New England Yearly Meeting

A community of Quakers and Quaker meetings across New England.

The Prophetic Movement (1652–1690)

Chara​cter of Early Quakerism in England

The great outburst of prophetic passion that swept through the northern counties of Puritan England in the mid-seventeenth century carried with it, as on the forward wall of a tidal flood, the utter conviction that the world could know directly and immediately the power of Christ's love and the light of his truth. This conviction invariably sprang from a direct, personal experience. George Fox, probably the most charismatic and certainly the most influential of the founding members of the Quaker movement, discovered in 1647, after a prolonged and intensive search, that no priest or preacher could speak to his condition: "Then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."

This direct experience and others like it became the living center of the Quaker movement that grew up around the teachings and dynamic personality of George Fox in the early 1650's. In their thirst after righteousness and in their eagerness to engage the world with God's truth, the early Quakers believed they were called on to be prophets to their age. Like the Hebrew and Christian prophets by whose example they consciously molded their lives, they experienced God as a living, energizing power, spurring them to confront the corruption of existing social and ecclesiastical institutions and to form communities of believers committed to doing God's will in the world.

The prophetic character of the Quaker movement was evident from its beginnings. For many years it had no membership requirements at all, but instead let the experience of God's intervention in the lives of its participants be their common bond. Like other such movements it expected a life of moral perfection to be a sign of true conversion. It applied the principles of equality in its affairs, recognizing from the outset the equal responsibilities of men and women. It encouraged mutual aid as a sign of true discipleship in Christ. It rejected all outward sacraments and priestly orders, depending instead upon the inward power of Christ's example to guide the lives of its followers. In general, the Quaker movement looked to the early Christian Church for examples of dynamic organization and loving community and saw itself not as a new sect but as "primitive Christianity revived."

This prophetic vision was soon carried abroad in every direction. Borne by the "Publishers of Truth," as many early Friends called themselves, the Quaker movement spread south to London and into the southern counties of England, west into Ireland, and almost immediately thereafter across the seas into Holland, Germany, France, and the American colonies. The Quakers who arrived in Puritan New England in 1656, only four years after George Fox began his public ministry, were thus participants in one of those remarkable outpourings of spiritual energy that from time to time have revitalized the Christian faith.

Missions to New England: Persecutions and Toleration

It was this vision of a primitive, prophetic Christianity that Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, the first Quakers to arrive in New England, brought to Puritan Boston in July 1656. They had taken up, as would dozens and then hundreds of others in the next several decades, Fox's exhortation to "plough up the fallow ground" and to be examples everywhere. "Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you."

The first Quaker penetration of the Puritan colonies was carried out by a handful of courageous Publishers undismayed by the cruel persecutions to which they were often subjected. Ann Austin and Mary Fisher had been seized by the Puritan authorities on arrival, stripped and searched for marks of witchcraft, and kept sealed in a windowless prison for five weeks until they could be shipped back to Barbados. Had it not been for the intervention of Nicholas Upsall, a Boston innkeeper who later became a convert to the Quaker movement, they might well have starved to death.

The persecutions encountered by the Quakers varied in degree from colony to colony and from time to time, but they were the most ferocious and unrelenting in Massachusetts, particularly in Boston. The Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts colony saw the Quakers as subverters of a holy experiment and as disrupters of civic peace. From their very first appearance, therefore, the Puritans burned their books, locked them up in prison, whipped them, cut off the ears of several who defied them, and in desperation hanged four of them William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra on Boston Common for returning after being banished. This treatment only increased the resolve of the growing Quaker community to show the Puritans that God's will could not be denied. Wenlock Christison, the last Quaker to be sentenced to death in Boston, told his Puritan persecutors in 1661: "Do not think to weary out the living God by taking away the lives of his servants." (J. Besse, A Collection of the Sufferings, II, 223.)

By contrast, the experience of the Quaker ministry in Rhode Island was peaceful and unusually fruitful. Within months after the arrival of the first Quakers on the Woodhouse in August 1657, there were numerous conversions in Newport and Portsmouth. Very soon the whole of Rhode Island became a base for Quaker missions to other parts of New England, a fact that so troubled the neighboring colonies that they tried to persuade Rhode Island to rid itself of its "notorious heretics." The colony refused to comply, affirming once more that "freedom of conscience we still prize as the greatest happiness that man can possess in this world." (Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, I, 378-380.)

Although nowhere else in New England did the Quaker movement prosper as it did in Rhode Island, it continued to grow throughout the late 1650's and 1660's, especially in those places where the soil had been prepared by other groups searching for a more inward spiritual life than that offered by established Puritanism. At Sandwich and Falmouth on Cape Cod and to the north of Boston in Salem were gathered some of the earliest groups of Quaker converts. Within a few years southeastern Massachusetts was dotted with Quaker meetings, important Quaker settlements were established on Long Island, and Quaker Publishers were pushing north to Dover and Portsmouth in New Hampshire and across the Piscataqua River into Maine. Even in Boston itself there were some forty or fifty Friends when the persecutions came to a temporary halt in 1665. Thus by 1671, scarcely fifteen years after the arrival of the first Quakers in New England, the movement had grown so rapidly that George Fox decided to visit this flowering in the New World.

The Visit of George Fox (1672-1673)

The visit of George Fox to Newport, Rhode Island, in May 1672, was a major event, not only for New England Friends but for other people of spiritual sensibility as well. They came from all corners of the New England colonies and from all conditions and persuasions to witness for themselves the power of his celebrated ministry. Some, like Roger Williams, the aged founder of the Providence Plantation, sought to debate with Fox directly; others, called Ranters by their opponents, persisted in disturbing the spirit of worship with their disputations.

How to deal with these disruptive voices was a perplexing problem. Opponents of the Quakers did not want to share in the silent waiting for Truth but sought instead to impose their "high notions" on the apparently captive audiences before them. Fox's response to their disruptions was to demonstrate how the power of the Lord could be brought over all. In meeting after meeting he showed how the spiritual integrity of silent worship could be secured through the gathered awareness of God's presence. Out of this awareness could come a spiritual unity and coherence strong enough, he demonstrated, to deal with the most compelling distractions.

This demonstration of spiritual unity was George Fox's greatest legacy to New England Friends, and it was perhaps most powerfully experienced during Yearly Meeting at Newport in June 1672. "When it was ended," Fox wrote in his Journal, "it was hard for Friends to part, for the glorious power of the Lord which was over all his blessed Truth and Life flowing amongst them had so knit and united them together that they spent two days of taking leave of one another and Friends went away being mightily filled with the presence and power of the Lord."

Organizing for the Future

George Fox was equally concerned with the practical arrangements of Friends' affairs in the New World. Ever since he arrived in Barbados, he had urged Friends to take greater care with the details of organization, because he saw that such arrangements contributed to the integrity and stability of the community that was growing larger and more complex all the time.

Undoubtedly the most important of these practical arrangements was the monthly meeting for business. Because some members of the early Quaker movement, many of them followers of John Perrot, had begun asserting that the spontaneous development of the individual's spiritual life took priority over all else, Fox recognized that the community of believers would disintegrate into individualistic fragments if it did not find a spiritual basis for the conduct of its own affairs. Thus he urged New England Friends to establish men's and women's monthly meetings so that Friends could seek together under divine guidance the "well-ordering and managing" of their practical affairs.

The establishment of these monthly meetings proved to be a major development in the history of Quakerism, because it was through them that the prophetic movement of the seventeenth century evolved into the religious society of the eighteenth century. Whereas many similar movements disappeared with the passing, of their founding inspiration, the Quaker movement survived the quieting of its prophetic passion. In large part this was due to the care its founding spirits took to build a practical as well as a spiritual foundation.



New England Yearly Meeting of Friends

901 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602

(508) 754-6760 - [email protected]