Why And How Were The Quakers Persecuted?

From their beginnings in the mid 17th century, Quakers faced persecution for their faith – this is why and how.

Worshipping Outside Of The Church of England

Beginning as an independent group of Seekers in the north of England, the Quakers sought to worship outside of the established faith that was the Church of England (CofE). This instantly made them a target persecution as they were classed as Nonconformists, which meant they were barred from holding public office and prevented from entering university. In effect they were shunned by society. This was a time when the state sought to control religion in order to control the people. Quakers also refused to pays tithes, a tax imposed by the CofE to pay for its upkeep.

Therefore from the outset of the Society of Friends’ inception in 1652, the first generation Quakers faced fines and / or imprisonment for their rejection of the CofE’s religious authority.

‘Heretical’ Beliefs

Heretical means teachings and beliefs that go against accepted orthodox (correct) religious authority. By preaching the Inner Light and that salvation was available from within through Universal Love, the Quakers’ core beliefs were certainly deemed heretical in 17th century England.

This was at a time when you were only allowed to preach if you’d been to Oxford or Cambridge. For the Quakers, as part of the Priesthood of all Believers, any person could preach – even women. What the Quakers did was effectively make any need for the clergy redundant – and if the clergy was made redundant this was an immediate threat to the CofE.

The Quakers went further still by rejecting the taking oaths. This belief was taken from their interpretation of Matthew 5:34-37, which reads:

“But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne;  or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Matthew 5:34-37

Simply put, for the Quakers, oaths were unnecessary as they considered themselves honest at all times – just saying ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ was sufficient. However, in the mid 17th century, English citizens were expected to swear oaths to king and country and not doing so would result in punishment.

The Quakers were the rebels that rocked the religious and political norms of the day – heresy indeed.

The English Revolution

The Society of Friends had formed during the English Revolution – a period of history that had seen an uprising of the common people against both social and religious injustice. During this time any rebellious group was viewed with suspicion. Therefore, the very public Quakers were a group that came under the scrutiny of the authorities.

Founding Friend George Fox met Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell on three separate occasions to persuade him that the both Quakers were a peaceful people and Quakerism could be a recognized faith in the Commonwealth of England. Initially, Cromwell was receptive to Fox and the Quakers. However, Cromwell and his rule were under constant threat from plotters seeking to overthrow him. The Quakers, due to their rebellious nature, were incorrectly (but conveniently from the authorities’ point of view) perceived as being aligned to one of the plots to assassinate Cromwell. Therefore, trust between Fox and Cromwell broke down.

It was during this period that the first Quakers were brought before Magistrates’ courts – most commonly under charges of blasphemy (speaking out against established religious authority) and the non payment of tithes. In 1656, the 16-year-old James Parnell was imprisoned in Colchester Castle for blasphemy and he becomes the first of many Friends to die whilst incarcerated.

1656 also saw James Nayler found guilty of blasphemy, he was sentenced to be put in the pillory and on there to have a red hot iron bored through his tongue, and also to be branded with the letter ‘B’ for Blasphemer on his forehead, and other public humiliations. Finally, he was imprisoned for two years of hard labour.

Quakerism would never become an accepted faith in the commonwealth.

The 1662 Quaker Act

In 1660, the Restoration saw King Charles II return to the throne and England once more being ruled by a monarchy. The English Revolution had failed and the Commonwealth of England crushed. Margaret Fell (the mother of Quakerism) presented the newly restored king with the Quakers’ Peace Declaration. However, Charles II was steadfast in wanting to disband and punish all groups that could be rebellious to his rule – whether religious or political.

Therefore, in 1662 along with the Act of Uniformity, which reinforced the CofE’s authority, Charles II introduced the Quaker Act. The legislation forced Quakers to swear an oath to the king (which they refused to do) and made it illegal for them to assemble in groups larger than five or print Quaker pamphlets – as these actions would ironically be classed as a breach of the peace! Part of the act reads:

“Any Person maintaining such Doctrines, refusing to take lawful Oath; or by printing, & maintaining such Doctrine; if such Persons depart from their Habitations, and assemble to the Number of Five, &c; First Offence, Penalty.; Second Offence, Penalty.; Distress.; If no Distress, or Non-payment of Penalty.; Imprisonment for First Offence.; For Second Offence.; Penalties how employed.; Third Offence, Abjuration of the Realm, or Transportation.”

1662 Quaker Act

The systematic persecution of the Quakers had begun and would take place on both sides of the Atlantic.

Systematic Persecution In England

Some 15,000 Quakers were jailed in England between 1660 and 1685.

The conditions of the jails at the time were horrifying and disgusting, filled with stench and filth.  There was no heat in the winter, no toilet facilities; sometimes there was no shelter from wind and rain.  Prisoners were supposed to pay the jailers for their food, and to endure whatever whippings or other punishment the jailer saw fit to inflict.  There was no privacy for women, and lice were a common problem.

However, imprisonment did not deter the Quakers from gathering and openly practicing their faith. If anything the threat of jail only spurred the movement to deepen its faith and grow its numbers. It was this resolve from the Quakers and other dissenting groups that led the authorities to begrudgingly accept that worshiping outside of the CofE should be allowed.

Therefore, in 1689 when the Act of Toleration came into force, Quakers up and down the country, were released from prison and began seeking buildings to legally gather in. Despite it now being legal to be a Quaker in England, persecution still continued for several decades to come until slowly they became accepted by society. This acceptance was largely driven by the kick-start of Industrial Revolution and the Quakers unparalleled success in the business of Innocent Trades. Reliable, honest and innovative, the network of Quakers thrived in the new era of manufacturing and the general public eagerly bought the goods they sold.

The ‘Quaker brand’ had finally made general society friendly towards Friends.

Systematic Persecution In America

Seeking a better life in the American Colonies, several Quakers set sail from England in the mid 1650s. However, at the time, the colonies were widely under the control of the Puritans, who like the English authorities, viewed Quakerism as a threat. The core difference between persecution in America, as opposed to England, was the sadistic nature in which the puritanical leaders punished Friends.

Of all the New England colonies, Massachusetts was the most active in persecuting the Quakers, but the Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven colonies also shared in their persecution. Even in New York, which tolerated a wide variety of religious persuasions, the Quakers faced hostility. After arriving in Long Island in 1657, some Quakers were fined, jailed, and banished by the Dutch, who were outraged by Quaker women preaching.

When the first Quakers had arrived in Boston a year earlier in 1656 there were no laws yet enacted against them, but this quickly changed, and punishments were meted out with or without the law. It was primarily the ministers and the magistrates who opposed the Quakers and their evangelistic efforts.

The punishments inflicted onto the Quakers intensified as their perceived threat to the Puritan religious order increased. These included the stocks and pillory, lashes with a three-corded, knotted whip, fines, imprisonment, mutilation (having ears cut off) and banishment and death. When whipped, women were stripped to the waist, thus being publicly exposed, and whipped until bleeding.

Most shockingly, in Boston, three Friends including Mary Dyer (pictured) were executed for their beliefs – something that never happened in England.

In 1660, Edward Burrough catalogued the maltreatment of Quakers in New England: 64 Quakers had been imprisoned; two Quakers lashed 139 times, leaving one “beat like into a jelly”; another branded with the letter H, for heretic, after being whipped with 39 stripes; and the three Quakers who had been executed.

A fourth and final Friend was hanged in Boston a year later in 1661.

It would not be until 1682 when William Penn and around one hundred Quaker settlers arrived in Pennsylvania that Friends found safe haven in the American colonies. They established the city of Philadelphia as a ‘holy experiment’ that welcomed European settlers of all faiths and backgrounds, not just Quakers, to live in peaceful harmony – free from persecution.

By the end of 17th century, the American colonies had followed the path towards toleration that had taken place in England. Settlers wanted freedom and not the strict rules enforced by the Puritans, who saw their influence fade into obscurity. Quakerism had become a widely accepted faith with Quakers being instrumental in the growth and governance of the colonies – paving the way for an Independent North America.

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2 thoughts on “Why And How Were The Quakers Persecuted?

  • December 11, 2021 at 9:17 pm

    Regusing to swear allegiance to the King was seen as an act of treason, the nearest comparison today would be people called up to serve their country in times of war, refusing to swear allegiance to their country. No Quaker was hanged or exiled but they were frowned upon, just as Catholics were, England in the 1600s was a bed of rebellion and the powers that were needed to control groups who put their faith above their Nation, it still the same today. In WW2 over 50,000 Americans declaimed themselves to be conscious objectors on religious grounds. Can you imagine how the war would have gone if everyone said the same, America, Britain, Australia would now be speaking Japanese or German. Freedom has its costs as high as that cost may have been.

    • October 25, 2022 at 5:31 pm

      Hi James

      Thanks for your comment and expanding on what I’ve written.

      Yes, in Britian no Quakers were hanged for their faith but a handful in America including Mary Dyer were.




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