Quakers and the Civil War
Previously published in 'ECW Notes & Queries' (Caliver Books/Partizan Press)

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Much of the Civil War history can be seen as a small part of England's noble past. While the society generally deals with the research and publications of information on the military venues of the period, I thought that a look at a few of the more radical religious groups, which were generally on the side of, or grew out of, the Parliamentarians, would be within the proper context of what a living history re-enactor should know about the period in general. This should provide some insight into a broader background of the period for those interested, especially when dealing with one's own background during the war, not to mention the publics' questions.

The Religious Society of Friends, or more plainly, Quakers, can trace its origins to the ECW period. The Quaker Movement has often been seen from the eighteenth century form, as that of dull, quite sober and plainly dressed honest folk, who were industrious and godly. This in not the case in this religious movement's origins (well, not all of it anyway). The movement was born in revolution, and has a radicalism that has been seen throughout our own century, from refugee to Peace Corps. Eventually though, this movement transformed from a radical sect into a more introverted body with the restoration.

The birth of any movement is often linked with one man, and the Quakers are forever linked with George Fox, the giant who "walked cheerfully across the face of the earth, looking for that of God in all men." For the Quakers, of all organizations, the search for a founding leader is a false exercise, although while the influence of George Fox cannot be denied, the movement was far more of a result of the personal experience of individuals in the religious and political upheavals of the English revolution.

The seed of Quakerism was sown long before, as with many radical church movements. It was founded in the spirit of Lollards, Familists, and Anabapist traditions. It was induced by the ideological flux of the mid-seventeenth century. The tenets of Quakerism are not carved in tablets of stone, but within the living spirit. Much of the ideas can be seen within the light of current experience. Quakerism may be seen as the conclusion of the reformation, although it lacked Calvin's pessimism, seeing man, as basically good. Friends saw that the clergy had intervened between people and God. The spirit of God is accessible to all people if they listen for his prompting and the clergy interfere with peoples' understanding of the spirit of God. In this vein, the ceremony and grandeur of the Anglicans who rejected as mere surplus trappings. To further this Quakerism preached simplicity in faith and in lifestyle. To live in the word of God meant just that, to capture the lifestyle of the early Christians, to be a part of this world without being its slave, and this was the essence of Quakerism.

Quakerism drew its ideas from the recent and more distant past, but it owed a lot to the present. The spur of the Civil War cannot be underestimated. The death of the Archbishop of Canterbury ushered in a period of seeking amongst many people who sought a new explanation of God in their lives. The end of bishopric restrictive bonds opened up the flood gates to new paths, and the living experience of Christ. Many became seekers, later to join one sect or another, the parallel of Quakers with that of the Ranters is close, although Ranters listened to themselves and not to God. Although many Ranters left to become Friends (Quakers).

It was into this world of doubt, especially amongst the middling sort of persons, came the preachers from the north, such as George Fox. They spread his message of love and light, and attracted adherents. These early Friends were not all quiet folk, but ecstatic preachers. They listened quietly to be moved by the spirit, but were not silent in proclaiming the word of God. They spread the word to all, but it is recognized that support came mainly from among the husband and ale traders. The movement was strongest in the north, its birth place, but spread gradually throughout the country.

One thing that must be made clear from the outset, is that Friends, unlike most religions, never was an exclusively male religion. As George Fox said, "Christ is the male, and in the female is one." The subjection of women was the result of the fall of man. Women preached as vigorously as men, and some 45% of the Quaker 'ministers' who arrived in America between 1656-63 were women.

The Quaker faith was one of simplicity, but also of equality. Just as no man may show another to God, so then no one is above another in the eyes of God. Such a belief is indeed radical, and was held to be the proper belief of this religion, by both friend and foe alike. General Winstanley said in 1654, that the Quakers continued the work of the Diggers, which were another one of the radical religions of the times. In fact many Quakers were active for the good old cause, as Edward Billing declared, like the Levellers before him (even another radical religion of the period), that the law was the "badge of the conqueror."

Certainly, Quakerism was the child of a revolution. Friends rejected the old hierarchy of bishops, and by implication also the old forms of government. To treat all men as equals was decidedly radical, as it was to suggest that you did not need a priest to lead you to God. It was a faith that appealed to those dissatisfied literates who wanted a new alternative that the commonwealth could not give.

Quakerism was a radical religion. It challenged the formal church as unnecessary to the understanding of God by man. Further, its treatment of the equality of men was a challenge to a social system based on hierarchy, as was common for the period. Therefore, the rest of English society, being about 98% of the population that was not a follower of Quakerism, reacted pretty adversely towards the Friends, and their new preachers.

The New Model Army was a breeding ground for all radical ideas. The term Quakerism itself, although currently existing at that time as pacifist, was not formally coined until 1661. While pacifist is its logical outcome, that movement was still evolving towards that goal in the 1650's. General Georg Monck, a New Model commander, found that the men in his Scottish command had converts to the new religion. He therefore acted immediately, and quickly purged forth soldiers from the army. Henry Cromwell, while in Ireland wrote, "I think their principles and practices are not very consistent with civil government, much less with the discipline of an army." It brought too many memories back for General Monck, of the "Factious temper of the army about the time the levellers appeared at first." The army's response was to crush the Friends' movement as quickly as possible.

The gentry's response to the movement was varied, with certain more radicals amongst them attempting to save the Quakers from persecution. However, by and large the gentry did persecute Quakers like the army, since the threat the gentry felt that these people who flouted social etiquette had to be stopped.

In mid-1656 there was a drive against the Friends to limit their spread. Many acts enacted during the reign of Mary were used, as was the Elizabethan vagrancy act. Cromwell's personal tolerance towards Friends (he perceived that they were of defect of understanding, rather than malice in their wills) was taken to mean whatever locals wanted. Quaker tendencies to interrupt church services often landed them in trouble. In addition, the full force of art, and the Catholic legislation, was used against them as well.

Why did the gentry fear them? Barry Reay, in an excellent book called The Quakers and the English Revolution, quotes R. South in saying "...if there was not a minister in every parish you would quickly find causes to increase the number of constables," shows the elitists' view. The rejection of the hegemony of the elite was a direct challenge to their position, and one in which Presbyterian and Anglican could combine together against them. It was to be expected that the elite would unite against this threat, for the power of Church and Gentry were challenged by Quakerism.

The ordinary people responded to the challenge of Quakers in many ways. While some united to aid persecuted brethren, others would attack the Quaker missionaries with clubs. The reasons for the popular hatred of Quakers are hard to explain, as so little evidence exists, although cases of it are well documented, and one of the major factors that may be the visibility of the Quakers themselves.

The Quakers were a very visible sect, as their "Foreign" preachers could so often be associated with hate figures, Quaker came to mean Roundhead. 'Popular Press' tracts of the time accused Quakers of everything from witchcraft to being a Jesuitical fifth column by way of incest and child sacrifice. These unsettling folk were also easy targets for muck slinging, and much of it stuck, as many local myths would spread about a newly arrived Quaker preacher, and cases of Quakers being accused of witchcraft are well documented.

Quakers were an easy target, as they were very visible and usually isolated. Due to this young thugs could pick on them without too much retribution, and other people who also added to the persecution of Quakers saw themselves as 'moral agents', defending what they saw as the right order of things. The reactions to the Quakers varied from place to place, but were mainly negative. The gentry feared them as a threat to established religion and society, and the population in general viewed Quakers as outsiders, radicals and in some cases the economic. All in All, the force of formal law and popular violence was arranged against Friends.

Sources

The Quakers and the English Revolution, B. Reay
Worship and Theology in England 1603-1690, H. Davis
World Turned Upside Down, C. Hill
Cromwell and Communism, E. Bernstein
Researches on the Cornish Friends, P. Griffith


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