Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox

Lewis Benson began his lecture series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox at Moorestown Meeting in New Jersey in the fall of 1982. The first lecture in this series is titled “The Place of George Fox in Christian History.” It is now available for reading on the New Foundation Fellowship website, and can be accessed through Ellis Hein’s introduction:… All are welcome to visit. In the coming weeks and months, NFF will sequentially post the nine remaining lectures in this series.

In this first lecture, “The Place of George Fox in Christian History,” Benson states his intention for the series: “to focus on Fox’s actual teachings as revealed in his writings,” thereby addressing two problems: 1) scholars’ mistaken interpretations of Fox’s teaching, and 2) widespread lack of familiarity with our Quaker heritage. These lectures provide an excellent opportunity for Friends to familiarize themselves with significant portions of early Quaker understanding, as Benson’s scholarship is thorough; his interpretation is sound; and his presentations are clear and coherent.

I always try to approach people’s interpretations of Fox with an open mind, but I’ve often found that he’s misrepresented and misunderstood. Lewis Benson also saw this problem and identified it in this lecture, referring to many scholars of his time.

One of the primary distinctions that Fox makes is that there is a pure religion “that comes down from above” (Benson identifies this elsewhere as Abrahamic religion), and then there is man-made religion (Adamic religion), which is arrived at by means of ideas, emotions, ideals, social pressures, etc., in short, anything human beings can contrive and subscribe to. In this all-too-prevalent man-made religion (Adamic religion), Person A will likely have a different take on religion from Person B. If, however, they each are choosing and forming their religion from ideas, feelings, principles, etc., they both are subscribing to man-made religion. An example of this apparently-different-but-actually-the-same man-made religion is Protestants and Catholics, though differing were, nevertheless, of the same root and stock, claimed the seventeenth-century Quakers.

In contrast to the Adamic religion that permeated their culture, what Fox and first Friends were given was the pure religion that comes down from above, i.e. revelation. (Recall Fox’s surprise at hearing “There is one, Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”) Now this Word is what is revealed by Christ, and is Christ, and is unchanging; it is the gospel, the power of God. Therefore, those who have received this gospel power find themselves in unity with those in history (first Friends, apostles) who had also received this heavenly dispensation. Because of that unity of spirit, we find that the words of these two groups convey our own most inward identity and also present wisdom that we can affirm, ascribe to, and benefit from.

The faith that comes down from above cannot be acquired by human beings; it must be given by God. So, what does one do? Letting John the Baptist’s words resonate within one’s heart might be useful, as he came before the Lord and prepared the way. Ultimately, it’s about needing truth for your soul like you need oxygen for your body.  I see this particular sense of the need for truth to be the hallmark of humanity, but people deny their humanity often. The words in John 1 speak to this denial: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Meanwhile, we have a great deal of literature that affirms the reality of the gospel power. I’ve heard a number of people say they were convinced of the gospel by reading Fox. I’ve always found this suspect because one is assimilating ideas when one reads, and Life is not intellect, and neither is it emotion. Fox does affirm—throughout all his voluminous writings—the reality of the new, inward Life that God in His mercy and truth meets out to those who call upon Him in their need, to those who wait in readiness. There are quite a few of Jesus’s parables about preparing oneself. Most emphatic, however, is Jesus’s concluding lesson to his disciples shortly before he’s arrested:

Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch (Mk. 13: 35-7).

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