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George Fox and Early Quaker Culture (review)

From: Quaker History
Volume 101, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 58-59 | 10.1353/qkh.2012.0010

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Hilary Hinds’ study of George Fox is an important contribution to early Quaker studies. She brings new and useful approaches, such as rhetorical analysis, while still taking Fox’s theological convictions seriously. Her reading of Fox’s Journal breaks new ground and reminds us what a singular, visionary figure he was. And rather than cite other male leaders from the first generation, Hinds corroborates Fox’s witness quotations from some lesser-known early Quaker women.

Hinds suggests that the early Quaker experience of the light within fused categories that were typically distinct in Puritan experience: human and divine, spiritual and social, past, present, and future. Puritan spiritual autobiographies of the same period narrate on-going struggles with doubt and temptation. By contrast, Fox’s Journal begins with such troubles, but they are banished in the light of Christ, which instills a striking and sustained confidence.

Fox and other early Quaker ministers lived a highly charged paradox of standing still in the light while continuously itinerating around the countryside, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Indeed, they generated a great deal of conflict from a place of inner peace and unshakable assurance,

Hinds affirms that for early Friends, “Living in the light meant that Christ was already returned, in the body and soul of the believer . . . temporal planes merged, as past and future met in the present generation dwelling in the eternal and timeless light of the immanent Christ” (p. 26). This is good, as far as it goes. But the return of Christ in early Quaker experience had a timeliness this interpretation misses. Early Quaker witness was imbued with an urgent sense of moment in the decade following the English Civil War. Early Friends were gathered into communities that followed Christ together. Together they modeled divine wisdom in new social behaviors and confronted the spiritual and social darkness around them. But these apocalyptic dimensions of the Lamb’s War arc muted in Fox’s Journal, written so many years after the first, revolutionary decade of the 1650s. And without more historical framing, rhetorical analysis misses these larger resonances of early Quaker preaching. It captures the radical character of early Quakerism but not its revolutionary impetus.

Chapter 4 comes closest to defining, in non-theological terms, the apocalyptic quality of Fox’s witness. Hinds cites the current definition of the autobiography as a “technology of the self.” She tweaks that to describe Fox’s Journal as a “technology of Presence.” Fox’s story aims to manifest the indwelling Christ as revealed in a lifelong itinerary of encounters with the godly and ungodly. Thus, the Journal’s chronology paradoxically serves to reveal kairos, the day of the Lord, the opportune moment where Christ fuses time and eternity, the social and the spiritual. Consequently, the focus of the Journal is not Fox’s inner states but the itinerary and the encounters along the way. Fox seems unchanged by these encounters. He is like a catalyst that shifts the chemistry around itself while remaining itself unaltered. Or rather, Fox has learned to let Christ enact, transformation through him.

A final chapter explores the way Fox’s narrative mode breaks down and becomes surprisingly bland regarding his trip to Barbados in. 1671. Other English Quakers report their visits there with similar vagueness. Hinds relates this to the Quaker slaveholding they encountered there. That colossal lapse in Quaker egalitarianism separated the spiritual from the social, enervating Christ’s power. The scope of the chapter does not allow a fuller exploration of that disturbing case. But Hinds queries it in a new and innovative way.

In all, this book helps us hear the theology of early Friends with new ears and to recognize afresh the earth-shaking import of their witness.

Copyright © 2012 Friends Historical Association
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Douglas Gwyn. "George Fox and Early Quaker Culture (review)." Quaker History 101.2 (2012): 58-59. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Jan. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Gwyn, D.(2012). George Fox and Early Quaker Culture (review). Quaker History 101(2), 58-59. Friends Historical Association. Retrieved January 8, 2014, from Project MUSE database.
Douglas Gwyn. "George Fox and Early Quaker Culture (review...

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