Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Influential Quakers in Crime and Justice in the early days

Quakerism began in the early 1650s, in England. At that time the only form of religion permitted was the Church of England, and it was illegal to worship in any other way. Many early Quakers were imprisoned, and often had their property confiscated. Three of these early Quakers made particular contributions to Quaker thought and action concerning criminal justice, and are singled out here – George Fox (the founder of Quakerism), Margaret Fell and William Penn.

John Bellers was born later than the other three, and Quakers were free to worship as they wished for much of his adult life. In his writing he foreshadowed much later thinking about social and penal reform.

George Fox (1624-1692) clearly brought home to the developing Society the reality of being locked up. Early Quaker meetings were primarily concerned to receive reports of those who were suffering, so that they and their families could be looked after. The continuing experience of being outsiders led to a deep awareness of the psychology of and sympathy for the excluded within the Society’s learning and culture.

‘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.’

George Fox’s words in his Journal foreshadowed three principles of modern penology: early trial, the classification of prisoners and the provision of work.

Margaret Fell (1614-1702) spent two periods in prison herself, but her key contribution was the system she and others set up for helping those in prison, and their families and dependents. She was the key organiser and administrator of the society, and set up the ‘meeting for sufferings’ in 1668 to petition on behalf of prisoners. The title ‘Meeting for Sufferings' continues to be used by British Friends for a key strategy committee: the name has persisted because of the critical importance of the original for the sheer survival of Quakerism.

William Penn (1644-1718), made two key contributions.  In 1670 he was one of the defendants in what became known as the Penn Meade trial. His arguments in court set a landmark precedent for the rights of juries to make up their own minds, rather than being told by the judge what their verdict should be.

In his ‘Holy Experiment’ in the governance of Pennsylvania in the 1680s, he abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder; a very early example of Quaker thought converted into action. He said that ‘prisons shall be workhouses,’ that bail should be allowed for minor offences, and ‘all prisons shall be free, as to fees, food and lodgings.’

John Bellers (1654-1725) was the earliest British Friend to pay serious and systematic attention to social reform. He pleaded for the abolition of the death penalty, the first time this plea had been made. He argued that criminals were the creation of society itself and urged that when in prison there should be work for prisoners so that they might return to the world with an urge to industry. Bellers issued in 1724 an Epistle to Friends, pleading for a combined effort at penal reform, but there was no response. The ideas had come too soon for most Friends.

Only in Pennsylvania did his ideas find a place in the eighteenth century. Pennsylvanian Friends, following on from Penn, worked on the central idea that ‘containment’ could be a beneficial and transforming experience for prisoners, if properly implemented. There are examples of many Friends being involved in establishing what was considered a more just treatment of offenders. Although they were only a minority in the Pennsylvanian reform groups, nevertheless these American Friends’ voices were clearly highly influential. The idea was a completely new one: that imprisonment should be looked on as a means of reforming criminals and not merely punishing them. They served as an example that was later to influence the penal code throughout the United States.

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