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Early Quakers, Version I

Early Quaker history is rich enough for its tellers to find different things in it with every telling. Quakers did all kinds of things and left behind all kinds of writing, and it's not all perfectly cohesive.

As an experiment, I'm going to tell the story three times. I believe that all of these tellings are close enough to what happened to be properly 'historical', and none of them are so terribly far off the mark that they can be dismissed immediately. The stories they tell and the ways in which they would have us relate to the early Quakers' experience are quite different, however.

The first story is the story I've seen most frequently when a brief explanation of early Quakerism is needed, and it's usually the conclusion that shifts to match the teller's perspective.


In the 1640s and 1650s, amid the tumult of the English Civil War, a small group of dedicated religious seekers came together to listen to the Inward Light because "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

Their claims that this Light gave them direct communication with God and that this Light was to be held above Scripture or rituals like baptism and communion led to persecution. They were accused of quaking before God, hence the name Quaker, which was not intended to be flattering. Their persecution continued from the first meetings through the Restoration all the way up to the Act of Toleration passed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Despite the persecution, Quakers held together. Quakers died in jails and more went to take their place. Unlike other sects who met privately to avoid persecution, Quakers continued to meet openly, and made themselves obvious targets with their use of 'thee' and 'thou', their refusal to doff their hats to those of higher rank, and their plain attire.

While many Quaker leaders died in prison (or of plague, war, or the other troubles of the time), one of the strongest, George Fox, survived into the 1690s, writing his famous Journal and organizing the structure of meetings that continues to this day. Other notable Quakers included William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers while writing regularly on Quakerism, and Robert Barclay, whose Apology is a classic statement of early Quaker belief.

After Fox's death, Quakerism settled down. It was no longer a movement claiming to reignite Christianity in general, but rather a sect that built walls against outside influence. Members prospered, but the energy of the sect declined, settling into a long quiet.

Familiar? I hope so, since this is the general story I heard for a long time before looking into early Quakerism more generally. Depending on the storyteller's perpective, the next parts of the story are usually about how later generations lost the thread because they:

  • Weren't Christian enough.

  • Spent too much time reading Scripture and not enough with individual Spirit.

  • Insisted that (or rejected that) the Light is reason or conscience.

  • Lacked the fire to continue spreading their message.

  • Weren't disciplined enough.

  • Focused too little on the life of the spirit rather than money or politics.

  • Lacked knowledge of their own history to know what the early Quakers had really said.

  • Were corrupted by outside influences, whether Catholic-derived Quietism or Wesleyan revivalism.

(Yes, I'm sure I've forgotten a few.)

As you've probably guessed, this isn't the way I think the story should be told. The next two versions will present less common - and likely more challenging - tellings, though there's still plenty of room to discuss which of these is right. None of them are wildly wrong.


Yes, that's the story I'm familiar with, the one that doesn't mention the various currents in religion or politics. Basically, Quakers against the world ... and then they moved to Pennsylvania.

I'm curious to see the other two versions.