Friday, April 13, 2012

Prophecy and Polemic—The Earliest Quaker Women

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 female members.

Like many seized by the millennial fever that gripped England in the waning years of the Protectorate (1658-1660), Quakers urged the people and government of England to repent their sins, to embrace the teachings of God, and to take the biblical teachings of justice and retribution to heart. Emulating the ancient biblical prophets, early Friends openly preached and harangued passers-by, disrupted church services, and shouted out what often seemed to their listeners to be blasphemous declarations and warnings. Dramatically expressing their “Inner Light,” both male and female Quakers shrieked, cried, sang, cast off their clothing and “ran naked as a sign," and otherwise buoyantly proclaimed the word of God in the streets, taverns, marketplaces, prisons and, most provocatively, in Anglican "steeplehouses.”

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.

While many female Friends shouted their apocalyptic visions on the streetcorners, others furiously composed their admonitions in hastily prepared tracts addressed to Parliament, Cromwell, the king, local and royal authorities and "the world." Although women in the sect could not take the same steps as their male counterparts--most notably, they could not vote in elections or hope to be elected to Parliament--they could petition government, seek to sway public sentiment in their favor, speak their minds publicly, and publish their views in political and religious tracts, despite the repercussions. While female Quakers only wrote 220 tracts of 3855 before 1700, as a group they wrote more than any other English women before the eighteenth century.

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

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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Susanna. I've always admired the Quakers. One of the best books I've read recently is Adam Hochschild's BURY THE CHAINS, about the Quaker-led movement in England to stop the slave trade. It's a riveting and heart-breaking narrative.


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