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Greatest Preachers

George Fox

George Fox

1624 - 1691

George Fox was born in a small hamlet in Leicestershire, England in July, 1624. His father was a weaver and a pious warden of the church. George had little education other than learning to read and write and study the Bible. He was apprenticed to a shoemaker for whom he also tended sheep. In an incident at the age of 19 George was disgusted by tavern companions who tried to get him into a drinking match. That night he had a vision from God, and the next day, November 9, 1643, he left his family and trade to wander in search of true religion. Carrying his Bible he slept in fields or stayed with hospitable families. He questioned priests and argued with them. George searched for people he called "tender" who were loving and spiritually open. He discovered that most of the priests were not open but that many of the Seekers, a new sect, were. George Fox experienced "openings" or revelations which told him that both Catholics and Protestants could be sincere Christians, that universities like Oxford and Cambridge bred vain and deceitful priests, and that God did not dwell in church buildings as much as in people's hearts. Fox called the man-made temples "steeple houses" and considered the church to be the community of believers in its original sense. Although he considered the Bible a valuable reference point, the inner Light takes precedence as the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Fox declared that revelation had not ended, but the insights from within must be checked to see that they are in harmony with the teachings of the Bible. There was the danger that some would be led astray by spirits of darkness or the devil; therefore someone attuned to the inner Light must discern the difference, and George Fox always felt that he could.

Fox had a powerful personality and an inner conviction which he would not compromise. Confident that the word of God was speaking through him he challenged priests and interrupted their sermons. He would speak for hours at a time, and sometimes he would just glare at people for as long as two or three hours. He could outshout just about anybody. He criticized social injustices, such as the hiring fair at Mansfield in 1648 where local justices had fixed a maximum wage for farm labor. He believed in human equality and was firm in practicing it, even in seemingly trivial ways. He would refuse to remove his hat before a judge or a king. Following the admonition of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount he refused to take oaths. Because of these behaviors and his frank speech he was arrested many times. Altogether in his life he spent seven years in jail, often in filthy conditions, which he sought to reform. As Jesus called his disciples friends, so Fox referred to those who followed the inner Light as Friends, but the world gave them the name Quakers. Critical of professional priests, Fox believed that each person could relate to God directly and thus minister. He defended the rights of women to equal spirituality even against the views of other Friends. Fox and his followers were continually persecuted and often arrested for refusing to take oaths or for holding unauthorized religious meetings. Fox and other missionaries traveled to Europe and America to convince others of the truth of the inner Light. In America Fox preached to the Indians whom he treated as equals, and he urged humane treatment of Negroes and their eventual release from enslavement.

Following the teachings of the Christ closely, Fox was a pacifist, and the Society of Friends to this day has remained perhaps the most important pacifist religion. In 1651 during the civil war when Fox was in jail, some commissioners and soldiers offered to make him a captain over the soldiers who were eager to be led by such a courageous man. However, Fox told them that he "lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars," and he explained that all wars come from lust, as James pointed out in the Bible. When they realized that his refusal was serious, they threw him into a dungeon for almost six months "amongst thirty felons in a lousy, stinking low place in the ground without any bed." Thereupon Fox took to writing letters to judges against the death penalty for stealing and minor offenses, and he urged speedier trials because many were being corrupted by criminals in jails while they were waiting for their trials to begin. Then a Justice Bennet offered him press-money if he would be a soldier, but again Fox declined.

While preaching he warned soldiers not to do violence to any man. In March 1655 Fox wrote a letter to Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, clarifying his pacifist position as "the son of God who is sent to stand a witness against all violence and against all the works of darkness, and to turn people from the darkness to the light, and to bring them from the occasion of the war and from the occasion of the magistrate's sword." He also referred to "the light in all your consciences, which makes no covenant with death, to which light in you all 1 speak, and am clear." Fox exhorted all Friends to live in peace; he declared that those who use carnal weapons throw away spiritual weapons, and those who do not love one another and love enemies are out of Christ's doctrine.

With the Restoration of a monarch in 1660 George Fox was again arrested without good reason. He wrote a letter to Charles II telling the King that he was the very opposite of a disturber of the peace. The suspicion that he would plot an armed rebellion was absurd. He asserted that he loved everyone including his enemies and attempted to awaken the love of the King for the truth. "Those that follow Christ in the spirit, the captain of their salvation, deny the carnal weapons." While in custody of soldiers at Whitehall he preached the gospel of loving one another and asked them why they wore swords and when they would "break them to pieces and come to the gospel of peace." Later that year Fox and eleven others signed "A Declaration from the harmless and innocent people of God, called Quakers, against all plotters and fighters in the world." They stated that their principle is, and their practices always have been, to seek peace and follow righteousness and the knowledge of God for the welfare of all. Warfare results from the lust and desire to have men's lives and estates. Pertinent passages from the Bible are quoted, but more importantly they honestly can declare that they have practiced the ways of peace and suffered persecution for righteousness' sake and have not done violence against anyone. They have suffered in obedience to God, having been "Despised, beaten, stoned, wounded, stocked, whipped, imprisoned, haled out of synagogues, cast into dungeons and noisome vaults where many have died in bonds, shut up from our friends, denied needful sustenance for many days together, with other the like cruelties." Hundreds of Friends had suffered these things, few more than George Fox. Yet they refused to swear or to fight; often they remained in jail after their sentence, because they refused to pay the jailkeeper since they did not recognize that they had committed a crime. They pleaded to the King so that he would end this useless suffering. In his Journal Fox described how this declaration cleared away the darkness so that the King proclaimed that no soldiers should search a house without a constable and that Friends in jail should be set at liberty without having to pay the fees. Fox continued to preach and clarify the doctrines of the inner Light until he died in 1691; during all this time he was the generally acknowledged leader of the Quakers.


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