Friends and the Stuart Restoration, 1660-1689
H. Larry Ingle
Someone with more insight than I possess once said that history opens up a foreign land, one that moderns cannot know about without an act of will and then only fitfully. This pregnant observation comes into sharp relief when we Quakers consider, as we must, the reaction of our forbears to the restoration of the Stuart line to the throne of England in 1660 after a gap of eleven years.
Slamming shut opportunities for change occasioned by the era of the English Revolution, this dramatic event that unfolded slowly after the death of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in 1658 suddenly brought members of the Children of the Light (as Friends then called themselves) up short. Any likelihood for further success seemed to disappear. For over a decade they had witnessed almost continuous achievement–an increase in numbers and public attention, tighter internal organization, a burst of convincements in army ranks, and the hope that, as the First Friend George Fox expansively put it in a 1658 pamphlet, his movement would soon amount to “the Church in England.” The most startling exception involved the notoriety of the scandal enveloping the leading Friend James Nayler in the middle of these years (1)
The darkening political mood elicited a variety of responses from Friends. Friends like Edward Burrough pondered the use of carnal weapons to resist the push for returning to a monarchy and giving up on the “Good Old Cause” of the Revolution. (2) Richard Hubberthorne, who had earlier soldiered in the so-called “New Model” army, now announced himself as one who “makes war with the sword of his mouth,” pleaded with his former comrades to see that tithes and the monarchy be abolished, liberty of conscience upheld, popular government established, all specific demands of the Good Old Cause. (3) Fox penned the most radical of any of his pamphlets early in 1659. A last ditch effort to influence Parliament, this one enumerated fifty-nine reform “particulars” ranging from cutting the cross out of the national flag to confiscating the property of the country’s churches and “great houses” for the benefit of poor people and beggars. (4) After this last published gasp of his radicalism, the worsening political situation helped push Fox into a ten-week depression that removed him to London and sent him to Reading to recuperate. (5) If “Overturn, Overturn” had been on the lips of many Quakers in the Cromwellian era, that kind of radicalism had to be replaced by the search for security and survival after the Restoration as times grew tougher.
The Quaker who got to the new king, Charles II, first after his arrival, was Margaret Askew Fell, the widow of Thomas Fell, who, until his death three years before, was vice-chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and a very powerful man. (6) Fell was heir to lots of land in Lancaster and mistress of Swarthmoor Hall, an impressive estate near Ulverston whose properties included an iron forge, which she managed. Not only was she literate in an age in which few commanded their letters as well and as much as she, but she was also enormously aware of her abilities, which she had put to the use of Friends since 1652 when she became a convinced Friend and quickly the organizing secretary and treasurer of the movement. (7)
She wrote numerous letters to Charles, explaining Friends’s stance on peace and oath-taking, and made her pleas to the monarch directly and personally nearly as soon as he arrived in London. Even after being sent to jail in Lancaster in 1664, she bombarded Charles with her missives. She certainly did not want to let up in her effort to see that the king was informed about the plight of Quakers. (8)
Ironically the situation could have been worse. The returning Stuarts in the person of Charles were to be less problematic for Friends than the Cavalier Parliament seated in May 1661 and lasting eighteen years until 1679; that body proved more repressive when it came to religious dissenters than either Charles or his father. On religious matters reliant on the Anglican hierarchy, in 1661 Parliament passed a law singling out Quakers by name in its title, denying the right of anyone to refuse to swear the oath before a magistrate. The next year the Act of Uniformity required all religious groups to conform to the rites of the Church of England, something no Friend could willingly consent to. In 1665 a Five Mile Act denied the right of those “pretending” to holy orders–wording vague enough to be used easily enough against Friends–to pass within five miles of a town that sent a burgess to Parliament. Another law forbade more than five unrelated people from convening together for worship. And of course tithes and church rates were required, as customary, for those who lived within the boundaries of a church parish, and that mean practically everyone, no exceptions. (9)
Enforced sporadically by justices of the peace, Parlia-ment’s new laws aimed at destroying and wiping out Friends and their meetings (“conventicles” was the legal term) and were used when a specific justice came to believe the law should be unloosed. When political tensions increased, perhaps for other reasons–say a political plot–the authorities would crack down and arrests would swiftly ensue.(10) But prosecutions had little effect, even according to the opponents of Friends, because the Friends continued to operate as before, gathering openly and refusing to hide, as Baptists and other dissidents were wont to do.
A noted reforming preacher of moderate inclinations, Richard Baxter, certainly did not fancy “fanatics” like Friends, but he still applauded them as “resolute” when they assembled openly only to be carried off to “Gaol,” then met again the next First Day. Many observers watching their antics, he had to admit, “turned Quakers, because the Quakers kept their meetings openly and went to prison for it cheerfully.” (11) Baxter’s evidence came primarily from London, but the same trends appeared in other counties: in Norfolk to the east, Quaker membership jumped from 217 in 1662 to 831 in 1689. No wonder a recent historian concluded that persecution “was [not only] utterly ineffective in deterring conversions; if anything, it seems to have been a stimulant.” (12) The historical lesson in this instance would suggest that adversity, even if it reached the level of active persecution, could be beneficial when it was faced openly and met with a consistent and principled stance.
The period of persecution also saw the final organization of Friends, one that has lasted down to the present day, and while it dealt primarily with internal needs, it was rather dramatically at odds with the sometimes undisciplined nature of the early movement in the 1640s and 1650s. The most respected historian of early Quakerism, William C. Braithwaite, was blunt in his assertion that this change “was bound to come, . . . brought to a head by the need for a clear witness in times of persecution and for combating spiritual vagaries that were disintegrating in tendency.”(13) Even more pointedly, he was saying that subjective anarchistic inclinations represented by Friends like James Nayler, who allowed his followers to parade him into Bristol in 1655 in a way that recalled the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, were excessive and had to be controlled for the good of the cause. The first broad assertion of what was needed came from London in May 1666 in a formal declaration from leading ministers that placed authority to judge all Friends’s writings, teachings, actions, and statements in the hands of those “who were sound in the faith.” They ordered this “Testimony from the Brethren” to be read in all meetings and kept permanently to remind all Friends of their continuing obligations.(14)
Here I must admit to some disquiet. When I started working on my biography of Fox now nearly thirty years ago, I was excited by the creative and exuberant nature of the early movement and inclined to decry the need for an overweening coercive organization. But as I worked in the sources and realized that only the Society of Friends, of all the multitude of sects that developed during the revolutionary era, survived, my view changed, and I came to see that Fox’s genius as an organizer justified calling him “first among Friends.” To endure persecution and to survive internal disputes and disagreements, some one had to have the authority to make decisions about the way forward. Braithwaite’s seemingly easy line about such “change was bound to come” may reflect an historian’s natural bent toward conservativism, but as regards Friends and their history it meant more–actual survival. So long as the original impulse that galvanized Quakerism remained also–the insistence that each individual must heed Christ’s inward promptings–then so long could Friends endure a minimum of organization.
The internal organization of Friends emerged in the years gradually after 1666 and was a response to the internal needs of the movement and not entirely a response to persecution. Yet its creation inevitably had the side effect of enabling Friends to survive outside pressures as an ascending order of Presbyterian-like structures girded and strengthened them. (That no one else commented on the sect’s parallels with Presbyterianism, then or later, dramatically illustrates the way Quaker commentators saw their faith as sui generis and unconnected with other Christian groups of the period.) After 1668, a local particular meeting became known as a “preparative meeting”; a number of these were grouped into a monthly meeting; and a number of these made up a quarterly meeting, a gathering that convened four times a year; all became constituent parts of a yearly meeting. (15)
In addition, there were subordinate groups that had power to limit what Friends might do: a Second-day Morning Meeting of ministers, for example, gained authority to authorize and make sure that any Friend’s writing met acceptable standards, set by that body, before it could be published or even circulated; no wonder Fox growled about a “spirit that is too high” when it denied him its imprimatur to send a letter around to meetings during an 1676 internal debate over the powers of women’s meeting. And a Meeting for Sufferings, over time evolving into a kind of executive committee of the Yearly Meeting, met weekly in London where it exercised the powers of the yearly meeting in the other fifty-one weeks of each year; its still existent name now seems more than a little quaint but dramatically illustrated the impact of persecutions on Friends.(16)
No wonder the body was called “London Yearly Meeting” because those who lived in London or could get there quickly from its suburbs exercised its power. Since London also hosted the country’s government, king and Parliament, Friends acting through the yearly meeting and its agencies could easily keep an eye on the state’s machinery and influence its decisions and practices.
Until the mid-1670s, after 1675, Quakers did not overly concern themselves with governmental power. For one example, based on its epistle the yearly meeting of 1673 was more concerned with internal dissidents from a policy of centralization. Echoing another influential statement, the Testimony from the Brethren of 1666, their epistle, to be read in all subordinate meetings, announced that the Lord “has laid in more upon some in whom he has opened counsel . . . (and particularly in our dear brother and God’s faithful laborer George Fox)” to impose discipline. (17) And William Penn, the aristocrat more closely associated with public matters than other Quakers, summarized this approach in a 1673 pamphlet he authored responding to an attack on Friends by an Anglican cleric. “It is not our business to meddle with government,” he averred, “but to obey and suffer for conscience-sake.” “[W]e are actually unconcerned with such [busy meddlings.]” (18)
With important exceptions, in general Quakers would echo this call to non-involvement for almost 200 years, as they also tended to stand aloof from politics. But in the 1670s this hands-off approach lasted scarcely long enough to blink an eye. Only two years after Penn’s non-engagement with politics, London Yearly Meeting dispatched two epistles to meetings that highlighted a renewed emphasis on an old concern going back to the 1650s–Friends’s sufferings at the hands of a state bent on suppressing the public expression of their faith. One took aim at some meetings that were apparently convening in secret:
“as it hath been our Care and Practice from the Beginning . . . ag[ains]t the Spirit of Persecution, . . . it is our Advice & Judgment, that all Friends gathered in the name of Jesus keep up those publick Testimonies in their respective Places, and not decline, forsake or remove their publick Assemblies, because of Times of Sufferings. . . .” (19)
The second epistle authorized setting up a meeting for sufferings to receive a listing of sufferings of Friends all over the country, the king’s otherwise peaceful subjects who were punished for refusing tithes, abjuring oaths, or meeting openly. (20) Friends were thus demonstrating that they had no intention of submitting to laws that restricted their consciences or tried to force them to violate their understanding of God’s calling.
Deliberate historian Henry Cadbury agreed with the equally deliberate William C. Braithwaite that, in rather typical Quaker understatement, another 1675 move “Perhaps . . . marks the beginning of a new phase of collective Quaker effort, the struggle for [religious] tolerance.” What these scholars were writing of was a decision of the Second Day Morning Meeting in May 1675 to admonish Friends who could vote to get behind candidates for Parliament who would pledge themselves to support liberty of conscience for all to worship according to their persuasion and “to remove all oppressive and Popish laws that are for coercion or persecution about religion.” (21) As it happened, there was no immediate election, but the Morning Meeting had laid down the broad principle that Friends might legitimately engage in elections, a sharp break with Penn’s reading of Quaker responsibilities only two years before.
Indeed, because Penn was the closest thing that the Quakers had to a political thinker and activist, his Whiggish anti-court bent was not only important for wedding his fellow believers to that position, but it also helped attach the Whig label to Friends where it stuck for at least a generation. For only one example, the churchman and satirist Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote in 1710 about the time he asked “some considerable Whigs” whether they did not feel marred because “whole herds” of disparate dissidents like “Atheists, Anabaptists, Deists, Quakers and Socinians” so “openly and universally Listed under their Banners?” To beat the court’s party of Tories, these countrymen responded, they had to unite with such folk. [NOTE: the actual electorate for these elections was tiny: voting was subject to many restrictions, both financial and traditional. Accurate numbers of voters are unavailable; but an idea of the size is suggested by estimates that in 1831, 120 years after Swift’s comment and just before a major electoral reform bill expanded voting rights, barely ten per cent of English males could vote (and zero per cent of women). But in the Restoration years, as more Friends prospered in business, more of them managed to become voters.] (22)
Penn’s primary interest, as was the Friends’ generally, involved reversing legal restrictions on religious toleration and promoting liberty of conscience. He never let that goal slip far from his mind or practical aim. On order of the Meeting for Sufferings, Penn appeared before a parliamentary committee on March 22, 1678 to sound a warning about attacking Roman Catholics and other dissenters, including Friends. Pointing out that he had been called a “Papist,” a “Jesuit,” and an “Emissary of Rome & in pay from the Pope,” he averred that “all laws have been let loose upon us [Quakers], as if the design was not to reform us but to destroy us.”
His stated willingness to be identified with Catholics was personally risky in keeping with widespread Protestant concern that Penn’s royal friend the future James II was in fact a subversive Catholic, thus calling his own allegiance to Protestantism into question. But his commitment to removing the basis of religious oppression from all dissenters required him to take this stand, and in speaking at the behest of Meeting for Sufferings his testimony tied Quakers generally to same cause. (23) And he drew up two bills for parliamentary consideration that stated quite clearly that no persons in the kingdom “shall be molested, damnified, or any way prejudiced for his or their dissent or non-Conformity to the Religion” established in the nation. (24)
As Charles II ended the so-called Cavalier Parliament in 1679 and the campaign for a new one began, Penn published pamphlet after pamphlet that appealed to other Protestants–one, An Address to Protestants upon the Present Conjuncture, declared that its author was “a Protestant, W.P.”–urged his countryman more generally, to select candidates devoted to religious liberty. True Christians, he insisted, simply did not prosecute each other, and he quoted the Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, to support this posture. He expressed little use for those, such as the Tories who were responsible for oppressive laws, who would persecute others for religious reasons. (The very center of the Tory Party consisted of the bishops and clergy of the Anglican Church.) If explicitly unspoken, Penn’s words still identified Quakers with those who were being persecuted for living out the principles of their faith. (25)
As one fairly recent historian of English Whiggery concluded, Penn’s statements for universal tolerance were far from typical of other Whigs. They concentrated at this time on trying to exclude from the throne James, the duke of York and the likely heir. He was the son of Charles I and brother of the current king Charles II, a Roman Catholic. Penn was a friend of James. He saw that to create a stable civil union required the Anglican Church to turn aside from using coercive methods against people who could or would not, in good faith, adhere to the established church. This would weaken the Anglicans, true, but it would also bring civil religious peace and unity to the nation and do so at the expense of no one’s beliefs. Coercion had surely not achieved this elusive goal and could not be expected to. (26)
What Penn’s forthrightness indicated was that the Quaker approach to political maneuvering was in a sharp state of flux, dependent to some extent on conditions prevailing at any given time. In 1675 the need to halt persecutions and prevent sufferings and secure freedom of religious conscience had taken priority over refusing to “meddle with” government. Years later with parliamentary elections again in the offing, Meeting for Sufferings added its firm voice to the Morning Meeting’s admonition and called for Friends to vote for men who would commit themselves against persecution and popery. (27) This decision did not mean that Friends were merely an adjunct of the Whigs, but it certainly signaled that they were adopting Penn’s stance.
Ironically, the very act of voting forced Friends to disobey the law and led to sufferings at its hands. In order to vote–one did not cast a ballot but uttered his choice out loud at the polling place–a person had to swear an oath that he was qualified to choose a candidate. Let him refuse to do so, even on principle, and his right to vote could be legitimately be denied; he might also run afoul of representatives of powerful men watching the polling and be subjected to prosecution for nonconformity in refusing the oath.
In places like Bristol, the Quaker vote was so pivotal that the two parties, the court party or Tories and the country party or Whigs vied for their support with promises of granting tolerance to dissenters if they were successful. Penn was especially active in soliciting support from the Whigs, so much so that the Meeting for Sufferings wanted him to retire to London from the political hustings in 1679. Historian Ethyn Kirby granted that Penn was not a typical Quaker and his political views were not embraced by the lot of Friends, but she believed that his advanced ideas were acceptable even to them when governmental repression grew too great and hence required resistance. That the Second Day Morning Meeting, controlled as it was, after all, by Friendly powerbrokers in the capital, did not stop him from publishing certainly suggested that he had not outrun his guides regardless of how advanced his views appeared. (28) They might entertain qualms about his public activism, but they were willing to countenance his “meddling.”
A bit less public action–one presumably more acceptable to moderate Friends who tended to look askance at Penn’s overt politicking–was petitioning Parliament and lobbying its members. Presenting petitions to that body went back fifteen to twenty years, perhaps the most remarkable example being one signed by more than 7000 self-described “handmaidens and daughters of the Lord” presented to the Rump Parliament in July 1659 protesting the imposition of tithes and calling for their removal. The petition also rejected any practice having to do with tithes, such as paying for hireling ministers, communion, and maintaining meeting places, as well as imprisoning those who otherwise resisted the established church. The petition amounted to a broad-based attack on forced religious practices. (29) These appeals also won some support from sympathetic onlookers who even though not enduring disabilities themselves, were yet willing to identify with Friends who were.
Closely related to lobbying was the practice of collecting accounts of sufferings from governmental enforcement of the laws against Friends. The amount of prosecution varied from area to area depending upon the wishes of local magistrates, the publicity that Quakers were able to foment–particularly by attacking and provoking debates with prominent ministers–and the pressure of powerful people in the area. Confrontational tactics began early, and pamphlets followed quickly. From 1654, pamphlets detailing prosecutions – which Quakers labeled invariably “sufferings”– flowed from the presses. Aimed at winning public sympathy and presenting a favorable interpretation of the faith that brought them into conflict with the law, these pamphlets were a staple of the publishing that Friends frequently engaged in. (30)
With restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 and subsequent passage of the numerous laws against religious dissent, Quakers assiduously collected lists of sufferings from across the nation. This tactic resembled the century-old English Protestant tradition of dramatizing the oppression that dissenters experienced at the hands of Roman Catholics, as in John Foxe’s Actes and Monu-ments of these Latter and Perillous Dayes, more famously known as the Book of Martyrs. (31)
They publicized trials, lacing their reports with statements denying that Quakers were lawbreakers, and issued broadsides or posters calling attention to unjust treatment; these attested to their refusal to engage in violent resistance, particularly important during the early 1660s when there were a number of actual plots and rumors of more against the state. (32) These followed in the path laid out by what over many years became the celebrated Quaker response to the 1661 Fifth Monarchist uprising–the so-called Venner Plot, named after the rising’s leader Thomas Venner. These were fringe Baptists who hoped to introduce the direct reign of God and held out for three days, but were quickly subdued when they emerged to fight in the open.
Suspicion and gossipy rumors grouped other dissidents like Quakers with the Fifth Monarchists, causing twelve Friends to issue a statement proclaiming that Friends did not and would not use “outward carnal weapons” against any regime for any reason. Quakers would not plot just as they would not fight with outward weapons, especially not in secret, they iterated. (33) Nearly two hundred fifty years later, Friends hallowed this statement as their [original] Peace Testimony. (34)
After the Testimony of the Brethren in 1666, as we have seen, Fox had set out to create an ascending order of meetings for the purpose of discipline and good order. By 1675, capped by Meeting for Sufferings, these were in place. With this apparatus backing them up, leading Quakers could engage in lobbying and electioneering, confident of a polity firmly in place that could support them; they became so open that those who observed political machinations identified Friends as a formidable force. A rumor even circulated at court that if Friends, led by William Penn and another strong activist, George Whitehead, would pull back from their support for the Whigs on the hustings, the king’s allies would see to it that their persecution was lessened. This may have been a tactical ploy only, but it demonstrated the impact Quaker efforts were having. Moderates’ disquiet about such politicking still existed in Meeting for Suffering, but it would not revert to the policy of standing clear of government. (35)
Late in his life, at the age of sixty-one, only six years before his death in 1691, George Fox directly joined these efforts, to help ensure that the movement he had started should be freed from sufferings caused by parliamentary laws. Such activity both demonstrated his flexibility and his willingness to spend some of his waning time lobbying with members of Parliament; such activism truly made him first among Friends. He had dealt with Parliament before, but in the 1660s he was in prison for a good bit, and in the 1670s he traveled both to the continent and to the New World. But in 1675, at approximately the same time that the Meeting for Sufferings was being created, his interest in letting the authorities know of Quakers’s endurance for their faith, led him to make new overtures to Parliament. He wrote pamphlets and books detailing sufferings for distribution in Westminster and stayed around long enough to see if the project had worked either for or against Friends. (36)
The campaign to influence Parliament toward religious toleration lasted more than a decade. For the two years between March 1679 and March 1681, three Parliaments dominated by Whigs convened during the exact period that Penn was writing his pamphlets. In December 1680, a bill designed to give “Ease to all Protestants Dissenters” was proposed, and in January 1681 Parliament decided that the prosecution of dissenters was, among other things, “an encouragement to Popery and dangerous to the peace of the kingdom.” Each represented a partial victory for the Quakers, Penn, and their Whig allies. (37) Yet no matter how satisfying such sentiments might be for Quakers and other dissenters, no act of toleration was forthcoming until 1689. The campaigning had to continue.
If the scanty records are any indication, the effort consisted primarily of lobbying by buttonholing members of Parliament and passing onto them statements about Quakers’ sufferings in all parts of the country. Meeting for Sufferings appointed three men for each week Parliament was in session to oversee its activities and take action that was needed at that particular time. Friends also had access to a small building, a kind of coffeehouse apparently, just near the house of Parliament; here Friends could meet with their targets and try to gain their support, although the names of MPs that were mentioned do not reveal one who spoke for toleration when it finally came up for debate.
Some of the Friends appointed by the Meeting for Sufferings were weighty indeed, a virtual triumvirate plus one of the leadership of the Religious Society of Friends in the nation. (38) In March 1685, for example, Fox, Penn, Whitehead, and the Scotsman Robert Barclay all greeted MPs over four days at their little private coffee-house “chamber”. These sessions were all about the “busyness” of sufferings as Fox’s misspelled “business” in his Itinerary Journal. He did not detail any concrete results, if any, of these gatherings, but he was back at it over the next few days. (39)
Winning approval for an act of toleration also depended heavily on events external to Quaker activity. In 1685, after Charles II’s death, the Roman Catholic Duke of York became James II. He moved to announce his government’s indulgence toward Catholics and Protestant dissenters, hoping that such a gesture would encourage passage in the Parliament of an act of tolerance, but his action did not win the much sought-after approval. He also hoped to build support for his reign from those who opposed the Anglican establishment and its policies. Yet except for his closeness to men like Penn, he detested dissenters.
Still London Yearly Meeting was pleased; it formally thanked God who “hath inclined the King to hear the Cries of his Suffering Servants for Conscience-sake.” Penn, even more encouraged by the indulgence and a close friend of the new monarch, delivered the letter as head of the Quaker delegation. (40)
But then in July 1688, the Queen delivered herself of a son and heir to the throne, a boy destined to be a Roman Catholic sovereign. That birth soon meant that the die was cast for a “Glorious Revolution” –that is, Parliament’s decision to invite the Dutch prince William of Orange and his wife Mary, daughter of the English king, to replace James on the throne. (41) The ubiquitous Penn had made contact with William on a trip to the Netherlands two years earlier; it would have been most unlikely and uncharacteristic of Penn if he had not broached the idea of tolerance to a man spoken of as a likely replacement for James on England’s throne. (42)
A Dutch army landed in England on November 5, 1688, and the old king, James II, soon embarked for France. It was a Whig victory, even in one sense a revolutionary one, for the new dual monarchs were acclaimed as such by the Parliament, representing the people: God and birth were no longer the only sources of England’s rulers: kings were now to be made by the people who voted–though not all of them indeed– through their representatives in the House of Commons.
This was well-acclaimed a “Glorious Revolution,” glorious because it was bloodless and relatively easy, a revolution because it demonstrated that the divine right of monarchs had been cast aside. Henceforth kings would occupy their position by parliamentary fiat. But it was a Whig victory that laid down the governmental rules that both Whigs and Tories, already united behind William and Mary, subsequently accepted as given. The Declaration of Rights, a document presented to William and Mary when they were invited to come to England, declared the new supremacy of Parliament, expressing if not consensus, then a broad area of agreement. And this Bill of Rights was made a formal law in December 1689 after James’s expulsion, which assured that future rulers could not defy Parliament in areas that its members thought important, as for example an act of toleration. (43)
And Toleration did come in a bit over six months later, May 1689. Fundamentally the new Act ended the legal fiction that all the English were automatically members of the established church and recognized the right of dissenters who were willing to swear an oath of allegiance and reject the Romanist doctrine of transubstantiation to worship as they pleased. Even so, this toleration was hardly complete: dissenters still could not serve in Parliament, attend universities, or refuse to pay tithes to support the still-established church.
Instead of swearing the prescribed oaths, Friends were now enabled to “sincerely promise and solemnly declare” or “profess” instead of swearing outright. The Act of Toleration had few high-flown phrases such as James I’s Indulgence contained; instead it was a purely political document designed to woo dissenters to support the royal settlement and to grant, in the words of the preamble, “some ease to scrupulous consciences.” The face-saving compromise about swearing illustrated how scrupulosity might be eroded away to a kind of individualism and lack of enthusiasm that presented no threat at all to the established order, whether religious or political. The exuberance and creativity of the Friends in the late 1640s and 1650s had now been channeled into respectability, a stance now ratified by the requirements of the Act of Toleration in 1689. (44)
Not all Friends were happy with this kind of compromise, and the Quaker historian William Braithwaite may be right that Friends “had little direct share in the passing of the Toleration Act,” (45) but George Fox, at least, had worked overtime in its behalf. From the first of the year until the end of March he was often at the Friends’s “Chamber” located in Parliament Yard to confer with leading Quakers and lobby MPs about the evolving and emerging bill. His journal conveyed no details about what they talked about, but his labors pointed to concerns with what was transpiring as Parliament considered tolerance. A hint at how his mind was proceeding came at the occasional meetings for worship when he mentioned the subject of his ministry. He reported that he spoke about the necessity of holding to Friends’ testimony against paying tithes, one of the goals Quakers believed would be achieved by the bill’s final passage. (46)
Even though the requirement of tithing remained and some Quakers had doubts, Friends could and did formally applaud the achievement represented by the Act of Toleration. The best known historian of Quakers, William Charles Braithwaite, also celebrated the Act, as Friends have since. He quoted a lengthy passage from the yearly meeting epistle of May 1689, written only days after passage of the new law. It advised members of the once-rambunctious sect to:
“Walk wisely and
circumspectly towards all men, in the peaceable spirit of Christ Jesus,
giving no offence nor occasions to those in outward government . . .
and submit all to that Divine power and wisdom which rules over the
kingdoms of men. That, as the Lord’s hidden ones, [who] are always
quiet in the land, and as those prudent and wise in heart, who know
when and where to keep silent, you may all approve your hearts to God.”
Their long petitioned and lobbied for struggle represented a landmark victory, true enough, and certainly saved the institutional framework of the Society of Friends. It also meant that George Fox would die within two years safely in his bed rather than succumbing to renewed rigors of incarceration in one or another of the nation’s county jails, places where he had often been put away over his life, the first time when he was a youthful 26, the last from 1673-75.
The achievement–if that was what it was–had come because since the Restoration in 1660 members of the Society of Friends had learned much and flexed their muscles. Almost since the beginning they had written pamphlets describing their faith and defending practices that were at odds with those of other Christians. And they stuck to their calling, refusing to bare their heads before their betters, rejecting the plural “you” for the singular “thee,” “thou,” and “thy” when speaking to one person, marrying without benefit of either clergy or state, adamantly refusing to pay their lawful tithes, informing judges and magistrates that God had told them not to swear to what they knew to be true but to utter a simple “yes” and “no.”
They even eschewed baptism and never took the sacrament of what they denigrated as “the supper.” They had announced their intention not to use or countenance the use of outward, carnal weapons. They had circulated petitions even among women to explicitly protest tithing and all the things mentioned above and thereby implicitly empowered people considered too insignificant to petition in the first place.
And on top of it all, they created a series of organized meetings, beginning at the bottom, continuing up through the county, and culminating in a yearly meeting centralized in London and able to give directions to those at every level below. And they even had subsidiary agencies, meeting weekly, at this central level that oversaw publications and collected data from below about what they called “sufferings” caused by government’s desire merely to enforce the law that had been approved by the Parliament.
All this was enough to, at least, publicize Quakers’ grievances, but there was one more salient advantage these Friends possessed that needs mentioning. They had people of ability who learned from experience and were willing to work long and hard to plot strategy to achieve their goals, lobby politicians, and face down their opposition, face to face, in print, and at the ballot box. And they had scattered people of importance in the nation’s social order–perhaps the two most important were the wife, after 1667, of the movement’s founder, Margaret Fell Fox, whose first husband and her own self-assurance gave her entrée into the royal court, and William Penn, whose background gave him a wide acquaintance with lots of people who counted, including two kings, Charles II and James II, at the very top of the aristocratic mound.
With such advantages, Friends in 1689 were content to accept the Act of Toleration, even if it was not totally adequate. They had survived and achieved at least the theoretical part of their goal– they did not have to conform to the established Anglican Church, they could meet freely in their own meeting-houses, and they could convene to conduct business.
True, they had to pledge to an “oath” that was not called that; true, they were still required to pay tithes, which they continued to reject and suffer for, and they were still legally required to take an oath to vote if asked. But the principle of tolerance had been established and could be drawn on to justify future pressure to end these temporary disadvantages.
1. On these points see, H. Larry Ingle, First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), 113, chs. 11,12. See also relevant sections of Rosemary Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666 (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000). For a non-Quaker take on these matters, see Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), ch. 5.
2. Barry Reay, “The Quakers and 1659: Two Newly Discovered Broadsides by Edward Burrough,” Journal of the Friends Historical Society, 54 (1977), 101-11.
3. H. Larry Ingle, “Richard Hubberthorne and History: The Crisis of 1659,” ibid., 56 (1992), 189-200.
4. George Fox, To the Parliament of the Comonwealth of England (Np: Quaker Universalist Fellowship, 2002). This was the pamphlet’s first reprinting since 1659.
5. Ingle, First Among Friends, 175
6. Ibid., 90-92.
7. Unfortunately, there is no adequate biography of Margaret Fell, but see the volume of her letters, Undaunted Zeal: The Letters of Margaret Fell, Elsa F. Glines, ed. (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2003), which has a fine Introduction about her.
8. See the letters and editor’s notes on the letters, Ibid., 275-86, 291-98, 303-06, 309-10, 314-15, 321-27. 332-34, 341-44, 351-56, 390-95.
9. Craig W. Horle, The Quakers and the English Legal System, 1660-1688 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 50-53
10. Richard T. Vann, The Social Development of English Quakerism, 1655-1755 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), 92.
11. William C. Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism (York, Eng.: William Sessions Ltd, 1979; 2nd ed.), 41.
12. Vann, Social Development, 93-94.
13. Braithwaite, Second Period, 248.
14. Ingle, First, 222-23.
15. Arnold Lloyd, Quaker Social History, 1669-1738 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), 134.
16. Ingle, First, 256.
17. Epistle, 26 May 1673, Portfolio MS., XXIII, 134, Library, Society of Friends, London (hereinafter cited as LSF). Interestingly, Fox was in the New World at this time.
18. William Penn, “Wisdom Justified of Her Children,” in Select Works of William Penn (New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1971), II, 249.
19. Epistle, 27 May 1675, Mary M. Dunn and Richard S. Dunn, eds., Papers of William Penn (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), I, 330-31.
20. Epistle, 6 Jun 1675, Leek Ms., 63-65, LSF.
21. Braithwaite, Second Period, 90, 660.
22. Jonathan Swift, Examiner, 22 Feb 1710, in Herbert Davis, ed., Prose Works of Jonathan Swift (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), III, 92. Phillips, John A., and Charles Wetherell. (1995) “The Great Reform Act of 1832 and the political modernization of England.” American Historical Review 100.2 (1995): 411-436.
23. See Penn’s testimony, Doc. 125, 22 Mar 1678, Penn Papers, I, 533-36.
24. Ibid., 537-42.
25. Edwin Bronner and David Fraser, eds., William Penn’s Published
Writings, 1660-1726: An Interpretative Bibliography in Penn Papers, V, 235-42,245-51.
26. J.R. Jones, “A Representative of the Alternative Society of Restoration England?,” in The World of William Penn, eds., Richard S. Dunn, Mary M. Dunn (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 62-63.
27. Braithwaite, Second Period, 98.
28. Ethyn W. Kirby, “The Quakers’ Effort to Secure Religious Liberty, 1660-96,” Journal of Modern History, 7 (December 1935), 404-07. This article is an exceptional piece of work on the topic.
29. These Several Papers in Mary Garman, et al, eds, Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings, 1650-1700 (Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1996), 58-128.
30. See Moore, Consciences, 157-79, and Kate Peters, Print Culture and the Early Quakers
(Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), 196-98. In fact, the
very word “sufferings” came into the language as a way of describing
the disadvantages that Friends endured because of their testimonies
against taking oaths and tithes. See the word in the Oxford English Dictionary.
31. Craig Horle is one of the few historians of Quakerism to have commented on the parallel between Quakers publicizing their sufferings to Foxe. Horle, Quakers, 17. In the next century, Joseph Besse collected multi-volume accounts of Quaker sufferings, which became almost required reading for Friends. For information, see Joseph Smith, A Descriptive Catalogue of Friends Books (New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1970), I, 251-2, 257.
32. See Richard L. Greaves, Deliver Us from Evil: The Radical Underground in Britain, 1660-1663 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).
33. Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1952), 398-403.
34. For a creative discussion of this evolution, see Thomas C. Kennedy, British Quakerism, 1860-1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), ch. 7.
35. Kirby, “Quaker Efforts,” 405-06.
36. Journal of George Fox, Norman Penney, ed. (New York: Octagon Books, 1973), II, 310. Interestingly, no reference to the creation of Meeting for Sufferings appears in the most widespread edition of Fox’s Journal, the one edited by John Nickalls.
37. Braithwaite, Second Period, 93-97.
38. Kirby, “Quakers’ Efforts, 413. See also Frederick B. Tolles, Quakers and the Atlantic Culture (New York: Macmillan Co., 1960), 43-44.
39. The Short and Itinerary Journals of George Fox, Norman Penney, ed. (Cambridge, Engl., Cambridge Univ. Press, 1925), 107-09.
40. See Penn’s statement, the yearly meeting’s letter, and the King’s response in Penn Papers, III, 153-56.
41. William Penn to George Legge, 23 Oct 1688, ibid., 210-12.
42. Henry Sidney to Penn, 13 Aug 1686, ibid., 97-99.
43. Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1713 (Wokingham, Eng.: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980; 2nd ed.), 235-39.
44. On these points, see ibid., 208-12, and Braithwaite, Second Period, 151-56.
45. # Braithwaite, Second Period, 157.
46. Short Journal, 191-96.
47. Braithwaite, Second Period, 16