteousness so presumably was able to read the Bible. There had been a lot of disagreement about the wisdom of having the Bible available for ordinary people to read but by the time George was born the King James Version was 13 years old.
George was sent as an apprentice to the local shoemaker when he was 11 years old. He also worked as a shepherd for some of the time. George’s father was a Puritan and George went to church regularly with his parents but something seemed to be missing in his experience of Christian faith. At the age of 18 or 19 he began to wander as a travelling shoemaker, but also to seek out priests and pastors to try to find the answers he wanted. The more ritualistic religion of the Church of England or the simple and austere version offered by the Puritans didn’t seem to be what George was looking for.
It is said that George knew the Bible so well that had all Bibles in the world been destroyed the book could have been recreated with his help. George was looking for people who lived according to what the Bible he knew so well actually said. The priests and so on seemed to have a lot of head knowledge but not be connected with God. He records in his journal what happened in 1647:
‘And when all my hopes in them and all men were gone. . . 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.’
He later climbed up Pendle Hill in northern England and saw in a vision “a great people to be gathered.” He came to the conclusion that God lives in each person and that the qualification for being a minister of the Gospel was not university education but was the Inner Light given to individuals by God. He considered the churches of the time to be corrupt.
He travelled widely, preaching to anyone who would listen to him. He told the people that Jesus would teach them what they needed to know directly. During his travels he came across a group of Christians who are sometimes called the ‘Westmoreland Seekers’. They met to worship without the help of priests and in their meetings would listen to anyone who felt moved to speak by the Holy Spirit. Having been interviewed by the elders of this group, he became their spiritual leader. The group was first called Publishers of Truth and then the Religious Society of Friends, taken from John 15:15 where Jesus told His followers, “I have called you FRIENDS, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” They gained the nickname Quakers because one of George’s opponents picked this up from a sermon of his where George told the people that they should ‘quake in the sight of the Lord.’ This happened in 1650.
George made no secret of his opinion of the churches of the time. He was against tithes, taking oaths and doing military service. His own pacifism became accepted by all Quakers. George would not bow or doff his cap to anyone of superior rank socially. He believed all people were created equal in God’s sight and so accepted that women and children could speak at his meetings. There was little point striving to rise above others in society as all are equal, so this encouraged Quakers to live relatively simple lives. As a result of this challenging of authority he was imprisoned eight times including in Nottingham in 1649, Derby 1650-1, Launceston in Cornwall in 1656, Lancaster in 1660, Worcester in 1673.
In the mid 1650s the Quaker movement spread to Bristol, London and the south of England. This was the period of Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector of England. He interviewed George Fox in 1655 and was impressed by him. For much of the time of the Commonwealth he could preach freely. However, there was no guarantee of safety. Many Quakers were imprisoned for causing disturbances in local areas.
When the Protectorate fell in 1659 George even hoped that the Society of Friends would replace the Church of England as the main Christian group in the country. The restoration of the monarchy dashed his hopes and his group was associated with other sects as possible enemies of the state where the king was a Catholic. At this time George preached against alcohol, theatres and maypole dancing which had reappeared after suppression during the Commenwealth.
George travelled to the West Indies and parts of the American colonies to spread his message. He also went to Ireland, Holland and Germany. Other Quakers travelled as missionaries too. The first of these to reach America were Mary Fisher and Ann Austin who arrived in 1656. They were not welcomed by the Puritan authorities and promptly deported to Barbados. Other Quakers were made very welcome in Rhode Island where around a half the population was Quaker at one time. Meanwhile persecution in Massachusetts became worse and worse. Quakers were whipped from town to town as they were pulled behind carts. They had hot irons put through their tongues and their ears cut off. Eventually they were subject to the death penalty if they returned after being banished. When George Fox arrived in 1671 with a group of twelve others he was able to travel up and down the Atlantic Seaboard preaching and teaching.
George lived the last fifteen years of his life in London where he lodged with other Quakers. When he died in 1691 he was not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Instead he was buried in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground which was specifically for Dissenters and Quakers. In the same graveyard lie John Bunyan and William Blake.
George Fox was ahead of his time in many ways. He believed in an egalitarian Christianity where no one would be oppressed due to their class, or race or gender. He became convinced that Jesus is with us here and now and can guide and empower those who open themselves to listen. He saw that being a Christian is not a matter of joining a certain church or doing something religious but is the living of a life transformed by an encounter with Jesus. He saw the Church as neither a building nor a hierarchical system but simply the community formed by people in whom Christ lives. Those who minister in the Church are called by Christ and are there to serve and to demonstrate the reality of Christ.
I’ll let George himself have the last word:
“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; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor