George Fox and the Bible

Violet Oakley, George Fox on the Mount of Vision, 1950. Ink on paper. Courtesy of Friends Journal archives.

George Fox bequeathed to Friends a dual legacy concerning the Bible, a legacy that has been the source of unease, misunderstandings, and even separations through much of our history, and continuing into the present. Perhaps if we can appreciate Fox’s own understanding of the role of Scripture, we might be able to reconcile and transcend some of our differences toward the Bible.

On the one hand, compared to his contemporaries, Fox demoted the Bible from its place as the ultimate authority in all things religious. This is perhaps epitomized by words in Sydney Carter’s well-known “George Fox” song: “For the truth is more holy than the book to me.” There is of course some truthfulness to this. Fox never tired of pointing out that the Bible itself says that “the Word of God” is not the Bible but Christ. From his Journal: “For I told them what the Scriptures said themselves, that they were the words of God but Christ was the Word.” Fox made the extraordinary claim that his openings came to him independent of Scripture, though he also insisted that they were in agreement with Scripture:

These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter, but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate Spirit and power. . . [but] what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to [the Scriptures].”

It is this side of Fox that his Puritan opponents found scandalous—and which contemporary Liberal Friends emphasize.

On the other hand, Fox clearly knew the Bible well, and constantly used the Scriptures, appealing to them to support his various positions. Gerard Croese, one of Fox’s contemporaries, even made the claim in his The General History of the Quakers that “though the Bible were lost, it might be found in the mouth of George Fox.” Fox could be quite creative and sometimes surprisingly literal in his use of Scripture. This is the side of Fox’s legacy that programmed and Evangelical Friends lift up—and that Liberal Friends today sometimes find scandalous.

Quaker scholar Douglas Gwyn noted in his biography of Fox, Apocalypse of the Word, originally published in 1986, that “like his writing, Fox’s sermons are packed with phrases from throughout the Bible. . . . [Fox] does not so much cite scripture as breathe it.” Fox’s style is densely scriptural, stringing together biblical allusions, evoking a collage of images, weaving together a very complex tapestry by combining phrases and images from different parts of the Bible in creative and evocative ways. This is not always apparent to contemporary Quakers, as Fox generally did not cite chapter and verse, and so depends on his hearers to “get” the allusions. In one telling incident recounted in his Journal, Fox was debating with “the chief constable and some other professors”:

I took a Bible and showed and opened to them the Scriptures, and showed them chapter and verse and dealt with them as one would deal with a child in swaddling clothes. [But] they that were in the light of Christ and spirit of God did know when I spoke Scripture, though I did not mention chapter and verse after the priest’s form unto them.

Because Friends today tend to be much less biblically literate than those living in Fox’s day, and certainly less familiar with the language of the King James Version of the Bible, we often miss these allusions. For example, in his Journal, Fox frequently summarizes his preaching by saying, “I opened the Scriptures to them and our principles, and turned them from the darkness to the light of Christ.” Opening the Scriptures alludes to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who after the risen Christ appeared to them later recalled how he had “opened to us the scriptures” (Luke 24:32 [KJV]). Turned them from the darkness to the light comes from the Apostle Paul’s account of his own encounter with the risen Christ, as he explained to King Agrippa how he was sent to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18 [KJV]).

As a further example of how Fox “does not so much cite scripture as breathe it,” consider the following passage from early in his Journal. Here, with the help of a concordance to the King James Version of the Bible, I have italicized the words and phrases found in the Bible, and given chapter and verse in parentheses; of course, neither would have been in Fox’s original.

Now I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive (Acts 26:17–18) Christ Jesus, for to as many as should receive him in his light, I saw that he would give power to become the sons of God (John 1:12), which I had obtained by receiving Christ. And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth (John 16:12), and so up to Christ and God, as they had been who gave them forth. And I was to turn them to the grace of God, and to the Truth in the heart, which came by Jesus (John 1:17), that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them into salvation (Titus 2:11), that their hearts might be established (Heb. 13:9) by it, and their words might be seasoned (Col. 4:6), and all might come to know their salvation (Luke 1:77) nigh (Psalms 85:9). For I saw that Christ had died for all men (II Cor. 5:15), and was a propitiation (I John 2:2) for all, and had enlightened all men (John 1:9) and women with his divine and saving light, and that none could be a true believer but who believed in it (John 12:36). I saw that the grace of God, which brings salvation, had appeared to all men (Titus 2:11), and that the manifestation of the Spirit of God was given to every man to profit withal (I Cor. 12:7).

In this one paragraph, fully 44 percent of the words are taken directly from the King James Version of the Bible.

When Fox speaks of opening the Scriptures, “opening” suggests a key, one that unlocks something hidden. Fox says that “the people had the Scriptures, but they were not turned to the spirit which should let them see that which gave them forth, which is the key to open them, the spirit of God.” So it is the Spirit that provides the key that unlocks what is hidden. Fox is constantly talking about the necessity of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture, of being “in that spirit by which they were given forth.” But what is this spiritual interpretation? Can we say anything about it, or is it entirely subjective?

Photo by AGCuesta

One important aspect of this spiritual interpretation is Fox’s constant stress on the inward meaning of Scripture. For Fox, things are not true because they are in the Bible, but rather the Bible is true because it corresponds to his own experience. He is saying that to come to a spiritual understanding of the Scriptures, one must experience inwardly the events that are depicted outwardly and historically. Like most of his contemporaries, Fox no doubt believed that the Bible was literally and historically true; he had no reason to believe otherwise. But what continues to impress me is how little interest he had in that outward history. Over and over, what captivates him is the inward meaning, the way in which the outward events resonate with his own experience.

As an example, consider the well-known passage from Isaiah 40:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.

Scholars tell us that this passage originally referred to the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian exile in 539 BCE on the Royal Road, a road specifically constructed by Persian kings to spare their couriers the inconvenience of having to travel up and down hills and valleys. Of course this passage is later taken by Christians to refer to John the Baptist, who came to prepare a way for the Messiah (and so is quoted in all four Gospels). But note how Fox turns the meaning of the passage inward. Reporting on a heated conversation with some Baptists in 1649, he writes:

I asked them whether their mountain of sin was brought down and laid low in them, and their rough and crooked ways made smooth and straight in them, for they looked upon the Scriptures as meaning outward mountains and ways. But I told them they must find them in their own hearts; which they seemed to wonder at.

In this final example of Fox’s inward emphasis, he seems to anticipate modern psychology’s notion of projection, the way we defend our ego by projecting unwanted aspects of ourselves onto others:

I saw the state of those, both priests and people, who, in reading the Scriptures, cry out much against Cain, Esau, and Judas, and other wicked men of former times, mentioned in the Holy Scriptures; but do not see the nature of Cain, of Esau, of Judas, and those others, in themselves. And these said it was they, they, they that were the bad people; putting it off from themselves; but when some of these [later] came, with the light and spirit of Truth, to see into themselves, then they came to say, “I, I, I, it is I myself that have been the Ishmael, and the Esau,” etc. . . . But when these, who were so much taken up with finding fault with others, and thought themselves clear from these things, came to look into themselves, with the light of Christ thoroughly to search themselves, they might see enough of this in themselves; and then the cry could not be, it is he, or they, as before, but I and we are found in these conditions. . . . I saw also how people read the Scriptures without a right sense of them, and without duly applying them to their own states.

These examples suggest that Fox read the Bible parabolically—like a parable. When we read the parables of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, our first question is not, did this really happen? Rather we ask, is this true? Or even better, we ask, in what way is this true for me? Does this correspond to my own experience? Fox seemed to read not just the parables but the entire Bible as a parable, constantly asking how it applied to his own condition.

This relentless stress on the inward meaning of Scripture leads Fox to place his trust not in the authority of Scripture but in the authority of the Inward Light of Christ, the Inner Teacher, the “truth of the heart,” or as the psalmist says, “truth in the inward parts” (51:6). It may have been his experience that led him to this Inward Teacher, but Fox finds ample support for this inward turn in the words of Scripture.

Perhaps now we can begin to understand why Fox’s language is so densely biblical. His choice of words is important; this is not simply the way that everyone talked back then. In a real sense, he uses biblical language not just to describe his experience but to evoke his experience. Fox had prophetic openings because the language of the prophets was available to him. He used the language of the apostles because he saw himself as an apostle, one who had met the risen Christ. By his choice of language, Fox is showing us that he saw himself and his mission in the context of an ongoing story, stretching back to Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. Their story was his story, and so their language came naturally to him.

It is this subjective experience of living within the larger biblical narrative that is crucial to Fox’s spiritual understanding of the Scriptures. It is possible only from the inside, when by a process of identification and internalization we come to make the biblical story our own. Fox is reading the Bible not as a story about long-ago events but as a story about himself. Perhaps that should be the genuine legacy of George Fox and the Bible.

Thomas Gates

Thomas Gates is a longtime member of Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting. He is currently the Kenneth L. Carroll scholar for biblical and Quaker studies at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., where he is working on a book project that is part Bible study, part dialogue with early Friends, and part primer on René Girard’s mimetic theory.

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