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The Beginnings of Quakerism
by Bill Samuel
Originally published July 12, 1998 at Suite101.com
George Fox is generally called the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In the mid-17th century, he was a young man who wandered around England talking with priests, religious scholars and others seeking to find religious meaning. Generally, he found that those to whom he spoke had a lot of intellectual knowledge, but did not seem to really have a true connection with God. His Journal of George Fox reported the following experience he had after several years of this search:
And when all my hopes in them and all men were gone. . . I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition," and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.
Later, Fox felt led to climb a "great hill" called Pendle Hill in northern England where he had a vision of "a great people to be gathered." He became an itinerant preacher, telling people they could learn directly from their true Teacher, Jesus Christ. Christ would convict them of their sins and provide them with the possibility of living a life free from sin.
As he was traveling across northern England, he came upon a dissenting Christian group about which there is little historical record, and even what they called themselves is unknown although they are sometimes referred to as the "Westmoreland Seekers." This group worshipped without any priests or paid leadership, settling into silence with any who felt moved by the Holy Spirit offering vocal ministry. They apparently had several congregations. Fox came to a general meeting of this group. The elders of this group examined him, and found him doctrinally sound. He then became the accepted spiritual leader of the movement. Under Fox' leadership, the group became known as Publishers of Truth and eventually the Religious Society of Friends. Thus his work of gathering a people initially involved gathering already organized groups of people.
In 1652, George Fox arrived at Swarthmoor Hall near Morecambe Bay, the estate of Judge Thomas Fell, a highly respected member of the aristocracy. Judge Fell, whose position required traveling around on a circuit, was not home, nor was his wife Margaret, an accomplished aristocratic woman who managed the estate whenever her husband was away from home. Fox talks a long time with the Fells' parish priest William Lampitt, who Fox refers to as "a man full of filth." Lampitt does not want Fox at Swarthmoor Hall.
Margaret Fell soon comes home and hears Fox. She is impressed and invites Fox to the parish church. Fox comes in as Lampitt is about to speak and asks permission to preach. As Lampitt is beholden to the Fells, he gives Fox permission. Margaret Fell finds Fox is preaching the truth she has been seeking for. Over the next three weeks, Fox stays at Swarthmoor Hall and Fell's family and servants also become convinced of the Truth.
When Judge Fell comes back, Lampitt warns him about Fox and what he perceives as Fox' dangerous influence over Margaret and others at Swarthmoor Hall. Judge Fell listens to Fox, and Margaret reports she felt the power of God go through her husband. Judge Fell never actually becomes a Friend, but allows Friends to meet at Swarthmoor Hall and serves in many ways to help protect them from persecution.
From this point, Swarthmoor Hall becomes the nerve center of the burgeoning movement. It is a place where traveling Friends evangelists came to rest and receive encouragement. Margaret administers a fund to help those imprisoned for the faith and to help meet expenses of Friends traveling in the ministry. She keeps in correspondence with the "Valiant Sixty," the traveling evangelists (men and women) and other key people in the movement. After Judge Fell's death, she marries George Fox, a marriage of equals in keeping with Friends' principles. This unites perhaps the two most important figures of the early period of Quakerism, although George is traveling or in prison during most of their married life and they spend very little time together.
I have barely touched upon the faith of early Friends, and there is much more that could be written. But I wish to keep this article reasonably short, and so will stop here. A number of writings of early Friends can be found at these two Web sites:
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.
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