The Religious Society of Friends, a more formal name for Quakers, arose in the middle of the Seventeenth Century during the turbulent events of the English Revolution in which Parliament ruled England under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, following the execution of King Charles I in 1649. This was a time of dramatic innovation in society, in government and in religion. Quakers originated in the rural outskirts of northern England among people who were seeking a more immediate religious experience than was offered by the official Church of England. Their religious search advanced quickly when an itenerant lay minister named George Fox began a public ministry in 1647. By 1653, Quaker lay ministers were crisscrossing England and bringing the Quaker message to London and to the British colonies in America. By 1660, there were an estimated 60,000 Quakers in England, and this rapid growth was one factor that led the British ruling class to restore the monarchy under King Charles II in 1660 and to enact harsh laws to suppress the Quaker movement. These laws led to the imprisonment of thousands of Quakers and to the death of over 500 under deplorable conditions in British prisons. Four Quakers were also executed in Boston, Massachussetts. Quakers were arrested for a variety of offenses: for offering public prayer, for refusing to swear judicial oaths, and refusing to pay tithes to the Church of England.
What was unusual about Quakers that led to their persecution in England? They insisted that salvation is a personal matter directed by Christ Jesus, and does not depend upon rituals performed by the Church or by religious leaders. Consequently, Quakers refused to pay tithes to the Church of England. They also refused to swear judicial oaths, based on Matthew 5:34 (“I say unto you, swear not at all”). From the beginning, Quakers emphasized the equality of men and women in church affairs and the right of women to preach. This led to significant discord with other Christian fellowships in which only men were allowed to speak. And perhaps most ominously for their relation with the British government, Quakers emphasized that Jesus had taught peace and repudiated warfare, whereas most governments are deeply invested in waging war against other nations.
The intense persecution of Friends in England lasted 29 years, a full generation, ending in 1689 with the Act of Toleration. By this time, the Society of Friends behaved with a great deal of moderation, which in many ways characterizes Quakers to this day. Despite the prolonged persecution, King Charles II made a personal gift to Quakers by granting the future state of Pennsylvania to a Quaker leader, William Penn, in 1680. Under the leadership of William Penn, Quakers exercised an enormous influence in the American colonies and did much to shape the character of American society into the Twenty-First Century. One example of this influence is the complete freedom of religion initiated in 1701 by William Penn in his colony of Pennsylvania and later enshrined in the American Constitution in the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791. Penn’s innovations were honored by the Liberty Bell, which was commissioned by Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751.
Even by 1688, a group of Quakers and Mennonites in Philadelphia were calling into question the institution of slavery. This opposition to slavery spread among Quakers and by 1750, Quakers in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey had renounced slavery (although some Quaker slave owners simply renounced Quakerism and became Episcopalians). Individual Quakers played key roles in the spread of abolitionism prior to the Civil War and also provided education to freed slaves following the Civil War. Similarly, Quakers played a role in decreasing tensions with American Indian tribes and providing education on Indian reservations. During the late Nineteenth Century, various Quakers played key roles in winning for women the right to vote, a goal that was not achieved nationally until 1920. In the aftermath of WWI, Quakers operated relief agencies to feed the desperate and hungry people of Germany. For this the American Friends Service Committee received the Nobel Peace Prize. During the balance of the 20th Century, Quakers have supported movements to promote civil rights and to curtail the growth of militarism. Now in the 21st Century, Quakers are involved in resisting the growth of prisons and achieving more humane treatment of prisoners, among other worthwhile endeavors.
Read more: the early history of our meeting