The Early Quakers

The Quakers came into existence during the uproar when England fought a civil war, deleted a king, founded a start-up republic, and then rebooted the king (a new one, not the one they’d deleted). And whenever people found some down time, they argued about religion. 

And you thought we were living through interesting times.

Let’s start the tale with George Fox. He was the son of a weaver and came from Fenny Drayton. I mention the first fact because it places him in a relentlessly hierarchical society (he wasn’t anybody grand) and the second because I can’t help myself. It’s as absurdly English a place name as you’ll find anywhere. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An old-fashioned kind of hydrangea. If I have my British snobberies right (which is far from a sure thing), they’re the classier kind, and the fuller ones for the people like me who don’t know any better.

He left home at  nineteen to seek the truth.

About what? When people talk about seeking the truth, they’re pretty much always talking about religion. And religion, remember, was what everyone talked about anyway. Politics was religion. Everything was religion. Where’d you lose your mittens? I didn’t lose them. They went where god willed them to go. What’s for supper? Even that would circle back to religion. 

Fox listened to preachers–the country was well stocked with preachers–and inevitably he began to preach himself. I never thought of the Quakers as a preaching-type group, but it was a Quaker website using the verb, so we’ll let them set the tone: He preached, and he did it to increasingly large crowds. 

What he told them was that god’s light was in everyone. Or since he’d surely have used a capital letter, so let’s use his presumed style: God’s light. Follow that thought to its logical end–and he did–and you’ll end up attacking the social structure of the day, which held that God had made some people a whole lot better than other people, and that this was natural and good and necessary. 

Not only did everyone have that inner light, he preached that they had to follow it, even when it diverged from the Bible. 

In 1650, he was jailed for blasphemy. The early Quakers spent a lot of time in jail. I won’t list many of their arrests, but keep in mind that this was a risky set of beliefs to live by.

In 1652, Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox) heard him preach and was convinced, and she quickly became central to the movement, coordinating the communications of its far-flung preachers and offering the safety of her house and the protection that her husband, who was a judge, could sometimes provide. She was one of the few founders who was from the gentry and she was the first to put the movement on record as being against violence. 

It was also in 1652 that Fox gained another key follower, James Naylor (or Nayler–it wasn’t possible to spell a word wrong back then). He was a more difficult personality than Fell and we can have more fun with him, so he’s going to get more space. Sorry. 

Naylor had served in the Parliamentary army. This was before the Quakers dedicated themself to nonviolence, and some branches of the army had Quakers hanging from every bough.  He was charismatic and a good debater, and he attracted a personal following that made other Quakers uneasy. 

He and Fox clashed. Meetings were disrupted. In an attempt to make peace, Fox offered Naylor his hand to kiss. Naylor told Fox to kiss his feet instead.

Yes, they believed all men were equal–and by men, of course, they meant both men and women. Yes, they meant what they said. No, it’s not easy to step outside the biases and assumptions of your time and place, or even to see them.

In 1656, Naylor and some followers re-enacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in Bristol. The scene included a couple of women walking beside Naylor’s horse and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

Whatever they intended to get across, the authorities decided that Naylor’d presented himself as Christ, and it couldn’t have been too hard a case to make. At some point–earlier, later, during; I have no idea–he called himself the Sun of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace, the only Begotten, the fairest of ten thousand.

Not to mention the soul of modesty. 

His followers said he was the anointed king of Israel. No one thought to phone Israel to either check on that or tell them the news.

He was brought to London to be tried. We’re still in the middle of the Protectorate here–that period between the deletion of one king and the reboot of the next–and the Protectorate was all for freedom of religion, but only up to a point. You had to be Christian to take advantage of it. And you couldn’t be a Catholic kind of Christian. Or a licentious kind. 

Naylor was whipped, branded, imprisoned, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. 

After he was released, he and Fox made a reluctant sort of peace, with Naylor kneeling to Fox and asking his forgiveness.

Like I said, it’s not easy to step outside your time and place.

But enough about Naylor. Let’s go back to the Quakers as a movement.

By 1660, some estimates put their numbers in England at 50,000. By way of comparison there were about 35,000 Catholics. Eleven of their sixty key people–called the Valiant Sixty–were women. Women preached. Women spoke at meetings. Quakers promoted education for both girls and boys. If everyone had a spark of god in them, then everyone was spiritually equal.

And in case that wasn’t radical enough, they refused to use the titles that were so important to a hierarchical society, so no sirs, no madams, no lordships. They–and this would’ve applied only to the men–wouldn’t take their hats off to their social superiors. They addressed everyone by the informal thou, and people back then knew their thou from their you, so they knew when to consider themselves insulted. These days, if you address someone as thou and all you’ll get is a blank look. 

After the kingly reboot, the Church of England was back in power and in a position to demand tithes. Quakers refused to pay them. 

They wouldn’t take oaths. Not oaths as in curse words but as in I swear to tell the truth and all that stuff. They told the truth all the time, they said. But the culture took oaths seriously, and if you refused the swear one in court it was easy to convict you of pretty much anything. If you wouldn’t swear to tell the truth, who could believe you?

In short, they were principled, upright, and a pain in the ass to a society that took the symbolic stuff as seriously as the practical. They stuck quietly, consistently, and relentlessly to their beliefs.

In 1662, the Quaker Act made it illegal to refuse to take an oath of loyalty. It also outlawed meetings of five or more Quakers. In 1663, a hundred Quakers were arrested in a single day. 

It was 1689 before the Toleration Act allowed them to meet legally. And at that point we’ll leave them. Their later history is better known, from their implacable opposition to slavery to their long opposition to war. 


I’ve drawn on a number of books for this post, as well as the websites I’ve linked to, but the longest and most interesting section I found is in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, which gives James Naylor a good chunk of text.

76 thoughts on “The Early Quakers

    • Can I amend that? If you know you tell the truth and really want to rattle people, don’t take oaths.

      The British have a habit of inserting “if I’m honest” into sentences from time to time. It really threw me at first. Aren’t you? I’d wonder. But Americans insert “to tell you the truth,” or something along those lines, which to me was just noise, or punctuation–I didn’t hear the content until I heard the British version. Odd how we habitually undermine our credibility in such an un-Quakerlike way.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have a lot of time for Quakers. They have a very calm and inclusive way of coming to decisions in meetings, which other bodies could benefit from trying. They’ve also done a lot of good socially, particularly the Fry and Cadbury families.

    You didn’t mention how violent they were to start with, though. When they broke up meetings, they weren’t gentle about it. Pacifism came later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m fascinated with how certain times produce that, as if someone dropped something in the water. Before and during the Civil War, the country was positively teeming with sects, preachers, and revelations. That makes is a fascinating period. One writer commented that during the Protectorate the Quakers picked up a number of people who’d been Levellers (and possibly Diggers). The Quakers were less activist, and in a period when the more radical political avenues had been closed off, their more quietist approach was still possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m missing a piece on exactly how this happened, but a number of them became businesspeople and made a lot of money. What I did find about it mentioned a tendency of closed communities–and they were at that point–to do business with each other and for some of them to do well out of it. How accurate that is I couldn’t say, so I left it out. But I think the transition started there–and it’s possible that it’s appropriation but it’s also possible that it’s a transition from within. I don’t know enough to say–and if you do, I don’t want to cut you off. It’s an interesting thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I committed a journalistic no no in talking off the top of my head without reference to , er, references. I joined to a Quaker meeting in Australia when I was young and I was jovially greeted with “We’ve never met a poor Quaker before”. I had no idea there were a privileged group. One of the elders filled me in with the history (he had fled Germany before the war) and was rather passionate about the class appropriation. Multiple cultural perspectives sometimes throw up insights which don’t otherwise occur. As you say, I also found it interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think what happened was that the Test Acts made it virtually impossible for non-Anglicans to go to university and enter professions. Going back to the Middle Ages, pre-Quakers, the same thing happened with guilds – if you weren’t from the established religion, you couldn’t join. So people went into business instead – a lot of the best-known names in UK business were founded by hard-working Jews, Quakers and Methodists.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting post. As a person who hails from the “Quaker State” (Pennsylvania), I’ve always found the history of this religion interesting. As a child, learning that one of the reasons our country was founded was to let people escape religious persecution and then learning that our state’s founder was persecuted for his religion was confusing, to say the least. It still makes me shake my head.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Um, it’s a way to make a living? Clearly a good one.

      In all seriousness, I’m not clear on when and how a number of the Quakers went into business and did well, but if you browse through the comments you’ll find a discussion of religious groups that weren’t allowed into the guilds and other institutions having to go into business outside the existing structures. Some of them did well. The Quakers were one of those groups.


  4. As someone raised in the Society of Friends, this was a welcome diversion. Sadly, I spend too many hours every day wallowing in online proof that our so-called leaders have failed us once again. I always enjoy your descriptions of life in the U.K. during the pandemic, but feel the need to remind you that we (i.e., the U.S.) still have the greatest, most intelligent, stable genius to ever lead a country down the drain. 🤢😢

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a beautifully paced last sentence and made me laugh out loud–something I’m always grateful for. I just read his incoherent statement on Joe Biden being against god and guns and power–our kind of power. I can’t imagine what he’d be like if he weren’t stable.

      When the Quakers come up in discussion over here–as they don’t often, but it does happen–the thing people are most likely to say is, “I’ve got a lot of time for the Quakers.” It always strikes me as a particularly warm way to express approval.

      Stay well. It’s crazy out there.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Quakers, someone quipped, are for peace. Except among themselves…

    John Woolman is my favorite historical Quaker. (His journal was published in 1774.) He made himself a pain in the a– at Quaker meetings around the American colonies shaming Quakers who were slaveowners. That some Quakers owned slaves is something a lot of modern Quakers don”t like to hear. Woolman was a true radical & reformer. The Abolitionist movement starts with him.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Quakers are fascinating. Their influence on history, their principles. I didn’t know about the Valiant Sixty and love that designation, especially knowing women were among the 60. My first memory of learning about modern Quakers had to with Richard Nixon, who was one– or so he said.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If Richard Nixon didn’t ruin their reputation, they’re made of iron. Although I seem to remember hearing that in modern times there are Quakers and then there are Quakers, and he came from what I’d think of as a much less Quakerish strand. But that’s pure hearsay.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Joan Baez is also a Quaker. Nixon was a Quaker because his mother was–he just inherited the religion, but didn’t live out the ideals. in fact, Nixon was thrown out of the Quakers. Incidentally the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) won the Nobel Prize in 1947 for their stand against Hitler and for rescuing and assisting Nazi victims.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “Quakers, shakers, troublemakers !” is a phrase I remember reading in one of my grade school books long ago. That’s the only thing I could possibly add to this, and it isn’t much except that I think it was an authentic quote from the time in early America. I have the impression that the Quakers and the Shakers are not the same or even Shakers an offshoot of the Quakers. Their founder was Mother Ann Lee. Thus is exhausted my knowledge. Thank you for adding to it !

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right–the Shakers were a very different (and I think much later, and American) sect. Interesting groups that didn’t believe in having sex but did take in orphaned children and raise them–as far as I know, with love.


  9. Very interesting post, Ellen. My experience with Quakers came when they held a workshop at the Unitarian Church. They handed out some clay for everyone to create something. I sculpted a rose for my elderly mother. I was devastated when I couldn’t give it to her. It was explained that the clay was reused for every workshop with some sort of spiritual-related significance. I am not in the habit of creating things in order to destroy them…whatever the spiritual significance! have a great weekend! Cheryl

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Once more, a fascinating blog leads to more fascinating knowledge in the comments. I hadn’t thought about Quakers for a while, though there are some pretty strong congregations in the area. I was curious about Quaker Oats and looked it up. Apparently the Quakers had a reputation for quality and honesty, so two mill owners in the 1870’s decided to name their breakfast cereal company Quaker and use a guy in “Quaker garb” as the logo. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The goniffs! I had no idea. It did–on a level somewhere below articulate thought–strike me as unlikely that Quakers would present the world with such a stereotypical (and outdated) Quaker, but I didn’t really question it. Talk about irony.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. The business best known for its Quaker associations is – wait for it- chocolate, or rather the involvement of the Fry and Cadbury famliies. Wholesomely non-alcoholic, you see (though I don’t know whether they considered it might be addictive in a different way).

    And one of the early Quakers whose memory eventually became adopted by the established religion, and other nonconformist Protestants, was John Bunyan, through his “Pilgrim’s Progress” (skating over the unfortunate fact of his imprisonment), which stayed popular and well-known until modern times (as the hero deals with pitfalls like Castle Doubting, the Slough of Despond and – sounds familiar? – Vanity Fair). His “Pilgrim’s Hymn” is still frequently sung.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pilgrim’s Progress sounded so heavy-handedly wholesome that in 73 years of sharing a planet with I have no idea how many copies of the thing I’ve managed never to read it. Or even attempt it. In fact, I’m in the habit of confusing John Bunyan with Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe.

      And there go my credentials as an English major.

      Liked by 1 person

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