Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Fox, George
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FOX, George (1624-1690), the founder of the “Society of Friends” or “Quakers,” was born at Drayton, Leicestershire, in July 1624. His father, Christopher Fox, called by the neighbours “Righteous Christer,” was a weaver by occupation; and his mother, Mary Lago, “an upright woman and accomplished above most of her degree,” came of a family that had suffered much in former days of religious persecution. Both were members of the Church of England, and took great pains in the training of their children. George from his childhood “appeared of another frame than the rest of his brethren, being more religious, inward, still, solid, and observing beyond his years;” and he himself declares, “When I came to eleven years of age I knew pureness and righteousness; for while a child I was taught how to walk to be kept pure.” Some of his relations wished that he should be educated for the church; but his father, after he had barely learned to read and write, lost no time in apprenticing him to a certain shoemaker, who also dealt in wool and cattle. In this service he remained till his nineteenth year, and acquired some proficiency in all the branches of his master's somewhat miscellaneous business; according to Penn, “He took most delight in sheep,” but he himself simply says, “A good deal went through my hands. . . . People had generally a love to me for my innocency and honesty.” In 1643, being upon business at a fair, and having accompanied some friends to the village public-house, he was deeply scandalized by a proposal to “drink healths,” and abruptly withdrew in great grief of spirit. “When I had done what business I had to do I returned home, but did not go to bed that night, nor could I sleep, but sometimes walked up and down, and sometimes prayed and cried to the Lord, who said unto me, ‘Thou seest how young people go together into vanity and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, both young and old, and keep out of all, and be a stranger unto all.’ Then, at the command of God, on the ninth day of the seventh month, 1643, I left my relations and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with old or young.” Thus briefly he describes what appears to have been the greatest moral crisis in his life. Of the four years which followed — the “times of the first workings of the Lord in him” — he has left but a confused account. They were on the whole years of great perplexity and distress, though sometimes “I had intermissions, and was sometimes brought into such a heavenly joy that I thought I had been in Abraham's bosom.” He did not continue for many months to adhere to the letter of the command he believed himself to have received; he soon began to have some misgivings as to the propriety of his action in having forsaken his relations, and, apparently without waiting for any new revelation, he ultimately conceded so much to the claims of natural affection as occasionally to visit those whom he had formerly thought it his duty to leave. Still, throughout this period his wanderings were very numerous, and covered a very wide area. He would go from town to town, “travelling up and down as a stranger in the earth, which way the Lord inclined my heart; taking a chamber to myself in the town where I came, and tarrying sometimes a mouth, more or less, in a place;” and the reason he gives for this migratory habit is that he was “afraid both of professor and profane, lest, being a tender young man, he should be hurt by conversing much with either.” The same fear often led him to shun all society for days at a time; but frequently he would apply to “professors” for spiritual direction and consolation. These applications, however, never proved successful; he invariably found that his advisers “possessed not what they professed.” Some recommended marriage, others enlistment as a soldier in the civil wars; one “ancient priest” bade him take tobacco and sing psalms; another of the same fraternity, “in high account,” advised physic and blood-letting. About the beginning of 1646 his thoughts began to take more definite shape; or, as he himself expresses it, he began to receive more revelations. For example, as he was one day approaching the gate of Coventry, “the Lord opened to him” that none were true believers but such as were born of God and had passed from death unto life; and this was soon followed by other “openings” to the effect that “being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ,” and that “God who made the world did not dwell in temples made with hands.” “I had also great openings concerning the things written in the Revelations.” He also experienced deeper manifestations of Christ within his own soul. “When I myself was in the deep, shut up under all [the burden of corruptions], I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how He was tempted by the same devil, and overcame him and bruised his head, and that through Him, and His power, light, grace, and spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in Him; so He it was that opened to me, when I was shut up and had no hope nor faith. Christ, who had enlightened me, gave me His light to believe in; He gave me hope which He Himself revealed in me; and He gave me His spirit and grace, which I found sufficient in the deeps and in weakness.” With the knowledge he had thus received, Fox, towards the end of the year 1647, felt himself constrained to begin the work of his life as an itinerant preacher, the positive element in his teaching being to the effect that men ought to give sincere and earnest heed to the inner light the light of Christ which God had placed in every human heart. The scenes of his early labours and early successes were in the neighbourhood of Dukinfield and Manchester, where he had “great openings and prophecies,” and succeeded in establishing his influence over a considerable number of followers. From this date his creed grew rapidly in point of explicitness, especially on its negative and practical sides. For example, in 1648 it was revealed to him by the inner light that he was not to take off his hat to any person, high or low; that he was to use in addressing any single individual of whatever rank no other pronouns than the simple “thou” and “thee”; that he was not to bid people good morning or good evening; and that he was not to “bow or scrape with his leg to any one.” Increasingly persuaded of the truth and importance of his message, he daily became bolder in the delivery of it. In the year 1649, as he was walking towards Nottingham on a first-day morning accompanied by some friends, he heard the bell of the “steeple house” of the city, and was admonished by an inward voice to go forward and cry against the great temple and the worshippers in it. Entering the church he found the preacher engaged in expounding the words, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy,” from which the ordinary Protestant doctrine of the supreme authority of Scripture was being enforced in a manner which appeared to Fox so defective or erroneous as to call for his immediate and most energetic protest. Lifting up his voice against the preacher's doctrine, he declared that it is not by the Scripture alone, but by the divine light by which the Scriptures were given, that doctrines ought to be judged. The result of the disturbance which not unnaturally ensued was that he was seized by the constables and carried otf to prison, where he was detained for some time, and from which he was released only by the favour of the sheriff, whose sympathies he had succeeded in enlisting. A similar adventure at Derby ended less favourably. For raising a discussion which seemed not unlikely to end in a breach of the peace in the church there, he was brought before the magistrates, and after examination, committed along with one of his comrades to the house of correction as a blasphemer; and not till the beginning of 1651, after he had been a prisoner for almost a year, did he succeed in regaining his freedom. It would be here out of place to follow with any minuteness the details of his subsequent imprisonments, such as that at Carlisle in 1653, at London in 1654, at Launceston 1656, at Lancaster in 1660 and again in 1663, at Scarborough in 1666, and at Worcester in 1674. They are related with a certain monotony, which is yet far from being tedious or uninteresting, in the Journal, fortunately an easily accessible book. Suffice it to say that during these terms of imprisonment his pen was not idle, as is amply shown by the very numerous letters, pastorals, and exhortations which have been preserved by his followers; while during his intervals of liberty he was unwearied in the work of preaching and making disciples. While his labours were for the most part confined to the midland and northern counties of England, he found time in 1657 for a tour through Scotland, which, in his opinion, was not altogether without result. In 1669 he married the widow of a Welsh judge, Margaret Fell, who, with her family, had been among his earliest converts; but almost immediately afterwards his proselytizing ardour impelled him to proceed alone to Barbados, Jamaica, and the American continent. In all places visited by him there he met with a good reception, and was successful in making many converts. Shortly after his return in 1673 he was, as has been already noted, apprehended in Worcestershire for attending meetings that were forbidden by the law. He was ultimately set at liberty on account of errors in the indictment which had been drawn up against him, but this was not until after he had suffered a captivity of nearly fourteen months. In 1677 he visited Holland along with his followers Barclay and Penn; and this visit he renewed in 1684, extending his tour through a considerable part of North Germany. The later years of his life were spent mostly in London, where he continued to give public addresses, comparatively unmolested, until within a few days of his death, which took place November 13, 1690.
In personal appearance Fox was tall and strongly built, “graceful in countenance, manly in personage, grave in gesture;” in manner he was courteous and unaffected, “civil, beyond all forms of breeding,” and “tender, compassionate, and pitiful;” essentially, he was “a heavenly-minded man, zealous for the name of the Lord, and preferred the honour of God before all things;” “a man that God endued with a clear and wonderful depth, a discerner of others spirits, and very much a master of his own.” These and similar characterizations by his friendly contemporaries, who, for the rest, do not pretend that he was in any way remarkable either for grasp of intellect or for profundity in learning, surely deserve some weight as against the somewhat prevalent opinion that Fox was nothing more than a vulgar charlatan whom we have “no reason for placing morally or intellectually above Ludowick Muggleton or Joanna Southcote ” (Macaulay). The mere fact that he was able to attract to himself so considerable a body of respectable followers, including such men as Ellwood, Barclay, and Penn, is sufficient to prove that he possessed in a very eminent degree the power of conviction, persuasion, and moral ascendency; while of his personal uprightness, single-mindedness, and sincerity there ought to be no question.
The writings of Fox have been collected in three volumes folio, — the first containing his journal, the second his correspondence, and the third all that he has written in vindication of his doctrines. The Journal is especially interesting; of it Sir James Mackintosh has said that “it is one of the most extraordinary and instructive narratives in the world, which no reader of competent judgment can peruse without revering the virtue of the writer.” Of other works attributed to him, perhaps the most curious is that originally published in London in 1660, entitled A battle, door for teachers and professors to learn singular and plural; you to many and thou to one; singular, one, thou; plural, many, you. According to the Journal, however, this performance is not to be attributed solely to Fox. “J. Stubbs and Benjamin Furly took great pains in compiling it, which I set them upon, and some things I added to it.” Indeed, it has sometimes been seriously doubted whether he was the real author of any of the publications which have been attributed to him; but this doubt, which proceeds merely upon the fact of his very imperfect literary education, seems to be conclusively settled by the clause in his will (which document may be seen in the Harleian Miscellany, vii. 599) referring to his “Bookes, Episeles, and Papers.” The Journal was originally published in London in 1694, and has frequently been reprinted. A very useful edition is the seventh, with notes biographical and historical by Wilson Armistead, London, 1852. Several Memoirs of Fox have recently appeared, — one by J. Marsh in 1846; another by Janney, with dissertations on his views concerning the doctrine, testimonies, and discipline of the Christian church (Philadelphia, 1852); a third by the Rev. John Selby Watson (London, 1860). For details of the principles and history of the Society of Friends, see the article Quakers. (J. S. BL.)
- It was about this time that the epithet “Quaker” was first bestowed upon Fox and his friends (by Justice Bennett of Derby, it is said) because “they bade the people tremble at the word of the Lord.” It soon passed into common use, and is to be found even in the Records of the House of Commons as early as 1654.