86 – Quakers

We’ve found associations between Elizabeth Jervis and Quakers in Nantwich. Let’s find out more about Quakers.

Quakers are a religious order founded in 1652 in the English midlands by George Fox. Its members are known as Quakers or Friends. The official name is The Religious Society of Friends.

Quakers don’t emphasize belief, (Quakers have no Creed), but rather what is within a person and how that person lives his or her life. 

“Let your lives speak.”

George Fox

Today, Quakers number around 900,000 worldwide, with the majority in Africa and the Americas and considerable diversity in religious observance. There is still a very active Quaker community in Britain.

George Fox

George Fox

George Fox was born in 1624 fifteen miles southwest of Leicester. His family was middle class, with Puritan leanings.

At age nineteen George experienced a religious conversion. For the next few years he wandered England, seeking a faith which he could accept fully.

It was a time of turmoil and civil war, and George Fox struggled to make sense of it.

But his religious views were taking shape, and he debated them wherever he went.

The Birth of Quakerism

By 1647, Fox had begun to preach in market-places, fields, meetings of various kinds or sometimes outside a church after a service. He began to attract a following.

A group of followers began to travel and preach together. At first, they were “Friends of the Truth”, and later simply “Friends”.

George Fox preaching in a tavern

By 1652, George Fox had preached to several meetings of over a thousand people. He had followers and preachers that were committed to his views.

1652 is considered Quakerism’s founding year.

By 1660 it was becoming a mass movement, with some scholars estimating a total of 30,000 to 60,000 members. Fox and his preachers had done their work well, and in the decade 1651-1660 established the Quaker movement strong enough to survive the next two difficult decades.

Quaker Beliefs

God is in everyone. Each person can have a direct relationship with God.

Quakers were early advocates against slavery, for women’s rights, for better prison conditions, and for harmonious relationships between peoples and nations. Most Quakers are pacifists.

Who Became Quakers?

Most of those who became Quakers were farmers, tradesmen, artisans, and unskilled laborers. The gentry never played a strong part in Quaker history.

Richard Sheldon, Bishop of Lichfield, compiled a list of Quaker meeting conventicles in 1669. His report abounds in terms such as “inconsiderable fellows” and “vulgar sort”, and gives the impression that the bulk of Friends were from the lower classes.

Margaret Fell

One of the most influential Quakers was Margaret Fell, wife of prominent judge Thomas Fell.

In 1652, George Fox preached in Ulverston, Lancashire, Margaret Fell met him, and later wrote that he “opened us a book that we had never read in.” Margaret Fell became a preacher, financial provider, and unofficial secretary of the movement.

Swarthmoor Hall, her home, became “home base” for George Fox and the Quaker movement. After her husband’s death in 1658, she retained control of Swarthmoor Hall, which remained a meeting place and haven from persecution.

In 1669, George Fox married the widowed Margaret Fell and, when not travelling, occasionally lived at Swarthmoor. Fox died in London in 1691 and Margaret died at Swarthmoor Hall in 1702.

Note: You may recall in an earlier post that we had done research at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania – both named after Swarthmoor Hall. Swarthmore College is a Quaker-based liberal arts school.

Quaker Persecution

Quaker beliefs sound reasonable and attractive, don’t you think? No! It’s treasonous, and it threatens the ruling class and the Church of England.

The Blasphemy Act of 1650 made it an offense for anyone to assert God dwelt in men and nowhere else. Fox was arrested and imprisoned several times in this decade.

In 1661 a government proclamation prohibited meetings of any dissenters of the Church of England. Within weeks more than 4,000 Quakers were imprisoned.

This was followed in 1662 by the Quaker Act by which any person who refused to take an oath to the Anglican monopoly incurred severe penalties, and repeated offences culminated in transportation to Australia for life.

Quakers asked each of their meetings to maintain a list of their members’ “sufferings”. These sufferings were presented to parliament and other official courts in hopes they would be stopped.

Years later, these sufferings were compiled into a famous book, “A Collection of the Sufferings of the People called Quakers”. It’s a genealogical treasure because it records many Quakers by name and location and punishment.

The book of two volumes contains hundreds of examples of sufferings.

Quakers were harassed for opening their shops on a Sunday, not burying their dead at parish churches and for conducting their own funerals, not giving public thanksgiving after childbirth, not marrying in church, refusing Easter dues, and for keeping schools.

Quakers were imprisoned, beaten, their crops taken or burned, their houses and livestock confiscated. Much of the persecution was ordered by the local officials of the Church of England.

Quaker Meetings

By 1660, George Fox had organized the Quakers into Meetings. These were regional gatherings, with a formal hierarchy.

Meeting for Worship: This meeting is comparable to a church service. It might be at someone’s house, or perhaps a meeting house might be acquired or built. It was typically on Sunday but might well occur on other days too. The meeting might start with a query, something to think about. Or it may be unstructured. But it would be mostly silence.

Quaker business meetings are the operational structure and ensure that every member is part of the decision-making process. Each level of meeting hierarchy raised concerns or activities to a higher level. And decisions and directives were passed down from the higher to lower levels.

Preparatory Meeting PM: Each local Quaker group may hold a preparatory meeting.

Monthly Meeting MM: Each local Quaker group holds a Monthly Meeting. At the MM, subjects might range from friend’s marriage requests to disciplinary action against offenders.

Quarterly Meeting QM: Every third month, a few representatives from the local MM report their activities to the regional QM, and they take group decisions back to the MM.

Yearly Meeting YM: Each QM sends representatives to the YM, usually in London. Decisions from the YM are taken back home to the QM and MM.

In each of these meetings, detailed minutes were kept. These are a genealogist’s delight. Unfortunately, most Quaker meeting minutes in England are not available online and are kept in county archives.

Discipline and Disorderly Walking

“That if any person draw back from meetings, and walk disorderly, … and when the church hath reproved them for their disorderly walking, and admonished them in the tender and meek spirit, and they do not reform,…

Letter from Quaker elders in Lancashire – 1656

“Disorderly walking” means straying from the path of discipline of the Quakers. If a member was accused of disorderly walking, then counseled, and then didn’t reform, the member could be disowned.

In 1669 George Fox issued a paper of “Advices”, which were rules to be observed by Quakers.

They included the supervision of Friends’ behavior and marriage. Senior Friends were to be appointed to visit and counsel members who were leading a disorderly life, defined as pursuing pleasure, drunkenness, gaming, falling into debt, womanizing, slandering, and tale-telling.

Marriages were closely controlled. Friends were not to marry “out”, with someone other than another Quaker. A couple intending to marry had to announce at four monthly meetings their intent, and other friends might be appointed to investigate whether the couple was fit to marry. Friends were not to be married by a priest or civil official.

Persistent efforts were made to reason with offenders of the rules. and to convince them to publicly vow their behavior and future intent to be better. If not, disownment was a last resort, but a great deal of patience was always exercised.

After the first decade, Quaker rules of discipline developed into a very strict routine. Not every Friend was able or willing to exercise the desired self- control.

Quakers in the Midlands

George Fox began preaching as he travelled, first in the Midland counties, then in the northern counties.

Apart from Fox himself, the first of the itinerant Quaker preachers came into Staffordshire late in 1653 or early in 1654. They had the most success in Leek and the Moorland.

Quaker Meetings – 1654

In Bishop Sheldon’s 1669 report, Staffordshire had 11 Quaker conventicles, Cheshire 22, Leicestershire 11, Warwickshire 5, Derbyshire 3, and Shropshire 1.

In the north-west of Staffordshire there were small groups of Friends in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Keele and Caverswall, in the center of the county meetings in Stafford and its neighboring parishes of Bradley and Haughton. By one estimate, Keele meeting counted about 68 households.

Cheshire had a greater number of meetings and members. By 1658, there were meetings in Chester, Newton, Morley, and Nantwich.

Quaker Monthly Meetings – Staffordshire and Cheshire

The success in Staffordshire and Cheshire was partly a result of the number of itinerant preachers who had travelled to Swarthmoor Hall using the main London to Chester road which ran through the two counties.


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