Happy 400th George!

Tony D’Sousa, Finchley Meeting, UK

Happy 400th Anniversary George Fox! George Fox was a truly great man. I know this because his spiritual discoveries have transformed my life, but it is only now, after many years, that I have discovered how profound these changes are. Let me explain.

George Fox probably taught himself to read and write as there is no evidence that he went to school. A thoughtful young man, he read the Bible daily and became dedicated to seeking the truth for himself. At the age of nineteen, he left two acquaintances at a drinking session and heard an inner voice saying, “Thou seest how young people go together into vanity, and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all.”

His quest for truth led him to seek instruction from many of the clergy of the day. After this, he had a singular revelation: “I saw there was none among them that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.’ “

This was Fox’s epiphany. He had found the inner light in himself: “The Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall prevent it? And this I knew experimentally.”

“Experimentally” means “by experience,” and this inner experience led Fox to have a particular disdain for the priests of organised religion. He called them “professors” because they “professed” to know about God (they could quote the Bible chapter and verse) yet they had no knowledge of the inner light. The “professors” understood things through their learning alone, but Fox, untrained and unschooled, had had an inner experience of the living God. That was the difference.

The priests’ teaching on sin was taken from St Paul, who said: “For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So this is the principle I have discovered: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law. But I see another law at work in my body, warring against the law of my mind and holding me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me.” (Romans ch7 19-23)

Paul seems to describe an inability to do anything good and to being a captive to sin. He says that although he wants to do what is right, he ends up doing what is wrong. It is this dichotomy between spirit and flesh which had continued unchallenged since the dark ages. What cements George Fox’s claim to greatness is that his inner revelation of the indwelling light transcends this division. Organised religion taught that sin was an inevitable consequence of the fall. That is, ever since Adam bit into the apple all of humanity was tainted by sin or weakness of the flesh (the knowledge of good and evil). There was nothing we could do about it. We could resist temptation, but that was about it. Indeed, life was often characterised as an unrelenting battle against temptation, which continued throughout life. The churches’ explanation for this was that temptation was permitted by God to perfect our faith. Its remedy was that we could confess our sins, be absolved, and then carry on again as normal.

Fox’s vision was completely different (and this is the crucial point). His experience of the indwelling Christ, or light within, posited an inner knowledge of God which transcended the book learning of the priests. Moreover, this light had the power to transform the fallen human subject. Margaret Fell wrote: “Now Friends, let the Eternal Light search you, for this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up and lay you open, naked and bare before the Lord God from whom you cannot hide yourselves. Therefore, give over deceiving your Souls, for all Sin and Uncleanness the Light condemns.”

For early Friends, this experience of inner transformation, or inner cleansing, could be very difficult and many of them passed through months of trial. John Audland wrote: “Start not aside from the judgements of the Lord, for if thou art brought as low as Hell, Yea if thou come to say there is no hope, a way will be made beyond your understanding for deliverance. Abide in that which judges and do not seek for peace. He that comes to the worlds end comes to his wits end, before the World be known which never shall have end.”

Today, a long and agonising period of inner turmoil is not very attractive to most people. However, it seems early friends believed it was an essential adjunct to the process of “convincement.” The inward light not only showed them the reality of their thoughts and lives but it also gave them an objective moral standard they did not have before. Fox’s discovery of “That of God within” erased the absolute boundary between the human subject and divine presence and then reformed the fallen sinner. The spiritual genius of George Fox’s discovery did away with St Paul’s binary of the spirit and the flesh and created a third possibility: those open to being turned to the light and being transformed by it.

But how do we achieve this turning to the light in the Twenty-First Century? By my own experience I can say it is done by doing the same spiritual exercises that the early Quakers did. James Naylor wrote a pamphlet about it entitled “The Lamb’s War.” In our day, they are in Rex Ambler’s “Experiments with Light” and his books A Light to Live By and The Truth of the Heart.

George Fox’s revelation of the inner light is a personal experience of the divine, and is based upon a mystical revelation. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to say that Quakerism is a religious society which was founded upon mystical experience. Early Quakers claimed this experience and the subsequent inner cleansing is an essential part of the process of “convincement.”

What is more amazing still is that through the exercises we may come to know the eternal, not as an idea, but as a reality. As John Audland wrote: “He that comes to the worlds end comes to his wits end, before the World be known which never shall have end.”  It is the sublime teaching of the Buddha, “Cease doing bad things, do good things, purify your mind.”

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