Monday 15 January 2024


What does it mean to be a 'Christian mystic'? This term is used by Hugh McGregor Ross in his book George Fox - A Christian Mystic, first published in 1991, the tercentenary of Fox's death. Ross's title page offers testimony from George Fox's step-sons and step-daughters, probably dated 1691, in which they say that their step-father was "deep in the divine mysteries of the kingdom of God". That would seem to qualify for being a Christian mystic. Ross offers a more formal definition which explains that a mystic is one who has had the experience that the divine Ultimate and the essence of the individual self are fundamentally one and the same. There are, however, obvious problems in finding the words to describe an ineffable experience. 

A painting of George Fox - this image has become iconic but it may not be an image of Fox, nor even of the period.

Hugh Ross (1917-2014) was a Quaker who could claim that he was a step-son of George Fox in the eighth generation. Ross also became one of the leading computer scientists of his generation yet found the time to study a range of historical documents relating to George Fox. He concluded that Fox had experienced a profound spiritual awakening in 1647, the climax of several years of mental struggle to find the truth. He also speculated that leaders in the Quaker movement which developed from this seminal event redacted the accounts of George Fox's great awakening to save him and themselves from the charges of blasphemy that soon began to hover over Fox and other Quakers.      

Hugh McGregor Ross, 88 years of age when the photo was taken in January 2006, with a copy of the 1987 Draft Proposal for ISO/IEC 10646

George Fox was born in 1624 and died in 1691, living through a century of revolution in which the world was turned upside down for so many. When he was eighteen years old the country was plunged into civil war; when he was twenty-five the king, Charles, was executed on the orders of Cromwell and the military leadership that now governed the country. The hierarchy of power in which the monarch declared he ruled as Head of State and Church by divine right, through the will of God Almighty, was now swept away. Some men and women, freed from the old order and established certainties, began to think for themselves about matters of spiritual belief. George Fox was such a man.

Fox had been born the son of a successful and relatively wealthy weaver in Drayton-in-the Clay, Leicestershire. His father was a church warden and George Fox had enough financial security and social standing to follow his own spiritual path when he became an adult, rather than continue his apprenticeship as a shoemaker. When his father died in the late 1650s, he left his son, George, a substantial legacy.   

Another possible image of George Fox 


Ross revisited the library of Quaker documents and with admirable scholarship presents his edited version of Fox's own account of this spiritual journey which began in July 1643 when Fox left his relations and 'broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old'. Aged nineteen, he set off on his pilgrimage to find the true Christian way, even as civil war began to erupt in the land. He found no comfort from any clergymen and castigated these 'professors' whom he was convinced 'did not possess what they professed'. They did not have wisdom or a true understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ. But Fox soon found himself beset with what he termed 'the temptation of despair', as he moved from town to town.  

His relations still had some contact and wanted him to marry and settle down but he refused, claiming 'I am but a lad and must get wisdom'. Returning to Leicestershire, he 'was there about a year, in great sorrows and troubles and walked many nights by myself'. By the beginning of 1646, Fox had returned to Coventry and there his spiritual questioning took a new turn. He started to believe what had scarcely been thinkable before. In his words, if 'all Christians are believers, both protestants and papists (my emphasis), then they were all born of God, and passed from death to life, and that none were true believers but such; and though others said they were believers, yet they were not.' As the civil war intensified, Fox was inspired to follow what he took to be an opening to the truth, revealed to him through the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ. True believers were not found by a label of Protestant or Papist, nor necessarily found by following the instructions of those ordained in ministries; in Fox's words: 'being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ'. Dissenting people too did not make the mark for Fox who became 'a stranger to all, relying wholly upon the lord Jesus Christ'.

George Fox had become convinced that 'there was an anointing within each man to teach him, and that the Lord would teach his people himself'. Such a subversive idea! There was now no need for ecclesiastical buildings - 'God did not dwell in temples', nor was there a need for priests or ministers - instead every body was open to God, the saviour, including, Fox insisted, women. Yet Fox was still a troubled man who turned continuously to the scriptures and Christ for answers to ease his struggles. At the start of 1647, he moved into Derbyshire and then into the 'Peak Country'. Here he met both friendly people and those who were less so; he 'fasted much' and 'walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on, and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself'. 

A Quaker tapestry

Yet not all of Fox's time was troubled; there were moments of heavenly joy too, according to Fox's account. With a love for medical labels, some today might identify bipolarity disorder. During these periods when Fox experienced the love of God through Christ Jesus, the divine light appeared and gave him spiritual discernment. Hugh Ross identifies this point in George Fox's surviving writings as one where there has been critical editing and the likely removal of text that would have provided the grounds for a charge of blasphemy - an ordinary man could not have such transformative union with the divine. One passage that has survived, though, is this magnificent declaration of faith:

'Great things did the Lord lead me into, and wonderful depths were opened unto me, beyond what can by words be declared. But as people come into subjection to the spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the almighty, they may receive the word of wisdom that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the eternal being'.

It was in this state of perfection that George Fox now came to understand that 'every man [and woman] was enlightened by the divine light of Christ - and I saw it shine through all'. Next came what Fox took as his call to spread the word, 'to turn people to that inward light, spirit and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God - and all truth'. When 'the Lord sent him forth into the world', Fox believed he had been commanded by Christ never to doff his hat to anyone, high or low, rich or poor - and this subversive act infuriated 'the priests, magistrates, professors and people of all sorts - but especially the priests and professors... Oh! the blows, punchings, beatings and imprisonments that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men!'

Hugh Ross notes that Fox had in his library some of the books of Jacob Boehme, the German mystic who died in the year Fox was born, 1624, and Ross includes a passage from Boehme's 'The Way to Christ' 

'When you stand still from the thinking of self; when both your intellect and will are quiet, and passive to the impressions of the eternal world and spirit; and when your soul is winged up, and above that which is temporal, the outward senses and the imagination -being locked up in holy abstraction - then the eternal hearing, seeing and speaking will be revealed to you... so God hears and "sees through you", being now the organ of his spirit... Blessed are you, therefore, if you stand still, and still the wheel of your imagination and senses. Forasmuch as hereby you may arrive at length to see all manner of divine sensations and heavenly communications'.  

When I read this reference to Boehme, I was reminded of the insights I gained recently from reading Richard Rohr's Silent Compassion - Finding God in Contemplation - (see my post by pressing this link). Rohr identifies a 'perennial tradition' within the history of Christianity that emphasizes the need for contemplation as the way to bring the divine alive in one's inner being. Boehme is part of this tradition; so too is Fox; so too are we as we share our Meeting time together. We have an inkling of the truth in Fox's advice to learn silent waiting:

'For none shall ever come to God who is upon the earth, but as they come to that of God in them - the light which Christ has enlightened them with... That which is of God in everyone, is that which brings them to wait upon, to serve God in every particular, which brings them to unity'. 

There is much more of George Fox's wisdom to be found in Hugh Ross's selection and editing of Fox's writings. This library post has been a taster.  



  1. Quakers have been interpreting and re-interpreting their own history since the end of the 19th century. T. Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) was a Liberal MP as well as a Quaker. His 'The Rise of the Quakers' (1905) presents Fox and Fell as talented organisers and proto-Liberals in their fight for toleration. See my thesis

    1. Thank you, Mark, for this comment and for introducing me to your doctoral thesis and to T. Edmund Harvey. Congratulations on the award of your doctorate last year! To be a Quaker and at the same time a politician is a brave undertaking. Even an 'enlightened form of British imperialism' would be hard to square with the Quaker valuing of all people. Some people become more equal than others, not least if they are white.

  2. I try to deal with this in chapter 4 of my thesis. By the way I came across you via the Catz website. I was Modern History 1969.

    1. Good to be in touch, Mark - I'll get round to your thesis and chapter 4 in due course - at the moment I am behind schedule in the list of books I have a duty to read as well as an eager anticipation. The Catz alumni publications part of the website has served me well for my latest book on Cornish tin mining society - 78 copies sold so far apart from the ten I've sold. Not that happy with the link on the website taking the reader though to the Amazon site but sometimes supping with the devil becomes unavoidable.