History Background


I had always thought it was very strange that the authorities would persecute such a small group as the Quakers, which could pose very little threat... and the truth is that the authorities didn't originally aim to persecute the Quakers specifically: the Quakers were caught up in laws which were actually aimed at the dissenters among the Church of England clergy.

At the point where the movement began, when George Fox went travelling and preaching in England in 1647, England had endured just over a hundred years of religious change and persecution where it became dangerous to be a catholic when Henry seized power in 1534, then dangerous to be a protestant and back again.

For someone looking back on those years from the 21st century, it is essential to understand the circumstances of those years running up to the Civil War and later on the restoration of the monarchy, because there were some very basic differences in the Church of England then from now.

Since the 14th century in England, when the Lollards had been supressed, churches had been forced to follow a form of service held in the Prayer Book... and sermons were not a normal feature of the service. In fact, a priest who wanted to preach to his congregation required a licence from his bishop. Only about ten per cent of the clergy in England around the beginning of Elizabeth I's reign were licensed to preach.

When Elizabeth became queen in 1559, she returned England to protestantism, and attempted to reconcile the different factions in the country. She was faced with Puritans who wished to get rid of saints' days and vestments, remove kneeling during communion, stop the emergency baptism of infants and take out the organs from churches, and who wanted the right to preach.

The number of clergy licensed to preach did rise in the course of Elizabeth's reign, but it still meant that you might have to travel to a different parish if you wished to hear someone preach. This lead to the development of two different types of services: one which conformed absolutely to the service laid down in the Book of Common Prayer, and one which cut out parts of the normal service in order to make room for a sermon by the preacher.

When James I came to the throne, who had been brought up by Presbytarians, it was hoped that he would be more sympathetic to the views of the Puritans, and they petitioned him to reform the church to get rid of a number of things which they regarded as superstitious hangovers from the Catholic church, such as the practice of making a sign of the cross in baptism, or bowing at the name of Jesus during the services. They also wanted to get rid of the hierarchy in the church.

James I called together a conference in 1604 to discuss these proposals, and made some small changes to the book of Common Prayer, but he was of the view that no bishops might lead to no king, and so he did not agree the big changes in structure which were suggested.

Some thirteen years later, the Puritans were agitating for changes in the rules for keeping Sunday sacred. It was traditional for people to attend church in the morning, and then to play sports and games on Sunday afternoons. The Puritans argued that playing games was against the commandment to keep the sabbath, and that the whole day should be given over to worshipping God. The King responded to the complaints by issuing a Book of Sports, which outlined which sports were permissible on a Sunday and which were not. It seems that bear-baiting, bull-baiting, interludes and bowling were not acceptable, but archery, leaping, vaulting, dancing, and other such harmless recreation, were permitted.

King James seemed to wish to bring the different groups together, to reconcile Catholic and Protestant, and provide a middle way between the two in the Church of England. The outbreak of the thirty years war put paid to that idea, as it was a war between protestant and catholic, which involved James's daughter, Elizabeth.

It is perhaps natural that both James and his son, Charles I when he came to the throne in 1625, should have believed in the Divine right of Kings, as having been placed in their positions by God, and should also favour those ways of organising the religion of the country which would lead to stability and respect for the authority of the King. James had tolerated the clergy who omitted parts of the book of common prayer, but Charles I argued for a strict compliance.

Meanwhile, the rise of Puritanism in the country lead to people questioning things which had been taken for granted in previous centuries, and which served to contrast the attitude of Puritans to that of the state. Puritans regarded quite a lot of things which remained in the Church of England as idolatrous. They thought that decorating the churches and making them beautiful was wrong, and they disagreed with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which held that the bread and wine during communion became the body of Christ. Consequently they argued against the installation of altar rails, which separated the space where priests and altar boys could go from the space where the congregation was allowed. Finally, they disliked being called priests, as the word meant someone who offers a sacrifice. They preferred the term Minister, meaning one who serves.

When Charles married a Catholic princess from France, there were fears that he intended to return the country to Catholicism. He dissolved parliament when they passed an act of censure on him, and determined to rule without them... and did, for eleven years.

In that time, many Puritans left England for America, founding Plymouth colony in about 1620. Although they had separated themslves with the Atlantic from England, they did not separate from the Church of England, and in fact persecuted people who wished to be separate or follow different rules from the established church in England. Far from offering people the religious freedom that they were seeking themselves, they banished, persecuted and executed people who didn't conform.

Charles I tried to continue his father's work in reconciling the Churches of England and Scotland, and as a result, marched on Scotland in the First bishops' war of 1639. The Puritans in England were dismayed that Charles was marching to war to retain bishops in Scotland, when they wished to get rid of them in England. The next three years were full of controversy surrounding the right ordering of the church and state, with a parliament which was dominated by Puritans. Eventually the King retreated to Oxford with everyone who was loyal to him, and fighting began between those people loyal to the King and those who supported parliament.

During the King's absence, the long parliament appointed a group of divines to draw up a new church liturgy to replace the book of common prayer. The group included people who supported the use of a hierarchy including bishops, presbyterians who wanted elders to rule, independents who wanted each church to be autonomous, and Erastians who thought the state should choose the manner of government of the church.

This conference lead to a lot of very basic discussion about how the church should relate to the state, how it should be organised, and how much uniformity there should be between churches in the liturgy. The discussion was not very balanced however, because many of the Episcopalian members, supporting the bishops, failed to attend sessions in late afternoon and early evening, leaving the floor clear for the opponents. Lord Falkland observed at the time "those that hated bishops hated them worse than the devil and those that loved them loved them not so well as their dinner."

There were arguments between different factions in the Church of England, and representatives from the Church of Scotland, worried that the decisions of the conference would be imposed on them too.

Eventually a directory for public worship was produced in 1645, which was unlike the book of common prayer because it left a lot of decisions to the minister and was based upon preaching and prayers which could be decided by him too.

Charles surrendered to parliament in 1647 following the failure of the treaty which was negotiated in Uxbridge. He was eventually charged with high treason and executed in 1649. A book which purported to have been written by him, which showed him in a favourable light came out shortly afterwards, and John Milton published a rebuttal of his flattering portrait of himself and unflattering portrait of the parliamentarians.

Between 1649 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was a great diversity in English religious affairs. The rules which obtained during this period depended upon the area you were in and what the attitude was to the established church there.

When the King was restored in 1660, the Church of England was restored too, and the hierarchy of the church of England tried to return to the way things were before the execution of the King. The laws went back to their pre-Civil war state, with Puritans and any who refused to conform to these rules being labelled a "Dissenter".

The Clarendon code was a collection of acts designed to support the Church of England. The corporation act (1661) confined municipal and military office to Anglicans who had received communion in church within the previous year. It prevented nonconformists from receiving degrees from Oxford and Cambridge too.

The act of Uniformity (1662) compelled the clergy to use the Book of Common Prayer of Elizabeth I with some changes, and more than a fifth of the clergy refused to comply and were therefore ejected from their livings.

To cope with the quantity of objectors, the Conventicle act was designed to prevent ejected clergy from preaching,and made it illegal for more than five people not from the same household, to gather together for worship.

The Five Mile Act forbad people from coming within five miles of any city, town corporate or borough or any place where they had held a living or had preached previously. It was aimed at nonconformist ministers and wasn't repealed until 1812.

About a fifth of the clergy were ejected from their living because they were unable or unwilling to comply with the requirement to use the Book of Common Prayer without alteration, and they set up dissenting and non-conformist churches and meetings around the country. As a result of the Clarendon code, they could be prosecuted for many things, including holding an unlawful Conventicle, preaching without a licence or in the wrong places, and Quakers could also be held for refusing to pay tithes, refusing to swear an oath that they would tell the truth in Court, for travelling on a Sunday by horse...quite apart from the things that they did which seemed to threaten the structure of society, like refusng to take off their hats, or to address someone who considered themselves their better, in a respectful way.

The consequence of a hundred years of religious changes concluded with a period of Civil War, had left many people questioning the way that things were organised. This wasn't just in the sphere of religion, but in the strata of society, and what one was and was not allowed to do according to your position in society,

Banishing people from the chance to be educated at Oxford and Cambridge, refusing to allow them to take up positions of municipal responsibility or military commission... made people question the whole system in a very fundamental way. They began to question to monopoly on education which was in the control of the rich, and the link with the professions.

Nicholas Culpeper, the famous herbalist, saw the three main professions of priest, physician and lawyer were barred to ordinary people by the fact that the literature for those professions was all in latin. He was determined to translate into English one of the main texts for medicine. During the civil war, when the Society of Physicians was unable to enforce their ban on the publishing of translated medical texts, Culpeper published his translations for use by the general public.

The insistence on Latin meant that people needed priests to explain the bible, doctors to explain medicine and lawyers to explain the law. There was a general movement to reject these restrictions in all areas.

Quakers were not the main target of the laws restricting religious meetings... but they certainly suffered from them, and life for the Quakers of Uxbridge between the setting up of their meeting in 1658 and the eventual passing of the Act of Toleration, which brought to an end the persecution they had suffered, was uncomfortable at least and impossible at worst.