(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

William Penn’s preface to Thomas Ellwood’s edition of the Journal (1694) depicted George Fox as “a strong man, a new and heavenly-minded man, a divine and a naturalist, and all of God Almighty’s making.” Defending the master against detractors, he called attention to Fox’s unusual insight into persons (confirmed by the type of persons who chose to follow him), his extraordinary gifts in interpreting Scripture, his potency in prayer, his innocence and selflessness, his tirelessness in spreading his message and in service of others, and his penchant for organization and leadership.

Like other Quaker journals, Fox’s served an apologetic purpose, that is, to project Fox as a model of the behavior of Friends which, if imitated, could improve the human condition. Far from being a daily log of events, the “journal” presented vignettes that could illustrate the main features of this remarkable person and the movement that he began. The main body of the work recorded Fox’s life and work up to 1674; the remainder filled out the last years with letters and other data.

Fox related in the first part as much of his early life as would inform readers and thus praise God concerning “the dealings of the Lord with me, and the various exercises, trials, and troubles through which he led me in order to prepare and fit me for the work unto which he had appointed me.” His chief object would appear to have been to establish his character in response to criticism. Neighbors called his father “Righteous Christer.” His mother, Mary Lago, was “of the stock of the martyrs.” At an early age he developed “a gravity and stayedness of mind and spirit not usual in children”; by age eleven he “knew pureness and righteousness” in the sense of acting faithfully both “inwardly to God and outwardly to man.” Acquaintances commented, “If George says ’Verily’ there is no altering him.”

At nineteen Fox experienced a shock that triggered his prophetic ministry. At a local fair one of his cousins and a friend, both professing Christians, asked him to drink part of a jug of beer with them but then, as the alcohol took effect, teased him, demanding that whoever refused to drink should pay the entire cost. Not one for games, Fox threw down a groat and departed abruptly. Deeply disturbed, he perceived a calling to “forsake all, both young and old, and keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all.” For the next several years he became a “seeker,” agonizing day and night in a quest for “heavenly wisdom.” He experienced a series of “openings” or “considerations.” Education at Oxford or Cambridge was “not enough to make a man fit to be a minister of Christ.” The God who made heaven and earth does not dwell in temples or churches but in people’s hearts. God anoints one inwardly to interpret Scriptures and to teach. Women have souls just as men do and thus should be treated as equals. Not surprisingly, Fox reported, his first associate was a woman named Elizabeth Hooten, who joined him in 1647.

Nowhere that Fox turned—whether to priests of the Church of England or to dissenters—could he find any who, as he expressed it, “could speak to my condition.” Near despair after four years of wandering, he heard a voice say, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” He found this confirmed experimentally as he initiated his remarkable prophetic ministry in 1647. Vivid mystical experiences prepared him boldly to articulate his appeal for a devout and holy life. First a trickle and then a flood of conversions occurred, as Fox urged his hearers to turn from darkness to the Light of Christ within. However, he soon set off opposition, for he coupled his message with a social protest against doffing his hat and saying “thee” and “thou” without respect to class or station. “O, the rage and scorn, the heat and fury that arose! Oh, the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men!” However, Fox did not relent. He warned schoolteachers to tutor their charges in sobriety and thundered against “steeplehouses” and “hireling” priests.

At Nottingham in 1649 Fox was hauled off to prison for the first time when he interrupted a congregation at worship and preached that God does not dwell in a temple made with hands. The local sheriff, however, was so touched by him after a few days that he took Fox into his own home and began a ministry somewhat like Fox’s. This inflamed the local magistrates so much they had Fox arrested and taken to the common prison again. At Mansfield-Woodhouse his assault on...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)