Beginnings of Quakerism

How did Quakers begin?

In the 17th century, England was suffering the ravages of civil war. The struggle was not just for political power. It also had economic and religious causes. Christians attacked each other in violent speeches and writings, and sometimes even came to blows.

At this time many people were looking for a new way of organising how their country was run, based on religious foundations. They looked for their inspiration to the early days of the Christian church. Among these different groups were people who were to become the Quakers.

One of the great religious reformers of the day was George Fox (1624-1691). As a young man, he went around the country trying to find a form of religious belief which made sense to him and to his understanding of the Bible. On his travels, he met many other people who were also searching. For their honesty and their refusal to compromise, Fox and his followers suffered greatly and were often imprisoned.

Women as well as men spread the Quaker message throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and overseas to Ireland, the mainland of Europe and then to America, and in time to parts of Africa.

The message

“… be patterns, be examples in all countries… that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” George Fox

The message preached by George Fox was that how you live your life is more important that ritual and dogma. Quakers relied on guidance of the indwelling spirit within each person rather than on particular interpretations of priests.

Fox felt that people could know God directly anywhere, any time. They didn’t need priests to explain the Bible or beautiful churches to worship in. He came to believe that everyone had an Inner Light through which they could experience guidance from God. This belief in the Inner Light led Fox to refuse to join the army as he felt it would be wrong to kill another person, even an enemy soldier. He believed that everyone should be treated with equal respect. This meant that he would not bow down or take off his hat to important people like judges and religious leaders.

Spread of ideas

Fox spread his message through-out the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North-West of England, where there were groups seeking a way to live more simply and truly. He united may of the scattered groups into what has now become the Religious Society of Friends.

Fox continued to travel for much of his life, spreading his message throughout England and abroad.

Testimonies

Quakers preached a message of truth, equality, peace and simplicity.

Quakers believe that in the eyes of God everyone is equal. Honour was to be given to God alone. Therefore special distinctions and honours could not be recognised.

Quakers believe that you should always tell the truth and be honest in all your dealings. You should try to live life simply, without attachment to unnecessary luxuries or fashions.

Quakers believe that everyone is a potential channel for God’s wisdom. Killing another human being was unjustified on any count. So Quakers oppose all war and outward aggression, including the death penalty. They would not take part in such actions.

At the time, these beliefs were reflected in many ways.

Plain speech

The practice of the time was to use the plural you to address a single person. The singular forms thee and thou were only used when speaking to servants or other inferiors. Quakers used thee and thou when speaking to all. They referred to all people by their names, without titles as titles like Sir, Mister, Madam, your Worship and your Honour also indicated inequality.

Simple dress

Simple dress and plainness in all things were important to help conquer personal pride and also to act as an economic witness to an unjust society.

No ‘hat honour’

Common custom was to keep your hat on indoors and out. It was only removed in church during prayer (as a sign of respect to God) and raised to some men as a mark of respect to their position and power. Quakers refused ‘hat honour’ to men, keeping their hats on in the presence of magistrates, men of title and high officials of the Church and State.

No oaths

Quakers refused to swear oaths, saying it implied you would not always tell the truth.

“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest you fall into condemnation” James Ch 5 v 12.

Swearing on oath was required in courts of law and in order to join certain professions and trades.

Friend or Quaker?

The earliest name used was Children of the Light. This was soon replaced by Friends in Truth, or simply Friends. The word Quaker was originally a nick-name used to describe Friends. There are two accounts of the origin of the word. One, that George Fox, in 1650 bid Justice Bennett tremble at the word of the Lord, so the Justice called him a Quaker. The other story is that the name was given because of the trembling and spiritual stress that sometimes appeared in meetings of Friends.

Nowadays, the words Friend and Quaker are used interchangeably.

Quaker record-keeping

Information on early Quakers is better than for many groups of a similar period. This is for several reasons:

  • The popularity of writing of personal journals as a way of recording a personal journey in search of truth.
  • Careful attention paid to maintaining accurate records of births, marriages, deaths, membership.
  • Applications for marriage recorded the occupation of both parties. Those applying for membership were visited by Friends who would report on the life of the applicant.
  • Minutes of business meetings provide insight into the activities being carried out by local meetings and of money spent and donated.
  • All sufferings experienced by Friends as a result of their religious beliefs were recorded.

This provides a view of changing experiences through time.

“Testimonies” written on the death of many Friends record the work they did in furthering the demonstration of Truth, including the support they provided to the meeting and the work they carried out in their daily lives.

Persecution

The early period of Quakerism (1652 to 1688) is marked by else by the unrelenting persecution suffered by its members. For many years, hundreds and at times thousands of Friends were in prison. They were often detained for life or “at the King’s pleasure”. This was often done without any charge other than for being present at a Quaker meeting. Many were repeatedly imprisoned. Some died in prison.

Quakers’ claim that there was “that of God in every one” was easily misunderstood or distorted and condemned as blasphemy. Acts of Parliament which forbade secret religious meetings were used against them, even though their meetings were never secret.

Refusal to use titles or to obey hat honour; the use of terms of address for all that the wealthy reserved for their servants; refusal to swear oaths; refusal to pay tithes; non-attendance at the parish church all infuriated the establishment and gave ample excuse for imprisonment and heavy fines. When fines remained unpaid, they would be taken “in kind”. Sheep farmers would have their sheep removed; craftsmen would have their tools removed; etc. The value of the goods and money confiscated amounted to tens of thousands of pounds.

Toleration Act and beyond

Acts of Parliament in 1689 and 1696 brought relief from the worst of the persecutions and imprisonments, but tithes and Church dues were still demanded and were still refused by Quakers, so that the levying of fines and confiscation of goods continued.

Tithes

Quakers saw tithes as a yoke of oppression imposed by “hireling priests” that failed to follow God’s word. Tithes were a major source of income for the Church (one tenth of all one produced). On refusing to pay, goods were seized. The value of goods seized was often much greater than the sum owed.

The farming brothers, Michael and John Phillips and William Forster, land-agent and surveyor, always had either livestock or crops or both taken.

Thomas Shillitoe, shoemaker, lost leather soles, and from 1801 plate, pewter and copper were taken. His son, also Thomas, was a chemist with a shop next door-but-one to the Meeting House. He always had cash taken from the till. Friends, who had previously lost goods in kind, first had money taken in 1817.

Women Friends who received demands were either widows or heiresses. Typical household articles taken were plate, silver and glass, copper and pewter, furniture, linen, a hearth rug, a coal scuttle, sugar loves, soap, candles.

Friends did not comply with the tithe demands, but also made no effort to prevent their goods or money being taken. Only when they considered that their position or dignity was being unduly abused did they protest. From 1793 until 1825, the value of items taken from members of Tottenham meeting amounted to £6,858. 10s. 4d.