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Early Quaker History

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This article deals with the period 1647 - 1658. After 1658 Quakerism became established outside the British Isles, so that it can no longer be confined to a single narrative and description.


The Quakers started among small groups of Protestant separatists, many of radical tendencies, in the north and midlands of England. It was one among several spiritual and socio-political movements that sprung up in the English Civil War period, their members sometimes moving from one sect to another.[1][2] The members of these groups (some known as Seekers) were predominantly from an agricultural background, mostly of the "middling sort", able to read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Opposition to the oppressive tithe system was often a common bond. Many of the preachers among them had been in the New Model Army. Such groups may already have reached a Quaker or near-Quaker position before any travelling preachers reached them.[3]

The main contemporary account of the process by which these groups were unified into a strong proselytising movement comes from the Journal of George Fox, dictated years after the events (1664 the earliest version), and this, for lack of any other, is the standard narrative, though there have been suggestions that others, including Elizabeth Hooton, Richard Farnworth and particularly James Nayler were equally significant in the beginning.[4][5][6] Fox, however, became central, and was probably so from early on, because of his charisma and the sheer diligence of his travels. From 1647, when he finalised his religious outlook, he was moving around, preaching, and doubtless developing links in the East Midlands, many parts of Yorkshire and, in 1652, in Lancashire, where the Seeker groups were larger than elsewhere. The convincement of Margaret Fell, wife of Judge Fell, gave the movement a base in her home, Swarthmore (or Swarthmoor) Hall. There followed a year and more during which the leaders consolidated and developed the movement in the northern counties.


The Quakers did not distinguish between the religious and the socio-political in their beliefs. The main religious aspects, whether or not they were the starting point, were the belief in a direct access to God (variously called the Seed, the Inward Light, and other names), and the consequent mode of worship, waiting upon God. The account of the direct relationship with God could be carried so far that it would be considered blasphemous. Early on Fox called himself the son of God, and other leaders were almost as rash. Nayler's case is mentioned later, but by the time of his downfall other Quakers had modified their language. It was claimed that those who were in the Light could not sin.[7] The belief in direct knowledge of God was consistent with anti-clericalism, and this in turn was consistent with the refusal to pay tithes.

The distinctive revolutionary aspect of Quaker belief was the stress on equality. In a very hierarchical society egalitarianism was dangerous. Quakers did not use titles, kept their hats on before their "superiors", and addressed individuals as "thou" or "thee", terms normally used for social inferiors or intimate equals. The relative equality given to women and the support for women preachers often caused scandal and derision. Another characteristic, the refusal to take oaths, could be used to condemn them when other legal accusations were refuted.

At this time Quakers were not pacifists. The New Model Army had bred Quaker leaders, and many Quakers once convinced stayed in it. If they left, it was because they saw the Army as no longer going the way they wanted, or because they were thrown out. George Monck in Scotland and Henry Cromwell in Ireland both purged their armies of Quakers.[8] Some Quaker pamphlets actually incited a Protestant war.

In these early years, Quakers held two types of meetings: what they called "threshing" meetings, at which they tried to bring over those not yet convinced (these could be noisy affairs), and the silent meetings, for those who were convinced, at which there was still preaching according to the inspiration of the ministers. Both types might give rise to "quaking". George Fox said that it was Justice (Gervase) Bennet of Derby "that first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God",[9] but Robert Barclay later said that the name came from the trembling which resulted from the conflict between the power of God and the power of evil in an assembled meeting.[10]

The spread of the movement

In 1654 there was a concerted movement to send out travelling ministers, usually in pairs, from the north of England to the rest of the country and later throughout the British Isles. The success was alarming to many. They had soon established Quaker meetings in every county in England, though there were greater concentrations in the north-west, London, and the area around Bristol.[11] By 1654 there were Quaker meetings in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, though in the two latter the greatest success seems to have been in the English garrisons.[12] The first Quaker meeting in Ireland was set up in 1654 at Lurgan by William Edmundson, who, while on a visit to England, had been convinced by James Nayler. Between 1655 and 1660 over 60 Quaker ministers visited Ireland, but apart from Thomas Loe and Edmundson (who lived there), their visits were normally single brief tours.[13]

As before, some of the work may not have been new conversions through preaching, but linking with existing groups. Wherever they went, the travelling ministers enquired after like-minded people. But preaching there was, in various settings: in the open air, at arranged meetings, in churches after the sermon, or even interrupting the sermon. There were also disputations with clergy, impromptu or arranged. The preaching itself was probably "incantory" in style, heavily repetitive and rhythmic. It could inspire quaking, falling down, and crying out.[14]

The Quakers also made much use of publications, mostly pamphlets. They tried never to let any attack on them go unanswered, and also produced works setting out their own position and attacking others. Although they implicitly downplayed the significance of the Bible, their writings showed extensive knowledge of it.[15]


Although Cromwell's Protectorate pursued an official policy of toleration of Quakers and other Protestant groups, the reception which the travelling ministers received varied according to local prejudices, mainly those of the gentry and clergy, and also the preachers' own aggressiveness. There were laws which could be used by the local justices, but sometimes they simply did not bother with the law; and sometimes those in authority (for instance, the mayors) would act on their own or stir up the mob, which may not have needed much stirring. Some areas exhibited an antagonism to the Quakers which probably resulted from xenophobia, ignorance, clerical propaganda, or fear of political extremism. In 1655 Cromwell issued a proclamation forbidding the interruption of church ministers during the service; but his critics saw this as giving an implicit permission to speak in church once the service was over.[16]


There was at this stage no formal organisation. Occasional general meetings were called for travelling ministers and other leading Friends. At Swarthmoor Hall, Margaret Fell received and sent out many letters, helping the leaders to keep in touch with one another and with what was going on. As London became a Quaker centre, so it also became a base.

James Nayler's disgrace and the consequences

James Nayler was considered by many to be the chief Quaker.[17] He was an effective speaker and the most formidable pamphleteer.[18] He inspired great devotion among many of his followers, and in 1656 other Quaker leaders were afraid that he was coming too much under the influence of a small undisciplined group of his adherents. Travelling to visit Fox who was in Launceston gaol, he was imprisoned at Exeter, where Fox eventually came to see him and attempted to dominate him.[19] On release from Exeter, in October 1656 he allowed himself to be led into Bristol on a horse, with seven disciples singing "Holy, holy, holy. Hosanna" and spreading their cloaks before the horse. Bristol was not a good place to do this, especially as the authorities had been forewarned.[20] Nayler and his followers were imprisoned. Parliament took an interest and sent for Nayler to try him. They found him guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to branding, the pillory and imprisonment. Although Cromwell asked the parliament by what authority they did this, he also felt obliged to limit toleration and agree to a new Vagrancy Act, which gave justices powers to whip home people found wandering from parish to parish. These powers were liberally exercised in some places.[21]

Continuing growth

Despite the new, inconsistent persecution, the movement continued to grow in the British Isles, and was not brought to a standstill in England until the systematic repression under the Cavalier Parliament. There was considerable emigration of Quakers from north and west England to Dublin, where many shared in the growing prosperity of that city.[22] In addition to the work at home, English Quakers felt impelled to send missions to the Netherlands, where meetings were established, other parts of Europe, Barbados and the American plantations.[23]

Quaker history is continued in the articles on

History of Quakers in Britain and Ireland

History of Quakers in the Americas


  1. Reay, B. The Quakers and the English Revolution. Temple Smith. 1985. pp 9-18
  2. Moore, R. The Light in their Consciences: the early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666. Pennsylvania State University. 2000. pp 6-12
  3. Reay pp 9-20
  4. Reay pp 8-9
  5. Moore pp 6-7
  6. Hoare, R. Balby Beginnings. Balby Monthly/Sessions of York. 2002
  7. Moore, ch 6
  8. Cole, A. The Quakers and the English Revolution in Aston, T, ed. Crisis in Europe 1560-1660. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1965
  9. Nickalls, J, ed. The Journal of George Fox. Cambridge University Press. 1952
  10. Barclay, R. An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. 1675
  11. Reay p 29
  12. Braithwaite, W C. The Beginnings of Quakerism. 2nd ed revised by H J Cadbury. Cambridge University Press. 1970. ch 10
  13. Carroll, K. William Edmundson: Ireland's first Quaker. Journal of the Friends Historical Society vol 60 no 1. 2003
  14. Bauman, R. Let Your Words Be Few: symbolism of speaking and silence among seventeenth-century Quakers. Cambridge University Press. 1985
  15. Moore ch 5
  16. Reay chs 3 & 4
  17. Hill, C. The Experience of Defeat. Faber & Faber. 1938. p 138
  18. Moore p 23
  19. Bittle, G. James Nayler: the Quaker indicted by Parliament. William Sessions. 1986
  20. Neelon, D. James Nayler: revolutionary to prophet. Leadings Press. 2009
  21. Reay pp 55-57
  22. Gillespie, R. Seventeenth Century Ireland. Gill & Macmillan. 2006. p.245
  23. Braithwaite, chs 14 & 16