George Fox (1624-1691) was an Englishman who had a vision from God and founded a new religious movement – the Quakers. A good number of our well-loved phrases began life as quotations from Fox, and he remains the author most quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice (with William Penn and John Woolman coming second and third). His biography is fairly well represented online, with a full wikipedia page and an edition of his journal. That being so, I want to use this blog post not for history but for anecdote: how is Fox used, quoted, thought of in Meetings today?
In my experience, he is more quoted than read, for one thing. The extracts in Faith and Practice are easy enough, but it’s a rare (and generally an academically confident) Quaker who turns to the whole Journal itself – various new editions and updated-language versions notwithstanding. Sometimes Fox is used as the ‘ultimate Quaker authority’ – I have been told in discussion that, for example, Fox would not recognise my form of Quakerism, especially Quaker-Paganism, or Quakerism-with-an-interest-in-Goddesses (and that therefore it is illegitimate). Now, it’s true that Fox wouldn’t recognise many things in my life – blogging, soy milk, Quagans, and so forth. Does that mean that the Spirit does not or cannot move through them? I don’t think so (you’ve have to have a very weak notion of Spirit to say that it did, I think). And if the core of Quakerism, the movement started by Fox with others, is responsiveness to the Holy Spirit in the world today, then all sorts of things Fox never heard of can be true to the essence of the movement.
Does that mean that Fox is unimportant? I don’t think so. History is always useful, and to keep a tradition you need to know and engage with the past and present of that tradition – how else can you learn to recognise it when you see it? We’ve changed a lot in three hundred and fifty odd years (who hasn’t?), but if I can recognise Fox and see the continuities as well as the changes, I like to think that a time-travelling Friend from 1650 – Fox, Fell, Naylor, or any of the others – could come to see that as well. Once they’d got over the shock.
(As an aside, while my argument that Fox was a Druid is wholly flippant, I do think that people who are accustomed to having religious experiences on hills and worshipping in the open air would probably recognise some aspects of neo-paganism, even while they find other parts difficult and blasphemous.)