George Fox had three inconvenient ideas which kept him in trouble continually.
One idea was that it is wrong to say "you" to a single person. Because, he said, "you" is a plural pronoun. The proper word for a single person is "thee" or "thou." This was innocent enough, but it had the effect of showing everybody that Fox was queer. That appeared in the shortest conversation.
Another idea was that it is wrong for a man to take off his hat as a mark of respect for his neighbors or superiors. In Fox's time people were very elaborately polite. Men wore plumed hats, and took them off with bows which made the plumes touch the ground. It seemed to Fox an artificial and foolish custom, and he would not do it. He kept his hat on even in the presence of the judge in the courtroom. But that which ordinary gentlemen accounted as only the bad manners of a rude fellow from the country, the judges took to be contempt of court.
"Oh! the rage and scorn," says Fox, "the heat and fury that arose! Oh! the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men! For that soon tried all men's patience and sobriety what it was. Some had their hats violently plucked off and thrown away, so that they quite lost them. The bad language and evil usage we received on this account are hard to be expressed, besides the danger we were sometimes in of losing our lives for this matter." Of course, when Fox and his followers were brought into court, as they often were, this curious scruple about their hats
prejudiced the judge against them. Sometimes they were put in jail for no other reason than this apparently impertinent defiance of propriety.
The third inconvenient idea was a belief that it is wrong for men to swear. That, of course, is true. But Fox applied if not only to profane oaths but to the appeal to God by which men emphasized their words in courts of justice. Fox quoted the Sermon on the Mount, where the Lord said, "Swear not at all, but let your communication be yea, yea, nay, nay." The result was that whenever he was arrested,—as he often was for disturbing the peace,—he not only angered the judge by coming in with his hat on, but he stopped the proceedings at the very beginning by refusing to take the customary oath.
And that was not the worst of it. The England of Fox's time was filled with contention. The Civil War began when he was eighteen years of age; and after it was ended, and Cromwell became the ruler of the country, there were endless plots to kill him and to bring back the king; and when the tide turned and Charles the Second sat on his father's throne, there were endless plots again in opposition to his oppressive government. The situation affected the nerves of the nation. Every rumor frightened those who heard it. Every unusual movement in the country scared the people like a strange sound late at night. All queer people were suspected of being plotters against Cromwell or against Charles. And the plan which was adopted to discover what the queer people meant was to put them on their oath. "Come," the magistrates said, "swear that you are a true and loyal citizen." But George Fox would not swear.
The consequence was that this strange person who went up and down the country saying, "thee" and "thou," and wearing his hat, and preaching sermons which nobody could understand, was taken to be a dreadful enemy. People could not make out what he meant, and they mistrusted him of all manner of evil. The judges who served under Cromwell said, "You are a Roman Catholic"; the judges who served under Charles said, "You are a Presbyterian." And, whatever they accused him of, Fox refused to clear himself by the taking of an oath.
Moreover, in those days, when all England was engaged in fighting, Fox would not fight. For to these three inconvenient options he added a fourth: he believed that war was wrong. Here again he had on his side the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord said "Love your enemies." But he had against him one of the oldest of all the customs of the world, since the time when Cain struck Abel,—and he found no sympathy for his opinions among religious people. Cromwell's Ironsides prayed longest before they went to battle, and believed that they and the Lord were fighting together for the cause of righteousness and liberty.
Men came to Fox and offered to make him a captain to fight for the Commonwealth against King Charles. "I told them," he says, "I knew from whence all wars did arise, even from the lust, according to James's doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. Then their rage got up, and they said, 'Take him away, jailer, and put him into the dungeon amongst the rogues and felons.' So I was had away, and put into a lousy, stinking place, without any bed, amongst thirty felons, where I was kept almost half a year."
Behind these stout convictions of George Fox was his belief in the Inner Light. He heard the voice of God speaking in his soul, telling him what to do and what not to do.
He had come into this belief with difficulty. As a lad, he had kept sheep, like the Prophet Amos, and had thus lived much by himself and had had the opportunity to think. "In my very young years," he says, "I had a gravity and staidness of mind and spirit not usual in children." Even as a boy, when he saw that a thing was right he was determined to do it. They who knew him used to say, "If George says verily, there is no altering him." His family thought that he should be a minister, but his father was persuaded by some friends and put him to work with a shoemaker. Thus he lived industriously, and very gravely and soberly, till he was nearly twenty. It was plain that the shoemaker's apprentice was different from the other young men of the village. "When boys and rude people would laugh at me," he says, "I left them alone, and went my way; but people had generally a love to me for my innocency and honesty."
When he was about twenty, he left his trade and his family, and for three or four years wandered about the country, even going into London. He was seeking for religious satisfaction.
England was now, for the most part, a Presbyterian nation, and Fox's ideas of religion were derived from Presbyterian sermons. They did not appeal to him. They were filled with difficult doctrines, and dwelt constantly upon the sinfulness of human nature. Fox talked with the Presbyterian rector of his home parish, but he did him no good. Fox says that the minister would get his sermons out of these conversations. "What I said in discourse to him on the week-days, that he would preach on the first-days, for which I did not like him."
Another minister advised him to smoke tobacco and sing psalms; but "tobacco," he says, "was a thing I did not love, and psalms I was not in a state to sing: I could not sing." To still another minister he went, but "as we were walking together in his garden, the alley being narrow, I chanced, in turning, to set my foot on the side of a bed, at which the man was in a rage as if his house had been on fire."
Thus the ministers, to whom no doubt this grave strange youth was a perplexity, gave him no comfort. One day as he was walking in a field, the Lord "opened" to him that "being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit or qualify men to be ministers of Christ." Another time, by another "opening," it was disclosed to him that "God who made the world did not live in temples made with hands." In consequence of these new thoughts, he ceased to go to church, but on Sundays wandered in the fields.
Gradually, in the course of his solitary wanderings and his constant reading of the Bible, it was borne in upon the soul of Fox that God was speaking to him, as He spoke in the old time to His people, and that this was a blessing which all people might enjoy if they would.
"I saw," he says, "that Christ died for all men, and enlightened all men and women with His divine and saving light. I saw that I was to bring people off from all the world's religions, which are vain; that they might know the pure religion, might visit the fatherless, the widows and the strangers, and keep themselves from the spots of the world. I was to bring them off from all the world's fellowships, and prayings, and singings, which stood in forms without power. I was to bring people off from Jewish ceremonies and from heathenish fables, and from men's inventions and windy doctrines, by which they blew people about this way and the other way, from sect to sect."
And "these things," he says, "I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter, but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by His immediate spirit and power, as did the holy men of God by whom the Holy Scriptures were written."
Thus George Fox became a missionary to the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians of England. In the midst of all the Puritan preaching about the wrath of God, he declared the infinite and prevailing love of God. "I saw," he says, "that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness." In the midst of all the sermons about difficult doctrines, he taught that the essence of religion consists in doing good. And in the midst of all the services and sacraments, he taught that these are only the outsides of religion; he and his followers put them all away, sitting in silence at their meetings unless the Spirit moved one or another to speak or pray.
Fox's belief in the Inner Light took the place of the common reliance of men upon the Bible and the Church. These ancient authorities were of little use to one who heard God speaking in his own soul. One day he came to Nottingham as the bells were ringing for the Sunday service, and as he saw the church, or, as he called it, the "great steeple-house," the Lord said to him, "Thou must go cry against yonder great idol, and against the worshipers there in." so in he went, "and the priest (like a great lump of earth) stood in his pulpit above." The preacher's text was, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy." This, he said, was the Scriptures, "by which they were to try all doctrines, religions, and opinions." Then the power of the Lord was mighty upon Fox, and he stood up in his place in the congregation and cried, "Oh no, it is not the Scriptures," and he told them what it was, namely, the Holy Spirit by which the Holy Men of God gave forth the Scriptures." That is, he proclaimed the doctrine of the light of God in every man. "As I spake thus amongst them," he says, "the officers came and took me away, and put me into a nasty, stinking prison, the smell whereof got so into my nose and throat that it very much annoyed me."
This was the first of six or eight imprisonments. The common charge was that Fox was a disturber of the peace, and though the punishments were most unjust and out of all proportion to the offense, the charge was true enough. He felt it his mission to attack Presbyterian ministers in their own parishes, and to declare that the customary religion of religious people was a false religion.
One time, he says, "as I was walking, I lifted up my head, and I saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life." He asked what place that was, and was told that it was Lichfield. And the Word of the Lord told him to go thither. "And as soon as I was got within the city, the Word of the Lord came to me again, saying, 'Cry, woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!' So I went up and down the streets crying with a loud voice, 'Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!' It being market day, I went into the market place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, 'Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield,'"
The very strangeness of such behavior attracted attention, and the preacher gathered disciples; some of them queer people whose heads were not quite right, but others grave and substantial persons who heard in the words of Fox a call of God to a spiritual religion. These people came to be called Quakers because they bid their hearers to quake and tremble at the word of the Lord. But they called themselves the Society of Friends. Fox was of a dignified and impressive appearance, wearing his hair long, and looking at people out of very remarkable eyes. "See his eyes!" they cried, as he was speaking. He had an eloquence which made men in taverns stop their drinking to listen to him; so that one time as he preached in a tavern on the Inner Light, the innkeeper, seeing that his business was stopped, thrust a candle into his hand at the first pause, saying, "Come, here is a light for you to go into your chamber." Wherever he went, discussion and disturbance came with him. He made himself a suit of leather, and he says that people trembled when it was told them, "The man in leather breeches is come."
This strange ministry of Fox continued for some forty years. Much of it was in the midst of great excitement and opposition. Much of it was interrupted by imprisonment in horrible jails, where he lived under conditions which would have put a speedy end to the life of any but a very strong man. The dungeon called Doomsdale at Launceston was a foul place, where the prisoners were fed like dogs through a grating. At Lancaster Castle, "I was put," he says, "in a tower, where the smoke of the other prisoners came up so thick that I could hardly see the candle when it burned. Besides, it rained in upon my bed, and many times when I went out to stop the rain in the cold, winter season, my shirt was wet through with the rain that came in upon me while I was laboring to stop it out. And the place being high, and open to the wind, sometimes as fast as I stopped it, the wind blew it out again. In this manner did I lie all that long, cold winter."
All this Fox endured for conscience' sake. He was as certain as any prophet in the Old Testament that he was doing the divine will. He expected suffering, as Jeremiah did; and when it came, he endured it patiently as for the Lord. "Dear Heart," he wrote to his wife, "Thou seemedst to be a little grieved when I was speaking of prisons, and when I was taken: be content with the will of the Lord God. The Lord's power is over all; blessed be His Holy name forever." And, indeed, these sufferings were not in vain. Fox and his followers went to jail for their opinions, so that for some years three or four thousand of these conscientious people were in confinement, until it became plain that conscience was a power which could not be compelled. The Quakers, both in England and in New England, were contending for religious liberty. They went to prison until the laws which imprisoned honest people for their religious opinions were changed for very shame. In Massachusetts, where the Puritan law banished Quakers and declared that they would be hanged if they came back, four Quakers returned deliberately to be hanged, and were so put to death on Boston Common, in order to put an end to the law by showing, in the fact of their martyrdom, what an unrighteous law it was.
Fox was probably the most self-confident man in England; the most self-conceited, his enemies said. He was regarded by many wise and devout persons as a pestilent fellow. He was not only sure that he was right, but he was equally sure that most of his neighbors, even in the ministry, were wrong. He did not hesitate to assail Oliver Cromwell with exhortations to repent of his sins. But the patience with which many good people took his hard words shows that there was something fine and noble in the man. He was, no doubt, a disquieting person, whose speech was frank and stern, but so were all the ancient prophets. And the religion of his time needed his rebukes. It consisted too much in pious words and pious ways, without the reality of the spirit.
"He was a heavenly-minded man," said Thomas Ellwood, the friend of Milton, who edited George Fox's "Journal." "He was valiant for the truth, bold in asserting it, patient in suffering for it, unwearied in laboring in it, steady in his testimony to it, unmovable as a rock."
"The inwardness and weight of his spirit," said William Penn, his most distinguished disciple, "the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer. In all things he acquitted himself like a man, yea, a strong man, a new and heavenly-minded man, and all of God Almighty's making."