George Fox is considered the founder of Quakerism. He gathered the first Seekers, survived persecution and, with his wife Margaret Fell, laid the administrative foundation of the Religious Society of Friends in England from 1647 to 1690.
Portrait of George Fox, attributed to Peter Lely - Swathmore College, c.1650.
William Penn “was an Admiral’s son who became a Friend and a promoter of religious freedom and the proprietor of the Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania.”
Portrait of William Penn, from page 205 of "Penn's greene country towne; pen and pencil sketches of early Philadelphia and its prominent characters" (1903) by Hotchkins, S. F.
In the public domain.
The Beginnings of Quakerism
The Religious Society of Friends arose in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, a time of turbulence and change in both religion and politics. During this time the English Parliament passed a series of laws aimed at restricting the practice of non-conforming faiths, particularly those of the Catholic and Quaker religions. Many individuals became dissatisfied with the established Church of England, particularly its emphasis on outward ceremony, the authority of the Church and the acceptance of a formal creed. One of these seekers was George Fox, who, as a young man, searched without success for a priest or preacher who could satisfy his spiritual hunger. In 1647 he wrote, “I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.” He began an itinerant ministry, proclaiming from hilltops and in churches and market squares that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” From the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England Fox had a vision of “a great people to be gathered.”
The Valiant 60
The charismatic preaching of Fox and other members of the “Valiant Sixty,” as the core leaders of this nascent movement were called, attracted thousands of seekers, especially in the north of England. Members of the Valiant Sixty traveled not only throughout England, but to the rest of Great Britain, Europe, and North America. One of them, Mary Fisher, went as far as Turkey and spoke with the Sultan about her beliefs.
Image of Mary Fisher, in Turkey before the Sultan.
They Called One Another "Friends"
These religious communities found that when they gathered for worship “in spirit and truth”, God’s transforming power would be poured out upon them. They experienced God’s presence, sometimes called the Light, as a power that searched their hearts, broke them open, and left them, in Margaret Fell’s words, “naked and bare before the Lord God, from whom you cannot hide yourselves.” The experience of worship for the followers of Fox opened them to new truths and gave them power and direction to live faithfully in community, to act, to make changes in themselves and society. Quakers preached that the direct experience of God was available to everyone who chose to submit to it.That universalism distinguished them from many other Protestants, who taught that only some people could be saved. Quakers also witnessed to their experience that God could choose and use anyone as a messenger, including servants, uneducated laborers, and women.
A meeting of the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends (1725). Public Domain
They called themselves “Children of the Light,” “Publishers of Truth,” or “the people of God.” They also called one another “Friends,” and decades later came to name themselves the Religious Society of Friends. Their enemies called them “Quakers” because they claimed to tremble before God.
Quaker beliefs and practices were acts of dissent and considered heretical in England and in New England’s Puritan colonies, primarily due to the belief in continuing revelation, which took precedence over the authority of the church and of scriptures. As a result, the meetings of Quakers were frequently disrupted by angry mobs, their meetinghouses were vandalized and burned and they themselves were subjected to imprisonment, fines and cruel treatment by officials of the state. In Massachusetts four Quakers were put to death between 1659 and 1661, including Mary Dyer, whose statue sits near the entrance of Friends Center in Philadelphia.
Mary Dyer being led to the gallows in Boston, 1660. by Howard Pyle, painted c. 1905. Public Domain.
Penn's "Holy Experiment"
Friends first came to America as early as 1656. George Fox twice visited the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In 1681 William Penn arrived on land west of the Delaware which King Charles II had granted to Penn in payment for a debt to Penn’s father and which the king named “Pennsylvania” in honor of Admiral Penn. William Penn’s vision for Pennsylvania was a “holy experiment” with underlying principles of participatory decision making, religious liberty, justice as fair dealing with one’s neighbors, opposition to war and the abolition of oaths.
Today, Birmingham Meeting joins more than 100 local meetings in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, northern Delaware and part of Maryland in a regional organization called Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Friends meetings and institutions continue to offer a vital experience of worship, remaining committed to a life of listening to and following the Spirit as those early seekers sought to do in England during the latter half of the 17th century.
Adapted from Faith and Practice of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2018.