The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725

The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725

The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725

The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725


'This book represents a significant contribution to Quaker studies, since, for the first time, it offers a focused account of the willingness of the Friends to integrate themselves into civil society and its institutions... The thematic organisation, with chronological change examined within themes, is highly effective... It resolves some long-standing puzzles in Quaker studies as well as posing some new challenges.' -John Morrill, TLS'It is a fine work, based on extensive research, and informed by clear questions relating to English social history after the mid-seventeenth century; practically every one of its short chapters--many run less than 10 pages, one shorts out at 6--sparkles with conclusive insights that bear remembering and continued reflection' -Larry Ingle, Quaker History'deeply-researched, pleasingly written' -Michael A. Mullett, English Historical ReviewThe early Quakers denounced the clergy and social élite but what of Friends' relationships with others? By examining Quaker attitudes to neighbourliness, the family, the rites of passage, business, and other links, this lively and original study demonstrates that Quakers were not the marginal and isolated people often portrayed by contemporaries and historians, and explores their wider and significant impact upon early modern society.


My interest in the Society of Friends arose out of curiosity about an early Quaker leader, James Nayler. a yeoman farmer and once a quartermaster in Cromwell's army, Nayler was notorious for having re-enacted Christ's last entry into Jerusalem at Bristol in 1656. a band of enthusiastic and largely female followers made up the procession, which strewed palms in his path and provocatively uttered the words 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Israel' as they honoured their charismatic prophet. the event outraged contemporary opinion, which took Nayler to be proclaiming himself the new Messiah, a charge which was further encouraged by his wearing a beard and long hair in the manner of contemporary depictions of Christ. the accusations were forcefully denied, but Nayler was found guilty of the crime of 'horrid blasphemy' and sentenced by Parliament. As part of his punishment he had his tongue bored through with a hot iron, and his forehead branded with the letter 'B' as a reminder of his blasphemy.

The episode disconcerted me not only because of the terrible and inhumane punishment meted out to Nayler but also because hitherto I had thought of the Society of Friends as a group of sober Victorian nonconformists who were renowned for their enterprise in industry, concern for the poor, and an enlightened attitude to pacifism. This was a reputation very different from that of the sect in the 1650s, when MPs could describe followers as 'more dangerous than the most intestine or foreign enemies' or express the fear that they did 'contemn your magistracy and ministry, and trample it under their feet'.* This spurred me on to examine the relationship between Quakers and wider society, which is the main subject considered in this book.

The movement which emerged in the early 1650s quickly enraged the political and religious establishment with its anti-authoritarian tendencies. It was in time to temper dramatically that rebellious spirit which had accompanied its birth. Perhaps one reason was the persecution members were subjected to after the Restoration. Nevertheless, membership continued to grow until the turn of the century when, though the times were politically less troublesome and the movement more widely accepted, it was then beginning its long decline. It is the first seventy years of the movement

* Diary of Thomas Burton, ed. J. T. Rutt, 4 vols. (1828), i. 24–5, 26.

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