Historical Background

The Religious Society of Friends traces its origins to mid-17th century England.  There, in the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-51) early Quakers gave expression to some of the more radical elements of the Protestant Reformation, as well as the religious convictions of several 16th and 17th century spiritual reformers.  Among the primary religious tenets of early Friends were an emphasis on first-hand religious experience, and a belief in the priesthood of all believers, through which early Friends sought to effect a restoration of "primitive" Christianity.  These founding doctrines are given particularly strong expression in the writings of George Fox (1624-1691).  In his Journal, Fox consistently exhorts his followers to turn away from the outer darkness, and toward the inner light of Christ within each one of them; away from outward preachings of the Word, and toward the inner Spirit of God in which the Scriptures were originally composed (Fox, The Journal, 1652: 87 & 93).  So strong is Fox’s emphasis on the primacy of an inner Light in spiritual life, that the gospel of John, with its witness of God’s light as the source of life (Cf. John 1:4-9 and 8:12), is often cited as the quintessential "Quaker gospel."

Early on, the spiritual vitality of the Religious Society of Friends attracted many prominent religious leaders and spiritual reformers.  Lamenting the many "tedious" religious controversies then brewing between Catholics and Protestants, Robert Barclay (1648-1690) called for allegiance, instead, to a universal and invisible church to which not only the various sects of Christians, but Muslims and Jews as well, might also belong (Barclay, Apology, Part B – Joint Fellowship and Communion, Proposition 10 – The Ministry, pg. 173).  Barclay’s call for the recognition of a universal and eternal church may also have been connected with his call to abandon the many, oft-times divisive, outer rituals of worship, such as communion, and to turn instead toward the inward "light of the Lord" which is alone capable of providing spiritual nourishment (Ibid., Proposition 13 – Communion, pg. 333).  This emphasis on the "inward sacraments," along with outward worship based on silence and an expectant waiting upon God, continues to be an important feature of Quakerism to this day, even among programmed meetings.  Catholics invest religious authority in the persons of the Pope and the clergy, while Protestants hold up the primacy of the Word as contained in the Bible; Quakers, by contrast, seek to derive their religious authority from the direct presence of God in spirit.

After rapidly spreading throughout England in the latter half of the 17th century, the Quaker movement soon gained a firm foothold in America, largely through the efforts of traveling ministers; the work of whom was greatly facilitated by the colonization efforts of William Penn (1644-1718).  The movement of Friends across the Atlantic was spurred in large part by their desire for religious liberty; to be able to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.  In establishing an American colony, Penn saw himself as undertaking a "holy experiment" where Quaker principles would be applied to solving the seemingly intractable problem of reconciling political and religious order.  In drawing up the charter for the new colony, therefore, he endeavored to found a society where “no Men. . . hath Power or authority to rule over Men's Consciences in Religious matters" (Malone. ed.  "William Penn", Dictionary of American Biography, 434).  This seminal document has been described by scholars as “the first clear statement in American history of the supremacy of the fundamental law [i.e. universal rights] over any statutes that might be enacted” (Ibid.).  It also established the new Quaker colony of Pennsylvania as one of the first jurisdictions in history where religious toleration formed the central principle of social and political order.