People

George Fox and the Quakers

How did the Fellowship of Friends begin?

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In the middle of the 17th century, a new Christian movement began. Today, in many countries across the world, there are groups of people called simply “The Society of Friends”, or “The Friends Church”.

They began with a man called George Fox. He looked everywhere in the churches of his time for a religion that was “real”. He asked Christian teachers to show him how to experience the love of God directly. Their answers did not satisfy him. They talked about God, but didn’t seem able to introduce him to God. He decided that their religion was “second-hand”. He came to believe that all the groups of Christians he met were “formal”, just playing at being Christians.

His own Christian life began, he claimed, when he heard a voice speak to him. He felt the experience brought him into direct contact with Jesus Christ. What he had been told about now became real to him. He felt he had to share with other people the fact that a direct experience of the love of God was possible, and that you could know His forgiveness personally. This conviction led George to begin preaching but often he was forced to speak after the minister had finished the usual sermon. Sometimes he even preached in the churchyard outside. Many people were aware of a special power and authority in his words.

One day, on Pendle Hill, in Northern England, George Fox had a vision of a great crowd of people being brought together by Jesus Christ. He felt God was calling him to do the job of bringing this crowd together. He began a career of open-air preaching that resulted in the growth of a Christian movement that numbered some 50,000 within a few years, and about 100,000 by the end of the century. Their numbers included people from all sections of society, and class barriers broke down within the group.  This growth went along with opposition. In 1650, George Fox was sentenced to 6 months in prison. It was then that the judge mockingly referred to George’s followers as “Quakers”, because they sometimes shook with emotion. The name stuck! As Fox and his followers came to question more and more things that other Christians accepted, the opposition grew.

The Quakers often did not conform the social norms of the time. One example of this was that the Quakers took Jesus literally when he said, ‘Do not swear an oath but let your yes be yes and your no be no,’ and so they refused to even take the oath in a law court. They also refused to pay church tithes and did not go to the official (Church of England) church services, but met in their own illegal meetings. Imprisoned and ill treated they spoke out against the state church, referring to its buildings as ‘steeple houses’.

One of the Quakers’ main beliefs was in ‘the light of Christ within you’. You needed to hear God’s voice in a direct way to keep your faith fresh and real. This readiness to listen to God also meant they were more ready than many other Christians to think in a new way. They were the first to speak, and act, against slavery. They treated all people as equals, and were friends to all. This led them to speak up for religious freedom at a time when almost everyone else expected you to fit in with the religious forms of your society. And they believed that what you did was as important as what you said you believed.

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