Sunday, June 13, 1652, about 1,000 people gathered on an isolated hillside in rural northern England to listen to a little-known but charismatic young man named George Fox preach. The sermon lasted three hours. It is always risky to look for a particular date on which a religious movement started, but many choose this as the time Quakerism was born.
Some 349 years later, my family was staying in Briggflatts Meetinghouse, located just a few miles from Firbank Fell. This meetinghouse is only a stone’s throw up the lane from Borrats, a stately old home owned by a Separatist justice of the peace in 1652 and one of the first places Fox visited in the area. Each June, Friends in the region honor this important event in our collective history by holding a "Fox’s Pulpit Meeting." Fox’s Pulpit is the name given to the rock, now marked with a plaque, on which Fox stood during his sermon. Usually this meeting for worship is held in the sheep pasture where the original sermon was delivered, but because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic last summer, the meeting had to be moved indoors to Briggflatts Meeting. Friends were busily planning, with other religious groups in the area, a special commemoration for the 350th anniversary, which occurred this summer.
We went looking for Fox’s Pulpit the day after we arrived. On our way back from Sedbergh (where Fox had preached just outside the parish church during a large hiring fair), we turned up the wrong narrow country lane. Later, back at the meetinghouse, I found a map on the wall and was able to figure out the correct route. While my wife Annie was putting our seven-year-old to bed, I asked our fourteen-year-old, Nate, to join me on a walk. The moon was full and the air was warm. When I told him I’d figured out where we had gone wrong earlier in the day, Nate exclaimed, "Let’s go now!"
I pondered a few minutes, full of adult concerns. We had only intended to walk down to the end of the little lane where the meetinghouse is located. I was pretty sure I could find my way to Fox’s Pulpit this time but had no idea really how long it would take. Would Annie worry if we were out a long time? I took the leap: how can you turn down a wide-eyed teenager full of enthusiasm to hike by moonlight to the birthplace of his faith community?
It was a long hike and I got pretty winded keeping up with my athletic son as we pressed up the long climb to the fell. But this time we didn’t get lost. We gazed ruefully over the stone wall to the boulder with its marker and decided, reluctantly, to honor the health department’s rules. The fragrance of the fell filled our lungs. Only a few farmhouse lights pierced the darkness, now that the moon had hidden in the clouds. Only the wind and an occasional bleat stood out in the silence. (The area may well be less populated today than it was 350 years ago.) We held our own brief two-person worship celebrating that great day at the edge of the lane before commencing our return hike to Briggflatts, taking great leaps on the lane’s steep drop off the fell.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of George Fox’s 1652 visit to Westmoreland for who we are and who we could be as Friends. There are three key things that we can say about that event. All speak powerfully to vital spiritual challenges facing our Quaker movement today.
First and foremost, the decision to go to Westmoreland and preach at Firbank involved a choice by Fox and his tiny group of followers to reach out beyond its boundaries.
Deborah Haines, clerk of Friends General Conference’s Advancement and Outreach Committee, has written of Firbank that it is good to remember that Quakerism was born in outreach. Surely this was one of the greatest outreach events of all time! In the space of a few months, the Quaker movement not only grew from a handful of believers to several thousand, but recruited a large share of the dynamic cadre of leaders at the center of its first generation.
Fox’s ministry did not begin in Westmoreland that summer. He had spent a year in jail in Derby for his heretical preaching. He already had important followers working with him, such as Elizabeth Hooten and Richard Farnsworth. But his group was tiny up to that point.
The loosely-organized Separatist community of Westmoreland Seekers was largely incorporated en masse into the new Quaker Movement following the summer months Fox spent in the area. Several of the key leaders in the new movement, including John Audland and Francis Howgill, trace their convincement to the Firbank sermon. The convincement of Edward Burroughs in Kendal and Margaret Fell in Ulverston followed within a few weeks. It is unlikely that our Quaker movement would have been born without Fox’s ready response to his vision on Pendle Hill earlier that year of a "great people to be gathered" in the North.
I confess to some lack of enthusiasm for the word "outreach" itself. Liberal Friends give at least lip service to the need for outreach, but are generally deeply opposed to evangelism. The idea of reaching out beyond our own community is important, of course, but the word outreach seems to connote an outwardly-motivated obligation to try to recruit new members into an organization. In contrast, the word evangelism denotes an inwardly-generated compulsion to share the good news of one’s own experience with others.
Although the faith of Fox and other early Friends was very different from that of modern evangelical Protestants, it is undeniable that first-generation Friends were evangelical to a degree that would appall most liberal Friends today. These early leaders of our movement felt a deep spiritual necessity to share their religious convictions with others who did not (as yet) share their faith. This was in part because they felt unabashedly convinced of the truth of their own beliefs. It was also presumably due to their strong concern for the spiritual state of those believing and practicing differently.
I would not claim to understand what makes Friends today (myself included) so reluctant to share our beliefs and experience with non-Friends. It may be in part that we are reluctant to stand out as being too peculiar. We seem willing enough, however, to be out of the mainstream on secular issues like not flying flags from our car antennas!
I suspect that the biggest block in me to sharing my spiritual life with others is my anxiety to avoid coming off as anything like a Jehovah’s Witness. I am so afraid of being considered (by whom: myself? other Friends? God?) as pushy and self-righteous that too often I hold back from sharing my deepest beliefs and experiences at all with non-Friends. Many Friends also fear that by sharing, we will somehow take away others’ freedom to believe what is right for them.
And yet there are certainly as many people out there longing for the Quaker message today as there were in Fox’s time. The invitation to the Fell sermon was not limited to card-carrying Westmoreland Seekers. Fox and the Valiant Sixty were led to communicate their message to those outside their circle of followers in homes, marketplaces, taverns, courtrooms, military barracks, palaces, and the worship services of other Christian groups. They did so to people of every class, including Native Americans and the Turkish Sultan, whom most people at the time considered highly unlikely to grasp their message. They were utterly unafraid of being ignored, rejected, ridiculed, or persecuted for trying to explain what they found to be Truth.
Deborah Haines has written that outreach is about welcoming the stranger among us—the one we least expect to respond to our Quaker message. The stranger is waiting outside our meetinghouse walls.
What will it take for this to change? What will it take for us to care so deeply about the host of seekers longing for Truth that surround us in the world today—until the barriers fall away to reaching out with all the passion that filled Fox and his companions’ hearts 350 years ago?
The second key characteristic of Firbank is that it involved a response to spiritual authority.
Why did so many Seekers and other Northern Separatists enter the Quaker movement during that summer in 1652? When a listener was chastising Fox for preaching outdoors in the Sedbergh churchyard, Francis Howgill silenced him by declaring that "This man [Fox] speaks with authority, and not as the scribes." William Sewel concludes his account of the Firbank sermon with: "Thus preached G. Fox, and his ministry was at that time accompanied with such a convincing power, and so reached the hearts of the people, that many, and even all the teachers of that congregation, who were many, were convinced of that Truth which was declared to them."
The Westmoreland Seekers rejected as false the spiritual authority of the Church of England and of the independent sects of the day. They were waiting for true spiritual authority. When they encountered it in the person and preaching of George Fox, they responded whole-heartedly. His message that he had encountered Christ in an immediate, experiential way, available to teach and lead them Himself, struck a deep resonant chord within them. They responded by joining the nascent Quaker movement.
As Friends we hold dear the access that each of us has to this Inward Christ, or Light, or Spirit. This radical egalitarianism can serve us ill, however, if it leads us to crush spiritual authority when it arises among us. Past generations of Friends recognized the need to acknowledge and nurture spiritual gifts in our midst, gifts that vary greatly from member to member. A universal ministry can all too easily deteriorate into a ministry of none.
The term "weighty Friend" was often used pejoratively when I first heard it in the 1960s, implying a stodgy, older (probably birthright) Friend resistant to fresh ideas and change. The term originally had a very different meaning. It referred to the ability of a clerk in a business meeting to recognize and respond to spiritual authority (or "weight") when it appeared there. Failure to recognize, respond to, and nurture spiritual authority leads to the impoverishment of our meetings for worship and business—and the likelihood that those with gifts of spiritual leadership will be discouraged and sidetracked from exercising those gifts that we need so desperately among us.
If our movement is to flourish and grow, the pendulum needs to swing back toward recognition and celebration of spiritual authority when it arises in our midst. We do not need to abandon our commitment to the universal ministry in order to do so. We do need to recover our ability as a faith community to discern God breaking in through the words and lives of others among us.
The third key to Firbank is that it entailed the choice of religious community over an individual spiritual path.
Although Fox may have remained "first among equals" throughout his life among Friends, the rich diversity of women and men making up the Valiant Sixty guaranteed that Quakerism was a true movement and not simply a one-man show. Even if Fox’s robust body had not enabled him to live through the brutal beatings and imprisonment that cost the lives of many other early Quaker leaders, it seems likely that the movement would have lived on and flourished after the 1652 influx of leadership.
In incorporating the Westmoreland Seeker movement into his group of followers, Fox made a decisive choice to build a coherent movement rather than remain a lonely voice decrying the dismal state of religious groups existing at the time. The Seeker movement also made a clear decision in 1652 to move from informal association of like-minded people to a clearly defined community knit together by the effort to be corporately accountable to God.
Although we do not know a great deal about the Westmoreland Seekers, it seems that they shared with Quakers the rejection of outward rites and rigid creeds. If they had not been brought into a more coherent movement, it seems unlikely that they would be remembered or have survived any more than a host of other small Separatist sects at the time. In joining the Quaker movement, the Seekers became finders—they had found that Fox’s ministry rang true for them. They were choosing to be part of a community with leadership, with coherent theology, and with clear standards of conduct.
But their choice was not simply one of community, rather one of community under the direct leadership of the living Inward Christ. The unique discovery of this new movement was that they could discern God’s voice as a community—in their worship, and eventually in their gatherings—to make decisions together. Although the formal structure of "Gospel Order" with its several levels of meetings to discern God’s voice was still years away, it is apparent that Friends began practicing corporate discernment in more informal ways from the earliest days of their movement. And Friends basically became a movement rather than a collection of individual followers in 1652.
In contrast, there is a powerful bias towards spiritual individualism in our Quaker movement today. There are both internal and external reasons for this. Many Friends in the early 20th-century reacted strongly against what they saw as the excessive corporate discipline of meeting life, with its elders and recorded ministers too concerned with the theological purity of meeting members and with organs hidden in their attics. In addition, we live in a society that holds personal freedom in high regard. It is important to recognize the impact that this cultural bias has on our attitudes as Friends today towards corporate accountability.
As a result of both these influences, it is unclear whether there is anything a Friend can do today to elicit the explicit concern of other members in one’s meeting. Many meetings also feel it is beyond their right to establish any clear boundaries that would exclude potential meeting recruits. Most Friends today prefer to remain "seekers" and reject the corporate spiritual life that evolved in the Quaker movement born at Firbank.
Will Friends today be open to God leading us back into community with each other in vital, fresh ways, so that we become once again a movement led by the inward voice of Christ? Will our 350th birthday be an opportunity for rediscovering the spiritual power of Fox and his companions—or just a chance to honor and remember them? Can I capture in my heart the boundless energy with which my son Nate led me in search of Fox’s pulpit and redirect it into carrying Truth to others who are waiting today to hear the Quaker message communicated with passion and authority? With God’s help, anything is possible!