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Meet the Quakers

The Treaty of Penn With the Indians by Benjamin West

When people think of Quakers, most probably think of William Penn, Pennsylvania or oats. However, there is a lot more to them than that and they play a prominent role in my family history. Let me tell you a little more about them and then I will explain why I am dedicating an entire post to them.

The Religious Society of Friends, was founded in the mid-17th century. This was a time of tremendous turbulence and change, both in politics and religion. From 1642 to 1651, three separate English Civil Wars would rage throughout the kingdom. In the Church of England, great emphasis was placed upon outward ceremony. Many individuals became increasingly dissatisfied. Either singly or in small groups, they turned inward, searching for a religion of personal experience and direct communion with God. One such person was George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Movement.

George Fox
George Fox

George Fox was born in July 1624 in Drayton-in-the-Clay (now Fenny Drayton), Leicestershire, England, a strongly Puritan village. He was the eldest of four children born to Christopher and Mary Fox. There is no evidence that he had any formal education, but he learned to read and write.

At the age of eleven he became an apprentice to George Gee, a cobbler and farmer. Besides shoe making, young Fox was also responsible for tending sheep and taking the wool to market. The fact that biblical figures such as Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David also tended animals did not escape his notice and reflection.

In the 1640's, he left his home in the English Midlands and traveled around the country on a spiritual quest, going as far south as London. Soldiers were everywhere he went. He consulted various ministers and professing Christians, but none could give him the answers he sought, some suggesting the use of tobacco or bloodletting.

During that time he experienced a revelation that “there is one, even, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition”, and became persuaded that it was viable to have a personal experience of Christ without the help of ordered ministry. His negative attitude toward church customs was matched by a similar attitude toward some political and economic conventions (e.g., oaths, titles, and military service).

The early Quakers did not want to create a new sect or denomination. Instead, they wished to recover the way of life revealed in the New Testament. They carefully avoided calling themselves “a church”, preferring to consider themselves a “society of Friends”.

They took the name “Friends” from John 15:14 in which Jesus told his followers, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

They were also devout pacifists and would not fight in any of England’s wars, nor would they pay their taxes if they believed the proceeds would assist a military venture.

They believed in total equality. Therefore, Quakers would not bow down to nobles. Even the king would not receive the courtesy of a tipped hat. They refused to take oaths, so their allegiance to the Crown was always in question. Of all the Quaker families that came to the New World, over three quarters of the male heads of household had spent time in an English jail for their religious beliefs.

Fox would be imprisoned eight times between 1649 and 1673. In 1650, he was brought before the justices Gervase Bennet and Nathaniel Barton, on a charge of religious heresy. According to Fox, Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because I made them tremble at the word of the Lord”. Therefore, the name Quaker started as a way of mocking Fox’s warning but became generally accepted and used by some Quakers in self-reference.

In 1662, the Quaker Act was passed, making merely being a Quaker a cause for imprisonment.

In 1664 and 1670, the Conventicle Acts were passed that forbade conventicles (religious assemblies of more than five people other than an immediate family) outside the auspices of the Church of England.

In 1668, William Penn, an admiral's son, became a Quaker while in Ireland practicing law. He traveled to London and met and befriended George Fox. Penn would publish a pamphlet, "The Sandy Foundation Shaken", for which he was imprisoned in the Tower of London without a trial. The Bishop of London gave him the option to recant or face death, to which Penn replied that “the prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot.” The Duke of York (a Catholic who later became James II) spoke on his behalf and secured his release.

In 1669 Fox traveled to Ireland. Upon his return, he married Margaret Fell, the widow of Judge Thomas Fell, one of his wealthier supporters. She was ten years older than him and one of his early converts. Seven of her eight children were Quakers as well. Margaret became known as the "mother of Quakerism" and her home, Swarthmoor Hall, as the "Cradle of Quakerism".

Between 1671 and 1673 George Fox traveled to British colonies in the Caribbean and the New World, strengthening and organizing the existing Quaker communities, especially in Maryland and Rhode Island. He made shorter trips to the Netherlands and part of northern Europe in 1677. During that trip, he was accompanied by William Penn and other Quakers. They were well received by Princess Elizabeth Palatine of the Rhine, King Charles II's first cousin.

The Quaker Edward Byllynge bought West Jersey with his agent, John Fenwick, in 1675 from Lord Berkeley. At one point, Penn was called to mediate a dispute between Byllynge and Fenwick. After that, Fenwick sailed with his family and others, founding Salem, New Jersey and naming Penn as a trustee for the colony. Five more ships sailed to New Jersey and the city of Burlington was founded with land purchased from the Native Americans.

Quakerism grew to a substantial number of supporters in England and Wales, and membership rose to a height of 60,000 by 1680. But most Protestants viewed the Quakers as an irreverent challenge to social and political order, commencing formal persecution, like the Acts mentioned before. This oppression helped spur the Quaker migration to America.

However, they would not escape persecution in the New World. The oppression of Quakers in North America by the Puritans started in 1656 when missionaries Mary Fisher and Ann Austin started preaching in Boston. They were deemed heretics and were subsequently jailed and exiled by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

On 1 June 1660, Mary Dyer was killed on the Boston Common for frequently defying a Puritan rule forbidding Quakers from the colony. She was one of the four hung Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. In 1661, Charles II prohibited Massachusetts from killing anyone for practicing Quakerism.

As a point of reference, the Salem witch trials took place between February 1692 and May 1693. More than two hundred people were accused, thirty were found guilty and nineteen were hanged. It seems the intolerance did not stop with their treatment of the Quakers.

In 1681, King Charles II gave William Penn a large land grant in America to pay off a debt of 16,000 pounds owed to his family. Penn wanted to call the land "New Wales" or "Sylvania", but the King named the colony after Penn's father. Thus "Pennsylvania" was founded. Besides achieving his religious goals, Penn had hoped that Pennsylvania would be a profitable venture for himself and his family.

It was not until the Toleration Act of 1689 that gave some relief to the Quakers. George Fox would live only a while longer. He died in London on 13 January 1691 at the age of 66.

William Penn died penniless in England on 30 July 1718 at the age of 73.

The Quakers in the New World became well established and they were able to build flourishing areas in the Delaware Valley, free from oppression that endured in some regions, such as Puritan New England.

It is here that the story turns to my ancestors. In later posts I will introduce you to the Lippincotts, Stokes, Coles and Meads. All of them were Quaker families who came to America and settled in East and West Jersey. Some of the names and events in this post will appear again. The Quaker connection has only just begun.


In the meantime, here are some additional interesting tidbits about Quakers:

They took up the cause of protecting Native Americans’ rights, creating schools and adoption centers. Relations between the two groups were not always friendly, however, as many Quakers insisted upon Native American assimilation into Western culture.

They were also early abolitionists. In 1758, Quakers in Philadelphia were ordered to stop buying and selling slaves. By the 1780's, all Quakers were barred from owning slaves.

Historically, Quakers eschewed the use of various language elements they found objectionable. Among these were the days of the week and months of the year, whose names were derived from Roman and Norse gods. Accordingly, many formal Quaker documents use the term “First Month” for January, and First Day for Sunday, and so on.

Quakers reject elaborate religious ceremonies, do not have official clergy and believe in spiritual equality for men and women.


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