The Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers) was founded in 1652 by the English religious leader George Fox. The Friends were considered early on as a radical organization by the government and other religious organizations, resulting in the persecution, imprisonment, and death of many of their members. Despite the persecution they suffered, Quaker membership in Britain grew as the years passed and even expanded into North America. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during this time period.
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George Fox, the man who founded the Religious Society of Friends, was born in 1624 in the village of Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire. He was the son of the churchwarden and relatively prosperous weaver, Christopher Fox, by his wife Mary. His parents were known in the village as pious and upright Puritans. They made sure that George could read and write, but was not able to send him to England’s prestigious universities. Young George worked as a cobbler and raised livestock under the supervision of a man called George Gee.
George attended church at a young age. He became very religious, but what made him different from other children his age was his ability to detect the inconsistencies between what the churchgoers did on Sundays and what they did during the weekdays. He began to read and study the Bible earnestly. His work as a caretaker of livestock often gave him time to be alone and indulge in introspection.
George became disenchanted with the superficial piety shown by some Puritans as he grew older. At the age of 19 and in the midst of the English Civil War, he decided to leave his village and do some soul-searching. He traveled all over England and talked to clergymen of various sects along the way. The hypocrisy he witnessed among the clerics and churchgoers only led to his disillusionment with the organized religion. He also witnessed the brutalities of the English Civil War–leading him to adopt pacifism later on. But this wandering and seeking soon took its toll on his mind and body.
He finally had a spiritual breakthrough in 1647. He had been completely disillusioned with the ministers he interacted with because what they sometimes taught were not even biblical. He realized that he could be guided instead by God’s “Divine Spirit,” and that spiritual revelations would come as long as he continued to open his heart to Christ. He began preaching in marketplaces, fairs, jails, courts, and churches, and it was not long before he gained his first converts. In the next five years, George Fox continued his journey and his preaching. He sometimes ran afoul of local churches when he started disrupting their services. As a result, the authorities had him arrested and jailed.
The Establishment of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers
The Religious Society of Friends was formally established in spring of 1652. George Fox had been visiting Lancashire and Westmorland and decided one day to visit Pendle Hill (famous among the locals as a witches’ haunt). He then had a vision of “the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.” He continued to preach and gain converts, especially among the Protestant group called the Seekers. As his followers increased, he became less introspective and more charismatic.
The first Quakers were known by different names. “Children of Light,” “The Camp of the Lord,” “Primitive Christianity Revived,” “Publishers of Truth,” and “Friends of Jesus” were some of the names the members called their group. Later on, they came to be known simply as “Friends” based on Jesus’s teaching in John 15:14. The pejorative label “Quaker” originated from George Fox’s confrontation with a Derby judge. During a hearing, Fox admonished the judge by quoting Isaiah 66:2 (“he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word”). The judge responded by saying, “You are the quaker, not I!”
George Fox believed in the doctrine of the “Inner Light” in which he believed that there is “that of God in every man.” The Friends believed that God’s wisdom is easily accessible to man. Man can communicate to God by re-establishing the link between him and God through Jesus Christ. Their belief in the “Inner Light” was often misunderstood by outsiders and often led to their arrest.
The beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends were radical for their time. Fox did not believe that only men who went to England’s premier universities made good ministers. They did not swear oaths, citing James 5:12 as the basis for their beliefs. Quaker weddings were solemn and simple affairs with no officiating minister. The Friends rejected the idea of tithes and did not believe in the usual corporate worship. Quakers worshiped in silence most of the time and spoke only when led by the Holy Spirit.
The Friends got into trouble with the authorities when they began disrupting church services and country fairs by proclaiming condemnation on the attendees. Fox also adopted the belief in pacifism and rejected a chance to serve in Cromwell’s army after he was released from jail. He was thrown in jail after this rejection.
The Religious Society of Friends gained more converts after Fox sent the “Valiant Sixty” to preach all over England, Scotland, and Ireland (they were, however, made up of almost 70 men and women). Despite their growth in numbers, they were not spared from persecution in an intolerant England. Thousands of Friends were imprisoned during its first 40 years. Hundreds of Friends suffered tongue borings (accomplished with the use of a hot iron), whippings, and brandings. Some, however, died in squalid English jails before they could be freed.
The Friends were given a reprieve when King Charles II freed 700 Quakers in 1660. But their relief was short-lived. In 1664, the Parliament issued the Conventicle Act which made the assembly of five or more people illegal if it did not conform to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Many Quakers chose to hold their meetings in secret, while others brought food to disguise their assembly. Those who were caught were imprisoned, but the persecution did not stop the Quakers. Two years before Fox’s death in 1691, the Friends finally were able to breathe a sigh of relief when the Parliament passed the Act of Toleration.
What made the Friends different was the group’s belief that women could and should occupy a prominent role in the church and in society. The Friends allowed women to be ministers and heads of charitable activities. Consistent with Fox’s belief that there is “that of God in every man,” they also included men and women from all races and all segments of society. Apart from North America, the Friends soon gained converts in Germany and the Low Countries.
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Bacon, Margaret Hope. The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1985.
Holder, Charles Frederick. The Quakers in Great Britain and America: The Religious and Political History of the Society of Friends from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. The Neuner Company, 1913.
Douglas J.D. and Petty, P.W. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
“350 years of a unique witness: Quaker timeline | Christian History Magazine.” Christian History Institute. Accessed December 22, 2017. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/350-years-of-a-unique-witness-quaker-timeline.
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