The Significance of the Quakers

an Essay

by Bret Busby

June 2001


This material is copyrighted to the author, and may not be reproduced, in part or in total, without his written permission

© 2001 Bret Busby


Who are the Quakers? The name "Quakers", applies to the Society of Friends, and, the name "Quaker", applies to a member of the Society of Friends; a Friend.

I intend to show that the Quakers are and have been of great significance, are one of the few non-conformist sects to survive seventeenth century England, were the biggest non-conformist sect in seventeenth century England, and have been pioneers and visionaries, way ahead of their times.

"The Society of Friends is often spoken of as a "peculiar people", but exemption from human frailty in general or from sexual difficulties in particular is no part of their peculiarity."..."If Friends are at all peculiar it perhaps lies in their rejection of a professional priesthood and their acceptance of the total equality of men and women in the life of their religious Society." (1)

"The Society has maintained throughout the three hundred years of its history the complete personal and material equality of the sexes." (2)

Some important points are made here. The first important point is that , for the last three hundred years, women have been treated as fully equal with men, in the Quaker religion. That is interesting, given that Great Britain, the place of origin of the Quakers, did not grant women the right to vote in national elections, until 1928. (3) Also, "The United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, adopted in 1952, provides that "women shall be entitled to vote in all elections on equal terms with men, without any discrimination." (3)

Also, there is the aspect of the three hundred years of the history of the Society. Not many of the non-conformist sects of seventeenth century England survived. The Quakers did. Another significant point, is the rejection of a professional priesthood. Given that the two dominant religions of seventeenth century England, were Roman Catholic and Anglican, and, both had, and have, professional priests, such a rejection would have been quite unwelcome by the two established religions, apart from the equality of women, which has still not occurred in both religions, some 350 years after the start of the Quaker religion.

The work that is the source in (1) and (2), deals with sex, and sexuality, in a way that is at least forty years ahead of its time, as "nice people", at the time that it was written, and, now, in 2001, still would not discuss sex and sexuality so openly. Thus, the Quakers appear to have been, in the mid seventeenth and twentieth centuries, advanced; pioneers, and, for being so advanced and radical, subject to hostility,. Including persecution, from the establishment.

It all started back in 1643, when George Fox, the founder of the Quakers (4) ,(5), decided that people who professed to be Christians, the "professors", as the Quakers would name them, were, to a great extent, insincere about their religion, as they did not practice the principles of their religion. (6)

He left home, and tried to persuade people to be fair and honest in their dealings, and, refused to remove his hat for anyone, as he regarded all adults as equals, and, for the same reason, he used the singular "thee", "thou", and, "thy", instead of the plural "you" and "your". (7)

In seventeenth century England, male members of the congregation were allowed to speak during church services. Fox attended a service at St Mary's in Nottingham, and when the minister told the congregation to judge an opinion on whether it agreed with the bible, Fox said that it was the holy spirit, and, not the bible, that should be the guide, and that the bible was written by men with the guidance of the holy spirit. He was arrested and taken away before he could finish what he was saying. He was released, and no further action was taken against him in that matter. (8)

In Derby, in October 1650, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment for blasphemy. Justice Bennet, who heard the case, referred to Fox and his friends, as Quakers, as they had told him to "quake at the word of God". (8) That was the source of the name "Quakers". This was before the names "Society of Friends", and, "Friends", were used.

In 1652, Fox spoke to a meeting of Seekers, in Sedbergh, and convinced most present, of his "way". This began the first large-scale conversion to the Quaker way. He attended further Seeker meetings, and gained more converts. He changed from being a lonely wandering preacher, to being the centre of a rapidly growing movement. (9) Within a decade, the Quakers had up to 60,000 members. (10) The Seekers were people who had become disillusioned with the established churches, and, who sought (hence the name, Seekers) a truer religion.

During the Interregnum, Cromwell had done nothing to stop the persecution of the Quakers, and, nothing to encourage it. After Cromwell's death, things got worse, and, by the spring of 1660, 3170 Quakers had been imprisoned for their religion, 21 had died in prison, and 700 were still in prison. (11)

The dominant established religion (Anglican) had been threatened by the published materials, and, the teachings and practices, of the Quakers, and Quakers were imprisoned for a variety of offences, including vagrancy, blasphemy, failure to take their hats off in court, disturbing ministers in church, plotting against the government, refusal to swear that the person was not a Catholic, and refusing to pay tithes (taxes to support the Anglican religion). (11)

After Charles 2 was restored to the English throne in 1660, Fox was arrested at Swarthmoor, taken to Lancaster Castle, and charged with plotting against the King. Margaret Fell visited King Charles 2, on the Sunday after his coronation, and convinced him that the Quakers could not plot against the government. Charles promised to do all that he could, and, eventually, Fox was released. However, before anything else could be done, the Fifth Monarchy uprising occurred, and Quakers were accused of having been involved, so mass arrests were made of Quakers. Margaret Fell again contacted Charles, and, told him of her disappointment that Charles had declared religious freedom, yet Quaker meetings were being broken up and Quakers arrested and taken to prison. She assured Charles that the Quakers were his friends, and were not amongst his enemies. Charles then ordered the release of 4,000 Quakers from prison. (12)

Margaret Fell, who married George Fox in 1669, eleven years after the death of her husband, and, seventeen years after Fox had converted her to the Quaker way, had written a book to defend the right of women to preach, and later worked to establish a system where the abilities of women could be fully used in the Quaker religion. (13)

In 1667, Fox formalised the Quaker movement, into Meetings, with procedures, to protect it from the persecution that Quakers had been suffering. (14)

Perhaps, it is at least in part due to this, that while most of the non-conformist sects of seventeenth century England, disappeared, the Quakers survived. (21)

The imposition of the second Conventicle Act, and, the actions of the authorities in harassing the Quakers, prevented the Quakers from meeting in their meeting houses, so they met in the streets, where crowds gathered to watch. Other non-conformist groups met in secret, but the Quakers, in accordance with their principles of truth and openness, met openly. (15)

At one street meeting on Gracechurch Street, William Penn was arrested, as the chief speaker, with William Meade. They were charged with causing a riot on Gracechurch Street, so a jury was summoned. The Penn-Meade trial occurred in September 1670. Penn had studied law. He and Meade vigourously defended themselves. The jury, on the basis of the evidence submitted, could not and did not, find them guilty of the charge. The judge was furious, as he did not get the verdict that he wanted, so he harassed and threatened the jury, and locked them up overnight, without food, drink or heating, to reconsider their verdict. Penn told the jury to act according to their consciences. They still did not find the defendants guilty of the charges. The judge repeated this, and, the jury repeatedly maintained their findings. When the judge gave up trying to force the jury to change its verdict, he fined the jury members and the defendants each 40 marks, for contempt of court, with imprisonment until the fines were paid. The sentence passed on the members of the jury, was soon quashed by a higher court, and the principle established that a jury could not be punished for its verdict. The case of the jury penalties, was known as Bushell's Case, named after the jury foreman, and established the rights and privileges of the English jury. (16) (17) Penn wrote a paper, "The People's Ancient and Just Liberties Asserted, in the trial of William Penn and William Meade " (1670), which vindicated the independence of the jury, which he had defended in the court case. The case "stands as a landmark in English legal history. (18)

In 1675-1681, Penn and a group of other Quakers formed for the purpose, bought New Jersey, in North America, and it was settled by Quakers. Penn wanted more land to develop in North America, so he bought land across the Delaware river from New Jersey, with the purchase price being settlement of a debt of £16,000, owed to him by King Charles 2. The new colony was named Pennsylvania, after Penn's father, Admiral Sir William Penn. (19)

Penn set Pennsylvania up as a "Holy Experiment", to show that people of different opinions and different religions, could live in peace. He ensured that the Indians were treated fairly, and no Quaker blood was ever shed by an Indian , and, there was no breach of the peace for over seventy years, until 1756, when the government passed out of Quaker hands, and the Indian wars began. (19)

Due to a boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore, who owned neighbouring Maryland, Penn had to return to England, for the King to settle the dispute. He found persecution of the Quakers in England, worse than before with 1460 in prison, and many more impoverished by fines. He lobbied the king, and in the spring of 1686, won pardons for nearly 1300 Quakers from King James 2, and, the next year, the Declaration of Indulgence liberated dissenters, and established freedom of religion within England. (19)

When King James 2 was deposed, Penn's friendship with, and loyalty to, him, caused Penn to be suspected of high treason, so he had to go into hiding, and Pennsylvania was taken away from him. When his name was cleared, and, Pennsylvania returned to him, the colony had gone bad. Things went from bad to worse for Penn, and he died of a stroke. (19)

Penn had proved that subject to the Quaker way, people could live in harmony as equals, in an English colony, regardless of religion, and race, and opinion. He also called a conference of four leading colonies, to plan a union of colonies; each would send two delegates to an annual congress to settle disputes, standardise coinage, and, so on. For Europe, he proposed what amounts to the current European Union and European Parliament, both of which are still being developed. (20)

The significance of the Quakers is therefore thus: the Quakers have been pioneers, much ahead of their time, they were the largest of the non-conformist sects of seventeenth century England, and, one of the few to survive, they have been instrumental in achieving civil and political rights, and, legal rights, they have been regarded as a significant threat to the Anglican religion, and they have advanced humanity. They have proved that humans of different races, different religions, and, different species, can live together in peaceful harmony. They proved this in a seventeenth century English colony. And, this has been but a small part of the significance of the Quakers.


  1. "Towards a Quaker View of Sex - An essay by a group of Friends" - Edited by Alastair Heron, Published by Friends Home Service Committee, London, 1963; p7

  2. "Towards a Quaker View of Sex - An essay by a group of Friends" - Edited by Alastair Heron, Published by Friends Home Service Committee, London, 1963; p8

  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981; Micropaedia, vol 10, p731

  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981; Macropaedia, vol 7, p579

  5. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 18

  6. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p9

  7. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, pp10-11

  8. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p11

  9. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, pp12-13

  10. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981; Macropaedia, vol 7, p743

  11. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 24

  12. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 25

  13. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 29

  14. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 18

  15. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 34

  16. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, p 34-35

  17. "The Story of Quakerism 1652 - 1952" - Elfrida Vipont; 1955, Bannisdale Press, London, pp 105-106

  18. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981; Macropaedia, vol 14, p24

  19. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, pp 36-38

  20. "Quaker Pioneers" - Stephen Allott; 1963, Fountain Press, pp 39-40

  21. "Mothers of Feminism" - Margaret Hope Bacon, 1986, Harper & Rowe, New York, p7