I have something of fascination with the phenomenon of urban myths and misattributed quotations. In the January Friends Journal I used the opening column to track down “Live simply so that others may simply live,” a phrase that recurred in many of the articles in the issue (the theme was Quaker Lifestyles). Among Quakers, one of the more oft‐told tales involves a mad prophet and his fair‐haired noble protégé…
It was late April on the northern moors and the winter had been especially harsh. Flowers were just starting to peek out of the ground as the farmers looked tested whether the soil was soft enough yet to plow. The nobleman dismounted his horse and asked the hamlet’s blacksmith for directions.
It has been a long journey. His ruffled silk shirt was dirty and full of the smells of a dozens of overnight accomodations in pig barns and lean‐tos of the English Midlands. His most‐prized possession was spotless, however: the silver sword given him by his father, the admiral, last year on his eighteenth birthday. It layed sheathed in its hand‐stiched sheath.
The blacksmith pointed the foreigner to the path that crossed the dark moors toward the hillside of Judge Fell’s estate. The manor house was the de facto headquarters of the new cult that was scandalizing the Kingdom, the Children of the Light. A short ten minute walk and our traveler was face‐to‐face with the man he had come so far to see.
A long tumble of rehersed speaches came out of the young man’s mouth as George Fox warily sized him up. The young William Penn wanted to join the movement. Fox knew it would be a coup for the Children of the Light. Penn’s father was one of the wealthiest men in England and the family money could buy protection, fame, and land in the new colonies.
But Penn wasn’t quite ready. He had that sword. It would be a grave disrespect to his father to leave it or give it away. “Friend George, what can I do?” The wise Fox knew that Penn was led to join. With a little encouragement, it was a matter of time the new apprentice adopted their pacifist principles. Fox cleared his throat and answered: “Wear thy sword as long as thee can, young William.” Before tears could well in each man’s eyes they turned their attention to logistics of a preaching trip to London. On their way out a few days later, Penn quietly slipped back into a blacksmith shop and gave away his sword. By the time they left the Yorkshire, farmers were working the spring soil with their new silver plowshares.
It is a beautiful story. Unfortunately it’s also fake.
Both George Fox and William Penn left behind dozens of volumes of writings and memoirs. Their friendship was one of the most significant relationships for each of them. Surely such a foundational story would have made it to print. Paul Buckley tracked down the story in “Time To Lay Down William Penn’s Sword” in the December 2003 Friends Journal.
The sword story is fake but it is also somehow true. Buckley calls it a “authentic anecdote.” Every year Friends Journal gets wonderful essays whose narrative turns on the story of William Penn’s sword. We can’t run them without correction so it falls on me to tell authors that the scene never took place. Occasionally I’m told it doesn’t matter that it’s not true.
What is the deeper myth inside our beloved tall tales? First: they depend on the celebrity status of their characters. If I substituted more obscure early Friends in the sword story — George Whitehead asking Solomon Eccles, say — I doubt it would be as compelling or get repeated as often.
Fame is an odd draw for modern‐day Friends. There’s a baker’s-dozen of famous‐enough Friends upon which we graft these sorts of stories — John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry. And the story‐telling began early: editors would chop out the embarrasing bits of recently‐departed Friends’ journals. Dreams would get snipped out. Accounts of miraculous healings would disappear.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Penn/Fox story dates back to the moment when American Friends split. The denomination’s origin story was fracturing. Paul Buckley thinks the sword story prefigured the tolerance and forbearance of the Hicksite Friends. Philadelphia‐area Friends healed that particular wound almost three‐quarters of a century ago. What does it say about us today that this tale is still so popular? Related reading, I tracked down another authentic anecdote in 2016, “Bring people to Christ / Leave them there.”