Who were the early Quakers?
The birth of the Religious Society of Friends (called Quakers) is usually attributed to the preaching and ministry of George Fox (1624-1691) in England, and indeed, Fox was made a mighty instrument in the hand of the Lord for the turning of hearts and the opening of blind eyes to the true nature, light, and life of Christianity. But the incredible spiritual awakening and recovery of true Christianity that took place in the 17th century cannot be attributed to the work or teaching of any man. Truth be told, there were many thousands of believers at this time in history (from all persuasions and backgrounds) who had become disillusioned with the many man-centered and lifeless sects of Christendom, and who were crying out for the true light, life, and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Many were wandering from place to place, giving ear to pastors, priests, and scholars, and still groaning under the burden of inward pollution and spiritual darkness, longing for the living waters that were promised to His true disciples. Finding room in these hearts for His implanted Word, the Lord Himself raised up, gathered, and purified a people to worship Him in Spirit and Truth, to testify against all unrighteousness and idolatry, and to call the world back to the Christianity of the first Apostles, to the everlasting covenant of life and light in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Not only George Fox, but hundreds of other ministers were raised up by the Lord and sent all over Europe, the American colonies, and elsewhere, preaching the true gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit and power. What did they preach? They preached true repentance from the dark and corrupt nature of man, and from all dead works of the flesh, “turning men from the darkness to the light and from the dominion of Satan to God.” They preached Christ as the “Light of life,” the “true Light that enlightens every man,” apart from whom nobody can truly see, understand, or experience the things of God’s kingdom. Indeed, this spiritual light that “shines in the heart to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” is the only way that the true gospel can be distinguished from the dead opinions, notions, and traditions of men. They preached true freedom from sin and darkness, and an experienced victory over the law of sin and death that reigns in the natural, fleshly man. They were not content to sit down short of God’s many promises to “cleanse the inside of the cup and dish,” and to “purify the conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Instead they learned and took up the cross of Christ, which is the power of God to crucify and subdue the man of flesh and the power of sin and death that reigns in him. Faithfully they clung to the cross as a heavenly lifeline, knowing that Second Man could not reign in power and peace wherever the first man remained uncrucified. They preached Christ the living substance and fulfillment of all old covenant shadows and testimonies. And as Christ was revealed and formed in their hearts, they witnessed a worship in Spirit and truth in the new (inward) temple of God, and a ministry to the Lord’s body that was the outworking of His indwelling life.
The early Quakers did not see themselves as a new Christian sect or denomination, but rather as a return to the primitive Christianity of the Apostles, after a long and dark night of “apostasy” from the true Spirit and glory of the new covenant. In fact, for a time, they had no formal name for themselves, and simply called each other “Friends” because of Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing.” According to George Fox’s journal, the name “Quaker” originated with a magistrate named Gervase Bennet. “This Bennet,” says Fox, “was the first person that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the Word of the Lord.” Thus the name Quaker began as a way of ridiculing George Fox’s admonition, but soon became widely known and used throughout the world, and was eventually accepted by the Society of Friends.
In our view, the work of the Lord in and through the original Quakers of the 17th century was indeed a return to the original life, light, power, and purity that the first Christians experienced and proclaimed to be the gospel of Jesus Christ. These men and women saw the Lord, grew up in His life, and like their Master, were hated, slandered, and persecuted for it. However, as is often the case with genuine movements of the Spirit of God, their teachings and practices were quickly misunderstood, corrupted, and grossly misrepresented by the succeeding generations of those who bore their name. Doctrines and traditions can be handed down from one generation to the next, but the life of Christ must be born in, and experienced by, each individual soul. So it is that the Quakers of today bear little or no spiritual resemblance to their forefathers. The life and light of Christ that once reigned in the hungry hearts of the 17th century has been almost entirely forsaken, and the Society of Friends today is barely a shell of what was once perhaps the greatest spiritual awakening since Pentecost.
Explanations and Clarifications
Even from the earliest days of their society, many of the principles and practices of the Quakers have been greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. And today there exists a whole host of strange and untrue opinions and interpretations of their history and theology. Before exploring the many journals and other writings of early Quakers provided on this website, it may prove helpful to read through the information below.
The concept of spiritual light shining in the heart or conscience, is perhaps the most well-known principle of the Quakers. Sadly, very few today (even among those who still bear the name) understand or rightly represent what the first Friends taught about this essential subject.
When early Quakers spoke of this light, they were not referring to anything that belongs to man by nature. Isaac Penington writes:
“Man, by nature, is dead in trespasses and sins; quite dead, and his conscience is wholly dark. That which gives him the sense of his death and darkness must be another thing than his own nature, even the light of the Spirit of Christ shining in his dark heart and conscience.” “Man is darkness, (Eph 5:8) and when Christ comes to redeem him, he finds him to be in darkness. Christ finds no light already in man to help him uncover sin. Thus all the discoveries of sin that are made in the heart are by the light of Christ, and not by any light of man’s nature.”
In other words, natural man has absolutely no true light inherent in himself. There is nothing intrinsically good, true, or pure in man in his fallen condition. It is therefore not the conscience itself that is, or that possesses, divine light (as many wrongly assume). Paul writes, “to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.” Instead, it is Christ the Light sown as a seed in the conscience that brings man to any knowledge of truth and, when obeyed, to the salvation of the soul.
Furthermore, there have been many sad misunderstandings and false conclusions derived from the Quakers use of the term “universal” in reference to this gift of light. The word universal was used by them to establish an intentional contrast with the prevalent idea of the time that God offers the saving knowledge of Christ to only a small, predestined few. The Quakers rejected the idea of individual predestination, and insisted that God offers life to all mankind through a measure of His light or grace that witnesses in the heart against sin, and invites the soul to find salvation in Christ. It is this gracious, inward invitation that is universal. When received, followed, and obeyed, this light becomes the life and salvation of the soul. When rejected, the same light becomes man’s eternal condemnation. See John 3:19-21. Early Quakers were not at all proponents of universal reconciliation.
Customs and Language
There were several accepted customs in the mid 1600’s to which early Friends could not conform. The common dress of the day was very flamboyant, with an excess of useless lace, ribbons, flashy buttons, powdered wigs, etc. The normal greetings between peers involved scraping the right foot backwards along the ground, bowing low while removing the hat, and then flattering one another with titles like “your Lordship,” “your Eminency,” etc. Early friends felt that these and other like customs tended towards vanity, pride, and the “fleshly honor which God would lay in the dust,” and so would not practice these things.
Moreover, at this time in history, the correct and plain use of “thee” and “thou” to a single person was beginning to give way to “you” and “your.” Most modern English speakers are unaware that the words “you” and “your” were originally plural pronouns used only to address two or more people, whereas “thee” and “thou” were used to address one person. In the 1600’s, it became fashionable (again, as a means of showing honor or flattery) to use the plural “you” or “your” in addressing people of higher social status, while “thee” and “thou” were reserved for servants, children, or people of lower social or economic position. Early Friends stuck to what was then considered “plain language” (using thee and thou to every single person, and you and your to two or more), rather than showing preferment by addressing certain individuals in the plural. These may seem like small matters to the 21st century reader, but it is remarkable how many thousands of Friends were insulted, beaten, imprisoned, and even hanged for refusing to conform to these outward customs that serve no purpose besides flattering the fleshly man.
Both from their own personal experience, and from many lamentable occurrences in church history, early Quakers understood well the propensity of uncrucified flesh to seek to lead, govern, and teach in things pertaining to the worship and service of God. The natural man is extremely quick to run into doctrines, opinions, practices, and traditions, employing his own carnal wisdom and ability in an attempt to build the church of God. Friends saw clearly that this creates a false Christianity that stands in the will and nature of fallen man, and which (like King Saul) seeks to offer the Lord the best of what He has already rejected and condemned.
Quakers were therefore extremely careful and intentional about waiting on the Lord in the silence of their flesh, and feeling after His life-giving Spirit, before they attempted to pray, preach, worship, encourage, or admonish in their meeting together. In the words of Robert Barclay:
“When assembled, the great work of one and all ought to be to wait upon God, and, in turning away from their own thoughts and imaginations, to feel the Lord’s presence and know the ‘gathering into his Name’ where He is ‘in the midst’ according to his promise. And as every one is gathered in this way, and met together inwardly in their spirits as well as outwardly in their bodies, there the secret power and virtue of life is known to refresh the soul, and the pure motions and breathings of God’s Spirit are felt to arise. And from the Spirit, words of declaration, prayers, or praises arise, and the acceptable worship is known which both edifies the Church and is well-pleasing to God. In this way, no man limits the Spirit of God, nor brings forth his own contrived and gathered stuff, but everyone brings forth only what the Lord puts into their hearts, which is spoken not in man’s will and wisdom but ‘in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.’”
It is important to clarify that silence was never a goal of Quaker meetings. The silencing of the forward, fleshy mind, and the humble turning of the heart to the Lord, was rather a means to an end, and a way to guard against the wisdom and religion of man while they waited for the pure and powerful influences of God’s Spirit to feed and govern His own spiritual body.
Early Quakers are sometimes known for their teaching that believers can become “perfect” even on this side of the grave. The word perfect is one that can invite a lot of misinterpretation and imagination, and so it is important to understand exactly what they believed in this regard. First of all, this perfection has nothing to do with fixing or changing the fallen fleshly nature. The nature of Adam is not repaired; it is experientially crucified through the inward cross, the power of God, so that the soul becomes progressively free from the law of sin and death, and governed by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. Therefore, the progress and perfection of the soul arises from the birth and growth of the Seed of Christ within, and its victory (by degrees) over the body of death. Early Friends believed (and many experienced) that the heart could be united and subjected to the living Truth in such a way so as not to obey the suggestions and temptations of the evil one, to cease from actual sinning, and in this sense be perfect. However, they were always very careful to insist on the following two points: 1) that this kind of perfection always allows for continued spiritual growth. As Christ Himself is boundless and eternal, so our growth in Him knows no limits or restrictions. And 2) that there always remains the possibility of sinning wherever the heart and mind does not diligently and watchfully attend to the Lord.
Persecution Against Early Quakers
Jesus said to His disciples, “You will be hated by all for My name’s sake,” and “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before you.” The world’s hatred towards disciples of Christ is rarely experienced today, in part because of the prevalence of a cross-less, flesh-friendly gospel. It is uncommon (at least in the western world) for believers in Jesus Christ to suffer for the enjoyment of a clear conscience before God. This, however, was not the case when the Lord raised up the original Society of Friends. The first Quakers were despised, persecuted, slandered, beaten, imprisoned, and killed, both by magistracy and by the Christian sects of their time (Protestant and Catholic). Early Friends lived at a time when very little liberty was granted to citizens to believe and worship as they saw fit. The Church of England was run by the state, and multitudes of laws were made and enforced mandating certain beliefs, specific meeting places and forms of worship, and forbidding all others. Because of their refusal to conform to laws that violated their consciences in the sight of God, Quakers suffered cruel beatings and whippings, long imprisonments in cold, filthy prisons, cutting off of ears, banishment from their native country, and even death. Between the years 1650–1690, prisons in England were literally filled with Quakers who, for conscience sake, would not forgo meeting together to worship God in the way they believed He required of them. Nor did they feel free to attend other compulsory religious services, pay obligatory tithes to persecuting priests, or swear oaths of allegiance in disregard to Christ’s command in Matthew 5:34—“Swear not at all...but let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ be ‘No.’”
Early Quaker Beliefs
For more information detailing exactly what early Quakers believed—with many scripture citations—please see our page on what early Quakers believed.