George Fox was a young preacher in England in the mid 1600s, at the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment. Fox was disgusted by political maneuverings and coldness among church members, and by empty pleasure-seeking in the wider populace. He saw that both in and outside the church, people were not living the teachings of Jesus. He longed for a life of greater integrity.
Fox believed he knew what could be done. Like Martin Luther, a little over a hundred years before him, he decided to share his insights and reform the church he valued. Fox had no wish to break away and start a new sect. However, his efforts at reform were firmly rejected. In 1647, he began widely teaching a way he fervently believed was better and within a few years created the Religious Society of Friends. The name Friends derives from the Bible passage in which Jesus says, "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14).
From the beginning, the Society of Friends differed radically from the Church of England, the state religion in England at the time.
[Leader: Write the heading "Friends = Radicals" on newsprint. List these concepts under the heading, as you name and explain them:]
His reform ideas included:
- Simplicity: Plain dress, plain speech. [The Friends emphasized living with simplicity. Later they would adopt what they termed "plain dress" and "plain speech."]
- Radical equality. [Since God loves everyone the same, people should, too. Gender, race, wealth, education, community standing make no difference.]
- Value religious diversity and freedom. [This concept was revolutionary in that time and place. Friends thought religious monopoly weakened faith and created unspiritual attitudes.]
- Personal revelation. [Another radical idea at the time: Everyone has access to the truth if they are open to listen for it. This is best done by creating stillness and waiting for clarity and messages from the holy spirit.]
- No literally sacred text. [While Christian in its orientation and using the Bible as its primary textual resource, even in the beginning Friends recognized that since the Bible was written by humans, it should not be interpreted as the literal word of God. Other religious texts are acceptable as inspiration.]
- Consistency/commitment [From the beginning, Quakers quietly, courageously tried to live their values, even in the face of violent persecution.]
When George Fox began teaching, he was arrested for heresy, hauled before a judge, and questioned for hours. During the interrogation, Fox told those present they should "tremble before the word of the Lord," after which the magistrate sarcastically called him a "quaker." The term was laughingly adopted as an insult, but the Friends felt the description was honorable and it became a common name for Friends, even among themselves.
The Quakers were evangelists in their early years, preaching simplicity, truthful, peaceful living, and the value of inner experience. They proselytized and won thousands of followers, even though at the time it was illegal to practice any religion but the religion dictated by the King. Quakers also refused to swear oaths or to show respect by taking off their hats, and continued to hold banned religious meetings publicly.
[Leader: Ask: What would you expect would happen to them then?]
Like other gentle radicals before them, including Jesus, the Quakers drew the attention of authorities and were targeted for persecution. More than 6,000 Friends were imprisoned between 1662 and 1670 alone. This made the New World seem attractive, and Quakers were among the earliest settlers to the American colonies. However, freedom was not guaranteed there, either. Many Quakers in the American colonies were jailed and some executed for refusing to serve in the military. Because of their differences in lifestyle and their tendency to live on the outskirts of communities, Friends were even occasionally charged with witchcraft.
One difference was not calling their religious gatherings "services." They called them "meetings," and mostly they sat in silence together, each seeking to create a stillness within themselves to allow the sacred to be heard. No one spoke unless moved to. Even a business meeting was considered worship, and was called, "Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business." Even today, gatherings are called "meetings." Quakers were constant to their faith, and their influence grew.
William Penn was a British aristocrat. He converted to Quakerism and had been jailed many times for illegally promoting the Friends movement. He proposed to the King a solution to the Quaker problem in England: let them establish a Friends settlement in the New World. This idea was accepted, and the King named the large tract of land Penn and other Quakers purchased "Pennsylvania." The original Pennsylvania covered present day Pennsylvania and much of New Jersey. Penn considered Pennsylvania his "Holy Experiment," and while it was predominantly populated by Quakers, religious freedom was the law of the land. Religious minorities soon arrived from all over the world.
[Leader: Ask: What do you think Quakers would advocate in education, at a time when schooling was generally considered more valuable for boys than for girls? Affirm that Friends valued education for all and offered free public education in Quaker-run schools.]
Penn also created revolutionary egalitarian practices in government, law, education, and health care—all of which influenced developments in the United States.
The Quaker belief in simplicity in life and the importance of each individual's openness to inner truth was expressed by George Fox:
The Lord showed me, so that I did see clearly, that he did not dwell in these temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people's hearts . . . his people were his temple, and he dwelt in them.