The Religious Society of Friends arose in England in the middle of the seventeenth century. This was a time of turbulence and change in both religion and politics. In the established Church of England, great emphasis was placed upon outward ceremony; there, and in such dissenting churches as the Baptists and Presbyterians, religious faith was also generally identified with the authority of the Bible or the acceptance of a formal creed. Many individuals, however, became increasingly dissatisfied with ceremonies and creeds, and broke away from these churches. Singly or in small groups, they turned inward in search of a religion of personal experience and direct communion with God.
George Fox (1624-1691) was one of these seekers. Even as a child, he was serious and thoughtful, often pondering the Scriptures and engaging in solitary reflection. At age nineteen, after being urged to engage in conduct that violated his religious scruples, he decided to leave home in order to seek spiritual direction. For four years, he wandered through the English midlands and as far south as London. Though he consulted various ministers and professors (that is, professing Christians), none could give rest to his troubled soul. Finally, as he recorded in his Journal,
when all my hopes in [Christian ministers and professors] and in all men was gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, O then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy…My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book or writing.
And so, in 1647, at the age of twenty-three, George Fox began to preach.
His basic message was simple enough: first, that his own dramatic and life-changing experience of a direct, unmediated revelation from God confirmed the possibility of a religion of personal experience and direct communion with God, a religion of continuing revelation instead of a closed, written canon; and second, that this same possibility was available to every person. Fox’s message, combined with his charismatic personality, soon attracted a small group of women and men who joined him in spreading the `good news’ that “Christ has come to teach His people himself.” These first “publishers of Truth” believed the good news to be a revival of primitive Christianity, rather than a new gospel. Gradually, Fox and his associates began to enlist others in this revival; and in 1652, Fox persuaded many of the Westmorland Seekers, a numerous and already well-established religious movement, to become Friends (or Friends of the Truth), as his followers called themselves, or Quakers, as they came to be called by others. Also in 1652, with the permission of Judge Fell, Fox and Margaret Fell turned Swarthmoor Hall, the Fells’ home, into the headquarters for the infant Religious Society of Friends.
These two events–the absorption of the Westmorland Seekers into the Quaker movement, and the establishment of a home base–warrant the choice of 1652 as the birth-time of the Religious Society of Friends. While many religious dissenters welcomed Fox’s message of direct communion and continuing revelation, and became Friends, those persons who were committed to the Church of England or to other churches regarded his message as unwelcome, heretical and treasonable. It was unwelcome, since Fox and some of his followers often invaded and disrupted the church services of others. It was heretical, since the idea of continuing revelation displaced the Church and even the Scriptures as the final authority. It was treasonable, since those who embraced this idea also refused to acknowledge the authority of the State (with its established Church) as taking precedence over the authority of individual conscience, and consequently refused to take any Oath of Allegiance to the State and to pay tithes towards the maintenance of the Anglican Church. Accordingly, the meetings of early Quakers were frequently disrupted by angry mobs, their meetinghouses were vandalized and burned, and they themselves were subjected to imprisonment and cruel treatment by officials of the State. Such persecution continued until 1689 and the so-called Glorious Revolution, when a Toleration Act was adopted that gave legal sanction to the principle of religious liberty. (Some restrictions on rights continued, however, into the 19th century.) Yet, like the early Christian church, the Quaker movement gained more adherents despite–or perhaps because of–the persecution. Some historians claim that the Quakers constituted ten percent of the British population by the end of the seventeenth century.
This combination of persecution and expansion yielded several important consequences. First, the Quakers’ sense of themselves as a distinct people with a divine mission became stronger. Their refusal to take oaths under any circumstances, to serve in the army, to take off their hats to persons in authority, to use formal speech (the plural “you” when speaking to one’s so-called betters), and to dress like the “world’s people” all date from this period. Unlike other dissenters, they insisted on holding their meetings publicly in spite of persecution, and thus began earning their reputation for scrupulous honesty. (The fact that Quaker merchants adopted a fixed price system significantly enhanced this reputation.)
Second, though unwilling to formulate any explicit creed or profession of faith, the early Friends were more than willing to engage in religious controversy and to defend their basic beliefs. Thus began the publication of numerous books and tracts intended to explain and justify Quaker principles. Undoubtedly, Robert Barclay’s Apology (first published in Latin in 1676, and then in English in 1678) was the most theologically sophisticated of these books. Both Margaret Fell and George Fox wrote pamphlets defending woman’s right to preach and prophesy, one of the more controversial of basic Quaker beliefs.
Third, the early Friends realized that their movement required at least some kind of institutional structure: to provide material assistance and emotional support for those being persecuted, and also to nurture and discipline the individual and group life of its adherents. Thus was initiated, at Fox’s urging, the bottom-up system of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings. Though this system has often seemed undisciplined to non-Friends, it has given stability and continuity to our Religious Society. Separate men’s and women’s meetings for business were established as another institutional innovation. The latter afforded opportunities for women to exercise administrative and decision-making skills that were not generally available to them in the larger society.
During this initial period of Quakerism, Friends were not only engaged in sharing their `good news’ with others in England. They also went to countries on the continent of Europe and in the near east. Mary Fisher, for instance, was one of six Friends who undertook a mission to Turkey, but was the only one to be received by the Sultan in 1658. Of particular importance were the missions to the British colonies in North America and the West Indies. And under the leadership of William Penn (1644-1718), Quaker colonies were established in West Jersey and Pennsylvania. Friends first came to New England as early as 1656, just four years after the birth-time of their religious society. In Massachusetts, the Quaker missionaries were imprisoned, tortured and expelled; four of them were put to death between 1659 and 1661, including Mary Dyer whose statue is near the entrance of Friends Center at 1515 Cherry St. in Philadelphia. In the more tolerant Rhode Island, however, they were not only permitted to proselytize but also to settle. Meetings for worship were soon formed, and the first regular Yearly Meeting was established there in 1661, though meetings for business were apparently not held until some ten years later.
Quakers began to settle in the Delaware Valley in 1675, following the purchase of land near the present city of Burlington, New (then West) Jersey by two Friends. In 1681, Charles II repaid a sizeable debt to the estate of William Penn’s father by granting to Penn the land to the West of the Delaware River. The King named this land Pennsylvania in honor of Admiral Penn. William Penn intended to establish there a veritable `holy experiment,’ an enlightened proprietorship based on New Testament principles and with liberty of conscience guaranteed.
Unfortunately, Penn’s tenure as proprietor of his colony was frequently marked by conflict, and things only got worse when his sons took over. Perhaps the most lasting vestige of Penn’s `holy experiment’ is a form of creative tension. Penn’s political practice was by no means consistent with his theory, nor was his theory of governance adequately developed. Then as now, the tension between practice and theory, social engagement and mystical illumination, yielded as much heat as light. And yet, the underlying principles of Penn’s vision are as pertinent as ever: participatory decision making, religious liberty, justice as fair dealing with one’s neighbors (the Native Americans, for instance), non-violent resistance rather than military defense, and the abolition of oaths (or unqualified, unquestioning patriotism).