It’s one of those quotes we frequently hear: that George Fox said a minister’s job was “to bring people to Christ, and to leave them there.” But when I go to Google, I only find secondhand references, sandwiched in quote marks but never sourced. It turns up most frequently in the works of British Friend William Pollard, who used it as kind of a catch phrase in his talks on “An Old Fashioned Quakerism” from 1889. Suspiciously missing is any search result from the journal or epistles of Fox himself. It’s possible Pollard has paraphrased something from Fox into a speech-friendly shorthand that Google misses, but it’s also possible it’s one of those passed-down Fox myths like Penn’s sword.
So in modern fashion, I posed the question to the Facebook hive mind. After great discussions, I’m going to call this a half-truth. On the Facebook thread, Allistair Lomax shared a Fox epistle that convinces me the founder of Friends would have agreed with the basic concept:
I’m guessing it is paraphrase of a portion of Fox’s from epistle 308, 1674. Fox wrote “You know the manner of my life, the best part of thirty years since I went forth and forsook all things. I sought not myself. I sought you and his glory that sent me. When I turned you to him that is able to save you, I left you to him.”
Mark Wutka shared quotations from Stephen Grellet and William Williams which have convince me that it describes the “two step dance” of convincement for early Friends:
From Stephen Grellet: “I have endeavoured to lead this people to the Lord and to his Spirit, and there is is safe to leave them.” And this from William Williams: “To persuade people to seek the Lord, and to be faithful to his word, the inspoken words of the heart, is what we ought to do; and then leave them to be directed by the inward feelings of the mind;”
The two-step image comes from Angela York Crane’s comment:
So it’s a two step dance. First, that who we are and how we live and speak turns others to the Lord, and second, that we trust enough to leave them there.
But: as a pithy catch phrase directly attributed to Fox it’s another myth. It perhaps borrowed some images from a mid-19th century talk by Charles Spurgeon on George Fox, but came together in the 1870s as a central catch phrase of British reformer Friend William Pollard. Pollard is a fascinating figure in his own right, an early proponent of modern liberalism in a London Yearly Meeting that was then largely evangelical and missionary. Even his pamphlet and book titles were telling, including Primitive Christianity Revived and A Reasonable Faith. He had an agenda and this phrase was a key formulation of his argument and vision.
He is hardly the first or last Friend to have lifted an incidental phrase or concept of George Fox’s and given it the weight of a modern tenet (“That of God” springs to mind). More interesting to me is that Pollard’s work was frequently reprinted and referenced in Friends Intelligencer, the American Hicksite publication (and predecessor of Friends Journal), at a time when London Friends didn’t recognize Hicksites as legitimate Quakers. His vision of an “Old Fashioned Quakerism” reincorporated quietism and sought to bring British Friends back to a two-step convincement practice. It paved the way for the transformation of British Quakerism following the transformational 1895 Manchester Conference and gave American Friends interested in modern liberal philosophical ideals a blueprint for incorporating them into a Quaker framework.
The phrase “bring people to Christ/leave them there” is a compelling image that has lived on in the 130 or so odd years since its coinage. I suspect it is still used much as Pollard intended: as a quietist braking system for top-down missionary programs. It’s a great concept. Only our testimony in truth now requires that we introduce it, “As William Pollard said, a Quaker minister’s job is to…”
And for those wondering, yes, I have just ordered Pollard’s Old Fashioned Quakerism via Vintage Quaker Books. He seems like something of a kindred spirit and I want to learn more.