All the virtues of the Puritans shone in their offshoot the Quakers, however obscured for a time with fantasies and bigotry. The fear of both God and Satan was so strong in them that sometimes it set their bodies trembling, and gave them a name. Said one of them, Robert Barclay, in 1679:
The power of God will break forth into a whole meeting, and there will be such an inward travail, while each is seeking to overcome the evil in themselves, that by the strong workings of these opposite powers, like the going of two opposite tides, every individual will be strongly exercised as in a day of battle, and thereby trembling and a motion of the body will be upon most, if not upon all, which, as the Power of Truth prevails, will from pangs and groans end with a sweet sound of thanksgiving and praise. And from this the name of Quakers, i.e., Tremblers, was first reproachably passed upon us. 50
The explanation of their founder, George Fox, is slightly different: “Justice Bennet of Derby was the first that called us Quakers, because we bid them tremble at the word of the Lord. This was in 1650.” 51 Their own name for their sect was the Friends of Truth, and later, more modestly, the Society of Friends.
Apparently they were at first Puritans with an especially strong conviction that their hesitations between virtue and sin were the struggles, in their minds and bodies, of two spiritual forces, one good and the other evil, to possess them here and through all eternity. They accepted the basic tenets of the Puritans—the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, the fall of Adam and Eve, the natural sinfulness of man, the redeeming death of Christ the Son of God, and the possibility of the Holy Ghost or Spirit coming from heaven to enlighten and ennoble the individual soul. To perceive and feel this Inner Light, to welcome its guidance, was to the Quaker the essence of religion; if a man followed that Light he needed no preacher or priest, and no church. That Light was superior to human reason, even to the Holy Bible itself, for it was the direct voice of God to the soul.
George Fox was a man with little education, but the Journal that he wrote is an English classic, revealing the literary power of unliterary speech if simple, earnest, and sincere. Son of a weaver, apprenticed to a shoemaker, he left his master and his relatives “at the command of God,” and began at the age of twenty-three (1647) the perambulant preaching that ended only with his death in 1691. In those early years he was beset with temptations, and went to clergymen for counsel. One prescribed medicine and bloodletting, another recommended tobacco and psalms. 52 George lost faith in ministers, but whenever he opened the Scriptures he found solace.
Often I took my Bible, and went and sate in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me. . . . Then the Lord led me along, and let me see His love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, and can get by history or books. 53
Soon he felt that the divine love had chosen him to preach the Inner Light to all. At a meeting of Baptists in Leicestershire “the Lord opened my mouth, and the everlasting truth was declared amongst them, and the power of the Lord was over them all.” 54 A report spread that he had “a discerning spirit,” whereupon many came to hear him. “The Lord’s power broke forth, and I had great openings [revelations] and prophecies.” 55 “As I was walking in the fields, the Lord said unto me: ‘Thy name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, which was before the foundation of the world’” 56—i.e., George was now comforted with the thought that he was among that minority of men chosen by God, before the Creation, to receive His grace and eternal bliss. Now he felt equal to any man, and the pride of this divine election forbade him “to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to Thee and Thou all men and women, without respect to rich or poor, great or small.” 57
Convinced that true religion was found not in churches but only in the enlightened heart, he entered a church near Nottingham, and interrupted the sermon by crying out that the test of truth was not in the Scriptures but in the Inner Light. He was arrested (1649), but the sheriff released him, and the sheriff’s wife became one of his first converts. He resumed his missionary wandering, entered another church, and: “I was moved to declare the truth to the priest and the people, but the people fell upon me in great rage, struck me down . . . , and I was cruelly beaten and bruised by them with their hands, Bibles, and sticks.” He was again arrested; the magistrate let him go, but the populace stoned him out of the town. 58 At Derby he preached against churches and sacraments as vain approaches to God; he was committed to a house of correction for six months (1650). He was offered release if he would join the army; he replied by preaching against war. His jailers now put him “into a lousy, stinking place, low in the ground, without any bed, among thirty felons, where I was kept almost half a year.” 59 From his prison he wrote to judges and magistrates arguing against capital punishment, and his intercession may have helped to save from the gallows a young woman who had been condemned to death for stealing.
After a year of imprisonment he resumed his peripatetic gospel. At Wakefield he converted James Nayler. At Beverley he entered a church, listened till the sermon was over, and then asked the preacher was he not ashamed to “take three hundred pounds a year for preaching the Scriptures?” 60 In another town the minister invited him to preach in the church; he refused, but addressed a crowd in the churchyard.
I declared to the people that I came not to hold up their idol temples, nor their priests, nor their tithes, nor . . . their Jewish and heathenish ceremonies and traditions (for I denied all these), and told them that that piece of ground was no more holy than any other. . . . Therefore I exhorted the people to come off from all these things, and directed them to the spirit and grace of God in themselves, and to the light of Jesus in their own hearts. 61
At Swarthmore, in Yorkshire, he converted Margaret Fell, and then her husband, Judge Thomas Fell; their home, Swarthmore Hall, became the first substantial meeting place of the Quakers, and is to this day a shrine of pilgrimage for Friends.
We must not follow Fox’s story further. His methods were crude, but he atoned for them by the patience with which he bore a long succession of arrests and bufferings. Puritans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans attacked him, for he rejected sacraments, churches, and ministers. Magistrates sent the Quakers to jail not only for disturbing public worship, and seducing soldiers with pacifism, but also for refusing to swear allegiance to the government. The Quakers protested that oaths of any kind are immoral; Yea or Nay should be enough. Cromwell sympathized with the Quakers, gave Fox a friendly interview (1654) and, parting, said, “Come again to my house; if thou and I were but an hour of a day together, we should be nearer one to the other.” 62 In 1657 the Protector ordered the release of imprisoned Quakers, and sent instructions to all justices to treat these churchless preachers “as persons under a strong delusion.” 63
The worst persecution had fallen to the lot of James Nayler, who carried the doctrine of the Inner Light to the point of believing, or pretending, that he was Christ reincarnate. Fox reprimanded him, but some devoted followers worshiped him, and one woman affirmed that he had restored her to life after she had been two days dead. When Nayler rode into Bristol women threw their scarves before his horse, and chanted, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts.” He was arrested on a charge of blasphemy. Questioned as to the claims made by or for him, he would make no other answer but Christ’s “Thou hast said it.” Parliament, then predominantly Puritan, took up his case (1656), and for eleven days debated whether he should be put to death. The motion was lost by ninety-six to eighty-two, but by a spirit of humane compromise he was sentenced to stand for two hours with his neck in a pillory, to receive 310 lashes, to have the letter B (for blasphemer) burned into his forehead, and to have his tongue bored through with a red-hot iron. He suffered these atrocities bravely; his followers hailed him as a martyr; they kissed and sucked his wounds. He was committed to solitary confinement, without pen, paper, fire, or light. Gradually his spirit broke; he confessed that he had been deluded. He was released in 1659, and died destitute in 1660. 64
The Quakers distinguished themselves by what seemed to some of their contemporaries to be troublesome peculiarities. They allowed no ornaments on their clothing. They refused to take off their hats to any person, of whatever rank, even in church or palace or at court. They addressed all persons by the singular thou or thee, instead of by the originally honorific plural you. They rejected the pagan names of the days of the week and the months of the year, saying, for example, “the first day of the sixth month.” They worshiped as readily in the open as indoors. Each worshiper was invited to tell what the Holy Ghost had inspired him to say; then all practiced a reverent silence, probably as a sedative after enthusiasm—which originally meant “feeling a god within.” Women were admitted to worship and preaching on the same terms as men. Matter-of-fact Britons resented the tendency of the early Quakers to the intemperate denunciation of other sects, and to a certain pride in election and virtue. Otherwise the Friends were model Christians. They did not resist evil, they accepted with only verbal protests the vilest conditions of imprisonment, they did not strike back at those who beat them. They gave as they could to all who asked. Their married life was beyond reproach. Their rule against marrying any but another Quaker limited their growth; nevertheless by 1660 there were sixty thousand Friends in England. Their reputation for honesty, courtesy, industry, and thrift raised them from the humble ranks in which they first appeared into the middle classes that claim most of them today.