George Fox Series, Part 1: Child Is Father….

Thanks, I’m sure, to Martin Kelley’s notice about this blog on quakerquaker.org, the paralogy has begun. I’m very pleased about that. The discussion already presents some threads that I want to pursue. This morning, I’m thinking about something that arose in the recent exchange between Kevin-Douglas and me: primitive Quakerism as a metanarrative that attempts to unify the disparate narratives of scripture. I want to begin by looking into the origin of that metanarrative.

In his Journal, George Fox seems to take credit for developing the primitive Quaker metanarrative. He writes of the many “openings” he had, and those appear often to have been insights into how the scriptures should be interpreted.

When I had openings, they answered one another, and answered the scriptures; for I had great openings of the scriptures; and when I was in troubles, one trouble also answered to another (page 73 of the 1831 edition of Fox’s Works).

The likely sequence of such a process would be that Fox found a hermeneutical key, a principle that would determine how all of scripture should be understood, and then “discovered” what various pericopes of scripture meant when interpreted according to the principle — thus reinforcing his belief in the rightness of his principle. As hinted in the passage above, the principle itself may have come from, and been “proven” by, one or more pericopes; if so, that’s probably not as circular a process as it might seem, because life experience is likely to have been a major factor in determining which elements of scripture were given primacy.

I propose to go through the first part of Fox’s Journal and see if we can trace the unfolding of that process there. I’m not a scholar, and in any case I haven’t yet analyzed the Journal with that in mind, so I hope that this will be a sort of paralogical exploration.

Beginning at the beginning (page 67, the first page of the Journal), I’m immediately struck by Fox’s description of his childhood, especially of his temperament and his early religious training.

In my very young years I had a gravity and stayedness of mind and spirit not usual in children; insomuch that when I have seen old men carry themselves lightly and wantonly towards each other, a dislike thereof hath risen in my heart, and I have said within myself, ‘If ever I come to be a man, surely I should not do so, nor be so wanton.’

The very young Fox is already disappointed by the behavior of adults who should be role models; that’s a theme that will continue to be significant in his thinking. I expect to find that it was significant for his hermeneutic, his philosophy of interpretation of scripture, as well. Why would their behavior, which was probably considered normal by most people, disturb him? Fox, child of “righteous Christer” Christopher Fox (“there was a seed of God in him,” said George later) and “upright woman” Mary Lago, goes on to speak about his early training, which is significant for its emphasis on holiness rather than belief.

When I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness; for while I was a child I was taught how to walk so as to keep pure.

I think it’s to be expected that Fox’s early training in the necessity of “pureness and righteousness” will also play a significant role in the development of the man and his hermeneutic. In the above passage, Fox is claiming, if not to have been saved already by the age of eleven, at least to have known by then that “pureness and righteousness” were necessary components of salvation. But he continues:

The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things, and to act faithfully two ways, viz. inwardly to God, and outwardly to man; and to keep to yea and nay in all things. For the Lord showed me, that though the people of the world have mouths full of deceit and changeable words, yet I was to keep to yea and nay in all things; that my words should be few and savoury, seasoned with grace; and that I might not eat and drink to make myself wanton, but for health, using the creatures in their service, as servants in their places, to the glory of him that created them: they being in their covenant, and I being brought up into the covenant, as sanctified by the word which was in the beginning, by which all things were upheld, wherein is unity with the creation.

But people being strangers to the covenant of life with God, they eat and drink to make themselves wanton with the creatures, wasting them upon their lusts, living in all filthiness, loving foul ways, and devouring the creation; all this in the world, in the pollutions thereof without God: therefore I was to shun all such.

That passage is remarkable in that some of what we consider to be distinctive of Quakerism was already present, according to Fox’s later account, in the mind of the child George Fox. Even more remarkably, perhaps, the account (at least as I read it now) does appear to claim that Fox had received salvation while still a child, “I being brought up into the covenant [of life with God].”

So far, I get a picture of a serious, empathetic child who by temperament and training feels a tender regard for other beings and “the creation” as a whole, finds inner consistency through conforming his behavior to that regard, and is disturbed by the fact that many or most other humans, but especially those who should be Christian role models, do not share his feelings or do not act in accord with what may be in their hearts — and a child who learned early on to understand all of that in the context of a form of scriptural Christianity that emphasized both the divine ordering of the creation and the human ability to act in accord with that ordering.

Will Fox now turn to scripture for help in understanding why he, seemingly almost alone among Christians, feels as he does and, further, is able to live in accord with his feeling? I’ll refrain from reading ahead, and my poor memory will ensure that I stay pretty much where I’m leaving off while I take a break. I’ll return to this little project later; in the meantime, comments are welcome.

Next post in this series: “God Quotes Scripture”.

4 thoughts on “George Fox Series, Part 1: Child Is Father….

  1. Thanks for posting this. One observation; what strikes me about this is how Fox is articulating what I would call a renunciate ideal. It has echoes for me in the views expressed by such early Christians as the Desert Fathers. The monastic tradition and heritage had been eliminated from England, beginning with Henry VIII’s assault on the monastic institutions and continuing with Cromwell. Fox is not a monastic, but in a way I think he is bringing that ideal into a lay context.

    Jim

  2. That’s an interesting comment, Jim. (I had a similar ideal when I was young — in fact, I wanted to be a Trappist. I settled, though, for the more accessible Carmelite and Franciscan orders, neither of which, I found, “spoke to my condition.”) I’d be interested in your further thoughts along that line.

  3. Dear George:

    We have, in some ways, a similar background. I was a Buddhist Monk for about six years (not the Japanese style of pseudo-monk; fully ordained). I still have much sympathy with that ideal; at times I think of myself, somewhat humorously, as a ‘Quaker Monk’.

    In some ways Fox’s Journal reminds me of the biography of Anthony by Athanasius. Both Fox and Anthony came from propertied backgrounds. Both were pious from an early age. Both saw normal, secular, society as deeply at odds with their natural inclinations. Both resolved this conflict by purusing renunciate lifestyles. The differences in the specifics of their lives are due, in part, to the social contexts of their particular lives. Anthony wandered off to the desert and became a monastic recluse. Fox wandered off and became a renunciate; but the monastic path was not an option in England at that time. I doubt that would have appealed to Fox anyway. Both Anthony and Fox founded countercultures the purpose of which was to serve as a vessel so that those interested could pursue a holy life. In Anthony’s case, his life led to the founding of the eremetic, and anchoritic, ideal. In Fox’s case to the founding of a society whose ideals were often at odds with the larger society.

    There are differences between the two, but I find the similarities illuminating.

    Best,

    Jim

  4. Jim, my own study and intermittent practice of Buddhism began over 40 years ago, but I never became a monk or took lay vows, and the only groups I ever belonged to were teacherless zazen groups that met weekly. I hope you’ll write more about your experience.

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