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Early Quakers, Version II

Yesterday I looked at the classic "early Quakers created this, and then we've..." story of Quakerism, with its varied conclusions explaining why modern Quakerism isn't quite like early Quakerism.

For this second telling, I'm going to change one key point in the story: when that change happened. Instead of early Quakers forming a single story up through Fox's and Penn's death, this version tells of dramatic change in the late 1650s and early 1660s, in which 'genuinely early Quakerism' is changed, or even betrayed, to become something more respectable.

In the late 1640s and early 1650s, the English Civil War had shattered people's expectations of an orderly world and collapsed their hopes for a rule of Puritan saints. Many sects developed in this chaotic period, some with prophets, some tied to continental Anabaptist radicals, and some denying the value of law entirely. Some Puritans became Baptists and then became Seekers or Ranters, losing layers of trust in their earlier, usually Calvinist, belief structure.

Out of this chaos, the early Quakers emerged. They evangelized, arguing that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," not as a luminous second coming (as groups like the Fifth Monarchists thought) but rather as a Light available to everyone. Christ's guidance wasn't limited to the Church, but was available to everyone, of whatever station, so long as they were willing to listen.

"Put yourself aside, and listen for the Light and where it leads," (to paraphrase) was a powerful message. This message built Quakerism even as persecutors imprisoned its members for their refusal to recognize rank or take oaths and their continued holding of open meetings.

Even as this powerful message was transforming thousands, however, both the growing persecution and splits within the ranks of Quakers led to a dramatic pullback from the original message. The split between James Nayler and George Fox demonstrated how Fox insisted on being in control of the movement (telling Nayler to kiss his boot?). Nayler's blasphemy trial left Fox in greater control. It also drove Fox away from the open individual embrace of Christ and the Light within to a more controlled approach, in which elders could control the meeting's direction and keep members in line.

As the Civil War came to a conclusion and the Restoration approached, Quakers tried one last round of radical politics, reaching out for allies and some even joining the army, but when it became clear that the King was returning, Quakers retreated. The issuance of the letter establishing the Peace Testimony, while a key document in the pacifism of Quakerism, was simultaneously a retreat from the promise Quakerism had shown in leading England in a new direction.

As the Restoration continued to persecute Quakers, Quakers shifted their message and reorganized their group. It become less of a movement and more of a sect, with Fox and his supporters ejecting those they saw as dangerously individualist (notably John Perrot and the participants in the Wilkinson-Story separation). They took greater care in aligning their rhetoric and their theology with more orthodox perspectives, especially when Fox was traveling in places where Quakers might be seen as a threat to order, like Barbados.

The later Fox, who outlived so many of the other early Quakers, and the more aristocratic second generation of Quaker writers - particularly William Penn and Robert Barclay - described Quakerism in terms more amenable to the Christian perspectives Quakers had discarded early on. Their quest for respectability and an end to persecution meant that the more extreme claims of early Quakerism had to be watered down, especially those relating to perfection and a direct line of communication between individuals and God.

In service of this Fox (and his wife Margaret Fell) censored his letters, removing language that referred to him in language normally reserved for Christ. (Fox and Nayler both had supporters who saw them as Christ-figures.) Fox's Journal tells the story of the 1640s and 1650s from a much later perspective, though the earlier inspiration still comes through at times (and despite further censorship from Quakers of the day). Similarly, Quaker publishers edited tracts from the 1650s when they later reprinted them, something historians didn't realize until recently. Barclay's codification and Penn's writings took Quakerism away from enthusiasm and toward a more settled and respectable state.

By the time of Fox's death, then, Quakerism had lost its original power. Rather than evangelizing the countryside, Quakers were organizing meetings that controlled who could and could not minister. Death and schisms had taken away a number of Quakers whose early energy had propelled the movement furthest toward emphasis on the individual's relationship with the Light, and what was left was a quiet echo of the origins.

This is a fairly recent perspective, though it reflects many of the tensions that Quakers have struggled with in the centuries since. It's a strong telling of various threads in New Light on George Fox (especially Richard Bailey's contribution) and George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years. It recognizes that most of the early splits (Nayler, Perrot, and Wilkinson-Story) reflected Friends who weren't inclined to accept Fox's claims of leadership or efforts to institutionalize leadership.

It also reflects, in my own reading, the differences between Fox's early letters and writings like 1659's The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded; and Antichrist's Kingdom Revealed Unto Destruction and his later work, especially the Journal.

Is it the right telling, though? I agree that there's clearly a change between the 1650s and the 1660s and later, but I don't find the quest for respectability or generational change enough of a motivating force. I'm sure there are Quakers who would argue that the problems of Quakerism stem from these changes in the late 1650s and 1660s, and that the earlier individualistic enthusiasm needs to return for the movement to revive.

Still, there's another way to tell this same story, which will be the next installment, and maybe help explain some of why I'm writing this strange and frequently difficult weblog.


Simon, I'm kinda holding my breath to see what your story version iii will be like!

Yes, you've got the version I prefer, though it's a little heavy-handed on the clamping down on freedom aspect. I think the early Friends, as they matured, added in a younger generation, and secured a better space for themselves, did set about to maintain some of those freedoms -- for themselves and their progeny, as well as for those who mingled with them where they had some influence.