George Fox was the founder of Quakerism. He was born and grew up in Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire shortly before the Civil War. The son of a Leicestershire weaver, Fox lived in a time of great social upheaval and war.
At 12, he became an apprentice to a local tradesman. He left home in 1643 to seek ‘the truth’, through listening to preachers. Though the Bible was central to his life he developed his own ideas.
He came to believe that everyone could speak to God and that priests were not needed. He began talking to everyone he met about his ideas. He said that experiencing God need not be in a church and so the tithes that supported them were not necessary. Those who supported him and followed him became known as ‘Friends of Truth’.
He was soon in trouble with the authorities and imprisoned for the first time in Nottingham in 1649. Others like William Penn and Oliver Cromwell respected him. The movement spread across England and the American colonies. Fox continued to teach both in the UK and in America.
According to Fox, the term ‘Quaker’ came from a sarcastic remark by the judge in Fox’s second trial, in Derby, in 1650.
In 1652, he climbed Pendle Hill in Lancashire, where he had a vision of a “great people to be gathered” waiting for him. Soon afterwards Fox preached to large crowds on Firbank Fell in Cumbria. A few days later, he was at Swarthmoor Hall, near Ulverston, home of Judge Fell, Margaret Fell, and their family. The Society of Friends (Quakers) established from this time.
Soon Fox and other Friends, the ‘Publishers of Truth’, travelled all over the country to preach. Many early adherents came from Seeker communities from the North of England. These Christians disillusioned with mainstream religious practice, responded to George Fox ‘s ideas. There was a constant threat of persecution. But Judge Fell, though never a Friend himself, did a lot to protect them until he died in 1658.
In 1669, Fox married Margaret Fell, the widow of one of his wealthier supporters; she was a leading Friend. His ministry expanded and he undertook tours of North America.
In 1660 the King accused Quakers and other dissidents of plotting against him. Fox responded with the first formulation of the Peace Testimony. This stressed the commitment to nonviolence. Even so, in 1664, Fox was imprisoned for over two years. As a prisoner, he was taken from Lancaster Castle to York via Buckhaw Brow. This is the nearest he came to Settle.
While in prison, he wrote a journal, covering his life so far, and kept it up until he died. He made plans to organise the growing Society of Friends. He created a framework of local, monthly and yearly meetings which continues to today.
By now, there were many Friends in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic coast of North America. In August 1671, after attending the first London Yearly Meeting, Fox set sail with 12 for Barbados. The Barbadian economy was slave-based, and some Friends were slave-owners. Fox protested at the poor treatment of slaves and campaigned for their release. Fox continued to preach in the UK and across North America.
After the 1675 Yearly Meeting, unwell, and tired, he made a slow coach journey north to Swarthmoor Hall. He spent the next two years there, the longest time he was ever at home. He rested some of the time but was also very busy with his journal and other writing. He never went north again, but Margaret came south when she could.
Fox died, in London, in January 1691 aged 66 years. He was buried at Bunhill Fields, a non-conformist burial ground on the edge of the City of London.