Revisiting the “Journal of George Fox”
Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Although Quakers are the spiritual heirs of George Fox, very few seem to have read his Journal. I counted 19 quotes from the Journal in Quaker Faith and Practice, but many of them are very short. The quotes covered key parts of Fox’s teaching, but give little idea of the man. There are also quotes from his Epistles which give good advice, but reveal little about Fox himself.
So this brings us to the Journal. I have the edition prepared by Rufus Jones – it is now falling to pieces and held together by sticky tape. There are other editions, and all have abridged the work because frankly no-one does interesting things every day of their life, and often they do the same things many times.
The first part of the Journal is an account of Fox’s childhood, written after the event. According to his own account he was a model child.
In my very young years I had a gravity and stayedness of mind and spirit not usual in children; insomuch that when I saw old men behave lightly and wantonly towards each other, I had a dislike thereof raised in my heart, and said within myself, “If ever I come to be a man, surely I shall not do so, nor be so wanton.”
This unusually virtuous childhood had one great benefit for the Quaker faith. George Fox was not troubled by an overwhelming sense of sin. When he had his famous religious experience in his early twenties he did not feel that he had been “saved”. He was in many ways a conventional Christian, and he had always believed he was saved because Christ had died for his sins. His religious experience did not assure him of a place in heaven, but showed him how to live on this earth.
Although George Fox did not feel a great sense of personal sin, he was very depressed by the state of the world. This was understandable: the Civil War between supporters of the King and Parliament raged from 1642 to 1651. This was a time when all forms of authority were being questioned. The King was executed in 1649, and for the first time people questioned whether a king was even necessary. Religious authorities were being questioned, and dissenting groups such as the Baptists and the Independents flourished. Modern Science dates from this time, and the Royal Society was founded in 1660. Its motto was “nullius in verba” – “take no-one’s word for it”. It was a time of uncertainty.
Here is George Fox’s account of his life-changing experience:
But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I 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”, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.
From this experience came two important insights, for which modern Quakers can be profoundly thankful. Fox believed that if God could teach him directly, that was the way God worked with everyone:
Now the Lord God opened to me by His invisible power that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ, and I saw it shine through all; and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the Light of life, and became the children of it”.
So people were to listen to their “inward teacher”, and not to accept what the church leaders told them. Having adopted this principle, Fox was not in a position to require his followers to believe anything he told them, and Quakers have never had a creed. Fox also saw that if all were equal in the eyes of God, Christians must accept all people as their equals. He began to put this into practice straight away, refusing to take off his hat to his “betters”, and addressing everyone by the familiar “thou” instead of the honorific “you”.
One of Fox’s first public appearances was to a meeting in a church where a woman tried to ask a question, and was told that she may not speak. Fox rose in a passion, declaring that after giving “liberty for any to speak” the priest should have answered the question. He also argued that the church was “a spiritual household, which Christ was the head thereof” and not “an old home made up of lime, stone and wood”.
Another interesting story follows, which tells us a lot about Friend George:
At a certain time, when I was at Mansfield, there was a sitting of the justices about hiring of servants; and it was upon me from the Lord to go and speak to the justices, that they should not oppress the servants in their wages. So I walked towards the inn where they sat; but finding a company of fiddlers there, I did not go in, but thought to come in the morning, when I might have a more serious opportunity to discourse with them. But when I came in the morning, they were gone, and I was struck blind, that I could not see. I inquired of the innkeeper where the justices were to sit that day; and he told me, at a town eight miles off. My sight began to come to me again; and I went and ran thitherward as fast as I could. When I was come to the house where they were, and many servants with them, I exhorted the justices not to oppress the servants in their wages.”
Shortly afterwards Fox “was moved to go and speak to one of the most wicked men in the country, one who was a common drunkard a noted whore-master, and a rhyme-maker”.From this we see that Fox had a great passion for justice, but an unfortunate aversion to the arts. We also see, from his running eight miles, that he had a strong constitution. He was also irrepressible. In this passage he meets with opposition in a “steeple-house” in the town of Tickhill:
I began to speak; but they immediately fell upon me; the clerk up with his Bible, as I was speaking, and struck me on the face with it, so that my face gushed out with blood; and I bled exceedingly in the steeple-house. The people cried, “Let us have him out of the church.” When they had got me out, they beat me exceedingly, threw me down, and turned me over a hedge. They afterwards dragged me through a house into the street, stoning and beating me as they dragged me along; so that I was all over besmirched with blood and dirt. They got my hat from me, which I never had again. Yet when I was got upon my legs, I declared the Word of life, showed them the fruits of their teacher, and how they dishonoured Christianity.
There is much about hats in the Journal. My favourite story concerns Fox and a travelling Friend before the judge in Launceston:
“Why did you not put off your hats?” said the Judge to us. We said nothing.
“Put off your hats” said the Judge again. Still we said nothing. Then said the Judge, “The Court commands you to put off your hats.”
Then I spoke, and said, “Where did ever any magistrate, king or judge, from Moses to Daniel, command any to put off their hats, when they came before his court, either amongst the Jews, the people of God, or amongst the heathen? And if the law of England doth command any such thing, show me that law where it is printed.”
Then the Judge grew very angry and said, “I do not carry my law-books on my back.” “But,” said I, “tell me where it is printed in any statute-book, that I may read it.”
Then said the Judge, “Take him away, prevaricator. I’ll ferk him.” So they took us away, and put us among the thieves.
Presently after he calls to the jailer, “Bring them up again.” “Come,” said he, “where had they hats from Moses to Daniel; come, answer me: I have you fast now.”
I replied “Thou mayest read in the third of Daniel, that the three children were cast into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar’s command with their coats, their hose and their hats on.”
This plain instance stopped him.
In this and in many other passages, it appears that George Fox enjoyed a theological stoush! With his phenomenal knowledge of the Bible and his loud voice he made a formidable opponent!
A darker side to the journal are the descriptions of English jails, where Fox and many other Quakers were incarcerated for crimes such as blasphemy (teaching contrary to the tenets of the established church) and refusing to take oaths to the King. Once it became known that Quakers would not swear oaths under any circumstances, tendering the oath became a quick and easy way to entrap them. Fox was imprisoned eight times, possibly the worst being in Scarborough Castle:
Fox describes his room which was:
an open one, where the rain came in, and which was exceedingly thick with smoke, which was very offensive to me… I was forced to lay out about fifty shillings to stop out the rain, and keep the room from smoking so much. When I had been at that charge, and made it tolerable, they removed me into a worse room, where I had neither chimney or fire-hearth. This being towards the sea-side and lying much open, the wind drove in the rain forcibly so that the water came over my bed, and ran so about the room that I was fain to skim it up with a platter. When my clothes were wet, I had no fire to dry them; so that my body was benumbed with cold, and my fingers swelled so that one was grown as big as two.
It is no wonder that the first Advices and Queries asked how many members had died in prison in the preceding year.
Following his final imprisonment in Worcester, Fox’s health declined. However, in the last 14 years of his life he continued to travel where possible. For example he went to visit a meeting in Hertford and “had a meeting also with some of those that were gone into strike and contention, to show them wherein they were wrong; and having cleared myself of them, I left them to the Lord.”
Fox speaks of himself as “cleared” when he has completed some task which God had laid upon him. Some of his last words were “Now I am clear, I am fully clear”. His task was completed.
So I urge you to dip into the Journal of George Fox. He may not have been the most saintly Quaker, he is probably not the most readable Quaker, but he was a man who made a powerful impact. He was a man for his time, and for all time.