‘Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make witness of God in them to bless you.’ (The Works of George Fox, 1831)
I’ve been thinking again about these words from George Fox in 1656, and wondering particularly about the word cheerfully, It’s concerned me when I hear people blithely quoting just a few words of this paragraph, as if it suggests we should remain happy and bright as we journey through life – or even as we go off on our travels! This can reduce a much-loved quotation to a vague message of naïve optimism.
Recently however I found other examples of the word from George Fox’s time when I was browsing.my grandmother’s copy of Samuel Pepys’ Diary. Some of the brutal justice meted out in England in those days still shocks me. In October 1660, Pepys writes about seeing a man hanged, drawn and quartered, then adds ‘he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.’ On another occasion, Pepys watched three men ‘drawne towards the gallows at Tyburne… They all looked very cheerful…‘
I was taken aback to read the word ‘cheerful‘ to describe men meeting their death. How could this be true? I thought. Clearly, the word ‘cheerful‘ did not mean happy or light-hearted. It must have had a deeper meaning when George Fox was writing. Perhaps it meant something closer to courageous. There’s a sense also of going to death willingly, not reluctantly, taking comfort from some inner quality of strength or faith. Dictionaries I’ve looked up do include words like comfort [meaning strengthening] for ‘cheer,‘ and willing – not reluctant – for ‘cheerful‘
In addition, George Fox wasn’t exhorting us to be courageous; he was suggesting how this could come about as a consequence of living as patterns and examples. We are being guided, not ordered about!
The next part of George Fox’s paragraph is also interesting. Years ago I read an article in the British journal The Friend, where the phrase ‘walk … over the world‘ was analysed. (I’ve since lost the article, and I’d love to hear from anyone else who remembers reading it.)
The Friend article pointed out that the phrase ‘walk over the world had the feeling of living or moving above the world‘ In the 17th century, the word world was often used to mean the flesh (as in ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.‘ So this phrase did not mean that we would tread lightly on the earth or travel hopefully. It had more a sense that we would be in the world but not of it, keeping above the things of this world, and even subduing material concerns.
So I suspect that George Fox was telling us that if we could be ‘patterns and examples,‘ we would come to live with courage, overcoming worldly concerns. This is a much stronger message than some of us usually take from his words. I find it both more rigorous and more helpful in the everyday situations of my life.
I found a copy of this very illuminating article at our Aotearoa New Zealand Quaker Settlement in Whanganui several years ago. I have passed it on to a number of people. Today I wanted to find the name of the author as it was not on my original copy.
Thank you, David Swain, for these insights.