Quakers are today almost the only survivors from the many religious groups that sprang up in the political, religious, social and scientific ferment of seventeenth-century England.
By 1642, many of those who could read had available to them the King James translation of the Bible into English, and were no longer solely dependent upon what the clergy chose to expound to them in their sermons. The civil war involved many of the yeoman farmers and craftsmen, whether at home or in the actual fighting. It was a time of new ideas, one in which many of the old certainties were being questioned.
That Quakers not only survived but flourished is partly, perhaps largely attributable to the practical wisdom of the young man whose spiritual experiences and insights launched the movement. His name was George Fox. Born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire in 1624, the son of a weaver, by the age of nineteen he entered a troubled period in which he found no spiritual help. Leaving home, he wandered from place to place for several years, fruitlessly consulting both priests and non-conformist ministers. But having reached a point of near despair, he had a vivid spiritual experience which laid a firm foundation for a personal faith that was not mainly based on Biblical authority or upon the teachings of those who had not experienced that of which they spoke.
Fox became a charismatic preacher, convinced that there was a need for a return to an original and pure form of Christianity, based on the teachings of Jesus. A foundation of his teaching was that “there was that of God in every person”. This was a revolutionary attack on all discrimination by social class, wealth, race and gender and it had worrying implications for the social structure of his time. The political establishment did not take this lying down. Quaker refusal to take oaths, to pay church tithes, to take off their hats before a magistrate, and their insistence on holding banned religious meetings in public led to 6,000 Quakers being imprisoned between 1662 and 1670.
The term ‘Quaker’ is said to have arisen from a taunt by a justice in Derby ‘who’, wrote Fox, ‘was the first that called us Quakers, because I bid them tremble at the word of the Lord’.
Fox’s aim was to inspire people to hear and obey the voice of God and become a community “renewed up again in God’s image” by living the principles of their faith. Fox believed that everyone should try to encounter God directly and to experience the Kingdom of Heaven as a present, living reality. He objected to the hierarchical structure and the rituals of the churches of his time, and rejected the idea that the Bible was always right. But Fox went even further. He argued that God himself did not want churches. Churches were either unnecessary to get to God, or an obstruction (Fox often referred to churches unkindly as “steeple-houses”). Since believers should have a direct relationship with God, no one (priests, for example) and nothing (like sacraments) should come in between. Not surprisingly, these views infuriated the mainstream churches, and Quakers were persecuted in Britain on a large scale until 1689.
In 1666, on his release from imprisonment in Scarborough Castle, Fox realised the danger of the Quaker movement collapsing. The years of persecution, combined with the difficulties local meetings faced in maintaining internal self-discipline, had placed a heavy burden on it. During the next two years, he travelled the length and breadth of England, organising a systematic structure for the movement that was strong yet resilient, which has survived to the present day.
Text taken from “The British Quakers 1647 – 1997″ by Alastair Heron, published by Curlew Productions, Scotland, 1997.