“And when all my hopes in [dissenting people] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I 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.” —George Fox, 1647
What did the word Christ actually mean to George Fox? This foundational question came to me during silent worship one morning. A former Unitarian Universalist from childhood, the word Christ has been tainted for me, associated with those elements of Christianity I have felt most squeamish or heartbroken or confused about: the Crucifixion, the Crusades, communion, for example. So this Spirit-generated prompt intrigued me. Might such an exploration offer “great openings,” as Fox would say?
I began my exploration by reading the Journal of George Fox, which I’d never read cover to cover before; I quickly realized I needed a timeline. A convinced Friend since 1982 and descended from an Andover, Massachusetts woman accused of witchcraft in 1692 about whom I’d done lengthy research, I was fairly conversant with seventeenth-century English and American history. Still, it was grounding to be reminded, for example, that in 1625 (the year after Fox was born and six years after the first enslaved people were forcibly transported to Britain’s North American colonies) 35,000 people died from the bubonic plague in London; John Milton began his study of Latin, Greek, and Italian at Christ’s College, Cambridge; and Charles I, who would be beheaded when Fox was 25, became king. How charismatic, how relatable, how prophetic—in the Old Testament sense of that word—Fox must have been to attract the attention of his exhausted, fearful, and profoundly unsettled listeners!
But what could Fox have said that so moved those profoundly unsettled people? And how might Fox’s Christ-centered language speak to our (exhausted, fearful, unsettled) condition today?
In her 2011 New England Yearly Meeting’s Bible Half-Hours, Maggie Edmondson talked about “portals” when culling the Bible for references to ecology and environmental concerns. My portal into Fox’s teachings and writings has been Lewis Benson’s “George Fox’s Teaching About Christ,” a 1975 essay published by Quaker Religious Thought and recommended by one of my spiritual advisors, Marty Grundy, Quaker historian and member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting. What a gift to discover this twentieth-century Friend who, as a 2009 Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting newsletter put it, “has done more than anyone else to study and make available to modern Friends the revolutionary, empowering, transforming message of Fox and early Friends.”
I must confess there were times reading Benson’s essay when I felt as though I were staring at a random-dot autostereogram: those wriggly line drawings that if perceived correctly, i.e. wall-eyed or cross-eyed, suddenly reveal something. I’d read the same paragraph again and again, unable to see what Benson wanted me to see until, ah-hah, a 3-D picture emerged: Fox’s revolutionary, empowering, transforming message! What follows are the bits of that vibrant picture Lewis drew that most spoke to me.
Not surprising, Fox often used Christ language some might find challenging; words like Savior, Priest, and King. (How the word King landed on the ears of his fellow seventeenth-century English citizens is worthy of its own essay!) But notice in this passage that Benson quotes, the point is made that Christ was functional in all his offices and, far more important, that Christ is present, alive, accessible. Fox has strung together a list of signifiers, some opposites paired together:
dead and is alive again, and lives forevermore, a prophet, counselor, bishop and shepherd, a circumciser and baptizer, a living rock and foundation for evermore, the beginning and ending, the first and last, the Amen.
Here was my first opening: In Fox’s rhetoric, I hear permission to use whatever signifiers most speak to me. (Circumciser is not one of them!) But I also hear his present-tense verbs. Repeatedly Fox declared, “Christ is come to teach his people himself”: teachings, Fox reminds us, that are authorized by God, (Who says of His Son, “in whom I am well pleased” [Mt. 3:17]) and accessible, available, and free.
This was and still is a present-tense revolutionary. Christ is here, now, available, and present. Benson writes:
“[Fox’s] hearers were familiar with the offices of Christ as priest and king and had been taught to think of his saviorhood primarily in terms of his priestly act of sacrifice on the cross. But when Fox told them that Christ is also savior as he is teacher and prophet, they were hearing something they had not heard before. . . Fox was preaching that Jesus is savior as he is revealer and he was giving full weight to the importance of the knowledge of Christ as he is present in the midst of his people in all his offices” (Benson’s emphasis).
And while I will continue to use other language—like “sweet baby Jesus!”—to express my own abiding sense of spiritual accompaniment, I now have a deeper love of this human embodiment of Spirit’s immediacy, and a deeper appreciation of Fox’s revolutionary, transformative message.
On numerous occasions Fox talked about the “Long night of apostasy”; I’ll let Benson explain what that means:
Of course it is not the word “apostasy” that is important, but the claim. Was there indeed a gospel which was preached during the lifetime of the first Christian apostles, which went into eclipse when Christianity moved from Palestine into the regions to the west, where there was a great influence from Greek and Roman cultures? It is generally agreed that the gospel was, at the least, somewhat altered in emphasis by this move; this has been considered by most historians as a positive development, because it helped Christianity to prosper in the Greek and Roman culture. But the question remains: was anything lost in the transition? Fox says, Yes, the main thing was lost in the transition. The gospel, the power of God, was lost.
Might the “Christ” quoted by those first apostles resemble the “pre-Easter Jesus” Marcus Borg so wonderfully elucidates in his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time? For me, being able to affirmatively answer that question is not nearly as important as being reminded how Borg’s slender, scholarly work was, years ago, another “great opening” for me. It allowed me to become a cafeteria Christian who took what fed me—Matthew 25:35, for example, or the story of the Prodigal Son—and leave the rest on the steam table. I can be nourished; I can be moved by the paradoxical, parental love—and tragic loss—exemplified in John 3:16’s “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.” And I can let the second half of John’s sentence remain uneaten on my plate.
But what of that uneaten portion? What of “that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life”? Is my reluctance to swallow that second half of the sentence simply my lifelong queasiness with Christianity’s preoccupation with death? My bewilderment that Christ’s message of compassion and inclusion and love is so often subsumed by the story of how he died and was reborn? Benson notes:
Fox said the symbol of the cross had become a “lying sign . . . If Christ died for you, then why do you not put . . . on Christ and live to him and own him to be your teacher and your prophet, shepherd and bishop and priest to open to you, to feed and oversee you, and you to live to Christ and not to yourselves?”
Sweet baby Jesus! As the UU Sunday school student who had been taught that Easter was nothing more than a pagan holiday, a myth, a charming metaphor about spring and renewal, yet who had always yearned for something more, something beyond metaphor, Fox’s present-tense (conditional!) question offers the Easter story I have always craved. In very simple language, Fox asks me to weigh the expiatory death of Christ with my own rebirth, my own renewal, my own willingness to open myself to Spirit when, for example, in the silence of worship, I again ask, “What am I asked to do?”
When Fox heard that heart-stirring voice, he was 23 years old. Much later in life, he and Margaret Fell offered another descriptive, far different from his earlier “Savior” or “Priest” or “King” language: “Servant,” as in “the Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53. Reading this in Benson’s essay, my heart leapt with joy! For here was a Christ-word that speaks to me in a way King or Circumciser never will.
Twenty-first century Quakers may find it strange that this word so chained to slavery, obsequiousness, and oppression could open me up to Christ. But Isaiah’s compassion for this blameless servant, who “grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in parched ground” (and who was, in fact, a metaphoric stand-in for Israel, servant of God) moves me as, apparently, it moved Margaret and George Fox.
Much like the fascinating conversation I’d overheard at a party once, when two dancers shared their respective modern-dance teacher history, so Benson traces the lineage of this touching, liberation-theology descriptive. He references Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman who’d noted that for the apostle Peter, Servant “was a title for Jesus comparable to the title Christ.” And Benson ends with “Fox and Margaret Fell were strongly influenced by the speeches of Peter and Stephen.” (It should be noted that for Fox, Christ-as-prophet’s lineage may be traced to before Isaiah: from Deuteronomy to Moses to Isaiah.)
Like you, perhaps I’d been familiar with much of the language of Isaiah 53 thanks to Handel’s Messiah (“Oh we like sheep” or “He was despised”), but had never read in its entirety this Old Testament story of Israel’s suffering as God’s servant. Led to do prison ministry for many years and having read Fox’s Journal and better acquainted with his horrific suffering in the excrement-filled dungeons of seventeenth-century England, I welled up at verse eight: “Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, and how he was cut off from the world of living men . . . ?” Here is a Christ I can love.
But perhaps, at Borg’s suggestion, I should say “believe in,” as that verb’s Greek and Latin roots mean “giving one’s heart to.” Employing “Lord” language, which immediately challenges me to be open-hearted, Borg continues:
Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about him. Rather, it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the Lord who is also Spirit.
Words, it’s all about words, isn’t it? Accessible words; words that guide us; words that can open us up to that living, present, prophetic Inner Teacher; words, whether in Isaiah’s or in Fox’s writings, it’s about words that let us hear a truly revolutionary, transforming, and powerful message. As Benson’s quoted string of Christ-words illustrates, Fox loved language, loved words, and used them well. This brings us, finally, to the Word/Logos and the prologue to the Gospel of John, which, Benson observes, Fox heavily drew upon. “In turning people from darkness to light Fox believed he was turning them to the word by which all things were made. . . . Salvation, the turning from darkness to light, comes by hearing and obeying that word.”
What did Word mean for Fox? “After 1678,” Benson writes, “Fox often repeated the phrase, ‘the light, which is the life in Christ the word, by whom all things were made and created.'” Fox recognized that word-that-became-flesh in Abraham; in Moses; and in Psalm 119, he believed word was the lamp at David’s feet. “By the word did the prophets speak forth divine things,” Fox declared.
So let us end with the exquisite beginning to the last gospel—which also offers us another word beloved by twenty-first-century Quakers: Light, a Christ-word Fox began to use after 1678:
When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; no single thing was created without him. All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines on the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.