Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fox, George (1624-1691)

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FOX, GEORGE (1624–1691), founder of the Society of Friends, son of Christopher Fox (‘righteous Christer’), a puritan weaver in good circumstances, was born at Fenny Drayton (otherwise Drayton-in-the-Clay), Leicestershire, in July 1624. Fox mentions that his mother, Mary Lago, was ‘of the stock of the martyrs,’ in allusion probably to the family of Glover of Mancetter (see Richings, The Mancetter Martyrs, 1860). Penn describes her as ‘a woman accomplished above most of her degree.’ Whether Fox had any schooling (Croese) is doubtful; his spelling was always uncouth, but his illiteracy has been somewhat exaggerated. The accounts of his early seriousness are chiefly remarkable for bringing to the front the ethical element in the puritan character and training. His parents intended George for the ministry of the church of England; he speaks of no objection on his own part, ‘but others persuaded to the contrary.’ Accordingly he was apprenticed to a shoemaker (at Nottingham, according to Croese). His master did business as a grazier and wool dealer, and employed George as a trusted agent, whose ‘verily’ was accepted as a final word in a bargain.

Early in the summer of 1643 (before July) an incident at a fair determined Fox's future. His cousin Bradford, with another puritan youth, would have initiated him into the practice of drinking healths. He paid his shot, but left the company; spent a night in religious exercises, and felt a divine call to forsake all his existing associations. This call he obeyed on 9 Sept. 1643. Turning his face southward, he disappeared for nine months, dividing his time between Lutterworth, Northampton, and Newport Pagnel, shunning society and declining religious fellowship. In June 1644 he moved on to Barnet; here he doubted whether he had done right in leaving home, and his religious melancholy deepened towards despair. After a stay at Barnet, he took a lodging in London, and visited his uncle Pickering, a baptist. Hearing that his relatives were troubled at his absence, he at length returned to Drayton.

From that return he dates (Epistles, p. 2) the beginning of his religious community (1644). This, however, is a retrospective judgment. His course was still far from clear. His relatives wished him to marry. Others proposed his joining the ‘auxiliary band’ among the parliamentary forces; this he refused, being ‘tender,’ a word which in his phraseology means religiously affected. He was attracted to Coventry, a puritan stronghold, and found sympathisers there. Returning to Drayton in 1645, he spent something like a year in fruitless resorts to neighbouring clergy. The curate of Drayton, Nathaniel Stephens (rector from 1659), a studious and kindly man, paid much attention to him, but Fox disliked his bringing the subjects of their conversations into the pulpit. He describes Stephens as subsequently his ‘great persecutor,’ an unwarranted expression. The old vicar of Mancetter, Richard Abell, advised him to ‘take tobacco, and sing psalms.’ John Machin, afterwards lecturer at Atherstone, prescribed physic and bleeding; the bleeding was tried without success. He got more satisfaction from his visits of charity among the poor; he had some independent means, whence derived he does not say; he reports without comment the remark of his relatives, ‘When hee went from us hee had a greate deale of gould and sillver about him’ (original manuscript of Journal, p. 17).

During a Sunday morning's walk, early in 1646, the new idea presented itself to him that a minister must be more than a scholar. Henceforward he gave up attendance at church; going rather to the orchard or the fields, with his Bible. For more than a year he wandered about in the midland counties, mixing with separatists of all sorts, but ‘never joined in profession of religion with any.’ The rumour of a ‘fasting woman’ drew him to Lancashire, but his curiosity was soon satisfied. On his way back he visited Dukinfield, a Cheshire village, where, according to Edwards (Gangræna, iii. 164), the earliest independent church in England was organised. Among its members, who had lately (1646) been troubled by a supernatural drum, Fox in 1647 ‘declared truth.’ Sewel marks this as ‘the first beginning of George Fox's preaching.’ It was continued at Manchester, and consisted of ‘few, but powerful and piercing words.’ A conference of baptists and others at Broughton, Leicestershire (probably Broughton-Astley), gave him an opportunity of addressing a large concourse of people. From this time he was much sought after; ‘one Brown’ prophesied great things of him; and when Brown died, Fox lay in a trance, which was a fourteen days' wonder. He attended the religious meetings and discussions which then abounded, usually taking some part. The first mention of his speaking in a ‘steeple-house’ is at a great disputation in Leicester (1648), when ‘presbyterians, independents, baptists, and common-prayer-men’ all took part; the debate came to an abrupt conclusion, but was resumed at an inn. In the same year he first mentions ‘a meeting of Friends,’ at Little Eaton, near Derby.

At this period the mysticism of Fox was not confined to matters of spiritual insight. He claimed to have received direct knowledge of the occult qualities of nature, so that he was ‘at a stand’ in his mind, whether he should ‘practise physick for the good of mankind.’ In this respect, as in some others, he reminds us of Jacob Boehme, whose writings, a contemporary affirms, were ‘the chief books’ bought by Fox's followers (Muggleton, Looking Glass for G. Fox, 2nd ed. 1756, p. 10). But this phase passed away, and he devoted himself to a spiritual reform. Fox's idealism was not that of the visionary; his mind was strongly set on realities. It was a sore trial to him to reach by degrees the conclusion that the religious disputes of his day, even that between protestant and papist, turned upon trivial matters. With much modesty of conviction, but a daring thoroughness of sincerity, he strove to get at the core of things. Unconventional ways, which he now adopted, his retention of the hat, and disuse of complimentary phrases, were dictated by a manly simplicity. Too much has been made of his peculiarities of dress. He rejected ornaments. His ‘leathern breeches’ are first mentioned by him in his journal under date 1651. Croese makes his whole dress of leather, and Sewel appears to corroborate this, denying, however, that it had any connection with ‘his former leather-work.’ For Carlyle's rhapsody (Sartor Resartus iii. 1) on the leathern suit stitched by Fox's own hands there is no foundation.

His first incarceration was at Nottingham in 1649, for the offence of brawling in church. He was described in the charge-sheet as ‘a youth,’ though now in his twenty-fifth year. Though he complains of the foulness of his cell, the action of the authorities was gentle as compared with the fury of the villagers of Mansfield Woodhouse on a similar occasion shortly after. By this time Fox had fairly entered upon a course of aggressive action as an itinerant preacher. He sought an interview (1649) with Samuel Oates and other general baptist preachers, at Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire. Barclay is probably right in inferring (Inner Life, p. 256) that there was enough in common between his objects and their free methods and Arminian views to make him think an approximation possible; but ‘their baptism in water’ stopped the way. It does not appear that Fox's society was recruited from the baptists more largely than from other sects, though it exhibits the influence of baptist ideas. The earliest documentary name for the new society is ‘Children of Light,’ which Barclay traces to a baptist source (ib. p. 262). It was soon, however, superseded by the happy designation of ‘Truth's Friends,’ or ‘Friends of Truth,’ abbreviated into ‘Friends.’ Their popular nickname was given to them at Derby on 30 Oct. 1650 by the wit of Gervase Bennet, a hard-headed oracle of the local bench (Muggleton, Acts of the Witnesses, 1699, p. 94 sq.) Fox had bidden the magistrates ‘tremble at the word of the Lord,’ whereupon Bennet retorted upon Fox and Fretwell the name of ‘quakers.’ The term got into the House of Commons' journals as early as 1654.

The rise of this body synchronises with the parliamentary attempt to regulate the affairs of the church of England on the Scottish model; the new society was a collective protest against the presbyterian system, as inefficient for purposes of evangelisation. Fox's earliest recorded convert was a middle-aged widow at Nottingham, Elizabeth Hooton [q. v.] (mentioned 1647), who became the first woman preacher in the society. His adherents were soon numbered by thousands. They came for the most part from the lower middle class, drawn not merely from the puritan folds, but from the fringes of all the sects, from ranters, shakers, seekers, and visionaries of all sorts, who brought with them an exuberant emotional piety tending to pantheism, and a marvellous unrestraint of speech. The community exhibited all the signs, mental and physical, of strong religious enthusiasm. Their symbolic acts, grotesque and sometimes gross, were regarded as fanaticism gone mad. With the early characteristics of his society Fox has been often reproached. It is more to the point to observe how by degrees his calmer spirit prevailed over those whom his fervour had attracted, while his genius for organisation reduced to order an otherwise unmanageable mass. His discipline of religious silence had a sobering influence, and the growth of a systematic network of meetings, dependent on each other, induced a sense of corporate responsibility. Barclay notices (Inner Life, p. 11) that, with all its freedom, the society from the first was not ‘independent’ but ‘connexional’ in its character. There is shrewdness in Baxter's remark that the quakers were ‘the ranters revers'd,’ turned from wild extravagances to ‘extream austerity’ (Calamy, Abridgement, 1713, p. 102). Baxter ascribes the change to Penn. But the ranter spirit reached its climax and its fall in the Bristol ride (1656) of James Nayler [q. v.], who died in 1660, many years before the adhesion of either Robert Barclay (1667) or William Penn (1668). By this time the Perrot schism (1661–3) had removed the remaining elements of insubordination, and Fox had given final shape to his rules for the management of ‘meetings for discipline’ (printed as ‘Friends Fellowship,’ &c., 1668; reprinted, but not by a quaker, as ‘Canons and Institutions,’ &c., 1669; given in Beck and Ball). The system was completed by the institution of the yearly meeting, first held on 6 Jan. 1669.

In the organisation of his mission Fox had the valuable help of a remarkable woman, whom he afterwards married, Margaret Fell [q. v.], named by Barclay ‘the Lady Huntingdon of the new society’ (Inner Life, p. 259). She had been carried away by the teaching of William Lampett, who then held the perpetual curacy of Ulverston; he is explicitly described by Fox as ‘a ranter’ (original manuscript of Journal, p. 61). It was by degrees that Fox's teaching exerted a regulative influence over her mind. Her first letter to him in 1652 (facsimile in Wilkinson, Quakerism Examined, 1836) has the ranter swell which inflates the well-known letter of John Audland, printed by Leslie (Snake in the Grass, 1698, p. 369). Her husband's residence, Swarthmoor Hall, Lancashire, became the headquarters of the movement, the travelling preachers, of whom Fox had thirty in 1653, sixty in the following year (they usually went out in pairs), sending in their reports to her. At his own expense Fox built and endowed the meeting-house at Swarthmoor, which bears the inscription ‘Ex Dono: G: F. 1688;’ his ‘tryacle’ bible (1541) is here preserved.

The quaker organisation was thus gaining in cohesion and stability during a period of repressive legislation which was fatal to the continuity of corporate life in the other nonconformist sects. Fox waited for no indulgence, and regarded no conventicle act. ‘Now is the time,’ said Fox, ‘for you to stand … go into your meeting-houses as at other times.’ Throughout the interval between the restoration of 1660 and the toleration of 1689 the Friends kept up regular meetings, and their numbers increased. When the preachers were carried to prison, the people met in silence; the lawyers were puzzled to prove such meetings illegal. The meeting-places were nailed up or demolished; they assembled outside or amid the ruins. At Reading (1664) and Bristol (1682) nearly all the adult members were thrown into gaol; the meetings were punctually kept by the children. Equal firmness was shown in the matter of oaths and marriages. Fox's admirable system for the registration of births, marriages, and burials began in 1652, and was probably suggested by the practice of the baptist churches. There was no indiscriminate almsgiving, but a constant effort to improve the condition of the poorer members.

The persistent fidelity of Fox's personal labours can hardly be exaggerated. On his missionary journeys, continued from year to year until his death, he visited nearly every corner in England and Wales. He travelled to Scotland in 1657, to Ireland in 1669, to the West Indies and North America in 1671–1672, to Holland in 1677, and again in 1684. Eight times he suffered imprisonment, the longest period of his incarceration being at Lancaster and Scarborough (1663–6), and the latest at Worcester for nearly fourteen months (1673–4). Among the many public services rendered by the early Friends, that of compelling attention to the hideous condition of the common gaols must not be forgotten. In addition to his work as a preacher Fox found time for a constant stream of publications, sometimes all his own, sometimes produced in conjunction with others. He early perceived (or, as seems probable, Margaret Fell perceived for him) the power of the press as a missionary agency. On 18 Feb. 1653 Margaret writes to her husband begging him to see after the printing of tracts by Fox, Nayler, and John Lawson, which she encloses (Webb, Fells, 2nd edit., 1867, p. 41). In an age of pamphlet-writers the quakers were the most prolific, and in some respects the most virulent, in others the most impressive of pamphleteers. Admitting no weapon but the tongue, they used it unsparingly. In Fox's own pamphlets, though his emotion sometimes renders him inarticulate, there is often a surprising elevation of thought, and an unstudied dignity of expression.

Fox died at the house of Henry Gouldney, in White Hart Court, Gracechurch Street, on Tuesday, 13 Jan. 1691. He was interred on 16 Jan. in Whitecross Street (or Chequer Alley) burying-ground (present entrance in Roscoe Street), near Bunhill Row (Beck and Ball, London Friends' Meetings, 1869, p. 329). Eleven Friends took part in the funeral service at the meeting-house; four delivered testimonies at the graveside, amid a concourse of four thousand people. A headstone was placed over the grave, but this was removed about 1757, when the body was reinterred in order to facilitate the enlargement of the burial-ground. A stone about six inches square, bearing the initials ‘G. F.,’ was then built into the wall. This also became displaced, and was knocked to pieces as ‘nehushtan’ by Robert Howard (d. January 1812) (ib. p. 331; Webb, Fells, p. 322). When the old graveyard was laid out as a garden (1881) an inscribed headstone, about two feet high, was placed on the supposed site of Fox's grave. In 1872 a small obelisk, with an incorrect inscription, was erected at Drayton, by C. H. Bracebridge of Atherstone Hall.

Fox had no issue of his marriage on 18 Oct. 1669 to Margaret Fell; she was ten years his senior, and had been eleven years a widow. Her ‘testimony’ to him draws a vivid picture of his character. Fox's will (dated October 1688, proved 30 Dec. 1697) disposes of little more than papers and keepsakes. This ‘will’ consists of three distinct autograph papers of direction; in the Spence collection are other signed papers, giving orders for the disposal not only of a thousand acres in Pennsylvania, assigned to Fox by William Penn, but of ‘land and sheep’ (to his brother John Fox of Polesworth), and of money laid out ‘in ships and trade.’ In 1767 his heirs-at-law were the descendants, in Pennsylvania, of his brother John (Webb, Fells, p. 321). Of his ‘bulky person,’ his abstemious ways and little need of sleep, his manners, ‘civil beyond all forms of breeding,’ his ‘awful, living, reverent frame’ in prayer, we have glimpses in Penn's preface to the ‘Journal.’ Leslie speaks of his ‘long, straight hair, like rats' tails’ (Theol. Works, 1721, ii. 357). A painting ascribed to William Honthorst, 1654 (engraved by Holmes), is said to represent Fox at the age of thirty; the face is too young for that age (yet compare the Nottingham description in 1649), the hair curls, and it seems a fancy picture. When lent to the National Portraits Exhibition in 1866, it was in the possession of Mrs. Watkins. A small and rude woodcut without date (reissued by Joseph Smith) is probably an authentic contemporary likeness of Fox in middle age; the visage is homely, massive and dignified. It is evidently the source of later portraits, such as the neat engraving published by W. Darton (1822), of which there is an enlarged reproduction in lithography by Thomas Fairland [q. v.] about 1835. An engraving by Samuel Allen, from a painting by S. Chinn, was published in 1838 (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vi. 156).

The bibliography of Fox's writings fills fifty-three pages of Smith's ‘Catalogue.’ Most modern readers will be contented with 1. ‘A Journal, or Historical Account of the Life … of … George Fox,’ &c., 1694, fol., a work of the highest interest. A shorter journal, preserved among the manuscripts at Devonshire Square, is described by Barclay (Inner Life, p. 277 sq.). The published journal was revised by a committee, under the superintendence of Penn, and transcribed for the press by Thomas Ellwood [q. v.] Fox had himself (in a paper dated 24 June 1685) named a committee for this purpose, including Ellwood; he says, ‘And ye great jornall of my Life, Sufferings, Travills, and Imprisonments, they may bee put together, they Lye in papers; and ye Little Jornall Books, they may bee printed together in a Book’ (autograph in Spence Collection). The original manuscript (wanting sixteen folios at the beginning) is in the possession of Robert Spence, esq., North Shields; it is not in autograph, but has been dictated to successive amanuenses. After publication, a further revision (24 Sept. 1694) substituted a new leaf for pp. 309–10 (story of Justice Clark); copies with the uncancelled leaf are very scarce. Wilson Armistead's edition, 1852, 2 vols. 8vo, with notes, and divided into chapters, is handy for reference; but it has ‘improvements’ (some of them from Phipps's ‘third edition,’ 1765, fol.) which sometimes miss the sense. An abridgment, by Henry Stanley Newman, ‘Autobiography of George Fox,’ &c. (n.d., preface dated Buckfield, Leominster, 1886), is rather a partisan selection. 2. ‘A Collection of … Epistles,’ &c., 1698, fol. (called ‘the second volume,’ the ‘Journal’ being considered the first). 3. ‘Gospel-Truth … a Collection of Doctrinal Books,’ &c., 1706, fol. This forms a third volume, though it is not so designated. In this and the preceding Fox's principal works will be found, the most important omission being 4. ‘The Great Mistery,’ &c., 1659, fol. There is no complete collection of Fox's writings, the fullest being the Philadelphia edition of the ‘Works,’ 1831, 8 vols. 8vo.

Macaulay's epigram on Fox, as ‘too much disordered for liberty, and not sufficiently disordered for Bedlam,’ is well known. De Morgan admits (Budget of Paradoxes) that, though not a ‘rational,’ Fox was certainly a ‘national’ man. Marsden has done more justice to the intellectual merit of Fox's doctrine of the inner light, which ‘rested upon one idea, the greatest that can penetrate the mind of man: God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and truth’ (Hist. of the Later Puritans, 1872, p. 240). There can be no question of the healthiness and strength of his moral fibre. It is remarkable that Wesley, who was acquainted with Barclay's ‘Apology,’ never mentions Fox. Yet the early quakerism anticipated methodism in many important points, as well as in the curious detail of conducting the business of meetings by means of answers to queries. The literary skill of the ‘Apology’ has drawn readers to it rather than to Fox's amorphous writings; but for pure quakerism, not yet fixed (1676) in scholastic forms, it is necessary to go to Fox; and the student will be rewarded, as Professor Huxley observed (Nineteenth Century, April 1889), by passages of great beauty and power.

George Fox, called for distinction ‘the younger,’ not in years, but ‘the younger in the truth,’ was of Charsfield, Suffolk. He reached independently (about 1651) similar views to those of his namesake, and joined his society, in which he was a preacher. He began to write in 1656. He died at Hurst, Sussex, on 7 July 1661, and was buried at Twineham. His works were collected in a small volume, 1662, 8vo; 2nd edition, enlarged, 1665, 8vo.

[For the facts of Fox's life the great authority is the Journal. Gerard Croese's Historia Quakeriana, 1695; 2nd edit. 1696; English translation, 1696, is based on materials supplied by William Sewel. Sewel's own History, 1722, embodies some few fresh particulars from a paper by Fox, ‘in his lifetime drawn up by his order, at my request, and sent to me.’ Besse's Collection of the Sufferings, 1753; Gough's History, 1789. Among the numerous biographies may be mentioned those of Henry Tuke (1813), William and Thomas Evans (1837), Josiah Marsh (1847) from an Anglican point of view, Samuel M. Janney (1853) a Hicksite friend, John Selby Watson (1860), and A. C. Bickley (1884), with a facsimile letter (2 Oct. 1680) from Fox to Barclay. The Swarthmoor MSS. were first employed by Maria Webb in The Fells of Swarthmoor Hall, 1865, with plates and facsimiles. An able essay on George Fox: his Character, Doctrine, and Work, 1873, by a member of the Society of Friends [Edward Ash, M.D.], deals with the limitations of Fox's mind; a reply, Immediate Revelation True, 1873, was published by George Pitt. In the Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, 1876, by Robert Barclay (1833–1876) [q. v.], much new light was thrown on Fox's aims and methods, and the genesis of his movement; the writer somewhat over-estimates the direct influence of the ideas of the Mennonite baptists. Joseph Smith's Descriptive Catalogue of Friends' Books, 1867, 2 vols.; Biographical Catalogue, 1888, by Beck, Wells, and Chalkley. Articles by the present writer: Theological Review, January 1874, July 1877. The exact date of Fox's birth is not recoverable: the early registers of Fenny Drayton are lost, and there is no transcript for 1624 in the records of the archdeaconry; the first entry relating to the family is the baptism of Fox's sister Dorothy on 9 April 1626. Use has been made of the Swarthmoor MSS., of the original manuscript of the printed Journal, and of a large number of manuscripts from Swarthmoor in the Spence collection; also of Southey's manuscript Life of Fox (unfinished) in the same collection; and of a contemporary manuscript account of Fox's funeral per C. Elcock; works cited above.]

A. G.