When George Fox preached in St. Mary’s church in Ulverston, Margaret Fell recorded some of what he said. From that record, Friends have extracted four words as a free-standing query: “What canst thou say?” But to remove those words from the context in which Fell heard them is to import them, if unconsciously, into a foreign one. So it’s not surprising that they have been taken to recommend an axiom that Fox could not have endorsed; namely, “speak your truth.”
In Ulverston as elsewhere, Fox sought to expose the semi-conscious hypocrisy of Christians and their ministry. He implied that they were not “born again” into the nature of God; deprived of the Spirit, they were able only to repeat and gloss the writings of people who actually had been inspired. He also denied the status-quo doctrine that divine revelation had ended with the completion of the Bible. Breaching the ideological walls that had imprisoned the Spirit within both the church and the human mind, Fox opened for his hearers the possibility of a radically different way of being, a life of immediate inspiration and power over evil in the inward light of Christ.
To help bring that out, here is a context-aware paraphrase of his 17th-century speech into a more accessible contemporary idiom:
You quote the scriptures – you say that Christ said such-and-such, and the apostle said such-and-such – but are you able to speak as they did? Have you been reborn into the divine nature through Christ’s inward light? Do you walk in that light? Are your words inwardly inspired by God?
The questions were rhetorical: their implied answer was “No.” In confronting his hearers with those queries, Fox was “answering that of God in them all, spreading the truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding the deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life.” He would “Let them know the living God; for teachings, churches, worships must be thrown down with the power of the Lord God …. All this must be thrown down with that [power] which gave forth the scripture; and [those] who are in that [power] reign over it all.” He was, as we would say today, disrupting the dominant Christian paradigm, seeking to replace it with a regime of receptivity and fidelity to the living Christ within. In doing so, he was also hewing at the root of his hearers’ sense of self.
The ministers and other professing Christians were full of delusion and deceit, believing themselves to be followers of Christ and fit teachers of the gospel although they did not live in Christ’s light and could not interpret scripture in the Spirit. “Answering that of God in them” required breaking their self-image. It is unlikely, then, that Fox would have listened to their personal truths any more patiently than he listened to their expositions of scripture. Nor would he have wanted to validate those truths or the conventionally-formed selves that held them: far from it. Fox challenged his hearers to empty themselves of what they felt was truth and to submit themselves, in humility and poverty of spirit, to the inspiration of the inward light of Christ, the power and wisdom of God-who-is-love. Like the churches and their theologies, selves and their truths were to be displaced by the Christ within, “the hidden person of the heart” and “the way and the truth and the life.”
Across the centuries, that challenge calls to us today.
- For an exposition of Fox’s entire statement, see “‘What Canst Thou Say?’ — Paraphrase with Commentary,” which this piece is intended to complement. That essay links to a comparison of my paraphrase with Fox’s statement as recorded by Fell. (My paraphrase here of part of Fox’s preaching differs somewhat from my earlier one.)
- The phrase “semi-conscious hypocrisy” is borrowed from Robert Magliola’s Derrida on the Mend (p. 8).
- The other quotations here from George Fox are from his “Exhortation to Friends in the Ministry.” For more on that, see “Answering That of God.”
- A powerful image of self-emptying (penultimate paragraph) is found in Phil. 2:5-11, which begins, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (KJV).
- “Christ — the power and wisdom of God-who-is-love” (penultimate paragraph) is a paraphrase of 1 Cor. 1:24b + 1 Jn. 4:8. A number of essays here present my a-theistic reading of traditional theistic terms: see, for example, “God Is Love: A Quaker Reading of 1 John 4” and “A Basic Theology for Friends.” (This note was revised on 5/30/21.)
- “The hidden person of the heart”: 1 Pet. 3:4a (NKJV). “I am the way and the truth and the life”: Jn. 14:6a (literal).
Featured photo (on home page): St. Mary’s, Ulverston.