Few of us number Quakers among our regular acquaintances, but most people have heard of their movement and regard it with respect. History bequeathed a reputation to Quakerism for honesty, sincerity, consistency and industriousness; a reputation which outlasted their heyday as a popular movement. Their contribution to Western social conscience, to ethical business and to moral government is remembered in names like Cadbury, Clarke, Darby, Fry and Penn who, among many others, left their mark on a much wider area of society than was ever in membership of the Society of Friends. But, before any of these names acquired greatness the 'Friends' experienced a period of rapid growth, fervour and enthusiasm, and were perceived as a threat to national order and security. Quakers engaged in prophecy, healing and miracle working, and dared to risk denouncing the authorities of state and church. 'Friends' were beaten up in the streets, arraigned in the courts, imprisoned, flogged, banished and executed. Those are the times of which George Fox writes.
George Fox was the foremost spokesman for the Society of Friends during its most vigorous period of growth and popular appeal. Fox's journeys around the British Isles created a mileage record for travelling evangelism that would be unrivalled until Wesley swept through the country, almost a century later. Fox lived and worked during the period of the Civil War, unparalleled religious experimentation, Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. To read his journal is to experience these traumatic upheavals from the non-political viewpoint of a man who cared only for telling the truth.
Autobiography is now an established literary form, but The Journal of George Fox is an early example. It is a literary accomplishment because of its content, rather than its style, and a modern writer would have used a more narrative form. However, it is by no means obscure, nor does it feel dated (despite the language). It reads like a diary, with brief recollections interspersed with longer cameo anecdotes and occasional asides, which give fascinating insights into the man and the age he lived in. We meet the great 'Protector' himself, Oliver Cromwell, in direct conversation with Fox. We encounter King Charles II, Governor Winthrop of New England, General Monk and numerous soldiers, officers, judges, noblemen, religious leaders and ordinary people. We read of a 122 year old man, of a woman volunteering to replace Fox in prison, and of a man who foretold the Great Fire. Secular and religious people at every level of British society crossed paths with George Fox and experienced his outspoken incisiveness.
Fox was a man of strong opinions backed by impressive powers of reasoning. A judge who had this man in the dock before him might deserve our sympathy, so skilled was George Fox in grasping legal points and identifying weaknesses in the charges laid against him. Quakers would not take oaths, holding that our "yea should be yea and our no should be no". Picture, then, this skilled debater pressed by a court to swear an oath on the Bible. George asks a clerk to hand him a Bible, then says, "You have given me a book to swear on: and the book says … 'Swear not at all' … How chance that ye did not imprison the book that forbids to swear as well as me?"
Fox was often in court and argued his case with a vigour rarely seen in that time of minimal literacy. What he lacked in formal education he had made up in private study during his early years. George came from a humble background, the son of a weaver - although he was not particularly poor or deprived. His family lived in the Puritan tradition but, by the age of 25, the young Fox had already broken away from tradition and begun a life of itinerant preaching. He was not the sole founder of the Society of Friends (formed in 1652) but, by the early 1670's, he had become its best known adherent. He began dictating his journal in the middle of that same decade and completed it by 1679.
To read his book is to experience an adventure at a time of turmoil, when the Protestant church and British society were both still 'under construction'. The book brought colour to my understanding of movements, sects, and denominations that are still around today. And I came to love this genuinely honest buccaneer who could parry words with the best of his time. He could win debates by actions as well as words. On one occasion the authorities tried to force George and his Friends to attend the local 'steeplehouse' (Fox's name for the buildings used by churches). They thought for a while, then trooped in together and held a prolonged 'silent meeting'. So prolonged was the meeting that the authorities then became anxious to get the Friends out of the building! "And they was offended because they could not get them to the steeplehouses and they were offended again because they could not get them out again."
The Journal of George Fox frequently had me smiling with admiration for this man, who suffered with joy, rather than mere fortitude. There is no doubt that he suffered through persecution but, however dark his prison, there was never a sense of sorrow or complaining. The Journal of George Fox is altogether a joyful book, which opens a fascinating window on the man and the remarkable period of history in which he lived.