About the Commemoration
Commemorated with William Penn, 1644; Robert Barclay, 1690; John Woolman, 1772
George Fox, a weaver’s son, was born in July 1624 in the village of Drayton-in-the-Clay (now Fenny Drayton), Leicestershire, England. He was apprenticed for a time to a shoemaker; he may also have been a shepherd. There is little evidence that he had any formal education, yet he read extensively.
His religious background seems to have been Puritan, but he found this not entirely satisfying. At the age of eighteen, he left home on a religious quest. During his search he experienced several “openings” as he called them in his Journal, which he thought corrected traditional concepts of faith and life in English religion. He went beyond the Puritan reaction to the forms of the established Church, and after long and intense struggle, he arrived at the central belief of his life, that God speaks inwardly and directly to a person’s heart. Finding no comfort in the Church and receiving no help from its ministers, he became a wandering preacher, proclaiming the God-given inward light as the real source of authority above creeds and even above Scripture itself.
He traveled on foot, preaching in the Midlands and then in the northern counties of England. Local congregations were established by Fox and by other itinerant men and women preachers who called themselves “Publishers of the Truth.” Fox had most success first in Westmoreland and later in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and London. His radical views and his peculiar habits (wearing a leather suit, sitting in hollow trees, refusing to take his hat off to anyone) provoked derision and hostility. He was beaten, stoned, put in the stocks, imprisoned. Between 1649 and 1673 he was jailed eight times. Altogether in his lifetime he spent seven years in jail, often in filthy conditions, which he sought to reform. Nevertheless, he persisted and gained a considerable following, not only among the poor and uncultured but also among people of wealth and distinction such as William Penn, who left an important summary of Fox’s character. A man of enormous yet attractive self-confidence, Fox covered England with his influence and generated a new sense of morality. Shopkeepers of this persuasion were universally respected for their integrity.
His followers were persecuted because they refused to take oaths or to pay tithes. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to special legislation and action against the “Quakers” as they were derisively nicknamed. Fox encouraged the local groups of his followers to organize into regular monthly and quarterly business meetings, and this became the permanent pattern of church government for the “Religious Society of Friends.” Not until the Toleration Act of 1689 were the Quakers legally accepted.
In 1669, after his return from a missionary trip to Ireland, Fox married Margaret Fell, one of his early converts. She was the widow of Judge Thomas Fell of Swarthmore Hall, Ulverston, Lancashire. It was in this house that Fox lived from time to time in the years following. From 1671 to 1673 he visited the British colonies in the Caribbean and North America, especially Maryland and Rhode Island, strengthening communities of Friends there. He also saw firsthand the horrors of the slave trade, and upon his return to England, he founded the abolitionist movement. In 1677 and 1684 he journeyed to Holland and northern Europe.
Fox died on the thirteenth of January (or as the Friends style it, First Month), 1691 and was buried in the Friends’ burial ground near Bunhill Fields. He is commemorated on this date, January 13, on the calendar in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the Methodist For All the Saints, the German Lutheran Calendar of Names by Frieder Schulz and others (1962), and the Christian Year calendar (1997) of the Church of England. George Fox contributed to the renewal of the church by calling into question its pride and self-satisfaction. But perhaps his greatest contribution is to the renewal of society in two principal ways: complete religious toleration and the equality of everyone before the law.
Together with George Fox, three others of the Society of Friends might fittingly be remembered. William Penn was born in 1644, the son of a Cromwellian admiral who had become rich and powerful. He was a quiet, introspective child, naturally drawn to the teachings of George Fox, perhaps the first person of means, learning, and high social standing to join the Society of Friends. He took the teaching of George Fox and combined it with the work of a French theologian Moïse Amyraut, who had argued that God’s laws live in the hearts of people and that one learns by listening to the voice of conscience, and popularized it through tracts and pamphlets, printed secretly and disseminated widely. Penn, like others in the movement, was often imprisoned. He obtained the forty-five-thousand square miles of Pennsylvania from Charles II in 1682 and regarded his colony there as a “holy experiment.” Steadfastly committed to democratic principles, he established free public education in his commonwealth as well as chartering a public school (in current American usage a private school) in Philadelphia that now bears his name, the William Penn Charter School, worked for better food and housing, regarded women as the equals of men, and established religious freedom. He suffered two strokes and lived out his last years in England in frail health. He died there July 30, 1718. Penn is included on the German Evangelical Calendar of Names (1966) on July 30.
Robert Barclay was the foremost theologian of the Society of Friends and, with William Penn, the movement’s most influential writer. He was born December 23, 1648, and was educated at the Roman Catholic Scottish College in Paris. He joined the Society of Friends in 1667. His humanitarian and his pacifist precepts are still followed, but his most important writing was An Apology for the True Christian Divinity: Being an Explanation and Vindication of the People Called Quakers (Latin 1676, English 1678). This became the standard statement of Quaker doctrine and set forth fifteen propositions against both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant positions, affirming that neither church nor Scripture could claim ultimate authority, but that both church and Scripture are secondary to the work of the Holy Spirit. Barclay was often imprisoned for his beliefs. He traveled through Germany and Holland advancing his views, and upon his return home he won the friendship of the Duke of York (later James II), who helped him obtain a patent to settle New Jersey. In 1683 Robert Barclay was himself governor of eastern New Jersey. He returned to his native Scotland, where he died at his estate in Aberdeen, October 3, 1690.
John Woolman, judged by Elton Trueblood to be “the most highly respected Quaker who ever lived,” is a notable exemplar of ethical living. Born in 1720, he lived in Mount Holly, New Jersey, near Philadelphia, and worked as a tailor. He traveled widely as an itinerant preacher. He vigorously attacked slavery and roused the conscience of the Quakers against it and through them the whole Western world. He refused to pay taxes in support of the French and Indian War. He taught and practiced simple living both for individual and for social good, to the extent of giving up his store when business got too brisk and became an encumbrance. He sought to experience himself the hardships of slaves, seamen, and Indians so that he might have “a quick and lively feeling of the afflictions of my fellow creatures.” John Woolman was one who radiated love and humility and who exemplified the sensitivity of the Quaker conscience and their steadfastness of purpose. His Journal (1774) is a classic of devotion and of literature: it begins with the sentence, “I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God.” John Woolman died of smallpox October 7, 1772. He is commemorated on October 6 on the Methodist calendar in For All the Saints of the Order of St. Luke.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
From the Journal of George Fox
After I had received that opening from the Lord, that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge, was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less, and looked more after the dissenting people. Among them I saw there was some tenderness; and many of them came afterwards to be convinced, for they had some openings. But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly, to help me, nor could tell what to do; then, O then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” When I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let [i.e., hinder] it? This I knew experimentally. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing. For though I read the Scriptures that spake of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not by revelation, as he did who hath the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his Son by his Spirit. The Lord led me gently along, and let me see his love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can get by history or books….
Thus in the deepest miseries, in the greatest sorrows and temptations that beset me, the Lord in his mercy did keep me. I found two thirsts in me; the one after the creatures, to have got help and strength there; and the other after the Lord the Creator, and his Son Jesus Christ; and I saw all the world could do me no good. If I had a king’s diet, palace and attendance, all would have been as nothing, for nothing gave me comfort but the Lord by his power. I saw professors, priests, and people, were whole and at ease in that condition which was my misery, and they loved that which I would have been rid of. But the Lord did stay my desires upon himself, from whom my help came, and my care was cast upon him alone. Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye do so, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfill it in you. Blessed are all they indeed that do indeed hunger and thirst after righteousness, they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfieth the desires of the hungry soul.
Passages from the Life and Writings of George Fox Taken from His Journal (Philadelphia: Friends Book Store, 1881), 18-20.
Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image: Illumine our hearts and our minds with your light that we may recognize injustice, and, strengthened by your might and encouraged by the example of George Fox, may contend fearlessly against oppression and bring justice and peace among peoples and nations; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-13; Psalm 94; Romans 12:9-21; Luke 6:20-36
Hymn of the Day: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” (H82 652, 653; LBW 506)
Prayers: For seekers after truth; For those in prison; For the outcast and those out of step with society; For equal justice for all.