George Fox Series, Part 4: Baptism by Depression

In previous “George Fox, Metanarrator” posts, I discussed Fox’s assessment that he had been the perfect child at age eleven. Even then, it seems, he perceived that he was morally superior to others. By the time he “came towards nineteen years of age,” the mismatch between his spiritual needs and the metanarrative of his society had become acute, precipitating a crisis of depression. In what follows, I’ll trace that crisis from the evening in 1643, when it began in a tavern, to the days in 1645 — before the famous “There is one, even Christ Jesus” experience — when Fox’s life took a decisive new direction.

One summer day, when he is about nineteen years old, Fox is with a cousin and the cousin’s friend, pleased to be in their company because “I loved any who had a sense of good, or that sought after the Lord.” Fox thinks, in other words, that they are like him. But when their stop for refreshment becomes a beer-drinking contest, Fox is appalled. He refuses to join in their immoral behavior, and he pays the penalty. (The refusal and subsequent payment constitute a type or figure — a prefiguring — of the future of Fox and his movement.) He pays literally, in that he buys the beer because the others had said that “he that would not drink, should pay all”; thus he emphasizes his refusal and his moral difference from them. Much more importantly, he pays figuratively: he spends that night awake in distress, pacing and crying to the Lord — significantly, about the behavior of others. This incident is a pivotal experience in the development of Fox’s thinking. It is also the trigger for major depression.

The two men who urged him to join their drinking contest were probably Puritans: Ingle (First Among Friends, p. 24) says that the cousin was a dissenter. Most likely, the two made a point of practicing “true religion” and being morally upright. In their behavior, Fox sees irrefutable evidence that even the “pure” forms of professed Christianity are powerless to produce good fruit (Matt. 7:15-20), and that people who seem “tender” as he is can act immorally. Fox then feels that God, leading him directly by an inner voice, confirms his perception of the wickedness of professing Christians and commands him to “be as a stranger unto all.” In that we can see a reference to Abraham, to whom was made, as Fox well knew, the promise of the seed as innumerable as the stars — the seed which Fox, following Paul, identified with Christ and the body of Christ, the saints. (See Gen. 22:15-18 and Gal. 3:16.)

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. (Gen. 12:1-4)

And so, like Abram-who-will-become-Abraham, “at the command of God” Fox “broke off all relations,” left home, and wandered; he “travelled up and down like a stranger in the earth” (see Gen. 15:13). But his lot is to have no Lot to go with him: depressed and fearful of being drawn into false religion, he isolates himself, afraid of everyone. This Abraham-to-be wanders alone.

Fox will later report that while he was in the town of Barnet (which Ingle says, on p. 33, “probably had its share of prostitutes who flaunted their charms for those looking for a quick caper” — hardly the kind of thing we would expect Fox to be looking for), “a strong temptation to despair came upon me.” Interestingly, he would go on to recall that “I then saw how Christ was tempted, and mighty troubles was I in.” The parallel is noteworthy: is he presenting Christ’s temptation as a type or figure of his own? Given his later statements about himself, which may be matter for future posts, I think that’s possible. In any case, he now understands how even the perfect man Christ could have felt temptation. But when Christ said, “Begone, Satan,” the devil fled; it is not so for Fox. Temptation and depression continue to torment him.

Sometimes Fox stays in his room; sometimes he “[walks] solitary in the chase to wait upon the Lord” (emphasis added: note that Fox is already practicing the essence of silent Quaker worship, which, according to Michael R. Watts, he may have learned from the Seekers [The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution, p. 192]). Fox wonders why he is tempted and near despair, asking something like “Why me?”, and he thinks it might be because of something he did, perhaps his taking leave of his family. Instead of returning to the family, however, he mentally reviews his past interactions with them and, apparently, decides that he has not “wronged any.” He does not go home.

The depression continues. Fox is “tempted” by despair, but he does not succumb to it. Temptations to specific acts of sin trouble him greatly, but he knows that sinning will lead him to despair: the temptations, he thinks, are “snares and baits” set by Satan for that purpose. (This condition would continue, Fox tells us, for “some years.”) He continues to be afraid of others, because he fears that they all are “ravening [i.e., predatory] wolves in sheep’s clothing” (again, Matt. 7:15-20; the phrase will recur frequently in Fox’s polemical writings). Yet his spiritual suffering drives him to seek help from “many a priest” — something that he will later see as wrong.

Fox next goes to London, where the behavior of other people, including the “tender” Baptists who included among them his uncle, continues to depress him. He can unburden his mind to no one, not even his uncle, because he feels that everyone and everything in London is “under the chain of darkness.” Coming from a depressed person, that’s a revealing image. One cannot avoid wondering whether Fox is using the unconscious defense mechanism of projection: feeling fettered by the darkness within, he may be seeing that darkness in everyone else, perhaps because he desperately wants light from them but cannot bring himself to trust them. It is likely, however, that the principal defense mechanism at work in Fox is displacement: tormented by the internal contradictions of the Christian metanarrative, contradictions he is not able to acknowledge consciously, he displaces his feelings about Christianity itself onto Christians. In any case, finding no relief in England’s most populous city, Fox goes back home, having heard, probably from his uncle, that his relations there are “troubled at my absence.”

At home, Fox continues in depression that must be evident to all. Like many a troubled young man’s family, his relations suggest marriage or the military, and, like many a sensitive young man, Fox is “grieved” that they don’t know him better than that. And so he goes off to Coventry, but as “tender” people begin to associate with him, perhaps tempting him to join with them, he decides to return home, where he will remain “for about a year.”

During that year, Fox’s depression, with “great sorrow and trouble” and sleepless nights, continues, as does his hope that some religious authority figure will help him. He often talks with the “priest” Nathaniel Stevens, who is probably an acquaintance of Fox’s father. But Stevens steals Fox’s heartfelt words and uses them in his sermons — probably, according to Ingle (p. 38), to argue against Fox’s beliefs — and that, says Fox, “gave me a dislike to him.” He tries another priest, seeking to understand “the ground of despair and temptations,” but the man can only suggest tobacco and psalmody, neither of which appeals to Fox. This priest also violates confidentiality, as clinicians now say: he tells his servants about Fox’s troubles.

More such priests are tried and found wanting, revealing themselves to be “empty” and hypocritical. Even bloodletting is attempted — unsuccessfully — by one of them. With his negative expectations fulfilled, Fox continues to be near despair about the behavior of others. “I could have wished that I had never been born,” he would recall later, “or that I had been born blind, that I might never have seen wickedness nor vanity; and deaf, that I might never have heard vain and wicked words, or the Lord’s name blasphemed.”

But sometime in the first half of Fox’s twenty-second year the depression begins to lift. Realizing that he has enough money “to administer something to the necessities of others,” Fox begins to respond in a positive way to the challenge posed by the emptiness and self-absorbed immorality of Christians. “When the time called Christmas came,” he tells us, “while others were feasting and sporting themselves, I [sought] out poor widows from house to house, and gave them some money.” And “when I was invited to marriages, I went to none at all”; but after the wedding celebrations he paid visits and offered money to the couples if they were poor. Although we are left to guess at what the catalyst, if any, might have been, it is clear that compassion is overcoming self-absorption, and depression is giving way to a new life.

Now that Fox’s depression has begun to heal and he is expressing his righteousness through positive action for others rather than withdrawal from them, he will begin to react in a positive intellectual way as well, attaining insights that will help him become a corrective to false religion for others. As he turns in that direction, although the depression will continue to revisit him, his mind will become increasingly clear and will attain a series of important insights (“openings”). All of that he will attribute to God, referring apparently to this period of incipient healing as “the time of the first workings of the Lord in me” (Journal, p. 73). I’ll begin to consider those insights in the next post on this topic.

—— (Principal source: Fox’s Journal, pp. 68-73. In the 1831 edition of The Works of George Fox.)

—— Next post in this series: “Pure Little Rich Boy”. Previous: “George Fox, Masturbator?”.

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