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Summing up

summing up

This week we have covered George Fox’s arrival into Sedbergh, some of the key aspects of early Quaker theology and lifestyle, and Fox’s experience on Firbank Fell.

It would be good to hear your summary of the week and how you felt it went. Tell us about something that you have learned or found interesting this week.

As we move through Week 2 into Week 3, I am still really enjoying the breadth of the learning community we have created. Again, it has been a full week and there have been so great comments and great discussions taking place. I loved the different ideas about what the Firbank Fell ‘spiritual day out’ might look like today. The comments on inwardness were really interesting too. I am really pleased with the way people are helping each other out with answers, posting extra links, and how we have managed to be respectful of each other in spite of our different backgrounds and beliefs. That is obviously crucial but it is good to see it happening organically. There are lots of different threads to pick up on this week.

First, I’d like to talk about the nature of Fox’s journal. This is not a diary and is not meant to be. Quaker journals, and the tradition of them has continued since that time, were written to be circulated as inspirational and aspirational literature. They offered a spiritual narrative to help descendants in the movement better understand both the Quaker tradition but also their own personal spiritual experience. Fox first dictated his journal in the 1660s, then another version in the 1670s, both at times he thought he might perish in prison, but it only became a public document after Fox’s death in 1690-91. Then it was edited for publication by Thomas Ellwood before it appeared in 1694. We know that Quakers of the 1690s chose to omit certain passages as with a changing political climate, so Quaker interpretation and transmission changed too.

The journal then, whilst we have used it to explore Fox’s account of his journey, is a weak historical source. It is all we have for most of what happened before 1652, but historians of the period after 1652 are naturally enough wary of it. The accounts in Norman Penney (ed.), First Publishers of Truth (1907) are the main other contemporary source from other Quakers (not written in 1652 but from living memory). They are in the return for Westmorland, starting on p. 241 and include an account of Fox’s time around Sedbergh (pp. 242-3) and Thomas Camm’s first-hand account of Fox’s visit to Preston Patrick (pp. 244-5). Another first-hand account is Margaret Fell’s description of Fox’s coming to Swarthmoor – it’s in Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.6 ( and also in Isobel Ross, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (1949), p. 15.

As far as I know there aren’t any direct references to the events in 1652 in non-Quaker sources. Writing the following year, one hostile witness, Francis Higginson, gives a flavour of early Quaker meetings in the North West in A Brief Relation of the Irreligion of the Northern Quakers (1653), pp. 11-14 (quoted by Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England (1985 edn), p. 48). Rosemary Moore quotes Higginson’s description of Fox fixing his eyes on strangers ‘as though he would look them through’ (The Light in their Consciences, p. 21). I think that’s about as close as we can get to non-Quaker comment on 1652.

Rosemary Moore, leading historian of the Quakers, wrote her ‘The Light in Their Consciences: the early Quakers in Britain 1646-66’ avoided the journal by using the tracts published in each year as the most robust source of information about what Quakers were believing at any one stage. Thus she was able to chart the quite early shift in Quaker rhetoric over the importance and validity of the gospels (they tended to ignore the historical Jesus until this point, being more interested in the inward second coming), and the shift in how they talked about perfection. Quakers didn’t always live up to this doctrine so they developed a theology in which it was claimed that everyone had a different ‘measure’ of the Light of Christ and that if people lived up to their measure, more was given them. So it was a progressive or maturing perfectability. It may be worth saying here that the idea of ‘that of God in everybody’ didn’t mean that everyone was automatically saved, but that everyone could be saved. There was that holy potential. People could be vastly in error, as Quakers would often point out quite forcefully, but nobody was beyond redemption.

There is the question of how far Fox was the leader of the movement or whether it was simply because he outlived many of the others and had his journal published. It is clear that there was a great depth of leadership in the movement. In 1654, 66 pairs of ministers and elders took the Quaker mission across Britain, all very able preachers and spiritual seers. The movement succeeded in part because of this depth of leadership. At the same time, Rosemary Moore claims that everyone but James Nayler deferred to Fox. Edward Burrough, Westmorland Seeker turned Quaker, wrote a tract in 1656 lambasting 23 different groups who were in error, including his very own former Seeker allegiance. His criticism was that Seekers were just sitting waiting, not knowing what to do next, and that now was a time for action.

In the Howgill passage we looked at this week, Howgill talks of one being sent to them, a prophet. I take this to mean Fox. Fox offered new direction and hope. John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, and Gerald Winstanley, leader of the Diggers, both became Quakers but not Quaker leaders. Their vision had faltered or been constrained by the authorities. Fox knew what to do next, how to transform discontent into a powerful and coherent spiritual optimism. At the same time, Fox was clear he had no greater spiritual authority than anyone else. The Quakers were not called Foxians or Foxites. It is true he led and sometimes made enemies within the movement who he moved to silence, but we could see this in terms of spiritual gifts. Everyone has a different Spirit-given gift (see 1 Corinthians 12) and Fox’s was in terms of leadership. He was never popular in London but overall he clearly was able to translate his own spiritual experience into an inspirational message meant for everyone. So, if he had been killed in the 1640s, who knows whether Quakerism would have started, or how it would have sustained itself. Could Nayler have led the movement? Elizabeth Hooten, the ‘first Quaker’? Would Margaret Fell have been convinced? These questions are impossible to answer but I want to reaffirm Fox’s central role.

On the travelling ministry, there were comments likening Fox and the other early Quaker leaders to the apostles, and that the travelling ministry preserved the authenticity of the Quaker church, its apostolicity (in the way it is claimed the Pope does for the Roman Catholic Church: he is part of the apostolic succession). The Valiant Sixty were probably mirroring Luke 10:1 and the sending of the seventy-two.

Certainly Quakers were very aware of the symbolism of their actions, as well as their literal intent. It is easy to see the connection between Pentecost Sunday and the Firbank Fell preaching success. At the same time, some scholars, such as Tim Peat Ashworth, Doug Gwyn, Rosemary Moore and myself, have argued that Quakers felt themselves living in the end times. Rather than seeing Quakers as the new apostles as in the book of Acts, they were the vanguard for God as in the book of Revelation. Fox talked of communion in terms of Revelation 3:20 and silent worship in terms of Revelation 8:1, and had a dream he reported which mirrored the building of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22.

Revelation was the book of scripture he most frequently referred to. In this sense, early Quakers were living at the end of the Biblical timeline. They were heralding the future that all of Christianity had been waiting for. This was the time of the second Coming, the end of the world, and the beginning of the new covenant with God, the new Jerusalem, and the coming of the kingdom of God, heaven on earth. Pentecost, in this sense, was symbolically historic, only the beginning of the end, not the end itself as the Quakers felt they were experiencing it.

Fox and the other early Quakers were thus fulfilling Pauline prophecy, in my eyes, rather than replicating Paul’s sense of mission. Like Paul, they included everyone as the ‘chosen people’ but their sense of ‘moment’ was ultimately very different. For example, rather than talk, as Paul did, about a time when humanity would move from childhood to spiritual adulthood, (1 Corinthians 13), Quakers were claiming the time of adulthood was ripe for everybody.

Here again, we have this arrogance/certainty on behalf of the early Friends. As many of you have pointed out, it is unsurprising they were so unpopular in certain quarters. Their emphasis on revelation rather than scripture and their claims about a universal elect, a universal ministry, and universal perfectability put them in direct opposition to Puritans. Neither movement was ecumenical in its outlook.

As I said last week, please remember that these early Friends were very different from any group anywhere in the world today.

Many of the other questions you have raised will I hope be answered by the material in week 3. I look forward to our time together next week.

Do keep spreading the word about the course – it is not too late for new learners to join.


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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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