This information was originally presented to the meeting for a “Quakerism 101” course by Eva Hersh on 4/13/2003. It was later revised by other members of Homewood Meeting.
Why is it important to know this stuff?
From my point of view, because it’s fascinating history. From a “Quakerism 101” point of view, because Quakerism is a strange and radical religion which can seem vague or nebulous when you first encounter it, and understanding its roots can bring us an understanding of what it is. To understand where Quakerism came from, you must understand the historical context from which it developed, which is a complicated, but interesting one–the period of the English Civil Wars.
British Historical Context
Before 1534, the Roman Catholic Church was the only legal religion in Britain. Any other form of Christianity was heresy and was punishable by death. (A few Jews were present, minimally tolerated with many restrictions.) The Bible was available only in Latin, which was read only by priests and a few other educated men. It was heretical–and illegal–to translate the Bible into modern languages such as English. So Christian religion was based on a text that was accessible only to priests and a few wealthy men, all of whom were educated by priests.
The structure of religion was hierarchical, with power flowing from the pope, to the cardinals, to the bishops, to the priests. The role of the laymen was to follow the guidance of the priests. Any sort of questioning might be considered heresy.
Earlier Religious Dissent
Quakers were not the first religious dissenters in England. They were part of a long tradition of dissent. Many Friends’ ideas can be traced to earlier groups. The first distinct Protestant movement in England was Lollardy, arising in the late Middle Ages, the 1370s. The leader of the Lollards was the radical priest John Wycliffe. Wycliffe advocated that all people, not just the clergy, should have access to the Bible. Wycliffe made the first translation of the Bible from Latin to English. His supporters hand-copied and circulated it. The term “Lollards” means “mumblers,” a reference to these people’s habit of murmuring the words of the Bible aloud when reading. Besides advocating general access to the Bible, Wycliffe and his followers also denied the importance of a number of key Catholic concepts. I’d like to briefly go over these concepts, because they were also denied later by Quakers and other groups, and their denial led to much of the persecution of dissenters.
- Transubstantiation: the idea that the wine and bread served at Communion literally become the blood and flesh of Christ.
- Baptism: the idea that cleansing by physical (rather than spiritual or metaphorical) water is necessary for becoming a Christian. The Lollards, and later the Friends, objected to any sort of outward baptism. The Anabaptists, Baptists and other groups denied infant baptism but advocated water-baptism for older children and adults.
- Confession: the idea that it is necessary to confess sins to a priest.
- Absolution: the idea that a priest can forgive or take away sin, and especially the idea that a priest could sell forgiveness for money.
Besides these theological differences, the Lollards criticized the priesthood for financial and sexual corruption.
The Lollard positions were illegal as well as offensive to the religious leaders of the time. Wycliffe was able to survive and continue to preach because he was supported and protected by a powerful nobleman, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who was the 3rd son of King Edward the Third, the ruler of England at that time.
John Wycliffe lived and preached in Leicestershire, less than 40 miles from Fenny Drayton, the village where George Fox, who would become known as the principal founder of Quakerism, would be born 250 years later. Lollard ideas were passed on from generation to generation, together with the rare, illegal, handwritten English Bibles.
The next major movement for religious dissent in Europe is one we’re more familiar with, which still exists under the same name today: Lutheranism.
In 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest in Wittenberg, Germany, publicly called for reform of the Roman Catholic Church. When the Church rejected his reforms, his followers set up the first organized non-Catholic (Protestant) church. After Luther’s death, this movement was called the Lutheran Church.
Political Separation of the Catholic and Anglican Churches
Religious dissenters remained a small minority in England until the separation of the Church of England (or Anglican Church) from the Catholic Church.
In 1534, King Henry VIII of England broke off relations with the pope over the pope’s refusal to grant an annulment of Henry’s marriage to the Spanish Princess Katherine of Aragon. It’s important to understand that the Catholic Church at that time was as much a political organization as a religious one. Religion was equivalent to politics in defining the way a person saw the world. The pope was considered a Christian Emperor, and all Christian rulers were in some ways subject to the pope.
King Henry’s conflict with the pope was twofold. The conflict was personal and political, not religious. The personal issue was that Henry wished to divorce and remarry. Since divorce was not permitted in the Church he couldn’t do this without a special dispensation that could be granted only by the pope. Because of the great political power of Spain, the pope would not permit this.
Henry also wanted to be the ultimate ruler of his country. He did not accept that a pope had authority over a King. So, to advance his will in these two areas, Henry separated from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England, also called the Anglican Church. (The early Church of England could also be thought of as the English Catholic Church.) In the Church of England, the King of England, not the pope, was supreme head of the Church.
Acting as head of the Church, Henry annulled his own marriage to Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, the second of his six unfortunate wives. The rituals, prayers, laws and structure of the church did not change: Henry’s personal beliefs remained Catholic, and he intended the new church to be simply a nationalized, English version of the Catholic Church. In 1543, he passed a law restricting the reading of the Bible to churchmen, noblemen and gentry. But–even though there was no real change in the Church other than rejection of the pope’s authority, this separation opened up the possibility of new religions and of religious change. If something as fundamental as the top leadership of the Church could be questioned, so could everything else.
In addition to the break between the English church and the pope, there were other social factors which led to change and to new ways of thinking in England in the 1600’s. Some of these included:
- Population stress: for the first time in England, there was not enough land for all the sons of farmers to become farmers. This led to mass migration of people into urban centers.
- Availability of the printing press: the printing press is sometimes said to have made Protestantism possible. Until this time, all books had to be copied out by hand one at a time, so books, and specifically Bibles, were very rare and available only to the clergy and the very rich.
- The establishment of the American colonies: the name “New World” suggests what the possibilities of the American colonies meant to Europeans.
After Henry’s death, his 9-year-old son Edward, who had been raised and tutored by Protestants, became King for the next 6 years. Under King Edward, the Church of England became more Protestant, less ceremonial. For the first time, changes were made in the Church services and prayers. The idea of an English Bible, although still illegal, became more popular.Edward died of an illness, which may have been tuberculosis, at age 16. His half-sister Mary, later known as “Bloody Mary” became Queen. Mary was the daughter of Catherine of Spain, Henry’s first wife, the wife over whom Henry broke with Rome. During Mary’s reign between 1553 and 1558, the Catholic Church again became the only legal religion in England. Queen Mary, in an effort to return England to what she considered “the one true Church,” began severe repression. Religious dissenters were exiled, killed and burned at the stake. About 500 Protestants were executed. English language Bibles were destroyed. Mary died after 6 years in power. Her half-sister Elizabeth, who was Henry VIII’s daughter with Anne Boleyn, succeeded her.
Persecution can strengthen the beliefs of individuals, and it can also increase the power of social movements. During and after Mary’s reign, the Puritan movement gained momentum, and it seemed to thrive under repression. The term “Puritan” comes from this group’s intention to “purify” the Church of beliefs and ceremonies that they considered superstitious and a priesthood they regarded as corrupt. The beliefs the Puritans regarded as superstitious included the same ones the Lollards rejected: transubstantiation, bodily resurrection, confession, absolution and the idea of the Holy Trinity. For Puritans the Bible, not the Church, was the basis of religious authority. As Friends later would, the Puritans believed in the priesthood of all the members of their religious community.
1558–1603: The 45-year reign of Elizabeth I
Under Elizabeth’s rule, there was new tolerance of dissent. Having lived through suffering and civil wars created by religious struggle, and having had her own life threatened as a result of these conflicts, Elizabeth wanted to avoid religious conflict at all costs and was wary of religious extremists of all types. She herself was Protestant, but not highly religious. She resisted pressure from Church of England leaders to persecute either Catholics or Puritans and other radical Protestant dissenters. Although, like all English rulers, Queen Elizabeth was the official head of the Church of England, on the basis of her actions she could be seen as an early advocate of separation of Church and State. Elizabeth made the historic symbolic gesture of becoming the first English ruler to publicly accept the gift of an English Bible, placing Bible reading by laymen firmly beyond reproach in her Kingdom. For the first time, there was widespread circulation of the English language Bible.
Kings James and Charles
Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin, the Protestant James I of England and Scotland, who ruled from 1603 to 1625. James supported a return to a more ceremonial form of Protestant worship and a more hierarchical form of Church authority. From the Puritans’ and other Protestant dissenters’ points of view, King James’ Church of England was not much better than the Catholic Church.
What is commonly known as the King James Version of the Bible was translated and published under the direction of King James (reflecting, therefore, his ideas about Christianity). This “Authorized Version” was, like other English Bibles of the era, rendered from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin sources rather than from only the Latin Vulgate, which was the official version of the Roman Church. The King James Bible is still, today, the most well-known version of the English Bible.
George Fox was born in 1624, in the last year of James’ reign into a Puritan family. In his journal, Fox describes his parents, and especially his mother, as “righteous,” and “of the blood of martyrs,” suggesting that members of her family had died for their Protestant beliefs.
King James was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who ruled from 1625 to 1649. Like all English Kings, he was the head of the Church of England. His religious policies were similar to those of his father, King James. During Charles the First’s reign, at least 20,000 Puritans migrated to America where they set up the colony of New England with Puritanism as the state religion. Contrary to what most of us learned in school, the Puritans were not in favor of freedom of religion. The Puritan colony was a religious dictatorship with some laws quite similar to those of modern fundamentalist Islamic governments.
Charles was an autocratic and unpopular King. He was hated for demanding high taxes and Crown fees, which were technically legal but had not been enforced for many years. He was also disliked for his religious policies suppressing dissenters, and for his refusal to share power with Parliament. To avoid challenges to his power, Charles refused to call Parliament into session for 11 years between 1629-1640.
However, without Parliament he could not impose any new taxes. In 1639, Charles was financially forced to call the two Houses of Parliament, the Houses of Lords and the House of Commons, into session. Once in session, in 1640, the Parliament refused to grant the King further funds unless he accepted restrictions on his power. He refused, and the House of Commons subsequently refused to go out of session, creating the twelve-year “Long Parliament” of 1640-1653.
In 1640, civil war began between the supporters of the King, referred to as Royalists or Cavaliers, and the supporters of the Commons of Parliament, who were mostly Puritans. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of a mainly Puritan army called the New Model Army, became the leader of the Parliamentary Forces. The Parliamentary forces, helped by the Scottish Army, won the Civil War in 1645. The final battle, in which King Charles was defeated and taken prisoner, took place in Naseby, thirty miles from Fenny Drayton, George Fox’s home.
At that time, George Fox was 21. There is no record of Fox having been in the New Model Army; but several other important early Quaker leaders, including James Nayler, were enlisted and were popular preachers in the Army.
In 1646, King Charles surrendered to Cromwell’s forces. In 1649, following an attempt by his supporters regain power, King Charles was beheaded by Cromwell’s soldiers. This was a radical act, comparable in shock value to the guillotinings of the French Revolution one hundred years later. It was also a heretical act in terms of the Church of England, comparable to assassinating the pope. (Contrast the Puritan revolutionaries, who advocated a new state Church, with the French revolutionaries, who advocated no state Church and the rule of reason over religion.) After a brief Second Civil War, Parliament was dissolved in 1653 and Oliver Cromwell ruled as head of state. During this period of English history, all things were open to question in new ways. The entire structure of the country, in government and religion, had been overturned. Between 1641-1660 there was an unprecedented decline in censorship and increase in free speech. There was social disruption parallel to the governmental disruption. There was a huge upsurge in religious separatism and in new political groups. Many dissident groups emerged. The first Quakers were among them.
A brief description of some of the more significant religious and political dissident groups of the 1650s
Individuals moved across the many dissident religious groups, and many Friends came out of these groups. Most people who became Friends did NOT come directly to Friends from either the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church.
Friends were often categorized with other dissident groups. I have listed the groups we will discuss in order of their notoriety, from the least to the most notorious, with the groups with which it was most dangerous for Friends to be identified, named last.
ANABAPTISTS or BAPTISTS: The basic Anabaptist belief is that individuals must personally choose to follow the teachings of Christ. For this reason, Anabaptists rejected infant baptism. They did practice adult baptism. They preached that it is possible for all people to achieve salvation through a personal relationship with God, without the intervention of clergy. The world was viewed as sinful. There was a focus on the afterlife. This group presented a threat to the clergy and the Church of England.
SEEKERS: The Seekers were not an organized group, but a loosely connected movement, something like “hippies” in the 1960’s. They saw the individual’s search for God as the only true basis of religion. They held that all church laws and rituals were Invalid. They rejected all outward religious forms including sacraments, designated clergy, and any kind of church structure. Some Seekers practiced silent worship. You can see the similarities between the Seekers’ beliefs and Friends’ beliefs, and many Seekers did become Friends.
5TH MONARCHY MEN: Fifth Monarchy Men believed the 2nd coming of the Messiah was at hand. They preached the need to prepare for the “millennium,” which would be a thousand-year godly reign under Old Testament law by Christ when he returned to Earth.
LEVELLERS: Levellers were a group with ideas based more on reason than on spirituality. They believed in equality, and argued for the leveling, or equalizing, of the social conditions of all people. They advocated democracy, freedom of religion, and universal voting rights for men. Early proponents of “one man, one vote,” they were the first group to advocate extending voting rights to men who did not own land. They practiced what Leveller leader Richard Overton called “Practical Christianity”–direct action against all forms of oppression. Many soldiers of Cromwell’s New Model Army, disappointed that the social change they had fought for did not come about under Cromwell’s rule, became Levellers. The ideas of the Levellers were threatening to the rich and privileged classes, and to all landowners.
DIGGERS: Diggers were landless people who practiced agrarian communism, meaning they lived communally as farmers and rejected private property, holding all their possessions in common. Under the leadership of the visionary Gerrard Winstanley, groups of Diggers took over, lived on, and planted the lands known as Commons. The “common lands” were a remnant of feudalism, land owned by lords of manors but made available for grazing (although not for planting) to all the inhabitants of the local village. Diggers were threatening to the aristocracy, and also to the villagers who held hereditary rights to the use of lands on which the Diggers squatted. (There is a film, called Winstanley, about the movement.)
RANTERS: Ranters, like Seekers, were not an organized group but a loose movement. These were the most hated individuals, who defied all conventions. They preached that “to the pure all things are pure,” that sin exists only in the imagination. To Ranters, all acts–including adultery and theft–were permitted if done in a spirit of holiness. This group was threatening to all of society, and was known for joining and disrupting other dissident groups, including the Society of Friends.
In the early years, Quakers continually had to distinguish and distance themselves from these other groups, especially from the Ranters and the Levellers.
There were many early leaders of Friends–there was not one dominant leader. In the 1650s, George Fox and James Nayler were the most prominent leaders of the Society. Others included Margaret Fell, Francis Howgil, Thomas Alden, Margaret Killiam, Richard Farnsworth, William Dewsberry, Richard Hubberthorn, and Edward Burrough. All of these, and others, wrote literature published in the name of the Society of Friends. However, after the years of persecution and mass imprisonments of Friends, most of these leaders were dead by 1665. Fox and Fell survived. Fox wrote the histories, and became known as the leaders of the Quaker movement.
Fox’s father was a weaver. His parents were Puritan, but he had relatives who were members of at least four other dissident religious groups, including a Baptist uncle. From an early age, George Fox was concerned with fundamental religious questions, such as the reason for the existence of sin, and ethical questions, such as the importance of strict honesty. He began to preach publicly at age 23, in 1647. A remarkable theme of his preaching, especially for a person who was later considered to be the founder of a religion, was that he did not urge or others to follow his words but to submit themselves to the living “Word,” the divine Spirit, already at work within them. Fox, like the Seekers, preached that established religious practices were unimportant–even harmful–and could be disregarded–a very radical idea.
The Core Friends’ Belief As Articulated by 1650’s Quaker Leaders
- The divine Christ-Spirit, or Inner Light, will enlighten every person directly if they trust in it.
That basic belief led to a form of religion that since then has sometimes been defined more by what we do not have and do not believe in, then by what we believe. Friends have
- No formal creed
- No sacramental rituals
- No trained or paid ministers
Many have asked–with so little structure, how can this be a religion?
Friends have survived for 350 years now. The Religious Society of Friends still continues as it began, as a spiritual fellowship based on shared religious experience and ideals.
By the late 1640’s, Friends were a movement, calling themselves at first “The Friends of Truth,” and later “The Religious Society of Friends.” Early Friends were disruptive, known for interrupting church services and arguing with ministers. According to Fox’s journal, the name “Quaker” was first given by Justice Bennet of Derby in 1650 after Friends being tried in his courtroom told him he should tremble, or quake, before God. The judge told the court bailiff to “remove these quakers from my Court,” and that is said to be the first use of the term Quaker.
One of the unusual characteristics of early Friends was that many women joined the movement, preached, were recognized as ministers and had their writings published in the name of the Society of Friends.
Friends’ theology was threatening not only to the established Church of England but also to other Protestant groups. Some of their dangerous ideas and practices included the following:
- Seeming to minimize the importance of the historic Christ (although Friends denied this).
- Believing and preaching that Spirit, inward divine inspiration, is above scriptures.
- Rejection of the concept of the Trinity as speculation.
- Allowing women to preach in public (and even, as Fox mentions in his journal, recognizing that women have souls).
These heretical (though biblical) ideas led to what we would now call civil disobedience. Friends often were arrested, fined and jailed for
- Refusing to pay tithes, which are taxes specifically designated to go to the state church.
- Refusing to take oaths on the basis that, as Jesus commanded, there is only one standard of truth, which should be maintained at all times.
- Refusing to remove one’s hat before officials. This was called “refusing hat honor.”
- Expressing the testimony of equality by addressing everyone with the familiar–and singular–“thee” or “thou” rather than the formal “you.” This caused considerable offense, particularly to powerful people, who often retaliated.
Quakers also became notorious for eccentric and sometimes bizarre behavior.
Early Friends’ prayer meetings were sometimes chaotic, with people singing, shouting and weeping. Occasionally there was frightening or “indecent” behavior, such as walking through the streets naked as a sign.
These beliefs and behaviors led to official and unofficial persecutions. Jailing, loss of property, and loss of employment were very common. Around 1650, Margaret Fell, whom many see as the key organizer of the Society, organized Meetings for Sufferings to assist Friends suffering under persecution. These Meetings for Sufferings were Friends’ first step towards any type of formal organization. Not long afterwards, the first Monthly Meetings began to meet with the following purposes:
- To help impoverished Friends.
- To relieve sufferings caused by adherence to Friends’ testimonies.
- To discipline what were called “disorderly walkers”–Friends behaving in ways inconsistent with Friends’ testimonies, and especially
- To suppress Ranter tendencies and any other behavior which might attract persecution.
Monthly meetings were self-governing.
In 1653, Fox sent out a letter to Monthly Meetings advising them on good order in Business Meetings. He advised them to
- Keep records of sufferings (persecution)
- Discourage idleness, and
- Aid Friends in financial trouble.
Fox’s “Advices” were not seen as orders. Meetings could, and did, disagree with and not follow the Advices after sincere and prayful discernment.
In 1655–56, James Nayler and George Fox were recognized as the two leading Friends. A crisis occurred when Nayler rode into Bristol on a donkey, with a group of followers on foot, singing praises, in a reenactment of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. Here is a description of the event from London Yearly Meeting’s official history:
In 1655, Nayler came south to help in work in London, where he became ensnared by flatterers, who behaved themselves in an extravagant fashion, bowing, kneeling and singing before him. On going to Bristol he was persuaded by Friends there to see Fox, then in Launceston jail, but on the way he was taken and imprisoned at Exeter. He was freed in October 1656, and a few days later entered Bristol on horseback with his followers around him. They spread garments before him and sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Israel.” The authorities interfered and sent him to London, where Parliament after long debated sentenced him to imprisonment after being whipped and pilloried in London and Bristol, and branded for a blasphemer, and having his tongue bored through.
After six weeks of Parliamentary debate, Nayler avoided the death penalty but was sentenced to be, and was, whipped, pilloried, branded, had his tongue bored through with a hot iron rod, and then was imprisoned. When Nayler was released from prison, he repented his behavior and returned to the Society of Friends. (For a fuller and more sympathetic account of Nayler’s action, see “The Power of Suffering Love: James Nayler and Robert Rich”.)
This “False Messiah” episode had disastrous effects. It brought Friends into the British national spotlight in a very negative way, attracting new levels of persecution. The incident also graphically showed the danger to the group that could be caused by the flamboyant behavior of a few individuals. Referring to the Nayler incident, Alexander Parker wrote to George Fox in 1660 that, “Better had it been if all had been kept still and quiet in those times, for the forwardness and want of wisdom in some is one great cause of our present sufferings.” This experience helped bring about the establishment of increased structure and a new pressure for conformity within the Society of Friends. It also led to acceptance of a key concept that is still important to Friends: that is, the idea that individuals’ “leadings” to perform specific actions should be submitted to group discernment.
In 1656, Fox sent a series of letters to all the Monthly Meetings. In these letters, he
- Asked for the reconciliation of Nayler’s followers with other Friends,
- Emphasized the importance of divine inspiration being received during the group Meeting for Worship, and
- Advised that more experienced Friends should monitor and control the actions of others.
In 1658, when Oliver Cromwell died, the coalition between Parliament and the Puritans collapsed. The monarchy was restored under King Charles II, who ruled from 1658 to 1685. The Anglican Church, or Church of England, was restored as the official national church. Oliver Cromwell’s body was dug up and decapitated. His head was publicly displayed. The persecution of Quakers and other nonconformists intensified. Even so, some historians estimate that in 1660, half the people in England were religious dissenters, neither Anglican nor Puritan.
The Fifth Monarchy Uprising took place in January 1661. This was a failed attempt to remove King Charles II and re-establish government by Parliament. King Charles was able to suppress the rebellion. He remained in power until his death in 1685. In the aftermath of the Fifth Monarchy Uprising, thousands of Friends were imprisoned as suspected collaborators. By March 1661, 5000 Friends were in prison in England.
In response to this mass imprisonment, Richard Hubberthorne, George Fox, and 10 other prominent Friends first declared the “Peace Testimony,” which includes these words:
All Bloody principles and practices, we as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatever. And this is our testimony to the whole world.
It is interesting that at least two of the signers, Howgil and Hubberthorne, had been publicly advocating the use of force in 1559, just two years earlier. (And it should be noted that the “Peace Testimony” specifically refers to only the Quakers themselves — “as to our own particulars” — and not to the conduct of the state.) The declaration, along with denial of the Quaker involvement by the leaders of the rebellion, resulted in an end to the mass imprisonments.
Many Quakers had been in the New Model Army under Cromwell. Fewer, but probably some, Friends participated in the 5th Monarchy Uprising. It’s worth considering–if this wave of persecutions had not occurred, would Friends have published the Peace Testimony?
Between 1661 and 1665 the ideas of prominent Friend John Perrot again raised concerns about individualistic behavior and “religious anarchy.” Perrot objected to the practices of removing the hat when speaking in worship and of shaking hands at the close of worship. To him, these represented a type of ritual and so were contrary to the Friends’ fundamental ideas of worship. Fox, and others, saw Perrot’s refusal to remove his hat while speaking in worship as a denial of the power of God. They denounced Perrot as a “disorderly walker,” like James Nayler had been. Perrot also proposed that there should be no set times for worship, but that Friends should meet irregularly, as moved by the Spirit. In this, one can see echoes of the anarchic Ranter tendencies. Even after Perrot left England as a missionary to Barbados in 1662 (where he died in 1665), discussion of his ideas continued, causing dissension within the Society. In 1666, a group of eleven prominent Friends (not including Fox, who was in jail) sent a letter to all the Monthly Meetings in which he declared that each Monthly Meeting has the authority to discern the validity of individuals’ leadings. This letter marked the start of the idea that individual leadings are subordinate to the sense of the Meeting as a whole, which became a key part of Friends’ practice. In other words, the discernment voice of God as expressed in the gathered Meeting community is believed to be more reliable then the discernment of the voice of God by any one person.
George Fox, released from jail shortly after this letter was published, traveled throughout the English Meetings, encouraging increasing structure and greater coordination among Meetings. Quarterly and Yearly Meetings were first established for the first time.
It was not until the passage of the Religious Toleration Act in 1689, during the reign of King William and Queen Mary, that Quakers were able to worship openly and legally in England. By that time, the basic structures and beliefs of the Society of Friends, shaped by the persecutions of the preceding decades, were well established.
Some Additional Points of Interest
Early Quakers were highly evangelical. Believing that they had received the gospel of Truth, they were eager to spread it worldwide. Quakerism spread rapidly throughout Britain to Northern Europe and the Americas.
Other outreach efforts, while often imaginative and sometimes dangerous, were less successful. Margaret Fell wrote two letters to the Jews of Amsterdam, which were translated by Spinoza. The Amsterdam Jewish community apparently was not convinced, since no response was received. Quaker missionaries also traveled to Istanbul, Barbados and other remote places to spread their conviction that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”
The first Quaker minister to visit America was Elizabeth Harris in 1655.
American Puritans did not like Quakers, or women preachers, any more than English Puritans did. Four Friends, including Mary Dyer, were hanged in Boston in the three years between 1659 and 1661. Many were banished from New England after accusations of heresy. George Fox visited America from 1671 to 1673. In 1672, he visited Easton Meeting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Some Highlights of Quaker History in America
Native American Rights: In America, Friends became known for purchasing land fairly from Native Americans and for maintaining peaceful relations with them. The best-known example was William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania.
Abolitionism: Friends were active in the movement for the abolition of slavery. 1688–First Minute of Advice against slave trading was published by Germantown, Pennsylvania, Monthly Meeting.
The Society of Friends in this country as a whole became abolitionist activists mainly through the work of one Friend, John Woolman (1720-72). His work illustrates the power in Quaker process of the individual concern.
In 1777, slave owning became grounds for disownment (which means expulsion) from Baltimore Yearly Meeting.
By 1784–the Society of Friends was united in refusing membership to slave owners.
Women’s Suffrage: The movement to gain voting rights for women was largely led by Quakers, most prominently Lucretia Mott.
Post-War Relief: Quaker Relief to Europe following World War I was initiated under Herbert Hoover, the only Quaker president. Hoover supported post-war assistance but did not support assistance to economically devastated people in the Depression which followed.
(N.B.: President Richard Nixon’s mother was in the Friends Church, but he was never a member.)
Pacifism: Since Abolition and Women’s Suffrage, Quakers have been most visible in this country as pacifists. Friends have refused to participate in and actively resisted all wars from the Revolutionary War of the 1770’s to the Middle East War known as Desert Storm in the 1990’s, to the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Note: many individual Friends have chosen to serve in the military, but never with the approval of their Meetings.)
Many humanitarian movements have also been Quaker led.
Mental Health: Friend Joseph Tuke established the first mental hospital in the USA, in New York in 1796.
Prison Reform Work: Friends’ affinity for prison reform originated in the terrible experiences of Quakers in English prisons, and the deaths of many Friends in those prisons. Prison work was led by Elizabeth Fry and others. This remains an area of activism for Friends today.
Capital Punishment: Friends are active in opposition to the death penalty.
Local service: In Baltimore, The Quaker Pratt family established both the Enoch Pratt library system, which became the foundation of Baltimore’s public library system, and the Sheppard Pratt Mental Hospital.