Shaggy Locks & Birkenstocks -- Liberal Friends Discover Fox
(A Paper delivered at the Conference on the Legacy of George
at Swarthmore College, in Tenth Month 2002)
American liberal Quaker attitudes to George Fox have formed a pattern in which three strands recur, overlap and entwine. I call these strands or themes the Psychic, the Mystic, and the Skeptic. At the documentary level this trifold pattern is relatively easy to trace, at least from 1851. In that year, the bicentennial of Fox’s evangelistic debut, the themes were laid out by none other than Fox himself.
How? Through a conversation with a prototypical modern liberal, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York:
As Post recorded it, Fox explained that "I labored earnestly to gather together a people that I hoped would regenerate the world. I endeavored to so form our agreements that none could feel restricted by our articles of faith.
"These were only intended to set bounds to outward conduct; always intending that progression should be our motto--advancement our life; and wherever an evil was perceived, duty called us to assail it . . . . The Christian’s life must be a progressive one, and when any association of men so bind themselves, either by rules or usages, that they set bounds to the onward aspirations of the seeking soul, then their God is made subservient to their sectarianism . . . . "
Fox continued: "I am earnestly desirous that the sectarian shall experience a change in his love, for when he admits the pure christians light to shine in his mind, he will look upon his brother for his manhood’s sake[,] for his capacity of becoming formed in the image of God, spiritually, without enquiring whether Jesus died to save sinners, or whether he believes in water baptism, or that of the Holy Ghost; none of these cherished beliefs will the pure christian allow to separate him from his brother. Jesus said, ‘if a man says he loves God whom he has not seen–while he loves not his brother who he has seen, he is a liar, and the truth is not in him . . . .’"
Fox closed with an admonition to modern Friends that, "Instead of taking my writings for a guide, they should be considered as helps[,] marks for encouragement, and never for a moment as laws to govern others. No written code, however it may be adapted, will be wholly suited [even] to the time and circumstances for which it was designed, [or] will be wholly suited as an ultimate christian standard . . . ."
Well; this is quite a mouthful. How was Isaac Post able to talk so substantively with George Fox 160 years after his death? You have probably guessed already: Post was a psychic, a Progressive Friend who had become a spiritualist medium, and this message was recorded in his book, Voices From the Spirit World, published the following year.
Post’s mediumship – is that the proper term?– was a fertile one in Quaker terms: Besides Fox, the book included messages from Penn, Job Scott, Nicholas Waln, Samuel Fothergill, both Elias and Edward Hicks, among others. And that’s not to mention such secular worthies as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Voltaire.
Some readers may be dubious about the authenticity of Post’s special communications faculties. Indeed, among the unbelievers were his good friend Lucretia Mott, who worried aloud about his sanity (Palmer: 223), and, of lesser note, myself. Doubts are raised not least by the way Post’s Fox conflates two verses from different chapters of the First Letter of John (2:4 and 4:20) and then misattributes them to Jesus; the Fox of 1651 would surely have kept these texts straight.
But whether Isaac Post actually talked with George Fox in 1851 is not our main concern here; rather, it is the themes which Post "heard" him articulate: This "Fox" was individualist, dogmatically anti-creedal, and devoted to spiritual and especially worldly progress and reform through earnest human effort. And if the words came in fact from Isaac Post’s wish-fulfilling subconscious –well, the same could be said of much later liberal thought about the pioneer of the Society, so Post’s "Fox" was prescient all the same, in more ways than one.
This "prophetic" character is confirmed if we leap ahead almost fifty years, as we must to keep this paper within reasonable bounds, to an August day when William W. Birdsall, the President of Swarthmore College, rose to speak to the Friends General Conference at Chautauqua, New York.
General conferences of Friends from the seven Hicksite liberal yearly meetings had been held biennially since 1892; but now, in 1900, FGC had become a distinct body, a formal alliance.
FGC and its satellite constituencies will be my principal organizational focus here, again for reasons of economy. Let me also add, for truth’s sake, that the disciplined study of modern American liberal Quaker history and theology is as yet in its infancy–or perhaps still gestating–and the contours I will outline here are to be understood as informed but provisional impressions, rather than full-fledged and tested scholarship.
But to return to William Birdsall. His topic was, "What Quakerism Stands For," and his message was straightforward:
"More than any other thing," he declared, "Quakerism maintains the importance of the individual. ‘The Kingdom of God,’ declared the Master, ‘is within you,’ and the Quaker accepts this declaration as constituting every individual a citizen of that kingdom. He may be unfaithful, he may, if he will, fling away his birthright and abandon the privileges of his citizenship, but it is a possession of which no man can rob him. more >>
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