As we discussed in the last blog post, George Fox moved from an understanding of God formed in Calvinism to a new way to understand, know, and experience God. When Fox started preaching in 1647 people gathered to seek something new due to their dissatisfaction with religion. Fox wasn’t trying to build a church but to share the message he felt God had given him for the whole world. He believed the world would hear this message and become the True Church with Christ as the head. All the deceit he saw in the church came from people betraying the basic principles of Christianity. The only way out, in Fox’s opinion, was an inward submission to God, acceptance of God’s grace, and listening to Christ’s voice in the inner self.(1)
Fox focused on people and not on forming a theological doctrine. He felt Christ, the Light within each person, would teach each person, just as Christ had taught him. As Christ met people, they would be convicted of sin, which would lead to true repentance. The work was God’s. Fox understood the Light within is the one who “guides, warns, encourages, speaks, chastens, cares.” (2) It illumines the Scripture and is the Christ we seek. Fox’s understanding comes from John 1:9 and 8:12.(3)
In contrast to Puritanism, Fox believed it didn’t matter if you had a pure heart or agreed outwardly to doctrine. What mattered was how one responded to the Light. So, Fox didn’t point people to Scripture or the cross but to the inner light, bringing their lives to this Light.
Puritanism, on the other hand, taught a morality code without assurance of salvation. People did not know if they would gain eternal life since it was uncertain if they were one of the “elect.” Puritanism was a response and reaction to the hierarchical churches’ actions due to power and control. Yet, they created rules, a form of control, in their desire for people to do “right.” This may seem like it comes from good intentions, but acting as morality police for other people doesn’t work. One of Fox’s main complaints with the Christian church was their interest "in a savior who could forgive sin but not in a Christ with moral power to overcome sin.” (4) Unfortunately, judging others in this way often leads to dehumanizing those who are not like us.
Fox believed we all the Light of God within us. We have different measures of light based on our own journeys. Some teach we have just a fragment of God, but Fox states it is a presence of God. There is only one true Light, and we enjoy this fullness of God in community. We can’t practice our faith journey in isolation but we need community around us. (5) As we become reconciled to God and creation, this Light is the source of truth, the power to act on that truth, and unity with God and others.(6)
If every person has the Light within, then all are created equal without regard to race, gender, or anything else. Fox criticized meetings that didn’t allow women to speak and supported many women in leadership roles. This understanding was also behind his unwillingness to fight since “that of God” was in every human. The social inequalities so firmly in place were abhorrent and needed to be eliminated. This understanding led to a different way of speaking to one another without the social constructs formed to keep people in place, such as titles and removing one’s hat.(7)
Fox sensed God revealing things to him, “openings.” He experienced this Inner Light through seeking God and studying the New Testament. His understanding of God changed. Fox taught the physical practice of the sacraments remaining in Protestantism kept people from experiencing the real meaning represented. He didn’t disagree with the historical creeds but rejected them since they were formed for political and diplomatic reasons. Those who held to them used them as a test of orthodoxy and killed those who disagreed. Fox felt these practices were not from the spirit of Christ but were in actuality “devilish.”(8) Due to these doctrinal issues, Fox spent time in prison for having beliefs outside of what was considered orthodox during this time.
It is entirely impossible to speak to all the aspects of George Fox’s ministry or of the efforts of his followers. It was a movement that spread from living out the implications of what Jesus lived out among us. This goes well beyond what we know to be right by allowing the effect of God’s gaze of love to impact those around us. For Fox, and those who were affected by his life and teaching, it made a difference. They lived out that difference in ways that had harsh implications for their own lives. Yet, they lived out precisely what they believed. They did not follow rules or debates over doctrine but stood courageously in knowing that there is “that of God” in every human and that that statement of truth matters.
Quakerism has struggled since this time to remember this truth and to live in a non-hierarchical understanding of leadership and worship. Throughout history, Quakers, like other denominations, have split and split again. We all still struggle with perceptions that have impacted Christianity all through history. What is the authority of Scripture as we understand who God is, who we are, and who is the “other?” Are some on the outside based on our understanding of Scripture? I would have to say that I have found a home in Quakerism and even more so after studying George Fox, even in this limited time. His understanding of church, of God, and of humankind resonates deeply in my heart, as home for me.
(1) John Punshon, Portrait In Grey: A Short History of the Quakers (London: Quaker Home Service, 1984), 43–44, 46.
(2) Ibid., 36.
(3) Ibid., 48–49.
(4) Wilmer A. Cooper, A Living Faith: An Historical Study of Quaker Beliefs (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1990), , 13.
(5) Punshon, Portrait In Grey, 50.
(6) Cooper, A Living Faith, 13.
(7) Rufus Jones, “Introduction,” in George Fox, An Autobiography (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903), 34-35.
(8) Punshon, Portrait In Grey, 47–48.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!