WHILE we are about it, we must almost inevitably go back to the origin of the Society of which Elias Hicks has so far provd to be the most markd individual result. We must revert to the latter part of the 16th, and all, or nearly all of that 17th century, crowded with so many important historical events, changes, and personages. Throughout Europe, and especially in what we call our Mother Country, men were unusually arousd(some would say demented.) It was a special age of the insanity of witch-trials and witch-hangings. In one year 60 were hung for witchcraft in one English county alone. It was peculiarly an age of military-religious conflict. Protestantism and Catholicism were wrestling like giants for the mastery, straining every nerve. Only to think of itthat age! its events, personsShakspere just dead, (his folios publishd, complete)Charles 1st, the shadowy spirit and the solid block! To sum up all, it was the age of Cromwell!
As indispensable foreground, indeed, for Elias Hicks, and perhaps sine qua non to an estimate of the kind of man, we must briefly transport ourselves back to the England of that period. As I say, it is the time of tremendous moral and political agitation; ideas of conflicting forms, governments, theologies, seethe and dash like ocean storms, and ebb and flow like mighty tides. It was, or had been, the time of the long feud between the Parliament and the Crown. In the midst of the sprouts, began George Foxborn eight years after the death of Shakspere. He was the son of a weaver, himself a shoemaker, and was converted before the age of 20. But O the sufferings, mental and physical, through which those years of the strange youth passd! He claimd to be sent by God to fulfil a mission. I come, he said, to direct people to the spirit that gave forth the Scriptures. The range of his thought, even then, coverd almost every important subject of after times, antislavery, womens rights, &c. Though in a low sphere, and among the masses, he forms a markd feature in the age.
And how, indeed, beyond all any, that stormy and perturbd age! The foundations of the old, the superstitious, the conventionally poetic, the credulous, all breakingthe light of the new, and of science and democracy, definitely beginninga mad, fierce, almost crazy age! The political struggles of the reigns of the Charleses, and of the Protectorate of Cromwell, heated to frenzy by theological struggles. Those were the years following the advent and practical working of the Reformationbut Catholicism is yet strong, and yet seeks supremacy. We think our age full of the flush of men and doings, and culminations of war and peace; and so it is. But there could hardly be a grander and more picturesque and varied age than that.
Born out of and in this age, when Milton, Bunyan, Dryden and John Locke were still livingamid the memories of Queen Elizabeth and James First, and the events of their reignswhen the radiance of that galaxy of poets, warriors, statesmen, captains, lords, explorers, wits and gentlemen, that crowded the courts and times of those sovereigns still filld the atmospherewhen America commencing to be explord and settled commencd also to be suspected as destind to overthrow the old standards and calculationswhen Feudalism, like a sunset, seemd to gather all its glories, reminiscences, personalisms, in one last gorgeous effort, before the advance of a new day, a new incipient geniusamid the social and domestic circles of that periodindifferent to reverberations that seemd enough to wake the dead, and in a sphere far from the pageants of the court, the awe of any personal rank or charm of intellect, or literature, or the varying excitement of Parliamentarian or Royalist fortunesthis curious young rustic goes wandering up and down England.
George Fox, born 1624, was of decent stock, in ordinary lower lifeas he grew along toward manhood, workd at shoemaking, also at farm laborsloved to be much by himself, half-hidden in the woods, reading the Biblewent about from town to town, dressd in leather clotheswalkd much at night, solitary, deeply troubled (the inward divine teaching of the Lord)sometimes goes among the ecclesiastical gatherings of the great professors, and though a mere youth bears bold testimonygoes to and fro disputing(must have had great personality)heard the voice of the Lord speaking articulately to him, as he walkd in the fieldsfeels resistless commands not to be explaind, but followd, to abstain from taking off his hat, to say Thee and Thou, and not bid others Good morning or Good eveningwas illiterate, could just read and writetestifies against shows, games, and frivolous pleasuresenters the courts and warns the judges that they see to doing justicegoes into public houses and market-places, with denunciations of drunkenness and money-makingrises in the midst of the church-services, and gives his own explanations of the ministers explanations, and of Bible passages and textssometimes for such things put in prison, sometimes struck fiercely on the mouth on the spot, or knockd down, and lying there beaten and bloodywas of keen wit, ready to any question with the most apropos of answerswas sometimes pressd for a soldier, (him for a soldier!)was indeed terribly buffeted; but goes, goes, goesoften sleeping out-doors, under hedges, or hay stacksforever taken before justicesimproving such, and all occasions, to bear testimony, and give good advicestill enters the steeple-houses, (as he calls churches,) and though often draggd out and whipt till he faints away, and lies like one dead, when he comes-tostands up again, and offering himself all bruisd and bloody, cries out to his tormenters, Strikestrike again, here where you have not yet touchd! my arms, my head, my cheeks.Is at length arrested and sent up to London, confers with the Protector, Cromwell,is set at liberty, and holds great meetings in London.
Thus going on, there is something in him that fascinates one or two here, and three or four there, until gradually there were others who went about in the same spirit, and by degrees the Society of Friends took shape, and stood among the thousand religious sects of the world. Women also catch the contagion, and go round, often shamefully misused. By such contagion these ministerings, by scores, almost hundreds of poor travelling men and women, keep on year after year, through ridicule, whipping, imprisonment, &c.some of the Friend-ministers emigrate to New Englandwhere their treatment makes the blackest part of the early annals of the New World. Some were executed, others maimd, par-burnt, and scourgdtwo hundred die in prisonsome on the gallows, or at the stake.
George Fox himself visited America, and found a refuge and hearers, and preachd many times on Long Island, New York State. In the village of Oysterbay they will show you the rock on which he stood, (1672,) addressing the multitude, in the open airthus rigidly following the fashion of apostolic times.(I have heard myself many reminiscences of him.) Flushing also contains (or containdI have seen them) memorials of Fox, and his son, in two aged white-oak trees, that shaded him while he bore his testimony to people gatherd in the highway.Yes, the American Quakers were much persecutedalmost as much, by a sort of consent of all the other sects, as the Jews were in Europe in the middle ages. In New England, the cruelest laws were passd, and put in execution against them. As said, some were whiptwomen the same as men. Some had their ears cut offothers their tongues piercd with hot ironsothers their faces branded. Worse still, a woman and three men had been hangd, (1660.)Public opinion, and the statutes, joind together, in an odious union, Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics and Witches.Such a fragmentary sketch of George Fox and his timeand the advent of the Society of Friends in America.
Strange as it may sound, Shakspere and George Fox, (think of them! compare them!) were born and bred of similar stock, in much the same surroundings and station in lifefrom the same Englandand at a similar period. One to radiate all of arts, all literatures splendora splendor so dazzling that he himself is almost lost in it, and his contemporaries the samehis fictitious Othello, Romeo, Hamlet, Lear, as real as any lords of England or Europe then and theremore real to us, the mind sometimes thinks, than the man Shakspere himself. Then the othermay we indeed name him the same day? What is poor plain George Fox compared to William Shakspereto fancys lord, imaginations heir? Yet George Fox stands for something tooa thoughtthe thought that wakes in silent hoursperhaps the deepest, most eternal thought latent in the human soul. This is the thought of God, merged in the thoughts of moral right and the immortality of identity. Great, great is this thoughtaye, greater than all else. When the gorgeous pageant of Art, refulgent in the sunshine, colord with roses and goldwith all the richest mere poetry, old or new, (even Shaksperes)with all that statue, play, painting, music, architecture, oratory, can effect, ceases to satisfy and pleaseWhen the eager chase after wealth flags, and beauty itself becomes a loathingand when all worldly or carnal or esthetic, or even scientific values, having done their office to the human character, and ministerd their part to its developmentthen, if not before, comes forward this over-arching thought, and brings its eligibilities, germinations. Most neglected in life of all humanitys attributes, easily coverd with crust, deluded and abused, rejected, yet the only certain source of what all are seeking, but few or none findin it I for myself clearly see the first, the last, the deepest depths and highest heights of art, of literature, and of the purposes of life. I say whoever labors here, makes contributions here, or best of all sets an incarnated example here, of life or death, is dearest to humanityremains after the rest are gone. And here, for these purposes, and up to the light that was in him, the man Elias Hicksas the man George Fox had done years before himlived long, and died, faithful in life, and faithful in death.