Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Story of the Quakers Part I - Early beginnings and beliefs

Published:Saturday | March 25, 2017 | 3:00 AMPaul H. Williams

When George Fox, born July 1624 in Leicester, England, died in 1691, he left over 50,000 members of the Society of Friends, or the Religious Society of Friends, of which he was widely regarded as the founder.

It is said that the movement evolved out of young Fox's confusion over the incongruities between the beliefs and actions of some Christians, and by the time he was 19, he was an activist searching for the 'truth'.

Fox and his followers got the moniker 'Seekers' because of their search for this truth at the time, the 1650s when the authority of, and the respect for, the established Church of English were still being challenged.

Fox claimed that he heard a voice saying to him, "There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition." He formed what is known as the 'Children of Light', or 'Society of Friends' or the 'Friends of Truth'.

 

NEW PERSPECTIVE

 

The group had public meetings to espouse its new perspective on God and the Church, which was significantly different from the established beliefs. For instance, while traditional Christians believe God lives in Heaven, Friends believe that God dwells within all of us, and if we listen, we will hear the voice of God from within and obey it.

Religion, then, is a direct personal encounter with God, which should engender a renewal of the whole person. Also, Fox did not believe that the Bible was always right.

 

And since there is no mystical God, sitting on high, looking down on the lowly, the Friends refuse to subscribe to the hierarchical structures of wealth, social class, religion, race and gender. Everybody they regard as equal, one to the other. This perspective was perceived by religious and political establishments as an attack on social order.

 

The established Church and its hierarchy, to Fox, was not what Christianity was about. The structure and rituals of the Church he considered unnecessary since people could always hear the Lord from within. To him, the Church was not the portal to Heaven, up in the sky; Heaven is a present reality to be enjoyed here and now.

Fox believed that God Himself did not want churches. The 'steeple houses', as he called them, were a hindrance in the path of the Seekers. Priests and other church officials and their sacraments were unwanted interlocutors also blocking the way to the Truth.

In response to Fox's revolutionary views on God and the Church, the State imprisoned him eight times.

The Friends' public religious meetings were banned, and between 1662 and 1670, thousands of Friends were imprisoned for ignoring the ban. Fox and the Seekers refused to take oaths and remove their hats before magistrates, and the name Quaker came about after one of Fox's court appearances.

In 1650 when he was brought to court for blasphemy because he interrupted a church service, he told the magistrate to "tremble (quake) at the word of the Lord".

Since rituals and preaching are rejected by the Quakers, they sit quietly in their meeting, waiting for the voice of the divine coming from within. Enlightenment is what they are seeking, and as soon as such comes upon a member, he or she sings a hymn, reads a scripture, or exalts the words of the Lord. In essence, they will not utter a word if the enlightenment does not come. They also refuse to pay tithes, which is used to pay the salary of the clergy.

The Friends, who rejected the laws of the State and the tenets of the established Church, were to come under severe persecution, which peaked in 1869.

From England, they migrated to the United States, where they faced more repression, but where they also gained a large following. As they forayed into business and politics, dissensions also occurred. The Quakers were fragmented into different branches.

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