George Fox: Silence and Stillness as Communicational Ethic

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George Fox: Silence and Stillness as Communicational Ethic

Douglas Gwyn

DOUG GWYN, FRIEND IN RESIDENCE

Abstract: George Fox (1624 – 1691), the central figure of the early Quaker movement in seventeenth-century England, posed silent worship as a way beyond the English Reformation’s protracted conflict among truth-claims.  Through the practice of verbal silence and physical stillness, early Friends generated new forms of verbal and nonverbal communication, with a reforming impact upon the wider society.  The early Quaker phenomenon offers an evocative example for the communicational dilemmas of today’s media-saturated world.


Introduction

In late 1651, George Fox, a young, radical preacher only recently released from a year’s imprisonment for blasphemy, encountered a group of orthodox Puritans, primed for debate.

And I sat of a haystack and spoke nothing for some hours for I was to famish them from words.  So [they asked] several times when I would speak and begin; and [a friendly clergyman] bid them wait and told them that the people waited upon Christ a long while before he spoke.  And at last I was moved of the Lord to speak, and they were all reached by the Lord’s power and word of life, and there was a general convincement among them.[1]

Over the next months, the Quaker movement spread rapidly across northern England through encounters such as this, offering a radical solution to the stalemated outcome of the English Reformation and the hollow Puritan victory in the English Civil War.  Rather than proposing yet another creed, liturgy, homiletical technique or sacramental practice, early Friends initiated a suspension of all these provisions, gathering instead in silence and stillness to let “the Lord’s power and word of life” break forth among them.  In so doing, they believed they were reclaiming the faith and practice of the biblical prophets and apostles, reconnecting with the living source of scripture: the divine word that abides in the human heart.

Drawing upon his Journal and epistles, this chapter explores George Fox’s theology of the word and the consequent approach to worship and spoken ministry among early Friends.  It shows how the first, revolutionary phase of Quaker faith and practice addressed a crisis of language in early modern England with religious, scientific, economic, and political dimensions.

The chapter further suggests the implications of Fox’s theology of the word for today’s crisis of language, in which image, technology, and information marginalize transformative communication.  Now as then, silence is not an end unto itself, but a practice which purifies human consciousness for renewed communication and action.

 The Word Revealed in Silence

George Fox’s Journal records his own spiritual transformation and his work in gathering and organizing the Quaker movement, what later became known as the Religious Society of Friends.  Fox was the central figure among a group of itinerant prophets that attracted a generation of young “Seekers,” radicalized Puritans who had dropped out of all the churches to wait for a fresh revelation from God and a newly gathered Church that could renew English society.[2]

In 1648, as his own spiritual transformation moved to fullness, Fox records in his Journal:

Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God.  All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.  I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus….  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…through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made.  Great things did the Lord lead me into…beyond what can by words be declared; but as people come into subjection to the spirit of God…they may receive the Word of wisdom that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity of the Eternal Being.[3]

Thus, Fox experienced what he understood to be the pure language of Eden, by which Adam had named the animals (Gen. 3:19-20).  Moreover, he believed that this experience was available to anyone who silenced the corrupt language of fallen humanity and submitted to the purifying and re-creating work of the divine word.

A 1652 epistle to newly gathered Quaker meetings shows how Fox understood the practice of silent stillness in shifting human consciousness:

Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone.  Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in.  After thou seest thy thoughts, and temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes.  … And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed, and fly away.  Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to…ye think ye shall never overcome.  And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation.  Then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. … When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you.  But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here ye learn to read the scriptures aright.  If ye do any thing in your own wills, then ye tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.[4]

Although there is no explicit counsel here regarding communication, this epistle describes the counter-intuitive way in which sustained verbal silence and physical stillness shift human consciousness and empower a different way of knowing, speaking and acting.

Fox didn’t see the Quaker movement as religious in the narrow sense; the practice of waiting upon the Spirit laid the foundation for a wide-ranging social renewal.  For example, shortly after his Eden experience (quoted earlier), Fox mentions his insight that all three of the professions of his day – physicians, clergy and lawyers – were often practiced in alienation from the light of God which created all things and can keep people in equitable relationship, and which inspires a living faith:

As the Lord opened these things unto me, I felt his power went forth over all, by which all might be reformed, if they would receive and bow unto it.  The priests might be reformed and brought into the true faith which was the gift of God.  The lawyers might be reformed and brought into the law of God which answers that of God…in every one, and brings to love one’s neighbor as himself. … The physicians might be reformed, and brought into the wisdom of God by which all things were made and created.[5]

Fox’s vision for the reformation of the professions is paradigmatic for the renewal of all society.  In particular, Friends quickly excelled in small business, trade and eventually banking.  In a 1661 epistle regarding commercial life, Fox writes,

All Friends everywhere, live in the seed of God, which is the righteousness itself…which is the wisdom itself; with which wisdom ye may order, rule, and govern all things which are under your hands (which God hath given you) to his glory. … Do rightly, justly, truly, holy, equally to all people in all things…according to that of God in every man, and the witness of God…in yourselves; and there ye are serviceable in your generation, labouring in the thing that is good, which doth not spoil, nor destroy, nor waste the creation upon the lusts. … Loathe deceit and all…unjust dealing; but…answer the good and just principle in all people; and that will win people to deal with you, doing truth to all, without respect to persons….  And here your lives and words will preach wherever ye come.[6]

Here and elsewhere, Fox emphasized that all action is communication, testimony to the righteousness and wisdom of God.  The ethic of plain-dealing and fairness led early Friends to renounce bartering and made them pioneers in the one-price system of trade in England.  It also made them very successful.

Fox further insisted that Christian ministry must proceed from direct revelation rather than knowledge of Scripture and doctrine, from faith rather than expertise.  At a parish church service in Ulverston, Lancashire in 1652, Fox challenged the congregation, saying,

What have any of you to do with the Scriptures, but as you come to the Spirit that inspired the Scriptures?  You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?  Art thou a child of the Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?[7]

Consequently, his counsel to Friends in ministry emphasizes speaking as the light leads:

All Friends, who are moved of the Lord to speak the word of the Lord, whom the Lord hath made to be his mouth, speak not your own words to feed the sensual part of man in your own wills….  But…speak the word of the Lord faithfully, neither add to it with your reason, nor diminish from it with a disobedient mind. … Therefore…be servants to the truth, and do not strive for mastery, but serve one another in love…[for] that which would have the mastery must die, and shall not enter into the kingdom of God.  Therefore… condescend to men of low degree; for the fear of the Lord keeps the heart clean, and the pure of heart see God.[8]

Fox thus describes authentic ministry as a lived tension between the twin dangers of embellishing the message with one’s reason, and stopping short of speaking fully what one has been given to speak.  As he suggests, this humbling vocation should inspire a compassionate regard for people of all stations and conditions.  Ministry is not a matter of mastery but obedience, as the divine word is an authority that one does not wield but to which one yields.

The Crisis of Language in Seventeenth-Century England

George Fox’s unique message and method spoke to a particular moment of impasse that had overtaken the English society of his day. First, a protracted struggle since the days of Henry VIII over the nature and extent of religious reformation had finally precipitated a Civil War (1643-48).  Puritan forces emerged victorious but splintered into various competing creeds and irreconcilable agendas for the future English Church.  Politically, the precarious Puritan regime of the 1650s demanded that its subjects swear conflicting oaths of allegiance to one fragile government after another.  Fox believed that these proliferating religious creeds and changing political oaths had degraded human language.  Economically, despite the upsurge of England’s commercial revolution, the continuing practice of bargaining favored mendacity and inefficiency in the marketplace.  The early Quaker one-price system of trade restored a sense of plain-speaking and fairness. Finally, England’s new scientists struggled for a simplicity and mathematical precision of language that could describe natural phenomena adequately and articulate their rapidly refining methods of experimentation.  Thus, English people complained of a “Babelish confusion” of contending voices on all fronts. Indeed, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) became a key linguistic metaphor of the period.  How could an integrity of language be reclaimed?[9]

Fox and early Friends advanced a radical solution: simply stop speaking, become physically still, and let mind and body be renewed by the divine wisdom speaking within.  In a 1657 tract, Concerning Silent Meetings, Fox observed that

all ravenous spirits…cannot be still, cannot be silent, it is a burthen to them; so cannot keep at home in their own houses, but are the hunters before the Lord like Nimrod, the first builder of Babel; but God confounded them, for they went out from the stillness and quietness…and from waiting upon God to have their strength renewed, and so are dropped into sects. [10]

Fox believed that impure language, alienated from the wisdom of God, had corrupted not just religion but every aspect of society.  In gathering a people, a community of “pure speech” (see Zephaniah 3:9), Fox envisioned wide-ranging social reconstruction, even the renewal of creation.

Silence and Speaking Today

George Fox emphasized that silence creates the space for the “immediate” revelation of the divine word.  By “immediate” he meant not instantaneous (one must “wait upon the Lord” to receive the word) but unmediated.  Fox meant that the word is not mediated by the printed text of Scripture or by the teaching of the clergy.  The word is present to us if we will silence our busy minds and still our bodies in order to perceive and receive it.

In our highly mediated society today, the implications of Fox’s insights are vast.  The media marginalize the place of quiet contemplation and receptivity in our consciousness.  We fall prey to what Fox called “itching ears,” chasing after news, information and diversion via television, radio, the internet, social media and so on.  Under the rubric of “interactive” technologies, we easily become merely reactive, prone to knee-jerk reactions and ill-considered responses, sentimental one moment and “snarky” the next.  Whatever forms of addiction Fox had in mind in his 1652 epistle to Friends, addictive patterns pervade our 21st-century existence in a host of forms, many of them communicational.

In Fox’s day, the din of Babel was largely the Reformation’s confusion of competing truth-claims and meaning systems.  By contrast, today’s religious, philosophical, and ethical arguments are largely sidelined as academic pursuits, sectarian squabbles or “culture wars.”  At the center, the monetary, the commodified and the technical converge in a techno-capitalist regime where numbers and measures constitute a unified, quantitative language.[11]  With respect to economic and political order, we have passed from the confusion of language at the end of the Babel story in Genesis to the unified language that begins the story.[12]  But with respect to lived experience, we are scattered, like the people of Babel in the latter half of the story.  After responding to so many emails, texts and tweets, we forget what we went online to do in the first place.  We go into a store and are so disoriented by everything on offer, we forget what we went there to buy.  Meanwhile, the scientific-technological-economic regime continues to consolidate its power at rising levels of integration, enacting the first half of the story.  It is important to remember Jacques Ellul’s key insight that modern technology is not a neutral tool to be used toward good or evil human intention; technologies are means that exert their own influence upon whatever ends we intend, processes that reshape whatever we aspire to produce.[13]  When the iPad first came onto the market, a man standing in line to buy one was asked by a reporter what he intended to use it to do.  He responded that he was not sure, but he would find out after he got it.  The quip “iPad therefore I am” updates Descartes, implying a human-electronic interface that empowers us but also reframes our being in the world in ways that can subvert our best intentions.

It is worth noting that the story of Babel highlights the ancient technical aspect of building a tower to heaven: burning bricks and using bitumen for mortar (Gen. 11:3).  It is also noteworthy that the ziggurat towers of ancient Babylon (on which the legend of Babel is thought to be based) served not only as monuments to imperial power; they were also structures of defense.  The tower of Babel manifests itself in various ways today, some of which combine technology with defense.  Perhaps none is more striking than the cooperation of giant communications corporations with the US National Security Agency to collect a towering edifice of billions of emails, texts, phone conversations and more from around the world, in an all-consuming quest for “national security.”

Meanwhile, social justice advocates sing praises to the internet and social media for their role in organizing active resistance such as the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 and the Arab Spring in 2011.  But terrorist organizations such as ISIS use the same media even more effectively to very different purposes.

George Fox sat on a haystack and resisted the clamor for debate while he waited for a word from the Lord to speak.  Similarly, liberating communication today must arise from a purifying silence, a “famishing from words.”  Practices of purification, refocusing consciousness, are requisite to meaningful and transformative communication today.

British Quaker Rex Ambler has studied the letters of spiritual counsel of George Fox, such as the epistle quoted at length above, about standing still in the light.  Ambler devised a guided meditation that restates Fox’s more evocative guidance in step-by-step terms that speak more directly to our age of technique.  It is in effect an anti-technique, a counter-technology that shifts consciousness from stimulus-response to a deeper receptivity.  Like Fox’s epistle quoted above, the focus here is not on communication as such, but offers a practice to help us communicate from a deeper place of peace, insight and compassion.  Ambler’s “Experiment with Light” is comprised of these six steps:[14]

  1. Relax body and mind.  Start by making yourself perfectly comfortable.  Feel the weight of your body on the chair (or the floor), then consciously release the tension in each part of your body.  Then let all your immediate worries go, all your current preoccupations.  Relax your mind so much that you give up “talking to yourself” in your head.  Let yourself become wholly receptive.
  2. In this receptive state of mind, let the real concerns of your life emerge.  Ask yourself, “What is really going on in my life?” but do not try to answer the question.  Let the answer come.  You can be specific: “What is happening in my relationships, my work, my Meeting, in my own heart and mind?”  And more specifically still: “Is there anything here that makes me feel uncomfortable, uneasy?”  As we gradually become aware of these things we are beginning to experience the light.
  3. Now focus on one issue that presents itself, one thing that gives you a sense of unease.  And try to get a sense of this thing as a whole.  Deep down you know what it is about, but you don’t normally allow yourself to take it all in and absorb the reality of it.  Now is the time to do so.  You don’t have to get involved in this problem again, or get entangled with the feelings around it.  Keep a little distance, so that you can see it clearly.  Let the light show you what is really going on here.  “What is it about this thing,” you can ask, “that makes me feel uncomfortable?”  Let the answer come.  And when it does, let a word or image also come that says what it’s really like, this thing that concerns me.
  4. Now ask yourself why it is like that, or what makes it like that.  Don’t try to explain it.  Just wait in the light till you see what it is.  Let the answer come.  If you get an answer like, “Because I’m afraid,” or “Because that’s the way she is,” ask again the question why: “Why am I afraid?”  “Why is she like that?”  Let the full truth reveal itself, or as much truth as you are able to take at this moment.  If you are really open and receptive, the answer will come.
  5. When the answer comes welcome it.  It may be painful or difficult to believe with your normal conscious mind, but if it is the truth you will recognize it immediately and realize that it is something that you need to know.  Trust the light.  Say yes to it.  Submit to it.  It will then begin to heal you.  It will show you new possibilities for your life.  It will show you the way through.  So however bad the news seems to be at first, accept it and let its truth pervade your whole being.
  6. As soon as you accept what is being revealed to you, you will begin to feel different.  Even bad news will seem strangely good.  Accepting truth about yourself is like making peace.  An inner conflict is being resolved.  Now there is peace.  Your body may respond quite noticeably to this change.  A sense of relief may make you sigh, or want to laugh.  Your diaphragm may heave.  This is the beginning of changes that the light may bring about.  But if none of this happens on this occasion, do not worry.  It may take longer.  Notice how far you have gotten this time and pick it up on another occasion.  In any case, this is a process we do well to go through again and again, so that we can continue to grow and become more like the people we are meant to become.

When you feel ready, open your eyes, stretch your limbs, and bring the meditation to an end.

Personal practices such as this are essential for developing more transformative approaches to both listening and communicating, but Fox was concerned about gathering and settling communities of transformative practice.  Communities are transformative in the wider society in ways that individuals cannot be.  So today too, personal practice must be strengthened by collective practices in communities committed to both nurturing individuals and renewing society.  Certainly, Quaker meetings still offer this kind of grounding and encouragement.  But other options are available, ranging from local Buddhist meditation and yoga groups to a variety of Catholic and Protestant groups engaged in both contemplative prayer and social engagement.  Truly liberating faith and practice transcends the reactive impulse of the “Reply All” button.   It offers fresh initiatives, which will often come as non sequiturs to the existing conversation.

Not only does silence from words offer a needed respite from omnipresent babble.  Physical stillness reaches to the affective, pre-cognitive registers of consciousness in the body; it shifts awareness and the will at sub-conscious levels.  Besides Quaker and other practices of stillness, meditative practices of movement such as yoga and t’ai chi also anchor consciousness in the body.

There is a violence in the incessant chatter of Babel, evident in the disrespectful and abusive language that sometimes erupts in the social media.  Building on Jesus’ warning against “idle words” (Matt. 12:36), Fox observes that such words are “out of their service and place…out of the truth.”[15]  In other words, no matter how accurate, informational, convivial, witty or apt a communication may be, it wanders “out of the truth” if it simply proliferates language, obfuscates issues, hurts people or justifies one’s own position.  Books[16] and workshops in “nonviolent communication” offer good training in gentle, nonreactive dialogue.  The Alternatives to Violence Project[17] (begun by Friends working with prisoners) has become a secular, international movement devoted to constructive responses to conflict of all kinds.  Appreciative Inquiry[18] offers guidance in sympathetic listening and constructive response.  These are important initiatives in renewed communication.  They offer techniques for more authentic communication.  But they are still techniques.  The purified language that begins to speak forth a truly new creation must arise from a deeper place within and among us.

That deeper place may be reached through “sabbath” rests from all media; personal and group retreats; creative communication without words; discerning the place where the words of others are coming from; waiting to be led in what to respond; answering arguments with probing but respectful questions; responding to rhetorical bombast with quiet presence.  Find your “haystack” and wait for the loving, respectful and constructive word to speak.

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About the author: Douglas Gwyn has served among Friends (Quakers) as a pastoral minister, teacher, and student of Quaker history and theology.  He studied theology at Union Theological Seminary (New York) and at Drew University.  His books include Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (1986); The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism (1995); Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (2000); Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John (2011); and A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation (2014).

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Bibliography

Ambler, Rex. Light to Live By. London: Quaker Books, 2002.

Ambler, Rex. Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox. London: Quaker Books, 2001.

Bauman, Richard. Let Your Words Be Few: Symbolism of Speaking and Silence among Seventeenth-Century Quakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Britain Yearly Meeting of Friends. Quaker Faith & Practice. London: Quaker Books, 1995.

Cooperrider, David and Diana Whitney. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. Boulder: Berret-Koehler, 2005.

Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

______. The Technological Society. New York: Knopf, 1964.

Fox, George. Concerning Good-Morrow and Good-Eve. N. p.: London, 1657.

———.  The Journal of George Fox. Edited by John l. Nickalls. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

———. Works. 8 volumes. Philadelphia: Gould, 1831.

Garver, Newton and Eric Reitan. Nonviolence and Community: Reflections on the Alternatives to

Violence Project. Pendle Hill Pamphlet #322. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2016.

Graves, Michael. Preaching the Inward Light: Early Quaker Rhetoric. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009.

Gwyn, Douglas. Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2000.

Kuhns, William. The Post-Industrial Prophets: Interpretations of Technology. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Ormsby-Lennon, Hugh. The Dialect of Those Fanatick Times: Language Communities and English Poetry from 1580 to 1660. PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1977.

Marshall B. Rosenberg. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer, 2003.

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NOTES

[1] George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 88.

[2] For more on radical English groups of that period, and how they gathered into the Quaker movement, see Douglas Gwyn, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2000).

[3] Fox, Journal, 27-28.

[4] Fox, Works, vol. 7, 20-21.

[5] Fox, Journal, 28-29.

[6] Fox, Works, vol. 7, 191-93.

[7] Testimony of Margaret Fell (later Fox) regarding first hearing Fox; quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting of Friends, Quaker Faith & Practice (London: Quaker Books, 1995), 19.07.

[8] Fox, Works, vol. 7, 77-78.

[9] For a lively treatment of these themes, see Richard Bauman. Let Your Words Be Few: Symbolism of Speaking and Silence among Seventeenth-Century Quakers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Hugh Ormsby-Lennon, The Dialect of Those Fanatick Times: Language Communities and English Poetry from 1580 to 1660 (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1977); and Michael Graves, Preaching the Inward Light: Early Quaker Rhetoric (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009).

[10] George Fox, Works, vol. 4, 134.

[11] For a far-reaching exploration of these dynamics, see Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

[12] For this further insight of Ellul, see William Kuhns, The Post-Industrial Prophets: Interpretations of Technology (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 94.

[13] See Ellul’s prescient classic, The Technological Society (New York: Knopf, 1964).

[14] Rex Ambler, Light to Live By (London: Quaker Books, 2002), pp. 46-47; also see Ambler, Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox (London: Quaker Books, 2001).

[15] George Fox, Concerning Good-Morrow and Good-Even (N.p.: London, 1657), 9.

[16] Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, second edition (Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer, 2003).

[17] Newton Garver and Eric Reitan, Nonviolence and Community: Reflections on the Alternative to Violence Project, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #322 (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2016).

[18] David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change (Berret-Koehler, 2005).

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