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The message of George Fox

interview with Hilary Hinds on the message of George Fox
I’m joined in this film on the ideas of George Fox by Professor Hilary Hinds from the University of Lancaster and author of “George Fox and the Early Quaker Culture”. Thanks for joining me, Hilary. I wondered if first you could tell me about George Fox’s childhood and early life. Yes, he starts his journal by talking about his family and his background. And he says he came from a godly family, that his mother was an upright woman, and that there was the seed of God in his father. It’s interesting, because most 17th century spiritual autobiographers, when they talk about their early lives, they talk about their sinfulness.
So John Bunyan, who later went, on to write the Pilgrim’s Progress, talked about his lustfulness, and his swearing, and his love of sport, and so on, and called himself the chief of sinners, but Fox doesn’t do this. He talks about the godliness of his youth. He talks about his gravity of mind and his pureness as a child. So I think he had a sense for himself from very early on as called to live a godly life, but he wasn’t sure what this meant.
He wasn’t sure how to do this so, his early years were characterised by lots of consultations with ministers from the Church of England and with dissenting people as he called them, trying to find what this might mean. And what was the context like? What characterised religious belief in England at that time? Well, I think the most important thing about the interpretation, the dominant interpretation of Christianity in England, at the time, was that it was broadly Calvinist, and that was true both of the Church of England, but also true of most of the more radical religious groups that proliferated at this time.
And what that meant, what that brought with it in terms of belief was that the idea that salvation was the gift of God alone, that it was nothing to do with our own merit or our own deserving. This idea followed on from the belief that after the fall of Adam and Eve, the eating of the fruit, the expulsion from paradise, that we are all fallen, we are all corrupt, we are all sinful. We share the sinfulness of our first parents really, and so that we are all really fully deserving of damnation. But through his grace, God has chosen to save some of us.
What’s more, the choice of who was to be saved, the elect, as they were known, had been made by God before the creation of the world. So that’s all decided. There is nothing that we can do to intervene. So our good intentions, our apparently holy lives will have no impact on what happens. And how did Fox respond to that idea? Well, he was very critical of the clergy. He said that this doctrine of election and reprobation, as he called it, was used by the clergy to frighten people.
And I think when we take account of the idea that this decision had been made before the creation of the world, and there’s nothing that we can do, and that we won’t know until we die– which constituency we’re a part of– we can see I think the potential for that, for that fear. Where there other things that Fox didn’t like about conventional religion? Yeah, he was– I mean, he was pretty critical of the clergy all round. He took his questions to the clergy in the first instance, but he found that unless he said they could offer him no comfort, he found them– well, he gives a couple of interesting stories.
One minister that he went to speak to, he said, became angry and pettish as he put his questions to him. And another one, they were deep in conversation. And Fox, by accident, trod on this man’s flower bed. And he said this clergyman behaved as if his house was on fire. So he thought the clergy were much too concerned with formalities, rituals, status and not interested enough in the central, the core beliefs of Christianity. So I guess it’s not really surprising that one of the first openings from God, that revelations from God that Fox had, was the revelation, the opening that to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to make a man a minister of Christ.
I mean, if the clergy or conventional religion was not giving, you know, Fox what he was looking for, what did he put in its place? I mean, you know, where did he find any hope in a sense? I think this was the central question that he was dealing with in these early years. He sought his answers by turning outwards in the first instance and talking to people. And this really didn’t get him the answers he was looking for. And he got to the point where he realised he had to stop looking outwards and turn inwards.
And from then on, what he advocated was then the necessity and the sufficiency of a turn to what he called that of God within or the inward light, the indwelling Christ, and that was where salvation lay for Fox, was turning to that of God which dwelt within everyone. But what kind of relationship with God then did Fox envisage would follow from this sort of turning inward? He thought that this turn, the sinking into the inward light would result in, I guess, if you like, a reunion between the believer and God and that this would put humanity back into what he called right relation with God.
And what this encompassed for Fox was a return to the possibility of regaining the kind of relationship with God that Adam and Eve had had in paradise before the fall, a kind of perfection, if you like, a perfect relationship with God, which followed from the fact that Adam and Eve had been created in the image of God. So Fox did think that there was the possibility returning to that state, as he put it, that Adam was in before he fell. And as you can imagine, this was the object of a lot of criticism from Quakers’ critics who thought that there was an arrogance in this, and it was blasphemous.
And Fox was arrested on a number of occasions and ends up in court, including in Lancaster in 1652, where he was charged with claiming to be equal with God and as upright as Christ. And he was acquitted on that occasion, but I think one can see where those kinds of charges would have come from, from that belief. How new was this emphasis on inwardness? I think the centrality of the idea of inwardness was new. I mean, it was there kind of front and centre, I guess within Fox’s interpretation of Christianity.
But having said that, I think it’s also important to say that all the ideas that Fox was working with, that came to characterise early Quakerism, they all have their roots in the Bible. They can all very straightforwardly be traced back to the Bible. I think what was different about Fox was that he was increasingly dissatisfied with what he saw as worn out interpretations and compromises. So he was working– in I guess we could say– with a kind of familiar building blocks of Christianity, but he was making something new from them. We called this course, headed it, “radical spirituality”. And I wondered if you could perhaps try and sum up what you thought were the most radical elements of early Quakerism.
Yeah, I think, I’d probably sum that up in two words, on the one hand, “unity” and on the other hand, “universality”. What do you mean by those? OK, so unity, in the first instance, is a way of thinking about the consequence of this return to the inward light. I think what Fox understood to happen with that turn to the inward light was the dissolution of any kind of boundaries between humanity and the divinity. So that reunion was really very, very real for him. He wrote in his journal, again, quoting the Bible, he said, “The father and son are one, and we are of his flesh and of his bone.”
And I think he meant that very literally, that there would be this reunion with God. And I think when we contrast that with the dominant Calvinist interpretation, where God was at a distance, that kind of– the closeness of that relationship with God was in the distant past, in paradise, and perhaps in a distant and uncertain future, it’s very different when we look at Fox’s interpretation, where I guess proximity is the key, really, that divine truth, divine power can be found close by within the heart of each believer. What about universality? This refers to the idea that the inward light shone within everyone. The potential for salvation, for eternal life, therefore, lay within everyone.
Anyone could turn to the light within them. Fox didn’t think that everybody would do so. He thought that people would continue to resist the light within them, to refuse to turn to it. And so it wasn’t as if he was– that he had this kind of vision of eternal salvation, but nonetheless, the potential was there. And again, if we contrast that with Calvinism– where you have these predestined constituencies of the elect and consequently that they reprobate to– you have that division, whereas I think the Quaker interpretation returned the possibility of a kind of human agency within the kind of spiritual domain that was really important.

In this video, Hilary Hinds summarises the religious ideas of George Fox as they develop before and after his experience in 1647, leading up to the events of 1652.

We can begin to see just how radical Quaker spirituality was and how it ran counter to the Christianity of the day.

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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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