Lessons from the Woman Who Mentored George Fox

English country woman, print by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1643. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Before my oldest daughter could drive, she was asked by our meeting to serve on the Ministry and Oversight Committee. At the time, there was no one so young on any other committee, but I remember her service (now some 30 years later) because she didn’t have her driver’s license as yet, and I recall driving her to the committee meetings. The faith of those older adults was not misdirected. She went on to serve not only on this committee but also to co-clerk the Friends General Conference (FGC) high school program; become a member of the FGC Gathering Planning Committee and American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Central Committee; and out of that work, built homes in South Dakota with an AFSC joint service project. Eventually, at 27 years of age, she clerked Fifty-seventh Street Meeting in Chicago, Illinois. It was during these years that I learned of Elizabeth Hooton (born 1600) and the role she played in listening to a young George Fox. I paid attention.

Not much has been written about Elizabeth Hooton. More than a century ago, Emily Manners wrote a book about her life, travels, and sufferings (Elizabeth Hooton: First Quaker Woman Preacher [1600–1672]), and about two decades ago, Marcelle Martin published an informative article, “Elizabeth Hooton: A Mother of Quakerism,” in Friends Journal (Feb. 2006). We know that in 1600 Hooton was born Elizabeth Carrier in Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, England, and that she married Oliver Hooton. The couple moved to the village of Skegby (located two miles west of Mansfield in the east Midlands) and had four children.

It is also known that by 1646 Hooton had left the established Church of England and become part of the local, more-radical Baptist community. Although multitudes of English Christians were demanding reform in the state church, it was still very dangerous to express dissatisfaction about its corruption. Members of rising dissident groups like the Baptists could be accused of heresy for meeting apart from the established church and baptizing each member afresh. However, most Baptist congregations were peaceful groups of believers following their consciences. They wanted to worship as informed by Scripture using the recently available English-language King James Bible. Hooton was a leader in the Skegby sect that allowed lay people to speak during service and encouraged women to preach. The meetings for worship were held in her home.

At the time that Fox was in Skegby, the Quaker faith was only beginning to unfold to him. By sharing these new and dangerous ideas in a safe place, Fox had the time to realize and describe Truth.

Around this same time, George Fox, at 19 years of age, had left his home in Fenny Drayton. His parents hoped he would settle down and marry or serve in the military; they could see he was unable to do these things but hadn’t known how to help him. They were disappointed when he’d left his shoemaking apprenticeship. He was an unhappy young man, seeking a faith that didn’t reek of the hypocrisy of his churchgoing family and neighbors and knowing more about what didn’t attract him than what did. As it was time for him to make it on his own, his parents supplied him with modest funds, and he started out, a solitary soul. As he wandered the region, the English Civil War raged about him. Most historians assume that he was so absorbed in his search for faith that it was the only life-and-death matter that concerned him.

Over the next three years, Fox engaged in conversations with all sorts of people, never staying long in any one place as he traveled throughout what today is called “the Lake District.” Often depressed, he was unsure of what he was doing or why. He knew he had disappointed his parents but was more worried about massive societal problems and his inadequacy to change them. He submitted to treatments with leeches and eventually visited a minister in hopes of finding comfort. Instead, he found no relief and was full of self-doubt and unworthiness.

When 22 years old, Fox walked south to the Midlands and Mansfield. He hadn’t yet preached in public, gone to jail for his convictions, met Margaret Fell, or had his vision on Pendle Hill. The sympathetic people Fox found in Mansfield suggested to him that he find Elizabeth Hooton, who was then 47 years old. Fox described her in his journal as a “very tender woman.” Marcelle Martin noted she was “open-minded and devout,” willing to “listen perceptively to his story,” and hear “the authority that comes from direct experience of the Divine.” In the information I found about Hooton, her initial time with Fox is only briefly mentioned. To find “the full nature of her important role,” we, as Martin suggested, must read between the lines. Doing this, I have imagined the nature of the formative conversations between the two of them. My attempt in The Kendal Sparrow, a 2019 historical novel about first Friends, is as follows:

“She invited me to sit mum with some others in the group that met regularly with her,” George was saying.

I joined in the deep hush and felt a great joy. I’d only ever sat alone to listen to the still, small voice—as is revealed in the Bible. But now, with these good people, these waiting people, I felt Spirit powerfully move throughout my whole being. We met often, for whole long times of quiet together, although occasionally someone would stand and share briefly on a feeling or observation. Man or woman, old or young. Silence would follow, people listening to what others had been moved to tell. I recollect even now that during one of those times, Elizabeth Hooton’s ministry was about the injustice of the poor, them expected to pay ministers for a sure spot in heaven. My heart opened to the Truth of it and I let images of those struggling and suffering wander in me until I felt the comfort of the holy time we were creating.

George swallowed, a hand wiping across his mouth and resting on his chin. . . . “It was important for me to have found Elizabeth Hooton,” George continued. . . . “In the next, important days, she and I were often together, just the two of us. She’s much my elder, but listened intently to my ideas—although they weren’t well-formed as yet. Still, she seemed to honestly value my emerging understanding of an inner, guiding voice and counseled me not to be distracted by the sermons of the Church ministers but rather to attend to my own leadings.

Quaakers vergadering. Fronti nolla fides. The Quakers meeting. Print (no date recorded). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

According to Emily Manners, Fox had some of his deepest religious experiences during his time with Hooton. He had been traveling almost constantly for three years, but in Skegby, he stopped. I wonder if this was in part because of the conversations he had with Hooton: was he now able to take risks as he fumbled to describe his emerging faith? At the time that Fox was in Skegby, the Quaker faith was only beginning to unfold to him. By sharing these new and dangerous ideas in a safe place, Fox had the time to realize and describe Truth. I imagine him uncertain of what language to use to explain concepts. Perhaps Hooton was able to paraphrase and restate what he was saying so that they were made clearer to both of them. I envision her as an impartial listener, offering support and sharing wisdom. Perhaps Fox trusted Hooton because, like his mother, she was of deep faith and offered nonjudgmental comments. Undoubtedly they worshiped as they sat often together, allowing space between their verbal exchanges and acknowledging the sacred role of the holy Spirit.

Later, when Fox reflected back on this time, he summarized its importance:

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less, and looked more after the dissenting people. And among them I saw there was some tenderness, and many of them came afterwards to be convinced, for they had some openings. But as I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e., hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

Fox saw in these challenging experiences how God was using him. As he observed people doing wicked things, he cried to the Lord:

“Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils”? And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions; how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.

Fox, of course, shared his openings in Skegby Meeting. He radiated generosity and charm, speaking mightily in the power of the Lord. I imagine him to have a strong, commanding voice, using metaphors and analogies to which the seekers could relate and vocabulary that was sufficiently basic. He was a country lad relating to simple people. Fox integrated Bible verses and explained them, helpful to many, especially the women, who couldn’t read the Scriptures for themselves. His ministry challenged those in attendance: compelling them to listen within, face their flaws, ask for forgiveness for their sins, and discern their leadings. The former Baptists agreed with much of what Fox emphasized, already believing that salvation was possible for each person, no matter their sex or class, and that tithes should no longer be paid to the Church of England. They no doubt appreciated the self-confidence Fox gained during this time.

Hooton never looked back. She accepted the gifts Fox offered and, despite opposition from her husband, left her family to follow in his footsteps. Some historians suggest that she was the first Quaker minister after Fox. She was arrested, jailed, and punished multiple times. Traveling in ministry for the next 25 years, Hooton died in Jamaica in 1672 while on a trip there with Fox and other Friends.

Older Friends have an important role in listening to the leadings of younger Friends, even if they are not always expressed coherently. How lucky we are that a 22-year-old George Fox met Elizabeth Hooton and that she listened deeply to him and encouraged his evolving faith.

To better understand how we, too, might take up the witness of young adult Friends (YAFs), I revisited the work of Matt Alton. In 2018, Alton and I were Eva Koch scholars at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England. I participated in one of the six qualitative research sessions this British young Adult Friend hosted. These eventually involved about 60 YAFs from local and national groups. Alton compiled the comments of participants and categorized them under specific headings, such as testimony and faith in action, worship, and spirituality and theology. The results were published in an article in the second 2019 issue of the UK Friends Quarterly.

One of Alton’s findings was that YAFs want to be full participants in the life and decision-making processes of Quakers at local and national levels. As was true with my eldest daughter, they want to be invited in so that the link between divine experiences in worship and our testimonies is made explicit. They want learning to take place in an intergenerational space, and to better understand “the development of the testimonies, how Quakers have spoken truth to power throughout the centuries, and what new ways are being found to make Quaker values active in the world.”

Participants in Alton’s sessions hungered for a method that would enable those in their meetings to constructively disagree. He found that YAFs thought there had been a “loss of plain speech” and that a “focus on tolerance and tiptoeing around issues” had occurred. Participants called for honesty around disagreements in our Quaker communities.

Alton suggested the Philosophy for Communities program developed by Rosie Carnall, another 2018 Koch scholar, whose work revolves around the need for Friends to deal with conflict. It is described in a 2018 article in The Friend. This method encourages Friends to be their true selves, rigorously share ideas, and promote positive disagreement. The philosophy for communities method promotes collaborating and therefore, the development of a resilient community.

Alton says, “Young adults hope that the future of Quakerism will involve us welcoming people into what can often be messy,” but that “will strengthen our capacity to be a progressive and dynamic faith.” As one woman in his study wrote, “Young adults have a willingness to hear about how it is electrifying to experience that inner stillness we access in Quaker Meeting” yet lacked confidence in theology and that their “way of doing religion” was the right way.

Older Friends have an important role in listening to the leadings of younger Friends, even if they are not always expressed coherently. How lucky we are that a 22-year-old George Fox met Elizabeth Hooton and that she listened deeply to him and encouraged his evolving faith.

Barbara Schell Luetke

Barbara Schell Luetke is both a member of Salmon Bay Meeting and of Madison Temple Church of God in Christ, both in Seattle, Wash. During the time of COVID-19, she attended North Seattle Friends Church (programmed). In 2019, QuakerPress of FGC published her novel, The Kendal Sparrow.

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