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On this day in history in 1691, died George Fox.
Fox was a cobbler and shepherd who became a preacher and a religious zealot and founded the Society of Friends, known as the Quakers.
Fox was born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, and the son of a weaver. There is no evidence of any formal schooling, other than the fact that Fox could read and write clearly, for he kept a journal recording his life’s work. We know that he read the bible as a youth for he records in his journal ‘When I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness.’
At the age of eighteen, he left home and wandered the countryside, in a state of mental agitation, hoping to receive what he recorded as ‘God-given inward light’. His journal shows that he arrived at the conclusion that ‘God dwelleth in the hearts of his obedient people’ and that the qualification for the ministry is given by God alone and is not dependant on learning. He pointed out that Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David were keepers of flocks, as he had been, and that ministers of steeple-houses, bred at Oxford and Cambridge, were not competent as spiritual leaders.
He toured the country, preaching to whoever would listen. His negative attitude towards regular ministers and his speaking out against the customs of tithes, oaths and military service let to conflict with authority. He was imprisoned eight times in his life. Fox gathered to himself a group of converts, throughout the country but particularly in Lancashire and Westmorland. These were sometimes known as ‘Seekers’, but they preferred to be known as the ‘Society of Friends’. One cynic, hearing Fox preach that his congregation should “quake in the sight of the Lord”, referred to them as Quakers.
Although credited with the foundation of the Quaker movement, Fox left his converts to manage their own affairs, while he continued with his missionary work. He did encourage them to convene regular monthly and quarterly meeting and to appoint moderators to a central national structure. Fox continued his missionary work in North America, Ireland and the Netherlands and established colonies of Quakers in those places.
Fox was admired by Cromwell and, during the Commonwealth, preached relatively freely. When the Restoration came, Fox endured persecution on account of his preaching against alcohol, theatres and maypole dancing. For the last fifteen years of his life, he lived as a lodger amongst the Friends in or about London.
In 1689, the Toleration Act gave a measure of relief for Quakers, but when Fox died in 1691, he could not be buried in consecrated ground. He was buried in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground [38 City Road, London EC1Y 2BG], a graveyard reserved for Dissenters and Quakers. In the same graveyard are buried William Blake, John Bunyan and the speaker of the Commons in the time of Cromwell, Praise-God Barbon. If you think that Praise-God Barbon had an unusual name, think about his son who was called ‘If Jesus Had Not Died For Thee Thou Hadst Been Damned Barbon’.
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