George Fox at 400

Cover art by Robert Henry

The human mind is a curious thing. To facilitate our own understanding and to communicate with others, the human mind will sort, name, and categorize all that we perceive and encounter. We identify starting and ending points. The mind creates shortcuts and elevates symbols to represent complex ideas. It is around these symbols, often, that we organize ourselves into groups and societies. I am writing this, and you are reading it, thanks to George Fox, an English man whose time on this earth 400 years ago set into motion what would become an enduring global movement, the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers.

In this special issue of Friends Journal, Quakers from around the world share perspectives and studies of George Fox: Fox the man, Fox the mind, and Fox the symbol. Our contributors delve into what he believed . . . how he wrote and preached . . . what he inspired . . . what he overlooked . . . and what we have overlooked of Fox’s beliefs and qualities as generations of Friends have evolved and reconstituted Quakerism for each era.

I prefer to think of Fox as a passionate, fascinating, and committed human being. He was imperfect and self-contradictory at times, though who among us is not? Fox looms large; he contains multitudes. I reflect on the passage of Fox’s writing that resonates most strongly with me now:

And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

When he was in his early 30s, Fox dictated these words to Ann Downer, a Friend who had walked from London to Cornwall to help him. Fox at the time was jailed in Launceston Prison, a notoriously disgusting facility, on charges of having long hair and failure to pay the fine for not taking his hat off in court. This passage, to me, is so powerful in its guidance to live in such a way that it might benefit humankind and bring about the kingdom of God on earth. To imagine that these words came to him at such a time, in such a place! And that they would so inspire generations of Friends to work, live, worship, and walk in the Light.

It is not lost on me today that these words I find inspirational and foundational to my spiritual identity were part of a charge Fox was giving to Quaker ministers. If Fox speaks to my heart here, I suppose that makes me a minister. Perhaps you as well. And perhaps that’s the point: George Fox, 400 years old this year, would be okay with that.

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