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 ...

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