“Let all nations hear the word…be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the Truth upon earth…then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one”
George Fox was the leader of a group that formed The Religious Society of Friends in England in 1652.
He had been a spiritually independent and visionary youth. He left home at 19 to seek spiritual nourishment, studying the Bible diligently. He found little help from any church. At 23, as if spoken by a voice, he heard the words “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”. He later said “When I heard it my heart did leap for joy”.
Thus, his message was born – that everyone can speak to God and hear Him speak, without any other human intervening.
Fox, a tall strong figure, preached fearlessly to anyone, wherever he saw an opportunity – even in church after the minister had finished – this was allowed in Cromwell’s Commonwealth. He was not preaching a new religion, but a perspective, that “God…does not dwell in temples or institutions made with hands, but freely in the hearts of men”. He spoke of “the inner light of Christ” or “that of God” in everyone.
Fox envisaged a renewal of the simple Christian message and way of life for all religions. This wasn’t popular with priests of any religion. His deep spiritual convictions also contained a powerful social message.
By the time he was 28 his ideas had developed and he had been joined by increasing numbers of like-minded “seekers”. Then, in 1652, he visited Swarthmoor Hall in the Lake District, home of Judge Fell who, unlike most judges, accepted the validity of Fox’s teachings. His family, but not the judge himself, joined the movement, making Swarthmoor a centre for what had first been called “Friends of The Truth” and then the “Society of Friends”. After Judge Fell’s death Fox married the judge’s widow, Margaret, now often called “the mother of Quakerism”.
Fox and other members of the new “Society of Friends” moved around England, Europe and America, preaching their message powerfully – freedom of religious choice, life itself as a sacrament, spiritual baptism, equality of the sexes, a man’s word his bond. Friends were to be sober, simple, plain, honest, unostentatious, industrious, courageous. The poor would be cared for. There would be no tale-bearing or detraction. There would be no swearing of oaths. The issue of oaths was to have a severe adverse effect on Friends for decades – see the panel “Friends’ Tetimonies”.
After 1669 Fox’s energies went mainly into consolidating the organisation and supporting the work of others. When he died in 1691 the Society of Friends numbered tens of thousands, and totalled about 1% of England’s population.