If you are like me than many of you probably have heard of the Quakers, seen the Quaker oats man and not really known much about them. In this series I will attempt to answer the questions;
1. who were the Quakers,
2. where did they come from
3. where did they go,
4. How did they influence American history?
5. Aren’t the Quakers really just the Amish with a different name?
This story really begins way back in 1517. From roughly 33AD until 1517 the Christian world was governed largely by the Holy Catholic church, later known as the Holy Roman Catholic church, but all of those splits and changes will wait for another time. In 1517 a Catholic friar from Germany changed all of that when he started to openly question the teachings and practices of the church. In those times the bible was written in Latin and was kept from the masses and was the sole dominion of the religious and highly educated. When Martin Luther openly challenged the teachings and practices of the church he opened a flood gate for the Protestant religious movement. The Bible was translated into the vernacular of the various countries and for the first time the common people had access to the word of God. (for more on Martin Luther see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_Reformation, http://www.uhistory.com/pages/h1136.html )
Martin Luther was a catalyst for change and reformation and though there had been earlier attempts at reformation it was largely through his stance that Protestantism was born. Before long Lutheranism took hold in Germany, The Ana-Baptist movement took hold in Switzerland and spread- spawning the Amish, Mennonite and Hutterites (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabaptists ), The seeds of Adventism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventism ), Anglicanism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglicanism ), Baptists (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptists ), Calvanism from which the puritans came, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinism ), The seeds that would become the Methodist church (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodism) and the Pentecostal churches (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentecostalism ) were sown.
It was into this climate that Christopher and Mary Lege Fox, devote Anglicans living in Drayton in The Clay Leicester England, brought forth their son, George Fox in July of 1624. Mary and Christopher were very devout Christians. Christopher, a weaver by trade was often referred to as “righteous Christer” by his friends and neighbors. His wife Mary was characterized as being, “of the stock of the martyrs”. They were a simple, hardworking couple. They raised their son to be as fiercely devoted to Christian principles as they were.
George learned well from their example. He was a bright boy and found himself pondering many of the teachings of the church. Raised by his parents on the teachings of the Church of England, George had no formal education, but quickly learned to read and write. He was fascinated by the bible and studied it continually. Fox is quoted as saying that by the time he was eleven years old he “Knew pureness and righteousness; for while I was a child, I was taught how to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful, in all things, and to act faithfully in two ways; inwardly to God and outwardly to men” (Jones 1908)
George was apprenticed to a shoe maker and shepherd. He enjoyed this endeavor as it gave him time to think and contemplate. He was well known for his diligence. George constantly pursued the simplicity of life,, practicing humility and foregoing luxury. While his work as a shepherd was brief it had a great impact on him and in later years he cautioned hid followers to remember that Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds and thus a formal education should not be seen as a qualification ot ministry.
Although George practiced a simple life, his mind was always churning and he sought the company of learned men with whom he could engage in long discussions on religious matters. George formed a close friendship with his hometown Clergyman Nathaniel Stephens, who saw George as a brilliant mind, though the two had very different ideas about religion. Over time their friendship was strained and Stephens would later refer to Fox as a madman.
George also found friendship among the religious professors but by the time he was 19 he had distanced himself from them, finding their behavior and alcohol consumption at odds with his own beliefs regarding purity. Around this time, when George was 19, he began recording in his journal his experiences during prayer, in which he heard an inner voice guiding and directing him. George felt compelled to leave Drayton in the Clay in September of 1643. He wandered around England in “a state of mental torment and confusion”. George sought out the advice of clergy but found no comfort in their offerings. Disillusioned and dejected he returned home in 1644. Home did not offer any more promise to the confused young Fox. Family encouraged marriage or military service as a solution to his disquiet. George left home again, determined to question religious figures and challenge those he disagreed with. He was actively searching for answers to troubling thoughts, trying to reconcile scripture with practice.
For several years Fox traveled around the country side, praying, discussion and ever seeking answers to his questions. It was during this time that his unique beliefs began to take shape. Through prayer and medication George gained a greater understanding of his faith and what it required from him. He called this process “opening”. Prayer and meditation, this “Opening” time would become a corner stone of his faith. George also experienced a series of revelations which offered him a deeper inner understanding of standard Christian beliefs in creation and salvation. Among these were:
· Christians differ in external practice but all are “saved” because of belief, thus rituals can be ignored as long as one experienced true spiritual conversion.
· The qualification of ministry is given by the Holy Spirit, not by Ecclesiastical study. Anyone has the right to minister, assuming the spirit guides them, including women. ( quite and advanced thought in the 1600’s)
· God lives in the heart of the obedient, religious experience should not be confined to a steeple house. ( fox deliberately refused to use the word Church to refer to a house of worship. He believed that the Church was made up of the people, not the building. He was known to worship in the fields and orchards, believing that God’s presence could be felt in the natural world).
Fox sought answers among the various clergy and denominations and among the dissenters as well, but none of them held the answers he was seeking. Seeking guidance and direction, feeling lost and alone, Fox, while engaged in prayer and meditation states he heard a voice answering his prayer stating; “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition”. From this Fox understood that church and denominations were unnecessary, that he could turn directly to God and speak without intermediaries.
This was all startling revelations for the time. Fox, enlightened and enthralled, began preaching his message in 1648. He was met with a great deal of interest and approval among the common folk and by a great deal of animosity among the clergy and other officials. He called people to meet in the fields and market-places and , at times, in the steeple houses when the priests had finished with them. He spoke powerfully and with authority about his Spirituality movement, espousing what he referred to as “The true religion”. A gathering of followers began to assemble and from this they became known as “The Society of Friends”. Fox taught his followers to practice “Silent waiting”, when a group would come together and wait in silence for the spirit to move someone to speak. They found that being together in silence was powerful and uplifting. Often an hour or more would pass in silent meditation and no one would feel moved to speak. At other times members of the congregation would feel over whelmed with words or song that they shared with the congregation and then returned to the silent waiting.
Fox often preached mortality, grounded in scripture but punctuated by personal experience. He attacked the practices of the church which called men to tithe to support the institutions of the church. He urged his listeners to live sinless lives but avoided the view that all acts of the believer were automatically sinless. Fox championed social justice, an important issue at the time when oppression by the powerful was a very real concern.
Fox led many to convert and turn away from the corruptions of the institutionalized churches of the day. As such he found himself persecuted by clergy and the English magistrate alike. He was imprisoned in 1850, 1852. 1854, for blasphemy. In 1850 a judge mocked Fox exhortations to “tremble at the word of the Lord” by calling him and his followers “Quakers”. From the experience of this persecution Fox strengthened his tenant of pacifism. He taught his followers not to swear oaths, not to take up arms, spiritual or physical, against their fellow man. Further imprisonment followed Fox career; 1656,60,63,66,74. In 1669 Fox married Margaret Fell, a woman of high social position and an early convert. In 1671 George traveled to Barbados and to the English colonies in America. By this time he had followers in the colonies, converted by earlier missionaries. Fox arrived in Maryland. While there he carried his message to local Native tribes who were interested in hearing his message.
George Fox died January 13, 1691 in England and is buried in the Quaker Burying ground at Bunhill Fields in London. Fox journal was published in 1694 after editing by Thomas Ellwood, and William Penn. The journal is still in print and can be purchased from Amazon for a modest price.
John Fox was a religious pioneer who developed a very different type of worship. The Society of Friends was founded on his beliefs, the term Quaker, as we have seen was a derogatory slur, which was incorporated with pride by the Society of Friends.
So far we are off to a good start in answering our questions, but we still have some ground to cover. We now know that the Quakers, AKA, The Society of Friends were a religious group developed in dissention to the established religions in England. That they began in England and spread across the globe in the mid to late 1600’s, and that they were not the same as the Amish. We still need to explore where they went and how they influenced American history. We will cover those answers and take a brief look at the Amish as well in part II of Is There a Quaker in your Family Tree.
Happy Labor Day