Testimony of William Penn
The blessed instrument of and in this day of God, and of whom I am now about to write, was George Fox, distinguished from another of that name, by that other's addition of younger to his name in all his writings; not that he was so in years, but that he was so in the truth; but he was also a worthy man, witness and servant of God in his time.
But this George Fox was born in Leicestershire, about the year 1624. He descended of honest and sufficient parents, who endeavoured to bring him up, as they did the rest of their children, in the way and worship of the nation; especially his mother, who was a woman accomplished above most of her degree in the place where she lived. But from a child he appeared of another frame of mind than the rest of his brethren; being more religious, inward, still, solid, and observing, beyond his years, as the answers he would give, and the questions he would put upon occasion manifested, to the astonishment of those that heard him, especially in divine things.
His mother taking notice of his singular temper, and the gravity, wisdom, and piety that very early shone through him, refusing childish and vain sports and company when very young, she was tender and indulgent over him, so that from her he met with little difficulty. As to his employment, he was brought up in country business; and as he took most delight in sheep, so he was very skilful in them; an employment that very well suited his mind in several respects, both for its innocency and solitude; and was a just figure of his after ministry and service.
I shall not break in upon his own account, which is by much the best that can be given; and therefore desire, what I can, to avoid saying anything of what is said already, as to the particular passages of his coming forth; but, in general, when he was somewhat above twenty, he left his friends, and visited the most retired and religious people, and some there were at that time in this nation, especially in those parts, who waited for the consolation of Israel night and day, as Zacharias, Anna, and good old Simeon did of old time. To these he was sent, and these he sought out in the neighboring countries, and among them he sojourned till his more ample ministry came upon him.
At this time he taught and was an example of silence, endeavouring to bring people from self-performances, testifying and turning to the light of Christ within them, and encouraging them to wait in patience to feel the power of it to stir in their hearts, that their knowledge and worship of God might stand in the power of an endless life, which was to be found in the Light, as it was obeyed in the manifestation of it in man. "For in the Word was life, and that life was the light of men." Life in the Word, light in men, and life too, as the light is obeyed; the children of the light living by the life of the Word, by which the Word begets them again to God, which is the regeneration and new birth, without which there is no coming unto the kingdom of God; and which, whoever comes to, is greater than John, that is, than John's ministry which was not that of the kingdom, but the consummation of the legal, and opening of the gospel-dispensation. Accordingly, several meetings were gathered in those parts; and thus his time was employed for some years.
In 1652, he being in his usual retirement to the Lord upon a very high mountain, in some of the hither parts of Yorkshire, as I take it, his mind exercised towards the Lord, he had a vision of the great work of God in the earth, and of the way that he was to go forth to begin it. He saw people as thick as motes in the sun, that should in time be brought home to the Lord, that there might be but one Shepherd and one sheepfold in all the earth. There his eye was directed northward, beholding a great people that should receive him and his message in those parts. Upon this mountain he was moved of the Lord to sound out his great and notable day, as if he had been in a great auditory, and from thence went north, as the Lord had shewn him: and in every place where he came, if not before he came to it, he had his particular exercise and service shewn to him, so that the Lord was his leader indeed; for it was not in vain that he travelled, God in most places sealing his commission with the convincement of some of all sorts, as well publicans as sober professors of religion. Some of the first and most eminent of them, which are at rest, were Richard Farnsworth, James Nayler, William Dewsberry, Francis Howgil, Edward Burrough, John Camm, John Audland, Richard Hubberthorn, T. Taylor, John Aldam, T. Holmes, Alexander Parker, William Simpson, William Caton, John Stubbs, Robert Widders, John Burnyeat, Robert Lodge, Thomas Salthouse, and many more worthies, that cannot be well here named, together with diverse yet living of the first and great convincement, who after the knowledge of God's purging judgments in themselves, and some time of waiting in silence upon him, to feel and receive power from on high to speak in his name (which none else rightly can, though they may use the same words), felt the divine motions, and were frequently drawn forth, especially to visit the publick assemblies, to reprove, inform and exhort them, sometimes in markets, fairs, streets, and by the highway side, calling people to repentance, and to turn to the Lord with their hearts as well as their mouths; directing them to the light of Christ within them, to see and examine and consider their ways by, and to eschew the evil and do the good and acceptable will of God. And they suffered great hardships for this their love and good-will, being often stocked, stoned, beaten, whipped and imprisoned, though honest men and of good report where they lived, that had left wives and children, and houses and lands, to visit them with a living call to repentance. And though the priests generally set themselves to oppose them, and write against them, and insinuated most false and scandalous stories to defame them, stirring up the magistrates to suppress them, especially in those northern parts, yet God was pleased so to fill them with his living power, and give them such an open door of utterance in his service, that there was a mighty convincement over those parts.
And through the tender and singular indulgence of Judge Bradshaw and Judge Fell, in the infancy of things, the priests were never able to gain the point they laboured for, which was to have proceeded to blood, and if possible, Herod-like, by a cruel exercise of the civil power, to have cut them off and rooted them out of the country. Especially Judge Fell, who was not only a check to their rage in the course of legal proceedings, but otherwise upon occasion, and finally countenanced this people; for his wife receiving the truth with the first, it had that influence upon his spirit, being a just and wise man, and seeing in his own wife and family a full confutation of all the popular clamours against the way of truth, that he covered them what he could, and freely opened his doors, and gave up his house to his wife and her friends, not valuing the reproach of ignorant or evilminded people, which I here mention to his and her honour, and which will be I believe an honour and a blessing to such of their name and family as shall be found in that tenderness, humility, love and zeal for the truth and people of the Lord.
That house was for some years at first, till the truth had opened its way in the southern parts of this island, an eminent receptacle of this people. Others of good note and substance in those northern countries had also opened their houses with their hearts to the many publishers, that in a short time the Lord had raised to declare his salvation to the people, and where meetings of the Lord's messengers were frequently held, to communicate their services and exercises, and comfort and edify one another in their blessed ministry.
But lest this may be thought a digression, having touched upon this before, I return to this excellent man: and for his personal qualities, both natural, moral, and divine, as they appeared in his converse with his brethren and in the church of God, take as follows.
I. He was a man that God endowed with a clear and wonderful depth, a discerner of others' spirits, and very much a master of his own. And though the side of his understanding which lay next to the world, and especially the expression of it, might sound uncouth and unfashionable to nice ears, his matter was nevertheless very profound, and would not only bear to be often considered but the more it was so, the more weighty and instructing it appeared. And as abruptly and brokenly as sometimes his sentences would fall from him about divine things, it is well known they were often as texts to many fairer declarations. And indeed it shewed beyond all contradiction that God sent him, that no arts or parts had any share in the matter or manner of his ministry, and that so many great, excellent, and necessary truths as he came forth to preach to mankind, had therefore nothing of man's wit or wisdom to recommend them. So that as to man he was an original, being no man's copy. And his ministry and writings shew they are from one that was not taught of man, nor had learned what he said by study. Nor were they notional or speculative, but sensible and practical truths, tending to conversion and regeneration, and the setting up the kingdom of God in the hearts of men, and the way of it was his work. So that I have many times been overcome in myself, and been made to say with my Lord and Master upon the like occasion, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent of this world, and revealed them to babes"; for many times hath my soul bowed in an humble thankfulness to the Lord, that he did not choose any of the wise and learned of this world to be the first messenger in our age of his blessed truth to men; but that he took one that was not of high degree, or elegant speech, or learned after the way of this world, that his message and work He sent him to do might come with less suspicion or jealousy of human wisdom and interest, and with more force and clearness upon the consciences of those that sincerely sought the way of truth in the love of it. I say, beholding with the eye of my mind, which the God of heaven had opened in me, the marks of God's finger and hand visibly in this testimony from the clearness of the principle, the power and efficacy of it in the exemplary sobriety, plainness, zeal, steadiness, humility, gravity, punctuality, charity, and circumspect care in the government of church affairs, which shined in his and their life and testimony that God employed in this work, it greatly confirmed me that it was of God, and engaged my soul in a deep love, fear, reverence, and thankfulness for his love and mercy therein to mankind; in which mind I remain, and shall, I hope, to the end of my days.
II. In his testimony or ministry he much laboured to open truth to the people's understandings, and to bottom them upon the principle and principal, Christ Jesus, the light of the world, that by bringing them to something that was of God in themselves, they might the better know and judge of him and themselves.
He had an extraordinary gift in opening the Scriptures. He would go to the marrow of things, and shew the mind, harmony, and fulfilling of them with much plainness, and to great comfort and edification.
The mystery of the first and second Adam, of the fall and restoration, of the law and gospel, of shadows and substance, of the servant and son's state, and the fulfilling of the Scriptures in Christ, and by Christ the true light, in all that are His, through the obedience of faith, were much of the substance and drift of his testimonies. In all which he was witnessed to be of God, being sensibly felt to speak that which he had received of Christ, and was his own experience in that which never errs nor fails.
But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer. And truly it was a testimony he knew, and lived nearer to the Lord than other men; for they that know him most will see most reason to approach him with reverence and fear.
He was of an innocent life, no busy-body, nor self-seeker, neither touchy nor critical: what fell from him was very inoffensive, if not very edifying. So meek, contented, modest, easy, steady, tender, it was a pleasure to be in his company. He exercised no authority but over evil, and that everywhere and in all; but with love, compassion, and long-suffering. A most merciful man, as ready to forgive as unapt to take or give offense. Thousands can truly say, he was of an excellent spirit and savour among them, and because thereof the most excellent spirits loved him with an unfeigned and unfading love.
He was an incessant labourer; for in his younger time, before his many great and deep sufferings and travels had enfeebled his body for itinerant services, he laboured much in the word and doctrine and discipline in England, Scotland, and Ireland, turning many to God, and confirming those that were convinced of the truth, and settling good order as to church affairs among them. And towards the conclusion of his travelling services, between the years seventy-one and seventy-seven, he visited the churches of Christ in the plantations in America, and in the United Provinces, and Germany, as his following Journal relates, to the convincement and consolation of many. After that time he chiefly resided in and about the city of London, and besides the services of his ministry, which were frequent, he wrote much both to them that are within and those that are without the communion. But the care he took of the affairs of the church in general was very great.
He was often where the records of the affairs of the church are kept, and the letters from the many meetings of God's people over all the world, where settled, come upon occasions; which letters he had read to him, and communicated them to the meeting that is weekly held there for such services; he would be sure to stir them up to discharge them, especially in suffering cases: showing great sympathy and compassion upon all such occasions, carefully looking into the respective cases, and endeavouring speedy relief according to the nature of them; so that the churches and any of the suffering members thereof were sure not to be forgotten or delayed in their desires if he were there.
As he was unwearied, so he was undaunted in his services for God and his people; he was no more to be moved to fear than to wrath. His behaviour at Derby, Litchfield, Appleby, before Oliver Cromwell at Launceston, Scarborough, Worcester, and Westminster-hall, with many other places and exercises, did abundantly evidence it to his enemies as well as his friends.
But as in the primitive times some rose up against the blessed apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, even from among those that they had turned to the hope of the gospel, and who became their greatest trouble, so this man of God had his share of suffering from some that were convinced by him, who through prejudice or mistake ran against him as one that sought dominion over conscience; because he pressed, by his presence or epistles, a ready and zealous compliance with such good and wholesome things as tended to an orderly conversation about the affairs of the church, and in their walking before men. That which contributed much to this ill work, was in some a begrudging of this meek man the love and esteem he had and deserved in the hearts of the people, and weakness in others that were taken with their groundless suggestions of imposition and blind obedience.
They would have had every man independent, that as he had the principle in himself, he should only stand and fall to that and nobody else; not considering that the principle is one in all, and though the measure of light or grace might differ, yet the nature of it was the same, and being so they struck at the spiritual unity, which a people guided by the same principle are naturally led into: so that what is evil to one is so to all, and what is virtuous, honest, and of good report to one, is so to all, from the sense and savour of the one universal principle which is common to all, and (which the disaffected profess to be) the root of all true Christian fellowship, and that spirit into which the people of God drink, and come to be spiritually minded, and of one heart and one soul.
Some weakly mistook good order in the government of church affairs for discipline in worship, and that it was so pressed or recommended by him and other brethren; and they were ready to reflect the same things that dissenters had very reasonably objected upon the national churches, that have coercively pressed conformity to their respective creeds and worships: whereas these things related wholly to conversation, and the outward and (as I may say) civil part of the church, that men should walk up to the principles of their belief, and not be wanting in care and charity. But though some have stumbled and fallen through mistakes and an unreasonable obstinacy, even to a prejudice, yet blessed be God, the generality have returned to their first love, and seen the work of the enemy, that loses no opportunity or advantage by which he may check or hinder the work of God, and disquiet the peace of His church, and chill the love of His people to the truth, and one to another; and there is hope of diverse that are yet at a distance.
In all these occasions, though there was no person the discontented struck so sharply at as this good man, he bore all their weakness and prejudice, and returned not reflection for reflection; but forgave them their weak and bitter speeches, praying for them that they might have a sense of their hurt, and see the subtlety of the enemy to rend and divide, and return into their first love that thought no ill.
And truly, I must say, that though God had visibly cloathed him with a divine preference and authority, and indeed his very presence expressed a religious majesty, yet he never abused it, but held his place in the church of God with great meekness, and a most engaging humility and moderation. For upon all occasions like his blessed Master, he was a servant to all, holding and exercising his eldership in the invisible power that had gathered them, with reverence to the head and care over the body, and was received only in that spirit and power of Christ, as the first and chief elder in this age; who as he was therefore worthy of double honour, so for the same reason it was given by the faithful of this day; because his authority was inward and not outward, and that he got it and kept it by the love of God and power of an endless life. I write my knowledge and not report, and my witness is true, having been with him for weeks and months together on diverse occasions, and those of the nearest and most exercising nature, and that by night and by day, by sea and by land, in this and in foreign countries: and I can say I never saw him out of his place, or not a match for every service or occasion.
For in all things he acquitted himself like a man, yea a strong man, a new and heavenly-minded man. A divine, and a naturalist, and all of God Almighty's making. I have been surprised at his questions and answers in natural things, that whilst he was ignorant of useless and sophistical science, he had in him the foundation of useful and commendable knowledge, and cherished it everywhere. Civil beyond all forms of breeding in his behaviour; very temperate, eating little and sleeping less, though a bulky person.
Thus he lived and sojourned among us, and as he lived so he died, feeling the same eternal power that had raised and preserved him in his last moments. So full of assurance was he that he triumphed over death; and so even to the last, as if death were hardly worth notice or a mention: recommending to some with him the dispatch and dispersion of an epistle, just before written to the churches of Christ, throughout the world, and his own books; but above all, friends, and of all friends those in Ireland and America, twice over: saying, Mind poor friends in Ireland and America.
And to some that came in and inquired how he found himself, he answered, "Never heed, the Lord's power is over all weakness and death, the Seed reigns, blessed be the Lord": which was about four or five hours before his departure out of this world. He was at the great meeting near Lombard Street on the first day of the week, and it was the third following about ten at night when he left us, being at the house of H. Goldney in the same court. In a good old age he went, after having lived to see his children's children to several generations in the truth. He had the comfort of a short illness, and the blessing of a clear sense to the last; and we may truly say with a man of God of old, that "being dead, he yet speaketh"; and though absent in body, he is present in Spirit; neither time nor place being able to interrupt the communion of saints, or dissolve the fellowship of the spirits of the just. His works praise him, because they are to the praise of Him that worked by him; for which his memorial is and shall be blessed. I have done, as to this part of my preface, when I have left this short epitaph to his name: "Many sons have done virtuously in this day, but, dear George, thou excellest them all."