George Fox

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George Fox bigraphy, stories - English Dissenter

George Fox : biography

July 1624 – 13 January 1691

George Fox (July 1624 – 13 January 1691) was an English Dissenter and a founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers or Friends.

The son of a Leicestershire weaver, Fox lived in a time of great social upheaval and war. He rebelled against the religious and political authorities by proposing an unusual and uncompromising approach to the Christian faith. He travelled throughout Britain as a dissenting preacher, for which he was often persecuted by the authorities who disapproved of his beliefs.

Fox married Margaret Fell, the widow of one of his wealthier supporters; she was a leading Friend. His ministry expanded and he undertook tours of North America and the Low Countries, between which he was imprisoned for over a year. He spent the final decade of his life working in London to organize the expanding Quaker movement.

Though his movement attracted disdain from some, others such as William Penn and Oliver Cromwell viewed Fox with respect. His journal, first published after his death, is known even among non-Quakers for its vivid account of his personal journey.

Suffering and growth

19th-century engraving of George Fox, based on a painting of unknown date The persecutions of these years—with about a thousand Friends in prison by 1657—hardened George Fox’s opinions of traditional religious and social practices. In his preaching, he often emphasized the Quaker rejection of baptism by water; this was a useful way of highlighting how the focus of Friends on inward transformation differed from what he saw as the superstition of outward ritual. It was also deliberately provocative to adherents of those practices, providing opportunities for Fox to argue with them on matters of scripture. This pattern was also found in his court appearances: when a judge challenged him to remove his hat, Fox riposted by asking where in the Bible such an injunction could be found.

The Society of Friends became increasingly organized towards the end of the decade. Large meetings were held, including a three-day event in Bedfordshire, the precursor of the present Britain Yearly Meeting system.Fox in Nickalls, p.339 Fox commissioned two Friends to travel around the country collecting the testimonies of imprisoned Quakers, as evidence of their persecution; this led to the establishment in 1675 of Meeting for Sufferings, which has continued to the present day.Quaker Faith and Practice §7

The 1650s, when the Friends were most confrontational, was one of the most creative periods of their history. During the Commonwealth, Fox had hoped that the movement would become the major church in England. Disagreements, persecution and increasing social turmoil, however, led Fox to suffer from a severe depression, which left him deeply troubled at Reading, Berkshire, for ten weeks in 1658 or 1659.Nickalls, pp.353–355 and Ingle (2004) In 1659, he sent parliament his most politically radical pamphlet, Fifty nine Particulars laid down for the Regulating things, but the year was so chaotic that it never considered them; the document was not reprinted until the 21st century.

The Restoration

With the restoration of the monarchy, Fox’s dreams of establishing the Friends as the dominant religion seemed at an end. He was again accused of conspiracy, this time against Charles II, and fanaticism—a charge he resented. He was imprisoned in Lancaster for five months, during which he wrote to the king offering advice on governance: Charles should refrain from war and domestic religious persecution, and discourage oath-taking, plays, and maypole games. These last suggestions reveal Fox’s Puritan leanings, which continued to influence Quakers for centuries after his death. Once again, Fox was released after demonstrating that he had no military ambitions.

At least on one point, Charles listened to Fox. The seven hundred Quakers who had been imprisoned under Richard Cromwell were released, though the government remained uncertain about the group’s links with other, more violent, movements. A revolt by the Fifth Monarchists in January 1661 led to the suppression of that sect and the repression of other nonconformists, including Quakers.Fox in Nickalls, pp.394–395 and Jones, chapter 14 In the aftermath of this attempted coup, Fox and eleven other Quakers issued a broadside proclaiming what became known among Friends in the 20th century as the "peace testimony": they committed themselves to oppose all outward wars and strife as contrary to the will of God. Not all his followers accepted this statement; Isaac Penington, for example, dissented for a time arguing that the state had a duty to protect the innocent from evil, if necessary by using military force. Despite the testimony, persecution against Quakers and other dissenters continued.