The beginnings of Quakerism
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. Many individuals became dissatisfied with the established Church of England, particularly its emphasis on outward ceremony, the authority of the Church and the acceptance of a formal creed.
One of these seekers was George Fox, who, as a young man, searched without success for a priest or preacher who could satisfy his spiritual hunger. In 1647 he wrote, “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.” He began an itinerant ministry, proclaiming from hilltops and in churches and market squares that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” From the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England Fox had a vision of “a great people to be gathered.”
They Called One Another "Friends"
The charismatic preaching of Fox and other members of the “Valiant Sixty,” as the core leaders of this nascent movement were called, attracted thousands of seekers, especially in the north of England. These religious communities found that when they gathered for worship “in spirit and truth,” God’s transforming power would be poured out upon them. They experienced God’s presence, sometimes called the Light, as a power that searched their hearts, broke them open, and left them, in Margaret Fell’s words, “naked and bare before the Lord God, from whom you cannot hide yourselves.”
The experience of worship for the followers of Fox opened them to new truths and gave them power and direction to live faithfully in community, to act, to make changes in themselves and society. Quakers preached that the direct experience of God was available to everyone who chose to submit to it. That universalism distinguished them from many other Protestants, who taught that only some people could be saved. Quakers also witnessed to their experience that God could choose and use anyone as a messenger, including servants, uneducated laborers, and women.
Quaker beliefs and practices were acts of dissent and considered heretical in England and in New England’s Puritan colonies, primarily due to the belief in continuing revelation, which took precedence over the authority of the church and of scriptures. As a result, the meetings of Quakers were frequently disrupted by angry mobs, their meetinghouses were vandalized and burned and they themselves were subjected to imprisonment, fines and cruel treatment by officials of the state. In Massachusetts four Quakers were put to death between 1659 and 1661, including Mary Dyer, whose statue sits near the entrance of Friends Center in Philadelphia.
Penn's Holy Experiment
Friends first came to America as early as 1656. George Fox twice visited the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In 1681 William Penn arrived on land west of the Delaware which King Charles II had granted to Penn in payment for a debt to Penn’s father and which the king named “Pennsylvania” in honor of Admiral Penn. William Penn’s vision for Pennsylvania was a “holy experiment” with underlying principles of participatory decision making, religious liberty, justice as fair dealing with one’s neighbors, opposition to war and the abolition of oaths.
Today there are approximately 88,000 Friends living in North America. While some meetings evolved to include more traditional forms of worship, Chatham Summit Meeting, along with many of the meetings in the northeast, continues the practice of unprogrammed worship. For a brief history of Chatham Summit Meeting, click here. For additional information about Quaker life today, see What Quakers Believe and How They Live Today.
For more information
New York Yearly Meeting's publication Faith and Practice includes a brief historical overview of Quakerism.
Following are some of the published histories of Quakerism that are available to borrow from the meeting's library:
Bacon, Margaret Hope. The Quiet Rebels. (A history of American Friends.)
Hamm, Thomas. The Quakers in America.
Newman, Daisy. A Procession of Friends. (A series of short narratives.)
Punshon, John. Portrait in Grey: A Short History. (A scholarly history.)
Yolen, Jane. Friend: The Story of George Fox and the Quakers. (A very accessible account of the origins and early years of Quakerism.)