Biography of George Fox, Founder of the Religious Society of Friends

George Fox, Founder of The Religious Society Of Friends (Quakers).
George Fox, Founder of The Religious Society Of Friends (Quakers). Engraving from 1872 featuring George Fox who was the founder of the Quaker religion which is a Christian Protestant movement.

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George Fox (1624–1691) believed that true spirituality came from God speaking directly to the human soul through the “inner light” of the Holy Spirit. This belief sent Fox on a personal journey that eventually led to the founding of a religious movement known as the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers.

Fast Facts: George Fox

  • Known For: 17th-century English preacher, missionary, and founder of the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers or Friends Church
  • Born: July 1624, in Drayton-in-the-Clay (now Fenny Drayton), Leicestershire, England
  • Parents: Christopher Fox and Mary Lago
  • Died: January 13, 1691 in London, England
  • Spouse: Margaret Fell Fox
  • Published Works: Women’s Speaking Justified (1667); Journal (1694)
  • Notable Quote: "These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter … but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate spirit and power, as did the holy men of God by whom the Holy Scriptures were written."

Early Life

George Fox was born in the modest Puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay (now known as Fenny Drayton), near Leicestershire, in England. His father, Christopher Fox, was a weaver by trade whose neighbors nicknamed him “Righteous Christer.” He and Fox’s mother, Mary Lago, were devout members of the Church of England who raised their son, George, and his three younger siblings carefully in the faith.

From an early age, Fox was serious-minded and intensely interested in spiritual matters. In his Journal, he described himself in childhood:

“When I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness; for, while I was a child, I was taught how to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things, and to act faithfully two ways … inwardly to God, and outwardly to man.”

Spiritual Quest

While many of his familiars thought Fox would become a priest, he began work as a shoemaker’s apprentice. But as Fox observed the careless moral conduct of his fellow apprentices, who happened to be religious professors, he was appalled and grieved.

At age 19, Fox heard an inner voice saying, “Thou seest how young people go together into vanity, and old people into the earth; and thou must forsake all, both young and old, and keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all.”

Fox believed God was calling him to quit the apprenticeship and begin a solitary quest for spiritual enlightenment. He traveled throughout England, meeting with priests and renowned teachers, and attending various religious gatherings. He also fervently studied the Scriptures in search of truth and enlightenment. Finally, Fox lost all confidence in human teachers and even in his own efforts. Again, he heard the inner voice saying, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.”

In 1647, with no formal education, Fox began preaching in England. He had become convinced that all denominations were flawed, and their worship dishonoring to God. Fox rejected traditional church attendance, the sacraments, ordination, hymns, creeds, and sermons. Instead, he taught that all believers were priests of the Lord, including women, whom he welcomed as preachers.

George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends
George Fox (1624 - 1691) founder of the Society of Friends, preaching in a tavern, circa 1650. Followers of the movement later became known as Quakers on account of their agitated movements as they received revelations. Original Artwork: Painting by E Wehnert. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Friends of Truth

Fox’s message focused on the inner light of the living Christ and hearing the voice of God, who could speak truth directly to the individual human soul. Fox believed that all people have the “inner light” for spiritual revelation, although for some, it is exceedingly faint. This inner light, reasoned Fox, made it possible for humans to recognize God, understand and believe in the Scriptures, and come to know and follow God through a relationship with Jesus Christ

Fox taught that true worship was to devote oneself in silence directly to Christ to receive his grace and know his will. He believed that the inner Spirit always spoke in harmony with Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the Bible.

Fox’s followers, first called “Children of the Light” or “Friends of Truth,” were encouraged to live simple, non-violent lifestyles where community and love were emphasized. Decisions were made only through unanimous consent. Otherwise, congregations would seek the leading of the Holy Spirit in prayer until a consensus could be reached. Swearing of oaths, giving of tithes, and granting titles to superiors were unacceptable practices among Friends. Fox and his followers also advocated for the end of slavery and more humane treatment of criminals, two unpopular positions at the time.

Fox began traveling abroad to Holland, Ireland, Scotland, the West Indies, and North America, establishing local Friends congregations wherever he went. His teachings often criticized the Church of England and attacked its Anglican clergy. Fox was sent to prison on eight different occasions for a combined total of almost six years in prison. In 1649, Fox was jailed for speaking out about the authority of the Holy Spirit at a Nottingham church service.

On trial in 1650 for the charge of blasphemy, Fox urged the judge to “tremble at the word of the Lord.” The judge’s response was to label Fox and his Friend followers as “Quakers,” the name which would stick with the group permanently. Nevertheless, Fox preferred that his converts be known only as “Friends.”

Father and Mother of Quakerism

For historians, the year 1652 marks the birth of Quakerism, when Fox stood on Pendle Hill and experienced a vision of “a great people to be gathered” in Northwest England. That same year, Fox established his home base at Swarthmoor Hall, the family estate of Judge Thomas Fell, a Puritan who served in Parliament under Cromwell. There, Fox’s call to spiritual renewal moved the entire Fell household. The family held regular worship meetings (despite it being illegal), organized support for imprisoned Quakers and their families, circulated important letters, and challenged authorities across England on behalf of Quakers persecuted for their religious practices. By 1655, the Friends movement had spread from Yorkshire to London and Bristol.

As a member of Parliament, Thomas Fell supported and defended Quaker liberties until his death in 1658. Eleven years later, on October 27, 1669, Fox married the barrister’s widow, Margaret Fell, who had long since experienced a dramatic spiritual renewal under Fox’s teaching. Known as the “Mother of Quakerism,” Margaret worked tirelessly alongside Fox for the growth and development of the Friends movement.

In 1664, both Margaret Fell and George Fox were arrested and imprisoned under the Conventicle Act of 1664, which prohibited religious meetings of more than five people outside the auspices of the Church of England. Once released from prison, Fell continued to work for the establishment of Women’s Meetings as counterparts to the Men’s Meetings already in existence. She had the full support of Fox, who had published a work in 1667, Women’s Speaking Justified, advocating for a woman’s right to preach. Fox’s argument was based on his belief that the spirit of Christ lives in both men and women, and consequently may speak through either gender.

Death and Legacy

Despite intense persecution in which many early Quakers died in jail, Fox continued to travel extensively to promote his message of the inner light of Christ and spread the growth of the Society of Friends. His most famous convert was William Penn, who incorporated Quaker ethics into founding the colony of Pennsylvania in America. Penn and Fox became close friends, frequently traveling and preaching together.

Portrait of William Penn
Portrait of William Penn (London, 1644-Berkshire, 1718), preacher and Quaker settler, drawing, United Kingdom, 17th century. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The final decade of Fox's life was spent in London, working to organize, strengthen, and enlarge the Quaker movement. George Fox died on January 13, 1691. Three years later, to the day, his famous Journal, originally called Gospel-Truth Demonstrated, was published by Thomas Ellwood. This religious classic records the earliest Quaker experiences firsthand and forms Fox’s autobiography.

Although Fox’s never set out to found a denomination, his burden to turn every person toward the inner light of Christ led to the formation of the Society of Friends. In North American history, Friends have rallied against many social injustices, including slavery, poverty, poor prison conditions, and mistreatment of Native Americans. Quakers were also actively involved in the Underground Railroad, a secret society that helped runaway slaves find freedom before the Civil War. While the movement remains relatively small in number, with less than a half-million Quakers worldwide, Friends eventually earned the admiration and respect of other Christian denominations for their earnest philanthropy.

Sources

  • The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Vol. 4, pp. 348–349).
  • “Fox, George.” Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Vol. 3, p. 638).
  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (pp. 175–176).
  • “Fox, George.” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (p. 332).
  • “Fox, George.” Dictionary of Christianity in America.
  • “Preaching in Historical Perspective.” In Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (p. 30).
  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 630).
  • Margaret Fell (1614–1702): A Brief Biography Of The Mother Of Quakerism.
  • “Fox, George.” Who’s Who in Christian History (p. 253).