George Fox not only founded and led the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), he also revived the healing practice of the early Christian Church and made it a part of his ministry.
He was born in July 1624 in what is now Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire. His father was a churchwarden in a strongly puritan parish. Even as a child, he tells us, he knew only “purity and righteousness” and showed “gravity and stayedness of mind and spirit”.
Aged eleven, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, but at nineteen his outlook changed dramatically. He abandoned both apprenticeship and home, and set off for London, but after bouts of depression returned a year later. He disputed religious issues with local ministers and also sought help for his mental suffering, but received none.
Branded a ‘newfangle’, because he could not accept the clerical structure of the Church of England, he left it around 1646. The following year he apparently heard a voice say: “There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition.” He understood this to be what he termed the “inner Christ”, rather than Jesus the man.
It was the turning point. After a lengthy period of spiritual trial and testing he emerged, what we would now call ‘enlightened’. He began to have visions he called ‘openings’ and found himself blessed with the gifts of discernment and healing. Discernment gave him insight into a person’s spiritual, as well as physical or mental, state.
For a century reformers had sought someone to restore the spiritual powers of the early church. Loosely termed “Seekers”, they felt that only miracles, i.e. the spiritual gifts mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians, 12: 7-10, would be proof of the right to exercise such religious authority.
The early Fathers mentioned the gifts including Justin Martyr, Tatian, Ignatius and Tertullian. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, wrote: “Still others heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole.”
Then in AD 314 a dozen bishops met for the Synod of Ancyra (now known as Ankara, the capital of modern Turkey). They decreed that “they who practise divination, and follow the customs of the heathen, or who take men to their houses for the invention of sorceries, or for lustrations, fall under the canon of five years [penance].” (By ‘heathen’ is meant non-Christian and by ‘sorceries’ the spiritual gifts.)
This canon effectively ended healing in the Church, except by ritual and relics. This ancient prejudice was part of the baggage inherited by the protestant reformers, and remains among most denominations today.
George Fox held mainly traditional Christian views, but rejected the doctrine of the Trinity because he believed it to be unsupported by scripture. Similarly, he opposed the payment of tithes and oath-taking. He knew the Bible well, but deferred to the authority of his inner voice.
He began his ministry by speaking out in local churches. Seen as anti-establishment and more extreme than a puritan, he was soon imprisoned. He was also on occasion severly beaten, but recovered after remarkable self-healing.
For instance, in his Journal he writes that he was moved to go to Ulverston and “speak according to the Scriptures” in the “steeplehouse”. When a Justice of the Peace restrained him, the good parishoners shouted: “Give him us!”
They fell upon him with fists, books and staves and kicked him with their boots. Then the Justice led him outside and bid four officers and constables whip him and drive him away. The parishoners followed, dragged him through mud and beat him again and again.
Then he said he felt “the power of the Lord” spring through him. Recovered and refreshed, he stood up and cried: “Strike again, here is [sic] my arms and my head and my cheeks.” They did, and soon rejoiced to see that his hand was so mangled they thought it “spoiled forever”.
“After a while,” he wrote, “the Lord’s power sprang through me again.” This time he was completely healed, including the hand, and “had never another blow afterward”.
He held that healing should be a part of the ministry. His Book of Miracles lists 150 of them, though he says there were more that he did not bother to record. (They were called ‘miracles’ because there was no understanding of healing as such, operating within natural law.)
Soon, other Friends became healers, including women. Some of their names have come down to us, such as Elizabeth Hooton in whose home, he says, “many miracles” were wrought. Fox also mentions group meetings for absent and contact healing, and “co-operative healing” undertaken by two or more Friends together.
In the Journal, Fox mentions his healing work in some detail, but the entries were not necessarily made at the time of their occurrence. Sometimes many years passed between an event and its recording. However, other people wrote about his healing, for the most part enthusiastically, and the record is impressive. Fox gave healing for mental and psychological problems, as well as physical illnesses and injuries.
While his own accounts are not generally evidential, in my opinion they have the ring of authenticity about them. Most, but not all, were successful in physical terms, which is what we would expect. Some were partially succcessful, while others resulted in a peaceful transition rather than a cure. A few he deemed failures.
By the time of Fox’s passing in 1691, the Friends and other nonconformists had gained respectability. In 1686 James II had pardoned some 1,600 Friends, imprisoned for not attending the Church of England. In 1689 the Act of Toleration was passed, allowing them and other dissenters their own places of worship and freeing them from social and political prohibitions.
Paradoxically, the Friends’ hard-won acceptance brought about a new caution in proclaiming miracles. Critics were increasingly dismissive and the Book of Miracles was (conveniently?) lost by Fox’s executors. It was reconstructed from the Journal by Professor Henry J. Cadbury and published in 1948.
Once deprived of Fox’s driving force, the healing ministry seems to have ended. It was revived last century and the Friends Fellowship of Healing is a listed group of the Religious Society of Friends.