In treating of these people in a historical manner, we are obliged to have recourse to much tenderness. That they differ from the generality of Protestants in some of the capital points of religion cannot be denied, and yet, as Protestant dissenters they are included under the description of the toleration act. It is not our business to inquire whether people of similar sentiments had any existence in the primitive ages of Christianity: perhaps, in some respects, they had not, but we are to write of them not as what they were, but what they now are. That they have been treated by several writers in a very contemptuous manner is certain; that they did not deserve such treatment, is equally certain.
The appellation Quakers, was bestowed upon them as a term of reproach, in consequence of their apparent convulsions which they labored under when they delivered their discourses, because they imagined they were the effect of divine inspiration.
It is not our business, at present, to inquire whether the sentiments of these people are agreeable to the Gospel, but this much is certain, that the first leader of them, as a separate body, was a man of obscure birth, who had his first existence in Leicestershire, about the year 1624. In speaking of this man we shall deliver our own sentiments in a historical manner, and joining these to what have been said by the Friends themselves, we shall endeavor to furnish out a complete narrative.
George Fox was descended of honest and respected parents, who brought him up in the national religion: but from a child he appeared religious, still, solid, and observing, beyond his years, and uncommonly knowing in divine things. He was brought up to husbandry, and other country business, and was particularly inclined to the solitary occupation of a shepherd; an employment, that very well suited his mind in several respects, both for its innocency and solitude; and was a just emblem of his after ministry and service. In the year 1646, he entirely forsook the national Church, in whose tenets he had been brought up, as before observed; and in 1647, he travelled into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, without any set purpose of visiting particular places, but in a solitary manner he walked through several towns and villages, which way soever his mind turned. "He fasted much," said Swell, "and walked often in retired placed, with no other companion than his Bible." "He visited the most retired and religious people in those parts," says Penn, "and some there were, short of few, if any, in this natiojn, who waited for the consolation of Israel night and day; as Zacharias, Anna, and Simeon, did of old time. To these he was sent, and these he sought out in the neighboring counties, and among them he sojourned until his more ample ministry came upon him. At this time he taught, and was an example of silence, endeavoring to bring them from self-performances; testifying of, and turning them to the light of Christ within them, and encouraging them to wait in patience, and to feel the power of it to stir in their hearts, that their knowledge and worship of God might stand in the power of an endless life, which was to be found in the light as it was obeyed in the manifestation of it in man: for in the Word was life, and that life is the light of men. Life in the Word, light in men; and life in men too, as the light is obeyed; the children of the light living by the life of the Word, by which the Word begets them again to God, which is the generation and new birth, without which there is no coming into the Kingdom of God, and to which whoever comes is greater than John: that is, than John's dispensation, which was not that of the Kingdom, but the consummation of the legal, and forerunning of the Gospel times, the time of the Kingdom. Accordingly several meetings were gathering in those parts; and thus his time was employed for some years."
In the year 1652, "he had a visitation of the great work of God in the earth, and of the way that he was to go forth, in a public ministry, to begin it." He directed his course northward, "and in every place where he came, if not before he came to it, he had his particular exercise and service shown to him, so that the Lord was his leader indeed." He made great numbers of converts to his opinions, and many pious and good men joined him in his ministry. These were drawn forth especially to visit the public assemblies to reprove, reform, and exhort them; sometimes in markets, fairs, streets, and by the highway-side, "calling people to repentance, and to return to the Lord, with their hearts as well as their mouths; directing them to the light of Christ within them, to see, examine, and to consider their ways by, and to eschew the evil, and to do the good and acceptable will of God."
They were not without opposition in the work they imagined themselves called to, being often set in the stocks, stoned, beaten, whipped and imprisoned, though honest men of good report, that had left wives, children, houses, and lands, to visit them with a living call to repentance. But these coercive methods rather forwarded than abated their zeal, and in those parts they brought over many proselytes, and amongst them several magistrates, and others of the better sort. They apprehended the Lord had forbidden them to pull off their hats to anyone, high or low, and required them to speak to the people, without distinction, the the language of thou and thee. They scrupled bidding people good-morrow, or good-night, nor might they bend the knee to anyone, even in supreme authority. Both men and women went in a plain and simple dress, different from the fashion of the times. They neither gave nor accepted any titles of respect or honor, nor would they call any man master on earth. Several texts of Scripture they quoted in defence of these singularities; such as, "Swear not at all." "How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only?" etc., etc. They placed the basis of religion in an inward light, and an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.
In 1654, their first separate meeting in London was held in the house of Robert Dring, in Watling-street, for by that time they spread themselves into all parts of the kingdom, and had in many places set up meetings or assemblies, particularly in Lancashire, and the adjacent parts, but they were still exposed to great persecutions and trials of every kind. One of them in a letter to the protector, Oliver Cromwell, represents, though there are no penal laws in force obliging men to comply with the established religion, yet the Quakers are exposed upon other accounts; they are fined and imprisoned for refusing to take an oath; for not paying their tithes; for disturbing the public assemblies, and meeting in the streets, and places of public resort; some of them have been whipped for vagabonds, and for their plain speeches to the magistrate.
Under favor of the then toleration, they opened their meetings at the Bull and Mouth, in Aldersgate-street, where women, as well as men, were moved to speak. Their zeal transported them to some extravagancies, which laid them still more open to the lash of their enemies, who exercised various severities opn them throughout the next reign. Upon the suppression of Venner's mad insurrection, the government, having published a proclamation, forbidding the Anabaptists, Quakers, and Fifth Monarchy Men, to assemble or meet together under pretence of worshipping God, except it be in some parochial church, chapel, or in private houses, by consent of the persons there inhabiting, all meetings in other places being declared to be unlawful and riotous, etc., etc., the Quakers thought it expedient to address the king thereon, which they did in the following words:
"O King Charles!
"Our desire is, that thou mayest live forever in the fear of God, and thy council. We beseech thee and thy council to read these following lines in tender bowels, and compassion for our souls, and for your good.
"And this consider, we are about four hundred imprisoned, in and about this city, of men and women from their families, besides, in the county jails, about ten hundred; we desire that our meetings may not be broken up, but that all may come to a fair trial, that our innocency may be cleared up.
"London, 16th day, eleventh month, 1660."
On the twenty-eighth of the same month, they published the declaration referred to in their address, entitled, "A declaration from the harmless and innocent people of God, called Quakers, against all sedition, plotters, and fighters in the world, for removing the ground of jealousy and suspicion, from both magistrates and people in the kingdom, concerning wars and fightings." It was presented to the king the twenty-first day of the eleventh month, 1660, and he promised them upon his royal word, that they should not suffer for their opinions as long as they lived peaceably; but his promises were very little regarded afterward.
In 1661 they assumed courage to petition the House of Lords for a toleration of their religion, and for a dispensation from taking the oaths, which they held unlawful, not from any disaffection to the government, or a belief that they were less obliged by an affirmation, but from a persuasion that all oaths were unlawful; and that swearing upon the most solemn occasions was forbidden in the New Testament. Their petition was rejected, and instead of granting them relief, an act was passed against them, the preamble to which set forth, "That whereas several persons have taken up an opinion that an oath, even before a magistrate, is unlawful, and contrary to the Word of God; and whereas, under pretence of religious worship, the said persons do assemble in great numbers in several parts of the kingdom, separating themselves from the rest of his majesty's subjects, and the public congregations and usual places of divine worship; be it therefore enacted, that if any such persons, after the twenty-fourth of March, 1661-2, shall refuse to take an oath when lawfully tendered, or persuade others to do it, or maintain in writing or otherwise, the unlawfulness of taking an oath; or if they shall assemble for religious worship, to the number of five or more, of the age of fifteen, they shall for the first offence forfeit five pounds; for the second, ten pounds; and for the third shall abjure the realm, or be transported to the plantations: and the justices of peace at their open sessions may hear and finally determine in the affair."
This act had a most dreadful effect upon the Quakers, though it was well known and notorious that these conscientious persons were far from sedition or disaffection to the government. George Fox, in his address to the king, acquaints him that three thousand and sixty-eight of their friends had been imprisoned since his majesty's restoration; that their meetings were daily broken up by men with clubs and arms, and their friends thrown into the water, and trampled under foot until the blood gushed out, which gave rise to their meeting in the open streets. A relation was printed, signed by twelve witnesses, which says that more than four thousand two hundred Quakers were imprisoned; and of them five hundred were in and about London, and, the suburbs; several of whom were dead in the jails.
Six hundred of them, says an account published at that time, wer ein prison, merely for religion's sake, of whom several were banished to the plantations. In short, the Quakers gave such full employment to the informers, that they had less leisure to attend the meetings of other dissenters.
Yet, under all these calamities, they behaved with patience and modesty towards the government, and upon occasion of the Ryehouse plot in 1682, thought proper to declare their innocence of that sham plot, in an address to the king, wherein "appealing to the Searcher of all hearts," they say, "their principles do not allow them to take up defensive arms, much less to avenge themselves for the injuries they received from others: that they continually pray for the king's safety and preservation; and therefore take this occasion humbly to beseech his majesty to compassionate their suffering friends, with whom the jails are so filled, that they want air, to the apparent hazard of their lives, and to the endangering an infection in divers places. Besides, many houses, shops, barns, and fields are ransacked, and the goods, corn, and cattle swept away, to the discouraging trade and husbandry, and impoverishing great numbers of quiet and industrious people; and this, for no other cause, but for the exercise of a tender conscience in the worship of Almighty God, who is sovereign Lord and King of men's consciences."
On the accession of James II they addressed that monarch honestly and plainly, telling him: "We are come to testify our sorrow for the death of our good friend Charles, and our joy for thy being made our governor. We are told thou art not of the persuasion of the Church of England, no more than we; therefore we hope thou wilt grant us the same liberty which thou allowest thyself, which doing, we wish thee all manner of happiness."
When James, by his dispensing power, granted liberty to the dissenters, they began to enjoy some rest from their troubles; and indeed it was high time, for they were swelled to an enormous amount. They, the year before this, to them one of glad release, in a petition to James for a cessation of their sufferings, set forth, "that of late above one thousand five hundred of their friends, both men and women, and that now there remain one thousand three hundred and eighty-three; of which two hundred are women, many under sentence of praemunire; and more than three hundred near it, for refusing the oath of allegiance, because they could not swear. Three hundred and fifty have died in prison since the year 1680; in London, the jail of Newgate has been crowded, within these two years sometimes with near twenty in a room, whereby several have been suffocated, and others, who have been taken out sick, have died of malignant fevers within a few days. Great violences, outrageous distresses, and woful havoc and spoil, have been made upon people's goods and estates, by a company of idle, extravagant, and merciless informers, by persecutions on the conventicle-act, and others, also on qui tam writs, and on other processes, for twenty pounds a month, and two thirds of their estates seized for the king. Some had not a bed to rest on, others had no cattle to till the ground, nor corn for feed or bread, nor tools to work with; the said informers and bailiffs in some places breaking into houses, and making great waste and spoil, under pretence of serving the king and the Church. Our religious assemblies have been charged at common law with being rioters and disturbers of the public peace, whereby great numbers have been confined in prison without regard to age, and many confined to holes and dungeons. The seizing for 20 pounds a month has amounted to many thousands, and several who have employed some hundreds of poor people in manufactures, are disabled to do so any more, by reason of long imprisonment. They spare neither widow nor fatherless, nor have they so much as a bed to lie on. The informers are both witnesses and prosecutors, to the ruin of great numbers of sober families; and justices of the peace have been threatened with the forfeiture of one hundred pounds, if they do not issue out warrants upon their informations." With this petition they presented a list of their friends in prison, in the several counties, amounting to four hundred and sixty.
During the reign of King James II these people were, through the intercession of their friend Mr. Penn, treated with greater indulgence than ever they had been before. They were now become extremely numerous in many parts of the country, and the settlement of Pennsylvania taking place soon after, many of them went over to America. There they enjoyed the blessings of a peaceful government, and cultivated the arts of honest industry.
As the whole colony was the property of Mr. Penn, so he invited people of all denominations to come and settle with him. A universal liberty of conscience took place; and in this new colony the natural rights of mankind were, for the first time, established.
These Friends are, in the present age, a very harmless, inoffensive body of people; but of that we shall take more notice hereafter. By their wise regulations, they not only do honor to themselves, but they are of vast service to the community.
It may be necessary here to observe, that as the Friends, commonly called Quakers, will not take an oath in a court of justice, so their affirmation is permitted in all civil affairs; but they cannot prosecute a criminal, because, in the English courts of justice, all evidence must be upon oath.