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Quaker predecessors

While Quaker history often starts in the 1640s with George Fox's concerns - probably led that way by his Journal - Fox was far from the first with the components of his message. He also benefited tremendously from the chaotic conditions of the English Civil War, which had produced huge numbers of Seekers and others listening for a new message. Fox's tremendous personality made its imprint on these people, but he wasn't always a completely new revelation.

I'm enjoying Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down precisely because it examines the conditions which fuelled Quakerism's rapid growth. These conditions didn't necessarily direct the path Quakerism took, but they certainly laid groundwork. Take, for instance, Familism, a long-standing heresy among the lower classes:

Familists, members of the Family of Love... were followers of Henry Niclaes, born in Münster in 1502, who taught that heaven and hell were to be found in this world. Niclaes was alleged to have been a collaborator of Thomas Münzer in insurrection at Amsterdam. The Puritan divine John Knewstub said of him: 'H.N. turns religion upside down. He buildeth heaven here upon earth; he maketh God man and man God.'

Like Francis Bacon, Familists believed that men and women might recapture on earth the state of innocence which existed before the Fall: their enemies said they claimed to attain the perfection of Christ. They held their property in common, believed that all things come by nature, and that only the spirit of God within the believer can properly understand Scripture. They turned the Bible into allegories, even the Fall of Man, complained William Perkins.

Familism was spread in England by Christopher Vittels, an itinerant joiner of Dutch origin. In the 1570s English Familists were noted to be wayfaring traders, or 'cowherds, clothiers and such-like mean people. They believed in principle that ministers should be itinerants, like the Apostles. (26-7)

Familism isn't Quakerism, but it's hard not to see similarities, especially on the relation of Spirit to Scripture and their itinerant ministry. Similarly, Hill writes on on how doctrines of stilling the self and listening for God's will - while practiced in later periods of Quietist Quakerism - were potentially explosive in this period of chaos:

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s when some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were again harmless when taught by Thomas Traherne or quietist post-restoration Quakers. But in between, as the Revolution seemed to open up infinite possibilties, the glowing embers flashed flame. (186-7)

The flashing flames led many directions, though:

Given then this breakdown of confidence on the one hand, and the prevalent millenarianism enthusiasm on the other, it is hardly surprising that men and women, faced with an unprecedented freedom of choice, passed rapidly from sect to sect, trying all things, finding all of them wanting. Again and again in spiritual autobiographies of the time we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency, and Anabaptistry before ending as Seekers..., and Ranters..., or as Quakers....

Controversies over church government or over baptism - infant, adult, self-, by dipping or not at all - split congregations, produced endless conscientious scruples, endless bickerings. All the leading protagonists seemed equally certain, all appeared to have backing from Biblical texts or from the authority of the spirit within. Many concluded by questioning the value of all ordinances, of all outward forms, of all churches even.

Since the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversy was one solution, a rejection of all sects, of all organized worship. Such men were called Seekers - Walwyn, though he rejected the label, Roger Williams, John Saltmarsh, John Milton, possibly Oliver Cromwell himself....

Many of these men had connections with the radicals, and were bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarianism enthusiasm. (190-2)

In an age where religious diversity is ordinary, and millenarianism seen as a subculture, it may be hard to project back just how unsettled this period was. Everything was open to question, and the experience of questioning was still new and revolutionary. A wide variety of ideas that had previously been considered heresies were brought back into consideration as censorship fell and printing presses stayed busy. Ideas that would form Quakerism were abroad, though seen as clearly radical.


The precursors of Quakerism began in the first century, and perhaps earlier. Throughout the history of the church many groups all over the world chose the direct relationship to God over conventional religious authority. (That for me is the chief distinctive property of Quakerism).

These groups usually (if not always) earned the appelation of heretics, and generally received the same kind of treatment as Fox and his associates.