Posted on 2nd October 2019
1652 is the year most commonly accepted when the Quakers came together as an organised movement.
However, their origins can be said to have begun five years earlier in 1647, during the middle years of the English Civil War Period. It was in 1647 that a scattered flock of Seekers came together, began calling each other ‘Friend’ and named themselves the Children of the Light.
The Children of the Light were led by the 27 year-old George Fox. Fox was the son of a Leicestershire weaver and, living in times of social upheaval and war, he was one of many people who found themselves challenging the chaos of the times. He became a Seeker and formed his small circle of followers. .
As a result of these chaotic times many dissenting groups had sprouted up, mostly for religious and/or political reasons. George Fox and The Children of the Light was one such group and mostly travelled around Northern England to preach their message.
The message they were preaching was that the clergy from the Church of England were unnecessary for a person to have an experience with God, who was everywhere within the people. It followed that if the clergy was unnecessary then so was paying tithes, a tax to the Church.
Such rebellion against the religious establishment saw the trial of George Fox for blasphemy in 1650. Fox is said to have told the judge after the guilty verdict that he should, ‘Tremble at the word of the Lord’. In reply, the judge mockingly called Fox and his followers in court ‘Quakers’.
It is also likely that Friends had been called ‘Quakers’ before this due to their ecstatic shaking when worshiping, but the judge’s name-calling made sure the name stuck.
In 1652, with the bloody civil war over, George Fox and the Children of the Light met with the West Morland Seekers in Cumbria. Here, Fox climbed up Pendle Hill and had a vision where, according to his journal, “The Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.”
A few days later the West Morland Seekers arranged a gathering of over 1,000 Seekers from across the region to come and hear Fox the ‘Quaker’, speak. The place where Fox preached was Firbank Fell in Cumbria and he is said to have spoken for over three hours and as a result many Seekers converted to Quakers.
Early Growth of the Society
Eight years later, By 1660 there were an estimated 60,000 Quakers in Britian, which represented about 0.75% of the population at the time. In contrast many groups such as the Levellers and Diggers had been trodden down to the point where they had trampled out of existence.
One of the reasons the Quakers had expanded so fast was that they harnessed the power of the printing press. In the first three decades of Quakerism, Quaker pamphlets took up around 9% of all known titles published in England at the time. This was no small feat for a group that was less than 1% of the population. Many of these pamphlets have survived and copies are kept at the Library of the Society of Friends.
Quakerism also made the jump across the pond. Mary Fisher and Ann Austin are the first known Quakers to set foot in the New World. They traveled from England to Barbados in 1655 and then went on to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to spread the beliefs of the Friends among the colonists.
In Puritan-run Massachusetts the two women were persecuted, imprisoned, and their books were burned. Due to the intolerance of the Puritans, the Quakers eventually left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and migrated to the more tolerant colony in Rhode Island. The Massachusetts Bay Colony would soon make Quakerism illegal and would go on to hang four Quakers in Boston.
Between 1675 and 1725, an estimated 23,000 Quakers left England and went to America, but for obvious reasons avoided Massachusetts. In 1681, William Penn founded Pennsylvania as his ‘holy experiment’ and advertised it to prospective settlers as being democratic and tolerant of all religions.
A year later, in 1682, 23 ships carrying an estimated 2,000 settlers sailed from England, crossed the Atlantic and went up the Delaware river to join Penn’s colony. Apart from Quakers, Penn’s ‘holy experiment’ became a haven for minority religious sects from Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, and of course Britain.
By the end of the 17th century, the radical roots of Quakerism had taken hold, survived the English Revolution, blossomed in the New World and proved impossible to weed out.
Image from ancestralfindings.com