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New Light on George Fox

Some discussion on the QuakerInfo forums led me to this book, which is now fifteen years old. It's a collection of essays presented at a 1991 University of Lancaster conference marking 300 years since the death of George Fox, and its various essays look at early Quakerism from a variety of perspectives rather different from the canonical view of Quakerism created by Fox's Journal and the writings of Friends like Robert Barclay and William Penn.

Perhaps the most startling theme of these essays is the early development of Quakerism, especially during the swirling chaos and explosive expectations of the later years of the Commonwealth. Millenarianism, the slow development of the Peace Testimony, and a sense of Christ's physical presence go well outside my usual expectations of Quaker doctrine. They do, however, help to explain a lot of seemingly strange situations in the 1650s, especially James Naylor's Christ-like entry into Bristol and his ensuing blasphemy trial. Splits like that of John Perrot, the Wilkinson-Story separation, and the Keithians make more sense when the early Quaker enthusiasm is looked at more for what it was than what it became.

The early radicalism and later (relative) conservatism also help explain how Quakers of varying kinds can go back to the writings of George Fox and find a variety of messages to support their current causes. One essay looks at how Robert Barclay (the 19th century descendant of the theologian) could argue that Quakers were predecessors of 19th century evangelicals, while another essay looks at how a cautiously anti-slavery tract by Fox was published in Philadelphia by Friends eager to slow abolitionist tendencies. Many early Quaker pieces were later edited heavily, notably Fox's correspondence and Journal, and it seems that later printings of early tracts were often more cautious than the original.

I suspect I'll be citing this book a lot in the future, but for now this summary, from David Boulton's essay, seems a good place to stop:

Quakerism was born in a critical overlap between a time when faith in regeneration by political means, strongest in the civil war period, was dying but not yet dead, and a time when faith in a 'kingdom not of this world' was making waves but had yet to reach high tide. Fox and his fellow Quaker pioneers of the early 1650s had to face the confusions and uncertainties of this transition (which they did not know was a transition), and their early utterances on public policy illustrate the tension between the old vision, not yet wholly discarded, and the new, not yet fully embraced. Paradoxically, not until after the restoration to power of Quakerism's bitterest enemies did the movement fully develop its unique and most radical approach to politics and public policy, when the perceived demands of the 'kingdom not of this world' led them into direct action and civil disobedience as means of furthering social justice in this world.

(Unfortunately, the book is now listed at $119 on Amazon, though it was $31.25 at Quaker Hill Bookstore in an earlier edition. It's definitely a book worth finding through a library, excellent though it is. For a much cheaper, shorter piece that still conveys much of the chaos of the 1650s and its impact on Quakerism, try the Pendle Hill pamphlet The Atonement of George Fox, which looks at Fox and James Nayler.)

(Correction: The $119 book referenced above has a similar title and publication date, but it's for a book that expands on one of the essays in the conference papers collection. Amazon lists New Light on George Fox: 1624 to 1691 (ISBN: 1850721424) as unavailable, so it doesn't come up in searches.)


Hi Simon,
Much more reasonably priced is the brand new George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years, a collection from the 2002 George Fox conference at Swarthmore. It's pretty good, I'm skipping around but I've devoured about a third of it now. It sounds like you might enjoy it. I wonder how it differs from "New Light" (which I've seen but not read).

We (www.afscstore.org) have one copy of New Light on George Fox 1624 - 1691: A Collection of Essays edited by Michael Mullett. It sells for 29.95.