The Quakers

Quakerism developed from the ministry of George Fox (1624-91), who experienced a religious conversion during the mid-1640s which convinced him that all earthly authority (church or state) was corrupt; God's message came to individuals directly through the Inner Light of their personal inspiration.

As an itinerant preacher during the late 1640s, Fox gathered small groups of followers in the Midlands and north of England. Originally, Fox's followers called themselves Children of the Light, and later Friends of the Truth. Eventually, the preferred term became the Religious Society of Friends, or more simply Friends. The term Quaker, by which they were popularly known, was coined by Judge Bennett at Fox's trial for blasphemy in 1650 in mockery of his exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord".

Fox's central teaching that Christ is fully and immediately present in all believers, and that the Inner Light is a surer spiritual guide than priests or scripture, led to a rejection of church hierarchy and of all religious ceremony. Clergymen who preached for money were regarded as corrupt; dedicated church buildings were dismissed as vain "steeplehouses". Early Quakers refused to pay tithes and became notorious for disrupting church services and shouting down preachers. Women were encouraged to preach at Quaker meetings. As outward signs of separation from the rest of society, Quakers refused to take public oaths, to doff their hats to people in authority or to address gentlemen using deferential forms of speech. They would fall into trances and ecstasies, sometimes going naked as they roamed the land encouraging enthusiasm in others. Although Oliver Cromwell personally respected the sincerity and piety of the Quaker leaders, their more extreme activities tested the religious toleration of the Cromwellian régime to its limits. Conservatives regarded the movement as extremely disruptive and dangerous and Quaker evangelists were often brutally persecuted.

The movement established itself in northern England during the early 1650s. An important early convert was Margaret Fell (1614-1702), wife of the magistrate Thomas Fell of Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverstone in Lancashire (now part of Cumbria). Although Thomas Fell was not converted, he used his position as a judge to protect Quakers from prosecution. Margaret Fell became a leading organiser of the Society of Friends; she eventually married Fox after the death of her husband.

Fox and the inner circle of leading Quakers recognised the potential of the printing press and took steps to ensure that Quaker publications were consistent in promulgating their practices and beliefs. The first group of Quaker activists and missionaries became known as the "Valiant Sixty". They first came south around 1654, travelling in pairs to cover most of the country, with the strongest teams going to the main cities. Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough carried the message to London, John Camm and John Audland went to Bristol, Richard Hubberthorne and Christopher Atkinson went to Norwich. The movement spread rapidly throughout the British Isles, then to Holland, Germany and North America. Quaker influence among the soldiers of the New Model Army was regarded as a threat to discipline. General Monck in Scotland and Henry Cromwell in Ireland both took steps to dismiss Quaker converts from the ranks.

As the movement became more organised, controversies began to emerge. Quakers were frequently associated with Ranters; the "Proud Quakers" of Nottingham led by Rhys Jones rejected Fox's authority. In December 1656, James Nayler, one of the Valiant Sixty, was convicted of blasphemy by the House of Commons and savagely punished. After Nayler's humiliation, George Fox worked to discourage association with radicals and subversives. When a number of Quakers were arrested as potential subversives after the Restoration of Charles II, Fox issued the Peace Testimony, committing the movement to pacifism and non-violence under all circumstances. The Society of Friends became one of the few sects of the Commonwealth era to survive into the modern world.

“...All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world. That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight any war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world...” From the Quaker Peace Testimony 1660


Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)

Rosemary Anne Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain (Penn State Press, 2000)

English Dissenters: Quakers


Quaker links Street Corner Society

The Valiant Sixty