Wednesday, March 14, 2007

old leather breeches and shaggy, shaggy locks

As I've been reading Fox's Journal I've been struck by the fact that he's a bit crazy. I wonder if he showed up in one of our meetings today what we would think of him. Would we accept his teaching as prophetic, or would we write him off as a lunatic? Here are some reasons:

1. He preached for hours on end.
2. When he got beaten up in a town, sometimes he immediately went back and got beaten up again.
3. When someone was particularly "rude" to him, and died shortly thereafter, he says they were condemned by God for their treatment of him.
4. He often wouldn't accept money from people, even for food.
5. He was utterly convinced that his way was "the Truth," and that anyone who didn't immediately jump on the bandwagon was evil.
6. One time when he met someone who was a fairly jolly person, he counseled him to not laugh so much, and when he met him again and he was then "sober," he thought the man had much improved.
7. He wrote a lot of long-winded and convoluted letters to his oppressors (I suppose we still do this today in the form of minutes against wars, etc.).

There are probably others but those are the ones that are coming to mind right now.

So what would we think of him?

Or perhaps more importantly, what would he think of us? Are any of us as Friends living in a way he would approve? Are we "living in virtue of that life and power", Jesus Christ? If so, what do we have to show for it? Where are our fruits? In what ways are we called to, and do, challenge the status quo?


Chris M. said...

Cherice, here are three comments:

1. And if Fox opposed someone, and that person died, not just soon after but even 14 years later, he would talk about how the Lord had brought it about, the two events being directly connected in his experience.

2. Just last night at the Friends School board meeting, I quoted "The George Fox Song" (because it was part of the lesson I taught at Firstday School when Friends School families visited -- see here. Anyway, "shaggy shaggy locks" became the byword of the evening, applied to many other topics! So I was delighted to see that was the title of your post.

3. In an unprogrammed urban meeting like mine, Friends would probably think Fox was mentally ill and might set up a subcommittee to labor with him to keep him from disrupting worship. This isn't in and of itself an indictment of such a response: Times have changed and the apocalyptic vision of early Friends happened in a much different historical and political context, where lots of people, not just Quakers, thought a new creation was being born.

More interesting to me are your queries about what would Fox think of us. Time to ponder.

-- Chris M.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

For twenty years, I was involved with a large liberal unprogrammed meeting full of prosperous, respectable professionals. Cherice, I can't count the number of people there who told me that they found Fox unlikeable because of the same "difficult" traits that you have singled out. It was a pretty large number who did so.

I myself never found those traits "difficult". Perhaps it was because I was basically in agreement with early Friends about the Lamb's War. Yes, I felt that some of Fox's ideas were irrational. But frankly, I didn't find them any harder to put up with than some of the convictions espoused by people I deal with every day.

There were two or three regulars in that large unprogrammed meeting who challenged it roughly as Fox had challenged the churches he visited (and as the prophets had challenged their fellow Jews). The meeting's leaders drove one of those people out, and browbeat the others into "better" behavior. I pondered this in my heart, and eventually it contributed to my decision to resign my membership there.

I can't agree with Chris that times have changed. It seems to me that in every generation, most folk sleepwalk their way to the grave, and that includes most respectable Friends. It's not just a seventeenth century problem. The function of a George Fox, an Isaiah, or a Kabîr, is to ring like an alarm clock and bring folk back to wakefulness. This is important.

From the standpoint of those who just want to sleep, the things the Foxes do will always seem disruptive, crazy and annoying. But that's because it takes a measure of such stuff to bring us out of sleep. The important thing is that Fox's disruption, craziness and annoyingness was always compassionate. That's more than one can say of much "good behavior".

Cherice, you ask, "Are Friends living in a way he would approve?" I personally think a minority truly are. "Where are our fruits?" I ask that question about myself, almost every day.

Bless you for raising the issue.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

As I've written elsewhere, the first outward thing that drew me to Quakerism was what I read about George Fox in William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. And this was odd because actually James seemed to think Fox was crazy, notwithstanding that the movement he founded was praiseworthy. I found Fox attractive precisely because I also felt slightly crazy and was trying to understand and integrate a "religious experience" I had had while being confronted by official violence at a demonstration against the War in VietNam. A complacent reasonable moderate and respectable prophet would not have spoken to my condition at that time. When I finally found Fox's own Journal I ate it up.

Fox's willingness to see God's hand in any misfortune that befell his enemies is somewhat troubling. His unwillingness to be the agent of any such misfortune himself is to my mind much more important. It's also worthwhile to point out that he rejoiced and appeared to hold no grudges when those "enemies" (one of his jailers for example) changed their minds and became "convinced". I also think we need to avoid thinking of these opponents as just people with different opinions. Those who he thought God punished were usually those who actively persecuted Friends: threw them in prison, had them beaten, had them hung (as in Boston), etc. A far more typical and "normal" response would be to retaliate in kind. That Fox merely thought God had retaliated for him doesn't tell me that he was a wrathful vindictive person.

What I like about Fox is his unabashed openness about what he saw and heard and felt. At a big meeting of "professors" he says that "They were discoursing of the blood of Christ; and as they were discoursing of it, I saw, through the immediate opening of the invisible Spirit, the blood of Christ. And I cried out among them, and said, “Do ye not see the blood of Christ? See it in your hearts, to sprinkle your hearts and consciences from dead works, to serve the living God”; for I saw it, the blood of the New Covenant, how it came into the heart." This was certainly an unconventional approach to interfaith dialog, but Fox records that one of the "professors" (Amor Stoddard, later a Friend) was "reached" and told the others to "let the youth speak". I think people could feel that he was for real. William Penn said as much. I think the very fact that more "respectable" people like Penn (or Barclay or Penington) were able to recognize Fox as a spiritual leader despite his seeming lack of sophistication shows that he spoke with a true spiritual authority that those with open hearts could recognize.

In the years after becoming a Friend I was surprised to find that some other Quakers seemed to regard Fox as an embarassment. I once overheard one of our overseers discourageing a new attender from looking at Fox's Journal in our Meeting Library. She was apparently afraid it would turn him off and tried to steer him toward a less jagged, smoother, more modern book. I'm glad no one with that attitude got to me before I read Fox for myself.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans (Brooklyn Quaker)

Chris M. said...

I still hold that times have changed, in that there is no ferment in the daily zeitgeist of the majority of U.S. residents, at least, that God is soon going to govern the nation. That is my understanding of the view of many of the groups and parties in England, not just Friends, in the 1660s, in the time leading up to and through the initial "Lamb's War" of Friends. Such a theocracy was not a "fringe" concept then; today it is mostly a fringe concept (despite the popularity of certain high-selling novels about "the rapture").

That said, I am glad to take time to reconsider Fox's powerful witness for the current age. I feel well-schooled by Marshall and Rich. Thank you both for adding more context following my admittedly off-the-cuff first comment.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

It feels odd to think of myself as "schooling" Chris M. He and Robin M. have long stood out in my mind as people who I would be more like if I were doing a better job of "living up to the light that I have".
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Micah Bales said...

I first read some of Fox's Journal on my way to the WGYF gathering and remember being fairly turned off by it. However, having gone back more recently I find that I have much more of an affinity with Fox's words and deeds and that what was offending me before was mostly my own misunderstanding of what Fox was saying.

I do have to admit, though, I wonder if Friends would be eager to put up with Friends today who did what Fox did. Is it in our collective makeup anymore to declare God's judgment on individuals and groups? Should it be?

Things to wrestle with.

The Lamb's War

Anna said...

I never had a problem reading Fox. I've always been drawn to his energy and passion for God. I also don't fine the things you've mentioned as odd about Fox's behavior particularly any more odd or different from other religious activists, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Catholic Workers or the Sojourners, for instance. I don't think I'd consider him mentally ill if he started attending my monthly meeting either. I do however think that if Fox was alive today many meetings would not feel comfortable having him as a member. I think the thing most meeting would fine disturbing about Fox would be his intensity of faith. I think most Friends would be put off by how passionately moved by the spirit he was most of the time. Fox was a Friend truly and fully moved to ministry through his life, and he wasn't happy if he was not constantly doing the work of the Lord, no matter how dangerous or controversial that work was. Today unfortunately I think most Friends and most meetings are not willing to face that kind of religious zeal. We as a religious society are much more comfortable with mediocre movements of the Spirit, and moderate calls to ministry. We are much happier to have massages in meeting about how thankful we are for a sunny day, then calls to be vessels for the Spirit of the Lord through our every word and action. I think Fox would be confused and saddened by so many Friends turning away from the Christian faith that is at the root of Quakerism, and I have no doubt he would urge us to have a more radical, passionate relationship with God. Finally Fox would not act like your average Friend, and we cannot expect that he would. He was a leader, moved by the Spirit the way few of us are, and his words and actions proved this. Most importantly I think we should ask ourselves; if we think Fox would have this much trouble with the Religious Society of Friends and visa versa what does that say to us about the state of Quakerism today?

Peace and Joy,

RichardM said...

One of the reasons modern Quakers are distrustful of passion and would think that Fox was a little crazy is that we have absorbed a bit too much of the Enlightenment's view of religion. Deists like Thomas Jefferson would have been afraid of the passion of George Fox and would have thought it dangerous irrationalism. They preferred a very sedate and rational approach to religion. I think I am about ready to wrap up my series of essays on the relationship of Quakerism to the Enlightenment over on my blog but at least one on how Deism throws a wet blanket on passion is clearly in order.

Nancy A said...

Aye, there's the rub! Good post (despite sleep deprivation!)!

This is why many, many, many Quakers don't like George Fox. They like Margaret Fell and John Woolman and several others, but George? One has to ask: What is there to like?

We have to be careful not to deify the person who happened to start our particular religion. Fox was a very flawed man living in a time that none of us would want to live in. What I have read of him, I can't quite imagine ever liking him if I met him.

People like to deify the founders of things -- religions, nations, etc. Many nations have almost legendary stories about their nation's founders. Some countries still have the same constitution that these founders wrote up, as if it's a second bible that can't be rewritten.

This is why sometimes I cringe when Quakers talking about getting back to the message of George Fox and what he believed. There is this idea that we need to be loyal to the FIRST PERSON. I don't get that.

The first person plants the seed. The seed grows into a living plant. No purpose is served in chopping that plant down to try to stuff it back into the seed.

Laurie Kruczek said...

I think Fox is generally misunderstood, because he was infused with the Spirit in many leadings, but as he was also HUMAN, we are left to decipher him, most often through his own writings. NOT EASY. Still, I love Fox, think he's hilarious in his salt-of-the-earth spiritual urgencies, and I mean that in a good way. I doubt he'd like me saying that, which ironically makes me like him even more.


Maybe this is why I don't object to pastoral Quaker worship the way some Quakers do. What Fox was doing, and I'm sure lots would argue with me here, but I think what he was doing was a form of pastoral Quaker worship, much more than a strictly silent meeting. Interesting it has been noted that early Friends used both.

Still, lets move forward as Quakers, a nod to the past, an eye to the future. Sitting around in old leather breeches can't always get us where we now need to go.

Crystal said...

Hi! I found this blog because Google picked up on the phrase "pastoral Quaker." I had never heard the phrase until this morning so I'm trying to find out more about it. Could you give me some websites where I could get more info?



cherice said...


There are many Friends who have pastors all over the world. A good place to start learning about who/where they are is at the Friends World Committee for Consultation website, You can pick up links to other "programmed Friends," or pastoral Friends, from there, I believe. I hope that's helpful and that you come back and read this comment!