George Fox — the Man

George Fox, and everyone else in England who met him, lived in a time when all the earlier certainties of social and personal life had been eroded, and still were being eroded. It was a period of intense flux, and much intolerance. The feudal system, which had regulated the relationships and responsibilities of each man and woman within the social structure, had largely evaporated. Less than a century before, the iron grip of the Catholic Church had been broken by Henry VIII. Allegiance to the Catholic or Protestant Churches had become literally a matter of life and death. The Protestant Churches were springing up in many different hues, each contesting with the others. It was an active phase in the long struggle by people, both high and low, to quench the authoritative power of the Church. One consequence was a proliferation of sects.

As a young man Fox and all his contemporaries had lived through the Civil War, and the execution of the supreme figure in the land, Charles I. This in turn was a reflection of the shift of administrative power from the ruling monarchy to a parliament of senior gentry throughout the country. During Fox's lifetime that took exaggerated form in the government led by Cromwell.

As part of the changes in the Churches, the Bible and the liturgy became available in the English language, and the development of printing made it possible for individual families to possess a copy, and soon even copies small enough to be carried about---Fox writes "I would get into the orchards and fields with my bible, by myself". What we regard as the landmark King James version was, in his early years, a very 'new English Bible' with all the attraction of freshness.

A crucial consequence of this was a search by many people for a revised source and sense of authority, especially at the intangible level of their spiritual lives. Fox responded from his own Experience of finding an inner authority, and he shared this with others by expressing it in Biblical terms.

It is important, however, to recognize that Fox did not use the Bible in the literal way like a present-day Christian 'fundamentalist'. Fox used his spiritual capability to be highly selective in the passages he quoted, and he strove to discern the purport of the ancient writers and the intention of their meaning. This is a quality that makes his use and quotation of the Bible of great value to us today, even engendering a greater appreciation of that Christian book.

A feature of Fox's speech and writing that a modern reader may find difficult is his criticism of the clergy---the "priests" he called them. Their function and role then, and their position in society, was very different from the way it is today. Because the Church was very closely linked to the government and authority of the country, it played an important part in the guidance and direction of the people. It was the law of the land that every person had to attend church services each week. These had to be held only in consecrated premises. Each household had to contribute in a material way to the Church, a system of tithes. The local clergy had a responsibility to report to the magistrates any failure in observing these laws.

At that time any member of a congregation was allowed to speak during the service after the priest had given his sermon. George Fox took advantage of this, and his ministry must often have infuriated the preacher. Because of that, and no doubt other reasons, priests roused the people to what can only be called mob-violence. Fox's Journal describes many occasions when he was severely treated. Nevertheless it was primarily the doctrinal and spiritual differences that led to Fox's criticism of the priests.

We cannot expect to find any open or explicit profession of Fox's mystical Experience in any document surviving from the seventeenth century. Although in some traditions it is regarded as the goal or high point of the spiritual life, in Christianity it has always been regarded as a blasphemy, which at that time was treated with the utmost severity.

Instead, we have to read between the lines of the records passed down to us, and to recognize the consequences and manifestations in Fox's life, character and teachings resulting from that Experience.