Quaker movement began in England in the mid-17th century. At its
forefront stood George Fox, who had searched throughout England
asking prominent clergymen and professors to help him find answers to
some of life's basic questions. None of them had the answers he sought.
"Then I heard a voice which said, 'There is one even, Christ Jesus,
that can speak to thy condition,’ " and with revelation, Fox
began the long arduous creation of what would become The Religious
Society of Friends.
He began to tell of his experience in a powerful and persuasive way,
focusing on the concept that there’s "that of God" in
everyone. He also believed that the Divine Being operates directly upon
people’s lives, and that spiritual life begins when a person becomes
aware of this and obeys God. Fox based his belief on John 1:19 of the
Bible: "That was the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh
into the world."
Soon , an energetic group of young followers, known as the
"Valiant Sixty," gathered around him and spread throughout
England to search out "that of God in every man." Thousands of
others joined them. Eventually, Quakerism swept England like the a
storm, attracting ordinary people, as well as intellectuals like William
Penn. But these early Quakers didn’t want to start a new sect or
denomination. Instead, they wished to recover the way of life revealed
in the New Testament, then reinterpret and relive it in the present
world. They carefully avoided calling themselves "a church."
Instead, they became 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."
However, their enemies called them Quakers because many of them trembled
when they rose to speak. They gathered quietly together to wait for God
in Meetings for Worship in their homes, barns, and sometimes within inns
or out in open fields. By doing so they believed that the true church
wasn’t a building made with human hands. Eventually, they built simple
Quakers traveled not only throughout England but to America to spread
the Friends’ message. After they arrived in the New World in the
mid-17th century, the Puritans persecuted and killed them. Baptist
leader Roger Williams, whose followers were already refugees of Puritan
intolerance, sheltered some Friends in Rhode Island. At one time half
the population of the Rhode Island Colony was Quaker. And it had Quaker
governors for 36 consecutive terms, spanning over a hundred years. North
Carolina and the Jerseys also became strong Quaker colonies with Quaker
governors and legislators.
In 1681 William Penn accepted a grant
of land from King Charles I which eventually became Pennsylvania. It was
here that he began his "Holy Experiment." For decades
Pennsylvania stood as a model of democracy, fostering liberty and
harmony for all. Under Quaker leadership the colony flourished and
prospered. Penn made friends with the Indians and purchased land from
Within the Pennsylvania Colony, Quaker merchants established strict
standards of honesty in business. Penn’s "Holy Experiment,"
centered in Philadelphia, "the City of Brotherly Love," and
lasted until non-Quakers gained control of the state legislature and
began a war against the local Native Americans.
Because of the dedicated efforts of Friends like John Woolman of
Mount Holly, New Jersey, Quakers had freed their slaves by the time of
the Revolutionary War. Friends were among the most active and vocal
abolitionists, working also in the "Underground Railroad" to
help slaves escape to freedom. Quakers have also made important
contributions in prison reform, education, social work, racial equality,
the peace movement, and the women's movement.
The Quaker faith is what’s known as a roots and fruits religion.
We, as Friends, have deep spiritual roots which grow in strength in our
Meetings for Worship and extend into our daily lives. For over 300
years, we’ve maintained a consistent peace witness and are concerned
about the treatment of our fellow man. As early as 1796, Samuel Tuke
founded the first asylum for the insane in York, England to show the
world that mental illness could be treated humanely. The work of
Elizabeth Fry at Newgate prison in the early 19th century
became the forerunner of modern prison reform. Today, we continue to
carry on our witness for peace.
And today, as then, we still carry on our witness for peace, and, as
then, still gather for worship in our Meeting Houses.