Fox Organizes the Quakers

George Fox organized the Quakers, one of a number of Christian sects that arose around the time of the English Civil Wars. The sects spread quickly throughout England, despite officially sanctioned persecution of their adherents for their religious beliefs and social practices.

Summary of Event

The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers because of the tendency of its early members to literally shake with the power of God while worshiping, had its origins in the rugged and sparsely populated counties of northwestern England in the 1640’. Early Quakers, like many Protestants, rejected ritualized forms of worship; unlike Protestants, however, their worship services were not led by ordained ministers and did not involve any recitation of a religious creed. The aim of a Quaker meeting for worship was the direct experience of God. To this end, a Quaker would sit quietly with others in a group, listening for the voice of what they called the Inner Light, the power of God as revealed to a person from within. [kw]Fox Organizes the Quakers (1652-1689)
[kw]Quakers, Fox Organizes the (1652-1689)
Religion and theology;1652-1689: Fox Organizes the Quakers[1760]
Social issues and reform;1652-1689: Fox Organizes the Quakers[1760]
England;1652-1689: Fox Organizes the Quakers[1760]
Fox, George

Believing strongly in “that of God in every person,” many early Quakers were convinced that direct experience of God was possible and enthusiastically witnessed to others in public settings, even interrupting church services on occasion to do so. The name they gave to such ministry was “publishing the Truth.” The most famous of the “publishers of the Truth” was George Fox Fox, George . Born the son of a weaver in the village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, in the English Midlands, Fox began a spiritual search in his late teens that would keep him restless until he began to meet with other Friends to worship. In these meetings, he became convinced, as he reported in his journal, that the “Truth sprang up first to us.” As he traveled throughout northern England to preach, Fox became a powerful voice for the early Quakers because of his courage in expressing his religious beliefs and the ardor of his commitment to these beliefs.

A critical point in the development of Quakerism came in 1652, when, having climbed Pendle Hill, a part of the Pennine Range, Fox had a clear experience of being called to gather all people under the name of God. Passionately throwing himself into his ministry, Fox began to attract large crowds, sometimes numbering more than a thousand people, to his preaching. As a result, Quakerism spread rapidly in northern England, as many members of radical Puritan sects, such as the Seekers and the Levellers, became converts.

During the next two decades, the momentum of the movement extended even farther geographically, as Fox and many other Quaker missionaries carried their spiritual message into the southern and more urban parts of England, as well as into Ireland and Scotland. It was during this phase of Quaker growth that such individuals as Robert Barclay Barclay, Robert and William Penn, Penn, William both of whom later became prominent Quakers, were converted. Contrary to Puritan practices, women were also included among these missionaries, since Quakers believed that, by virtue of their mutual possession of the Inner Light, both men and women were equally suited to preach the word of God. Women;missionaries Three years before marrying George Fox in 1669, Margaret Fell Fell, Margaret published a defense of women’s right to preach under the title of Women’s Speaking Justified
Women’s Speaking Justified (Fell)[Womens Speaking Justified (Fell)] (1666). Along with Elizabeth Hooton, Hooton, Elizabeth credited with being the first person to preach Quakerism, and Mary Fisher, Fisher, Mary one of the first Quaker missionaries to America, Fell was one of the many women who helped to spread this new religious movement during the seventeenth century.

The growth of Quakerism came at the expense of tremendous personal hardship to many of its followers, who suffered greatly at the hands of the government for making a public challenge to the established Church of England. During the period of time, following the English Civil Wars, in which Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver;Protectorate and established himself as lord protector of England, Quakers and other members of Nonconformist sects experienced some measure of religious tolerance. With the Restoration of Charles II Charles II (king of England);Restoration of in 1660, however, Parliament acted in 1664 and 1670 to declare all worship services other than those of the Church of England to be “conventicles,” or unauthorized services. Persecution, religious;Quakers in England

George Fox.

(Library of Congress)

While some sects chose to avoid the penalties of the Conventicle Acts by holding their worship services in secret, Quakers worshiped openly. The passage of the Quaker Act in 1662 Quaker Act of 1662 gave Quakerism the dubious honor of being the only Nonconformist sect to be specifically forbidden by name. As a result of the Quaker Act and the Conventicle Acts Conventicle Acts (1664 and 1670) , thousands of Friends, including Fox, Fell, and other Quaker leaders, were imprisoned for activities such as participating in worship services, refusing to contribute tithes to the Church of England, or—because Quakers would not swear to tell the truth on the grounds that swearing was expressly forbidden in the Gospel—objecting to the taking of the Oath of Allegiance. Fox himself was imprisoned twice before his Pendle Hill experience and six times after it; his refusal in 1650 to accept a release from prison on the condition that he join the military laid the grounds for the Quaker belief in pacifism, as proclaimed by Fox and Richard Hubberthorne Hubberthorne, Richard in a declaration to the king in 1661.

In some places, such as in Buckinghamshire in 1661, it is estimated that nearly all male Quakers were incarcerated in the course of the year, and at least four thousand Quakers were imprisoned at times during the beginnings of Quakerism. That the sect was able to survive such persecution was largely the result of Fox’s efforts to create an administrative structure for Quakerism that united separate Quaker meetings across England into a larger organizational whole. It was Fox’s idea to have Monthly Meetings, in which all the meetings of a particular geographical region could participate in order to address specific concerns that Quakers faced. Following his release from prison in 1666, Fox spent the next four years organizing English Quakers into such Monthly Meetings.


The creation of these meetings, along with Quarterly and Yearly Meetings for business, provided Quakers with the opportunity to take collective action on immediate problems and issues and so to mitigate as best they could the impacts of the sufferings imposed upon them. Through decisions at these business meetings, made by a process of consensus rather than voting, Quaker missionaries and adherents facing hardship as a result of the imprisonment of family members received financial support, and those in prison received visits and special care. Initially, only men participated in the meetings for business, but with the encouragement of Fell and Fox, women’s meetings for business also became established among the early Quakers. These meetings provided women with the opportunity to participate in religious affairs—an opportunity not generally afforded them in the seventeenth century.

This decentralized system of organization, pioneered by Fox, in which no one held a position of authority over anyone else in the governance structure, provided Quakerism with a way of maintaining its integrity and momentum despite the lack of religious freedom that dominated England during its formative years and that came to an end only with the passage of the Toleration Act in 1689.

Further Reading

  • Bailey, Richard. New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God. San Francisco, Calif.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. Bailey interprets Fox’s meaning of Inner Light, arguing the Inner Light was the celestial Christ who inhabited and made the believer divine.
  • Barbour, Hugh. The Quakers in Puritan England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. An insightful treatment of the first few decades of Quaker history and the relationship between Quaker and Puritan beliefs.
  • Braithwaite, William C. The Beginnings of Quakerism. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961. Braithwaite’s work is the classic history of this period of Quakerism.
  • Brinton, Howard. Quakers for Three Hundred Years. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill, 1972. Written by a renowned Quaker scholar, this book is an excellent introduction to the history of the Religious Society of Friends, as well as Quaker religious beliefs and social practices.
  • Ingle, H. Larry. First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A scholarly biography, placing Fox’s life within the upheavals of the English Civil Wars, the Revolution, and Reformation.
  • Mack, Phyllis. “Gender and Spirituality in Early English Quakerism, 1650-1665.” In Witnesses for Change: Quaker Women over Three Centuries, edited by Elisabeth Potts Brown and Susan Mosher Stuard. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Mack reflects on the women who helped spread the Quaker movement through their missionary work despite religious persecution and discusses the Quakers’ own attitudes toward women.
  • Vann, Richard. The Social Development of English Quakerism, 1655-1755. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. Vann’s account of the first century of Quakerism focuses on the social context of this movement. Also examines how the denial of religious freedom during the reign of Charles II affected the organizational structure of the Society of Friends.
  • West, Jessamyn, ed. The Quaker Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1962. Reprint. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill, 1992. Useful anthology of writings both by and concerning Quakers, including selections from a number of classics of Quaker writings.

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Fox, George