Introduction to Quakerism


[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism.]Quaker Assembly


From the year 1787, when I began to devote my labors to the abolition of the slave trade, I was thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers, these people had been then long unanimous upon this subject. Indeed they had placed it among the articles of their religious discipline. Their houses were of course open to me in all parts of the kingdom. Hence I came to a knowledge of their living manners, which no other person, who was not a Quaker, could have easily obtained.

As soon as I became possessed of this knowledge, or at least of so much of it, as to feel that it was considerable, I conceived a desire of writing their moral history. I believed I should be able to exhibit to the rest of the world many excellent customs, of which they were ignorant, but which it might be useful to them to know. I believed too, that I should be affording to the Quakers themselves, some lessons of utility, by letting them see, as it were in a glass, the reflection of their own images. I felt also a great desire, amidst these considerations, to do them justice; for ignorance and prejudice had invented many expressions concerning them, to the detriment of their character, which their conduct never gave me reason to suppose, during all my intercourse with them, to be true.

Nor was I without the belief, that such a history might afford entertainment to many. The Quakers, as everybody knows, differ more than even many foreigners do, from their own countrymen. They adopt a singular mode of language. Their domestic customs are peculiar. They have renounced religious ceremonies, which all other Christians, in some form or other, have retained. They are distinguished from all the other islanders by their dress. These differences are great and striking. And I thought therefore that those, who were curious in the development of character, might be gratified in knowing the principles, which produced such numerous exceptions from the general practices of the world.

But though I had conceived from the operation of these sentiments upon my mind, as long ago as I have stated, a strong desire to write the moral history of the Quakers, yet my incessant occupations on the subject of the slave-trade, and indisposition of body afterwards, in consequence of the great mental exertions necessary in such a cause, prevented me from attempting my design. At length these causes of prevention ceased. But when, after this, the subject recurred, I did not seem to have the industry and perseverance, though I had still the inclination left, for the undertaking. Time, however, continued to steal on, till at length I began to be apprehensive, but more particularly within the last two years, that, if I were to delay my work much longer, I might not live to begin it at all. This consideration operated upon me. But I was forcibly struck by another, namely, that, if I were not to put my hand to the task, the Quakers would probably continue to be as little known to their fellow-citizens, as they are at present. For I did not see who was ever to give a full and satisfactory account of them. It is true indeed, that there are works, written by Quakers, from which a certain portion of their history, and an abstract of their religious principles, might be collected; but none, from whence their living manners could be taken. It is true also that others, of other religious denominations, have written concerning them; but of those authors, who have mentioned them in the course of their respective writings, not one, to my knowledge, has given a correct account of them. It would be tedious to dwell on the errors of Mosheim, or of Formey, or of Hume, or on those to be found in many of the modern periodical publications.  It seemed, therefore, from the circumstance of my familiar intercourse with the Quakers, that it devolved upon me particularly to write their history. And I was the more confirmed in my opinion, because, in looking forward, I was never able to foresee the time when any other cause would equally, with that of the slave-trade, bring any other person, who was not of the society, into such habits of friendship with the Quakers, as that he should obtain an equal degree of knowledge concerning them with myself. By this new consideration I was more than ordinarily stimulated, and I began my work.

It is not improbable but some may imagine from the account already given, that this work will be a partial one, or that it will lean, more than it ought to do, in favor of the Quakers. I do not pretend to say, that I shall be utterly able to divest myself of all undue influence, which their attention towards me may have produced, or that I shall be utterly unbiased, when I consider them as fellow-laborers in the work of the abolition of the slave-trade; for if others had put their shoulders to the wheel equally with them on the occasion, one of the greatest causes of human misery, and moral evil, that was ever known in the world, had been long ago annihilated, nor can I conceal, that I have a regard for men, of whom it is a just feature in their character, that, whenever they can be brought to argue upon political subjects, they reason upon principle, and not upon consequences; for if this mode of reasoning had been adopted by others, but particularly by men in exalted stations, policy had given way to moral justice, and there had been but little public wickedness in the world. But though I am confessedly partial to the Quakers on account of their hospitality to me, and on account of the good traits in their moral character, I am not so much so, as to be blind to their imperfections. Quakerism is of itself a pure system, and, if followed closely, will lead towards purity and perfection; but I know well that all, who profess it, are not Quakers.  The deviation therefore of their practice from their profession, and their frailties and imperfections, I shall uniformly lay open to them, wherever I believe them to exist. And this I shall do, not because I wish to avoid the charge of partiality, but from a belief that it is my duty to do it.

The society, of which I am to speak, are called Quakers by the world, but are known to each other by the name of Friends, a beautiful appellation, and characteristic of the relation, which man, under the Christian dispensation, ought uniformly to bear to man.

The Founder of the society was George Fox. He was born of “honest and sufficient parents,” at Drayton in Leicestershire, in the year 1624. He was put out, when young, according to his own account, to a man, who was a shoe-maker by trade, and who dealt in wool, and followed grazing, and sold cattle. But it appears from William Penn, who became a member of the society, and was acquainted with him that he principally followed the country-part of his master’s business. He took a great delight in sheep, “an employment,” says Penn, “that very well suited his mind in some respects, both for its innocency and its solitude, and was a just figure of his after ministry and service.”

In his youth he manifested a seriousness of spirit, not usual in persons of his age. This seriousness grew upon him, and as it increased he encouraged it, so that in the year 1643, or in the twentieth year of his age, he conceived himself, in consequence of the awful impression he had received, to be called upon to separate himself from the world, and to devote himself to religion.

At this time the Church of England, as a Protestant church, had been established; and many, who were not satisfied with the settlement of it, had formed themselves into different religious sects. There was a great number of persons also in the kingdom, who approving neither of the religion of the establishment, nor of that of the different denominations alluded to, withdrew from the communion of every visible church. These were ready to follow any teacher, who might inculcate doctrines that coincided with their own apprehensions. Thus for a way lay open among many for a cordial reception of George Fox. But of those, who had formed different visible churches of their own, it may be observed, that though they were prejudiced, the reformation had not taken place so long, but that they were still alive to religious advancement. Nor had it taken place so long, but that thousands were still very ignorant, and stood in need of light and information on that subject.

It does not appear, however, that George Fox, for the first three years from the time, when he conceived it to be his duty to withdraw from the world, had done any thing as a public minister of the gospel. He had traveled from the year 1643 to 1646, through the counties of Warwick, Leicester, Northampton, and Bedford, and as far as London. In this interval he appears to have given himself up to solemn impressions, and to have endeavored to find out as many serious people as he could, with a view of conversing with them on the subject of religion.

In 1647 he extended his travels to Derbyshire, and from thence into Lancashire, but returned to his native county. He met with many friendly people in the course of this journey, and had many serious conversations with them, but he never joined in profession with any. At Duckenfield, however, and at Manchester, he went among those, whom he termed “the professors of religion,” and according to his own expressions, “he staid a while and declared truth among them.” Of these some were convinced but others were enraged, being startled at his doctrine of perfection. At Broughton in Leicestershire, we find him attending a meeting of the Baptists, at which many of other denominations were present. Here he spoke publicly, and convinced many. After this he went back to the county of Nottingham. And here a report having gone abroad, that he was an extraordinary young man, many, both priests and people, came far and near to see him.

In 1648 he confined his movements to a few counties. In this year we find him becoming a public character. In Nottinghamshire he delivered himself in public at three different meetings, consisting either of priests and professors, as he calls them, or professors and people. In Warwickshire he met with a great company of professors, who were praying and expounding the scriptures, in the fields. Here he discoursed largely, and the hearers fell into contention, and so parted. In Leicestershire he attended another meeting, consisting of Church people, Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists, where he spoke publicly again. This meeting was held in a church. The persons present discoursed and reasoned. Questions were propounded, and answers followed. An answer given by George Fox, in which he stated that “the church was the pillar and ground of truth, and that it did not consist of a mixed multitude, or of an old house, made up of lime, stones, and wood, but of living stones, living members, and a spiritual household, of which Christ was the head,” set them all on fire. The clergyman left the pulpit, the people their pews, and the meeting separated. George Fox, however, went afterwards to an Inn, where he argued with priests and professors of all sorts. Departing from thence, he took up his abode for some time in the vale of Beevor, where he preached Repentance, and convinced many. He then returned into Nottinghamshire, and passed from thence into Derbyshire, in both which counties his doctrines spread. And, after this, warning Justices of the Peace, as he traveled along, to do justice, and notoriously wicked men to amend their lives, he came into the vale of Beevor again. In this vale it was that he received, according to his own account, his commission from divine authority, by means of impressions on his mind, in consequence of which he conceived it to be discovered to him, among other things, that he was “to turn the people from darkness to the light.” By this time he had converted many hundreds to his opinions, and divers meetings of Friends, to use his own expression, “had been then gathered.”

The year 1649 was ushered in by new labors. He was employed occasionally in writing to judges and justices to do justice, and in warning persons to fulfill the duties of their respective stations in life.

This year was the first of all his years of suffering. For it happened on a Sunday morning, that, coming in sight of the town of Nottingham, and seeing the great church, he felt an impression on his mind to go there. On hearing a part of the sermon, he was so struck with what he supposed to be the erroneous doctrine it contained, that he could not help publicly contradicting it. For this interruption of the service he was seized, and afterwards confined in prison. At Mansfield again, as he was declaring his own religious opinions in the church, the people fell upon him and beat and bruised him, and put him afterwards in the stocks.  At Market Bosworth he was stoned and driven out of the place. At Chesterfield he addressed both the clergyman and the people, but they carried him before the mayor, who detained him till late at night, at which unseasonable time the officers and watchmen put him out of the town.

And here I would observe, before I proceed to the occurrences of another year, that there is reason to believe that George Fox disapproved of his own conduct in having interrupted the service of the church at Nottingham, which I have stated to have been the first occasion of his imprisonment. For if he believed any one of his actions, with which the world had been offended, to have been right, he repeated it, as circumstances called it forth, though he was sure of suffering for it either from the magistrates or the people. But he never repeated this, but he always afterwards, when any occasion of religious controversy occurred in any of the churches, where his travels lay, uniformly suspended his observations, till the service was over.

George Fox spent almost the whole of the next year, that is, of the year 1650, in confinement in Derby Prison.

In 1651, when he was set at liberty, he seems not to have been in the least disheartened by the treatment he had received there, or at the different places before mentioned, but to have resumed his travels, and to have held religious meetings, as he went along. He had even the boldness to go into Litchfield, because he imagined it to be his duty, and, with his shoes off to pronounce with an audible voice in the streets, and this on the market-day, a woe against that city. He continued also to visit the churches, as he journeyed, in the time of divine service, and to address the priests and the people publicly, as he saw occasion, but not, as I observed before, till he believed the service to be over. It does not appear, however, that he suffered any interruption upon these occasions, in the course of the present year, except at York-Minster; where, as he was beginning to preach after the sermon, he was hurried out of it, and thrown down the steps by the congregation, which was then breaking up. It appears that he had been generally well received in the county of York, and that he had convinced many.

In the year 1652, after having passed through the shires of Nottingham and Lincoln, he came again into Yorkshire. Here, in the course of his journey, he ascended Pendle-Hill. At the top of this he apprehended it was opened to him, whither he was to direct his future steps, and that he saw a great host of people, who were to be converted by him in the course of his ministry. From this time we may consider him as having received his commission full and complete in his own mind. For in the vale of Beevor he conceived himself to have been informed of the various doctrines, which it became his duty to teach, and, on this occasion, to have had an insight of the places where he was to spread them.

To go over his life, even in the concise way, in which I have hitherto attempted it, would be to swell this introduction into a volume. I shall therefore, from this great period of his ministry, make only the following simple statement concerning it.

He continued his labors, as a minister of the gospel, and even preached, within two days of his death.

During this time he had settled meetings in most parts of the kingdom, and had given to these the foundation of that beautiful system of discipline, which I shall explain in this volume, and which exists among the Quakers at the present day.

He had traveled over England, Scotland, and Wales. He had been in Ireland. He had visited the British West-Indies, and America. He had extended his travels to Holland, and part of Germany.

He had written, in this interval, several religious books, and had addressed letters to kings, princes, magistrates, and people, as he felt impressions on his mind, which convinced him, that it become his duty to do it.

He had experienced also, during this interval, great bodily sufferings.  He had been long and repeatedly confined in different jails of the kingdom. The state of the jails, in these times, is not easily to be conceived. That of Doomsdale at Launceston in Cornwall, has never been exceeded for filth and pestilential noisomeness, nor those of Lancaster and Scarborough-castles for exposure to the inclemency of the elements.  In the two latter he was scarcely ever dry for two years; for the rain used to beat into them, and to run down upon the floor. This exposure to the severity of the weather occasioned his body and limbs to be benumbed, and to swell to a painful size, and laid the foundation, by injuring his health, for future occasional sufferings during the remainder of his life.

With respect to the religious doctrines, which George Fox inculcated during his ministry, it is not necessary to speak of them here, as they will be detailed in their proper places. I must observe, however, that he laid a stress upon many things, which the world considered to be of little moment, but which his followers thought to be entirely worthy of his spiritual calling. He forbade all the modes and gestures, which are used as tokens of obeisance, or flattery, or honor, among men. He insisted on the necessity of plain speech or language. He declaimed against all sorts of music. He protested against the exhibitions of the theatre, and many of the customary diversions of the times. The early Quakers, who followed him in all these points, were considered by some as turning the world upside down; but they contended in reply, that they were only restoring it to its pure and primitive state; and that they had more weighty arguments for acting up to their principles in these respects, than others had for condemning them for so doing.

But whatever were the doctrines, whether civil, or moral, or religious, which George Fox promulgated, he believed that he had a divine commission for teaching them, and that he was to be the RESTORER of Christianity; that is, that he was to bring people from Jewish ceremonies and Pagan-fables, with which it had been intermixed, and also from worldly customs, to a religion which was to consist of spiritual feeling. I know not how the world will receive the idea, that he conceived himself to have had a revelation for these purposes. But nothing is more usual than for pious people, who have succeeded in any ordinary work of goodness, to say, that they were providentially led to it, and this expression is usually considered among Christians to be accurate. But I cannot always find the difference between a man being providentially led into a course of virtues and successful action, and his having an internal revelation for it. For if we admit that men may be providentially led upon such occasions, they must be led by the impressions upon their minds. But what are these internal impressions, but the dictates of an internal voice to those who follow them? But if pious men would believe themselves to have been thus providentially led, or acted upon, in any ordinary case of virtue, if it had been crowned with success, George Fox would have had equal reason to believe, from the success that attended his own particular undertaking, that he had been called upon to engage in it. For at a very early age he had confuted many of the professors of religion in public disputations. He had converted magistrates, priests, and people. Of the clergymen of those times some had left valuable livings, and followed him. In his thirtieth year he had seen no less than sixty persons, spreading, as ministers, his own doctrines. These, and other circumstances which might be related, would doubtless operate powerfully upon him to make him believe, that he was a chosen vessel. Now, if to these considerations it be added, that George Fox was not engaged in any particular or partial cause of benevolence, or mercy, or justice, but wholly and exclusively in a religious and spiritual work, and that it was the first of all his religious doctrines, that the spirit of God, where men were obedient to it, guided them in their spiritual concerns, he must have believed himself, on the consideration of his unparalleled success, to have been providentially led, or to have had an internal or spiritual commission for the cause, which he had undertaken.

But this belief was not confined to himself. His followers believed in his commission also. They had seen, like himself, the extraordinary success of his ministry. They acknowledged the same internal admonitions, or revelations of the same spirit, in spiritual concerns.  They had been witnesses of his innocent and blameless life. There were individuals in the kingdom, who had publicly professed sights and prophecies concerning him. At an early age he had been reported, in some parts of the country, as a youth, who had a discerning spirit. It had gone abroad, that he had healed many persons, who had been sick of various diseases. Some of his prophecies had come true in the lifetime of those, who had heard them delivered. His followers too had seen many, who had come purposely to molest and apprehend him, depart quietly, as if their anger and their power had been providentially broken. They had seen others, who had been his chief persecutors, either falling into misfortunes, or dying a miserable or an untimely death. They had seen him frequently cast into prison, but always getting out again by means of his innocence. From these causes the belief was universal among them, that his commission was of divine authority; and they looked upon him therefore in no other light, than that of a teacher, who had been sent to them from heaven.

George Fox was in his person above the ordinary size. He is described by William Penn as a “lusty person.” He was graceful in his countenance.  His eye was particularly piercing, so that some of those, who were disputing with him, were unable to bear it. He was, in short, manly, dignified, and commanding in his aspect and appearance.

In his manner of living he was temperate. He ate sparingly. He avoided, except medicinally, all strong drink.

Notwithstanding the great exercise he was accustomed to take, he allowed himself but little sleep.

In his outward demeanor he was modest, and without affectation. He possessed a certain gravity of manners, but he was nevertheless affable, and courteous, and civil beyond the usual forms of breeding.

In his disposition he was meek, and tender, and compassionate. He was kind to the poor, without any exception, and, in his own society, laid the foundation of that attention towards them, which the world remarks as an honor to the Quaker-character at the present day. But the poor were not the only persons, for whom, he manifested an affectionate concern. He felt and sympathized wherever humanity could be interested.  He wrote to the judges on the subject of capital punishments, warning them not to take away the lives of persons for theft. On the coast of Cornwall he was deeply distressed at finding the inhabitants, more intent upon plundering the wrecks of vessels that were driven upon their shores, than upon saving the poor and miserable mariners, who were clinging to them; and he bore his public testimony against this practice, by sending letters to all the clergymen and magistrates in the parishes, bordering upon the sea, and reproving them for their unchristian conduct. In the West-Indies also he exhorted those who attended his meetings to be merciful to their slaves, and to give them their freedom in due time. He considered these as belonging to their families, and that religious instruction was due to these, as the branches of them, for whom one day or other they would be required to give a solemn account. Happy had it been, if these Christian exhortations had been attended to, or if those families only, whom he thus seriously addressed, had continued to be true Quakers; for they would have set an example, which would have proved to the rest of the islanders, and the world at large, that the impolicy is not less than the wickedness of oppression. Thus was George Fox probably the first person who publicly declared against this species of slavery. Nothing in short, that could be deplored by humanity, seems to have escaped his eye; and his benevolence, when excited, appears to have suffered no interruption in its progress by the obstacles, which bigotry would have thrown in the way of many, on account of the difference of a persons country, or of his color, or of his sect.

He was patient under his own sufferings. To those, who smote his right cheek, he offered his left; and, in the true spirit of Christianity, he indulged no rancor against the worst of his oppressors. He made use occasionally of a rough expression towards them; but he would never have hurt any of them, if he had had them in his power.

He possessed the most undaunted courage; for he was afraid of no earthly power. He was never deterred from going to meetings for worship, though he knew the officers would be there, who were to seize his person. In his personal conversations with Oliver Cromwell, or in his letters to him as protector, or in his letters to the parliament, or to king Charles the second, or to any other personage, he discovered his usual boldness of character, and never lost, by means of any degrading flattery, his dignity as a man.

But his perseverance was equal to his courage; for he was no sooner out of jail, than he repeated the very acts, believing them to be right, for which he had been confined. When he was forced also out of the meeting-houses by the officers of justice, he preached at the very doors. In short, he was never hindered but by sickness, or imprisonments, from persevering in his religious pursuits.

With respect to his word, he was known to have held it so sacred, that the judges frequently dismissed him without bail, on his bare promise that he would be forthcoming on a given day. On these occasions, he used always to qualify his promise by the expression, ”if the Lord permit.”

Of the integrity of his own character, as a Christian, he was so scrupulously tenacious, that, when he might have been sometimes set at liberty by making trifling acknowledgements, he would make none, least it should imply a conviction, that he had been confined for that which was wrong; and, at one time in particular, king Charles the second was so touched with the hardship of his case, that he offered to discharge him from prison by a pardon. But George Fox declined it on the idea, that, as pardon implied guilt, his innocence would be called in question by his acceptance of it. The king, however, replied, that “he need not scruple being released by a pardon, for many a man who was as innocent as a child, had had a pardon granted him.” But still he chose to decline it. And he lay in jail, till, upon a trial of the errors in his indictment, he was discharged in an honorable way.

As a minister of the gospel, he was singularly eminent. He had a wonderful gift in expounding the scriptures. He was particularly impressive in his preaching; but he excelled most in prayer.

Here it was, that he is described by William Penn, as possessing the most awful and reverend frame he ever beheld. His presence, says the same author, expressed “a religious majesty.” That there must have been something more than usually striking either in his manner, or in his language, or in his arguments, or in all of them combined, or that he spoke “in the demonstration of the spirit and with power,” we are warranted in pronouncing from the general and powerful effects produced.  In the year 1648, when he had but once before spoken in public, it was observed of him at Mansfield, at the end of his prayer, ”that it was then, as in the days of the apostles, when the house was shaken where they were.” In the same manner he appears to have gone on, making a deep impression upon his hearers, whenever he was fully and fairly heard. Many clergymen, as I observed before, in consequence of his powerful preaching, gave up their livings; and constables, who attended the meetings, in order to apprehend him, felt themselves disarmed, so that they went away without attempting to secure his person.

As to his life, it was innocent. It is true indeed, that there were persons, high in civil offices, who, because he addressed the people in public, considered him as a disturber of the peace. But none of these ever pretended to cast a stain on his moral character. He was considered both by friends and enemies, as irreproachable in his life.

Such was the character of the founder of Quakerism, He was born in July 1624, and died on the thirteenth of November 1690, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. He had separated himself from the word in order to attend to serious things, as I observed before, at the age of nineteen, so that he had devoted himself to the exercises and services of religion for no less a period than forty-eight years. A few hours before his death, upon some friends asking him how he found himself, he replied “never heed. All is well. The seed or power of God reigns over all, and over death itself, blessed be the Lord.” This answer was full of courage, and corresponded with that courage, which had been conspicuous in him during life. It contained on evidence, as manifested in his own feelings, of the tranquility and happiness of his mind, and that the power and terrors of death had been vanquished in himself. It showed also the ground of his courage and of his confidence. “He was full of assurance,” says William Penn, “that he had triumphed over death, and so much so, even to the last, that death appeared to him hardly worth notice or mention.” Thus he departed this life, affording an instance of the truth of those words of the psalmist, “Behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace.”