I’m at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire. It was here in May, 1652 that George Fox felt God told him to climb the hill. And at the top and on the way down, Fox had a vision of a great people to be gathered. It was a key moment in Quaker history, turning a life of random preaching into a mission to form the true Church in England. In this film, we first pick up the story five years earlier, in 1647, when Fox had first heard God talking to him directly and discussed the events leading up to his arrival here, before describing Fox’s Pendle Hill experience.
Following his transforming experience of 1647, George Fox no longer felt alone, without spiritual companions or without any ready source of help. He’d been taken into a spiritual state of intimacy with God, a space of transformation and salvation. Fox and the other early Quakers made the claim that they were both saved and also perfected, ideas which sounded heretical to other Christians. They took this salvation to be possible for everyone and that this inward-facing, interiorised spirituality represented the only true and authentic way to approach the divine. The Quakers used the term the world as a pejorative label for anything or anyone not of the faith. And for these first Quakers, everyone other than the Quakers were part of the world.
Everyone else was wrong. Quakers were acting then as a vanguard for God to all of England and, in time, all nations as God’s co-agents, God’s missionaries. They called themselves The Friends of the Truth or the Children of the Light, and Friends and Quakers are often used interchangeably. Fox was imprisoned in Derby and 1650 but had been offered his freedom with a captaincy in the forthcoming battle at Worcester against Charles II. But he’d been clear that war and fighting were no part of the Kingdom of Heaven that Quakers were hoping to usher in. Fox claimed Christ has come to teach His people himself.
This was a personal inward experience of the Second Coming, the culmination of biblical teaching, the end of the world as people knew it, the building of the new Jerusalem as foretold in the Book of Revelation. War was not part of this new world. As a result of turning down the captaincy, Fox spent another six months in Derby gaol, a total of a year in prison. When he came out in 1651, he was full of resolve and a newfound clarity that he should go north to where he knew there would be others of like mind and heart.
In Yorkshire and Westmoreland, there were strong groups of seekers, dissenters who’d become so critical of organised Christianity that they emptied their services of music and liturgy, preferring to meet in silence with just a message from a preacher. Fox had already found that silence and stillness were key to moving beyond the self into an encounter with the Divine. And the seekers, many of whom were waiting for some indication of what to do next, proved to be ready converts to Fox’s message. He was the prophet many had been waiting for. In the Doncaster area, he met many of the people who had become key and able Quaker leaders such as James Naylor, William Dewsbury, Anne Camm, and Richard Farnsworth.
We need to remember that achieving salvation was probably considered the most important question in 17th century England. And when these people became converted to Fox and his ideas, they also felt ready to follow him as God willed and as the movement required. If this was the only true religion, and if you loved your neighbour, you would necessarily want to convert them to the Quaker way. This was exemplified by James Naylor, one of the most prominent of Quaker preachers, who talks of being called away from his home whilst ploughing. And his wife, Ann, looked after the family farm during most of the 1650s.
And so to Pendle Hill. In the spring of 1652, Fox and Richard Farnsworth travelled westwards from Yorkshire into Lancashire. The exact route is not clear, and we have Fox’s memories some 20 years after the event to rely on. However, he notes that they came to Pendle Hill, and whilst they hadn’t eaten or drunk much for several days, Fox felt moved by the Lord to go atop of it. He did so, he claims, with much ado. Long before the romantic poets started walking through the English countryside, this was an unusual act. Only sheep and shepherds went up hills. Perhaps the fell had a symbolic significance given its height and majesty.
And surely Fox would have heard about the witchcraft trials of 40 years before, associated with the area. Certainly, he tells us that he sees the Lancashire sea from the top and sounds the day of the Lord. We don’t know if anyone heard him, but George Fox preached his message about the coming kingdom at the top of Pendle Hill. He then finds a stream to refresh himself and adds– and this is important– that the Lord did let him see that he had a great people to be gathered.
At the bottom of the hill, Fox writes an account of his experience, and the local publican agrees to circulate it. Then Fox is given another revelation about exactly where the great people to be gathered will be. Fox sees that they’re dressed in white raiment, another reference to the Book of Revelation. One version of his journal talks of a place where a river divides two counties. Another says the people will be near the houses of John Blakeling and Richard Robinson, people Fox will meet later in his travels.
Both accounts point to Sedbergh, thus we can think of George Fox’s experience on Pendle Hill as marking a turning point where he realises there’s a holy dividend to his preaching, that he is indeed meant to set up a new and true church. His journeying north suddenly has a new reason and logic to it. He’s come north because it’s here that the very people who will consolidate the Quaker movement are waiting to hear his message. Fox travelled on, parting with Farnsworth at the next town. Soon he’d be in Sedbergh.