Prisoners of Conscience
Many Quakers over the centuries have taken the consequences of holding to their principles, even when this meant breaking the law.This taught them a great deal about prison conditions. This experience informed both their faith and their later actions. This is the main source of Quaker experience as prisoners. However, some Quakers have been imprisoned for standard criminal offences, and some offenders have become Quakers during their sentences.
In the early days many broke the law simply by being at worship. The 1664 Conventicle Act forbade religious gatherings for more than 5 people, except for Church of England services. In the twentieth century, many conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing to fight, and Quakers have been amongst those imprisoned for green and anti-nuclear campaigns.
It has been estimated that 15000 British Friends were persecuted for their faith in the period from the beginning of the Society in 1652 to the beginning of freedom of worship in 1687-9. This is about 1 in 3 of all Quakers of that time. The statistics are eloquent. In 1658 there were just 119 Quaker prisoners in all of England. In 1660, in just 2 months, 535 Friends from York and Yorkshire were imprisoned. 120 Friends, from one meeting in Gloucester, were arrested on a single day in 1661. Within a year of the 1664 Conventicle Act, a total of 2100 Quakers were arrested from just five London meetings.
George Fox was imprisoned on many occasions, and thought deeply about prison conditions. He wrote, in his Journal, 'What a hurtful thing it was that the prisoners would lie so long in gaol, showing how that they learned badness one of another in talking of their bad deeds, and thereby speedy justice should be done.' He foreshadowed three principles of modern penology: early trial, the classification of prisoners and the provision of work.
William Penn was first imprisoned in 1668, for writing a Quaker pamphlet. In his most famous work, 'No Cross No Crown', he wrote 'this prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man'. He was imprisoned again in 1670, along with another Friend, William Meade, for 'speaking at a meeting in Gracechurch Street'. The Penn-Mead trial was a landmark in English law, as it established the independence of juries. When Penn later drew up the first constitution for Pennsylvania, in his Holy Experiment, he created a much more enlightened crime and justice system, drawing on what he had seen.
James Nayler, a prominent early Friend, suffered horrendously in prison, and died a broken man at the age of 42.
Margaret Fell, who later married George Fox, was imprisoned herself, in Lancaster jail. She kept remarkable records of the 'sufferings' of these imprisoned Quakers, and 'meetings for sufferings' were held to organise assistance for the prisoners and their families. The key strategic body for British Quakers has retained the name 'Meeting for Sufferings', due to the great historical significance of this period.
During the First World War, from 1914-19, many Quakers were imprisoned because they were conscientious objectors to military service.This led to a heightened awareness of conditions within prisons., which many Friends challenged. The price that they paid during the war of 1914-19 and the courage they showed were not lost, for during the 1939-1945 war most objectors were recognised as men under obedience. Recent campaigners for green issues and anti-nuclear protesters have faced imprisonment, which again has led to an experience of the role of prisoner.
Quakers have been imprisoned for regular criminal offences too: where this is the case, they are supported in various ways by the Quaker prison chaplain, if their prison has one. This article is not about such prisoners.