Britain, Ireland and America in the Seventeenth Century, and the Beginnings of Quakerism
The seventeenth century was a turbulent time in Britain and Ireland, with civil war and great political, religious, and social change. It was also the century when British colonisation of North America and the Caribbean took off, and the transatlantic slave trade with it. This was the context in which Quakerism began.
Within the British Isles
King and Parliament: at the beginning of the century, King James 1 (of England, Wales and Scotland) considered he had a divine right to rule: by the end of the century William III and Mary 1 were king and queen in partnership with Parliament. In the 1640s, the Civil War between King and Parliament raged across England, Wales and Scotland, culminating in the trial and execution of Charles II in 1649. For about ten years, in the 1650s, there was no king, and Britain was a republic (the ‘Commonwealth’), led by Oliver Cromwell and Parliament. During this time, Cromwell led a campaign in Ireland and took control there too. After Cromwell died in 1658, the monarchy was soon restored, with Charles II becoming king in 1660, with the consent of Parliament.
The religious dimension: the struggle between king and parliament had profound religious dimensions. At the beginning of the century the only authorised religion was the Church of England: near the end of the century, in 1687-89, the Act of Toleration was passed, allowing everyone to worship freely as they chose. In between, itinerant preachers had spread new religious ideas, and new religious groups had emerged, two of which (Quakers and Baptists) survive to this day. Until 1687, they had been widely persecuted for their beliefs. Now they could worship openly.
The political and social dimension: Many new political ideas interacted with all of this. The Civil War radicalised many people, as men were recruited into militias on both sides, many women and children were killed, and villages and livelihoods were destroyed. In 1647 the Putney Debates, open to all, explored ideas of civil liberties, universal suffrage (for men), equality, and freedom of religion. Tithes (a tax on the value of produce, used to support clergy and others) were questioned, though were not abolished until 1836/9. The Diggers argued for shared ownership, and set up communal living on a stretch of farmland. The Levellers argued for complete equality (for men) in decision-making.
Across the Atlantic
This was also the century when European colonisation of the ‘New World’ (the Americas) took off. Native Americans were increasingly outnumbered, as more and more citizens of European countries travelled to their colonies, to try their hand at a new life. Large plantations of tobacco, cotton, and sugar were established, and farms and small settlements grew up along the North Atlantic coast. The Pilgrim Fathers, who sailed to ‘New England’ in 1620, are a famous example. Britain’s main area of activity at this time was the North Atlantic seaboard and parts of the Caribbean.
The slave trade expanded rapidly to meet the labour needs of the new colonies, and ports like Bristol and Liverpool prospered.
The beginnings of Quakerism
Out of this ferment came the Society of Friends (Quakers) and its fundamental principles. George Fox, (1624 – 1691), its founder, believed that the experience of Jesus Christ could come to anyone directly, without the help of a priest or any other person. There was something of God in everyone, men and women alike: equality was fundamental. The peace testimony to nonviolence was first enunciated in 1661, and Fox’s first reference to Quakers’ reputation for honest and fair dealing was in 1663. Friends should be active in this world, and should ‘be patterns, be examples, and walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone’.
Many others contributed to the formulation of these principles. The Valiant Sixty’ travelled the country preaching and developing their thinking. The Society of Friends was organised into local, regional and national (Yearly) meetings by 1670, and ideas were honed across this structure. Robert Barclay wrote extensively, as did William Penn (1644 -1718). Penn was granted Pennsylvania by Charles II and aimed to create a society there that would embody Quaker principles in (his ‘Holy Experiment’). Other new thinking developed in Pennsylvania: the first Quaker protest against slavery was in Germantown, in Philadelphia.