THE QUIET REBELS: The Story of the Quakers in America by Margaret Hope Bacon

THE QUIET REBELS: The Story of the Quakers in America

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The Society of Friends (the Quakers) was founded in 1652 by an enigmatic English shoemaker and visionary, George Fox. The simplicity of their belief, the silence of their worship, and the openness of their lifestyle soon attracted hundreds of converts throughout England and the New World. However, the Quaker's insistence upon an immanent and accessible God (""there is that of God in every man""); their refusal to take oaths, to remove their hats in the presence of authorities, or to participate in wars; and their opposition, often direct and vocal, to organized religion soon resulted in their persecution and occasional martrydom by the Puritan majority. Outside of England, official opposition to the Quakers was strongest in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here, the Quakers were viewed as the epitome of dissent, turmoil, and heresy. Over a 20-year period Quaker missionaries faced prison, torture, and death for their beliefs. This oppression of the Quakers gave impetus to the foundation of Quaker communities in Rhode Island and to William Penn's early experiment in democracy and religious tolerance in Pennsylvania. Throughout the colonies the Quakers also offered an impressive example of how to deal with the American Indian. Bacon notes, ""While many of the other settlers believed that the Indians were heathen savages, the Quakers saw them as children of God, and treated them with consequent respect."" The result was a mutually beneficial peace. The Quaker respect of the American Indian would also extend to the black slaves in the late 17th and early 18th-centuries. Quakers were the first religious body to free their slaves and to advocate abolition of slavery as government policy. Throughout the 19th century Quakers would be in the forefront of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, and the care of freed slaves. Ironically, with the advent of the American Revolution the same simplicity of belief that had originally attracted converts to Quakerism would lead the Quakers to retreat from public life. When faced with the prospect of war, the Quakers chose a course of strict neutrality. Though most were sympathetic to the Revolution, they refused to bear arms and poured their efforts into the care of the wounded and other victims of war. The consequences of their neutrality were devastating. Accused of being Tory sympathizers, the Quakers consequently withdrew from public life and membership declined steadily. Spiritual vitality waned while an era of schism guaranteed a divided, more rigid, stratified Quaker organization during the 19th century. Although the 20th century marks a resurgence of Quakers into public life, most notably with the founding of the American Friends Service Committee in 1917 and the renewed interest in the traditional Quaker principles of nonviolence and non-resistance to evil, one nonetheless gets the feeling reading Bacon's book that the contemporary Quakers, much like their ancestors, will forever remain a small, largely unpopular, yet enthusiastic community of faith dedicated to speaking the truth to power irrespective of the consequences. In sum, a valuable introduction to the history and theology of a unique faith.

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 1985
Publisher: New Society