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William Penn as preface writer, historian, and controversialist

posted on 05.09.2018, 15:34 by Catherine GillCatherine Gill
William Penn established the significance of intertwining two kinds of narrative effects – the historical and personal - in his Preface to George Fox’s Journal (1694) (later termed Rise and Progress of the Society of Friends). In the course of his account, Penn outlined the qualities of the Quaker leader, George Fox, and the particular features of the Quaker movement, by interweaving them to the extent that what the individual represented, the movement endorsed or mirrored. This was to construct a narrative that would serve as a reminder of the leader’s centrality, owing to his impact on the collective body of believers. This was established by Penn primarily through depicting Fox’s herculean labours in first establishing Quakerism, before taking on responsibility for ensuring its survival. The historical and the personal cohered when Penn asserted that he did not know only the myth, but the man: ‘I write my Knowledge and not report’.1 In the course of this chapter, the significance of Penn’s linking himself to Fox’s legacy will explored by way of assessing the immediate cultural impact of the Rise and Progress on contemporaries. In particular, the partisan depiction of Quakerism represented by Penn will be compared to the accounts written by hostile readers who disputed whether future generations should continue to realise Fox’s vision for Quakerism, as Penn seemed to believe. Charles Leslie wrote several pamphlets to this effect, beginning with Snake in the Grass (1696), which was this nonjuring, High church Anglican’s attempt to disparage the movement, Fox, and, in the process, Penn. He called on Penn to denounce Fox’s ideas as ‘nonsense and blasphemy’.2 This chapter contends that when under assault and called to defend the principles that he stood for, Penn drew on ideas about the inter-connectedness of the personal and the religious, the individual and the collective, as he circularly established the movement’s dependence on Fox, and Fox’s identity as a founder of the movement. In the process, some defensive features undercut the apparently hagiographic account of the leader, Fox; for instance, Penn’s apparent support for the relatively un-educated Quaker leader is somewhat ambivalent in its support for mechanic preachers. Penn’s account of Fox, the furore greeting the publication of the Journal, and the co-determinacy of two kinds of writing – life writing, and historical account of the rise of the Quakers – are interlocking features that need to be considered in order to establish the significance of the Rise and Progress of the Society of Friends. As Fox’s Journal was the most important published work of the 1690s, assessing its impact also may help to establish how Friends would carry forward their reputation into the eighteenth century, and how Penn’s preface contributed to this mission.



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • English and Drama

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The Worlds of William Penn


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GILL, C., 2019. William Penn as preface writer, historian, and controversialist. IN: Murphy, A.R. and Smolenski, J. (eds). The Worlds of William Penn. New Brunswick, NJ., Rutgers University Press, pp. 267-282.


Rutgers University Press


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