Where we are: George Fox, pure and righteous at age 11, fell into a depression at age 19. His depression was triggered by the frivolous behavior of men who professed the practice of pure Christianity — i.e., by Christianity’s seeming impotence in the face of human sin. In reaction, he “broke off all relations,” left home, and wandered — “at the command of God,” he believed. Given, evidently, plenty of money by his parents (see Ingle, First Among Friends, p. 21), Fox roamed about in a futile search for a spiritual advisor who could cure his depression.
As Fox was repeatedly disappointed in his quest, the depression worsened, bringing him near to the unforgivable sin of despair — but the frightening possibility of despair did help him resist temptations to specific sins. Just over a year after he began his travels, Fox returned to his home, still depressed. But his family wanted him to marry or be a soldier, and he soon left for Coventry. About a year later, he was at home again, where, finding that he had access to more money than he could use, he began to seek out poor widows and young couples in order to give them some of his money. I take that as a sign that the depression’s hold on him had begun to weaken. It could be that the young George Fox had left home to “find himself,” as we might say, and began to see success in that only after returning home. It could be that he acquired a large sum of money from his parents, which could have improved the mood of even such a spiritual young man as George Fox. Or it could be that key passages of scripture began to fall into place for him, allowing him to begin to understand his experience in a way that did not tempt him to despair by threatening to destroy his faith.
The last is, in my opinion, quite likely, but whatever the catalyst, Fox’s depression, although not yet ended, had begun to lift. Fox found that he had the energy to help others and, more importantly for us, the ability to think more clearly. And think he did. It appears that it was only a matter of weeks after his Christmas generosity to poor widows that Fox had the first of the great “openings” that would shape the Quaker metanarrative.
It’s instructive to examine Fox’s description of the process of that first opening. There are two steps. First, Fox thinks of an aspect of the religious status quo; then, he uses scripture to contradict it. His contradicting statement is, he claims, a direct revelation from God. I note that the aspects he selects to contradict are closely related to what has been giving him trouble: making sense of Christianity when it manifestly doesn’t “work,” and disempowering the believers and ministers who have failed him and caused him emotional distress. (Perhaps he was also compensating for the fact that his family had been talked out of their plan to “[make] me a priest”.)
“A consideration arose in me,” he wrote (via amanuensis: Journal, p. 71 in Works, Vol. 1), “how it was said that ‘all christians [sic] are believers ….'” The counterpunch comes immediately, in the same sentence: “and the Lord opened to me that if all were believers, then they were all born of God, and passed from death to life; and that none were true believers but such: and though others said they were believers, yet they were not.” God has been quoting scripture again. There are many relevant verses, but here is an interesting selection:
— Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God …. (1 John 5:1a)
— Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)
— He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1 John 3:8,9)
As we have seen, the seed is Christ: the true believer, then, is born from the spiritual death of normal human existence into the life of the divine nature, and that nature, which is Christ, makes him actually sinless. Therefore, anyone who is sinning is spiritually dead and cannot be a Christian, a member of the body of Christ (see Eph. 5:30), despite his or her profession of belief.
In this first opening, Fox has articulated one of the key components of the Quaker metanarrative: moral perfection as a sign of true religion. There’s nothing surprising for us in that: it is what Fox has believed all along. But now he feels sufficiently confident of himself to assert that, regardless of what the tradition and its preachers say, the scripture, properly interpreted, confirms his belief — and that God himself has confirmed Fox’s reading of scripture.
Next, God helps Fox get more than even with Stevens. Although “it was the common belief of people,” says Fox, that preparation for ministry meant education at university, God told Fox that “to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to make a man fit to be a minister of Christ.” Again, except for Fox’s claim that he “wondered at” the revelation, there are no surprises for us here: Fox had consulted “many a priest,” some of whom, such as Nathaniel Stevens who stole Fox’s words, were abusive in some way, and none of whom could help him. In the Journal, Fox twice points out that the revelation, which he also relishes enough to repeat, “struck at priest Stevens’ ministry.”
Fox does not stop there. “[I]t was opened in me,” he goes on to report, ‘that God who made the world did not dwell in temples made with hands.'” (See Acts 7:48.) Again, Fox claims to be surprised at this contradiction of common belief. But this time there is a positive element that will be crucial for the Quaker experience: God dwells in the human heart. “The Lord showed me clearly, that he did not dwell in those temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people’s hearts.” When Fox thought of priest Stevens in connection with this, he tells us, “I smiled within myself.”
After putting his feelings into words in those revelations, Fox pointedly refuses to join his family when they listen to Stevens preach; instead, he goes off alone with his Bible. Quoting from an epistle of John (see below), he tells his family the revolutionary news that “the Lord would teach his people himself.” The fundamentals of Quakerism are in place.
These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming. If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him. (1 John 2:26-29)
Clear in his mind not only about the requirements for status as true believer and minister of Christ, but also about where we encounter God, Fox will “join with” no one except Christ: “[I] was a stranger to all, relying wholly upon the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus the Anointed/Anointer is his only teacher. “[A]bide in him, that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence ….” Certainly, Fox has confidence now. Has Christ already come for and in Fox? We can have confidence that he has.
But this is where the Journal‘s chronology becomes especially challenging. If we accept what appears to be Fox’s dating, the openings above took place in 1646, and the “There is one, even Christ Jesus” experience did not take place until 1647. But then the “There is one” revelation becomes an anachronism. Rather than attempt to move events into more likely places, however, I think we’ll do well to stop following Fox’s timeline and look at his changed situation and thinking and how they contribute to the construction of the original Quaker metanarrative.
I think, in fact, that we’ll do very well to do that — because I have read ahead in the Journal again. I have read past “There is one,” into a section that, having accepted the Standard Quaker Myth’s doctrine that the “There is one” experience was the crux, I found anticlimactic when I first read it years ago. And that’s where, today, I found Fox’s key religious experience. But that experience was determined by the metanarrative that developed through the series of “openings” that began with those described above.