Posted on 8th October 2019
The Journal of George Fox is arguably the best primary source for learning how Quakerism began, took shape and grew.
Fox’s journal was first published in 1694, three years after his death and edited by Thomas Ellwood, a friend and associate of John Milton. The journal has a preface by William Penn that ends with the line, “Many sons have done virtuously in this day, but, dear George, thou excellest them all.”
Far from being a daily log of events, the journal presents vignettes that illustrate Fox’s remarkable life and how the movement began. The main body of the work records Fox’s life and work up to 1674. The remainder of Fox’s life is filled out in the journal with letters and other notes.
As with similar works of its time the journal was not written contemporaneously to the events it describes, but rather compiled many years later. Much of the journal was dictated by Fox in his final years.
Parts of the journal were not in fact by Fox at all but are constructed by editing from diverse sources and written as if by him.The dissent within the movement at its beginnings and the contributions of others to the development of Quakerism are largely excluded from the narrative. This is to show Fox in the best light possible without criticism.
Beginnings and Endings
The journal begins with the chapter Boyhood, a Seeker and documents Fox’s restless search for answers throughout his youth.
“In my very young years I had a gravity and stayedness of mind and spirit not usual in children; insomuch that when I saw old men behave lightly and wantonly towards each other, I had a dislike thereof raised in my heart, and said within myself, ‘If ever I come to be a man, surely I shall not do so, nor be so wanton.’ When I came to eleven years of age I knew pureness and righteousness; for while a child I was taught how to walk to be kept pure.”
The chapters continue in chronological order detailing Fox’s time in prison, the formation of the Society of Friends and his extensive travels preaching Quakerism. The fact that Fox journeys up and down England and Wales, across parts of Europe, sails to Barbados and then to America makes his writing seem at times like a travel journal.
The journal ends with the final chapter The Seed Reigns over Death. Despite being in ill health Fox finds himself in London attending Parliament to protest at the treatment of Friends.
“In seeking relief for my suffering brethren I spent much time; together with other Friends, who were freely given up to that service, attending at the Parliament-House for many days together, and watching all opportunities to speak with such members of either House as would hear our just complaints.”
Throughout the journal what is made clear is that until his last days, Fox’s commitment to his cause and the society he had formed was absolute.
The journal has been so successful in showing the roots of Quakerism that George Fox is often cited as being the founder of the Quakers. But this is not the case. The Quakers have no singular founder. Fox was one of several founders, albeit he had a tremendous influence on the society and his life lives on past the pages of his journal.
A re-edited version of the journal was written in 1924 by the Quaker theologian Rufus Jones and its this version which is probably best known today.