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The Quakers’ “Holy Experiment”

The Quakers’ “Holy Experiment”

The Quakers’ “Holy Experiment”

IN July 1656, the ship Swallow, from Barbados in the West Indies, anchored at Boston, Massachusetts, in what is now the United States of America. Richard Bellingham, deputy governor of the Massachusetts colony, ordered that passengers Mary Fisher and Ann Austin be held on board. Among their belongings were found 100 books that were said to contain “corrupt, heretical, and blasphemous doctrines.”

The books were burned in the marketplace. Then the women were imprisoned, stripped naked, and examined for signs of witchcraft. Their cell window was sealed, and for five weeks the women were kept in darkness. Anyone who dared speak to them risked a five-pound fine. Finally, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were sent back to Barbados.

A contemporary chronicler inquired of the magistrates: “Why was it that the coming of two women so shook ye, as if a formidable army had invaded your borders”? These two “dangerous” women were, in fact, the first Quaker missionaries to arrive in North America. Who were the Quakers, and why were they considered a threat?

The Society of Friends

The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, arose in 17th-century England. The Friends’ founder was George Fox (1624-91), a weaver’s son born in Leicestershire. After allegedly hearing a miraculous voice, Fox concluded that he could commune directly with God and receive enlightenment apart from human mediation. “The traditional date for the origin of the Society of Friends is 1652,” says the book A Religious History of the American People.

How did the Friends come to be called Quakers? One reference states that they experienced “agitated movements before moments of divine revelation.” Another says that they “trembled under an awful sense of the infinite purity and majesty of God.” The Quakers’ aim was to find religious truth and to revive primitive Christianity.

For guidance, they claimed to look to the holy spirit, the Biblical prophets, the apostles of Christ, and an inner “light,” or “voice,” of alleged spiritual truth. Meetings, therefore, were essentially periods of group silence during which each person sought God’s guidance. Any who received a divine message could speak up. *

Quakers believed in justice, uncompromising honesty, a simple lifestyle, and nonviolence. They also held that all Christians, including women, should share in the ministry. Because they challenged the religious establishment, eschewed pomp and ceremony, and claimed to be guided by an inner voice and not by a clergy class, Quakers aroused fear and suspicion. Most worrisome of all was their missionary zeal, which provoked anger, mobbings, and official interference.

In England, Quakers were persecuted and imprisoned, and in New England they were also banished and even killed. For example, between 1659 and 1661, missionaries Mary Dyer, William Leddra, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stephenson were hanged in Boston. Others were clapped in irons, branded, or whipped. Some had their ears cropped. A man named William Brend received 117 lashes on his bare back with a tarred rope. Despite such brutality, however, Quakers increased in number.

William Penn and the “Holy Experiment”

Beginning in 1681, the Quaker experience in North America took an amazing turn. In what has been termed a “holy experiment” in statecraft, William Penn (1644-1718), a young English convert to the Society of Friends, established a colony based on Quaker ideals and administered by Quakers. The pacifist son of a British admiral, Penn himself had been imprisoned for preaching and writing about his views.

In payment for a debt owed Penn’s father, the English Crown granted Penn a large tract of land in North America. A royal charter gave young Penn almost unlimited power over the new colony, which was named Pennsylvania, meaning “Penn’s Woods,” in memory of Admiral Penn. There, people of all faiths were to enjoy religious freedom.

Penn first sent his cousin William Markham to America to act as his agent in securing the loyalty of the few Europeans within the precincts of the new colony and to purchase land from the Native Americans. In 1682, Penn sailed up the Delaware River and saw his colony for the first time. He made a fair treaty with the native peoples at Shackamaxon (now called Kensington, a part of Philadelphia). Then, less than a mile from Shackamaxon, he planned and named a new settlement, which he called Philadelphia, meaning “Brotherly Love.” It grew rapidly.

Penn returned to England and advertised the new colony to encourage people to move there. He wrote of fine lands and forests, a noble river, wild animals, and furs. The new government, he promised, would promote religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. All were welcome​—tradesmen, men without means, and idealists eager to contribute to good government.

Hope of relief from the social and political ills of Europe drew Quakers from England and Northern Ireland. Mennonites and kindred groups came from the Rhine country in Europe. The first settlers were overwhelmingly Quaker, and Penn testified to the colony’s auspicious start. In 1683 he wrote: “Two general assemblies have been held, . . . and at least seventy laws were passed without one dissent.” The general feeling of optimism, however, was not to last.

The Experiment Unravels

The charter of Penn’s colony granted liberty of conscience to all. Thus, when violence was deemed necessary in the interests of maintaining law and order, the Quakers’ pacifism presented a problem​—one that grew with time. Initially, Penn sidestepped the issue by appointing non-Quaker deputies to be, as he put it, “stiff with our neighbours upon occasion.” In 1689 the possibility of war with France further challenged Quaker scruples.

Adding to the problems, droves of new settlers, most of whom were not Quakers, arrived and wrested land from the Native Americans. Thus, as Quakers became a minority, relations with the native peoples grew progressively more hostile.

The final blow to Quaker political authority came when the governor and his council declared war on the Delaware and Shawnee tribes in 1756. In response, Quakers withdrew from government, ending their regime. Thus, some 75 years after it began, Penn’s “holy experiment” in statecraft came to its end.

In time, the Quakers’ religious zeal also began to wane as their material affluence increased. Said Quaker Samuel Fothergill: “With the bent of their spirits to this world, [Quaker settlers] could not instruct their offspring in those statutes they had themselves forgotten.” In time, sects also arose.

Penn and his supporters may have had noble aspirations and temporary success; yet, they either misunderstood or disregarded Jesus’ teaching that he and his disciples are “no part of the world.” (John 17:16) In principle, therefore, any enterprise, no matter how well intentioned, that tries to fuse religion with the politics of the world does so without the blessing of God or of his Son. (James 4:4; 1 John 5:19) Hence, it cannot succeed.​—Psalm 127:1.


^ par. 8 Nowadays, many Quaker churches have a paid minister who conducts services in a more organized manner.

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Why did Jesus say those words recorded at John 18:36? The answer becomes clear when we understand what God’s Kingdom is. God’s Kingdom, which was the main theme of Jesus’ teaching, is nothing less than a world government in the hands of Jesus Christ. (Isaiah 9:6, 7; Luke 4:43) Instead of working through human rulerships, the Kingdom will do away with them and become earth’s sole government. (Daniel 2:44; 7:13, 14) This eventuality is what Jesus mentioned in the model prayer when he said: “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:9, 10) Obedient subjects of that Kingdom will experience a quality of life that sincere men, such as William Penn, could never bring about​—they will enjoy perfect health and endless life in peaceful, paradisaic surroundings.​—Luke 23:43; Revelation 21:3, 4.

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Quaker meeting in Philadelphia, 1800’s

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Quaker Mary Dyer being led to execution in Massachusetts Bay Colony

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Quakers leaving England, 1600’s

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William Penn making a treaty with Native Americans, 1682

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Both pictures: © North Wind Picture Archives

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Boats: © North Wind Picture Archives; treaty: Brown Brothers