“What Canst Thou Say?” — Paraphrase with Commentary

(New note 7 added on 7/29/21.)

Ulverston parish church Pulpit used by G Fox ⒸMatthew Emmott

Pulpit, St Mary, Ulverston
Photo: Matthew Emmott

In 1652, Margaret Fell heard George Fox preach and felt her life change profoundly. Her account of that experience is the source of the well-known query, “what canst thou say?” It is also a succinct yet rich introduction to Quaker faith and practice. This post offers a contextual paraphrase of Fell’s account with interspersed commentary.1

 – – –

On the morning after George Fox’s first arrival at the Fell home, Margaret Fell took her children to church at St. Mary’s in Ulverston. Fox went there, too, but he waited outside for the right moment. “I and my children,” Fell would write, “had been there a long time before” he entered.

Then, while the congregation was singing, just before the sermon was to begin, he came into the steeple-house. When the singing ended, he stood up on something and asked if he might speak, and the preacher in the pulpit said that he might.

Friends sometimes say that Fox was wont to interrupt church services, but at least in this case we see that, although he entered only for the purpose of speaking, Fox asked permission of the minister at an appropriate time. When that was granted, he began to preach, probably from the pulpit. It was not the fact of his speaking that caused disruption at Ulverston (and elsewhere); it was what he said.

He began by recalling Paul’s teaching in Romans 2: ‘He is not a Jew [i.e., a member of God’s people] who is one outwardly, but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; that is the circumcision of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter.’

Fox and his hearers would have known that Paul wrote in the tradition of prophets such as Isaiah, who had the Lord say to those who would gain favor by an outward show of repentance,

Sackcloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: that you loose the bonds of injustice, undo the bands of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the shelterless poor into your house, and to cover the naked when you see them, and not to hide yourself from your own kind? (Is. 58:5b-7).

What is required for life in Christ the New Covenant is not, then, an external purification — circumcision, public penance, water baptism — but an inward one. Prophets like Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, and George Fox call for a genuine change of heart, a turn from excessive concern for self to that love which actively — by nature, as it were — cares for the other as well. That turning entails the inward sacrifice of that self-obsession from which comes concern with outward marks of righteousness.

Having begun with that prophetic call, Fox then turned to what would later be named “the Quaker scripture,” the first chapter of the gospel book of John, to indicate how — by what power — that change is accomplished.

He went on to say that Christ is the Light of the world and enlightens every person who comes into the world, and that by that Christ-Light people may be gathered to God, and so on. I rose in my pew in wonder, for I had never before heard such teaching.

Margaret Fell could not have meant that she had never before heard Romans 2 or John 1: in George Fox’s coupling of those scriptures, a new possibility was opening. At a time of widespread religious restlessness and searching, Fox was presenting a radically practical approach to Christianity. What matters, he said, is the shift of focus from self to love (i.e., a change from the nature of “Adam” to the nature of God), and the Light, the power and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24) needed for that, already lives in our hearts. That inward Christ-spirit can lead us from self-righteousness into that relational righteousness of which Isaiah wrote. As Fox would say elsewhere, “the day of the Lord [is] come; Christ [is] come to teach his people himself by his light, grace, power, and spirit.”2

It is in the light of Christ within, then, that we come to know and participate in divine life. That being the case, the words of others, even when inspired, cannot give life; at best, they can only direct our gaze to its source. The Christ of scripture says, “You search the scriptures because you think you’ll find eternal life there, but the scriptures simply bear witness to me” (Jn. 5:39). Fox would maintain, therefore, that the purpose of spiritual writings is to direct us to the wisdom and power of God-who-is-love abiding, if only as a trampled seed, in our hearts. Writings are not divine truth and cannot contain it: they point to it. In other words, he would use scripture to dethrone scripture, for, as the scriptures themselves proclaim, “Christ the truth … is light, and the everlasting word, and king, and he rules in the hearts of the saints … and makes his abode in them ….”3

Returning to the message of Romans 2, Fox then issued a direct challenge to those, such as the preacher in whose pulpit he stood, who teach that religion is a matter of correct belief. Such, he implied, cannot even understand the scriptures to which they appeal, for their looking “outward” to texts and conventional wisdom prevents their knowing and living in the divine spirit, which dwells within.

Continuing, he opened the scriptures and said, ‘The scriptures contain the words of the prophets, and of Christ, and of the apostles, words expressing that which the Lord inspired in them. Therefore, what has anyone to do with the scriptures unless he or she is in the Lord’s spirit that inspired those scriptures?’

The scriptures point to the living Word, the Christ-spirit in the heart, “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). They are incomprehensible, then, to any who think to glean something more substantial from them. Religion based on appropriation of truths from the Bible is error; it has missed the point(ing) of the scriptures. The missing of God’s point is one way to define the word “sin” (Gk. hamartia), and sinners manifestly are not living in the spirit of Christ, in whom there is no sin.4

Fox challenged his hearers to evaluate their spiritual condition honestly.

‘You can quote Christ and the apostles from the scriptures, but are you inspired by the Lord to speak the equivalent of scripture now? Have you died to the Adamic self and become a child of the Light? Have you been walking in the Light? Are the words that you speak inspired immediately by God?’

The implied answer was, of course, “No,” because they sought revelation from the Bible, and to look there is to look in the wrong place. As Fox said of his own experience, “For though I read the scriptures that spake of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation, as he who had the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his son by his spirit.”5 It was only as he came to know the spirit of Christ within that Fox found the scriptures opened to him. Revelation, the inward work of the divine spirit, is prior to and independent of scripture, whereas scripture remains sealed unless opened by that spirit.

Fox’s actual query, paraphrased above as “are you inspired by the Lord to speak …?” began with “what canst thou say?” That question is sometimes used acontextually to argue that everyone’s beliefs and experiences are of equal validity and should be freely spoken.6 Fox, however, could have had nothing of the sort in mind: throughout his career, he consistently asserted that our opinions, deeply-held beliefs, and even personal experiences are naturally corrupted by hamartia. As he undermined the common doctrine that the scriptures contain the truth necessary for salvation, Fox directed people not to their own thoughts and feelings but to the eschatological — i.e., world-changing — appearance of living truth, the holy power and wisdom of agapē, waiting in their hearts. And that is why Margaret Fell rose in wonder, her mind suddenly opened, and then collapsed in tears.

His words opened me and wounded my heart. I saw clearly that we have all been wrong. I sat down in the pew and cried bitterly, crying in my spirit to the Lord: ‘We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have stolen words from the inspired writings of others, but we know nothing of inspiration in ourselves.’7

Note that Fell refers not to knowledge always and already within us but to inspiration — being breathed into. The divine spirit is within us, but it is not us, nor is it ours. The difference is crucial for the ministry of Quaker life. It is only when the self-conscious mind and its certainties (whether appropriated from scripture or elsewhere) have been dethroned, and we are open to receiving wisdom from the untamable and unappropriable Christ-spirit, that we are, as Fox would say, fit and qualified for ministry. It is only when we have thus become saints, members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12), that we are “not distinct” from Christ.8 (A future post will, I hope, explore how that process unfolds in silent worship.)

George Fox and Margaret Fell would become the most important figures in the movement that would be called Quakerism, the name reflecting that “shaking of the foundations” (Ps. 18) which happens when, responding to the promptings of the Christ-spirit in the heart, one turns from simulacra — self, scripture, ceremony, even modern Quaker testimonies — to the living truth of love. As the “death” inherent in that conversion allows one to be “raised” in Christ — that is, as love becomes one’s center of thinking, feeling, and acting9 — the Christian religion, most often a matter of dead letter, rules, ritual, and ego, comes to life and emerges from its crumbling prison.

But the shaking of foundations is usually unwelcome. And Fox wasn’t finished. If his minimalist presentation of Christianity, with its implications that traditional religion was sinfully false, had not been provocation enough, his further and more explicit statements would be:

I was so deeply affected by those words that I can’t remember exactly what he said afterwards, except that he was declaring against the false prophets and the priests, deceivers of the people.

As Fox went on in that vein, the churchwarden, at the bidding of a prominent member of the congregation, laid hands upon him more than once — but could not bring himself to throw Fox out. Here we see the kind of disruption that George Fox took not only to church services but to normative Christianity in general. He didn’t simply tear down; to the contrary, he offered a positive, powerful, and thoroughly biblical alternative, only then delivering a prophetic critique of traditional Christian religion, which he considered to be anti-Christian in its externalism, legalism, sexism, and arrogance. His teaching angered the religious establishment, whose power it threatened, but it spoke to something in the hearts of those who had ears to hear.10

And it continues to do so. Like a Christian Zen master, George Fox confronted his hearers at Ulverston with a demand for enlightened action: “What canst thou say directly from the light and life of Christ within?” Over three and a half centuries later, although our relationship with religion may seem even more fraught than his, Fox’s challenge and invitation still have the potential to awaken and change our minds and hearts.


The photo at the top of this post is of the pulpit in St. Mary Church at Ulverston. According to Cumbrian Churches, a Web site of photographer and local historian Matthew Emmott, George Fox preached from that pulpit on a number of occasions.

[1] Click here for a two-column view of my paraphrase and the original.

[2] Fox’s Journal, p. 170 of the 1831 edition of Vol. 1 of his Works.

[3] Fox, The Great Mystery (Vol. 3 of the Works). “Christ the truth” is from p. 37; the remainder is from p. 457.

[4] See 1 John 3:6 — “One who abides in him does not sin. Whoever is sinning neither knows him nor has seen him.”

[5] Journal, p. 74.

[6] Other Quaker bloggers’ reflections on that topic include those at Growing Together in the Light and Light and Silence.

[7] In the original, Fell’s words are “we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.” That appears to be a reference to “experimental religion,” which at the time meant that the stories in scripture — in this case, particularly such “events” as the resurrection of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit — must happen in the believer’s heart. As George Fox would put it in his journal, the only true believers were those who “were born of God and had passed from death to life.” Such would have the source of inspiration, the “anointing,” within them: see note 8.

[8] On “the untamable and inappropriable” spirit, see John 3:8 — “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but cannot perceive from where it is coming or where it is going: so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” — and  John 1:5 — “And the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not.” On “fit and qualified for ministry,” see Fox’s Journal, page 71: “the Lord opened unto me, ‘that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ:’ … did not the apostle say to believers, ‘that they needed no man to teach them, but as the anointing teacheth them?'” Fox was referring to 1 John 2:27: “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 on “not distinct,” see, for example, Fox’s The Great Mystery, p. 340 — “God’s Christ is not distinct from his saints, nor from their bodies, for he is within them; nor distinct from their spirits, for their spirits witness him … “; witness here meaning “to show forth evidence of” (OED). See also 1 Cor. 2:16b — “We have the mind of Christ” — and Phil. 2:5 — “Let this mind be in you, that is also in Christ Jesus ….”

[9] See 1 Cor. 13 — “Prophecies will be discarded; languages will cease; knowledge will be annulled: but love never fails … When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but now that I am an adult, I have set aside that of the child” — and Eph. 4:13 — “Til we all come … unto a mature person, unto a measure of stature of the fulness of the Christ.”

[10] That is, it answered that of God in them.

8 thoughts on ““What Canst Thou Say?” — Paraphrase with Commentary

  1. I was delighted to find information about Margaret Fell in, of all places, my evening’s email! In First Day School we are teaching a unit on strong women in the Bible, and strong women in the Religious Society of Friends. As a visual aid we are creating an illustrated book to which you have just contributed. The children and their teachers thank you.

  2. Probably the most concise and evocative explanation of the basis of Quaker thought I have read. However, I am slightly confused by the employment of ‘within’ and the ‘inner light’ by Quakerism and even more so of ‘Postmodern Quakerism’ even with your caveats?

      • Well I tried to explain in my original comment but gave up as I couldn’t find the words but I’ll have a go now. I am not confused by the terms themselves but rather the fact that they are used at all. I am of the view that everything takes place on the surface in ethical and religious terms. There is no inside or outside. This is a postmodern doctrine I believe. Secondly, the Quaker appeal to the fact that Christ came to teach the people himself, their focus on praxis, espousal of non-hierarchical worship, the belief that inspiration is breathed into us, and Fox’s use of scripture to show this seem to deny or at least relegate as relatively irrelevant such distinctions as inner/outer or within/without because they are a big part of the problem the Quaker ‘way’ seeks to overcome.

        I suppose I would modify the idea of inspiration as a breathing THROUGH us rather than into us and then residing inside us for good: I like the analogical potential of breath, pneuma, spirit, the simple animal act of breathing itself as a continuing process of a way of behaving rather than a single act of revelation, even if that is seen as informing our future actions. I hope that makes sense and that I have understood your article correctly.

        • I need some help with the concept of surface. Can you put that in other words for me?

          With regard to the first Quakers, it’s not evident to me that their insistence on inward as opposed to outward indicates an intention to transcend that dichotomy. I’d like to read more about that, too, if you’re interested in pursuing it further.

          The Quaker doctrine that came to be called “continuing revelation” would seem to be close to your thinking about inspiration. I didn’t intend in the post to propose that there is but a single instance of revelation, but maybe there’s something I didn’t pick up — I try to step out of the Quaker context as I write, looking for places where someone without that context is likely to perceive an unintended implication, but I know that I don’t always succeed.

          • On the surface? I mean that I/we only have existence through our interactions/relationship with others/the world which could also be seen as breaking down the dichotomy and finding unity through common modes, or at least principles, of praxis. I’m not trying to be critical of this post. I just can’t get along with the idea of the inner light, yet Quakerism is the only Christian denomination that comes close to actually getting me to join a congregation. I also like the idea of ‘postmodern Quakerism’ … the death of the narratives of modernity of which Quakerism is both a part and, as I understand it, a prescient step beyond. Eschewing those outworn narratives by practising a realised eschatology, which, to paraphrase Hegel, can only be proved through its exhibition/exposition and not through appeals to something that lies beyond our worldly lives or an unspecified future event that will make everything OK..

            • Thanks. I understand that you haven’t been critical; I want to be clear about your ideas, and you’ve been helpful in explaining.

              I’d use a different term, I think, but from what I’ve read above I understand your thinking on “surface” to include the recognition that we exist only in relationality. It seems to me that that condition of existence is true inwardly as well as outwardly. The neighbor is “Other,” by relationship with whom I am constituted and with whom I share mutual responsibility; however, the “deep mind,” as Maggie Ross calls it, is also “Other,” in relationship with which I am — and we, too, share mutual responsibility. (If I may borrow from Levinas: “the psyche in the soul is the Other in me, a malady of identity.”) That “deep mind” is, it seems to me, the source of the inner light, which therefore remains Other and unappropriable to “me” as self-conscious person. I can see there how the distinction between inner and outer becomes questionable.

              What I think you are calling realized eschatology is what initially directed me to the inner light; once directed, however, I find that I live by that light rather than by a desire to live eschatologically. That’s how it feels to me, but I don’t know how much difference there might be.

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