Nathaniel Smith, a Quaker natural historian and physician, in 1664, meets with George Fox. Wherein George Fox argues the earth is flat because it was revealed to him by God.

In 1669 Nathanial Smith wrote a tract entitled “The Quakers Spiritual Court” wherein he documents the Quaker use of outward ecclesiastical forms and leaders to rule over the conscience of others in the gathering. Smith became a Quaker at 19 years of age and remained so for about fourteen years. It seems he was among those of the first Quakers. Smith calls himself a “Physick.” Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1792) defines Physick as “originally signifying natural philosophy, has been transferred in many maodern languages to medicine. The science of healing.”

In this tract, Smith relates an encounter with George Fox under a section entitled: The First Cause of my dislike, as to the Quakers; and chiefly, of certain Principles Holden by George Fox, and others. I now reprint from a facsimile of the original tract.

“In March 1664 or 1665. I hearing that George Fox was at Lancaster in Prison, I was resolved to go to the place, and there to remaine for a certain time; as also, to have some Discourse with Geo. Fox. After some few dayes were spent, Geo. Fox had heard that I held the Earth to be round; and that when it was day with us it was night in others places; he was then desirous to convince me of this Errour, (as he thought) and to make me Relinguish all such Tenants: I being come to the Castle where he was, he came to me, and Jo. Stubs told him of my Principle concerning the Earth, and its roundness; whereupon, Geo. told me that it was flat, and brought Arguments for it; that let a man Travel never so far, he shall not see the Earth to bend round; he also Affirmed, that when it was 12 of the Clock with us, that then it was 12 of the Clock all the World over. Then I asked him, whether there was a new Sun every day? he answered, No, there was but one Sun; then said I, what becomes of it in the Night? or does it give light or not? or doth it go down into the Sea to cool itself? he said it went cross back again some way. But when he could not hold the Discourse, then he begun to father all this his Errours upon his Spirit of Revelation; and said, that it was revealed to him that it was so, and therefore it must stand for Truth, (he thinking that I would submit to that as many others do, which believe al that he and some others say is a Divine Truth, and must not be contradicted by any;) but at the last last, reason did over-power these Divine Revelations. This was in the Great Room or Hall in Lancaster Castle.”

There is so much in this small anecdote. Beside the obvious, One thing I find instructive is that Nathaniel Smith acknowledges that there were many Quakers at the time who hung upon the words of George Fox as “Divine Truth” even when they themselves were not so convinced in their own conscience. This was an attitude many founding and early Quakers scrupled against as being not of the nature of the Quaker dispensation and even approached George Fox and asked him to speak out against this tendency of other Quakers to follow the words of George Fox even when their own conscience did not speak so to them directly. John Wilkinson, in a letter to George Fox, in around 1676 actually suggested to Fox that, to the extent that he allowed and nurtured such an attitude toward him, that he was stepping all over the prerogative of the spirit of Christ itself to teach and guide people in the same way that James Nayler had done by his activities in Bristol. In essence saying that Fox was making himself Christ. It is also telling that Smith was in no way enchanted or overpowered by the personality of Fox. This anecdote suggests that there were many Quakers, during Fox’s lifetime, who did set him up as their leader and teacher; who were, in fact, ready and willing to call him out when necessary. It is also so interesting the Smith relates Fox’s tendency to fall back on divine revelation to support and give substance to his arguments when all else falls. As if to say, “God has revealed this to me and you must follow it without question even if you do not believe it yourself; and, if you do not submit to what God has revealed to me you are going against God himself.” It is interesting that so many Quakers at the time relinquished and submitted to Fox in the face of this imposition of Fox upon their conscience. This was clearly against the primitive experience of many first and early Quakers of the nature of Quakerism, which clearly affirmed the inshining Light itself as the sole and sufficient guide and rule in the conscience (which is the Kingdom of God) without regard for any outward institution or leader.

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Comment by Howard Brod on 10th mo. 19, 2017 at 3:12pm

The founder of a religious movement is often deified by converts - even after the founder's physical  death.  Most enlightened liberal Quakers understand this, and therefore do not place George Fox or his writings as anything to overly admire.  Did he bring an awareness of the inshining Light to the world he lived in?  Certainly he did.  Did he also bring error due to his own ignorance and ego?  Certainly he did that too.  Have there been others throughout history and via religions outside of Christianity, and in our present time; who have also hearkened humankind to experience the Light within?  This can not be denied. 

This is certainly why liberal Quakers, who focus so strongly on just the Light (rather than doctrine or human personalities), generally do not provide to George Fox any special recognition; other than the recognition that he provided an impetus to the Quaker movement.

I would also offer that this same liberal Quaker view of George Fox is why liberal Quakers, due to their own personal experience with the Light, do not provide Jesus of Nazareth any special deification - no matter what has been written about him by others.  If God (the "ultimate reality") is personified as the Source of Light, then along with Jesus we all can share that same personification as we choose to turn within to it. 

This understanding does not denigrate the work and mission of Jesus , nor does it deny the truth of his message regarding how to live in the Light.  It fulfills his message that the divine Light is available to all if each of us just accepts it as our Source.

Comment by James C Schultz on 10th mo. 19, 2017 at 5:46pm

George would love the internet.  It's filled with flat earthers with better arguments than his.

Comment by David McKay on 10th mo. 28, 2017 at 12:03pm

Fascinating tract you found there. And it does add something interesting to the conversation on the role of Fox in the early Friends and just how authoritative we need to take them today.

I do think there is a difference between recognizing that someone has (legitimate) authority and "deification". The Light of Christ may call some people not only to obedience to that Light but may also call them to organize people into groups/collectivities that are called to follow that Light. We might talk of such people as being apostles — people sent by God with a message. It is a slippery slope. And by and large the organized religions have gone far too far down that slope. But for that I'm not quite ready to reject the first steps on the slope altogether.

By virtue of my using the term "Light of Christ" you may infer (quite correctly) that I put Jesus in a slightly different box than the other candidates for deification. Even as I admit that I'm not entirely certain what all that means.

But thank you, Keith. I appreciated reading your blog and in particular learning something about early Friends that I did not know before.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 28, 2017 at 3:51pm

We know this story is true because it appeared in a 17th Century pamphlet attacking the Quakers.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 10th mo. 28, 2017 at 8:02pm

Hello David,


Thank you for your kindness and consideration. Yours words brought to mind an epistle by George Fox published in the 8th volume of the Works of George Fox. I have a printed copy of this epistle on the wall of my sewing room. It reads:


Concerning Those That Go Out Of Unity


Concerning Those That Go Out of Unity Those that are gone from the light, from the spirit and power of God, and so from unity, buy the light, and by the spirit, and by the power are judged; and the power, and light, and spirit are over them. And they being gone into their own wills, and into a perverse spirit, then they say, they will not be subject to men's will, nor to the will of man; and that spirit leads them out of the bonds of humanity. When they are thus gone from the light, and the power and spirit of God, they go out of all true forms, into confusion and emptiness, without form; then they say, they will not be subject to forms, and cry down all forms with their darkness and a perverse spirit, and so mash all together.


For there is a form of godliness. And there is a form of sound words; many have a form. All creatures have a form, the earth hath a form, and all things were brought into a form by the power of God; for the earth was once without form, and was void, and empty and confused.


So they that be gone out of the covenant of God and life, and out of the power of God, are gone into a confused condition without form, a state which is out of the bond of civil men and women. And so such are confused without the right form; for the form that God hath made, viz. the form of the earth, the form of the creatures, the form of men and women, the form of sound words, the form of godliness,nor the form of sound doctrine, was never denied by the men and women of God. But such as got the form only, and denied the power of godliness, those were denied, for they deny the power; an do not only so, but quench the spirit, and grieve and vex it, and hate the light; by which light they are condemned. G.F.


You may find these words of positive benefit and edifiying in your own research and walk. They are a reminder to me my 24 year relationship with him as a companion. While I cherish the writings of George Fox and read him almost daily, he and I are not of the same witness in matters of conscience ... especially the older George Fox. For I am one of the perverse people who has come out of all forms. And, while he proclaims that those of us who are come out of all forms and come into the sufficiency of the inshining Light itself in itself to rule and govern our human relationships, to be “out of the bond of civil men and women,” there are those of us who have found the very witness of being ruled and governed by the Light itself in itself without regard for outward forms and doctrine (sound or otherwise) is the living source of our civil bond with all human beings and in all human relationships. We are come into a life wherein even a person like George Fox, who would call us perverse, dark, and out of the covenant of God and Life and power of God, we find much to cherish in his testimony to his witness.

Comment by David McKay on 10th mo. 28, 2017 at 8:35pm

Yes Forrest, there is a bit of that they are too. And the story may very well be made up. But I don't really have any strong reason to not believe it. And I don't think the story particularly shows Fox himself in a bad light — it does show the Quaker doctrine of immediate revelation to be suspect.

This is not the first time George Fox goes out claiming to have specialized knowledge through revelation. His religious experience of "going through the flaming sword" led him to believe that he was more than equal to any physician in terms of medicine because he knew the nature of all things.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 29, 2017 at 12:01am

Offhand, it's a wee bit odd that anyone would go to visit a jail for the purpose of arguing geography with a lay preacher --

and much more likely that someone would imagine the story as an example of how belief in personal revelation -- as the author thought of it -- might get out of hand.

We don't have a tape of this exchange, not even a person taking notes. We had have, ourselves (I have, and you must have), occasionally met people who started with a particular idea of what we meant -- and could never be persuaded, no matter what we might say, that we meant anything else. Given that Fox was a little strange on some points, people who listened sympathetically to what he said seem to have found it normally cogent.

Fox's ideas about medicine? -- He was, after all, evidently a successful healer, although that was a side of his practice that evidently could lead to suspicious of witchcraft & the like, as Jesus' healings back in the 1st Century also had been dismissed by opponents as due to demonic powers. Given the state of medicine in the 17th Century, Fox's treatments may well have been less likely to prove fatal.

It had been, of course, common knowledge for a long time that the Earth is round ... and that people had (including one famous English hero of the century before) sailed completely around it.

Some decades later, London's Second Day Morning Meeting took to commissioning rebuttals of each new pamphlet published against Friends. If the story in question had come out then, Fox might have had something to say about it... The fact that Friends saw the need for such measures late in the 17th Century doesn't mean that public hostility and fear toward them had gotten any worse, or that publications against them had ever been particularly accurate.

If you've ever been involved in an incident reported in newspapers or magazines of the 20th Century... you may have found a lack of strict factuality in such accounts. But any regular publication, to keep some degree of credibility, would need to make more effort in that direction than a one-issue pamphlet of a few centuries ago.

Comment by David McKay on 10th mo. 29, 2017 at 6:37pm

I have access to GF Works. I consulted periodically but don't find old George all that accessible. When I bury myself in early Quaker writings it tends to be Isaac Penington and Barclay's Apology.

If I understand Penington's journey aright, he turned Quaker, drifted away from Fox and then came back into the fold.

I do tend to read early Quakers through the lens of Lewis Benson. In the New Foundation Fellowship folks are quite addicted to the meeting structure in the notion that if he is intrinsic to what makes Quakers Quaker. I'm a little more agnostic about these things — and fairly isolated from Quaker community and in fact in worshiping in a non-Quaker church right now (which I'm finding quite tedious…). So would be foolish of me to be doctrinaire about what makes a Quaker a Quaker.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 29, 2017 at 9:49pm

GF definitely had his quirks, and could (like anyone else) be utterly sure of things which happened not to be true.

I sometimes suspect he was a little bit contentious even.

But a pamphlet claiming he didn't know the Earth to be round -- could only make its point in a nation in which the general public did know. Which would make it truly remarkable if he'd managed to somehow avoid learning it.

Comment by David McKay on 10th mo. 30, 2017 at 6:05pm

Do we know if it was "common knowledge"? I suspect most educated folks knew. But that doesn't necessarily mean it was "common knowledge".

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