Part One of a lecture series entitled:
Quakerism - its Origin, Development, Testimonies and Activities
written and presented to the Plainfield, NJ Friends' Adult Class on April 5, 1970
by Curt Regen
Here we are gathered in an old Friends Meeting House which I prefer to call the new Meeting House. Indeed this is the new Meeting House for Plainfield Friends, the original one having been erected in 1731 nearby. After the construction of the present or new building, the old one was dismantled and the timbers used for erection of the Horse and Wagon Shed which is now the first-day School wing. When entering the large room through the breezeway one can note the soundness of the old timbers as the gateway is supported by the original wood used in 1731, for building the old Meeting House. That was in 1788, yet the origin of Plainfield Friends dates back to 1686 when the second governor of the Colony East Jersey began holding Meetings for Worship in Amboy, then the main part and quasi capital of East Jersey. The origin of the Religious Society of Friends goes back still further.
Let us go back to the middle of the 17th century. The Reformation had its effect on all of Europe, but what had begun more than 100 years earlier as a spiritual revolt against old forms and authorities quickly developed its own forms and authorities. On the European Continent, mainly in those parts known as The Netherlands and Germany, a spiritual revolt began against the new churches' alliance with the state to supplement their own authority. People were seeking an inward type of religion, a kind of mysticism with the immediate experience of the divine, rejecting formal institutional services, similar to some present views of the younger generation. Here is an example of a radical view expressed by a German religious revolutionary of the 17th century. Jacob Boehme, who said, "The devil is a great advocate of church-going. "
For such a statement implying the devil's delight for absolution of sins on the part of the church so that people might commit further acts in the devil's service, Jacob Boehme was imprisoned. His writings had been known in England and it is certain that mysticism in a variety of forms had been in the English air during the first half of the 17th century. In 1624 Jacob Boehme died and as if the mystic hands of the Creator would not let such spirit perish from the earth, in the same year a new torch was presented to mankind - GEORGE FOX.
His mother was pure and upright and deeply religious and taught the Bible to little George. The young man was a shepherd and cobbler. By age 19, during England's Civil War, he became restless, sometimes greatly depressed, unable to sleep, and set out as a lonely wanderer - an act so similar to the tendencies of modern youth in this age. If George Fox had gone to college, we could call him a dropout! He sought advice from priests and tender people, like present-day gurus, but they could not "speak to his condition". One priest advised him to marry, another recommended tobacco and psalm singing! In his wanderings, insights like these came upon him: "God does not dwell in temples made by man, but in their hearts" - a phrase borrowed from the Scriptures.
Upon some particular distress there came to him a flood of light and he heard an inner voice say, "There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition." In his journal, he says: "... and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy." As the civil war continued and George Fox sought inward peace among all the strife around him, he saw "there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that I saw the infinite love of God." With these visions and experiences, he felt moved to preach to others, a service Fox began in 1646. He met many like-minded people, thousands who were disillusioned by their churches, people who were unhappy about the strife in their country, the Cavaliers demanding the killing of Round Heads and vice versa, with the churches taking an active part in the civil strife; and so George Fox in his early ministry attacked the church and the clergy - as to him they were not true Christians.
He wrote: "To be bred at Oxford or Cambridge is not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ." And he said, "Consider in silence, in lowliness of mind, and thou wilt hear the Lord speak unto thee in thy mind." Not only had he discovered for himself the Inner Teacher, but also the way of Quaker worship! Of course, he got into conflict with the church and in the same year when Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell took control as the "Protector", George Fox was imprisoned for the first time in 1649 in Nottingham.
I am quoting from his "Journal": "And when I came there, all the people looked like fallow ground, and the priest, like a great lump of earth, stood in his pulpit above. ... And he told the people that the Scriptures were the touchstone and judge by which they were to try all doctrines, religions and opinions - I was made to cry out and say,'Oh, no, it is not the Scriptures ...' But I told them what it was, namely, the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the Scriptures ... for it led into all Truth, and so gave the knowledge of all Truth. ... Now as I spoke thus amongst them, the officers came and took me away and put me into prison, a pitiful stinking place."
Fox reports further that the sheriff, John Reckless, set him at liberty a short time later and sent for him to his house where they had "great meetings". Soon the sheriff with his wife and children became "Friends"; and John Reckless moved to go out and preach to the people. Others followed his example, speaking to the mayor and the magistrates who, angered at it, sent for Fox from the sheriff's house and put him back in prison. No sooner was he free than George Fox went on with his traveling and his preaching; but he was attacked, beaten, and stoned while in the stocks, so that when set free again he was "scarce able to stand".
George Fox wore a suit of leather because it was durable and suitable to his rough outdoor, horseback life, and he always paid his way as he traveled and soon he became the best-known man in rural England. To those who did not know him by name, he was "the man in leather breeches". In religious history Fox is among the spiritual reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries, but unlike his predecessors who were scholars, he based his messages on his experience alone: namely, to know God "experimentally". Fox refers to his experiences as "openings" - like man's soul as a potential centre of revelation, it is "a candle of the Lord". There is something of God which may be called a seed within or a divine light in everyone. Revelation is not a matter of date or geography - it is continuous and can occur anywhere. To Fox, revelation did not end with the last chapter of the Bible.
During the year 1650 he was again arrested and closely questioned at Derby. He was condemned to six months' imprisonment for blasphemy, but this did not cool his zeal. From prison he wrote to priests, to the magistrates, to his enemies and to his friends. As he was released from prison, officers of Cromwell's army tried to recruit him with the rank of captain. Fox made his famous reply, often quoted these days, that he knew "from whence all wars did rise" and that he lived "in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all war".
Upon his refusal to serve in the army of Parliament, he was given another six months and thrown into a cell with 30 felons. After his release in 1651 he went on with his ministry undeterred. He preached mainly among people that had separated from the Established Church, at first in the north-west of England, like Leicester, West Yorkshire and North Westmorland, in town squares, market places, cemeteries and outside churches. Frequently he was arrested or beaten and hounded out as an unwanted intruder. Fox became a social revolutionary unwilling to make any distinction between superiors and inferiors, dropping all titles, saying "thee" or "thou" to everyone, as the plural "you" when addressed to ONE person smacked to him of class distinction. He did this in order to show the equality of men before God. This reminds me of the simple exclamation "Man! " used by many of the present youth who are similarly unwilling to accept class distinction. Let me quote from a letter of a headmaster of Germantown Friends School: "The carefully honed intellect does not necessarily improve the quality of life or assure the growing illumination of the inner light. I can not help thinking of that irrepressible, utterly candid and extraordinary man, George Fox, and how uncomfortable so many of us would be with him today. But the kids would adore him for his marvelous unorthodoxy and his raw simplicity... I really do think, along with other kinds, many young people in their own way are having their trips up Pendle Hill, and what they see may be decisive. " (I might say that Pendle Hill refers to the mountain on top of which Fox had a vision of "a great people to be gathered".)
Lest you think that George Fox always was beaten and driven out, here is a passage from his Journal about a visit to a "steeple house" in 1651:
" ... where the great high priest, their doctor, preached, and sat me down ... till the priest had done. And he took a text, which was. 'Ho, every one that thirsteth, let him come freely, without money and without price.' And so I was moved of the Lord God to say unto him,'Come down, thou deceiver and hireling, for dost thou bid people come freely and take of the water freely, and yet thou takest three hundred pounds off them for preaching the Scriptures to them. ... Did not Christ command his ministers,'Freely you have received, freely give?' And so the priest, like a man amazed, packed away."
In his effort to direct people "from darkness to the light and to the spirit of God, their free teacher", he even won among his followers some Yorkshire priests who renounced all taxes and tithes, but at another occasion Fox wrote that a man, "...up with his Bible as I was speaking and hit me in the face that my face gushed out with blood." He was dragged out of the church, stoned, beaten, thrown over a hedge into a garden, till he was smeared all over with blood and dirt. But Fox writes in his Journal: "My spirit was revived again by the power of God -- I declared to them the word of life and showed to them ... how they dishonored Christianity." Fox reports that the man who had shed his blood in the church was afraid that his hand would be cut off "for striking me in the steeple house", but Fox forgave him and would not appear against him at the judicial inquiry.
Ever larger crowds gathered to hear George Fox - they were mostly working folks, and in 1652 on Firbank Fell in Westmorland, an enormous crowd assembled on a Sunday afternoon who were turned by him from Seekers to Finders. Thus, when Fox was 28, thousands recognized him as the leader for whom they had waited and historians consider the year 1652 as the time of founding The Religious Society of Friends. But that was not the original name, as Fox's three-hour-long message on Firbank Fell was on "Truth" and his followers called themselves the "Friends of Truth". Fox' principal message was that Christ was come to teach His people Himself, by His Power and Spirit in their hearts, and that the so-called "Professors", those Priests and others who merely "profess" Christianity, were not the people called to do so - Christianity cannot be taught, it must be experienced. Manmade doctrines based on the Scriptures are wrong - by the Holy Spirit or Inner Light man should live. George Fox' mission was, to turn people to an Inward Light, or Spirit and Grace, a kind of quasi-Christian renewal in a time of falling away from truth. We must remember that this was the restless period of conflict between the Established or Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church from whom it had separated a century earlier. Fox' earliest followers called themselves "The Children of Light" besides the name "Friends of Truth" previously mentioned. In 1652 a Christian movement was born that was neither Protestant nor Catholic, and for three centuries Quakerism has been a bridge between these two large bodies of Christianity.
This movement, however, was never thought of as another sect, but as "Primitive Christianity Revived" - like the Christians of the first century Fox' followers considered themselves as a Community. By 1655, two years later, a good number of men and women had joined Fox in his mission. Known as "First Publishers of Truth", they were kind of missionaries later called "The Valiant Sixty"; they traveled throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, knowing that they would encounter opposition, imprisonment and possibly death, but they were ready to suffer in the cause of Christ. It should be mentioned that there were many similar groups, that is to say, congregations of Seekers who had separated themselves from all religious bodies, and many of their "teachers" or leaders were joining the new movement. All other separate groups disappeared, only that body now known as The Religious Society of Friends survived.
In 1652 Fox made his first visit to Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston, Lancashire, where Margaret Fell lived, the wife of Judge Fell, who was also the Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster. Margaret Fell supported the ideas of Fox. On the day of his arrival, Fox had an encounter with the priest of Ulverston - he was put out of the church and it was only thanks to Margaret Fell that he was allowed to go on with his speaking in the graveyard. The judge, having heard of this little affray, came home very ill-pleased, but a conversation with Fox made him so at ease in his mind that he gladly put his house at Fox' disposal. Until his death in 1658, he was a great help to the new Society, taking up its defense against his colleagues on the bench. Judge Fell, although a defender of their rights, never joined the movement and during the Meetings of Worship at Swarthmoor Hall, sat in his study adjoining the meeting room with the doors wide open, just to hear the words spoken, but at the same time witnessing that he was not a part of the group.
After Margaret Fell became a widow. Fox with agreement of his followers and of Margaret Fell's children, married the lady of Swarthmoor Hall. Until today Swarthmoor (or Blackmoor - in memory of which Swarthmore College was named) is one of the important pilgrimage places in the northwest of England for all Quakers and those close to Quakerism. Swarthmoor became the center of the young movement. Margaret Fell made it the Power House of the Children of Light, a place to recharge the batteries of the Valiant Sixty. (I'd like to mention that in 1969, the Young Friends of North America started another Power House, named New Swarthmoor, and situated outside Clinton, New York.)
Many of the early followers died in prison, the youngest one at the age of 19. George Fox was imprisoned eight times for a total of 6-1/2 years. Nevertheless, the movement grew rapidly; at the death of Fox, in spite of the most frightful persecution, there were about 50, 000 Quakers in England and Ireland, 15, 000 of whom had been in prison. The word "Quaker" was not liked by George Fox, the name having been given by a judge who complained that wherever these people appeared, they made the earth quake for ten miles around. The name stuck and henceforth the Children of Light and Friends of Truth were called Quakers. Very early published books and tracts show subtitles like this: "Given forth by those whom the world in scorn calls Quakers".
Any religious society which wants to endure must rely on some form of organization, but in the very early days of the Friends of Truth there was no such thing. It has already been stated that Fox had no desire to found a new sect; however, the persecutions that came upon the Quakers hastened the movement towards cohesion and association. Help had to be given to Friends in prison and their families, itinerant missionaries had to be supported; and the Society had to meet the needs of its living, growing corporate life. It was William Dewsbury, one of Fox's first followers, who as early as 1652 was asking for general meetings to examine urgent problems. Other leaders made similar suggestions yet they were very careful not to lay down a code of rules and regulations.
In 1656, at the conclusion of a meeting of Elders at Balby, Yorkshire, a letter on twenty points of conduct was sent "from the Spirit of Truth to the Children of Light", giving counsel rather than drawing up rules. The letter ends thus: "Dearly beloved friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the spirit, not from the letter; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." This quotation is very dear to present-day Quakers and we find it in the beginning of the book on Faith & Practice, also known as the Book of Discipline. Additional advices were issued from time to time by various meetings; to the present day each larger group, known as Yearly Meeting, issues advices, as well as queries, which are frequently revised to reflect the changing attitudes in our Society.
The first business meeting seems to have been set up in 1654. Subsequent meetings were local and held monthly, therefore, the term "Monthly Meeting". The system of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings as it finally developed in England and America suggests the organic principle of the affiliation of cells or small units in a large organism. Individual Friends have the same responsibilities in the larger group as in the smaller. There is no delegated authority! As Fox wrote in a long epistle on church government: "The least member in the Church hath an office and is serviceable and every member hath need of another." Finally, a Meeting for Sufferings had to be set up, the name still being kept in England. It is, in fact, the executive committee for all business arising between one Yearly Meeting and the next. Rufus Jones, the great Quaker writer, had this to say about the development of the Quaker organism:
" The type of organization which Fox developed for the groups of followers gathered around him indicates plainly enough that he was not a lonely dreamer but a practical leader of men, though here, again, he did not absolutely originate something wholly new and unique. He saw the latent possibilities in the simple type of group- fellowship that already existed and he expanded these and worked them out into new and fresh ways of expression. ... It was marked by almost utter simplicity of structure and method. There were no essential officials, no ritual, no programme, no outward and visible sacraments, no music, no paraphernalia of any kind. ... There was the widest freedom, and the greatest possible stretch of the principle of democracy. One might have supposed that chaos would have resulted, but it did not result. . . . For three centuries this group-fellowship and this gently unauthoritative leadership have weathered the storms and the stress and the strain of the years."
From the early days of the movement, Friends were very careful to record births and deaths for their members; but the question of marriage was more delicate. They refused to recognize that any priest had the power to declare that two people were henceforth husband and wife. This was Fox' comment: "Never from Genesis to Revelation did ever any priests marry any." However, in 1661 the Quaker marriage procedure was recognized by law.
Something should be told about the social testimonies developing in the beginning of Quakerism. The so-called "plain speech" of thee and thou has been referred to. "Hat honor" was an important issue, to doff one's hat to superior people, like judges or noblemen was an acceptance of their superiority, so Friends' hats were never removed to a person - only to God: at time of prayer or when the Lord spoke through a person. The pegs behind me on the wall give silent witness to hat honor to God alone - no doubt the elders and ministers sitting on the upper tier of the facing seats used to hang their hats on these pegs when a prayer was offered or a message was given. Old pictures like the one in the First-day School Wing entitled. ' "The Presence in the Midst" show men and women alike wearing their hats during Meeting for Worship. Have you noted that picture?
Thomas Ellwood, a very early Friend, said that the vanity and useless elegance of his clothes was revealed to him so sharply that forthwith he stripped off his lace, ribbons and useless buttons, and gave up wearing rings. From the beginning the problem of poverty held the attention of Quakers. In 1659, Fox recommended each meeting to take care of its poor, to provide work for those who were unemployed or were compelled for conscience's sake to give up their livelihood. Parents were to be helped to educate their children so that there should be no beggars amongst Friends.
Other examples could be given but this summary taken from the book, "The Beginning of Quakerism" by the English Friend, William Braithwaite, may give you a more complete picture:
1. The treatment of all life as a sacred thing, thus making social service a sacred duty.
2. Sensitiveness to oppression and injustice, due to the habit of following the light.
3. A sincerity of behavior, which, in courts of justice, refused oaths, in civil life rejected all servilities and flattering titles and compelled simplicity of dress and address, and, in business, obliged men to plain and straightforward dealing, at fixed prices.
4. An inwardly controlled temperance, which retrenched luxuries, frivolities and excesses in food and drink.
5. A Puritan outlook on art and recreations.
6. A recognition of the Divine worth of every human being, which overthrew the dominance of racial and class distinctions and gave woman her place of equal comradeship with man.
* * * * *Throughout this presentation I had to restrain myself not to mention the parallel development of Quakerism and Friends' ideals in the colonies which is part of the topic of the next talk. However, the struggle and convictions of one early English Friend had much to do with why a colony was not named "New Wales", why the Indian place called Coaquannock became the center of political and cultural life about 200 years ago- even why there is this particular Meeting House in Plainfield. This English Quaker was just 20 years younger than George Fox, he was born of aristocratic parents far removed from the farmers and laborers, the "Seekers" who were Fox' first followers.
In 1952 just before the third World Conference of Friends in Oxford, Rosalie and I made a pilgrimage to the northwest of England to see the various sights where Quakerism originated. In the prison of Lancaster Castle, guides show with delight the old Quaker Cells and when encountering Quaker tourists, lock them in so that they may experience the total darkness in which, the early Quakers found themselves. We went to Preston Patrick Hall where George Fox was tried and in that very hall, now owned by a couple not members of our Society, we located an ancient book giving us clues where to find the original home of some ancestors of Rosalie, which turned out to be the WHARTON at Kirby Stephen in Westmorland. That was a great surprise, of course, but a still greater surprise was to find nearby the homestead of John Camm, one of the Valiant Sixty, still showing a panel carved for his brideswain, consisting of his and her initials and year of marriage: "J M C 1641". We entered this ancient farmhouse called Cammsgill, that so often hosted Fox and his followers, and there we were at the deepest root of this Meeting House in which we are gathered at this very moment! WHY? John Camm a few years later convinced Thomas Loe to join the new movement and Thomas Loe went to Ireland to spread the message and one time appeared at Macroom Castle to speak to the large household assembled there. The son of the castle's owner was among them and as he listened to Thomas Loe giving a message on "There is a Faith that overcometh the world, and there is a Faith that is overcome by the world!', he realized in a flash that he could no longer serve two masters.
The life which he had lived, pleasant as it seemed, had to be given up. Ambition, wealth, even the pleasure of company, must hold him no longer. He must have recalled his days at Oxford's Christ College when he was fined and expelled with others for refusing to attend compulsory chapel services. You see, student revolt existed in 1662 as well as now! His parents, upset about such behavior, sent him to France on a grand tour and for study, and probably they prided themselves with the thought that this young man would yet turn out to be a perfect gentleman. Upon becoming a Quaker after hearing Thomas Loe a second time, there were quite some clashes between father and son who had to listen to parental ambitions that he would succeed him as an Earl, giving up his alliance with those despised Quakers ! Their final discourse ended with the father commanding his son to "take his clothes and begone from his house, for he would dispose of his estates to them that pleased him better." It sounds like a modern story - can you guess the name of the young man?
Camsgill - the deepest root of this Meeting House: It was William Penn, after whom Pennsylvania was not named, who was selected as arbitrator in a dispute in the management of the two New Jerseys. When a group of Quakers took over the proprietorship of West Jersey and later East Jersey, William Penn became one of the trustees and no doubt, the second governor of East Jersey was a Quaker by William Penn's choice. From Amboy, now Perth Amboy, to what is now known as Plainfield the Quakers moved between 1686 and 1721, carrying with them their religious and social ideas, giving witness to the world that God can speak directly to man, delighting to find Him in the adventure of daily living, worshiping Him by waiting in silence for His message and to serve Him by acts of loving kindness to His children: everywhere.
Go to Part 2
Friends for Three Hundred Years
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