Zillah Scott gave a presentation on Quaker Origins recently as part of our 'Quaker Basics' series. This is her written version of the talk:
My first real encounter with Quakerism came through its history. I was an undergraduate studying history, I'd been brought up as an atheist and had never (knowingly!) met a Quaker. I had some stereotypical ideas about what a Quaker was - quiet, rather well-behaved, a bit straight-laced. I knew they didn't wear bonnets and say 'thee' and 'thou' any more, but I knew that they were the people who had done those things. When I came to study the Civil War and Interregnum I was bowled over by the contrast between my image of the Quakers and their radical, proselytising, fervent origins. I have been fascinated by Quaker history ever since. Many Quakers today, and the Society of Friends as a body, have a strong relationship with their historical antecedents. Quaker Faith and Practice is full of writings from Quakers of the last four hundred years, and they are a source of inspiration, contemplation and affection.
English society in the seventeenth century, from which Quakerism emerged, was a mostly rural one - around ninety percent of people lived in the countryside. That rural society was slowly changing, for example, there were developments in the market economy and the spread of enclosures, in ways that were making the poor more vulnerable. They were less able to weather bad harvests or economic crises, leading to more poverty, unemployment and vagrancy. There was also a growing and visible gap between rich and poor; a few people were making a great deal of money out of these changes. Why are these changes important when we are thinking about the birth of a religious group? Most people in the seventeenth century saw religion as bound together with economic, social and political life in a way that we do not today. Many people, such as Gerrard Winstanley, whose primary focus during the years surrounding Civil War is seen as political or economic, joined the Quakers, attracted by their message of equality and bringing their own ideas and influences to the growing church.
English religious observance before the Civil War was dominated by the Church of England. The Established Church, which was the only legal expression of religious life, reflected the social norms of the time. Only a very few held power, women had almost no voice in the church and many areas - especially in the north - were ill-served by inadequate parishes. Yet the tithe system meant that funding the Church was compulsory, even by those who did not wish to be part of it or who felt abandoned by it.
There was opposition to the Established Church. Since Wycliffe translated the Bible into English so that all could read the Gospel for themselves and sent out his Lollard priests to minister to the poor, there had been periodically resurfacing opposition to the monolith of the Established Church, its wealth and privilege. During the seventeenth century many of those who dissented were Puritans, that is, they believed that the basis of the church should be the Bible. They opposed the English style of state church, as the king and parliament could influence what happened in worship. Puritans believed that worship should be only apostolic - things that were not mentioned in the New Testament should be rejected. However, most Puritans believed in a reformed national church; they felt that the state had a duty to ensure that all were ministered to. Many believed that the Church of England could be reformed from within. A good example of this form of dissent was found at Fenny Drayton, birthplace of George Fox, where a Puritan lord of the manor was able to appoint a Puritan minister and try to protect his parishioners from the legal system.
However, some Puritans believed that a true national church was not possible. They felt that a church should be built of individually convinced members in a gathering of believers. These Separatists felt that the national church must be abolished in order for true churches to exist. The most well known Separatist congregation is that which was based at Scrooby and eventually travelled to America in the Mayflower, known today as the Pilgrim Fathers. They would rather face prosecution or emigration than attend their parish church. The Seekers are a more elusive group of dissenters from the Established Church. Existing mainly as isolated individuals, small groups or loose networks which have left little evidence, they believed in the primacy of the spirit within and found it absent in most existing churches, Established or Separatist. These people were to find a natural home in Quaker Meetings. Many were influenced by radical religious ideas from northern Europe and brought those ideas to the nascent church. Although Seekers are the clearest antecedents to the Quaker movement, Separatism and Puritanism also provided many early adherents.
The Civil War, which broke out in England in 1642, cannot be seen as a class war - there were people from all strata of society in both the Royalist and the Parliamentary armies. However, in the Parliamentary armies a gathering of individuals with radical ideas led to a general atmosphere of radicalism - social, economic and religious. Many in the country felt shock and fear at these ideas and believed, in the words of a ballad from the time, that it was 'The World Turned Upside Down'.
Quakerism emerged during the last years of the Civil War and the early part of the Interregnum. I want to tell you about that through the lives of three early Quakers. The first is George Fox, considered by many to be the founder of Quakerism. He was born in 1624 in Fenny Drayton, that Puritan parish in Leicestershire. His father was a weaver. He was an educated man, reasonably wealthy and independent, and a churchwarden in the Puritan parish church. His mother came from a family which had seen martyrdoms for Protestantism during the previous century. Young George Fox was apprenticed to a shoe maker. However, in 1643, at the age of nineteen, he broke off his apprenticeship and began a period of physical and spiritual wandering and searching. Seeking answers to religious questions, he travelled to London, through towns where the Parliamentary army was garrisoned, and returned home, unsatisfied with what he had learnt. After a period of despair he heard a message from God that 'there is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to your condition.' For Fox this was the answer to his spiritual search - he needed no preachers, teachers or ministers, the Spirit within him was all that was necessary.
He began at once to preach in the counties surrounding his home, but with limited success. He did make some important convincements, and even experienced the first of many Quaker schisms, but there was no mass-conversion at this stage. He then travelled north and, in 1652 after a vision on Pendle Hill, he began to preach to, and convince, thousands. This period saw the birth of the Quaker church. Fox saw that whilst his vision of the spirit within was all that was needed for the individual spiritual journey, to be a church which would endure these individuals must be organised into a community, a family of believers. He began to put in place the organisational structures which we still see the echoes of in Quaker Meetings today. Convinced Quakers also began the work of spreading the message across the country, going out in pairs to preach across England and beyond. For Fox evangelism and the creation of settled Meetings were of prime importance, but they also contained the seed of a conflict at the heart of Quakerism, that between the needs of the group and the individual. In the life of James Naylor we encounter the problem of what happens when the message of God heard by one individual puts him in conflict with the needs of the group.
James Naylor was the son of an independent farmer. He fought in the Parliamentary army and was a preacher there. Following a visionary encounter with God whilst ploughing, he left his family and became an itinerant preacher. In 1652 he met George Fox, and recongnised in Fox's message similarities to his own ideas. He became a Quaker, a friend of Fox and a pivotal figure in the early church. He was a charismatic and appealing speaker, and in 1655 went to London to spread the message of Quakerism there. He met with considerable success. At that point, if you had asked a Londoner 'who is the leader of the Quakers?', they would probably have answered 'James Naylor'. However, there began to be serious disputes within the London Meetings, with Naylor's supporters disrupting Meetings. It is from this point that there began to be hostility from George Fox towards James Naylor. Naylor travelled to the west country to visit Fox, who has imprisoned there, but was himself arrested at Exeter. He was then released and was moved to enact a sign. Many early Quakers enacted signs from God. George Fox himself had walked barefoot through the mud into Litchfield crying out to condemn the people there for failing to support the Parliamentary army. Other Quakers gave signs of the Second Coming - going naked, putting burning coals on their heads. Naylor was inspired to re-enact the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. He rode on a donkey into Bristol, accompanied by his supporters. He was arrested at once, tried for blasphemy, convicted, tortured and put into solitary confinement. George Fox and the other Quaker leaders distanced themselves from him. The Parliament was hostile to Quakers and a conviction for blasphemy put the entire early church in serious jeopardy. In 1659 the more sympathetic Rump Parliament set all Quaker prisoners, including Naylor, free. He was reconciled with Fox, but never fully recovered from his ordeals and died a year later.
James Naylor died in 1660, in the same year Charles II was restored to the throne and the hopes of many Quakers that there would be a world-wide movement of Quakerism, beginning with a general conversion of Britain, were dashed. Although Charles II was personally sympathetic to the Quakers, his parliament was not, and series of harsh laws were passed against them. In spite of this, alone of all the radical groupings of the previous twenty years, the Quakers survived. What was it about Quakerism that enabled it to survive the difficult years after the Restoration? First, was the very great depth of spiritual need which was met by the radical religious message of Quakerism. Secondly, the strength of church organisation enabled it to survive. Central to this organisation was Margaret Fell. She was born in 1614, daughter of a wealthy landowner. She was married at seventeen to Thomas Fell, a judge and politician. In 1652 she and her household, apart from Thomas, were convinced by George Fox, and from that moment she put her considerable personal, financial and social resources to the use of the Quaker movement. Although Thomas Fell never became a Quaker, he helped those Quakers who he encountered in the legal system. Margaret Fell was a formidable organiser. For example, from 1653 she established a fund to assist imprisoned Quakers and their families; her home was the center of a postal network keeping Quaker missinaries in touch with the leaders; and she ensured that missionaries who passed through her home went on their way well clothed and shod. However, it was not only as a organiser that Fell served Quakerism. In 1660, whilst she was in prison, she published Women's Speaking Justified in which she argued that women should have an equal role in the church. Her considerable stature within the Quaker movement greatly aided those who were arguing for an active place for women within Quakerism.
With the Toleration Act of 1689 the legal position of the Quakers was considerably eased, and the burden of persecution was for the most part lifted. However, the things which had enabled the movement to survive had transformed it. By the last decades of the seventeenth century the fervour, passion and fire which had characterised the early decades had been replaced by Quietism. For more than half a century the Quakers became a separated sect. The deliberately hedged themselves off; their dress, language, manners and behaviour marking them as a people not of the world. There was a dominance of discipline, the subsummation of the individual to the group. Marriage out of the Society was forbidden and transgression of moral codes could lead to expulsion. The close community, discipline, group loyalty and communication which had enabled the Quaker church to survive persecution meant that it spent decades in relative isolation. From the middle of the eighteenth century Quakerism began to emerge from this separation. The bridges to the world were built by Quaker scientists and engineers, whose professional interests took them into close contact with non-Quaker organisations and individuals; by those campaigning on issues such as the abolition of slavery, who began to work among broad-based campaigning groups; and eventually by the return of an interest in evangelism amongst British Friends.
A few book recommendations.
John Punshon Portrait in Grey. A short history of the Quakers (2006). John Punshon's history is a excellent starting point for those interested in the history of Quakerism. Fascinating, well researched and affectionate.
Pink Dandelion An Introduction to Quakerism (2007). Woodbrook Programme Leader Pink Dandelion's take on Quaker history is a more academically, theoretically focused one than Punshon's. His examination of present day Quakerism in its varying, world-wide manifestations forms the second half of the book.
Christopher Hill The World Turned Upside Down (1991). First published in the 1970s, Christopher Hill's seminal study of radical ideas during the English Revolution is still compelling today. A fascinating view from a non-Quaker historian of the world from which Quakerism emerged.
Christine Trevett Women and Quakerism in the 17th Century (1991). Christine Trevett tells the story of early Quaker women - the appeal of Quakerism, the impact they had upon it, the challenges they faced, their lives and the unique opportunities they had as Quakers.
Rex Ambler Truth of the Heart. An anthology of George Fox (2007). This book came out of Rex Ambler's undertaking to study all the available writings of George Fox. He found strong themes emerging, which are perhaps hard to appreciate from Fox's readily available works. This book presents an annotated selection of Fox's writings, organised by theme, in both Fox's original words and Ambler's sensitive 'translation' into modern English.
Gerald Hewitson Journey into life. Inheriting the story of early Friends (2013). Gerald Hewitson delivered the 2013 Swarthmore Lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting, and this is the pamphlet version. An account of the transformative effect of the writing of early Quakers on Hewitson's life and faith.