by Susanna Calkin
In 1659, over seven thousand women across England, proclaiming themselves “the
handmaids and daughters of the Lord” signed Mary Foster’s petition to Parliament. "It may seem
strange to some that women should appear in so public a manner," she explained, "but because
the blood of our brethren hath been spilt, and also many thousands have had their goods spoiled
and taken away, and many of them imprisoned to death…you [must] keep the nation from the
plagues and judgments of God."
The signatories belonged to the newly formed Religious Society of Friends, a non-
conformist sect known for “quaking in the presence of the Lord” that emerged during the
tumultuous Civil Wars. The members, embracing the derogatory name “Quakers,” became
known for their exuberant religious expression and for respecting the spiritual equality of their
Not surprisingly, the earliest Quakers from the mid-1640s through the 1660s elicited
controversy, harassment, and popular contempt wherever they traveled. Although Oliver
Cromwell initially supported the idea of an all-inclusive state church in the 1650s, in practice
both local and state authorities did not welcome the frenetic and disruptive activities of the early
Quakers. Most early Friends faced physical and verbal assault by villagers and townspeople
(often after being incited by local clergymen).
When Cromwell died in September 1658, the Quakers clamored for the restoration of the
monarchy, believing they could convince the Stuart king to establish a broadly tolerant policy
concerning religion. Although King Charles II promised toleration with the Declaration of Breda
(1660), thousands of Quakers were imprisoned when they refused to take the Oath of Allegiance
to the King. Shortly after, the conservative Cavalier Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity
(1662), the Quaker Act of 1664 and the Conventicle Acts, legislation designed to quash religious
dissent among the Quakers and other riotous “schizmatics.” While intermittent periods of
toleration in the form of Declarations of Indulgence (1662, 1672, 1687, and 1688) occurred
within the years of persecution, these moments were usually short-lived. Even after the Act of
Toleration (1689), Friends continued to face imprisonment and loss of property throughout the
1690s for refusal to pay tithes to the Church of England.
In a period when the monarchy and Parliament fought colonial authorities and
themselves, Quaker women recognized and positioned themselves within these larger contests
of power—physically, spiritually, and intellectually--allowing them to participate in the political
community in ways that women usually could not.
Susanna Calkins is an early modern British historian. Her first novel, Monster at the Gate, is a mystery set in 17th century England. It will be published by Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press in winter 2012. Come visit her blog and website at www.susannacalkins.com.
References: Excerpted from Calkins, S. (2001) Prophesy and Polemic: Quaker Women and English Political Culture, 1650-1700, unpublished dissertation, Purdue University.
Mary Forster, These Several Papers was [sic] sent to the Parliament the twentieth day of the
Fifth Month, 1659 (London, 1659), 1; William C. Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955); Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan
England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964); Elbert Russell, The History of
Quakerism (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1979); Barry Reay, The Quakers and Early
Restoration Quakerism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985); and Rosemary Moore, "Leaders
of the Primitive Quaker Movement," Quaker History 85 (1996): 29-44; Kenneth Carroll, Quaker
History 2 (1978): 69-87 and “Singing in the Spirit in Early Quakerism,” Quaker History 73
(1984): 1-13; Norman Penney, ed., Extracts from State Papers Relating to Friends (London:
Headley Brothers, 1910); Anne Gargill, A Brief Discovery of That Which is Called the Popish
Religion (London, 1656); Anne Gargill, A Warning to All the World (London, 1656), 4.