Fox’s Pulpit is one of those curios of the British historical landscape. It is about 3 miles north-west of Sedbergh in the county of Cumbria, on the side of Firbank Fell, and is where, on 13th June 1652, itinerant preacher George Fox (1624-1691) addressed a crowd of a thousand people and is said to have given birth to the Quaker movement.
Fox was one of any number of 17th century religious dissenters whose philosophical roots went back a hundred years or more. Many would once have regarded them as heretical, ‘puritan’ or, later, ‘nonconformist’; today, some would call them Christian fundamentalists. An obscure movement called the Seekers (nothing to do with Judith Durham) is often regarded as the forerunner of what became the Society of Friends, or ‘Quakers’ – after Fox told a Derby judge to “tremble at the word of the Lord”. The Seekers believed that the established church was corrupt. Fox himself rejected organised religion with its ceremonies and hierarchy of bishops; his belief was based on a personal relationship with God. He had been wandering the land preaching, allegedly on Divine Instruction, for several years. Earlier in 1652, on Pendle Hill some 50 miles to the south of Firbank, he is said to have had a vision commanding him to “sound the day of the Lord” to a great gathering of people.
I was glad Dave was driving. He knew where he was going for a start, which is always handy. You also have to be in the right frame of mind and vehicle to tackle roads like the intriguingly named Shacklabank Lane, a narrow track off the A684 which obviously hadn’t enjoyed a proper road surface for a decade or more. This led us, past buildings out of another time, to our destination where we nudged into a gateway in front of some sheep pens made from corrugated iron, and got out of the car. The Howgill Fells gathered around like a damp shroud; it was impossible to tell that the M6 growled with traffic just a few short miles to the north.
Fox’s Pulpit sits a little back from the road, in open ground next to a disused burial ground where once stood a chapel. The pulpit is an oddly shaped rock looking rather like a large letter-box cut into the hillside. We clambered to the top. On that June day in 1652, Fox had been invited to address a meeting in the chapel. He recalled, “While others were gone to dinner, I went to a brook, got a little water, and then came and sat down on the top of a rock hard by the chapel. In the afternoon the people gathered about me, with several of their preachers. It was judged there were above a thousand people to whom I declared God’s everlasting truth and Word of life freely and largely for about the space of three hours.”
It is hard to conceive of that large a crowd gathering in this place; where on earth did they all come from? Understandably, it is said by some to be an evocative spot; a place of pilgrimage, even. I thought it cold, bleak and rather sad. There is little obvious trace of the chapel, which was ruined by storms in the winter of 1839-40. The few remaining gravestones are forlorn reminders of lives long since gone. It is a dead place; hard to picture it thronged and full of life. Yet people congregate here at least once a year, on the anniversary of Fox’s address.
Dave posed, rather effectively, I thought, on the pulpit for me. We mooched about, explored what looked like a sort of trackway behind the burial ground, tried to pick out where the chapel had once stood and failed to comprehend how a thousand people would allow anyone to talk for that long.
There’s a plaque on the pulpit, placed there in June 1952, 300 years after Fox’s oration. It says:
“Let your lives speak. Here or near this rock George Fox preached to about one thousand Seekers for three hours on Sunday June 13, 1652. Great power inspired his message and the meeting proved of first importance in gathering the Society of Friends known as Quakers. Many men and women convinced of the truth on this fell and in other parts of the northern counties went forth through the land and over the seas with the living word of the Lord enduring great hardships and winning multitudes to Christ”.
The Society of Friends went on to spread their message all over the world. The early members have become known as the Valiant Sixty. They were mostly ordinary people – farmers, tradesmen and, unusually for the time, included women prominently in their ranks. They were often regarded as eccentric, or with suspicion because they refused to swear oaths – including an oath of allegiance to the Crown. They were often cruelly abused, attacked and imprisoned. Fox himself is said to have been arrested sixty times and was detained in hideous conditions. He travelled throughout Britain, as well as to the West Indies, America, Holland and Germany. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, became a close friend. Among many who were influenced by Fox was Margaret Fell, wife of local Judge Thomas Fell, who married Fox in 1669, eleven years after her first husband’s death.
People of all faiths and none can admire the Quakers’ respect for all humans, their tolerance and belief in peace. Quakers were conscientious objectors in both world wars. Their influence on modern society has probably been disproportionate to their relatively small numbers. Because Quakers were barred from universities and many professions, one natural outlet for them was in business. A ridiculously large number of British businesses were founded by Quakers, including such household names as Barclays, Lloyds, Carr’s, Clarks, Cadbury, Reckitt’s, Rowntree, Fry and Terry’s.
Finally, I daresay some reading this have been dying to point out, “But you can walk to Fox’s Pulpit! There are some wonderful walks round there. You don’t have to drive!” They are absolutely right and you will find those walks easily enough on other sites. One that particularly caught my eye is on the excellent My Yorkshire Dales website. Personally, as I get older and lazier, I find myself more and more attracted to physical comfort; I’m sure George would have disapproved, but at least I’ve given him a good plug.