The son of a weaver, George Fox was born in July 1624 at Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire. He became a cobbler with little book learning beyond the Bible. When he was 19, a voice told him to “forsake all”; so he became a dropout, wandering about England in a solitary quest for religious truth. Gradually he clarified his beliefs, convinced that he derived them from direct experiences of God’s light within him, “without the help of any man, book, or writing.”
He was motivated by a sense of direct communication with the Light, or Holy Spirit, described later in his Journal: “Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.” [Nickalls ed., The Journal of George Fox, p.27]
He and his companions called themselves “Children of Light”, but they ran into trouble with the authorities, and found a new name: “This was Justice Bennet of Derby that first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God, and this was in the year 1650.” [Nickalls ed. p.58] In 1652 he found “a great people to be gathered” around Westmorland and Furness, where people called “Seekers” were much in sympathy.
Holding that every man and woman could be similarly enlightened by Christ, Fox began “declaring truth” in public and developed into a dynamic, fanatically sincere speaker. He preached in barns, houses, and fields and in churches “after the priest had done”; but because his zeal sometimes led him to interrupt services, he was imprisoned as a disturber of public order. Inspired by the “Inner Voice,” he became spiritual leader of some Nottinghamshire former Baptists but then went to the north of England, preaching, praying, and protesting at every opportunity. In 1652 he trudged about Yorkshire, a sturdy figure in leather breeches wearing a broadbrimmed hat over the ringlets of hair which fell to his shoulders.
Though Fox denounced creeds, forms, rites, external sacraments, and a “man made” ministry, he became something of a negative formalist, refusing to doff his hat to anyone or to call months and days by their pagan names; and he used “thee” and “thou” instead of “you.” Such flouting of conventions provoked intense opposition. Fox was repeatedly beaten by rowdies and persecuted by the pious, and the forces of law and order imprisoned him eight times for not conforming to the establishment. But his indomitable courage and his emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of religion won him converts, even among his persecutors.
Paradoxically, this opponent of institutional religion showed a genius for organizing fellowships of Friends cornplete with unpaid officers, regular meetings, and funding arrangements. As a result, though his message was universal, individualistic, and spiritual, Fox founded what, by 1700, became the largest Nonconformist sect in England. In 1654 he organized a team of some 60 men and women as a mission to southern England. After converting many there, he extended his own preaching to Scotland (1657-1658), Wales (1657), Ireland (1669), the West Indies and America (1671-1673), the Netherlands (1677 and 1684), and Germany (1677). By 1660 he was issuing epistles to the Pope, the Turkish Sultan, and the Emperor of China. He was a strange mixture of fanaticism and common sense, selflessness and exhibitionism, liberalism and literalism.
In 1669 Fox married the outstanding female leader in the Quaker movement, Margaret, widow of his friend and patron Thomas Fell. But God’s service took priority over their partnership, which was interrupted by his missions, his imprisonments in 1673-1675, and his supervision of the movement. He died in London on Jan. 13, 1691.
Fox composed hundreds of tracts for his tirnes, defending principles of the Friends and exposing other men as sinners and ministers of the “Great Whore of Babylon;” but it is by his Journal, a record of his day to day activities and thoughts, that he is best remembered.