Was George Fox A Liar? (Alas, The Answer Is Yes.)

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.

H. Larry Ingle, who summer & winter was usually first in line at the local store in Chattanooga where the Sunday New York Times was delivered.

    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.

1666-quaker-pamphlet-women-speaking 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.
   first-among-friends-cover 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.
    george-foxLet 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 fox-book-of-miracles-covertreatment: 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.
john-woolman    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.

minutes1855_springboromm1Most 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.


19 thoughts on “Was George Fox A Liar? (Alas, The Answer Is Yes.)”

  1. My wife had the disconcerting experience to be the Recording Clerk for Winston-Friends Meeting for a period of time. When she would present the minutes for approval, many times Friends would actively change the record to make the minutes look better. They would often change wording to eliminate hints or statements of conflict even though she recorded the meetings on a tape recorder. Many times a Friend would declare that he or she never made such a statement in spite of the tape recording to the contrary. The group would quickly approve the nicer but untruthful version. Amazing.

      1. Where is God? Shouldn’t minutes be a record of the true experience of the Meeting collectively; not just record of what was spoken by an individual Friend? If we has Friends read past Meeting minutes as a ‘True’ record of individuals testimony the worst that can be said is we lack Faith; But to do so as an Historian we are incompetent – as we judging artifacts without understanding.

        1. “Shouldn’t minutes be a record of the true experience of the Meeting collectively . . .?”
          Sure, but not only that. I will repeat again: both the Bible and the Journals and accounts of early Friends are packed with accounts of individuals, their testimonies, witness, sufferings and achievements. It is the call of those who keep our records to do as full and faithful a job of preserving the workings of the spirit, through the group and its members/attenders, as they humanly can. That is the duty of scribes, because the body lives on through many lifetimes, and they are writing for generations unborn as well as those in the room.

      2. Where is God?

        Aren’t minutes record of the experience of the Meeting collectively, not just the record of the ministry of an individual Friend? If we has Friends read past Meeting minutes as just a dictation of individuals speech, then the worst that can be said is that we lack Faith. However, to do so as an Historian is much worse – we are incompetent; because we are judging artifacts as we would like them to be and not with a True understanding what they actually are.

        1. Where is God? Why, as the adage goes, “God is in the details.” In my view, the Society of Friends, like other such communities, exists through them, and its scribes are responsible beyond those in the room, but also to the members of the community who will come later, when the lives of those recorded are long over. These later members are just as entitled to accuracy, in details and in all the rest of God’s creation and records thereof. To be sure, human limitations will mean any human record is imperfect and incomplete. But God “speaks” and is manifest at both the group and individual level, and we are called to do our best to tell this truth a fully as we can. I am surprised and alarmed that one needs to defend this basic premise, which is pursued in various (often conflicting) ways throughout, say, the Bible, to Quakers.

    1. Perhaps I am a purist, but early in my experience with Friends I was taught that the way of arriving at a minute was for the clerk to expect the meeting to settle into silence after they felt a decision had been reached, for the clerk / recording clerk to compose a minute, and then offer it to the meeting for approval or revision. I have heard that period called “upholding the clerks in their deliberations” and so it called for prayerful silence on the part of the meeting. There should be no pride of authorship. It was a minute of the meeting not of the clerk. That is the permanent record. I am aware that we modern Friends have so much to do that we often do not follow this procedure-thinking it too time consuming- but it is a reliable way to make sure minutes are truthful for the future historians as well as for our immediate needs. As someone who had been a recording clerk on several occasions, with different presiding clerks, I have sometimes found it a struggle to follow this procedure. But I feel very strongly that it is consistent with the manner of Friends.

  2. H.Larry Ingle appears to have done some amazing scholarship of original sources and I am eager to start reading. Thank you, Chuck for the book reviews.
    Recently in our business meeting it was suggested that naming an individual in minutes was not ” the Quaker way”. When an individual deliberately makes trouble in a meeting are we to avoid naming that individuality the minutes?

    1. Evelyn, regarding your meeting’s minutes, the statement that including names is “not the Quaker way,” is not found in any book of Discipline or Faith & Practice I’ve ever seen. I wonder where it comes from then, beyond some pushy individuals eager to suppress inconvenient or uncomfortable facts. My own view is that our statements in meetings are a seeking, finding & sharing of truth, a process that can be difficult & sometimes painful, and our records should record facts & meet similarly high & challenging standards. That is, not coincidentally, the way that our records will be useful in the future, as a faithful record.

  3. It’s one thing to “take what speaks to you and leave the rest,” as in a 12-Step Meeting, and another thing to suppress the rest. Yes, Fox wrote about his happiness when tragedies befell his enemies. And we can learn from that, if nothing else than the important lesson that attempting to lead one’s life by the leadings of the numinous does not protect one from human failings. All the more reason to take a good accounting of our failings.

    I know that Larry has promoted attaching names to minutes. I’m still not convinced that’s a good way to represent what happens in Meeting for Business. Recording the leadings/positions as presented, however, is incredibly important, not just for historians, but for those who were present. The emphasis should be on the promptings of spirit in the meeting, not on who was moved to share that prompting. Attaching names, at least for me, would shift the emphasis to who, rather than what.

    Great stuff. Not your only decent post IMNotSoHO. Your pieces on the NC and IND yearly meetings are great thought-provokers, and will be a decade from now and longer. In fact, they are all decent, and like any author, some stand out and will do so over time.



    1. Hank, just to be clear, the rant about untruthfully vague minutes was my own; I’m not sure how far Larry would go with me on the policy I recommend, though I’ve heard him complain about their uselessness.
      And in my view “the promptings of the spirit” come through us, and we have a part in it, not always for the best, and that part deserves to be recorded as well as the more ethereal stuff. After all, we don’t open the Old Testament to read “The Book of One Prophet,” which is next to “the Book of Another Prophet,” etc. The individuals who received and often struggled with these messages of the spirit was very relevant to both the content, the delivery, and the impact. I wish we knew more about them; and the ones who left the most detailed account, such as Jeremiah, are for me only the stronger as bearers/witnesses to the spirit and its work. Ditto for the New testament, it is not The Gospel According to One Disciple; Luke and John are NOT interchangeable.

      1. Hi Chuck. Neither are they Luke and John. The latter, based on modern analysis of his use of Greek and the theological concepts he uses, plus his utter ignorance of the geography of Jerusalem, is thought to be an educated Greek, most likely from Athens, who was trained in one of the philosophy schools there, and undoubtedly a convert to Christianity.

        I agree there is some point to having an identify associated with a given body of work: that’s how later insertions (by scribes, bending the writing to the current orthodoxy) can be detected.

        For records of Minutes in Meetings, the flows of Spirit are what interest me. Those, not the people voicing them, are what lead me to unite (where they resonate) or not (when they don’t).

        So Party A and Party B would do. Or so would, as is used, “A Friend” and “Another Friend,” etc.

        1. “For records of Minutes in Meetings, the flows of Spirit are what interest me. Those, not the people voicing them, are what lead me to unite (where they resonate) or not (when they don’t).”

          I agree. I think that difference in complimenting ministry between Conservative and Liberal Friends sort of fits in here. “Thank you for your message” implies it was *your* message, not God’s message for which you were merely a willing messenger (and so Conservative Friends tend to say “thee was blessed”).

  4. I don’t understand why “the copy Friends House has on their shelf hasn’t been read” means that no copy of a particular tract has ever been read. These were printed by the hundreds. Friends House kept a single copy of each (like the US’s Library of Congress does), but the tracts were widely distributed. Is it so improbable that the earliest biographies were simply done from someone else’s copy? (Obviously, over time things get lost, thrown out, or fall apart, so if the earliest biographies are in the last 50-100 years versus, say, the 18th century, then that would seem less likely.)

    I’m also curious what sorts of things are inaccurate in Fox’s Journal. I think it’s well-known that the Journals of many Friends published in the past were not their verbatim “Dear Diary,” but rather that they wrote autobiographies at the ends of their lives. How much is intentional lie versus faulty memory of a long life?

    And on note of journals and the publishers leaving things out: Elias Hicks. Inner Light Books recently published an unabridged version, almost 200 years after the original publication. I need to read that version, because I know Forbush’s biography of Hicks was based on the original abridged one.

    Publishing only a subset of Nayler’s stuff is no surprise at all. Second Morning Meeting’s major task was deciding what was or wasn’t acceptable to be published as a Quaker publication. If something didn’t fit Quaker doctrine, it didn’t get published, and Nayler was repudiated in his day.

    1. For starters, as to the falsifications in Fox’s Journal, I’m going to follow up with Larry to describe examples found in his research, so this can be done accurately. It is correct that Fox’s Journal was initially compiled late in his life; he had “changes” (falsifications, and these were followed and increased byliner editors after his death. Both were reprehensible to me.
      As for Nayler’s works, in the interview with scholar Erin Bell (at: http://quakertheology.org/issue-8-interview-3.htm ) she described how texts that were included in the reprint project were altered so both their words and meaning conformed to attitudes of those in control more than 50 years later. I find such deliberate, selective alteration shocking and unacceptable, no matter how “pious” the stated motive might have been. (Keep in mind, Nayler didn’t do these alterations; it was by editors long after his death.)
      It is correct that Fox’s Journal was compiled late in his life; and he altered/falsified earlier records and statements in the process. Such alterations were increased by editors working after his death. (Woolman’s Journal was similarly “expurgated.”)I find both wrong and reprehensible.
      In the matter of unlit and unread early Quaker broadsides, the point of that was that Larry Ingle discovered that most such did not appear in the references to all the “serious” biographies of Fox that he reviewed. That is to say, by this and other research, he was able to establish that there had been no biography of Fox prepared based on serious scholarly research with primary sources, until his, published in 1996, more than 300 years after Fox’s death. Here the historical infractions were more laziness and sloppiness, but these are habits that permit the accretion of myth and untruth, and are unworthy of his profession; they make his achievement not only important as a document, but also as a judgment of too many of his predecessors.

    2. “I’m also curious what sorts of things are inaccurate in Fox’s Journal. I think it’s well-known that the Journals of many Friends published in the past were not their verbatim “Dear Diary,” but rather that they wrote autobiographies at the ends of their lives. How much is intentional lie versus faulty memory of a long life?”

      For considerable (and to me persuasive) detail about this, look up the journal “Quaker History,” Vol 82 #1, Spring 1993, pp. 28-35, an easy by Larry Ingle, “George Fox, Historian.” I think it documents the “rewriting of history” including numerous falsifications quite well and in detail.

      Also, for the comment “Publishing only a subset of Nayler’s stuff is no surprise at all.” In fact, “publishing a subset” was not at all what was involved here. Please read the interview with British scholar Erin Bell, in “Quaker Theology” #8, http://quakertheology.org/issue-8-interview-3.htm . As she explains, in numerous of Nayler’s documents that a committee did publish, they altered texts extensively, changing the meaning to make it fit the attitude and interests deemed important nearly half a century after his death. From the perspective of conveying the sense of someone other than the author of “what the Spirit really intended to convey,” perhaps such alteration would would be acceptable, or even welcome. It is not so to me, and should not be so to anyone who respects truth over fable, or who has read and absorbed the work of George Orwell.

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