Quakers: A Silent Influence
By Connie Green Gritz 

            In the mid-1600s, a new, independent religious sect was founded whose values and beliefs went against the convention of the Church of England.  This new sect called themselves the Society of Friends, or Quakers, whose faith and practices were so radical that persecution fell upon them.  Ultimately, this persecution and their desire for spiritual freedom led them to flee England and establish a religious haven in Pennsylvania.

There were many independent religious sects in England in the mid 1600s due to the conventionality and stringent rules of the formal Church of England.  Quakers were one of the few that sustained and expanded.  This was due to Quaker founder George Fox and his belief of an "inner light" and a personal experience with God's salvation.  Fox and his early converts shared similar dissatisfaction with conventional religious beliefs.  He and they believed in a more personal and direct spiritual experience rather than that of the formal and ceremonial religious practices of the Puritans and the Church of England.  In other words, they believed, one could feel the salvation of God within and be moved to speak of the experience rather than being preached to and attending a structured religious service.  Quaker worship, way of life, and custom of dressing all made the Friends easy targets for the strict English religion and government.

            Their style of worship was an oddity by itself.  They had no clergy, no pulpit, no ceremony, nor did they worship in a church.  Quakers met in a simple meetinghouse with rows of benches and a partition to separate the men and women.  No one spoke unless moved to speak by God; then if so moved, anyone was permitted to speak, man or woman.

            The Quakers' quirky and radical differences in appearance, practices, and beliefs spurred persecution of the Friends. As everyone knows, Quakers were and are pacifists, in most cases refusing to bear arms during conflict.  They refused to remove their hats to those in authority or who were considered financially and socially their superior.  They refused this practice because Quakers believed all men were equal.  Quakers felt that a man should remove his hat only in the presence of God (Bacon 19).

Quakers have also been known for their use of “thee” and “thou” instead of “you.”  This was considered disrespectful in England, because “thee” was used as second person singular.  This was an assault on the social strata of the time as common people were to address those above them as “you”.  These anti-authority beliefs were all reasons for the government to feel threatened enough to punish and persecute the Quakers.

Persecution in England was severe and swift.  Quakers were jailed frequently during the Society's first forty years.  "Some historians estimate that 15,000 had been imprisoned by 1689, when the Act of Toleration finally was passed" (Bacon 19).  If prison were not enough, Quakers would be whipped publicly or have to endure tongue borings and brandings in the government's efforts to rid England of this sect.  During his lifetime, George Fox was jailed eight times.  The conditions of the jails were horrifying and disgusting, filled with stench and filth.  There was no heat in the wintertime, no toilet facilities; sometimes there was no shelter from wind and rain.  "Prisoners were supposed to pay the jailers for their food, and to endure whatever whippings or other punishment the jailer saw fit to inflict.  There was no privacy for women, and lice were a common problem" (Bacon 19).

Tragically, this persecution had somewhat little to do with Quakerism, but was more of a side-effect of King Charles' secret scheming to reinstate Catholicism as the state religion of England.  The King harbored a strong dislike of Puritanism and also had a very sinful sexual history for which he was a looking to be forgiven.  In pursuit of his own personal interests, he mixed international politics and his own interests.  The English alliance with Sweden and Holland was just beginning, offering two advantages.  The first was an end to naval conflicts between England and Holland, and the second was three Protestant countries put a hold on French expansion in the colonies.  However, King Charles was secretly negotiating with France for England to return to Catholicism as the official state religion.  The Secret Treaty of Dover brought England and France together against Holland.  The King would agree to confess publicly to the Roman religion and accept French money and troops to re-establish Catholicism in England.  His plan failed when English Parliament discovered his secret plan.  Upon uncovering the news, they toughened the Conventicle Act, "the law which dissidence was to be rooted out.  This was to provide speedy remedies against the growing and dangerous practices of seditious sectaries and other disloyal persons" (Fantel).

The Conventicle Act was bad news for Quakers, however.  It affected the Catholics very little because of the power they possessed.  Quakers, on the other hand, were a weaker, easier target.

Despite their persecution, the Quakers were ultimately led to an expansion and strengthening of their faith.  Quakerism had the ability to attract people from every social and educational background because of their unwavering commitment to equality, honesty and a peaceful life.  Even though George Fox was just a shoemaker with a basic education, his spiritual vision attracted men of greater financial and educational resources.  William Penn was one of these men.

Ironically, the persecution strengthened the Quakers' sense of self with a divine mission.  Their persecution did not dissuade the Friends to hide away and worship in the shadows; they held their meetings publicly.  Further, despite, or perhaps, because of their opposition to authority, they had a reputation for complete and utter honesty.  This was appealing to many others who were unsatisfied or embittered with the Church of England.

Because of their uncompromising beliefs, they endured more persecution than any other independent religious sect in England.  Unfortunately for the Quakers, this followed suit into the colonies of the New World, as well when some traveled on missionary trips to preach their word.  Persecution of this radical and unconventional religious sect was awaiting them on the shores of the New World.

The rigid, sterile Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a deep fear of Quakers, citing dissent, heresy and work of the devil as reasons to persecute, imprison, and even kill Quakers arriving in their Puritan colony.  Eventually, Massachusetts passed a law with hefty fines against Quakers and shipmasters transporting Friends into their colony.  This law was passed while the colony was still holding eight Quakers in jail after searching their belongings for “erroneous books and hellish pamphlets.”

On July 11, 1656, two Quaker women arrived in Boston Harbor causing immediate action of Massachusetts Bay Colony magistrates.  "As if a formidable army had invaded their borders, as one observer was to have said" (Bacon 3).  The women, probably unthreatening in appearance, were twenty-two year old Mary Fish and middle-aged mother of five, Ann Austin.  They were held upon their ship, the Swallow, while Massachusetts authorities searched their things.  A common hangman burned their things publicly in the marketplace.  Mary and Ann were then imprisoned and strip searched for items that may have related to witchcraft.  They were kept for five weeks before being released and sailed on to a Quaker Colony in Barbados.

Even though these women were so quickly removed from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Quakerism was still able to permeate colonies from Maine to South Carolina.  The vision of a colony based on Quaker beliefs had long belonged to George Fox and then, eventually, William Penn.  Penn, like Fox, was dissatisfied with conventional religious practices and converted to Quakerism.

George Fox explored the wilderness of Pennsylvania with the dream of a Quaker colony.  However, it was to be William Penn, an Englishman of worldliness, wealth and influence with the King, that would bring the reality of a Quaker colony and a “holy experiment” to fruition with his Pennsylvania charter.

William Penn, son of Sir William, was granted a charter in March, 1681, as a repayment of debt to his father from Charles II.  This charter and new colony named Pennsylvania would be the laboratory and Penn the scientist for what he called a “holy Experiment.”  Penn had a spiritual vision for Pennsylvania.  He would create a colony where Quakers and other religious groups could live without persecution, worship as they pleased, and govern themselves as they saw fit.  It would be a colony based on Christianity and virtue.  He viewed it as an experiment and/or example of what mankind could do if living by the will of God (Bronner 1). In the fall of 1682, more than one hundred Quakers including William Penn boarded a small ship named Welcome and began a fifty-three day journey to religious freedom and away from religious suppression. Of these one hundred plus, there were women, children, and men.  Some of the more prominent travelers were privileged enough to get privacy cabins while the rest huddled together on low-ceilinged decks.  Seasickness, fear of the criminal-like crew, and the ominously, endless sea caused great anxiety to the Quakers.  The crew tormented the passengers, picked fights with the men, and took advantage of the women.  There was a lack of fresh food and water.  A smallpox epidemic broke out, spreading rapidly and leaving thirty one dead.  Penn was immune to the disease from a bout with it as a child, so he cared for the sick while providing the well with a compassionate leader with strong character to keep them from despair.  This was a rather dismal beginning, laden with grief and doubt.

On the fifty-third day, Quakers had scent and sight of land.  "The ordeal of passage was almost over.  Ahead lay a land where none would be imprisoned because God appeared to him differently than to the government" (Fantel  4).  Penn and his Quaker colonists had arrived.  Finally, they could all begin Penn's "holy experiment."

            Penn's interest in American colonization was twofold.  The more important of these was a place for his Quakers to escape from religious persecution and unjust treatment by those who were intolerant and rigid.  Of course, creating a successful and profitable colony was necessary even though secondary to Penn.  Pennsylvania's natural resources and location contributed to making it the richest colony in the 18th century.

The Quaker belief in living in accordance to God's will and the radical idea of equality of men was essential to the success of Penn's "holy experiment."  Quakers were the most important ingredient in Pennsylvania society during its first twenty years of existence.  In the counties of Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia, a non-Quaker was an oddity in Pennsylvania's first twenty years.  The success of Pennsylvania was almost certainly due to the resiliency of the Quakers, for they had undergone such persecution in England.  "Of the early Quaker purchasers of land in Pennsylvania, more than half are known to have undergone persecution in England.  Pennsylvania, in short, was populated in the early years by men steeped in a tradition of opposing prescriptive authority" (Nash 171).

Even though Quakers were known for their opposition to authority, they did not, however, lack self control.  Their simplicity of dress and plain language were examples of restraint that were uncommon in the seventeenth century, Their commitment to and belief in non-violent practices and refusal to bear arms would undoubtedly require immense self control in a time when there seemed to be ongoing conflicts.  Later, however, there would be Quakers known as Free Quakers who would bear arms in the War for Independence.  Quaker communities were a very tight-knit, supportive group interested in the well-being of one another.  This spread throughout Quakers everywhere. Quakers were committed to traveling and visiting other Quakers throughout the world preaching the word.  This strength of character of the Quakers and Penn would give Pennsylvania much advantage toward success (Nash).

Quakers were also responsible for Pennsylvania's financial success.  Quakers believed in being thrifty, frugal, and working hard.  At the same time, they were against frivolity and extravagance.  William Penn, as their Governor and fellow Friend, urged them to be frugal and industrious and told them, "A Penny Saved Is a Penny Got,” sixty years before Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard's Almanac (Bacon 60).

Because of their work ethic and financial restraint, Philadelphia Quakers became wealthy.  With this wealth, however, some Quakers did increase their standard of living by building city homes, country homes, and sometimes plantations where they would entertain visitors.  However, they would not indulge in idle extravagances such as gambling, dancing, art, music and theater (Bacon).

            Pennsylvania's economic success ranks at the top with only a few in colonial history during its first twenty years.  Pennsylvania's momentum started with Penn's effective emigration promotion.  From the start, the colony had highly skilled craftsmen and Quaker merchants who were established, well-respected men.   Pennsylvania owes the success of its birth and the first two decades to the presence, industry, and financial sensibility of the Friends.

            The Quakers not only contributed to the success of Pennsylvania, but have been in the forefront of many social reforms.  Quakers in England were the first in the world to recognize that the mentally insane were receiving inhumane treatment and deserved better care.  Quakers helped found Pennsylvania Hospital, which was the first institution in the New World that offered medical and occupational care for the insane.  Quaker advancement in the treatment of the insane was unparalleled due to their humane attitude and their insight into future psychiatric treatments.

            Prison reform and care for the poor were very relevant and close the heart of Quakers.  Early Quakers had been persecuted and imprisoned leaving their families impoverished, so they knew the mistreatment of prisoners first hand by the prison systems and felt the sufferings of the poor.  The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was established by Quakers to improve conditions of sanitation, shelter, and treatment of imprisoned.  Meetings for sufferings were established for Quakers to care for their own poor and widows. 

            Quaker belief in equality was inherent from the inception of the religion, so women were always treated as equals in the home, the schoolroom and the meeting house.  It was not so surprising that Quakers were interested in the women's rights movement.  However, Quaker women involved did not act as the other feminists, wearing bloomers, smoking cigars, or calling attention to themselves.  Their approach was quiet and feminine yet determined and strong while working on and often succeeding on human rights for all.  Their belief in equality also encompassed race; therefore, Quakers found slavery abhorrent and were deeply entrenched in the movement for the abolition of slavery.  The Quakers staunch commitment to their beliefs cements them into important social reforms in history.

            The strength of character possessed by early Quakers in England enabled them to endure brutal persecution and, then, carried them forward to the New World where they would flourish and ultimately become the cornerstone of a new colony, Pennsylvania.  Although Quakerism is based on the concept of simplicity and their meetings sometimes were a serene silence, their early history leaves an impression of a complex and resounding people.


Works Cited

Bacon, Margaret H. The Quiet Rebels: The Story of Quakers in America.  New York:
     Basic Books, Inc. 1969. 

Bronner, Edwin B. William Penn’s “Holy Experiment."  2nd Ed.  Philadelphia:  Temple
     University Publications. 1963.

Comfort, William Wistar.  The  Quakers: A Brief Account of their Influence on
     Pennsylvania.  Gettysburg, PA: The Pennsylvania Historical Association.1948.

Fantel, Hans.  William Penn: Apostle of Dissent.  NewYork: William Morrowand Company,
      Inc. 1974.

Frost, J. William.  A Perfect Freedom: Religious Liberty in Pennsylvania.  University Park,
     PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1990.

Nash, Gary B. Quakers in Politics:  Pennsylvania 1681-1726. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
     University Press. 1968.