27 January 2022

George Fox: a fresh encounter

The creation was opened to me, and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue. And I was at a stand in my mind whether I should practise physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord.
-- George Fox, Journal, recalling his early years in ministry.

In this passage, from the second chapter of George Fox's Journal, young Fox is describing what it was like in the years 1646-48 (he was born in 1624) to be propelled by God to shake the countryside -- and particularly the established churches -- by the power and fire of God's work inside him. For a moment, he was "at a stand" in his mind, uncertain whether he should "practise physic," become a physician, as his contribution to humanity.

I'm reading these pages very closely right now because once again I have the exciting task of editing a section of the Russian translation of Fox's Journal. The translation I'm working with is excellent, with much sensitivity to early Quaker spirituality and passion, conveyed in a lovely, spare Russian style that reflects the 17th-century English original while staying clear and comprehensible to a contemporary Russian reader. The text is simply a joy to work with. My own contribution is to look for and help with such expressions as "at a stand" and "physic" whose 17th-century meanings aren't obvious to a translator. They are not always obvious to me, either, which is why I have to work with at least four dictionaries, including an online King James Bible dictionary, a dictionary of Shakespeare's English usage, and a Russian-language thesaurus, as I crawl slowly through the text.

Some of Fox's references in those years need historical context for the most accurate translation, and I'm not an experienced enough translator to offer an expert judgment. For example, "... I was moved to go to Leicester, and when I came there I heard of a great meeting for a dispute and that there were many to preach, Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists, and Common-prayer-men." How should we translate "Common-prayer-men"? A literal translation in Russian would be clunky; maybe it would be better simply to say "Anglicans." At first I thought the word Anglican was of a later vintage, but apparently it was already in use by 1635. Still, simply saying "Anglican" would ignore the political situation swirling around the Book of Common Prayer during the reign of Charles I -- a situation that Fox probably took for granted as being familiar to his readers. In the year 2022 is it best simply to refer to that controversy in a footnote, or perhaps leave it out altogether as being secondary in importance in Fox's larger narrative? (NOTE: You are welcome to comment!)

Translating the word "virtue" in the first passage above was another interesting moment, one more directly linked to Fox's spiritual exercises in those years. A few pages after he reports thinking about taking up "physic," he discourses more widely on

...those three great professions in the world, physic, divinity (so called), and law. And [God] showed me that the physicians were out of the wisdom of God by which the creatures were made, and so knew not the virtues of the creatures, because they were out of the Word of wisdom by which they were made.

The first translation of "virtue" in Russian was equivalent to "dignity," "worth," but 17th-century English also used "virtues" to mean "qualities," "characteristics," "essence" -- which, unlike the doctors whom Fox accused of being out of the wisdom of God, he himself claimed to have learned about through direct revelation! 

These kinds of audacious claims are repeated over and over in George Fox's Journal. The second chapter in particular is densely packed with exuberant and ecstatic discoveries and proclamations, presented (if it were possible) with a paradoxical mix of assertiveness and tenderness. In short order he cuts through any restraints of formality and humility: (My italics, marking places of particular audacity, as it seems to me...)

And they were discoursing of the blood of Christ; and as they were discoursing of it, I saw, through the immediate opening of the invisible Spirit, the blood of Christ. And I cried out among them, and said, Do ye not see the blood of Christ? see it in your hearts, to sprinkle your hearts and consciences from dead works to serve the living God? for I saw it, the blood of the New Covenant, how it came into the heart. This startled the professors [another interesting word to translate!], who would have the blood only without them and not in them.

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.  For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God, or Christ, or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by.

Now I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus, for to as many as should receive him in his light, I saw that he would give power to become the sons [sic] of God, which I had obtained by receiving Christ. And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth, and so up to Christ and God, as they had been who gave them forth. And I was to turn them to the grace of God, and to the Truth in the heart, which came by Jesus, that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them into salvation, that their hearts might be established by it, and their words might be seasoned, and all might come to know their salvation nigh. For I saw that Christ had died for all ... and was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men and women with his divine and saving light, and that none could be a true believer but who believed in it. I saw that the grace of God, which brings salvation, had appeared to all men, and that the manifestation of the Spirit of God was given to every man to profit withal. These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter, but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate Spirit and power, as did the holy men of God, by whom the Holy Scriptures were written. Yet I had no slight esteem of the Holy Scriptures, but they were very precious to me, for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth, and what the Lord opened in me I afterwards found was agreeable to them. I could speak much of these things and many volumes might be written, but all would prove too short to set forth the infinite love, wisdom, and power of God, in preparing, fitting, and furnishing me for the service he had appointed me to; letting me see the depths of Satan on the one hand, and opening to me, on the other hand, the divine mysteries of his own everlasting kingdom.

Moreover when the Lord sent me forth into the world, he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small. And as I travelled up and down, I was not to bid people good morrow or good evening, neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one; and this made the sects and professions to rage. But the Lord’s power carried me over all to his glory, and many came to be turned to God in a little time, for the heavenly day of the Lord sprang from on high, and brake forth apace, by the light of which many came to see where they were.

Now all of this I'd read decades ago, when I was a new Quaker, but in these intervening years I've mostly read serviceable snippets here and there. This task of editing the Russian translation has brought me face to face once again with this unapologetically bold witness and his raw testimony. What am I to do with him? How is he a model or measure for the Friends movement today ... now that we Friends (whatever our conceits) have by and large become part of the establishment?

Do we have among us -- do we endure among us -- those who might make such bold claims ...

... to be empowered with God's message to the same degree as the original writers of Scripture?

... to be perfectly redeemed from temptation?

... to lead people into the same place where he was, so that they could have the same access to God's spirit that he claimed to have?

This last point might be the most important, because (as Geoffrey Nuttall* points out in his introduction to the Nickalls edition of the Journal that I am using) Fox claimed no unique power, status, or ability, "no special grace for himself, no gift that was not for all ... to receive who would." Ultimately, I have to ask myself, do his words echo in me so warmly because I too have the capacity to be a witness to God's primordial work within? And if I resist this implication, if I and we as a Quaker church succeed in putting Fox in a well-insulated box labeled "our fascinating and eccentric founder," what might I (we) lose of the urgent mission that Fox gave us 375 years ago?

*Error in original post: I gave editor John Nickalls credit for the introduction, which was written by Geoffrey Nuttall.

Related: previous translation editing projects ...

Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers

Sarah Jones

Robert Barclay

A Benedictine monastic community reflects on two years without guests.

Oregon Interfaith Earth Summit in three days!

Why Duncan Edward Pile is almost a universalist.

Learning what being a "foreigner" is like by ... being a foreigner.

Konstantin Kolesnichenko: Blues from Dnipro, Ukraine. 


Bruce Dienes said...

Hello Johan, It seems to me that the sections you quote, and particularly the italic sections, are the essence of the Quaker message, not an old exaggeration. Without these claims, Quakerism is no different from any other sect. We have perhaps lost touch with the boldness (note: not arrogance, but the boldness to experience and speak truth) we need to manifest Quakerism in modern times.

Johan Maurer said...

Bruce, good to hear from you!! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am asking myself where that boldness would come from, what might be working against it, and how we'd see it working today. These are questions I ask myself, not just others.