25 May 2020

An Influential Man of Leicestershire - George Fox (1624 - 1691)

(This article is based on a Zoom talk given by John Catt 19/4/20)  
George Fox was born in July 1624 in the small village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire (now known as Fenny Drayton).
His father was a prosperous weaver and churchwarden known as "Righteous Christer". George was taught to read and write and take religion seriously. He became an apprentice shepherd in his teens, which gave him time to study the bible, and aged 19 in 1643, he headed of London driven by a “hidden voice”. The Civil War had begun and he described himself as in a state of torment (he may have been a manic depressive).
Returning to Drayton in the Marsh after a year, he had a number of discussions with the local Anglican clergyman, who later called Fox mad and spoke against him. He continued travelling and discussing religion with clergy and any who were interested in religious thinking.
This resulted in him developing ideas such as:
  • Rituals can be ignored (baptism)
  • Anyone has the right to minister including women and children.
  • God "dwelleth in the hearts of his obedient people"
  • Religious experience is not confined to a church building -"steeple-house". Worship was valid in fields and orchards.
  • Believers could follow their own inner guide rather than rely on a strict reading of Scripture or the word of clerics.
  • No distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Trinity)
In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly and a group started to follow him around which became the Society of Friends. Some of the Friends also started advocating Fox's teachings and, as uncompromising preachers, they were violently attacked in some places.
Religion was in flux with many rival denominations/sects meeting during Civil War (1642–1651) including the Congregationalists, the Baptists, Calvinists, Calvinistic Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchists, the Seekers and the Muggletonians.
Between 1650 and 1660 many new groups of “Friends” were established around England, particularly following Fox's "Vision" on Pendle Hill (1652)and his “conversion” of local groups of “Seekers” and his alliance with the Fells who were fundamental in the organisation of the movement.
Fox and the Friends were subject to prosecution as they
  • didn't hesitate to complain about judge's decisions considered morally wrong;
  • campaigned against the paying of tithes;
  • asserted that the established church was unnecessary;
  • refused to swear oaths (particularly of allegiance) or take up arms;
  • refused to use or acknowledge titles, take hats off in court or doff hats or bow to those who considered themselves socially superior such as the aristrocracy.
Fox was imprisoned several times:
  • Nottingham in 1649
  • Derby in 1650 - he was imprisoned for blasphemy. A judge mocked Fox's exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord", calling him and his followers "Quakers"
  • Carlisle 1653
  • London 1654
  • Launceston 1656
  • Lancaster 1660
  • Leicester 1662
  • Lancaster again and Scarborough 1664–1666
  • Worcester 1673–1675
Quakers were subject to various charges
  • Blasphemy;
  • Causing a disturbance;
  • Travelling without a pass;
  • Unauthorised worship;
  • Restoration, and the Quaker Act 1662 specially directed against people, who refused to take the oath of allegiance.
Fox travelled extensively, visiting Ireland (1666), America (1671), the West Indies (1677)and the Netherlands and Germany (1684), setting up new groups of Friends. George Fox died on 13th January 1691 in London.
The Society of Friends that he had founded (Quakers) would be responsible for establishing the anti-slavery movement, prison reform, demands for social justice, equal rights for women and children, consensus decision making and the promotion of a strong work ethic based on treating all involved fairly. (Quakers founded Barclays & Lloyds banks, Clark’s shoes, Cadbury, Rowntrees and Fry’s chocolate). In 1947 the Quakers became the only religion to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Influence of Fox’s teachings

The teaching of George Fox that there was something ‘of God in every person’ and that all are equal was revolutionary for his day. Most religions had been hierarchical and used to support the authority of the hierarchies of the state and its established religion. While his movement attracted disapproval from some, others such as William Penn and Oliver Cromwell viewed Fox with respect. By the time of his death in 1691, the Quaker movement had 50,000 followers.
William Penn (1644 - 1718) established Pennsylvania 1682 as a Quaker commonwealth run under Quaker principles. He was the first to call for a union of the English colonies and the “Pennsylvania Frame of Government” and “Charter of Liberties” inspired much of the US Constitution. These documents limited the power of the governor and stipulated two houses for the legislature, fair trials by jury, protection of minority rights, freedom of religion and free elections. They incorporated an amendable constitution and bill of rights.
The ideas of Fox, the Society of Friends and Penn influenced both Voltaire (who spent time with Quakers during his exile in England) and Tom Paine (whose father was a Quaker). It could be said that the motto of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was to some degree inspired by the ideas of the Quakers. The constitution of Pennsylvania and the ideas of Tom Paine were influential in the American War of Independence and the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights. The American revolution and Quaker ideas together with those of both Voltaire and Tom Paine influenced thinking in pre-revolutionary France.
Certainly the Quakers were fundamental to the abolition of the slave trade together with legal slavery and they were strong supporters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which very much accords with Quaker thought.
I think it fair to claim that the thinking of this Leicestershire born shepherd had a greater impact on the development of modern world than is generally appreciated.
Relevant links can be found at  http://leicestersecularsociety.org.uk/fox.php#hist