The Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends was a religious faction that became the most significant of many fundamental groups that arose following the turmoil of the English Civil War (1642-46).
Founded by George Fox in 1647 the Society of Friends was a major contributing factor in the founding of Pennsylvania and also included a generous recognition of human rights, tolerance for religious and ethnic diversity, and the absence of hereditary social hierarchy.
William Penn, son of Admiral Sir William Penn worked alongside the Quakers, Indians and other populations to create an ideal world for him and fellow Quakers. Penn’s contributions along with help from fellow Quakers helped build religiously centered communities in Pennsylvania, West Jersey, and Delaware.
George Fox the founder of the Friends believed that God did not live within the church walls, but within the hearts of people. With that in mind, Fox when a mission to seek converts. His first followers were generally young men and women. Fox and the Friends stood for freedom of religion, speech, worship, assembly, as well as equality of sexes and social classes. Quakers beliefs and practices were in sharp contrast from both the Anglicans and Puritans.
After the restoration of the monarchy and the re-establishment of the Church of England in 1660, the Friends paid a tremendously high price for their unorthodoxy and missionary passion. They refused to take mandatory oaths among other offenses which resulted in imprisonment for some and torturing and disfigurement for others. Between 1661 and 1685, some 450 Friends died on behalf of their beliefs.
The Quakers paid a high price for their values and practices. Any religion that was practiced in England other than Anglicanism would face persecution. The difference between the Quakers and the Anglican Christians was that the Anglicans practiced strict discipline in practicing their religion. Anglicans would pray daily and ask for forgiveness of their sins every morning. They believed the bible was the sacred authority and the only way to live an eternal life was to attend sermon. Anglicans and Puritans believed man was powerless to achieve any salvation without direct intervention from God.
The Quakers on the other hand believed Christ died not for the few, but for the many. Their conviction in the presence of Christ reduced the significance of scripture, and elevated the position of ordinary people. This belief led them to the conclusion that a formal clergy was unnecessary. The Friends challenged Christian orthodoxy in other aspects. In an age when all religious sects persecuted those who did not share their same beliefs, the Friends did not punish anyone for having different religious beliefs from their own.
In 1661, William Penn was introduced to Quakerism. Penn had been studying at Christ Church in Oxford when he became a Quaker. When his father died, Penn inherited a large amount of land in America. The land was named after Penn’s father: Pennsylvania. Penn worked successfully to create a friendly situation between fellow Quakers and the Native Americans. William Penn detested social distinctions based on “blood” and “birth”. Penn’s ideas were somewhat revolutionary for their time. Penn believed people should be judged by what they do, or have done, not by their birth. It reflects the same ideas Martin Luther King Jr. would have in the mid-twentieth century. “We should not be judged by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.” It should also be noted that Penn esteemed the Natives so much he set up a careful policy of purchasing land titles from the Indians. This was something virtually unheard of during those times.
The Quakers gave up their freedoms and in some instances their lives for their progressive ideas and beliefs. Ideas that would create the foundation that would point towards our nation’s future. Beginning in the Revolutionary era and continuing through the civil rights movement. The legacy of the Friends presented a vision of a more thoughtful and tolerant society.