George Fox, Masturbator?

[Most recent update: 3/2/17]The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dali

No one has asked, but I will – so that I can respond with a hyperfocused mini-review: instead of working through the early section of George Fox’s Journal, as I am in my “George Fox, Metanarrator” series of posts, why not just rely on Larry Ingle’s biography of Fox, First Among Friends (FAF), to understand Fox’s experience?

I read FAF sometime late in the last century, within a few years of an extended and very disappointing online discussion with Friend Ingle and others about the basic theological concept of sin. I read FAF warily, appreciative of the breadth of scholarship and the clear presentation of facts but sometimes not convinced by inferences drawn from those facts. In particular, Ingle’s speculation about the cause of Fox’s depression gave me pause.

Ingle speculates that Fox’s depression, which Fox often describes in terms of temptation and despair, was related to a failure to preserve chastity.* I know of no evidence for that in the Journal, and the support that Ingle adduces does not convince me. As he traveled, Ingle points out, Fox happened to stay in some areas that were known for loose sexual morals, and Fox later wrote in a letter that “I have drunk the cup of fornication.” Apparently, those two facts, coupled with Fox’s struggles with despair, led Ingle to decide that Fox sinned sexually, if not by fornication then by masturbation. But staying in a town where some folks act immorally is not evidence of sexual sin, nor, unless it was accompanied by some crucial context that Ingle did not quote, is the statement in the letter.

From early on, Fox tells us in the Journal, he found the morals of people around him to be much too loose, and he resisted joining those people in their sin. Certainly, sex can be much more alluring than drinking a pitcher of beer with some buddies, but to argue that Fox must have yielded to that allure seems to presume too much. Evidence is needed, sufficient evidence to disprove Fox’s own statement to God that he “was never addicted to commit those evils.” (“Addicted” is not necessarily a weasel-word: in the passage, Fox has been talking about the “natures” of sinners, so his statement appears to be an affirmation that he has always been of a different nature.) And Fox repeatedly talks about temptations in his Journal, but, to my knowledge, he never admits to being overcome by them.

That leaves the single line from a letter: “I have drunk the cup of fornication.” I have no access to that letter and so have no idea what the context of that statement is. I may be “way off base” here, but I can only work with what I’m given, and it’s clear to me that the statement itself doesn’t necessarily imply sexual sin. The “cup of fornication” image is from the Revelation (17:4-5), the final book of the Christian scriptures:

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

This is the “great whore” to whom Fox referred in the title of his collection of rebuttals to critics, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded; and Antichrist’s Kingdom Revealed unto Destruction. The imagery of fornication, adultery, and whoring is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to the worship of false gods. (See, e.g., Hosea 1-5, Jeremiah 3.) For Fox, the whore “with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication” (Rev. 17:2) represents Rome and her children, the false religion of the age of apostasy (from the end of the apostolic age to Fox’s time), “drunken with the blood of the saints and … the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6).

Now all the blood that hath been shed since the days of the apostles, hath been by this fenced city, this whore, this mystery Babylon, [this] false church that is set up, and the kings of the earth have drank her cup, [they] are in the fornication, by the beast, and by the dragon, about religion, since the days of the apostles, and since the true church fled into the wilderness.**

Fox applied that imagery to all who had chosen the false Christianity of externals and acceptance of sin over the true religion of moral perfection in the immediate life and power of Christ in the heart. For example,

And all men and peoples were made drunk with the wine of whoredoms, and the whore’s cup they had drunk, and were committing fornication with the great whore, and she reigned over the kings and peoples of the earth. And the antichrist was set up in the temple of God, ruling over all ….***

The cup of fornication would likely have contrasted, in Fox’s mind, with the cup of the new covenant, the cup of the blood of Christ: those who drink of the whore’s cup of false, external religion are lost, but those who drink the blood of the Son are saved by internalizing the life of Christ (John 6:53) . It’s about something much more important for Fox than sex.

Unless, again, there’s more in Fox’s letter, and given that he otherwise nowhere (to my knowledge) makes confession of sexual sin, Fox’s reference can be read as a confession of his own earlier tendency to look for truth in external religion, which he would come to recognize as the “great whore.” Although he says in the Journal that “I was never joined in profession of religion with any” (he “held himself aloof from formal association,” as Ingle put it on p. 36), the Journal also reports that he made many attempts to obtain guidance from “priests” — i.e., to find an authoritative spiritual mentor — before coming to understand that the realities of religion are not external but internal, and that he must and could rely solely on the inner leadings of Christ. (Ingle also says, on p. 35, that “Fox attended services in various churches in [London],” although he gives no source for that.) I think it likely that, in Fox’s religious thinking, to sincerely seek the guidance of priests and “professors,” pimps for the great whore (or personifications of her), would be to drink of “the cup of fornication.” That interpretation has the merit of respecting Fox’s own story as well as his use of Revelation in his doctrinal works. At the least, FAF should have pointed out the image’s connection with Revelation — and provided readers with context from the letter.

Ingle’s treatment of the famous “There is one, even Christ Jesus …” experience is another matter that I may want to consider. I think I’ll need to devote at least one full post to discussing that experience, however, so I’ll defer any comments until then.

* Ingle’s endnotes reference an assumption that the young George Fox had problems with sex and masturbation in an essay by Stephen A. Kent of Waterloo University and in the source credited by Kent, a 1978 book called The Dissenters (Vol. 1) by Michael R. Watts. Neither Watts nor Kent offered more than an undocumented hypothesis.
** George Fox, Gospel Truth Demonstrated, Vol. 4 of the 1831 edition of his Works, p. 236.
*** George Fox, The Great Mystery, Vol. 3 of the 1831 edition of his Works,, p. 17.

Next post in this series: “Baptism by Depression?”.
Previous: “God Quotes Scripture”.

11 thoughts on “George Fox, Masturbator?

  1. Re Fox’s “struggles with despair”; isn’t this a classic case of acedia? It has all the signs of that well known difficulty.


  2. Jim, my next post, “Baptism by Depression,” gives much more detail. I think that depression may be the more accurate term in Fox’s case: he doesn’t seem to become lethargic, bored, or spiritually indifferent, as in acedia. To the contrary, although he isolates himself much of the time, he is actively struggling with an acute spiritual conflict that keeps him pacing at night and drives him from place to place in search of resolution. He is tempted to despair, wishes that he had never been born, etc. It sounds to me like depression related to spiritual crisis. He might be diagnosed today with major depression as well as with the proposed category of “Religious or Spiritual Problem” (V62.89 in the DSM-IV-TR).

      • Be that as it was, have you read his exegesis? How did he define ‘correctly’ [other than “in the Spirit in which it was given forth”]? By esoteric, i think i mean “divinity”, i.e. theology, was not his favorite activity (altho he did talk it more than he admitted), he was the source for the pragmatic stream in Quakerism, i’m sure –especially with Margaret F.F.’s support. What was he doing all those years that his journal reports he was travelling around ‘ministering’? It was pastoral, eldership. Not founding seminaries and theological schools, not even Bible colleges…

        I’ll confess my bias that the Apocalypse was written at a particular time with a particular message for a particular people, not a general message of ever-lasting import. That you might draw eternal principles from it i won’t argue with, but i don’t see ffox or Barclay doing much. Actually Margaret cites it a lot in “Women’s Speaking Justified” but only to prove that gender is not a bar to spirituality.

        • Although he despised what he called notions, Fox “did theology” constantly if unsystematically. From his perspective, I think, his theology was simply the content and immediate import of the scriptures — interpreted in the Holy Spirit, he believed. And he took the scriptures at their word that he was not to go beyond them in speculation. Nor was there a need to go beyond: scripture offered him a complete system.

          Fox makes many references to images and themes from Revelation in his works. It seems evident to me that he read the book as applying to the present time — his present, that is. By the way, his collected works are on line at Google Books. The most overtly theological is The Great Mystery, Vol. 3 in the set Google has digitized. But even the Journal is theological: the openings reported there, for example, are generally insights into the nature of redemption.

          Barclay is a different animal. By the time he wrote his Apology, the primitive apocalyptic fervor had subsided and its theology had receded. For an excellent account of some fundamental differences between Fox and Barclay, see Richard Bailey’s New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism. Given that the post and the series are about Fox, though, further discussion about Barclay would be a topic for another place.

          As for me personally, I draw no eternal principles from any book or, for that matter, from any other source. And I have no favored interpretation of Revelation. In this series, I only try to understand what George Fox wrote.

          • Thanks for the info & insights, George. Obviously you know your ffox much more than i do. Altho i draw frequent inspiration from the epistles, i do have trouble with his tracts and found the Journal “Jello-wading”, so i don’t dedicate time to them — i trust you specialists to put out a hot APB when you find a good quote or even a useful couple of paragraphs.
            . I recently read the original “No Cross, No Crown” with an eye to putting large sections of it into Spanish, and realized that i really should put it first into modern English, as i think many of my wobbly modern Quaker universalist fellows (admitting i’m one of”em) might find some edification therein — but realized it would take almost as much work as Spanish… The same problem persists with Geo. – his language is so far outside our modern comfort zones that we need interpreters. Does thee sense a calling?

            • When I have offered modernized versions of passages from Fox during presentations, and when Friends in Experiment with Light have listened to Rex Ambler’s modernized passages, some have become excited about the possibilities inherent in the original Quaker vision and have wanted to explore further. As a result, an ongoing discussion group has formed at one local meeting, and another meeting schedules regular presentations and discussions during each year.

  3. p.s.: Was thinking of this article in the last week as twice came upon ‘fornications’ [Z-N-H – to prostitute, etc.) in the Hebrew that were translated much more mildly in KJV and other English versions. My favorite, from Psalm 73:27, talks about smiting those who are untrue, but the Hebrew attacks those who “screw God” in Anglo-Saxon terms. In another (lost reference) ha-Shem is jealous when his lover Israel zanaha other spirits/idols. Add that to the list of Hebrew predecessors of Apocalyptic language.

  4. My impression of reading “First Among Friends” is that Friend Ingle just didn’t like Fox.

    A propos Fox and fornication, I am one with George Amoss; the ‘fornication’ was not sexual but rather external religion and its ‘corruptions’ (well-worn early Q word). Friend Ingle is often quick to assume without evidence.

    I noticed in his review of “The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies” which appeared in the Quaker Studies journal, that Ingle self-describes as ‘a despiser of theology’. This may be a clue to his lack of theological understanding of Fox. Indeed, his “First Among Friends” is noteworthy for its lack of theological analysis. It’s a staggering omission, like writing about a lake and not mentioning its non-human life.

    It is true, I think, that Fox drew on Revelation greatly but so did other early Friends such as Edward Burrough. I argue in my “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God'” that it is even possible that Nayler’s entry into Bristol was, in part, more than a nod to Rev. 19.

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