Devonshire House Meting House.
Bishopsgate Street London
On Tuesday Evening, November 6th, 1866.
When first it was in my heart to address you, I did not—at all suppose that it would be in the form of a lecture. I thought it possible, if God so ordered it, that I might have spoken to you for about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, upon a spiritual subject which for two or three years has pressed very heavily upon my mind. It seemed to me that you, esteemed Friends, were a picked body of men, peculiarly set apart to be the advocates of spiritual religion, that you had suffered long for it, that your history had been highly honorable to yourselves in years past, that you still loved the spirituality of godliness, and were not to be bewitched by the formalism of this age; but I thought that your testimony was hardly loud enough, that though it was clear as a bell, it was not shrill as a clarion; and I hoped also that if God should put it into your hearts to permit me to say a few earnest words to you, there might be young men amongst you who might be stirred up to lift up their voice like a trumpet, to cry aloud and spare not, and to tell to this age its sins and iniquities.
This has not happened, but I have been asked to deliver a lecture instead, and the topic chosen is George Fox. Now, to lecture Friends upon George Fox is an extraordinary proposition, and I do not at present see that I was prudent in my choice. You must all of you know much more about that honored man than I could possibly tell you, and I can only say that if you do not you should, for his "Life" well repays the earnest student.
It is a rich mine. Every page of it is precious as solid gold. Books now-a-days are hammered out, and you get but little metal in acres of leaf; but the "Journal" of George Fox contains ingots of gold, truths which require to be thought of month by month before you can get to the bottom of them. To talk to you about George Fox is bringing coals to Newcastle, and doing a work of supererogation; but nevertheless, as I am to do it—though it is not what I wanted to do—we must try to make a cross between what we wished and what is announced. We must have something like an address, and yet it must be a lecture; well then, I should not wonder if it be most like a sermon after all. I have heard of a man, a Harp Alley sign painter,—who was in the habit of painting red lions, and had painted so many red lions, that when one day an innkeeper asked him to paint an angel, he said, "Well, I will paint you an angel, but it will be very much like a red lion." So, this "lecture," as it is to be called, will be very like a sermon, and yet not altogether very widely apart from an address or a lecture. I am amongst those who bear the name of "Friends." I have no doubt that you will honestly wear that title to night, and that I shall find you friends in listening to what I want to say. If I should find any fault with you, you will remember that you did not ask me to come here to flatter you, and I know you do not desire that I should do so. If I say anything that is wrong, you will put it down to my ignorance of the matter; but, at all events, you will not suspect me of unfriendliness, for I have no object in standing here to night but, in the fear of the Lord, to say some things which, by the Holy Spirit's power, may be useful to this audience, to your Society, and to the world.
I shall not be expected tonight to enter into the doctrinal opinions of George Fox. Many of you well know the opinions which I have set forth, and which I believe to be contained in God's Word; and you know also that these are very different from the theological teachings of George Fox. It would not be profitable to enter into controversy tonight, nor are we at all in the frame of mind for it, and I shall not, therefore, introduce any discussion of the doctrinal teachings of George Fox. Indeed, doctrinal teaching does not appear to me to have been George Fox's forte. We have to look to his successors and his immediate disciples for a fuller and clearer laying down of the theological basis of your Society, than we find in Fox himself. I look upon George Fox rather as a practical than as a doctrinal man, and as experimentally carrying out in his own life the work of the Spirit of God rather than as being a creed-maker or as fashioning formulae or framing propositions to which any man might be required to subscribe. I suppose that Fox would object to your own creed. I have the notion that he would object to any creed, as a creed; and that even if he agreed to what was laid down, he would object to its being laid down at all. I think he would say, "No, these things may be true enough, but, lest by any means this creed should be used to bind another man's conscience, I will not agree to it; I believe it and receive it, but I will not subscribe to it, lest it should become, as all creeds do become in process of time, mere dead letters and instruments of tyranny."
Looking through George Fox's life, and viewing him as the great champion of purely spiritual worship, one is inclined to say, with William Penn, that his epitaph might well be, "Many sons have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all;" for though in his own age and in his own time there were many bright stars, yet there were some points in which George Fox outshone them all. There were some particular truths which it was given to him to feel more intensely and to set forth more vehemently and constantly than any other man of his own time, or than any other man since his time, more especially the great truth that religion is of the spirit, that it is an inward thing, and is not to be judged, and weighed and accounted of according to the externals of a man but according to his inmost soul.
When George Fox appeared it was a singularly perilous age for true godliness, when a new band of witnesses must arise, or truth would be put to shame. Just as every year, early in the spring, you see the young buds appear, all green and vigorous, and then those young budlings swell until they burst into leaf and flower, but towards autumn begin to decay and fall, and other and younger buds follow them—so, very much has it been in the history of Christ's church in the world. There has blossomed in the church a body of spiritual men, full of vigor and freshness; these have endured a stern fight of afflictions, like the young buds in the early frosts of spring. They have borne it, they have grown under it, they have expanded, they have come to perfection, and there has been a delightful time of summer. But, alas! the decay of autumn has followed, and this vigor of godliness has declined, and another more spiritual band of men has followed them, pushed them off, and taken up their place. One band of men, fully spiritual, has for a time maintained the truth, but has then gradually declined through success; for so it is with human nature, that when we cease to be persecuted, when we get to feel that we are in easy circumstances, we lose the vigor of grace which we once possessed, and another and more faithful brotherhood takes our place. Perhaps it will always be so, and after one backsliding generation there will arise a more earnest people, and another, and yet another, until the end of the dispensation, so that God shall never lack a spiritual seed in the world, to keep alive vital godliness.
Now it so happened that the Puritans, who had been like the spring buds and had blossomed, were getting into the sere and yellow leaf; and the Independents, and Baptists, and other sects, who were at one time thoroughly and even remarkably spiritual, were growing worldly, political, and vainglorious; the evangelical professors had come to feel that they were numerous and powerful; they had an opportunity of grasping the carnal sword; they embraced that opportunity, and from that moment very many of them lost the spirituality for which they had been eminent. The danger was lest the evangelical sects should quietly settle down in one State Church, make a scramble for the good things of the Ecclesiastical Establishment, and preach each one after its own fashion, in the numbness of death rather than in the power ot life. It did not quite come to that, but it did seem as if it would do so. The very men who were once most vehement for liberty when they were down-trodden, were ready to put down others when they had the opportunity, and those who had vindicated the spirituality of Christ's religion were about to fall into formalism as soon as they had the opportunity of escaping from the galling yoke of oppression and persecution. At that very moment God sent into the world George Fox, who must have been the most troublesome of men to those good easy souls who counted upon a quiet season of sleep. They had said, "Soul, take thine ease; thou hast much goods laid up for many years." It was by the mouth of George Fox that God said to each one of them, "Thou fool!" Very soon declining professors found that another people would spring up to take their place, and that if they left the separated path and began to mingle with the world and to war with carnal weapons, God would find another people who should stand alone and vindicate his truth against all comers. George Fox, it seems to me, was a blessing, not to you alone, but to the whole of Christendom. He was sent of God, not only with a view to this Society in after years, but to the Christian church at large of that time, and to the church of God in all times. I do believe that under God, directly and indirectly, perhaps more indirectly than directly, George Fox was the means of driving out from their nests those who were very willing to have feathered those nests well, and to have taken their rest. He stood up in the face of the Christian Church, and said to it, "No, thou shalt not do this!