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Fox's literacy

I've had my doubts about whether or not to publish this story, but I ran into a paragraph introducing George Fox's Epistles (part of his Works) that makes me think it's worth publishing.

It's hard to question Fox's literacy after exploring his classic Journal, his pamphlets and books, or his letters, and he had a deep grasp of the Bible. At the same time, his works read very differently from those of other early Quakers. There's a lot of repetition, as if he was speaking to a group of people, and much of the progress is through building on themes rather than filling a neat outline. It's a very rich style, especially when read aloud, but it's not exactly what I expect to find on the printed page.

Fox's works nearly all passed through a series of editors. He dictated correspondence and his Journal, and a number of editors, especially including Thomas Ellwood and Ellis Hookes, polished them. He did annotate correspondence in his later years, but as Braithwaite relates in The Second Period of Quakerism, we don't have much that comes direct from Fox:

Fox, to the last, with all his robustness of mind, remained in the narrower sense of the word illiterate. He usually dictated his correspondence and his books, and there is little of his own writing preserved. An interesting bit, undated, on the conduct of a school, may serve to illustrate his handling of the King's English:

If any mare [mar] ther bovkes, &blot ther bovkes throw carlesnes, lat them sit with ovt the tobel [table] as disorderly children, & if any on torenes [turns] from these things & mendeth & doeeth soe noe more, & then if any doe aqves [accuse] them of ther former action after the[y] be amendd, the same penalaty shall be layd vp on them as vpon them that is mended from his former doinges; & if any be knon to s[t]eale, leat him right with ovt the tabel & say his leson & she his copy with ovt the bare [bar]: & all mvst be meeke, sober, & ientell & qviet & loving & not give one another bad word noe time, in the skovell nor ovt of it, leats [lest] that the[y] be mad to say thr lesen or shew ther copy bovk to the master at the bare: & all is to mind their lesones & be digelent in their rightings; & to lay vp their bovkes when the[y] goe from the skovell, & ther pens & inkornens, & to keep them sow, eles the[y] mvst be lovk'd vpon as carles [careless] & slovenes: & soe yov mvst keep all things clean, svet, & neat & hanson.

Men were impressed by the outward man, but the influence of this unlettered prophet lay supremely in what may best be called his "over-worldliness." (441)

The spelling is strange, though easier if you substitute 'u' for 'v', and spelling hadn't yet standardized to the extent we expect today. He doesn't like to end a sentence, though in speech it's often unclear where one sentence ends and another cleanly begins. I'm not sure that Braithwaite makes a strong case for Fox's illiteracy, but he certainly makes it clear than he wasn't a scholar.

The introduction to Fox's Epistles, written by George Whitehead, who knew Fox well, makes it clear that Fox's talents were not limited by his lack of polish:

The simplicity and plainness of the author's style is not to be despised, he being more in life and substance than in the wisdom of words, or eloquence of speech. And the Lord being pleased in his day to make great use of him, and to do great things by him, for his name and seed's sake; of which there yet remain clouds of witnesses, even to that divine powers and hidden wisdom of God, (in the mystery of Christ), which was with him, and supported him, and lifted up his head through many great fights of afflictions and trials. (Works, 7, v.)

Perhaps it would be worthwhile for those of us writing on Quakerism to reflect regularly on the limited value of scholarship in the remarkable happenings of early Quakerism. Learning certainly had its place, as shows in Samuel Fisher, in William Penn, in Robert Barclay, and in many others - but much of what gave early Quakerism its power was Fox's realization that an Oxford or Cambridge degree was not a calling by the Lord to preach. Worlds opened for Fox, for Quakers, and for others following similar paths.