George Fox, 1624-91
Itinerant preacher who founded the Quaker movement and ensured its survival into the modern world.
The son of a prosperous Puritan weaver of Leicestershire, George Fox was apprenticed to a shoemaker around 1635. During his youth, he was plagued by periods of melancholy and religious torment, which led him to adopt an itinerant life as a travelling shoemaker. He travelled around Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire seeking out clergymen and others for spiritual guidance, but broke away from the established church when he found it unable to meet his needs.
At some time in 1647, Fox experienced a spiritual revelation which convinced him that all earthly authority (church or state) was corrupt; God's message came to individuals directly through the Inner Light of their personal inspiration. Fox proclaimed his message as he travelled around the Midlands and the North, attracting small groups of followers who called themselves Friends of the Truth, but became popularly known as Quakers.
Fox's denunciations of the established church and its ministers alarmed the authorities, leading to periods of imprisonment at Nottingham (1649) and Derby (1650-1). During his imprisonment at Derby, Fox refused a chance to gain his freedom by enlisting in the army raised against the invasion by Charles II and the Scots. His personal pacifism later became an important feature of the Quaker movement as a whole. Upon his release late in 1651, Fox resumed his ministry in Yorkshire and Lancashire. He called for the abolition of tithes, refused to bow or doff his hat to social superiors and insisted that anyone, including women and children, could speak at Quaker meetings. After experiencing a vision on Pendle Hill in June 1652, Fox travelled to Sedbergh in Westmorland where he addressed a gathering of a thousand people at Firbank Fell.
Among the many disciples convinced by Fox's preaching during this period was Margaret Fell (1614-1702), wife of Thomas Fell, a prominent magistrate. Although Thomas Fell never became a convert to the movement, he agreed to extend his protection to persecuted preachers in the regions under his jurisdiction. Margaret Fell became the chief organiser of the Society of Friends and married Fox after the death of her husband.
During the mid-1650s, the Quaker movement spread to Bristol, London and southern England. When Fox came to London in March 1655, he was personally interviewed by Lord Protector Cromwell, whom he impressed with his plain speaking and religious sincerity. Despite Cromwell's broadly sympathetic view, however, many Quakers were imprisoned by local magistrates for causing disturbances in their regions. Fox himself was imprisoned under harsh conditions at Launceston in Cornwall from January to September 1656 when he travelled to the West Country.
Following Parliament's prosecution and savage punishment of the charismatic James Nayler under the Blasphemy Act, Fox worked to discourage radicalism and to impose a more formal structure on the Quaker movement. After the fall of the Protectorate in 1659, he lobbied the reconvened Rump Parliament in the hope that the Society of Friends would replace the Church of England as the leading religious group in the nation. His hopes were dashed with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when Quakers were associated with other radical sects as potential enemies of the new régime and Fox himself was imprisoned at Lancaster for five months under suspicion of conspiracy. After the suppression of a violent Fifth Monarchist uprising led by Thomas Venner in January 1661, Fox issued the "Peace Testimony" which committed the Society of Friends to pacifism and non-violence under all circumstances.
During the reigns of Charles II and James II, Fox struggled to consolidate the Quaker movement in the face of persecution from the government and internal divisions within the movement itself. He travelled to the West Indies and the American colonies and visited Ireland, Holland and Germany, but his health was weakened by fourteen months' imprisonment at Worcester for refusing to take the oath required by the Test Act of 1673. While at Worcester, he began dictating his autobiography, also known as his "Journal", which was published posthumously in 1694. George Fox's Autobiography is regarded as a classic of inspirational religious literature, though it tends to downplay or ignore the controversies within the early Quaker movement.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1975)
H.L. Ingle, George Fox, Oxford DNB, 2004
Rosemary Anne Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain (Penn State Press, 2000)
An abstract of the life of George Fox, based on Rufus Jones, George Fox, Seeker and Friend, 1930