Seeking the light of Christ

by Max L. Carter

George Fox and Margaret Fell formed their movement in a turbulent era of church history

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 117 in 2016 ]

I OFTEN TELL STUDENTS bemused by the culture at the Quaker college where I teach that Friends are “lost in the  sixties”—the 1660s

The situation in England, where Quakerism began in the mid-seventeenth century, seemed as chaotic in those days as the 1960s seemed to Americans going through them. Distinctive principles and “testimonies” observed by Friends today are deeply rooted in the issues and debates that marked the Civil War period of English history and its aftermath. We can understand those times and their influence on Quakerism through the experience of two of the foundational Quaker leaders, George Fox and Margaret Fell.

seekers, ranters, diggers, levellers

George Fox (1624–1691) came of age during a time of deep divisions in English society. A century before, Henry VIII had broken from the control of Rome to establish the Church of England, but Puritans sought even greater reform. Soon a number of groups splintered from the church, many with interesting names. “Seekers” and “Ranters” gave up hope for reform and left the church. “Diggers” and “Levellers” sought rights and privileges for the common folk. 

Meanwhile questions arose about proper authority in matters of state, church, economics, and personal life. Finally civil war erupted as King Charles I’s Anglican forces battled the Puritan ones of Parliament. In 1649 this turbulence culminated in the beheading of Charles and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s government. England was now a republic. At the time this state of affairs seemed permanent. 

Such chaos and upheaval led young Fox to some deep soul searching and, at times, despair. A faithful member of a parish church that was already experiencing Puritan reforms, the hypocrisy and lack of integrity he saw in his fellow parishioners’ lives troubled him. They professed the creeds of the church on Sunday—and then behaved like anyone else during the week.

Seeking an experience of truth that was powerful enough to transform his life, he embarked on a spiritual journey that took him far and wide. He read the Bible, asked the advice of other believers, and yearned for a reality that would “speak to his condition.” Nothing worked. 

Finally, in 1647, as he recalled in his Journal

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, oh, then, 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.

What he had been seeking outside of himself in others’ experience, he found within, as the very presence of Christ. Fox felt that this was what he had been searching for—a truth that could be known intimately, one that had the power to bring him into new life. 

christ teaching the people

Fox now began traveling to share the message that “Christ has come to teach the people Himself.” People did not have to turn to the established church, the ordained clergy, the scholars of religion, or even the written documents of the faith for authority, he argued. The very Author of Scripture; the High Priest; the Prophet; Lord; and Redeemer was directly and immediately, without an intermediary, available as a Light, Life, and Power within. Fox and his early followers began to emphasize that the church is people, not buildings, and they called their places of worship “meetinghouses” and other church buildings “steeplehouses.” 

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 People saw all this as heresy at worst, and at best certainly a threat to church structure, authority, and the good order of society. After speaking to the congregation in a Derby “steeplehouse” in 1650, Fox was arrested and sentenced to jail. 

When Judge Jeremy Bennett told him that he should tremble before the authority of the court, Fox retorted that it was the judge who ought to “tremble and quake” before the Almighty. Judge Bennett accused Fox of being a “quaker,” or wild-eyed enthusiast. 

The pejorative stuck. Fox and his friends, who had been calling themselves “Primitive Christianity Restored,” “Children of Light,” “Friends of Jesus,” and “Publishers of Truth,” among other names, accepted the term “Quaker” as consistent with their own “trembling before the Lord.” (They also continued to frequently refer to themselves as “Friends” and still do so today.)

During his imprisonment, which lasted into 1652, Fox was offered early release from the “foul, stinking gaol” if he would join the militia, but he refused with a statement that later informed the “peace testimony” of Friends: 

I told them I knew from whence all wars arose, even from the lust, according to James’s doctrine [James 4:1]; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars; and that I was come into the covenant of peace which was before all wars and strife.

Following his first jail term (he would spend seven years imprisoned for his beliefs throughout his life), Fox began a journey on foot to the northern counties of England, far from the seats of political and ecclesiastical power. On the way he was “moved of the Lord” to climb Pendle Hill, an odd idea in days when folks didn’t just go climbing random hills! Atop the hill Fox had a vision of a “great people to be gathered in the power of the Lord,” and he took it as encouragement to continue to share his message.

The vision proved prophetic. In the northern counties, he found groups of people who had become disaffected, just as he had, with the established Church of England and its preachers. These people, too, had left and were meeting in “chapels” (independent places of worship) or in “conventicles” (small groups of Christians who gathered without an ordained priest to read the Bible together and await the Spirit’s interpretation).

This was the kindling to Fox’s fire. As he shared his message of the “Real Presence” of Christ within and among them, they found it spoke also to their condition. People, in turn, would refer him to other gatherings of those ready for such a message. 

Fox visited in homes, preached in churchyards, and, one June day in 1652, preached to more than 1,000 on Firbank Fell (a hilltop in the Lune Valley). There Fox’s message persuaded many, and these formed the nucleus of the first group of Quaker missionaries, who would become known as the Valiant Sixty.

enter margaret fell

After the success at Firbank Fell, Fox journeyed to the far northwest town of Ulverston. There in late June 1652, following a priest’s sermon on the authority of Scripture, Fox argued against the message saying that the Inner Light is the ultimate authority. Fox’s response to the sermon had a profound impact on one woman in attendance: Margaret Fell (1614–1702), wife of a prominent judge. Fell later wrote of Fox’s speech: 

And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,” etc. I [Fell] stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before.... [Fox continued] “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” etc. 

This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

Margaret invited Fox to the Fell home, Swarthmore Hall, to further explain this “new doctrine” to her and her family. Judge Thomas Fell was away, riding circuit, and some in Ulverston were alarmed at the influence this Fox in the hen house was having on Fell’s wife and daughters. 

A delegation rode out to encourage Fell to return home immediately and address the situation. The judge did, and he met with Fox to hear him out. After the consultation, Judge Fell proclaimed that he wasn’t convinced of Quakerism himself, but he would not stand in the way of his wife and family’s embrace of it.

Judge Fell’s reputation and position now protected Quakers, and Swarthmore Hall served as their “Grand Central Station.” There Quakers held “meetings for worship” (as they referred to their worship services), and from there they sent forth missionaries who later returned for rejuvenation. 

Margaret Fell’s organizational genius helped plan and fund the Quaker enterprise from 1652 on. With the security of Swarthmore Hall as a headquarters, Fox’s charismatic presence as inspiration, and the developing leadership of many other men and women who were joining the Quaker movement, Quakerism spread like wildfire. By some estimates it reached nearly 50,000 followers in the decade or so following 1652. 

But the rapid growth came with its own problems. A turning point in the new movement occurred in 1656 when James Nayler (c. 1616–1660), one of the Valiant Sixty and every bit Fox’s equal in the movement, undertook a symbolic act in the city of Bristol. 

A central tenet of the Quaker faith is the Real Presence of Christ understood as a radical “Inward Light” that renders moot the need for outward forms of worship and ritual such as water baptism and physical communion. Christ is present, and therefore one has no need to “do this in remembrance.” Christ is in the here and now, leading, guiding, and directing. 

Tragically, as it turned out, Nayler decided to use an outward form to represent that very spiritual reality. Encouraged by crowds enamored of his charismatic teaching, Nayler rode into the city of Bristol on horseback as his followers waved branches and shouted hosannas. 

To Nayler this was not meant to claim similarity to Christ (thus the horse, rather than a donkey), but to symbolize that Christ had triumphantly entered into the Now and into the lives of those who turned to his Light within. 

Not all took it that way, especially not Oliver Cromwell and Parliament. Nayler was arrested, tried in Westminster Hall in London, and convicted of blasphemy. His tongue was bored through with a hot iron, and “B” was branded on his forehead before he was thrown in jail.

meetings and more meetings

Fox and Fell now had a problem. They headed up what they saw as a Spirit-led movement without ordained clergy, bishops, or hierarchy, but Nayler’s actions had brought disrepute to the wider movement. How without hierarchy could they prevent others from “running amok” and further discrediting Quakerism? 

They and their friends responded by organizing the Quaker movement into a structure that allowed for discernment of the Spirit’s leading in community. Local groups of Friends gathered for worship regularly in silent assemblies awaiting Christ’s leadership. 

Once a month, these worshiping bodies would gather in geographical proximity to conduct the business of Friends—called, naturally, “monthly meetings.” Monthly meetings in a larger geographical area would meet four times a year as “quarterly meetings,” and these, in turn, would gather annually in “yearly meetings.” 

Fell emphasized empowering women to lead in the movement, and separate men’s and women’s business meetings were established so that women would develop leadership and speaking abilities. This whole organizational structure from the 1650s still holds, in large part, into the twenty-first century, although men and women are no longer separated.

In addition to this structure of meetings, committees were formed to address the concerns of Friends. And the concerns were many: Quakers suffered in various persecutions of nonconformists; writings appeared purporting to represent Friends (whether accurately or not); and the movement struggled to achieve the “prospering of Truth” and to care for one another. 

Eventually “elders,” “overseers,” and “ministers” were designated for particular functions within what was becoming something akin to a denomination. In years to come, it would be officially named the Religious Society of Friends.

Such organization did, indeed, help discipline an otherwise unruly body steeped in the chaos of the English Civil War period, but another problem soon arose. In 1660, following the death of Cromwell and the brief, disastrous rule of his son Richard, King Charles II ascended the throne of England restoring the monarchy that had ended with his father’s execution. Charles set about to avenge his father, and there were plenty of suspect groups out and about. 

don’t persecute us

How was the new king to tell that Quakers did not necessarily want to bring him down? Large numbers of radicals who had served in Cromwell’s New Model Army in opposition to Charles I had become disillusioned and turned to Quakerism. In another move that helped assure Friends’ survival, Fell and others developed a statement addressed to Charles II distancing Quakers from those who had participated in armed rebellion. 

Delivered to the king in 1660, this “Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God Called Quakers” said, in part, 

The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

This declaration began a long association of Quakers with ideas of peace (see “Bearing and not bearing the sword,” pp. 33–35), but it did not keep Friends from suffering under new laws making their meetings for worship illegal. However it did help assure their survival as so many other groups of the Civil War period disappeared.

Judge Thomas Fell had died in 1658, and George Fox and Margaret Fell, long associated as fellow travelers in the Quaker movement, married in 1669—shortly after Fell’s release from serving a prison term for allowing Quaker meetings in her home. During her time in prison, she wrote extensively, including her most famous  work, Women’s Speaking Justified (1666). Fox dictated his most famous work, his journal, as a “look back” at his movement in about 1674. It was eventually published in 1694 after his death.

Fox and Fell were now truly a “power couple.” Through the rest of their life together until George Fox died in 1691, their marriage provided grounding and guidance for the Quaker movement, even though they were apart for long stretches of time. Each endured imprisonments, lengthy travel, and the organizational details of an expanding, international movement. 

Even as Quakerism developed more and more institutional patterns, the movement begun by Fox still bore the marks of several streams of influence that had surged through English society when the first Friends gathered:

Restorationism

Fox and Fell believed they were simply reviving original Christianity. Many Puritans, Baptists, and radical reformers on the continent were also seeking this. Quaker emphases on the ethical teachings of Jesus about peace, integrity, simplicity, and equality arose out of these various groups’ foci on restoring the purity of the early church.

Radicalism

A short list of the groups seeking a radical restructuring of church and society at the time would include an array of names unfamiliar to us today but the stuff of daily headlines in their own time: Fifth Monarchists, Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Familists, Grindletonians, and Muggletonians. 

Quakers drank deeply from the same radical wells. Friends’ use of “plain speech” arose out of an insistence on addressing all classes of society equally. They adopted the use of “thee” and “thou” for all classes, even though these terms were commonly used only in familiar settings. Their voteless decision-making arose from their belief that each person has access to God’s truth. Male and female equality in the ministry and in society, and even the refusal of Quakers to tip their hats to higher-ranking people, were grounded in the demands of the commonest folks in the realm for a society where all were equal.

Apocalypticism

These were scary times! Parliament had lopped off the head of the king, bringing to an end—it seemed at the time—a monarchy that had lasted for 1,200 years. The pillars of society were coming down. Some people wondered if the end times were upon them, while others held out hope that something great was about to be unveiled. For Friends this apocalyptic expectation was felt inwardly in the “Real Presence of the Light of Christ” leading and directing their lives. Friends’ silent worship under the guidance of Christ and emphasis on “letting one’s life preach,” rather than on the witness of outward symbols, arose out of this reality.

The alchemy of transformation

Though we may not think much about it today, a revival of the medieval tradition of alchemy—uncovering the physical and spiritual laws that govern transformation of chemical elements—happened at the same time as the rise of Quakerism. One sees this surprising influence in Quaker insistence down through the ages on the possibility of turning to the Light of Christ and becoming transformed—through human equality, peaceful living, social justice, and overcoming sin that binds us personally and socially.

the scarlet cloak

By the end of her life, Margaret Fell Fox recognized that Friends were beginning to wear the dull, drab colors that would mark them for the next 150 years. She would have none of this plain dressing; George Fox’s letters to her record that on one occasion he had bought her scarlet cloth to make a beautiful cloak. She proclaimed in her last letter to a Quaker assembly in 1700 that these plain clothes were

a silly, poor gospel. It is more fit for us, to be covered with God’s eternal Spirit, and clothed with his eternal Light which leads us, and guides us into righteousness, and to live righteously and justly and holy in this profane evil world. This is the clothing that God puts upon us, and likes, and will bless. This will make our Light shine forth before men, that they may glorify our heavenly Father which is in heaven [Matt. 5:16]. 

Friends may not have heeded her advice to look on the vivid colors of God’s nature. But she and George Fox had articulated a gospel of radical Christian faithfulness and personal transformation that their followers continued. Seekers, Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers are all gone, but Quakers, forged in the fire of Fox and Fell’s commitment amid an uncertain time, live on. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #117 The Surprising Quakers. Read it in context here!

Max L. Carter is an adjunct professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Guilford College in North Carolina and the former director of Friends Center at Guilford. He is a recorded Friends minister and the author of Minutiae of the Meeting: Essays on Quaker Connections and College Spirit: Reflections on 25 Years in Campus Ministry.

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