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George Fox’s Transformation – Part 3

Scholarly View – Video on the key points in the text and 1648 experience
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I’ve come here to special collections at the library at Lancaster University, where we’re lucky enough to have the first printed edition of George Fox’s journal. How does this short passage become foundational for the Quaker movement, all the way through to the present day? What is it saying? Firstly, we can note the insight that even the best education does not somehow make someone a minister. Outward learning is not a requirement to be a channel or agent for God. Equally, though, Fox doesn’t find any spiritual solace in the words of the most experienced, that is, those who claim to have had a spiritual experience. Fox is in despair.
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His hopes in all men are gone, and he has nothing outwardly to help him. it’s in this low and broken place that Fox hears the voice of God. God breaks into his life with the amazing revelation that even, or no less than Christ Jesus, has the comfort and wisdom that Fox has been looking for. Fox understands at that moment that he can have a direct relationship with the divine. Moreover, he realises there’s a reason he’s not found answers from other humans– namely, that he’s been looking in the wrong place. No text or human can give him answers to his spiritual quest. Only God and Christ. Fox feels transformed. All becomes clear.
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He sees how he’s been shut up in unbelief, and concluded under sin through his adherence to traditional notions of faith. But now, God’s love and power has been released within him, and there’s no stopping it. No prevention of it. And he knows this experimentally in his experience.
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Fox and his followers came to believe they’ve been released from sin, too. Saved in this life and led to a place of perfection, of being able to resist sin. And there are a number of key points I want to draw out from this. First, spiritual experience becomes the primary authority for the Quaker movement, not text, tradition, or church. It’s about hearing the voice, listening to God. Second, true religion is inward. It wasn’t just that it was nothing outward to help Fox, but that nothing outward could help Fox. The relationship with God is through the inward Christ, what Quakers termed the light of Christ.
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Everyone has the seed of this within, and it’s reached partly through a focus on the inward state. In particular, Quakers will come to worship in silence and stillness. All the major components of church teaching are re-framed by this emphasis on the inward. Inward baptism, inward communion, and an inward sense of the Second Coming of Christ. Christ in dwells.
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Third, whilst Christianity has been full of prophets claiming special and particular wisdom to which others now need to listen, Fox additionally claims that the kind of transformation he’s experienced is open to everyone. Fourth, thus, everyone is spiritually equal, men, women, and children. The first Quaker martyr, James Parnell who died in Colchester jail was a teenager. All are ministers. There is no human hierarchy. Rather, a level society led by God. Fifth, this is not just a spiritual option. It is the only way to be in right relationship with the divine. Thus, Fox and his followers become a vanguard for God over and against all other forms of faith, which are wrong. Christianity has lost its way.
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But Fox can now see how to restore true faith to the nation to restore the nation to God. These are also grand, if not arrogant claims. Nothing annoyed other Christians more than this idea of being set free from sin. Whilst the attacks on clergy as unnecessary or even harmful, as they held people back from God through their force and outward preaching were seen by other Christians as subversive. Quakers attacked or tried to undermine all the outward aspects of church life– the sacraments, the church buildings, the Christian calendar. They subverted societal norms by refuting hierarchy and insisting instead on this egalitarian form of collective mysticism. Whilst Quakers claimed that everyone else was wrong, Fox was heading for a confrontation.
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But he would also develop a message that would become hugely popular among the disenfranchised, and he would find his followers in the north.

This video offers an overview of the text featured on the last two steps, bringing out five key aspects of George Fox’s thought and how that would shape the Quaker movement he would go on to found.

The five aspects are that:

a) spiritual experience is at the heart of the Quaker faith and has the greatest authority, not text, tradition or church;

b) for the first Quakers, true religion is inward (we return to this next week);

c) Fox is clear that everyone can have the kind of transforming experience he has had;

d) everyone is spiritually equal;

e) this is not a religious option but that Quakers are clear that they represent the true church.

After you’ve watched the video, see if you can think of any other points coming out of your reaction to the passage. Add your thoughts and comments to the discussion area.

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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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