The 17th century was a period of tremendous social upheaval and resistance. There were two sections of society - one that supported the dissident movement and the others, who conformed to religious practices and looked to curb the revolution. George Fox, a dissenting preacher who opposed the Church of England, belonged to the former group of people. A man of grit, he agitated against the spiritual and radical authorities by offering an unfamiliar and obdurate attitude towards Christian faith. He often travelled around Britain and Europe trying to preach his thoughts, but was often met with resistance from the authorities who condemned his philosophies. He is best-remembered for forming the group called, ‘Friends of Truth’. They later came to be known as the ‘Society of Friends’ and eventually, ‘Quakers’. Despite being met with fierce resistance from religious groups and authorities, his followers expanded and he led a ministry, where his people were based in different parts of the world, preaching his ideologies and expanding the ‘Quaker’ movement. He was arrested on numerous occasions for his non-conformist practices, but that did not deter his spirit. Along with his friend and aide, William Penn, he established the American Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania and continued to preach till his last breath.
Childhood & Early Life
George Fox was born to Christopher Fox and Mary in Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, England and he was the eldest of the four children.
From a very young age, he believed in ‘righteousness’ and ‘simplicity’ and adopted a religious approach to life. Although there are no records of his formal education, it is believed that he knew how to read and write. He became an apprentice to a shoemaker and also worked as a shepherd.
At the age of 19, he began to look down on the behavior of people who followed religion and conformed to alcoholic practices. As a result, he left home in 1643 and traveled to London in a confused, tormented state.
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Over the next few years, he travelled around Britain and Europe and many of his non-religious, dissenting beliefs took form. With all the fervent soul-searching, he hoped to look for a connection with ‘English Dissenters’ and it was around this time, he thought intensely about the ‘Temptation of Christ’.
Through meditation and prayer, he defied many of the standard Christian beliefs and established that Christian rituals can be ignored as long as there is spiritual conversation and that nobody required a qualification to get into the ministry. He also argued by stating that Moses, Jacob, Abraham and David, who were all shepherds, did not require an education for what they did.
In 1647, he preached his ideologies publicly, which slowly gathered a following. Although there are no records of when the ‘Society of Friends’ was formed, it is certain that they started off by calling themselves, ‘Children of Light’ or ‘Friends of Truth’ and then finally came to be known as the ‘Quakers’ due to their philosophy.
He was imprisoned for his preaching activities in 1649, but this did not deter his spirit and he continued to condemn the Church of England. The following year, he was imprisoned once again on account of ‘blasphemy’, at Derby.
In 1651, he travelled around the country with a number of other preachers, hoping to spread his message. Nonetheless, he was met with fierce opposition from many religious authorities and political figures, who would drive him and his supporters away.
The next year, he held his first meeting in the Doncaster area, in Balby. After gathering a number of followers, he travelled around England, held a number of meetings and convinced many people to believe that Christ will speak to their souls directly.
In 1653, he was once again arrested for ‘blasphemy’ and some even proposed to sentence him to his death for his unethical ways, but it was refused. A series of arrests took place till 1675.
As his group of followers grew, a number of his ‘Friends’ were put in prison, which toughened his opinions against standard Christian religious practices like baptism through water and the removal of hats in a public place like a court.
With the ascension of Charles II, the future for the ‘Society of Friends’ looked bleak. ‘Quakers’ were banished in New England and some were even executed.
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In 1671, he resolved his disputes with the King and travelled around the world to America and the West Indies. He returned to England two years later and discovered that his association had been firmly established in England, but was miserably divided.
The ‘Society of Friends’ became an increasingly popular association and in 1675, the ‘Meetings for Sufferings’, an executive committee of the body that acted on behalf of the ‘Society of Friends’, was formed.
Towards the end of his life, his health was deteriorating, but he continued with his activities. He wrote to other leaders around the world and explained his beliefs and the ‘Quakers’ philosophy.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Margaret Fell on October 27, 1669. She was ten years elder to him and was one of his earliest converts. She had eight children from her previous marriage to Thomas Fell.
Together, Margaret and George shared their work and were even imprisoned together on many occasions.
He passed away in London and was interred at Bunhill Fields, with hordes of followers attending his funeral.
Many of his journals and letters were published almost immediately after his death and many were not even compiled for years. These letters and journals explicitly explained his ideologies, the dissent within his organization and the development of the ‘Quakers’.
Following his death, his group, the ‘Society of Friends’ carried forward his legacy, which is present even today.
The George Fox University in Oregon is named after him and he also has a building named in his honor at Lancaster University.
His relationship with his wife has been captured in a novel, ‘The Peaceable Kingdom: An American Saga’ and his life has also been rendered by James Harcourt in the 1941 film, ‘Penn of Pennsylvania’.
This English dissenter temporarily lost his sight when he suffered from chronic depression and illness.