Was George Fox A Liar? (Alas, The Answer Is Yes.)
For enthusiastic new Friends, it’s something of a sobering rite of passage to learn that many of the great names among the founders are not reliable witnesses in their own cause. However, careful historians have long since proven this to be the case.
One of them was H. Larry Ingle.
Larry is now retired from a long career teaching history, mainly at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga. Sometime before 1994, he went to London, and padded down the stone steps of the large Library at Friends House (an imposing structure sometimes dubbed the Quaker Vatican), into the half-lit depths where the earliest Quaker manuscripts and publications were stored. Then he began looking at many of the pamphlets and broadsides from the first generation of Friends. And soon he had made a remarkable discovery.
In the 1650s and 1660s, books and pamphlets were printed on large sheets containing many pages, on both sides. The big sheets were folded into book form, sewed up on one edge for binding, and then the folds on the other edges of the pages were trimmed or slit open for reading.
Except that Larry found many important pamphlets from that period on the shelf with the pages un-slit – that is, they had never been opened or read, not in three hundred-plus years.
For Larry this was deja vu all over again. In the early 1980s he visited a major Quaker archive, and accidentally discovered that none of the original documents about the Great Quaker Separation in 1827 had ever been looked at — which meant that all the available books on the schism were based on third- or fourth-hand sources, and quotes from each other.
This was a stunning example of scholarly laziness and timidity — and an opening for an energetic historian who was not afraid of work. The result was Ingle’s first major book, Quakers In Conflict (1986), today the standard history of the schism.
Now, in London, Larry was out to land the biggest Quaker historical fish of them all: George Fox. Turns out, his check of the many biographies of the revered founder had uncovered yet another Quaker historical shocker: these books too mainly quoted each other. In three centuries, there had not been a single biography of Fox based on original sources, in accord with basic historians’ practice. Deja vu all over again, again.
So Larry went on a Fox hunt. And in 1994, he bagged the biggest one: First Among Friends appeared and at once took its place as the baseline, landmark George Fox biography. This book, moreover, was published by no less than Oxford University Press; sorry, Harvard, it doesn’t get better than that.
These two books alone made his reputation. But Larry’s achievement in them went far beyond simply filling a scholarly vacuum. He also quietly shamed and, in my opinion, helped begin reform a field badly in need of a good shaking. But then he went further: Ingle exploded for good the hoary myth of Early-Quakers- as-Paragons- of-Truth-Telling-and-Integrity.
That is, his research showed repeatedly that Fox changed and falsified the record when compiling and telling his story, especially for history. His Journal may be a religious classic, but much of it is not “reliable” history.
Larry wasn’t out to besmirch Fox or trash his reputation for truth-telling. But that’s what the records showed. Not one, or twice, but again and again; and he let the chips fall.
At this point, referring to a revered religious figure – or a current politician – most writers and reporters slide seamlessly into euphemism: they speak of “questionable” statements that may “strain credulity,” or “farfetched” assertions that were “misleading” and left “misinformation” that was “dubious,” “suspect” or even “faulty” in their wake. The number of such circumlocutions is almost endless. (Even cutesy: Leather “pants on fire?”)
But in my view these genteelisms do not get to the bottom of the matter; so I will take responsibility for a plainer way of putting it: Fox was a liar.
Let me say that again, for emphasis: George Fox was a liar, a shameless and frequent liar, especially when it came to his own story. In that career of prevarication he was aided and abetted by many of the other “weighty” Friends of the first two or three generations. And in their wake, a long line of Quaker “historians” had connived with and perpetuated this tradition of untruthfulness.
Larry Ingle wasn’t actually the first to find clues to this trail of duplicity. Half a century earlier, Henry Cadbury, then of Harvard, had unearthed enough traces of Fox’s Book of Miracles, to reconstruct much of the subject matter of a text deliberately suppressed and (so far as we know) destroyed, not by Fox but rather his peers in the nascent Quaker establishment, evidently for political and public relations purposes.
James Nayler, the tamed renegade, got even more drastic treatment: when British Friends finally got around to publishing his works in 1716, the editors shamelessly revised the poor fellow’s texts, and left out entirely a large number that were deemed too unsettling. To my knowledge scholars have yet to reconstruct them for a definitive (i.e., honest and accurate) edition. (A striking interview with Erin Bell, another scholar who explored this is here. )
It wasn’t only the earliest Friends who indulged this habit. John Woolman’s Journal (published almost a century after Fox composed his Journal, was similarly “cleaned up” by various editors. (They really didn’t like his dreams; too weird, I guess.) It wasn’t until 1971 when Oxford published the late Phillips Moulton’s careful, corrected full edition.
From outside Friends, the great British historian of the English Revolution, Christopher Hill had summed up the process a bit more bluntly in The Experience of Defeat, his 1984 study of the aftermath of the English Revolution: “The Quakers survived,” he said, “prospered, and rewrote their history.” (My emphasis.)
Truth and Integrity indeed.
But despite these earlier reports, Larry Ingle brought this unsettling reality into the center of the tiny Quaker historical world, and made it impossible to ignore. Well, it should have been impossible. It remains a major challenge for those who would teach early Quaker history: the lies are so many and significant that they don’t fit easily into conventional narratives.
But I hasten to add that the challenge is not insuperable. After all, there is little unusual about such failings in religious – or other – historical writing. The temptation to rewrite the past to fit the needs of the powerful or ambitious in the present seems ubiquitous. My own sense is that many of the alterations in Fox’s time were part of a do-or-die effort to survive thirty years of persecution. And cavil though I might at this distance, Friends did survive, and achieve toleration, for themselves and many other4 groups, and generations yet unborn. No small thing.
But these temptations and dilemmas never really go away. In my experience they also afflict much writing, past and present, of the minutes of Friends’ business sessions. Any candid Quaker historian will tell you that such official records are typically almost worthless for efforts to understand what was actually going on.
Most minutes especially avoid detailed accounts of conflict, and rarely identify who said what. It’s worth pointing out here that such “discretion” builds in structural biases in favor of the status quo and those in power, and against both accuracy and accountability, especially of dissenting and minority views. Especially when things go wrong, such minutes are often a travesty and a tool of injustice.
But I digress.
The temptation is also ever-timely outside religion, as any American will understand who has followed, say, the struggles over whether the word “torture” could be rightly applied to certain policies of a recent U.S. administration (and its British counterpart) in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and their sequelae).
Hence the struggle to find and tell the truth of history is a constant one, even for Friends. In his latest book, Larry Ingle set off in pursuit of yet another Quaker piece of it that long seemed near-impossible to find, or, if found, to express, namely: the religion of that most famous Quaker of the second half of the last century, Richard M. Nixon.
But Larry did it. And fittingly, the book, from the U. of Missouri Press, is called, Nixon’s First Cover-Up.