The Religious Society of Friends arose in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, a time of turbulence and change in both religion and politics. In the established Church of England, great emphasis was placed upon outward ceremony, the authority of the Bible and the acceptance of a formal creed. Many individuals, however, became 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. As a child, he was serious and thoughtful, often pondering the Scriptures and engaging in solitary reflection. At age nineteen 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 others, none could give rest to his troubled soul. Finally, Fox wrote,
…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, Oh! 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 a simple message: 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 continuing revelation; and second, that this same possibility is available to every person. From the very beginning, the distinctive Quaker beliefs and practices on ministry and worship came from an attempt to provide a setting to experience firsthand the Inward Light of Christ.
Fox’s message, combined with his charismatic personality, soon attracted a group of women and men who joined him in spreading the “good news” that “Christ had 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 Children of Light or Friends of the Light, as his followers called themselves, or Quakers, as they were called in scorn by others. Also in 1652, George Fox and Margaret Fell, with the tacit support of her husband, Judge Thomas Fell, turned Swarthmoor Hall, the Fells’ home, into the headquarters for the infant Religious Society of Friends. Although the movement began as early as 1647, 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 the Inward Light, direct communion and continuing revelation and became Friends, there were others, committed either to the established Church of England or to dissenting movements other than the Friends, who regarded his message as unwelcome, heretical and perhaps treasonable. It was unwelcome, since Fox and some of his followers often invaded and disrupted the services of the Church of England. 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 Fox’s message 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 or to pay tithes to support the established state church.
Accordingly, the meetings of Quakers were frequently disrupted by angry mobs, their meeting houses were vandalized and burned, and they were themselves subjected to imprisonment, fines and cruel treatment by officials of the state. Such persecution continued sporadically until 1689 and the so-called Glorious Revolution, when a Toleration Act was adopted that temporarily sanctioned freedom of worship for Trinitarian Protestants. (Some restrictions on rights continued, however, into the 19th century.) Yet, like the early Christian church, the Quaker movement gained more adherents despite—or because of—the persecution. While a vital and influential movement at the time, modern Quaker historians estimate that Quakers constituted less than ten percent of the British population by the end of the seventeenth century.
This combination of persecution and expansion yielded several important consequences. 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 or use the formal “you” in deference to persons in authority, 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 the threat of persecution, and thus became known 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 as a condition of membership, early Friends were more than willing to engage in public debate and expound their basic beliefs. Thus began the publication of numerous books and tracts intended to explain and justify Quaker principles. Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity (published first in Latin in 1676 and then in English in 1678) was so theologically sophisticated and comprehensive that it became the standard account of Quaker beliefs until the middle of the 19th century. Both Margaret Fell and George Fox asserted women’s right to preach, publish tracts, hold separate meetings and travel in the ministry, all controversial ideas at that time.
Third, early Friends realized that their movement required institutional structure to provide material assistance and spiritual support for those being persecuted and to nurture and discipline the individual and group life of its adherents. The system of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings was initiated at Fox’s urging to unify practice among Quakers. If Friends were to take a particular position on oaths or on the slave trade, for example, the ultimate policy was done at the yearly meeting level and thereafter it was the position of all Quakers within the yearly meeting. This system, involving both hierarchical and collective aspects, has given stability and continuity to our Religious Society. Separate men’s and women’s meetings for business were established. While the primary purpose of the women’s meetings was to care for the poor and interview couples before marriage (along with the men’s meetings), in the process women developed and exercised administrative and decision-making skills in public forums. In English common law, and in general practice, women were not granted any voice other than that of their husband.
Prior to 1660, Friends were not only engaged in sharing their “good news” with others in England, Scotland and Ireland; they also successfully spread their faith by creating meetings on the continent of Europe, and in North America and the West Indies.
Friends first came to America as early as 1656, and arrived at two different points along the Atlantic seaboard at virtually the same time. In Massachusetts, the Quaker missionaries were imprisoned, tortured and expelled. Four of them were put to death between 1659 and 1661, including Mary Dyer from Rhode Island, whose statue is near the entrance to Friends Center at 1501 Cherry Street in Philadelphia. In the more tolerant Rhode Island, however, they (along with Baptists and other dissidents) were not only permitted to proselytize but also to settle and govern for a time. Elizabeth Harris came to what is now Maryland in 1656-57, resulting in the formation of a number of active meetings near Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. George Fox visited this area twice.
Further north, Quakers settled in 1675 near the present city of Burlington, New Jersey. In 1681, William Penn (1644-1718) arrived in the land west of the Delaware River, which Charles II had granted to Penn in payment for a sizable debt to the estate of Penn’s father and which the King named “Pennsylvania” in honor of Admiral Penn. William Penn intended Pennsylvania to be a “holy experiment”—an enlightened proprietorship based on New Testament principles and liberty of conscience where people did the will of God. Though Penn’s political practice was not always consistent with his theory, the underlying principles of this Friend’s utopian vision are as pertinent as ever: participatory decision making, religious liberty, justice as fair dealing with one’s neighbors, opposition to war and the abolition of oaths.