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Persecution of the Quakers
Digital History ID 94



The social upheaval ignited by the seventeenth-century English Civil War spawned many radical millennarian religious groups, including the Diggers, who rejected private property; and the Ranters, who claimed to worship God through drinking, smoking, and fornicating. Only one of the radical religious group that emerged during the tumultuous years of the 1640s and 1650s has survived until now: the Society of Friends or the Quakers.

Today, the Quakers are often associated with austerity and self-discipline, but in the sect's early days, members behaved in very rebellious ways. Some marched into churches, where they denounced ministers as dumb dogs and hirelings. They also refused to doff their hats before magistrates or to swear oaths. They opposed war and gave women the right to speak at public meetings, holding that both sexes were equal in their ability to expound God's teachings.

The Quakers rejected the orthodox Calvinist belief in predestination. Instead, the Quakers insisted that salvation was available to all. It came, however, not through an institutional church, but from within, by following the "inner light" of God's spirit. It was because Friends seemed to shake when they felt religious enthusiasm that they became known as Quakers.

In England as well as in a number of American colonies the Quakers faced violent persecution. Some 15,000 Quakers were jailed in England between 1660 and 1685. In 1660, Edward Burrough catalogued the maltreatment of Quakers in New England: 64 Quakers had been imprisoned; two Quakers lashed 139 times, leaving one "beat like into a jelly"; another branded with the letter H, for heretic, after being whipped with 39 stripes; and three Quakers had been executed.

Even in New York, which tolerated a wide variety of religious persuasions, the Quakers faced hostility. After arriving in Long Island in 1657, some Quakers were fined, jailed, and banished by the Dutch, who (like Puritan New Englanders) were outraged by Quaker women proselytizing. In this selection, New York's Quakers inform the province's royal governor about ways they are mistreated.

Over time, the Quakers found successful ways to channel their moral idealism and religious enthusiasm. The sect established weekly and monthly meetings which imposed structure and discipline on members, and beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, directed their energies against a wide variety of social evils, including slavery. By the early nineteenth century, Quakers were engaged in moral reform movements in numbers wildly disproportionate to the sect's size. As many as a third of all early nineteenth century feminists and antislavery activists were Quakers.


The Humble Address of the People called Quakers in the Province of New York

...We are now forced to approach humbly the Governor with our complaint in a matter of the highest moment relating to our privileges as freeborn subjects being lately denied the undoubted right of choosing our own representation at an election in Queens county on the island of Nassau...because we could not (for conscience sake) swear we were freeholders although it was well known to the sheriff & judge too....

We are also necessitated to lay before the Governor an oppression that we lye under being imposed upon by some of our neighbors.... Yet they have presumed to take a way our substance by...disposing of [our goods] their own will & pleasure, because we could not think it our duty to contribute with them to build their Noncomformist Preacher a dwelling house, & we do humbly conceive they have no legal...[ground] to impose any such tax upon us.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Petition of New York Quakers to the Governor

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