Posted on 4th September 2019
Granted in 1689, Lincoln Meeting House’s Licence for Worship marks the year when it became legal to be a Quaker.
1689 was the year when William and Mary came to the English throne and ushered in a new era of reconciliation for the past 50 years of bitter political and religious divide. To facilitate the royal wish for peace, after much debate, Parliament passed the Toleration Act, “To unite their Majesties Protestant subjects in interest and affection.”
The act allowed most dissenters, though not all, the freedom to worship publicly, provided they took a simplified version of the oath of allegiance. Although dissenters remained under other restrictions, the Toleration Act marked the beginning of a lengthy process towards conceding full civil rights to people outside the Anglican Church.
In the years before the Toleration Act was passed Quakerism was viewed as a a revolutionary attack on the social structures of the time. For Quakers the church system was either unnecessary or an obstruction to have a relationship with the divine. The Quakers were just one of several groups that wanted to worship outside the control of the Anglican Church and the political establishment did not take this lying down.
During the English Commonwealth period (1649 – 1660) the Quakers were held in a deep mistrust. They were often perceived as being aligned with groups such as the Fifth Monarchists or Royalist supporters who sought to end the Commonwealth. During this period there was much talk of plotting and traitors, and despite their claim of refusing to take up arms, the Quakers were never believed.
So, for both religious and political reasons, persecution in England was severe and swift. The 1662 Quaker Act banned Friends from meeting and, when they defied the act, Quakers were jailed frequently during the Society’s first 40 years. On grounds of truth and equality, the Quaker refusal to take oaths and to take off their hats before a magistrate, and their insistence on holding banned religious meetings in public, led to an estimated 15,000 Quakers being imprisoned up until 1689.
The conditions of the jails at the time were horrifying and disgusting, filled with stench and filth. There was no heat in the wintertime, no toilet facilities; sometimes there was no shelter from wind and rain. Prisoners were supposed to pay the jailers for their food, and to endure whatever whippings or other punishment the jailer saw fit to inflict. There was no privacy for women, and lice were a common problem.
However, imprisonment did not deter the Quakers from gathering and openly practicing their faith. If anything the threat of jail only spurred the movement to deepen its faith and grow its numbers. It was this resolve from the Quakers and other dissenting groups that led the authorities to begrudgingly accept that worshiping outside of the Anglican Church should be allowed.
Therefore in 1689 when the Act of Toleration came into force, Quakers up and down the country, were released from prison and began seeking buildings to legally gather in.
Lincoln Meeting House
In Lincoln, Quakers decided to build a new purpose house for their meetings. Before they could begin building, Friends had to apply for a licence to worship. The licence was granted and reads as follows:
At the general quarter sessions of the peace of the Lord King and Lady Queen held in the guildhall of the city of Lincoln on the 11th day of February 1689, before Richard Dawson, Mayor of the city aforementioned.
This day in open court a certificate was delivered and signed by Abraham Morrice, Thomas Toynby, John Harvey and John Barlow Jr. Setting forth that the place they intend to meet together for the exercise of their religion (being with Quakers) and the worship of God is at the new house lately built in Newland near the pot market in the parish of St Martin in the said city and it being requested of the court that the same might be recorded according to an Act of Parliament made in the first year of His Majesty’s Reign. That now therefore it is now ordered by the court that the said certificate shall be recorded in this court and accordingly the same is now recorded and the place of meeting is now permitted and allowed of.
Friends from across the county made an initial contribution of approximately £28 towards the cost and the building was started in September 1689 and continued throughout the winter months. Lincoln Meeting House was officially opened in March 1690, at a total cost of £68 and the first meeting saw the marriage of two local Friends.