Ends on

We’re breaking two of our rules for the June/July 2024 issue. The first is our aversion to running issues focused on particular individuals. Perhaps it’s a remnant of the kind of old-school Quaker humility that gave the world plain speech, plain dress, and plain meetinghouse architecture, but we’re also a bit allergic to the “Great Man” histories that ignore the context behind most social movements. We also shy away from giving attention to anniversaries, which seem rather arbitrary and also too plentiful.

But rules are meant to be broken, right? This summer we’re looking at the 400th Anniversary or George Fox’s Birth (which occurred in July of 1624; historians are not sure of the exact day).

For those who have never walked into a meetinghouse or even cursorily scanned the Quaker Wikipedia entry, Fox is the founder of the Religious Society of Friends. Well, at least he’s credited for that. In reality there was already a strong movement of independent spiritual seekers when he arrived on the scene, and there were dozens of other ministers, organizers, and writers who each left their mark on the burgeoning Quaker movement.

Still, there’s a very good question to be asked (and perhaps an article to be written) about whether we should be making this kind of a fuss for George Fox. The irony is that those first Friends weren’t themselves interested in recent historical movements. They distrusted academic learning, rarely quoted spiritual contemporaries (except perhaps to mock them), and didn’t believe in any authority other than Christs’ inward inspiration and the Bible. What would Fox himself think of all the attention we give about him? When she first heard him preach, Fox’s future wife Margaret Fell went into a swoon when he preached “You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?”

Many modern Friends very much care about what the apostle Fox said. In the twentieth century, many of the most visionary Friends were historians, from Braithwaite to Jones to Brinton. Quakers have used histories to divide us with claims that some types of Friends are closer to the original vision than others. But they have also been used to unite us by giving us a shared history that all Friends can claim.

Friends World Committee for Consultation has had its eyes focused on the anniversary for a while, hoping that Friends across the globe can put aside differences to get to know one another through our shared spiritual ancestor. There’s been a growing interest in recent decades for increased communication to understand differences among Friends. This seems as good a time as any to throw a Quaker block party.

What does George Fox mean to you? What parts of his life or writings have inspired and buoyed your own spiritual path? But we don’t just want a figurehead: we also want to understand the context of Fox’s life—his flaws, his evolutions, the things that make him not a saint but a fellow traveler. Give us the nuance. How did a movement coalesce around him? What lessons does his life provide for those of us wanting to bring together today’s seekers? What pieces of his legacy have we been overlooking?

Finally, a few pleas: please, please, please don’t write about Penn’s sword unless you’re discussing nineteenth-century Quaker hagiography (which, to be honest, could make for an interesting article for another issue). Also, take care to not dice up Fox quotes with so many cuts and pastes and ellipses that the original meaning is obscured. Let’s try to approach him as he was, or at least as he presented himself.

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