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102 It is very dif¬cult, if not impossible in the context of the English legal system, to determine
exactly what laws Quakers were breaking. What seem like minor infractions of social custom
to us were serious offenses in a society in which customs were the law. See Glenn Burgess™s
discussion of legal customs in The Politics of the Ancient Constitution. He describes the
common law as “the practices that held society together as a whole” (35). For example,
today not dof¬ng one™s hat to one™s social superior may seem relatively innocuous, but such an
omission would have signaled the breakdown of the entire social order to a seventeenth-century
103 On the de¬nition and description of antinomianism, see Como, “The Sinews of the Antinomian
Underground,” in Blown by the Spirit, 33“72.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 49

In the process of civil dissent, speech-action was as important as it was in the
meeting, and for the same reasons.104 As they accessed God through the Light
in the conscience, and he led them to speak, they believed their words to be
directly from God. The power they believed was behind the words thus drove
them to extreme public acts and an equally shocking disregard for the opinions
of mere men, especially ministers of other persuasions, whom they believed
to be speaking only the “dead letter.” In this case, in the reverse of the way
in which they used Quaker process as a political structure in their meeting,
the speech-acts in the civil sphere were intended to break down illegitimate
structures and replace them with constitutional (i.e., godly) ones.
Quaker speech-acts were a form of political theater.105 They were intended
to be provocative, a spectacle in the public arena. More than this even, they
were participatory, encouraging audiences of potential converts to join the
Quaker movement.106 And early on they were not peaceable and persuasive,
but aggressively confrontational and coercive to the point of hostility. In the
beginning, they identi¬ed themselves de¬antly by embracing, adopting, and
publicizing the derogatory name given to them by their enemies and referring
to themselves as “the people in scorn called Quakers.”107 In this and other
ways, Friends seemed to challenge all the fundamental structures of English
society. Their conversation and walking were political acts of “leveling.” With
their spiritual egalitarianism, they wanted to level the patriarchal authority
of church, state, and society and replace corrupt laws with godly ones. As
one non-Quaker explained, they “shew contempt” through “theire gestures &
behavior” without even using words. For example, they would simply stare at
people without speaking to make them uncomfortable.108 They also went to
opposite extremes by shouting down Puritan ministers in their own churches,
running naked through the streets to symbolize the spiritual nakedness of the
unconvinced, letting women travel alone and preach, refusing to engage in
polite and subservient behavior with social betters, refusing to use the pagan
names for days and months, refusing to attend Church of England services,
refusing to swear oaths, and carrying out other measures that signi¬ed an
alternate understanding of the Word and world. Their dramatic speech-acts
were designed to be shocking and thus memorable. All of these things were to
advocate liberty of conscience, God™s law, and spiritual equality. They sought
to make all men equally humble before God.

104 Jane Kamensky treats Quaker speech in Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early
New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), esp. 117“126.
105 Ibid., 120.
106 Peters explains that one of the Quakers™ aims in proselytizing through print was “involvement
of the audience” (Print Culture and the Early Quakers, 166“67).
107 Peters discusses the formation of the Quaker identity through not just the appropriation of this
name from their detractors, but more importantly their own cultivation and dissemination of
it. See Chapter 4, “˜The Quakers Quaking™: The Printed Identity of the Movement,” 91“123.
108 Quoted in Kamensky, Governing the Tongue, 121.
50 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

As indicated previously, not just Quaker men participated in the disruption;
women and children did their part as well. Women especially were a threat.
Although the testimonies of Quaker women were not substantively different
from those of men, they were disruptive on a much deeper level. Not only
did women break most of the same laws and customs as men by adhering to
their testimonies, but they de¬ed many other conventions by doing these things
as women. Moreover, they took their dissent into the innermost sanctums of
their private lives to challenge the patriarchal bonds of family and matrimony.
Adhering to their testimonies often meant disobeying not just the authority of
the state, but also the authority of their husbands and fathers.109
The radicalism of Quakers caused them, as they hoped, to be branded very
quickly as lunatics, heretics, and a threat to the civil government. Their behav-
ior reminded contemporaries variously of the dangers of radical Anabaptism
of the sort that dominated Munster from 1534 to 1536, radical Puritanism
that fomented the Civil War, Ranterism that sought to democratize England,
and, worst of all, the ever-present threat of popery. To many Englishmen, the
Quakers followed the Inner Light as slavishly as papists followed the pope. And
the Quakers™ “Pope within” was just as subversive as the one in Rome.110 The
fear on the part of their contemporaries was that they would succeed in their
missionizing efforts. Quaker opponent Francis Bugg worried that their meet-
ings were not merely about worship; “they Debate and Treat of other Matters,
which may tend to the Promoting of Quakerism, and agree upon such Mea-
sures, and give such Orders for the Executing of them, as tend exceedingly to the
Weakening [of] the Public Interest.”111 Quakers™ opponents rightly recognized
that Quakers did not meet exclusively for worship, but also for the business
of coordinating their resistance to the civil authorities. “The Quakers Synod”
(Figure 1) is a depiction of how “the Quakers hold a General Synod every

109 See, for example, Elizabeth Ashbridge, “Some Account of the forepart of the life of Elizabeth
Ashbridge” (1713“55), FHL. There is a substantial literature on Quaker women. See Isabel
Ross, Margaret Fell, Mother of Quakerism, 2nd ed. (York: William Sessions Book Trust, 1984);
Bonnelyn Young Kunze, Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1994); Mack, Visionary Women; Larson, Daughters of Light; Peters, Print
Culture and the Early Quakers. Peters notes that, although Quakers supported their female
members in their activities and defended them publicly, they had concerns that women might
be a substantially disruptive force within and without the meeting and thus tried to limit their
expressions (147“49). Although women™s preaching and printing contributed much to the
solidity of the early movement, curtailing passionate outbursts by women in the early years of
the movement, Peters argues, was also a major part of the developing Discipline.
110 John Faldo, Quakerism no Christianity: Or, a Thorow Quaker no Christian proved by the
Quakers Principles, detected out of their chief Writers . . . with . . . an Account of their Foun-
dation laid in Popery (London, 1675), 120.
111 Francis Bugg, Quakerism Anatomized, and Finally Dissected: Shewing, from Plain Fact, that
a Rigid Quaker is a Cruel Persecutor (London, 1709), 423. It should be noted that Bugg
was a former Quaker himself who left the meeting on extremely bad terms. His observations,
therefore, should be understood in light of both the experience he gained as a Quaker but also
his vindictiveness toward Friends.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 51

figure 1. A seventeenth-century depiction of a “Quakers Synod” with Quaker lead-
ers presiding. William Penn says, “Call over ye List, Are none of Truths enemies
here?” George Whitehead asks, “Are the doors shut?” William Bingley replies, “Yea
the doors are lockt.” The Journal of George Fox is on the table to be pitted against the
Church Canons. (Francis Bugg, The Pilgrim™s Progress, from Quakerism to Christianity
[London. 1698; rpt. 1700], inserted between pages 108 and 109. FHL.)
52 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

Whitsontide, with Doors Lock™d, Bar™d, Bolted, or else Guarded by Stout Fel-
lows, that no Body may inspect their Proceedings; against the known Law.”112
The consequences of Friends™ transgressions from English and early Amer-
ican law and custom were severe, and Friends were well aware of them as
they published their testimonies.113 In A Collection of Sufferings of the People
Called Quakers for the Testimony of a Good Conscience (1753), Joseph Besse
estimated that between 1650 and 1689, there were 20,721 Quakers in Eng-
land and America who had encounters with the law, and 450 died as a result,
mostly in prison. Beyond the of¬cially imposed punishments, the physical vio-
lence that Quakers endured at the hands of soldiers, mobs of teenage boys,
and others, all tacitly or openly encouraged by the religious and civil author-
ities was severe; there were beatings and mutilations of elderly men, young
children, and pregnant women that often led to death or dis¬guration. Some
of this was clearly prompted by Quakers™ refusal to obey laws and customs,
but much of it was provoked by things as seemingly innocuous as difference
in dress and can be attributed to simple bigotry and xenophobia. Quakers
were convenient targets for the intolerant and sadistic.114 The most extreme
example of Quaker persecution in the seventeenth century is the execution by
hanging of four Quakers, including Mary Dyer, on Boston Common in 1660.
Signi¬cantly, Quaker agitation during this period gained them more followers
as witnesses to their suffering were convinced of Friends™ salvation.115
During the 1660s and 1670s, the simultaneous development of the church
government and the peace testimony tempered and shaped the quality, though
not the quantity, of their dissent. Fox eventually convinced most Friends that
peace and nonviolent resistance was the essence of true Quakerism. As Friends
came to believe, God ordained that man should not destroy divine creation,
which included both other men but also government, ecclesiastical and civil.
Barclay wrote that, in the recent past, struggles for liberty of conscience had
been good, “albeit always wrong in the manner by which they took to accom-
plish it, viz. by Carnal Weapons.”116 The Quakers™ new understanding of the
sanctity of a civil constitution was in part a result of the creation of their own
ecclesiastical constitution. And a similar sense of political obligation existed

112 Ibid., 422.
113 Most works of Quaker history address the topic. In addition to the sources cited below, for
discussions of persecution of Quakers in America see Jonathan Chu, Neighbors, Friends, or
Madmen: The Puritan Adjustment to Quakerism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts Bay
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985) and George A. Selleck, The Quakers in Boston, 1656“
1964: Three Centuries of Friends in Boston and Cambridge (Friends Meeting at Cambridge,
1976); also see Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies, especially Book 1, Chapter 4,
“The Martyrs.”
114 Craig W. Horle, Quakers and the English Legal System, 1660“1688 (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1988) provides graphic examples of physical abuse of Quakers, 125“30,
and statistics on sufferings from 1660 to 1688 in Appendix One, 279“84.
115 Chu, Neighbors, Friends, or Madmen, 46.
116 Barclay, Apology, iii.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 53

in both areas. The same principles that applied to dissent in the meeting were
thus applied to dissent in the civil polity.
The peace testimony had a signi¬cant effect on Quaker proselytizing. Some
historians have posited that at the time it was instituted, Quakers turned qui-
etist or toned down their enthusiasm in order to lessen their persecution.117
Although there was certainly a change in behavior, there was not such a drastic
change in Friends™ attitude as has been maintained. It is true that a portion of
the Society did exhibit quietistic tendencies, but the term has often been inaccu-
rately applied to Quakers to mean a group that has withdrawn from the world
into sectarian isolation. The urge to “conquer” the world did indeed fade, but
the urge to change it did not. Writing about one of the de¬ning characteristics
of the Quaker church, Barclay explained that they were a people who
have not been wanting with the Hazard of our Lives to seek the scattered ones, holding
forth the Living and Sure Foundation, and inviting and perswading all to obey the
Gospel of Christ, and to take Notice of his Reproofs, as he makes himself manifest
by his Light in their Hearts; so our Care and Travail is and hath been towards those
that are without, that we may bring them into the Fellowship of the Saints in Light;
and towards those that are brought in, that they may not be led out again, or drawn

It would seem rather that Quakers were less afraid of persecution than they were
the possibility of their mission failing. If their Society disintegrated under the
pressure of persecution, they would fail in their divinely appointed commission
to secure liberty of conscience for all and open the way for the world to become
Quaker. Thus they also tempered their goal of convincement to something
more realistic and one that relied more on gentle persuasion than aggressive
and overtly disruptive tactics. Missionizing was, if not as aggressive or obvious
as in early Quakerism, still very much a compelling force among Friends.
Therefore, while the intensity and aggression of the Lamb™s War tapered
off in the second generation of Quakerism, its overarching goal did not dis-
appear. It has persisted into the twenty-¬rst century as Quakers have engaged
in a variety of social reform efforts that have grown out of their ancient and
new religious testimonies. The persistence of this missionizing and purifying
mentality is present in numerous Quaker writings. After a particularly satis-
fying meeting in 1804, for example, George Churchman noted in his journal
that he looked forward to “a prospect of things rising into more clearness or
of a season when Sluggards & dwar¬sh persons will be hunted out of their
holes, or lurking-Places.”119 Although the vocabulary of war is missing from
this glimpse into the Quaker mentality at the turn of the nineteenth century,
this expression is only a few degrees milder than the language of the Lamb™s

117 See, for example, Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, 251; Braithwaite, The Beginnings
of Quakerism, 525; Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 179; also Boorstin, The
Americans, 68. Most subsequent histories have accepted this assumption.
118 Barclay, Anarchy, 33“34.
119 Journal of George Churchman, 5th mo. 23rd day, 1804, 8: 80, HQC.
54 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

War, and the sentiment is the same “ there should be a sustained and vigorous
effort to assure that the cause of Truth is promulgated.
It is also true that Quaker testimonies became less a means of aggressive
confrontation and more a mark of their uniqueness, but uniqueness in itself was
a way of missionizing. Their conversation became more peaceable, but no less
peculiar. This new conversation was due in part to changes in the world around
them, some of which their agitations had engendered. Massachusetts Puritans,
for example, eventually decided that toleration of Quakers was preferable to
the discord created by the persecution; and William Penn managed to secure a
measure of legal toleration from James II in the form of the 1687 Declaration of
Indulgence, authored by Penn himself. By 1689 when the Act of Toleration was
passed, instigated largely by Quakers, the worst of the persecution was over.120
But the new truce between Quakers and the civil authorities was also due to
the evolution in Quaker public relations. Their new tack involved a reinvention
of the Quaker image. Quakers were what we would today call “media savvy.”
They understood intuitively the subtleties of “publishing” from many angles
and with many media, which was precisely why their opponents feared them.
In the 1650s, it was the individual Quaker who controlled and shaped the
spoken word. But as their central government formed, it was the group that
regulated the speech-action of the individual. They limited physical expressions
of enthusiasm and overtly subversive preaching.121 They renovated their public
image to be something less threatening and more attractive. Although not yet
quite “respectable” in the late-seventeenth century,122 over the centuries, they
managed to shape the connotation of the name “Quaker” in the popular mind
from a detestable and offensive mis¬t to a virtuous, pious, and trusted citizen.
Today most of us imagine the Quaker in the person of the Quaker Oats man,
whom we can hardly imagine shouting at anyone, let alone running naked
through the streets.
In spite of the new corporate structure, it is easy to see why historians have
mistaken Quakerism for an individualistic faith; they always took the initia-
tive to proselytize as individuals. What began to change with the institution of
church government was not the individual initiative but rather the regulation
of that initiative by the Society. Now the body must give its “approbation”
for a Friend to travel in the ministry.123 Preaching, however, was still founded
on individual initiative; meetings did not “send” missionaries. But as the per-
secution heated up, the body supported individuals more in their endeavors.
The meeting thus had both positive and negative roles to play in relation to

120 See Ethyn Williams Kirby, “The Quakers™ Efforts to Secure Civil and Religious Liberty, 1660“
96,” The Journal of Modern History vol. 7, no. 4 (1935), 401“21.
121 Mack explains that by the 1670s, members “ women in particular “ who preached or wrote
against the government in regards to war were censored (Visionary Women, 365, 368). Cen-
sorship on this topic also gives us a clear indication that the peace testimony was not used, as
it would become by the late-eighteenth century, against state-sponsored war.
122 Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 359.
123 William Reckitt, “The Life of William Reckitt,” in Friends™ Library, 9: 54.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 55

the individual “ to facilitate piety and proselytizing, though not to compel, and
also to regulate the interpretation and expression of the religious impulses.
Thus although their testimonies of dress and speech became pleasingly
quaint, amusing, or inspirational to outsiders instead of offensive, they contin-
ued to function much as they did before, merely more subtly. As Friends saw
it, their testimonies acted as both a hedge and a Light “ a hedge to keep out
sin and a Light as a beacon to the unconvinced. A Friend was to set an exam-
ple of piety in every way. James Bringhurst, a respected Philadelphia Friend,
expressed sentiments common to Quakers in the early nineteenth century:

We, who are not called, or at least are not engaged in the line of the ministry, may
be very usefully exercised in our respective allotments, and may sometimes preach to
others, either by example, or by the distribution of good books, or in some way or
other, by which we may promote the bene¬t of individuals and the welfare of society at

Everyone, then, was a sort of minister. Certainly when compared to George
Fox™s admonition to Friends that their lives and words should be “a Terrour
to all that speak not Truth,” Bringhurst™s words signify that Quakerism had
indeed evolved into a gentler religion. But this desire to in¬‚uence people to
Quakerly ways, expressed time and again in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
Quaker writings, is no less ardent or sincere. Bringhurst was always hopeful
that the efforts of Quakers would “open the way in the minds of the people
towards Friends” and was pleased to note that “those of other [religious]
societies are frequently seen attending Friends™ meetings with much solidarity.
There are many,” he concluded, “looking towards Friends in various parts of
this continent.”125 A Society that opened its meetings for worship to the general
public and regularly had more observers of their peculiar practice in attendance
than members must have been at least as concerned with missionizing as purity.
The goal for Friends was always the transformation of the world, but now
this regeneration no longer had to come from each person being convinced to
become a member of the Society of Friends. The hope of most Friends was not
that everyone in the world would become Quaker in name, only that they would
act like Quakers. Theirs became a missionizing movement with an ecumenical
bent. The name of a believer™s sect was less important than the substance of
his belief; the Quakers™ universalism let them believe that all had the capacity
to recognize and follow the Inner Light. Their movement and its effect thus
had a greater potential to be both broader and deeper than that of many other
From their understanding of how a closer knowledge of God™s law is gained
in meeting through a process of dissent “ that is, calm and respectful of the cor-
porate unity “ they knew that it must function the same way in the state: Some

124 John Murray, Jr., to James Bringhurst, 1st mo. 21st day 1805. Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
125 James Bringhurst to John Dickinson, 1st mo. 22nd day, 1802; and James Bringhurst to Moses
Brown, 2nd mo. 25th day, 1802. Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
56 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

members will understand the true law earlier, and it is incumbent upon these
visionaries to convince the others gently, even if that means waiting patiently
for years for God to give them clearness. Thus, for Quakers, adherence to
God™s law “ the higher law “ meant breaking ungodly human laws, but they
were obliged to do so peacefully, according to the same order and method
that God prescribed for the church. In other words, they had to preserve the
divinely ordained civil government by working within the existing system.
So seminal is the peace testimony still to Quakerism that one could argue
that it has led to a clouding of Quaker history. Most histories of the Society of
Friends (which, until recently, were written mainly by Friends) emphasize the
sufferings of Friends and encourage a misperception about the Society™s collec-
tive response to persecution. The myth is that they suffered their punishments
without complaint and without resistance. “Where we cannot obey,” wrote
William Penn somewhat misleadingly, “we patiently suffer.”126 According to
their beliefs, they were to accept both their punishments and the oppressive
government that in¬‚icted them peacefully and with love. While imprisoned,
Isaac Penington wrote,

The Lord hath made my bonds pleasant to me, and my noisom Prison (enough to have
destroyed my weakly and tenderly-educated nature) a place of pleasure and delight,
where I was comforted by my God night and day. And ¬lled with Prayers for his People,
as also with love to and Prayers for those who had been the means of outwardly-af¬‚icting
me and others upon the Lord™s account.127

While it is certainly true that Friends accepted their punishments, and did so
“lovingly,” it is not the case that they continued to “suffer patiently” or quietly;
they were by no means passive. For Friends, religious quietism did not equate
with political quietism.128 The case is, in fact, the opposite. Retreating inward
to worship and discover God™s law then compelled them to go forth and, as
Tocqueville says, “to harmonize earth with heaven.”129
Thus persecution is only part of the story of Quakers in their early years. It
was merely the catalyst for Quakers to develop their process of civil dissent.
Friends were not content merely to suffer the unjust punishments doled out to
them by the government; instead, they established themselves as a formidable
force for legal and political reform in early modern England.130 Although they
used many tactics, some of which were the typical means Englishmen protested
governmental oppression, the most signi¬cant was the new practice of civil

126 William Penn quoted in Isaac Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment in Government: History of
Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, 1682“1783 (Philadelphia: Ferris and Leach, 1902), 15.
127 Isaac Penington, “Three Queries Propounded to the King and Parliament . . .” in Penington™s
Works (London, 1680), 406.
128 Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace, 10.
129 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer, ed. (New York: HarperPerenial,
1988), 287.
130 Horle™s, Quakers and the English Legal System is the de¬nitive work on this topic.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 57

Quaker civil disobedience followed a distinct process that met the criteria
laid out in the Introduction for true civil disobedience and foreshadowed the
process articulated later by reformers such as Martin Luther King, Jr. It was
a nonviolent, public protest against unjust laws with the intent to educate
for change. The ¬rst step was to purify the conscience in communion with
God. Next, one discerned the fundamental law through inward searching and
outward testing. God™s law was then compared with the civil law. When the
two con¬‚icted, testifying for the true law began. In this part of the process, a key
component of Quaker dissent was testifying “ publishing the Truth “ openly.
In spite of the grim punishments that awaited Friends for challenging the laws
of England and the American colonies, they nevertheless resigned themselves “
often jubilantly “ to their status as criminals and did not hesitate to break
the law repeatedly. On the matter of oath taking, for example, Barclay was
decisive: “Neither is it lawful for them to be unfaithful in this, that they may
please others, or that they may avoid their hurt: for thus the primitive Christians
for some ages remained faithful.”131 One relatively unusual pamphlet on early
Quakerism comments favorably on Friends™ constant dissent. This anonymous
Anglican admired the fact that a Quaker

could never be Tempted by Interest, or even the Preservation of his Property, to Act
contrary; and often has rather chose to suffer by ill Men, even to the entire Ruin of
his Family, rather than offend his Conscience: So no Interest or Preferment could ever
Tempt him to any Occasional Conformity to the Church or Government.132

A Friend, it was generally recognized, was, for better or worse, more concerned
about the state of his soul than any bodily or other punishments that could be
in¬‚icted by man. “I went [by the justices] in fear,” says Thomas Ellwood, “not
of what they could or would have done to me . . . but lest I should be surprised,
and drawn unwarily into that which I was to keep out of.”133
Friends, when faithfully following the Inward Light, rarely avoided con¬‚ict
over their testimonies. When acting in Truth, they were bound by conscience
to reveal themselves as Friends, although it oftentimes would have been much
more convenient to hide the fact. But openness was more than just a testimony.
This practice was calculated both to send a message that Friends were con¬dent
in their faith and mission and also to establish a good relationship with the
civil authorities. Although Friends actively sought con¬‚ict with the government
over what they perceived as unjust and ungodly laws, their main goal was not
simply to anger government of¬cials. Ultimately, they were trying to convince
them, if not of the truth of Quaker ways, then to allow Quakers and others
to pursue their ways unmolested. They had an interest in dealing forthrightly
with the government as the most effective means of achieving their ends. In his

131 Barclay, Apology, 553.
132 G. D. The Quaker No Occasional Conformist, but a Sincere Christian in his Life (London,
1703), 5“6.
133 Thomas Ellwood, The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood (Philadelphia, 1865), 36.

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