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Meeting Quakers: An Overview of a Non-conformist Spiritual Movement

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Podcast, Quakerism | 0 comments

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Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, originated in the mid-17th century in England during a period of religious and political turmoil. The emergence can be seen as a reaction to the established Church and its practices, which many believed had strayed far from the teachings of Christ. 

Our movement’s founder, George Fox, had a series of religious experiences in which he felt a direct communion with God, leading him to believe that each individual could have a personal relationship with the divine without the need for intermediaries such as clergy.

Fox and his early followers preached this belief, emphasizing the “Inner Light” or the “Inward Light of Christ” present in every person. This Inner Light was considered a direct and personal connection to God, guiding and informing one’s beliefs and actions. It was this fundamental concept that set the Quakers apart from other religious groups who believed (conveniently to their benefit) that you needed a priest to interact with God on your behalf.

The term “Quaker” was originally used derisively to describe the members of this movement because of their practice of “quaking” during religious fervor. 

Despite its origins as a term of ridicule, it was soon adopted by the group themselves and is now used colloquially alongside our official name, the Religious Society of Friends.

From the beginning, Quakerism was a radical departure from the norm. Early Quakers were pacifists, refusing to support or participate in wars. They rejected established church hierarchy, rituals, and sacraments, including the practices of baptism and the Eucharist. Quakers truly believed that such nonsense only furthered the interests of the church, and was wholly unnecessary to your relationship with God.

Instead, Quaker worship consisted of meetings where any individual, moved by the Inner Light, could speak or offer prayer. Quakers received what today’s modern spiritual movement would call “divine downloads” — words, messages, and leadings from God — and share them aloud with the meeting. 

At a time where women could not speak during mainstream religious gatherings, women were seen as spiritual equals who also possessed God’s divinity, and many women found a comforting home among Quakers. This emphasis on equality and the divine in all led to progressive stances in the future on many social issues. For example, Quakers were among the first to advocate for the abolition of slavery and promote women’s rights.

The Quaker movement spread rapidly throughout England and then to other parts of the British Isles. By the 1660s, persecution had begun, as their refusal to pay tithes, swear oaths, or participate in military service put them at odds with both religious and secular authorities. Despite this, the movement grew, and Quakerism had found its way across the pond to the American colonies.

Quakerism in Colonial America

In Colonial America, Quakers faced religious intolerance and persecution from the Puritans who would punish Quakers with floggings, banishment, and even execution. The Colony of Massachusetts was particularly hostile, and the Puritan authorities enacted an outright ban on Quakers. One woman, Mary Dyer, was executed in 1660 for defying the law and entering the colony.

While Mary’s story is a tragic one — and one we will cover in the future — she became a martyr and her death had a direct impact on the laws regarding Quakers in Colonial America.

In the year following Mary’s execution, King Charles II sent a letter to the authorities in Massachusetts.

King Charles II’s letter, known as the “King’s Missive,” urged the Massachusetts authorities to cease their persecution of the Quakers. Specifically, the King instructed the colony to send any offenders to England for trial rather than punishing them in Massachusetts. This would have essentially taken the matter out of colonial hands, placing it under English jurisdiction where the Quakers would likely face a less hostile environment.

The Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania

William Penn was born and raised Anglican in a privileged family to Admiral Sir William Penn.

William Penn attended Christ Church, Oxford. During his time at Oxford, the university was a hotspot for religious debates and fervor. The English Civil War had created an atmosphere where various religious groups and ideas, many dissenting from the Anglican establishment, flourished.

It was during his time at Oxford that Penn first encountered Quakerism and other Nonconformist groups. However, his early attraction to non-Anglican religious views led to conflicts with the university authorities, and he was eventually expelled for his non-conformity.

After leaving Oxford, Penn traveled to Ireland to manage some family estates. It was here, in 1667, that he had a transformative experience. He attended a Quaker meeting in Cork and heard a sermon by Thomas Loe, a Quaker preacher. Loe’s sermon deeply moved Penn, and this meeting is often pointed to as the pivotal moment of Penn’s full conversion to Quakerism.

His father, Sir William Penn, was owed a great debt by the Crown for services rendered during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, but the Crown was unable to pay. Sir William died before the debt could be paid.

After inheriting his father’s claims against the crown, Penn proposed the establishment of a colony in America where Quakers and others could practice their religion without fear of persecution. This vision was realized when he received the charter for Pennsylvania in 1681.

Eventually, many Quakers from both England and the colonies settled in Pennsylvania when the English Quaker William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682.

The governance and principles of Pennsylvania were based on Quaker beliefs, emphasising religious freedom, fair treatment of women, tolerance and collaboration with Native Americans, and a democratic system.

Quakers during the American Revolution

The American Revolution was a time of great trouble for Quakers. While there are many differences among Quaker sects (a topic for the future), one value holds true amongst all: pacifism. Quakers are non-violent, and passionately anti-war.

We believe that there is That of God in everyone, and as such, violence is reprehensible because all acts of violence are an act against God. Who are we to act against God?

But this core tenet came into direct conflict with the emerging Revolutionary spirit. As hostilities escalated, Quakers found themselves in a moral quandary: while many agreed with the colonists’ grievances against British rule, they could not condone or participate in violent rebellion. Many Quakers chose a position of neutrality, refusing to aid either the British or the American sides. This stance, however, was often misinterpreted as tacit support for the British.

The American Revolution posed profound challenges to the Quaker community. Their commitment to peace and nonviolence was tested in an environment where such principles were often met with hostility or suspicion.

Revolutionary authorities often perceived their neutrality as a lack of patriotic fervor or even as loyalist tendencies. In various colonies, Quakers faced punitive measures, including fines, confiscation of property, and imprisonment. Their meetinghouses were at times occupied by troops, and their pleas for understanding and tolerance were frequently ignored.

While they generally abstained from participating in the war, many Quakers were actively involved in humanitarian efforts, such as providing relief to war victims or assisting in reconciliation efforts. It was not uncommon for Quakers to care for the wounded or to offer mediation between conflicting parties.

Some Quakers, particularly the younger generation, did find themselves drawn to the revolutionary cause, believing that the creation of a new and just society aligned with Quaker principles. These individuals, often referred to as “Free Quakers” or “Fighting Quakers,” faced disownment from their meetings due to their participation in the war.

While their position often led to suffering and persecution during the war, it also underscored the depth of their convictions.

After the Revolution, the Quakers’ influence in the political realm, especially in places like Pennsylvania where they held significant power, began to wane. Their decision to abstain from violence and the emerging political order led many to withdraw from public life. Nevertheless, Quakers continued to play a vital role in shaping American society, particularly in championing causes like the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prison reform.

In the decades following the Revolution, Quakers were heavily involved in social reform movements in both Britain and America. Their commitment to social justice led them to establish schools, hospitals, and institutions for social welfare. They played pivotal roles in the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and prison reform, among others. 

Quakers in the 19th Century

The 19th century was a time of great upheaval for Quakers due to something called the Hicksite-Orthodox split.

The Hicksite-Orthodox split was one of the most significant schisms in Quaker history. Occurring in the early 19th century, this division was both theological and sociopolitical in nature, reflecting broader currents of change in American society and within the Quaker community itself.

At the heart of the schism were differing interpretations of Quaker doctrine. Elias Hicks, a prominent Quaker minister from New York, emphasized the Inner Light, or the direct, individual experience of God, over the authority of the Scriptures. He believed in a personal, intuitive understanding of God’s will, as opposed to strict adherence to biblical text or traditional Quaker disciplines. This contrasted with the Orthodox faction, which held a more evangelical view, emphasising the authority of the Bible and the traditional teachings of early Quakers.

The early 19th century was a time of significant change in America, with the Second Great Awakening sparking a religious revival and an emphasis on evangelical Protestantism. The Orthodox Quakers were influenced by this movement. Additionally, urbanization and the market revolution altered traditional Quaker ways of life, leading to tensions between more urban, market-oriented Quakers and those adhering to traditional agrarian lifestyles.

While Quakers, in general, opposed slavery, the manner and fervor of that opposition varied. Hicksites tended to be more radical abolitionists, advocating for immediate emancipation and often supporting the Underground Railroad. Many Orthodox Quakers also opposed slavery but were more conservative in their approach, emphasizing moral suasion over direct action.

The tensions came to a head in 1827 during the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the central gathering for Quakers in America. The disagreements were so profound that they led to a complete rupture, with each faction claiming to be the true upholders of Quaker doctrine. The two groups separated into the Hicksite and Orthodox branches which are still present today.

The Many Sects of Quakers

Today, the Quaker movement is diverse with various branches, including evangelical, conservative, and liberal groups.

In Quakerism, conservative does not mean politically conservative, but rather aiming to conserve the original practices and values of early Quakerism. In contrast, liberal Quakers are much more free-form. Liberal Quakers find value in evolving Quaker practices and values.

Conservative Quakers are often Orthodox Quakers who emphasise in the word of the Bible and the teachings of early Quakers, while Liberal Quakers are often Hicksite Quakers who emphasise one’s direct connection to the divine.

While the term Conservative Quaker does not necessarily mean every member of the Meeting is politically conservative, nor every member of a Liberal Meeting is politically liberal, there does tend to be much overlap here in America with Conservative Quakers leaning more towards the conservative politics, and Liberal Quakers leaning more towards liberal politics.

At Sūvata we are considered a fringe Quaker church. We believe in the teachings of early Quakers, yet strongly emphasise one’s inner light. We could hardly be classified as Conservative Quakers, yet we don’t identify with the Liberal Quakers meetings either.

Furthermore, we are apolitical. We believe if everyone cultivated a deep connection with their Inner Light, it would go a long way towards solving much of the world’s problems. We strive to see the divinity in everyone, regardless of what political stances they hold, and whether or not we personally agree with them.

Despite differences in theology and practice among the various branches of Quakerism, the core belief in the Inner Light and the values of peace, simplicity, truth, and equality remain central to Quaker identity.

Quakerism, with its unique approach to spirituality and its unwavering commitment to social justice, has left an indelible mark on the history of religion and social reform. From its beginnings in 17th-century England to its global presence today, the Religious Society of Friends continues to influence and inspire those who seek a direct, personal connection with the divine and a life lived as a force for good.


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