Quakerism arose as a form of Christianity in England in the mid-1600s, when George Fox–who was not a trained minister but instead an uneducated shoemaker and son of a weaver–made an essential rediscovery: that God lives within and talks directly to people. “Great things did the Lord lead me into, and wonderful depths were opened unto me, beyond what can by words be declared”* – were the words he used to record a mystical experience in his Journal. It became apparent to Fox that something of the Divine is planted in each human being. He made it his life’s work to direct people to “the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth,”* becoming an itinerant evangelist.
England was ready for Fox’s message: It was in the throes of the Reformation, where the rituals, tithes and worldly habits of the established church were besieged by an explosion of fervor for the basic teachings of Jesus. More than any other factor, it was the availability of the Bible now being printed in English–scriptures that they could finally read for themselves without priestly intermediation and manipulatation–that primed the populace for Fox. By the end of his life in 1691 approximately 20% of the English population had become Quakers.
One of Quakerism’s early converts was the son of a leading British admiral. Though used to a life of privilege, this fellow found himself thrust into confrontation with the authorities who were siding with the clergy against the Quakers. The young aristocrat became a public hero in England as a result of a court trial where he was accused of sedition when all he did was preach in the street to a meeting of Quakers who had been locked out of their assembly hall by the police. Acquitted by a jury, William Penn subsequently was able to persuade friends in high places to consider alternatives to persecuting Quakers. Eventually he worked out a deal with the Duke of York, the brother of the King, to open a colony for Quakers in North America, and in 1681 was granted the charter for Pennsylvania.
The chestnut has it that “The Quakers came to Pennsylvania to do good… and they did very well!” While there is some truth to that, one New Jersey Quaker was moved to devote his life to resisting the secular trend’s worst aspect: the enslavement of Africans. John Woolman lead a struggle during the mid 1700s to wean his fellow Quakers away from this unchristian practice, walking thousands of miles up and down the East Coast while exercising gentle powers of persuasion. Though he did not live to see the American Revolution, by the time it came along his efforts had succeeded in uniting Quakers throughout the colonies to oppose slavery. The Quaker example soon spread to other principled people, and by 1800 the anti-slavery movement in America was well underway.
In the 1820s Lucretia Mott, a Quaker mother of six, organized a woman’s anti-slavery society in Philadelphia. Sent to England as a delegate to an anti-slavery conference, she was refused a seat because of her sex. This rejection led to the woman’s rights movement in America when Lucretia and her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she had met in England at that sexually unequal conference, organized the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights convention in 1848. This marked the birth of a movement that in 1920 finally gained women the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Commemorating their accomplishment, these two ladies are joined by their protégé Susan B. Anthony in a 3 person life-sized statue, currently situated in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Quakers believe that God may be pleased to make use of thee as an instrument,* as Fox put it. In other words, spiritual light needs to express itself in action, not just words and prayers. The lives of William Penn, John Woolman and Lucretia Mott testify to that. The spirit that gave forth the Scriptures* guides each of us in our everyday lives, and brings us together as a community of Friends. Basic Quaker testimonies such as peace, equality, simplicity, integrity, and community have arisen from a deep sense of responsibility prompted by that spirit, which Quakers call the Light Within.
*Quoted from Fox’s “Journal.” Fox dictated this and other works to his assistants late in his life.