1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fox, George
FOX, GEORGE (1624-1691), 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," was "of the stock of the martyrs." 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 ministry; but his father apprenticed him to a shoemaker, who also dealt in wool and cattle. In this service he remained till his nineteenth year. 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 troubled by a proposal to "drink healths," and withdrew in 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. The four years which followed were a time 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 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 month, 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. One day, approaching 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." 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." In 1647 he records that at a time when all outward help had failed "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." In the same year he first openly declared his message in the neighbourhood of Dukinfield and Manchester (see Friends, Society of).
In 1649, as he was walking towards Nottingham, 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 idol 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. He was carried off 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. In 1650 he was imprisoned for about a year at Derby on a charge of blasphemy. On his release, overwrought and weakened by six months spent "in the common gaol and dungeon," he performed what was almost the only and certainly the most pronounced act of his life which had the appearance of wild fanaticism. Through the streets of Lichfield, on market day, he walked barefoot, crying, "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield." His own explanation of the act, connecting it with the martyrdom of a thousand Christians in the time of Diocletian, is not convincing. His proceeding was probably due to a horror of the city arising from a subconscious memory of what he must have heard in childhood from his mother ("of the stock of the martyrs") concerning a martyr, a woman, burnt in the reign of Mary at Lichfield, who had been taken thither from Mancetter, a village two miles from his home in which he had worked as a journeyman shoemaker (see The Martyrs Glover and Lewis of Mancetter, by the Rev. B. Richings). He must also have heard of the burning of Edward Wightman in the same city in 1612, the last person burned for heresy in England.
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; London 1654; Launceston 1656; Lancaster 1660, and again in 1663, whence he was taken to Scarborough in 1665; and Worcester 1673. 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; while during his intervals of liberty he was unwearied in the work of "declaring truth" in all parts of the country. In 1669 he married Margaret, widow of Judge Fell, of Swarthmoor, near Ulverston, who, with her family, had been among his earliest converts. In 1671 he visited Barbados, Jamaica, and the American continent, and 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. At Worcester he suffered a captivity of nearly fourteen months. In 1677 he visited Holland along with Barclay, Penn and seven others; and this visit he repeated (with five others) in 1684. The later years of his life were spent mostly in London, where he continued to speak in public, comparatively unmolested, until within a few days of his death, which took place on the 13th of January 1691 (1690 O.S.).
William Penn has left on record an account of Fox from personal knowledge—a Brief Account of the Rise and Progress of the People called Quakers, written as a preface to Fox's Journal. Although a man of large size and great bodily strength, he was "very temperate, eating little and sleeping less." He was a man of strong personality, of measured utterance, "civil" (says Penn) "beyond all forms of breeding." From his Journal we gather that he had piercing eyes and a very loud voice, and wore good clothes. Unlike the Roundheads, he wore his hair long. Even before his marriage with Margaret Fell he seems to have been fairly well off; he does not appear to have worked for a living after he was nineteen, and yet he had a horse, and speaks of having money to give to those who were in need. He had much practical common-sense, and keen sympathy for all who were in distress and for animals. The mere fact that he was able to attract to himself so considerable a body of respectable followers, including such men as Ellwood, Barclay, Penington and Penn, is sufficient to prove that he possessed in a very eminent degree the power of conviction, persuasion, and moral ascendancy; while of his personal uprightness, single-mindedness and sincerity there can be no question.