ture, and sometimes the other way around. This caused a great deal of tension at various points
in Quaker history and ultimately led to the Hicksite Separation of 1827â“29.
16 Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism, 515.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 29
God did not reveal his will to man all at once; revelation was progressive.17
Thus man must be prepared to receive new information that might change his
understanding of the world and command of him different behavior. A written
theology followed too closely would encourage dependence on empty rituals
and man-made forms that would restrict his understanding of God.18 The
closest thing Quakers have to a written theology is Robert Barclayâ™s Apology
for the True Christian Divinity (1675), which was composed not primarily
as a guide for Quakers (although it was certainly used as such), but as an
explanation and justiď¬cation of their faith to their persecutors, as well as a
vehicle to convince non-Quakers of the Truth. When man had purged himself
of all inward and outward earthly guides, he cast himself into a posture of
humility, submissiveness, and receptiveness to Godâ™s will. He would then be in
a state to understand God within and follow his directives.
Quakers believed that when man followed this inward process and adhered
faithfully to Godâ™s law, he would achieve perfection. He could become âfree
from actual Sinning, and transgressing of the Law of God.â19 But despite this
potential perfection, they also believed that âafter having tasted of the Heav-
enly Gift [of grace], and been made Partakers of the Holy Ghost,â man might
still âagain fall away.â20 The dual possibility of sin and salvation in the indi-
vidualâ™s life meant that there were no certain outcomes, no predestined fate of
salvation or damnation. Achieving grace was a process that sometimes included
regression. Barclay wrote, even âdoth Perfection still admit of a Growthâ in
that there âremaineth a Possibility of Sinning.â21 Manâ™s relationship with God
was in a continual state of ď¬‚ux that, they hoped, was progressing toward
Because of the emphasis on the individualâ™s connection with God, many peo-
ple, Quakers and some scholars of Quakerism, have misunderstood Quakerism
as a predominantly individualistic and quietistic faith.22 But the relationship of
17 Rufus M. Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.,
1966), xxiâ“xxii. See also Hill on âcontinuous revelationâ (The World Turned Upside Down,
366â“7). On this point, there are both striking similarities and differences between Quaker and
Puritan theology. For the Puritan side, see Perry Miller, âThe Marrow of Puritan Divinity,â in
Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University, 1956), 48â“98.
18 It is one of the apparent contradictions of Quakerism that, although Quakers scorned a written
theology as a guide for belief, they placed extraordinary emphasis on the written word for more
worldly, utilitarian purposes, and in ways that were different from most of their contemporaries.
In Print Culture and the Early Quakers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Kate
Peters shows how Friends developed a complex and unique print culture that served to cultivate
a uniď¬ed Quaker identity, solidify the authority structure within the meeting, proselytize, and
combat their opponents. As I will argue in the following chapters, they used the written word
for unique legal-political purposes as well.
19 Barclay, Apology, 9.
20 Ibid., 10.
21 Ibid., 9.
22 For example, Patricia Bonomi calls the Light within âa private source of lawâ in Under the Cope
of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986), 25. Likewise, Sally Schwartz writes that among Quakers, â[k]nowledge of God
30 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
the individual to God â“ the inward posture of silent and submissive waiting â“
was only the ď¬rst step in the process of legal discernment. There were also
powerful communal components.23
The next phase in the process was collective. The individual received only
a âmeasure of the spirit,â not a complete understanding of it. Like a jigsaw
puzzle, each individual piece must be combined properly with the others to
form a coherent picture. Quakers were thus compelled to seek each other out
and worship as a uniď¬ed group. This unity in the Light was a sacred bond that
constituted the meeting. Knowing God in oneâ™s conscience changed individuals
and how they related to one another. The same spirit working in all members
created a whole that was more than merely the aggregate sum of the individual
parts.24 The body of the meeting was an entity unto itself. The communal
aspect of Quakerism was thus as important, if not more so, as the individual
The Foundations and Purposes of the Ecclesiastical Polity
Just as there was a process for internal communion, there was also a distinct
process to be followed in the context of the meeting for worship. In the early
days of Quakerism, however, Friends had yet to come to consensus on exactly
how that process should function. It took a degree of formality or, as Weber
would put it, of routinization, to bring most Friends into agreement.25
There were several purposes for which God constituted the informal meet-
ing. It was ď¬rst for worship and the discernment of his law, but also to facilitate
charity â“ so that man could express âLove and Compassionâ for the unfortu-
nate, for âthe Care of the Poor, of Widows, and Orphans.â This, said Barclay,
is âone main End, do we meet together.â26 It was this same duty of benevo-
lence that âgave the ď¬rst Rise for this Order among the Apostlesâ and it âmight
have been among the ď¬rst Occasions that gave the like among us.â However,
when Barclay composed his treatise on church government, The Anarchy of
the Ranters and other Libertines (1676), he and other leading Quakers found
was individual and could not be judged by anotherâ (âA Mixed Multitudeâ: The Struggle for
Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania [New York: New York University Press, 1987], 13).
23 Hill also notes the importance of corporate decision making among radical sectarians (The
World Turned Upside Down, 368).
24 Emerson Shideler, âThe Concept of the Church in Seventeenth-Century Quakerism (Part I),â
The Bulletin of Friends Historical Association vol. 45, no. 2 (1965), 67â“81, 69.
25 Weber, âThe Genesis and Transformation of Charismatic Authority,â in Economy and Society
2: 1121â“57. For a succinct overview of the foundations of the Quaker polity, see Michael J.
Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends (Philadel-
phia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1996), 30â“35. For a more
detailed discussion, see W. C. Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism. There are subtle
distinctions between the ways different Quaker leaders envisioned the ecclesiastical polity. Foxâ™s
was more experiential, while Barclayâ™s was more institutional. See Shideler, âThe Concept of
the Church,â 73â“74.
26 Barclay, The Anarchy of the Ranters and other Libertines (London, 1676), 37.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 31
that though âthey were [earlier] all ď¬lled with the Spirit, yet there was some-
thing wanting.â27 Therefore, âJesus Christ, the King and Head of the Church,
did appoint and ordain, that there should be Order and Government in it.â28
There should be a man-made church government that would organize, direct,
and discipline the meeting in its charity work. This should not necessarily be
seen as a failure on the part of man to fulď¬ll Godâ™s will, but rather as part
of a providential process. Government was not merely for the sinful â“ even
âthe Apostles and Primitive Christians, when they were ď¬lled with the Holy
Ghost, and immediately led by the Spirit of God, did practice and commend
it.â29 Just as there was an inward process of perfection, so was the creation
of government an on-going process toward perfection of the meeting. Barclay
explains that God âhath also gathered and is gathering us into the good Order,
Discipline, and Governmentâ of Christ.30 The fundamental constitution and
government are formed ď¬rst by God and then, as the need inevitably arises,
they are solidiď¬ed in divinely ordained but man-made structures. Accordingly,
in the late 1650s, Fox, along with other leaders, began to organize local meet-
ings around England whose main purpose was to maintain unity and discipline
The organization of charity and worship was one reason for which the
Quaker leaders wanted a more formally constituted meeting structure, but
Barclay hinted that there were others. There was, in fact, an urgent need for
it. While Quakers were still functioning under the direct governance of God,
without a formal church government, they soon encountered the problem of
where authority lay. When all individuals had access to divine law through the
Light within, was it primarily in the individual as such? Or was it in the group
as a whole? In the early days, many Friends believed it was in the individuals.
This was problematic because the ď¬rst members of the Society of Friends were a
zealous lot. They were convinced of the Truth and were ardent soldiers in what
they called âthe Lambâ™s Warâ â“ Christâ™s war against sin.31 This enthusiasm led
some early Friends to extreme behavior and divergent interpretations of the
Light that threatened to disunite the meeting. They seemed unaware that the
Light was â“ or was becoming â“ both a positive and a negative law; that is, both
liberating and restrictive. As Friends grew in number, the problem increased.
Individuals challenged what was becoming the standard interpretation of how
the meeting should function and how Quakers should behave.32
27 Ibid., 38.
28 Ibid., 18â“19.
29 Ibid., 16.
30 Ibid. Emphasis added.
31 On âthe Lambâ™s War,â see Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, esp. 33â“71.
32 For example, the controversy surrounding Quaker leader James Naylerâ™s behavior in 1656 in
Bristol â“ reenacting Christâ™s arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday â“ was an important catalyst
for change in the Society. See Barbourâ™s description of this incident, The Quakers in Puritan
32 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
From Foxâ™s perspective, and most Friends agreed, such organization of the
church was not âa step back into earthly things, but a step up into the life
and order of the gospel.â33 A small but vocal minority of Quakers, however,
became increasingly uncomfortable with what they perceived as Foxâ™s growing
personal authority among Friends and his seeming wont to impose his vision
for the Society on others. In 1675 a number of Friends, led by John Wilkinson
and John Story, separated from the Society under protest that the new meetings
were conducted under a spirit of outward (i.e., man-made) authority and that
there was too much control over the behavior of individuals. The Wilkinson-
Story Controversy was a major episode in the deď¬nition of Quakerism in that it
brought to the fore the perennial question of authority in Quaker ecclesiastical
and civil governments. It was a question, fundamentally, about who had the
power to determine the law according to God.
The partisans of the Wilkinson-Story faction were not swayed by Barclayâ™s
argument for church government. Instead, they described the evolution of a
more corporate Quakerism as an attempt âto deprive us of the law of the Spirit
and to bring in a tyrannical government: it would lead us from the rule within to
subject us to a rule without.â34 The most extensive denunciation of this âout-
ward ruleâ came from William Rogers, spokesman for the Wilkinson-Story
faction, in The Christian-Quaker, Distinguished from the Apostate & Innova-
tor (1680). Here he disputed the legitimacy of the very idea of a church govern-
ment among Quakers. The words âchurch governmentâ itself, he argued, are
âmostly used under the profession of Christianity, by those who have become
Persecutors.â35 In no sense did Rogers accept Barclayâ™s claim that government
was necessary for Christian fellowship or innocuous to the Spirit. âGovern-
ment over the Consciences of Believers,â he argued, âwe take to be contrary
to the Principle of Truth and Liberty we have in Jesus Christ.â36 No kind of
outward structure, guidance, or direction could force the conscience of the
believer; Christâ™s Light alone must convince him. He objected to creation of
the basic Quaker meeting structures, denying âthat Monthly and Quarterly
Meetings are called the Church, and ought to be submitted to.â37 It is not a
stretch to call these Friends spiritual anarchists, as Barclay did.
But beyond simply objecting to having their inward lives regulated in any
way, the Wilkinson-Story faction located the source of these âEvil Practicesâ
in one man, the now-clear leader of the Society of Friends, George Fox. They
were determined that the power of being the de facto spiritual leader of Friends
had gone to his head, and he was seeking to glorify his own ambitions for
greatness by making all Quakers his disciples. Accordingly, Rogers disputed
the implication, as he understood it, of the progovernment Friends âthat the
33 George Fox quoted in Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 252.
34 Ibid., 292.
35 William Rogers, The Christian-Quaker, Distinguished from the Apostate & Innovator (London,
36 Ibid., 48.
37 Ibid., 11.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 33
Lord hath ordained G[eorge] F[ox] to be in that place amongst the Children of
Light in this our Day, as Moses was among the children of Israel in his day.â38
Rather, they saw Fox as someone who was âover-driving, imposing, lording
over Mens Consciences, setting up in the Church another government then that
of the Spirit.â39
It was the rise of threats to the survival of the meeting from within that
prompted Barclay to write his treatise on church government. Barclay explained
some are so great Pretenders to Inward Motions and Revelations of the Spirit, that there
are no Extravagances so wild, which they will not cloak with it; and so much are they
for every oneâ™s following their own Mind, as can admit of no Christian Fellowship and
Community, nor that of good Order and Discipline, which the Church of Christ never
was, nor can ever be without; this gives an open Door to all Libertinism, and brings
great reproach to the Christian-faith.40
Quaker leaders feared that individualsâ™ departure from the fundamental prin-
ciples that initially brought Quakers together and united them would cause the
disintegration of the sacred body.
There was therefore an individualistic, democratic, and informal element
of Quakerism that was important for Quaker process, but dangerous, tending
as it did to encourage libertinism. Thus Fox and other leading Friends moved
to establish a church government through new structures, those monthly and
quarterly meetings to which the Wilkinson-Story faction objected, as well as a
strong central government, London Yearly Meeting. They argued that govern-
ment as such not only was ordained by God but was the form it should take
and the processes by which it should function, the âorderâ and âmethod.â
âOrderâ and âMethodâ in the Quaker Society
Quakers considered the order and method of governance, the authority struc-
ture and the decision-making process, to be among the most important compo-
nents of their faith. Because of this, Quakers were quintessential bureaucrats.
They believed that a particular collective process must be followed if Godâ™s
Truth were to be accurately discerned. The means by which Quakers wor-
shipped â“ when worship is deď¬ned as legal discernment â“ were more important
than the ends. Indeed, as we shall see, the means were almost an end in them-
The goal of each meeting was accurate discernment and eventual consensus
or unity in the spirit. The outward or visible process of collective interaction
in which Quakers engaged to achieve these goals was characterized by the
speech-action of its members â“ when members should speak, who should speak,
38 Ibid., 10.
39 Ibid., preface.
40 Barclay, Anarchy, 6.
34 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
how they should speak, and what they spoke. Each of these rules of speaking
grew out of the inward communion with God, and thus the beginning point
of every meeting was silence. Just as the individual waited in silence for the
spirit, so did the entire meeting. Discernment and achieving consensus were
not a deliberative process in the usual sense, with debate and argumentation;
that would be to employ reason in the wrong capacity. Rather, the meeting
was based on knowing God through quiet introspection and contemplation.41
Members were admonished not to speak unless they could improve upon the
silence, and as John Burnyeat, convinced of Quakerism in 1653, described a
meeting, âwe met together and waited together in silence; it may be sometimes
not a word in our meetings for months; but everyone that was faithful waited
upon the living word in our own hearts.â42 Indeed, the absence of speaking
could be as profound a spiritual experience as speaking. Neither were there
outward rituals to follow. The members simply waited on God and spoke
whenever they were moved to do so by the spirit. And when they were moved,
they were obliged to speak, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. It was,
in fact, a sin and denial of Godâ™s will to refuse to deliver his Word. Of course,
as the meeting grew and individual members had variant interpretations of
the Inner Light, disagreement became more frequent, as the Wilkinson-Story
Accordingly, an important feature of the discernment process was not just
when to speak or to remain silent, but who had authority to speak. An author-
ity structure began to evolve that was a sort of democracy, although different
in several ways from what we might suppose.43 It was based on a fundamen-
tal degree of spiritual egalitarianism. All men (i.e., all people) were created
(spiritually) equal in that all had the equal opportunity to receive, discern, and
express Godâ™s Light in their consciences.44 But all men did not receive equal
measures of the Light, nor did they have equal powers of discernment or facility
of expression. Thus, while every member of the meeting had a voice, not all
voices had equal weight. Barclay explained that God gives âunto ever member
a measure of the same Spirit, yet divers, according to the Operation, for the
Ediď¬cation of the Body.â45 There was a delicate balance to maintain so that
41 But, in a sense, neither are these words accurate. They imply a greater role for human will and
reason than Quakers allowed. Waiting for and receiving God was a passive act that required a
cleansing, opening, and emptying of the conscience of human inď¬‚uences.
42 John Burnyeat quoted in Howard H. Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experi-
ence among Friends (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1972), 30.
43 Their religious organization notwithstanding, Quakers, like most other men of their time, were
decidedly hostile to the idea of political democracy. See George Fox, A Few Plain Words to
be considered by those of the Army, or others that would have a parliament that is chosen by
the voices of the people, to govern three nations. Wherein is shewn unto them according to the
Scripture of Truth, that a parliament so chosen are not likely to govern for God and the good
of his people (London, 1660).
44 It is important to note that this spiritual equality did not translate into civil or social equality
until, one might argue, the late-eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
45 Barclay, Anarchy, 10.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 35
the right people spoke at the right moment, while others were appropriately
limited. They also sought a balance between looking to the group for guidance
and acting on immediate individual leadings. As minister Job Scott explained
in the late-eighteenth century, members of the meeting âwere advised to keep
their own gifts, and not depend upon one another, to the neglect of occupying
their own talents; lest they as individuals, and the meeting at large, suffer loss
How members spoke â“ the words they used and the physical manner in
which they were delivered â“ was indicative of the Speakerâ™s spiritual weight and
facilitated the discernment-consensus process. Indeed, the process was fulď¬lled
through speech-action. As described previously, speaking was necessarily pre-
ceded by silent waiting for guidance. In the early years of the Society, it was also
preceded by quaking. When Godâ™s light illuminated the soul, the individual was
so appalled at the sight of his own sins that he quaked with fear. Similarly, when
many Friends were led to testify before the meeting, the prospect of speaking
before the group was frightening enough â“ especially for women, who were
forbidden to preach by other religions â“ to make them tremble. Such prelim-
inary physical actions lent authority to the words that followed because they
indicated the submission of the individualâ™s will to the divine spirit; God was
ď¬‚owing through that individual contrary to the will of that person.
The particular choice of words that the preacher â“ for to speak in meeting
was to preach â“ used was of the utmost signiď¬cance. Quakers self-consciously
redeď¬ned and manipulated words unlike any other early modern group. It was,
as they intended, one of the things for which they were best known. In 1788
Brissot remarked, âThe Quakers, of all others, have a language of their own,
which cannot be easily understood, without having read some of their books,
such as Barclayâ™s Apology, with a great deal of attention.â47 Indeed even today,
books about Quakers written with the expectation of a non-Quaker audience
often include a lexicon to explain their unusual terms and word usage. As when
any particular language is used, it signiď¬es the speakerâ™s unity with the group.48
The most widely known way Quakers differed from others in their speech
was by using the âplain speechâ â“ addressing people using the informal singu-
lar thee and thou rather than the formal plural you. They did this to indicate
their belief in spiritual equality and to reject the formality and vanity of the
worldâ™s customs. For example, they also used the word âconvinceâ where most
Christians said âconvert.â When someone is convinced of Christ, it signiď¬es
an inward, voluntary change by the individual, whereas when someone is con-
verted, it is something happening to the person from the outside. All speech
46 Job Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours of that Faithful Servant and Minister
of Christ, Job Scott (London, 1815), 124.
47 Jean-Paul Brissot de Warville, A Critical Examination of the Marquis de Chatelluxâ™s Travels in
North America in a Letter Addressed to the Marquis; Principally Intended as a Refutation of
his Opinions Concerning the Quakers, the Negroes, the People, and Mankind (Philadelphia,
48 On the uniformity of Quaker language, see Peters, Print Culture and the Early Quakers, 171.
36 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
should, of course, be âholy conversationâ as opposed to âcarnal talk.â49 Sim-
ilarly, what they did not say was signiď¬cant. They did not use salutations
or seasonâ™s greetings, nor would they swear oaths to the government. Their
unorthodox use of speech is more apparent in their interactions with non-
Quakers, and will be discussed shortly.
In addition to the timing of speech, and the words used, the physical man-
ner in which the words were delivered was also important and lent authority
to the speaker.50 Quaker women, for example, demonstrated their submis-
sion to divine direction, and thereby their spiritual authority, by preaching in
a âsing-songâ manner unlike male preaching in either Quaker or non-Quaker
societies.51 We can see the importance this manner of preaching held in the fact
that renowned Hicksite minister Lucretia Mott undermined her authority with
more traditional Quakers by not using this style.52 The speech-acts of individ-
ual members could either facilitate or fundamentally disrupt the discernment
process and corporate unity on which achieving consensus depended.
Determining exactly where the weight lay in the meeting based on speech-
acts was a delicate balancing act. Everyone had to assume his or her divinely
ordained role or there was the risk that âsome forward spirits be pushed for-
ward into too great activity, in a formal manner, by the backwardness and with-
holding of others.â53 The principle that guided Friends in seeking this balance
was their most important testimony, the peace testimony.54 Although some of
the earliest Friends held to peaceful principles, paciď¬sm was not a deď¬ning fea-
ture of the group until 1660 when George Fox was led to declare his testimony
on this law.55 Very generally speaking, the peace testimony was a nonviolent
49 For a discussion of conversation in the context of the family, see Barry Levy, ââ˜Tender Plantsâ™:
Quaker Farmers and Children in the Delaware Valley, 1681â“1735,â Journal of Family History
vol. 3, no. 2 (1978), 116â“35.
50 See also Mack, Visionary Women, 151â“52.
51 On âsing-songâ preaching, see Kenneth Carroll, âSinging in the Spirit in Early Quakerism,â
Quaker History vol. 73 (1984), 1â“13, esp. 10â“13. On speaking as a demonstration of political
authority, see Maurice Bloch, ed., Political Language and Oratory in Traditional Society (New
York: Academic Press, 1975).
52 Nancy Isenberg, ââ˜Pillars in the Same Temple and Priests of the Same Worshipâ™: Womenâ™s
Rights and the Politics of Church and State in Antebellum America,â The Journal of American
History vol. 85, no. 1 (1998), 98â“128, 120.
53 Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours, 124.
54 For thorough discussions of the peace testimony, see Peter Brock, Pioneers of the Peace-
able Kingdom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); Peter Brock, The Quaker
Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990); and Meredith
Baldwin Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Paciď¬sm in the Seventeenth Century
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
55 As Weddle points out, some Quakers did, even after the advent of their peace testimony, take
up arms on occasion. However, by the mid-eighteenth century, those who did so were read out
of their meetings. On the institution of the peace testimony, see George Fox, A Declaration
from the Harmles & Innocent People of GOD called Quakers. Against all Plotters and Fighters
in the World (1660). Interestingly, the ď¬rst line of the book reads: âOur Principle is, and our
Practices have always been to seek peace, and ensue itâ (emphasis added). Another tract admits
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 37
stance in relation to Godâ™s creations. Historians have usually considered its
application to war and the treatment of men.56 But this testimony had a much
wider sphere than we might suppose. As nineteenth-century Quaker Thomas
Clarkson put it, Quakers adopted a âlarger interpretation of the words in the
sermon upon the Mountâ than most.57 It applied not simply to war and killing
but also to mundane interactions with all Godâ™s creations. Within the ecclesi-
astical polity, Godâ™s creation of the individual conscience must be respected.
Similarly, speech-action as a divine creation also fell under the purview of the
testimony. Most importantly, however, preservation of Godâ™s creation of the
constituted body was paramount. Within the meeting, then, conversation and
walking must be holy, orderly, and peaceable.
Because the discernment of Truth was a communal effort, it was inextrica-
bly bound with the preservation of corporate unity. Quakers thus had a sense
of communal and ecclesiastical obligation of the highest order. As Barclay
asserted, those who âstudy to make Rents and Divisionsâ are âprostrating the
Reputation and Honour of the Truth.â58 Moreover, their safety, their protec-
tion from sin, and their persecution from the outside world lay in their unity.
Barclay explained that to preserve the uniqueness that bound them together,
âcertain Practices and Performances, by which we are come to be separated
and distinguished from others, so as to meet apart, and also to suffer deeply
for our Joint-Testimony; there are, and must of Necessity be as in the Gath-
ering of us, so in the Preserving of us while gathered, Diversities of Gifts and
Operations for the Edifying of the whole Body.â59 The unifying uniqueness of
the body was based on the acts of its members â“ the practices, performances,
In spite of the importance of unity, because of the individualâ™s access to
the Light, dissent was a critical element of the discernment process as a way
to the Truth. For Quakers, bringing the Light of Truth to their community
through dissent was a form of proselytization. As indicated previously, there
was a special commission placed with the individual to follow Christâ™s example
that, although Quakers once bore arms against the king, â[y]et being now altered and turned in
their judgement to the contrary, and that it is not lawful (in the Administration of the Gospel)
to ď¬ght against, or go to war with Carnal Weapons in any wise, there is no danger of us on
[this] count.â P. H., The Quakers Plea, answering all Objections, and they proved to be no way
dangerous, but Friends to the King: And may be tollerated in their Religion, with safety to the
Kingdom (1661), 4â“5, in Quaker Tracts 9 vols. [1658â“76] (London, 1661), 4: 923â“36.
56 The exact deď¬nition and applicability of the peace testimony remained unsettled for Friends
for almost another century, and even after that, warm adherence to causes such as American
liberties in 1776 or abolitionism in 1861 led some Quakers into battle. It was the cause of
many of the biggest controversies within and outside of their Society when they controlled the
57 Thomas Clarkson, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Taken from a View of the Education and
Discipline, Social Manners, Civil and Political Economy, Religious Principles and Character of
the Society of Friends, 3 vols. (New York: George Forman, 1806), 3: 29.
58 Barclay, Anarchy, 25.
59 Ibid., 34.
38 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
and â[give] Witness to the Dispensation of the Gospel.â60 A crucial and indis-
pensable part of this witnessing was that conscientious believers should be
âDiscerners of Evilsâ who have a duty to âreproveâ and âwarnâ the meeting;
they ought not to remain silent.61 The Truth might be âdivers in its Appear-
ance,â and if the dissent âlayeth not a real Ground for Division or Dissension
of Spirit, Fellow Members ought not only to bear one another, but strengthen
one another in them.â62 The Truths that dissenting members brought to their
meetings were their âtestimoniesâ for God to man.
As important as individual Truth-seeking was, however, it was not more
important than the unity and harmony of the meeting. Because of the imper-
ative to preserve unity, although it was incumbent upon the majority to hear
dissent as a way to the Truth, the dissenter was equally obliged to follow a
prescribed method in bringing his testimony to the meeting to preserve the con-
stituted ecclesiastical polity. âFor there is no greater Property of the Church of
Christ,â said Barclay, âthen pure Unity in the Spirit that is a consenting and
oneness in Judgment and Practices in Matters of Faith and Worship (which yet
admits of different Measures, Growths and Motions, but never contrary and
contradictory Ones).â63 In other words, contradiction and disunity come from
man and his misinterpretation of the Gospel, not from contradictions in the
Gospel itself. In order to dissent correctly, the dissenter must ď¬rst engage in the
process of communion with God â“ purify himself of his own selď¬sh motives
and approach the meeting in humility as Christâ™s agent. If, however, the meet-
ing does not hear him at ď¬rst, he must then exercise âForbearance in Things
wherein [the others] have not yet attained, yet . . . [the dissenter] must walk so,
as they have him for an Example.â64
This idea of walking as an example was drawn directly from primitive
Christianity and was a refrain throughout Quakerism. As Christâ™s way of
walking was a model for Quakers, so their âwalking in the way of Christâ was
a model for one another and non-Quakers. They believed that although some
individuals may have had a more advanced understanding than the group, in
time God would eventually reveal the Truth to all. There was, in other words,
an idea of progressive revelation for the group as well as the individual. If still
there was no uniď¬ed sense, the matter must be put aside for the time being
so as not to jeopardize the fundamental unity and harmony of the meeting.
Dissent thus should be a slow process of persuasion, convincement, and gradual
revelation, not coercion. In theory, there was no elitist tyranny or democratic
despotism in a Quaker meeting. But difď¬culties could develop in two ways â“
if the dissenters did not respect the process and asserted their interpretation of
the Truth in a disruptive way; or, if the body tried to repress the voice of the
60 Ibid., 9.
61 Ibid., 57.
62 Ibid., 58.
63 Ibid., 54.
64 Ibid., 55.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 39
dissenter. In other words, there was a constant danger of anarchy on the one
hand or tyranny on the other if the peace testimony were not observed.
The clearest example of Quaker process at work is in the origins of the
antislavery testimony in the mid-eighteenth century. Although isolated concerns
had been raised about the divine lawfulness of slavery as early as 1675, still
by the late 1730s, there were few Friends who saw it as a pressing concern
for the Society as a whole.65 Benjamin Lay, predating the famous abolitionists,
John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, was one of the ď¬rst to come forward
with the testimony of abolitionism. But at the time, the Society was neither
ready for his message nor appreciative of how he delivered it. Not only did Lay
expect Friends to manumit their slaves immediately, he employed shock tactics
to make his point. In 1737 he published a broadside entitled, All Slave-Keepers
That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates Pretending to lay Claim to
the Pure & Holy Christian Religion. He also once kidnapped the child of a
fellow Quaker so he would know how slaves felt to have their children sold
away. But the meeting for worship was the main forum for the expression of
his testimony. He was known during the winter to stand in the doorway of
the meetinghouse with one shod foot inside and one bare foot outside in the
snow to symbolize the slaves who had no shoes. His ď¬nal act was much more
dramatic. He arrived at meeting in a cloak that concealed a military uniform
and a Bible, hollowed out and ď¬lled with a bladder of red liquid. At a crucial
moment in the meeting, he rose, threw off his cloak, and stabbed the Bible
with a sword to symbolize that slavery is a bloody act of war against mankind.
For this aggressively provocative expression of disunity with Friends, Lay was
disowned in 1738.66
Only a few years later in the 1740s, John Woolman approached Friends
with exactly the same testimony, but with a very different delivery. Rather
than shocking them and denouncing them as apostates for holding slaves, he
delivered âhintsâ and âsoft persuasion,â preaching gently to them, urging them
to examine their ways.67 In sharp contrast to Layâ™s tone and language, Wool-
man compared his fellow Quakers with biblical ď¬gures, writing, âIt appears
by Holy Record that men under high favours have been apt to err.â68 He even
went so far as to assure them, âI do not believe that all who have kept slaves
have therefore been chargeable with guilt. If their motives thereto were free
from selď¬shness and their slaves content.â69 Also, to ensure the receptiveness
65 The ď¬rst Friend to denounce slavery was, according to Barbour, William Edmondson in 1675
(The Quakers in Puritan England, 242).
66 Gary B. Nash and Jean Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its
Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 49.
67 Michael Alan Heller, âSoft Persuasion: A Rhetorical Analysis of John Woolmanâ™s Essays and
â˜Journal,â™â (Ph.D. Diss., Arizona State University, 1989).
68 John Woolman, âSome Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes,â in Phillips P. Moulton, ed.,
The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1989),
69 Ibid., 211.
40 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
of the meeting to his testimony, Woolman waited almost twenty years for the
right time to present it, after many weighty Quaker slave owners had died.
His testimony was then heard willingly by Friends and adopted by most of the
Society in 1758. Later slave ownership became a cause for disownment from
Clearly, then, it was not Layâ™s testimony as much as it was his conversation
and walking that displeased Friends. It was accusatory and disruptive. His
actions seemed as calculated to sow discord as they were to abolish slavery. He
did not heed Barclayâ™s advice that âsome [dissenters are] behoved to submit, else
[the group] should never have agreed.â70 Woolman, on the other hand, waited
patiently and approached the meeting in a spirit of love. It was Woolmanâ™s
manner of walking that Quakers hoped to encourage when they constituted
Constituting the Quaker Meeting
Because of the libertinism of some members, Fox and other leaders found it
necessary to bring the Society of Friends into the Gospel order by establishing
a governmental structure that would provide a framework to facilitate correct
process. It became clear early on that there were some Friends who spoke
better on behalf of the Truth than others. The preponderance of the power to
decide the direction of the meeting thus lay with the âweighty Friends.â These
Friends were ordinary people who would make their spiritual gifts known to
the meeting by their peaceable conversation and orderly walking. It would be
clear to all that they, regardless of gender, age, social status or other worldly
quality, had been called by God to minister to the group. Once God had
ordained them, they were then approved by the meeting to travel as ministers.
This was the extent of the procedure. Not all individuals whose voices carried
weight became âpublic Friends,â as they were called. Some remained at home
and served as elders or overseers of their meetings.
The structure that resulted from the identiď¬cation of weighty Friends was
to be a sort of federal system with governing bodies organized hierarchically
and geographically â“ preparative weekly meetings, regional meetings that met
monthly and quarterly, which were themselves governed by a strong central
body that met annually. Representatives to these bodies emerged organically
from the meetings with their spiritual authority established by the speech-act
process. â[I]n every particular meeting of Friends,â explained William Dews-
bury, âthere be chosen from among you, one or two who are most grown in
the power and life, and in discernment in the truth, to take care and charge
over the ď¬‚ock of God in that place.â They should also serve as âexamples to
the ď¬‚ock.â71 There was no single pastor of the meeting.
70 Barclay, Anarchy, 22.
71 William Dewsbury, âThe Life of William Dewsbury,â in William Evans and Thomas Evans,
eds., The Friendsâ™ Library: Comprises Journals, Doctrinal Treatises, and Other Writings of the
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 41
The business of establishing the order of church government began in the
1650s at the local level. The institution of the central government was most
difď¬cult; it took around ten years, from the late 1660s to the late 1670s, for it to
take hold. The federal system was a departure from earlier Quaker process in
that it took some of the decision-making power out of the hands of individuals,
especially at the local levels. In the years before the central government was
established, most Quakers believed that a uniď¬ed decision at the local level
equaled an infallible decision; in this new federal structure, although the local
meetings retained a degree of autonomy, the only decisions considered to be
infallible were those made at the higher levels of the quarterly and yearly
meetings of elders and ministers. The individual, then, had to submit his or
her will to the meeting as it was guided by the body of the meeting.72 âEvery
[member],â wrote John Banks, âought to be subject and condescending one
unto another, in things which are already settled and established as to church-
order; and not any one say to this or the other, I would be left to my freedom
Quaker government was, then, a representative democracy with what we
might call a spiritual aristocracy of leadership. But even with this rule by
the holy, in theory, there was no oligarchy. Barclay wrote: âThat God hath
ordinarily, in the communicating of his Will under his Gospel, imployed such
whom he hath made Use of in gathering of his Church, and in feeding and
watching over them, though not excluding others.â74 All members, therefore,
had a role in choosing representatives and all were allowed to attend the
âmeeting for business.â75 There was a popular sovereignty in the Quaker
meeting that was more than the theoretical popular sovereignty that existed
in the British government. Because God might give any individual member,
no matter that memberâ™s standing in human society, a clearness he has not
bestowed on the others, all voices need to be reckoned with on an individual
basis according to their weight. Appropriate to this group process, there was
no head of the church to act as leader. The closest Quakers came to having such
a ď¬gure was the clerk of the meeting. But his was more a bureaucratic ofď¬ce
than a position of leadership. It was the clerkâ™s job to discern the âsense of the
Religious Society of Friends (Philadelphia: J. Rakestraw, 1837â“50), 2: 213â“310, 233. (Hereafter
referred to Friendsâ™ Library.)
72 Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule, 30â“35.
73 John Banks, âDear Friends and Brethren, unto whom the salutation of my love reachethâ (1684)
in Friendsâ™ Library, 1: 55.
74 Barclay, Anarchy, 68.
75 âInstitution of the Discipline,â Friendsâ™ Library, 1: 109â“41, 112. There were âmeetings for
worshipâ and âmeetings for business.â The latter was the political assembly of the church
and dealt with the governmental issues within the Society. About the meeting structure and
representation within it, Bauman notes that all members were in theory allowed to attend
meetings at any level, but in practice only the most active attended the Quarterly and Yearly
Meetings. Also, the number of representatives was fairly small. In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting,
for example, during the ď¬rst half of the eighteenth century, the number of representatives was
around 1 percent of the total membership (For the Reputation of Truth, 65â“66).
42 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
meeting,â that is, the collective feeling of the group about which direction to
proceed. The clerk must do this by taking into account what is said, what is
not said, and the weight of the individuals who did or did not speak, and then
combine these communications to determine if there is consensus or whether
to wait until God has âopened the wayâ further. Contemporary Quakers liken
the difď¬cult job of the clerk to herding cats â“ guiding the individuals in the
same direction must be done by persuasive suggestions rather than coercive
measures, and it must take into account the idiosyncrasies of each member.
If the process of discernment demonstrated in the Woolman example was the
ideal, there was always a fundamental and perennial tension between persuasive
efforts Friends might employ and coercive ones that were out of keeping with
the peace testimony. This tension naturally turned on the issue of where power
resided in the body of the meeting â“ with those who had or who sought
power. As the church government was being established, coercive power lay
with the leaders. In accordance with good church order, they argued, if anyone
contradicts the âfundamental Truthâ that brought âa Peopleâ together, that
person should be cast out. The problem, of course, is when all have the ability
to discern Godâ™s Truth at least to some degree, the âTruthâ may be hard to
deď¬ne. Although most Quakers held that the Truth was ultimately decided
by the group, for detractors of the new church government this raised the
difď¬cult question of how far the positive law of the meeting would extend to
regulate the conscience and behavior of the individual. Barclay was unwavering
on this point: The church had authority over matters of the conscience and
the power to discipline members for transgression of divine order. âThat any
particular Persons de Facto, or effectually giving out a positive Judgment, is not
Incroaching nor Imposing upon their Brethrenâ™s Consciences,â he claimed.76
The proof for Barclay about the true meaning of the Light was not only that
the weightiest Friends discerned the need for church government, but also that
Scripture and reason were on their side. The church government, these sources
all agreed, could denounce any doctrine that is contrary to the bonds that held
them together, âthe original Constitution,â as he called it.77 And âWhatsoever
tendeth to break that Bond of Love and Peace,â proclaimed Barclay, âmust be
testiď¬ed against.â78 In the early years, the preponderance of power and the use
of coercion resided with the minority of de facto leaders of the meeting.
A point that should be kept in mind is that, although the positive law was
powerful, the exercise of it was relatively mild for a church government so
adamant about its understanding of Truth. Disciplinary measures and punish-
ments were meted out ď¬rmly but gently, and with continued concern for the
spiritual well-being of the transgressor. If there were a dissenter who persisted
in expressing himself in a disruptive way, thus threatening the harmony of the
meeting, the meeting had the latitude â“ the responsibility even â“ to exclude
that person, to âdisownâ him. The way Quakers understood it, because such
76 Ibid., 73.
77 As opposed to the written constitution.
78 Barclay, Anarchy, 57.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 43
a dissenter was following his own will rather than that of God, â[b]y refusing
to hear the Judgment of the Church, or the whole Assembly, he doth thereby
exclude himself, and shut out himself from being a Member.â79 Yet the Quaker
belief in perfectionism conditioned how the transgressor was dealt with. Thus
the meeting should not entirely exclude a transgressor from contact with the
faithful and continued spiritual guidance. â[W]e also meet together,â Barclay
explained, âthat we may receive an opportunity to understand if any have fallen
under [the Enemyâ™s] Temptations that we may restore them again.â80 There
was always hope of repairing the relationship and saving a soul. The respon-
sibility for identifying and dealing with disorderly walkers lay not exclusively
with the elders, ministers, and overseers of the body, but âwith any other who
discerns them, and is moved to speak to them.â81 In the disciplinary process,
the individual was ď¬rst dealt with privately. The transgressor was then brought
before a judicial body, and if he was still unrepentant, he was then disowned.
Even after this, however, representatives from the meeting retained contact with
him and extended the opportunity for him to repent before the meeting and
be restored as a member. And the only way this restoration was possible was
if there were order in a church government that could facilitate and approve
it.82 While this was a gentle means of discipline, there is a kind of force and
tenacity about it that should not be overlooked. Quakers were determined not
just to make converts but to keep people within their fold using all the power
allowed them. They ought to be âa body ď¬tly framed together in unity.â83
The Creation of a Written Constitution
In 1669 Quakers codiď¬ed their laws and institutions in a written document.84
The Quakersâ™ government and their implementation of the law was based
previously on a practice akin, but not identical, to the British common law
tradition. According to Friends, the meeting was constituted before the formal
Discipline was established. As they explained it,
it may be safely asserted, that there was never a period in the Society when . . . that order
and subjection which may be said to constitute a discipline did not exist. But as the
number of members increased, those mutual helps and guards which had been, in great
measure spontaneously afforded, were found to require some regular arrangements for
the preserving of order in the church.85
79 Ibid., 14.
80 Ibid., 46.
81 Dewsbury, âThe Life of William Dewsbury,â 2: 234.
82 On this disciplinary process, see Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 258â“59. For
a contemporary description, see Dewsbury, âThe Life of Dewsbury,â 2: 233â“34; and Joseph
Pike, âSome Account of the Life of Joseph Pike,â Friendsâ™ Library, 2: 374â“75.
83 Banks, âDear Friends and Brethren . . . ,â in Friendsâ™ Library, 1: 56.
84 An extensive discussion of the Discipline is âInstitution of the Disciplineâ in Friendsâ™ Library,
85 The Book of Extracts from London Yearly Meeting, quoted in Friendsâ™ Library, 1: 114.
44 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
In the earliest meetings for business, Quakers took detailed minutes of the
proceedings that described the issues and concerns raised by members and
how they were resolved. The implementation of the law was then based on
these records that grew organically from the meetings, which were founded on
Friendsâ™ discernment of the Light, Scripture, reason, and history. For Quakers,
Scripture was the most important history book. It was âA faithful Historical
Account of the Actings of Godâ™s People in divers Ages.â86 The origin of historic
precedent was vital. Tradition and custom not based on the Light, on the other
hand, were invalid. In that Quakers identiď¬ed with the primitive church and
saw themselves as acting in the same spirit, apostolic precedent was the most
trustworthy. Barclay wrote,
[W]e are greatly conď¬rmed, strengthened and comforted in the joint Testimony of our
Brethren, the Apostles and Disciples of Christ, who by the Revelation of the same Spirit
in the Days of Old believed, and have left upon Record the same Truths; so we having
the same Spirit of Faith, according as it is written, I believe, and therefore I have spoken;
we also believe, and therefore we speak.87
Quakersâ™ own experiences and actions were valid precedents as well, as
long as they were in keeping with earlier precedents enacted in the living
spirit of Christ. Because precedents were so important for establishing and
further developing their legal code, Friends examined their origins very closely
and tended toward conservatism. They naturally distrusted âInnovatorsâ who
were âgiven to change, and introducing new Doctrines and Practices, not only
differing, but contrary to what was already delivered in the Beginning; making
Parties, causing Divisions and Rents.â88 A precedent enacted in the wrong spirit
could harm the meeting for years to come.89 Importantly, however, change was
not rejected out of hand. A theory of change formed part of their theology and
ecclesiology and was built into their written constitution.
In 1669 as the leaders worked to establish the central church government,
Fox, acting as a representative of the body, drew up the ď¬rst Discipline of the
uniď¬ed meeting. The Discipline was the Quakersâ™ ecclesiastical constitution.
Its title was Canons and Institutions drawn up and agreed upon by the Gen-
eral Assembly or Meeting of the Heads of the Quakers from all parts of the
kingdom . . . January 1668/9, George Fox being their president. Even from the
language in the title, we can see that this document looked very much like the
civil constitutions that were being written at this time; it was a statement of
the origins and purpose of the Quaker meeting and codiď¬cation of the law
Friends had discerned through their consciences and transcribed thus far. It
dealt with laws that governed Quakers in relation to one another and, to a
degree, to the outside world. Among the topics covered are the representatives
86 Barclay, Apology, 3.
87 Barclay, Anarchy, 25.
88 Ibid., 9.
89 On the tension between precedent and established conviction in the meeting, see Bauman, For
the Reputation of Truth, 55.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 45
chosen to attend the âGeneral Meetingsâ to report on needs of the unfortu-
nate and the transgressions of members; appropriate timing and places for the
General Meeting; guidelines for proper deportment among members, includ-
ing peaceable conversation; the education of children; choosing burial places;
and recording important events such as births, deaths, and the persecution of
Friends by the civil government.90
According to Friends, this constitution was, because of its origins in a collec-
tive process of discernment, perfect in its fundamental elements and therefore
sacred and perpetual. The creation of the Discipline was a case in which âthe
Judgment of a certain Person or Persons in certain Cases . . . is infallibleâ and
for this reason, it was appropriate for the General Assembly to âpronounce
it as obligatory upon others.â But here Barclay made a point that was crucial
for the survival of both the written constitution and the ecclesiastical polity.
The infallibility of this judgment âis not because [these men] are infallible,
but because in these Things & at that Time they were led by the infallible
Spirit.â91 Insofar as the written constitution was in keeping with the spirit,
it was perfect and perpetual. If aspects of it were not discerned in the right
spirit, however, they would not be binding. This meant that the written con-
stitution, like the constituted body, was not a static thing. On the contrary,
because Quakers believed in adhering to the âliving spiritâ as opposed to the
âdead letter,â they left the form, function, and laws of their government open
to change. The written constitution was a living entity, ď¬‚exible and amendable
to remain in keeping with the spirit. âSeasons and Times,â explained Barclay,
âdo not alter the Nature and Substance of Things in themselves; though it may
cause Things to alter, as to the Usefulness, or not Usefulness of them.â92 In
other words, although the fundamental law embodied in the constitution was
eternal, changes in the written document might be necessary in order to apply
the law as times changed and as God gave man greater clearness of his will. A
constitution, like a man, was imperfect, yet perfectible.
This idea of creating and amending ideas and texts was based on a belief
in progressive revelation in individuals and the community. Quakers therefore
exhibited the same attitude toward the interpretation of all of their theologico-
political texts as they did their constitution. In 1672 they established an âedi-
torial committeeâ that would screen and approve all works printed under the
auspices of the Society.93 In the reprinted edition of the works of Quaker polit-
ical theorist Isaac Penington, for example, they edited his work not strictly
according to a standard of original intent of the author in keeping with his
historical circumstances, but rather according to the eternal Truth as they had
come to understand it. Accordingly, with due respect to the authorâ™s abilities
90 A more detailed discussion of this constitution can be found in Braithwaite, The Second Period
of Quakerism, 256â“60.
91 Barclay, Anarchy, 67.
92 Ibid., 24.
93 Rebecca Larson, Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the
Colonies and Abroad, 1700â“1775 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 36.
46 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
of discernment, they deleted passages that they found to be out of keeping with
the Spirit and retained the ones that agreed with it.94
The ď¬‚exibility of the Quaker ecclesiastical constitution is evidenced in its
evolution from the seventeenth to the late-eighteenth century. The 1669 Disci-
pline is sixteen pages long; the 1798 Discipline is 135 pages. Over the years it
was rewritten and expanded, and it evolved to include a preamble that stated
more clearly the purpose of the Quaker meeting, new laws that governed the
meeting, clariď¬cation or amendment of old laws, and features to make it more
useful as a reference tool for members, such as a table of contents and an index.
The document was printed in limited numbers and then circulated among the
members who then transcribed it for their own use.95 But, as evidence of their
conď¬dence in the infallibility of the spirit leading the original General Assem-
bly, the essence of it remained the same, including the very language they used.
There were also some administrative changes. These were the creation of a
system of elders as additional authority structure in 1727 and the institution
of birthright membership around 1737.96 As will be explored in later chapters,
there was also a change in the peace testimony in the mid-eighteenth century.
Other than these, the basic theology and ecclesiology remained the same among
all Friendsâ™ meetings until the Hicksite Separation in 1827â“29.
Barclayâ™s treatise on church government, The Anarchy of the Ranters, writ-
ten after the Canons and Institutions, but before the settlement of London
Yearly Meeting, served a similar function as The Federalist Papers (1787â“88)
did in the American founding. It was to clarify the basic principles of the polity;
explain and justify the new, strong central government; and convince the infor-
mally constituted body to accept it in order to make the unity formal. Also
like the implementation of the U.S. Constitution, the structure was imposed on
those who may not have been fully persuaded of its legitimacy.
The constitution of the church, the fundamental law that governed it, and
the structural order it prescribed were all thus divinely ordained antecedents to
the written constitution and the formal structures of government implemented
by man. The man-made document and structures were handed down directly
from God and were merely carried out by man as best he could. Because the
church government, the structures it created, and the processes it prescribed
were all ordained by God, they were sacred and perpetual. But because man
94 D. F. McKenzie, The London Book Trade in the Later Seventeenth Century (Unpublished
manuscript, Cambridge University: Sandars Lectures, 1976), 33. I am grateful to Stephen Foster
for bringing this manuscript to my attention at a Newberry Library seminar.
95 See the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Books of Discipline, HQC. See Michael Warner, âTextu-
ality and Legitimacy in the Printed Constitutionâ in The Letters of the Republic: Publication
and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1990), 97â“117. Warner describes the origin, form, and function of a constitution in very
similar ways to this. The constitution is formed through a collective effort and legitimized by
its distribution among and use by the members of the polity. But he dates the origins of this
theory and process at the American Revolutionary period.
96 Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 542, 459.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 47
was fallible, and because God did not give man âclearnessâ of his will all at
once but rather revealed it as he saw ď¬t, they were also ď¬‚exible and amendable.
By modern categorizations, Quakers were thus bureaucrats of a very peculiar
sort. Theirs was a collective, informal, legal-charismatic authority. In some
important ways, it was opposite from Weberâ™s legal-rational model and his
charismatic model, although it shared some similarities with both. It was legal
in the sense that it followed the rule of law, but it rejected rationalism as its
foundation. It was charismatic in the sense that authority was perceived to come
from a divine source, but unlike Weberâ™s charismatic authority, the authority
of the Light was not in a single individual leader, but rather was embodied in
the collective. It was also informal in that the process was, at least in theory,
internalized, thus rendering formal structures unnecessary. On the other hand,
the Quaker model does comport with charismatic leadership in the sense that
the process had to become routinized for the group to survive. But the collective
nature of the charisma kept it from dissipating, as does charismatic power in
individuals. Thus Quaker bureaucracy combined elements of authority that are
contradictory in the usual models.
Quakers used this bureaucratic authority â“ their process of walking and
conversation â“ for two related purposes: ď¬rst, as described previously, they
turned it inward upon their members to preserve the unity of the group by
controlling the individualizing aspects of the Inward Light; and second, they
turned it outward toward civil society and government. But in the latter case,
it was to expand rather than limit individual liberty.
Quaker Civil Disobedience: Preaching by Example
The Quakersâ™ legal discernment process began as an individual and collective
quietism, or inward withdrawal, and resulted in outward activity.97 In other
words, they looked inward for Godâ™s mandates, which directed them to engage
intensively in the world. The main reasons Quakers organized themselves and
established church government were to worship God properly, organize charity
efforts, and to ensure unity in the meeting. There was another reason, however,
that prompted Friends to organize â“ public relations. They needed both to
facilitate their proselytizing and to combat the resulting persecution from the
As noted earlier, in the years before the establishment of the Discipline,
Quakers were a much more enthusiastic group than they would later become.
As is true of many new movements with powerful ideological momentum
97 Quietism in general, as well as Quaker quietism in particular, is a complex of theological ideas.
Inward seeking, bodily and spiritual stillness, and a distrust of human abilities are among the
things that characterize Quaker quietism. For a thorough discussion, see Rufus Jones, âQui-
etism in the Society of Friends,â The Later Periods of Quakerism (Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 1970), 1: 57â“103. The mistake has been when scholars have interpreted Quaker quietism
to mean a complete and permanent, rather than temporary withdrawal from the world.
48 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
and charismatic members, it was seeking converts. Early Friends were thus
ardent proselytizers. One of the names they called themselves was the âFirst
Publishers of Truth,â where âto publishâ means âto make publicâ through
all media. They saw themselves like the Apostles, âInstrumentsâ sent by God
to go âforth and [preach] the Gospel in the Evidence and Demonstration of
the Spirit, not in the Enticing Words of manâ™s Wisdom; but in Appearance, as
Fools and mad to those that judged according to Man.â98 The goal of early
Quakers was to convince the entire world of Quakerism.99 In the civil polity
as in the ecclesiastical, for Quakers, to dissent was to proselytize. They hoped
that âtheir Words and Testimony pierced through into the inner Man in the
heart, and reached to that part of God in the Conscience.â100 Accordingly, they
traveled as missionaries and public Friends and sent epistles around the world â“
to the sultan of Turkey, the emperor of China, and the pope in Rome. And,
moreover, to be true to historical precedent, they did so âin Appearance asâ
fools and the insane. These early Friends set out to provoke, to disrupt, and to
become martyrs for the Truth.
The basis of their aggressive campaign was their understanding of Godâ™s
law and the process by which they brought it to the public. Members were
continually âput in mind of the necessity of trying to be good examples to
others, in bearing a faithful testimony for the truth.â101 In setting an example
for the Truth, Friends acted upon their testimonies â“ that is, fundamental
points on which divine law and human law and conventions disagreed and
which inhibited liberty of conscience. In following Godâ™s law above human
law, Quakers were giving their testimony on a range of issues that challenged
civil, ecclesiastical, and social order. They took the initiative as individuals to
confront the law.102 In this sense, they were like the antinomians who rejected
the prevailing legal order and followed their own instead.103 But they were not
identical; their law was not purely inward.
98 Barclay, Anarchy, 12. See Hill on âradical madnessâ (The World Turned Upside Down, 277â“
84). He ď¬nds that â[s]uch actions were also a deliberate form of advertisement for the causeâ
99 Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, 127.
100 Barclay, Anarchy, 12.
101 George Churchman, 2nd mo. 5th day, 1781, The Journal of George Churchman, 1759â“1813,
8: 22. HQC.
102 It is very difď¬cult, if not impossible in the context of the English legal system, to determine
exactly what laws Quakers were breaking. What seem like minor infractions of social custom
to us were serious offenses in a society in which customs were the law. See Glenn Burgessâ™s
discussion of legal customs in The Politics of the Ancient Constitution. He describes the
common law as âthe practices that held society together as a wholeâ (35). For example,
today not dofď¬ng oneâ™s hat to oneâ™s social superior may seem relatively innocuous, but such an
omission would have signaled the breakdown of the entire social order to a seventeenth-century
103 On the deď¬nition and description of antinomianism, see Como, âThe Sinews of the Antinomian
Underground,â in Blown by the Spirit, 33â“72.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 49
In the process of civil dissent, speech-action was as important as it was in the
meeting, and for the same reasons.104 As they accessed God through the Light
in the conscience, and he led them to speak, they believed their words to be
directly from God. The power they believed was behind the words thus drove
them to extreme public acts and an equally shocking disregard for the opinions
of mere men, especially ministers of other persuasions, whom they believed
to be speaking only the âdead letter.â In this case, in the reverse of the way
in which they used Quaker process as a political structure in their meeting,
the speech-acts in the civil sphere were intended to break down illegitimate
structures and replace them with constitutional (i.e., godly) ones.
Quaker speech-acts were a form of political theater.105 They were intended
to be provocative, a spectacle in the public arena. More than this even, they
were participatory, encouraging audiences of potential converts to join the
Quaker movement.106 And early on they were not peaceable and persuasive,
but aggressively confrontational and coercive to the point of hostility. In the
beginning, they identiď¬ed themselves deď¬antly by embracing, adopting, and
publicizing the derogatory name given to them by their enemies and referring
to themselves as âthe people in scorn called Quakers.â107 In this and other
ways, Friends seemed to challenge all the fundamental structures of English
society. Their conversation and walking were political acts of âleveling.â With
their spiritual egalitarianism, they wanted to level the patriarchal authority
of church, state, and society and replace corrupt laws with godly ones. As
one non-Quaker explained, they âshew contemptâ through âtheire gestures &
behaviorâ without even using words. For example, they would simply stare at
people without speaking to make them uncomfortable.108 They also went to
opposite extremes by shouting down Puritan ministers in their own churches,
running naked through the streets to symbolize the spiritual nakedness of the
unconvinced, letting women travel alone and preach, refusing to engage in
polite and subservient behavior with social betters, refusing to use the pagan
names for days and months, refusing to attend Church of England services,
refusing to swear oaths, and carrying out other measures that signiď¬ed an
alternate understanding of the Word and world. Their dramatic speech-acts
were designed to be shocking and thus memorable. All of these things were to
advocate liberty of conscience, Godâ™s law, and spiritual equality. They sought
to make all men equally humble before God.
104 Jane Kamensky treats Quaker speech in Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early
New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), esp. 117â“126.
105 Ibid., 120.
106 Peters explains that one of the Quakersâ™ aims in proselytizing through print was âinvolvement
of the audienceâ (Print Culture and the Early Quakers, 166â“67).
107 Peters discusses the formation of the Quaker identity through not just the appropriation of this
name from their detractors, but more importantly their own cultivation and dissemination of
it. See Chapter 4, ââ˜The Quakers Quakingâ™: The Printed Identity of the Movement,â 91â“123.
108 Quoted in Kamensky, Governing the Tongue, 121.
50 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
As indicated previously, not just Quaker men participated in the disruption;
women and children did their part as well. Women especially were a threat.
Although the testimonies of Quaker women were not substantively different
from those of men, they were disruptive on a much deeper level. Not only
did women break most of the same laws and customs as men by adhering to
their testimonies, but they deď¬ed many other conventions by doing these things
as women. Moreover, they took their dissent into the innermost sanctums of
their private lives to challenge the patriarchal bonds of family and matrimony.
Adhering to their testimonies often meant disobeying not just the authority of
the state, but also the authority of their husbands and fathers.109
The radicalism of Quakers caused them, as they hoped, to be branded very
quickly as lunatics, heretics, and a threat to the civil government. Their behav-
ior reminded contemporaries variously of the dangers of radical Anabaptism
of the sort that dominated Munster from 1534 to 1536, radical Puritanism
that fomented the Civil War, Ranterism that sought to democratize England,
and, worst of all, the ever-present threat of popery. To many Englishmen, the
Quakers followed the Inner Light as slavishly as papists followed the pope. And
the Quakersâ™ âPope withinâ was just as subversive as the one in Rome.110 The
fear on the part of their contemporaries was that they would succeed in their
missionizing efforts. Quaker opponent Francis Bugg worried that their meet-
ings were not merely about worship; âthey Debate and Treat of other Matters,
which may tend to the Promoting of Quakerism, and agree upon such Mea-
sures, and give such Orders for the Executing of them, as tend exceedingly to the
Weakening [of] the Public Interest.â111 Quakersâ™ opponents rightly recognized
that Quakers did not meet exclusively for worship, but also for the business
of coordinating their resistance to the civil authorities. âThe Quakers Synodâ
(Figure 1) is a depiction of how âthe Quakers hold a General Synod every
109 See, for example, Elizabeth Ashbridge, âSome Account of the forepart of the life of Elizabeth
Ashbridgeâ (1713â“55), FHL. There is a substantial literature on Quaker women. See Isabel
Ross, Margaret Fell, Mother of Quakerism, 2nd ed. (York: William Sessions Book Trust, 1984);
Bonnelyn Young Kunze, Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1994); Mack, Visionary Women; Larson, Daughters of Light; Peters, Print
Culture and the Early Quakers. Peters notes that, although Quakers supported their female
members in their activities and defended them publicly, they had concerns that women might
be a substantially disruptive force within and without the meeting and thus tried to limit their
expressions (147â“49). Although womenâ™s preaching and printing contributed much to the
solidity of the early movement, curtailing passionate outbursts by women in the early years of
the movement, Peters argues, was also a major part of the developing Discipline.
110 John Faldo, Quakerism no Christianity: Or, a Thorow Quaker no Christian proved by the
Quakers Principles, detected out of their chief Writers . . . with . . . an Account of their Foun-
dation laid in Popery (London, 1675), 120.
111 Francis Bugg, Quakerism Anatomized, and Finally Dissected: Shewing, from Plain Fact, that
a Rigid Quaker is a Cruel Persecutor (London, 1709), 423. It should be noted that Bugg
was a former Quaker himself who left the meeting on extremely bad terms. His observations,
therefore, should be understood in light of both the experience he gained as a Quaker but also
his vindictiveness toward Friends.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 51
figure 1. A seventeenth-century depiction of a âQuakers Synodâ with Quaker lead-
ers presiding. William Penn says, âCall over ye List, Are none of Truths enemies
here?â George Whitehead asks, âAre the doors shut?â William Bingley replies, âYea
the doors are lockt.â The Journal of George Fox is on the table to be pitted against the
Church Canons. (Francis Bugg, The Pilgrimâ™s Progress, from Quakerism to Christianity
[London. 1698; rpt. 1700], inserted between pages 108 and 109. FHL.)
52 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
Whitsontide, with Doors Lockâ™d, Barâ™d, Bolted, or else Guarded by Stout Fel-
lows, that no Body may inspect their Proceedings; against the known Law.â112
The consequences of Friendsâ™ transgressions from English and early Amer-
ican law and custom were severe, and Friends were well aware of them as
they published their testimonies.113 In A Collection of Sufferings of the People
Called Quakers for the Testimony of a Good Conscience (1753), Joseph Besse
estimated that between 1650 and 1689, there were 20,721 Quakers in Eng-
land and America who had encounters with the law, and 450 died as a result,
mostly in prison. Beyond the ofď¬cially imposed punishments, the physical vio-
lence that Quakers endured at the hands of soldiers, mobs of teenage boys,
and others, all tacitly or openly encouraged by the religious and civil author-
ities was severe; there were beatings and mutilations of elderly men, young
children, and pregnant women that often led to death or disď¬guration. Some
of this was clearly prompted by Quakersâ™ refusal to obey laws and customs,
but much of it was provoked by things as seemingly innocuous as difference
in dress and can be attributed to simple bigotry and xenophobia. Quakers
were convenient targets for the intolerant and sadistic.114 The most extreme
example of Quaker persecution in the seventeenth century is the execution by
hanging of four Quakers, including Mary Dyer, on Boston Common in 1660.
Signiď¬cantly, Quaker agitation during this period gained them more followers
as witnesses to their suffering were convinced of Friendsâ™ salvation.115
During the 1660s and 1670s, the simultaneous development of the church
government and the peace testimony tempered and shaped the quality, though
not the quantity, of their dissent. Fox eventually convinced most Friends that
peace and nonviolent resistance was the essence of true Quakerism. As Friends
came to believe, God ordained that man should not destroy divine creation,
which included both other men but also government, ecclesiastical and civil.
Barclay wrote that, in the recent past, struggles for liberty of conscience had
been good, âalbeit always wrong in the manner by which they took to accom-
plish it, viz. by Carnal Weapons.â116 The Quakersâ™ new understanding of the
sanctity of a civil constitution was in part a result of the creation of their own
ecclesiastical constitution. And a similar sense of political obligation existed
112 Ibid., 422.
113 Most works of Quaker history address the topic. In addition to the sources cited below, for
discussions of persecution of Quakers in America see Jonathan Chu, Neighbors, Friends, or
Madmen: The Puritan Adjustment to Quakerism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts Bay
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985) and George A. Selleck, The Quakers in Boston, 1656â“
1964: Three Centuries of Friends in Boston and Cambridge (Friends Meeting at Cambridge,
1976); also see Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies, especially Book 1, Chapter 4,
114 Craig W. Horle, Quakers and the English Legal System, 1660â“1688 (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1988) provides graphic examples of physical abuse of Quakers, 125â“30,
and statistics on sufferings from 1660 to 1688 in Appendix One, 279â“84.
115 Chu, Neighbors, Friends, or Madmen, 46.
116 Barclay, Apology, iii.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 53
in both areas. The same principles that applied to dissent in the meeting were
thus applied to dissent in the civil polity.
The peace testimony had a signiď¬cant effect on Quaker proselytizing. Some
historians have posited that at the time it was instituted, Quakers turned qui-
etist or toned down their enthusiasm in order to lessen their persecution.117
Although there was certainly a change in behavior, there was not such a drastic
change in Friendsâ™ attitude as has been maintained. It is true that a portion of
the Society did exhibit quietistic tendencies, but the term has often been inaccu-
rately applied to Quakers to mean a group that has withdrawn from the world
into sectarian isolation. The urge to âconquerâ the world did indeed fade, but
the urge to change it did not. Writing about one of the deď¬ning characteristics
of the Quaker church, Barclay explained that they were a people who
have not been wanting with the Hazard of our Lives to seek the scattered ones, holding
forth the Living and Sure Foundation, and inviting and perswading all to obey the
Gospel of Christ, and to take Notice of his Reproofs, as he makes himself manifest
by his Light in their Hearts; so our Care and Travail is and hath been towards those
that are without, that we may bring them into the Fellowship of the Saints in Light;
and towards those that are brought in, that they may not be led out again, or drawn
It would seem rather that Quakers were less afraid of persecution than they were
the possibility of their mission failing. If their Society disintegrated under the
pressure of persecution, they would fail in their divinely appointed commission
to secure liberty of conscience for all and open the way for the world to become
Quaker. Thus they also tempered their goal of convincement to something
more realistic and one that relied more on gentle persuasion than aggressive
and overtly disruptive tactics. Missionizing was, if not as aggressive or obvious
as in early Quakerism, still very much a compelling force among Friends.
Therefore, while the intensity and aggression of the Lambâ™s War tapered
off in the second generation of Quakerism, its overarching goal did not dis-
appear. It has persisted into the twenty-ď¬rst century as Quakers have engaged
in a variety of social reform efforts that have grown out of their ancient and
new religious testimonies. The persistence of this missionizing and purifying
mentality is present in numerous Quaker writings. After a particularly satis-
fying meeting in 1804, for example, George Churchman noted in his journal
that he looked forward to âa prospect of things rising into more clearness or
of a season when Sluggards & dwarď¬sh persons will be hunted out of their
holes, or lurking-Places.â119 Although the vocabulary of war is missing from
this glimpse into the Quaker mentality at the turn of the nineteenth century,
this expression is only a few degrees milder than the language of the Lambâ™s
117 See, for example, Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, 251; Braithwaite, The Beginnings
of Quakerism, 525; Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 179; also Boorstin, The
Americans, 68. Most subsequent histories have accepted this assumption.
118 Barclay, Anarchy, 33â“34.
119 Journal of George Churchman, 5th mo. 23rd day, 1804, 8: 80, HQC.
54 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
War, and the sentiment is the same â“ there should be a sustained and vigorous
effort to assure that the cause of Truth is promulgated.
It is also true that Quaker testimonies became less a means of aggressive
confrontation and more a mark of their uniqueness, but uniqueness in itself was
a way of missionizing. Their conversation became more peaceable, but no less
peculiar. This new conversation was due in part to changes in the world around
them, some of which their agitations had engendered. Massachusetts Puritans,
for example, eventually decided that toleration of Quakers was preferable to
the discord created by the persecution; and William Penn managed to secure a
measure of legal toleration from James II in the form of the 1687 Declaration of
Indulgence, authored by Penn himself. By 1689 when the Act of Toleration was
passed, instigated largely by Quakers, the worst of the persecution was over.120
But the new truce between Quakers and the civil authorities was also due to
the evolution in Quaker public relations. Their new tack involved a reinvention
of the Quaker image. Quakers were what we would today call âmedia savvy.â
They understood intuitively the subtleties of âpublishingâ from many angles
and with many media, which was precisely why their opponents feared them.
In the 1650s, it was the individual Quaker who controlled and shaped the
spoken word. But as their central government formed, it was the group that
regulated the speech-action of the individual. They limited physical expressions
of enthusiasm and overtly subversive preaching.121 They renovated their public
image to be something less threatening and more attractive. Although not yet
quite ârespectableâ in the late-seventeenth century,122 over the centuries, they
managed to shape the connotation of the name âQuakerâ in the popular mind
from a detestable and offensive misď¬t to a virtuous, pious, and trusted citizen.
Today most of us imagine the Quaker in the person of the Quaker Oats man,
whom we can hardly imagine shouting at anyone, let alone running naked
through the streets.
In spite of the new corporate structure, it is easy to see why historians have
mistaken Quakerism for an individualistic faith; they always took the initia-
tive to proselytize as individuals. What began to change with the institution of
church government was not the individual initiative but rather the regulation
of that initiative by the Society. Now the body must give its âapprobationâ
for a Friend to travel in the ministry.123 Preaching, however, was still founded
on individual initiative; meetings did not âsendâ missionaries. But as the per-
secution heated up, the body supported individuals more in their endeavors.
The meeting thus had both positive and negative roles to play in relation to
120 See Ethyn Williams Kirby, âThe Quakersâ™ Efforts to Secure Civil and Religious Liberty, 1660â“
96,â The Journal of Modern History vol. 7, no. 4 (1935), 401â“21.
121 Mack explains that by the 1670s, members â“ women in particular â“ who preached or wrote
against the government in regards to war were censored (Visionary Women, 365, 368). Cen-
sorship on this topic also gives us a clear indication that the peace testimony was not used, as
it would become by the late-eighteenth century, against state-sponsored war.
122 Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 359.
123 William Reckitt, âThe Life of William Reckitt,â in Friendsâ™ Library, 9: 54.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 55
the individual â“ to facilitate piety and proselytizing, though not to compel, and
also to regulate the interpretation and expression of the religious impulses.
Thus although their testimonies of dress and speech became pleasingly
quaint, amusing, or inspirational to outsiders instead of offensive, they contin-
ued to function much as they did before, merely more subtly. As Friends saw
it, their testimonies acted as both a hedge and a Light â“ a hedge to keep out
sin and a Light as a beacon to the unconvinced. A Friend was to set an exam-
ple of piety in every way. James Bringhurst, a respected Philadelphia Friend,
expressed sentiments common to Quakers in the early nineteenth century:
We, who are not called, or at least are not engaged in the line of the ministry, may
be very usefully exercised in our respective allotments, and may sometimes preach to
others, either by example, or by the distribution of good books, or in some way or
other, by which we may promote the beneď¬t of individuals and the welfare of society at
Everyone, then, was a sort of minister. Certainly when compared to George
Foxâ™s admonition to Friends that their lives and words should be âa Terrour
to all that speak not Truth,â Bringhurstâ™s words signify that Quakerism had
indeed evolved into a gentler religion. But this desire to inď¬‚uence people to
Quakerly ways, expressed time and again in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
Quaker writings, is no less ardent or sincere. Bringhurst was always hopeful
that the efforts of Quakers would âopen the way in the minds of the people
towards Friendsâ and was pleased to note that âthose of other [religious]
societies are frequently seen attending Friendsâ™ meetings with much solidarity.
There are many,â he concluded, âlooking towards Friends in various parts of
this continent.â125 A Society that opened its meetings for worship to the general
public and regularly had more observers of their peculiar practice in attendance
than members must have been at least as concerned with missionizing as purity.
The goal for Friends was always the transformation of the world, but now
this regeneration no longer had to come from each person being convinced to
become a member of the Society of Friends. The hope of most Friends was not
that everyone in the world would become Quaker in name, only that they would
act like Quakers. Theirs became a missionizing movement with an ecumenical
bent. The name of a believerâ™s sect was less important than the substance of
his belief; the Quakersâ™ universalism let them believe that all had the capacity
to recognize and follow the Inner Light. Their movement and its effect thus
had a greater potential to be both broader and deeper than that of many other
From their understanding of how a closer knowledge of Godâ™s law is gained
in meeting through a process of dissent â“ that is, calm and respectful of the cor-
porate unity â“ they knew that it must function the same way in the state: Some
124 John Murray, Jr., to James Bringhurst, 1st mo. 21st day 1805. Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
125 James Bringhurst to John Dickinson, 1st mo. 22nd day, 1802; and James Bringhurst to Moses
Brown, 2nd mo. 25th day, 1802. Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
56 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
members will understand the true law earlier, and it is incumbent upon these
visionaries to convince the others gently, even if that means waiting patiently
for years for God to give them clearness. Thus, for Quakers, adherence to
Godâ™s law â“ the higher law â“ meant breaking ungodly human laws, but they
were obliged to do so peacefully, according to the same order and method
that God prescribed for the church. In other words, they had to preserve the
divinely ordained civil government by working within the existing system.
So seminal is the peace testimony still to Quakerism that one could argue
that it has led to a clouding of Quaker history. Most histories of the Society of
Friends (which, until recently, were written mainly by Friends) emphasize the
sufferings of Friends and encourage a misperception about the Societyâ™s collec-
tive response to persecution. The myth is that they suffered their punishments
without complaint and without resistance. âWhere we cannot obey,â wrote
William Penn somewhat misleadingly, âwe patiently suffer.â126 According to
their beliefs, they were to accept both their punishments and the oppressive
government that inď¬‚icted them peacefully and with love. While imprisoned,
Isaac Penington wrote,
The Lord hath made my bonds pleasant to me, and my noisom Prison (enough to have
destroyed my weakly and tenderly-educated nature) a place of pleasure and delight,
where I was comforted by my God night and day. And ď¬lled with Prayers for his People,
as also with love to and Prayers for those who had been the means of outwardly-afď¬‚icting
me and others upon the Lordâ™s account.127
While it is certainly true that Friends accepted their punishments, and did so
âlovingly,â it is not the case that they continued to âsuffer patientlyâ or quietly;
they were by no means passive. For Friends, religious quietism did not equate
with political quietism.128 The case is, in fact, the opposite. Retreating inward
to worship and discover Godâ™s law then compelled them to go forth and, as
Tocqueville says, âto harmonize earth with heaven.â129
Thus persecution is only part of the story of Quakers in their early years. It
was merely the catalyst for Quakers to develop their process of civil dissent.
Friends were not content merely to suffer the unjust punishments doled out to
them by the government; instead, they established themselves as a formidable
force for legal and political reform in early modern England.130 Although they
used many tactics, some of which were the typical means Englishmen protested
governmental oppression, the most signiď¬cant was the new practice of civil
126 William Penn quoted in Isaac Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment in Government: History of
Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, 1682â“1783 (Philadelphia: Ferris and Leach, 1902), 15.
127 Isaac Penington, âThree Queries Propounded to the King and Parliament . . .â in Peningtonâ™s
Works (London, 1680), 406.
128 Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace, 10.
129 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer, ed. (New York: HarperPerenial,
130 Horleâ™s, Quakers and the English Legal System is the deď¬nitive work on this topic.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 57
Quaker civil disobedience followed a distinct process that met the criteria
laid out in the Introduction for true civil disobedience and foreshadowed the
process articulated later by reformers such as Martin Luther King, Jr. It was
a nonviolent, public protest against unjust laws with the intent to educate
for change. The ď¬rst step was to purify the conscience in communion with
God. Next, one discerned the fundamental law through inward searching and
outward testing. Godâ™s law was then compared with the civil law. When the
two conď¬‚icted, testifying for the true law began. In this part of the process, a key
component of Quaker dissent was testifying â“ publishing the Truth â“ openly.
In spite of the grim punishments that awaited Friends for challenging the laws
of England and the American colonies, they nevertheless resigned themselves â“
often jubilantly â“ to their status as criminals and did not hesitate to break
the law repeatedly. On the matter of oath taking, for example, Barclay was
decisive: âNeither is it lawful for them to be unfaithful in this, that they may
please others, or that they may avoid their hurt: for thus the primitive Christians
for some ages remained faithful.â131 One relatively unusual pamphlet on early
Quakerism comments favorably on Friendsâ™ constant dissent. This anonymous
Anglican admired the fact that a Quaker
could never be Tempted by Interest, or even the Preservation of his Property, to Act
contrary; and often has rather chose to suffer by ill Men, even to the entire Ruin of
his Family, rather than offend his Conscience: So no Interest or Preferment could ever
Tempt him to any Occasional Conformity to the Church or Government.132
A Friend, it was generally recognized, was, for better or worse, more concerned
about the state of his soul than any bodily or other punishments that could be
inď¬‚icted by man. âI went [by the justices] in fear,â says Thomas Ellwood, ânot
of what they could or would have done to me . . . but lest I should be surprised,
and drawn unwarily into that which I was to keep out of.â133
Friends, when faithfully following the Inward Light, rarely avoided conď¬‚ict
over their testimonies. When acting in Truth, they were bound by conscience
to reveal themselves as Friends, although it oftentimes would have been much
more convenient to hide the fact. But openness was more than just a testimony.
This practice was calculated both to send a message that Friends were conď¬dent
in their faith and mission and also to establish a good relationship with the
civil authorities. Although Friends actively sought conď¬‚ict with the government
over what they perceived as unjust and ungodly laws, their main goal was not
simply to anger government ofď¬cials. Ultimately, they were trying to convince
them, if not of the truth of Quaker ways, then to allow Quakers and others
to pursue their ways unmolested. They had an interest in dealing forthrightly
with the government as the most effective means of achieving their ends. In his
131 Barclay, Apology, 553.
132 G. D. The Quaker No Occasional Conformist, but a Sincere Christian in his Life (London,
133 Thomas Ellwood, The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood (Philadelphia, 1865), 36.
58 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
Apology, Barclay reminded Charles II of the Quakersâ™ openness in their civil
In the hottest times of persecution and the most violent persecution of those laws made
against meetings, being clothed with innocency, [Friends] have boldly stood to their
testimony for God, without creeping into holes or corners, or once hiding themselves,
as all other Dissenters have done; but daily met, according to their custom, in the public
places appointed for that end; so that none of thy ofď¬cers can say of them that they
have surprised them in a corner, or overtaken them in a private conventicle, or catched
them lurking in their secret chambers; nor needed they to send out spies to get them,
whom they were surely daily to ď¬nd in their open assemblies, testifying for God and his
This kind of openness was in keeping with other Quaker testimonies of plain-
ness, such as those of deportment or speech.
Quakers then disobeyed a range of laws that were passed against religious
dissenters in general, and them in particular. In both England and America,
for example, they broke laws that required attendance at the state-established
church or prohibited dissenters from holding their own public meetings, which
were seen as conspiratorial against the state and encouraging of religious schism
in the Church of England.135 The First and Second Conventicle Acts of 1664
and 1670 made attendance at any other religious meeting outside the Church
of England punishable by imprisonment, stiff ď¬nes, or banishment.136 Friends
met anyway. Also, despite the fact that Quakers often met in complete silence
and bodily stillness, they were harassed by ofď¬cials for rioting. They contin-
ued, however, to meet openly in spite of being ď¬ned, imprisoned, beaten, and
physically expelled from their meetinghouses.137 In 1665 Parliament passed the
Five Mile Act, in part to curb Quaker public preaching. This law prohibited
individuals who had been convicted of preaching in the past, and who refused
to swear oaths of loyalty to the government, from coming within ď¬ve miles of
any borough sending burgesses to Parliament. Infractions against the act could
earn an offender a ď¬ne and six months in prison without a trial.138 Quakers,
of course, still preached.
The next step in their civil disobedience was to accept the inevitable pun-
ishments willingly and with love. As suggested previously, not only were early
Friends willing to accept their penalties, they were eager. âAnd if by [testifying
against unjust laws] our sufferings be continued,â explained Robert Smith, âwe
shall not rise up with carnal Weapons to work out our own deliverance, but
134 Barclay, Apology, iv.
135 Horle, 46.
136 Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, The Quakers (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 66.
137 Thomas Ellwood, A discourse concerning riots: occasioned by some of the people called
Quakers, being imprisoned and indicted for a riot, for only being at a peaceable meeting to
worship God (London, 1683), passim.
138 Horle, Quakers and the English Legal System, 51.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 59
patiently endure what may be further laid upon us for the Truthâ™s sake.â139
Martyrdom was an extremely important component of Quaker dissent. What
distinguished early Quakers from other dissenters in the eyes of their contem-
poraries was their zeal in seeking out conď¬‚ict with authorities. Moreover, they
reveled in their punishments, embracing their martyrdom as a sign of their righ-
teousness and salvation and earning converts in the process. The more extreme
the punishment, the more certainty of righteousness and the great possibility
of a convincement
But ideally, of course, Friends were not seeking persecution but reform and
liberty. Thus their process continued. The next step was not to retreat, but
to engage more intimately with their persecutors. They did this by organizing
themselves and going to law. Early Friends had a justiď¬able distrust of the law
and lawyers. It was, after all, English law that gave their oppressors license to
abuse them; and it was the lawyers who exploited their need for assistance,
charging exorbitant fees for often-ineffectual counsel. Despite the fact that
many Quakers would later become great lawyers themselves, the sentiment
among Friends that lawyers were âterrible and lawlessâ persisted into the
nineteenth century.140 Although Fox had been making regular appeals for
justice to the government since the 1650s, by the 1670s, Friends were beginning
to establish a system of their own for achieving liberty of conscience. They
evolved from a people who seemed to reject the laws of the polity completely
to one that deď¬ned itself based on a similar kind of legal structure and process
and employed this process to strike at their oppressors.141 When faced with
oppression, then, Friendsâ™ alternative to violent resistance was exploitation of
the existing legal system.
Friends seemed to know instinctively that, for direct action against the gov-
ernment to be effective, they must organize. At the same time they were found-
ing the church government, they were also forming committees and meetings to
deal with civil matters through their process. One of the earliest and broadest
groups organized by early Friends was called the Meeting for Sufferings. Estab-
lished in 1676 this meeting was convened in order to document the religious
persecutions inď¬‚icted on Friends. The institution of this meeting was crucial to
Friends as a legal weapon against the English government.142 Under the aus-
pices of the Meeting for Sufferings, Friends collected, recorded, and published
their persecution. It became the ď¬rst-ever lobbying group in England as mem-
bers took the recorded sufferings and presented them to justices and members
of Parliament.143 It acted also as a legal advocacy group for individual Friends.
139 Robert Smith, A Cry against Oppression and Cruelty , 3, in Quaker Tracts, vol. 6
140 Edward Byllynge, A Word of Reproof, and Advice (London, 1659), 20. See also Journal of
George Churchman, esp. 1794, 3rd mo., 7: 11, HQC.
141 Horle, Quakers and the English Legal System, 162.
143 Frederick Tolles, Quakers and the Atlantic Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 44. Also,
Mary Maples Dunn, Politics and Conscience, 23; and Kirby, âQuakersâ™ Efforts.â
60 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice
Members of the meeting traveled around the English countryside, informing
Friends in remote locations of their legal rights, should unscrupulous ofď¬cials
attempt to conď¬scate their goods or ď¬ne them.
The purpose of collecting facts at this point was to determine whether or not
injustice existed. But it was also to assemble the evidence, mobilize the efforts,
and prepare for the next phase of the nonviolent campaign: engagement with
the system. From the 1670s on, Friends devoted themselves to peaceful reform,
using every legal strategy available to them, as well as creating new ones and
recreating old ones. â[N]o people upon the Earth,â complained Francis Bugg,
âseek more to the Higher Powers [the civil government], than they do; it would
be too tedious to recite the many Petitions, and Addresses to the Parliament,
from the beginning for This, That, and the Other Favour, to settle and estab-
lish them.â144 Their tactics ranged from the straightforward, such as engaging
legal counsel, keeping detailed records of all proceedings against them, and
gathering and presenting evidence, to more complex maneuvers such as exten-
sive appealing and ofď¬cially discrediting informants. Some of their activities
also helped reform unfair or corrupt judicial and law enforcement systems.145
They insisted, for example, that in order for each person to understand and
address the judicial system, all laws and customs should be printed and they
also should be âpleaded, showed, and defended, answered, debated, and judged
in the English tongue in all courts.â146 They also argued in favor of expanding
the role of juries and not allowing anyone to be tried except by a jury of his or
Friends also engaged in some tactics that cannot be classiď¬ed as civil dis-
obedience, but they were nonetheless forms of nonviolent resistance. With
remarkable dexterity, they manipulated the bureaucracy of the English legal
system. They found ways to circumvent unfair laws through legal loopholes.
One example of this was placing a poor Friend in a meetinghouse as a tenant,
144 Francis Bugg, A Retrospective-Glass for the Quakers (1710) republished in A Finishing Stroke:
Or, Some Gleanings, Collected out of the Quakers Books . . . Whereby The Great Mystery of
the Little Whore is farther Unfolded (London, 1712), 490.