For a pacifist, George Fox sure knew how to deliver a (figurative) slap to the face. The speech he delivered at Sedbergh, Cumbria, 350 years ago this week—a speech often cited as the beginning of the Friends, or Quaker, movement—stung every church in England. In his Journal, Fox recalls the 1,000-member assembly on June 13, 1652, like this:
I declared unto them that the Lord God had sent me to preach the everlasting gospel and Word of life amongst them, and to bring them off from all these temples, tithes, priests, and rudiments of the world, which had been instituted since the apostles' days, and had been set up by such as had erred from the Spirit and power the apostles were in. Very largely was I opened at this meeting, and the Lord's convincing power accompanied my ministry, and reached the hearts of the people, whereby many were convinced; and all the teachers of that congregation (who were many) were convinced of God's everlasting truth.
Fox's attack on established churches, which he derisively called "steeple-houses," had begun about four years earlier. Through visions and other ecstatic experiences, he had become convinced that most supposed Christians of his day, particularly clergy members, lacked the vital connection to God that he powerfully felt.
For example, when Fox prayed at a meeting of professors at Mansfield in 1648, "some of the professors said it was now as in the days of the apostles, when the house was shaken where they were." When a professor prayed, though, it "brought deadness and a veil over them." Fox's teaching to a congregation in Leicester "set them all on fire"; the pastor's negative reaction led to a pew-clearing brawl. Fox knew what his spiritual sense destined him for: "I was sent to turn people from darkness to the Light."
The Light, or "inner light," a metaphor given Fox by the Spirit but also drawn from John 1:9, is a sort of spark of divinity resident in all people. Quaker doctrines and practices flow from belief in this light. Quakers traditionally believe that the Spirit who inspired the Bible also inspires every believer, and that this direct inspiration, which cannot mislead, trumps all other forms of guidance. Quakers eschew violence, because assaulting another person means assaulting the light in him. They also believe strongly in social equality, because all people are spiritually equal. They make decisions by consensus rather than majority.
Classical Quakers have no appointed clergy or worship leaders, because the light shines in every man, woman, and child. Classical Quaker services consist of silence punctuated by prayers and utterances from whomever feels led to share. Services also sometimes included ecstatic outpourings, hence the name "Quakers."
Fox's disparagement of English clergy earned him many enemies, but he and his followers got into more trouble for disparaging social hierarchy. Contrary to seventeenth-century custom, Quakers called everyone, including their social "superiors," by the familiar "thou" rather than the formal "you." Quakers also refused to remove their hats in deference to elites. This really caused problems.
"Oh, the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men!" Fox wrote. "Some had their hats violently plucked off and thrown away, so that they quite lost them. The bad language and evil usage we received on this account are hard to be expressed, besides the danger we were sometimes in of losing our lives for this matter; and that by the great professors of Christianity, who thereby discovered they were not true believers."
Over the past 350 years, Quakers have earned recognition for their unswerving commitment to pacifism, opposition to slavery, and leadership in social reform (especially, in the nineteenth century, prison reform). They have generally toned down Fox's rhetoric against other churches. Some Quaker groups have even become essentially evangelical, holding structured services in addition to (or instead of) the traditional silent ones and deeming Scripture, not personal revelation, the ultimate authority in matters of faith. Many Christians still feel the intrinsic rebuke of Fox and his followers, though, whenever they are faced with questions of war, poverty, injustice, and abuse of authority.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Related sites include:
On the 350th anniversary | Peace of the action (The Guardian, London)
On a Quaker hero recently honored in England | The five pound question: Who is Elizabeth Fry?
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Captive Christians | Views from inside Roman, English, and German prisons give a sense of how kidnapped missionaries might feel. (May 31, 2002)
Of Church, State, and Taxes | If you want to know what the establishment of religion looks like, check out church history, not American tax law. (May 17, 2002)
Mom, We Salute You | Mother's Day and Memorial Day were meant to go together. (May 10, 2002)
Christ, Culture, and History | Is the "main character" in the church's story God, transforming faith, or an inspired yet wayward community? (May 3, 2002)
Moving Targets | Evangelizing on-the-go Americans only seems harder than it used to be. (Apr. 26, 2002)
The Profligate Provocateur | In the twelfth century, an intellectual challenge to church authority proved much more dangerous than a sex scandal. (Apr. 19, 2002)
'Hier Stehe Ich!' | When Martin Luther stood up for his ideas at the Diet of Worms, did he really say, "Here I stand"? (April 12, 2002)
National Makeover | Washington's struggle to sell the American image overseas illustrates how sharply today's reality differs from seventeenth-century ideals. (Apr. 5, 2002)
Easter Eloquence | The holiday has inspired great words from some of history's greatest preachers. (March 28, 2002)
The Other Holy Day | In the rush toward Good Friday and Easter, don't forget Maundy Thursday. (March 22, 2002)
The Politics of Patrick | In the field of Irish history, every turn of phrase hints at the author's spin. (March 15, 2002)