For years I did reading and research about the English Puritan and Quaker settlers to New England in the 1600s. I learned about the Puritan context, Anabaptist influence, theological ferment, and social unrest out of which Quakerism emerged, and I gave special attention to the mystical revelations received by many of the first Quakers and the charismatic gifts with which their fledgling movement was blessed. As a Quaker who has experienced a call to share the liberating spiritual discoveries of the first Friends, I have strongly identified with the early Quakers who risked everything to share the good news. I’ve claimed those 17th century radicals as my spiritual ancestors. Only very recently did I discover that a few of them are biological ancestors, too. (I will tell about that in the next blog post.)
Looking back in English social and religious history, in an effort to understand the beginning of early Quaker movement, I learned about the Puritans who fled England and were the first English settlers in New England. I read all I could find about the life of Anne Hutchinson and the galvanizing role she played after her arrival in the newly founded town of Boston in 1635. A devout woman, she had moved her large family from England to the wilds of the “New World” because she felt that Jesus had directed her– inwardly–to do so.
U.S. history books celebrate the Pilgrims and Puritans who crossed the ocean and settled in New England. The first of them were the passengers of the Mayflower, who landed in 1620 in the territory of indigenous Wampanoag tribes and founded the colony of Plymouth. Half of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers died in the first year; the rest only survived because the native people taught them necessary skills. Other ships filled with Puritans soon arrived, settling towns around Plymouth, then Boston and the surrounding lands. U.S. history books teach that these “Pilgrims” came for religious freedom. Indeed, many left the world they knew and made the perilous voyage in order to exercise their faith more freely. But they did not come because they wanted to create a society in which everybody had religious freedom. They came only to exercise their own particular form of Christianity. They were harsh persecutors of anyone whose Christian faith differed from their own, and before long they massacred native tribes who had aided them in their time of desperate need.
Back in England, social and religious ferment led to the English Civil War in 1642, when the largely Puritan Parliament raised an army and fought the King’s soldiers. The King was killed, and a Puritan government was established. Many who had fought on the side of Parliament, however, were greatly disappointed when a new state church was established and those of other religious persuasions were persecuted.
For two decades, in the rural north of England, far from London, groups of Seekers had been meeting separately from the state church, longing and seeking for a more intimate and direct relationship with God and Christ. The beginning of Quakerism is dated to 1652, when a large group of these Seekers congregated around the prophetic message of George Fox. They were drawn together by the experience of the presence of the Light of Christ within. They discovered through direct experience, as Anne Hutchinson had done, that they could be taught and guided inwardly. They found in their hearts a divine seed that they could cultivate by attending to the still, small voice of God within and following the leadings of the Spirit. Within two years, the first Quakers began spreading the good news of what they had discovered, taking it first to the large cities in England, and afterwards beyond.
In 1655 Quakers Mary Fisher and Ann Austin boarded a ship to Massachusetts, feeling called to take the good news to Puritans in New England. The next year the Speedwell, a ship carrying eight Quakers, also arrived in Boston, where Quakers Mary Dyer and Anne Burden soon landed, as well. These first Quakers to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay colony were all immediately put in prison. Their books and pamphlets were burned and the prison windows were boarded so that their religious beliefs could not be shared with the public. The first two, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, were strip-searched for any physical blemishes (such as a mole) which might be construed as a sign of witchcraft. Later arrivals were beaten. When brought to court, a young Quaker lawyer named Christopher Holder pointed out to the magistrates that there were no laws prohibiting Quakers from entering the colony. Except for Mary Dyer, whose home was in Rhode Island, these Quaker prisoners were put on ships and sent back across the ocean. And in the meantime, the Boston magistrates got to work making laws against them.
In England, eleven Quakers soon felt led by the Spirit to travel once again to what they now called “the Lion’s Den,” several of them for a return trip. Christopher Holder, from a wealthy family, financed the voyage of the Woodhouse after a Quaker shipbuilder followed his inner leading to offer his new boat for that purpose. When the punishments the Puritan magistrates devised did not stop Quakers from coming back to their colonies, New England Puritans made harsher and harsher laws. They cut off ears, whipped people brutally—even old men and women, branded flesh, left bleeding Quaker bodies in the snowy wilderness without food, and eventually hung four Quakers to death on Boston Common.
Some have been critical of the radical early Quakers who brought the Quaker message where those in authority did not want it spread, but the letters and other writing they left behind reveal that they were motivated by a great spiritual love, a love which bound them to God and each other and also to those for whose sake they risked everything. Some of the most powerful love letters I’ve ever read were written by early Quakers writing to companions with whom they had traveled and sacrificed for the sake of bringing their spiritual message.
I am inspired by the story of how these Quaker spiritual ancestors were so strongly convinced of and inspired by the Light of God within them that they willingly walked into the “Lion’s Den” in order to tell others that the Light of Christ is alive within us, ready to guide our lives from within, if we will pay attention. The Quakers were instrumental in helping to establish religious freedom in numerous colonies, starting with Rhode Island, obtaining freedom not only for themselves, but for others. To me, these Quakers are not only my spiritual ancestors; they are also unsung heroes and heroines of American history.
The early Friends 370 years ago who left the shores of England to bring their message across the ocean spoke true revelations, many of which have been broadly accepted in our time, though those revelations still challenge us to further changes. But divine revelation does not stop. We are continually asked to attend to the newness that God is always bringing. Significant changes are underway in the world. Although humanity has often faced frightening and catastrophic threats and changes, today we are facing a future unlike anything human beings have experienced in the past. Given the urgency of our current moment, sometimes people question why I would give so much attention to people of the past. I question that myself. Yet I am convinced that we need to face the future with faith and all the spiritual gifts and guidance available to us. In doing so, we will be challenged to become more than human beings have been in the past; we will be called to exercise capacities that have been mostly dormant, and required to learn to love in bigger ways. We will have to learn to live in harmony with the earth and sacrifices will be required. There is still much we can learn from the early Quakers about how to do that, about how to speak truth that is different from the cultural norm, in order to bring about transformations of consciousness and society. They can still teach us about making God’s love manifest.
Spiritual Ancestors: Who do you claim as your spiritual ancestors?
© 2022 Marcelle Martin
Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, describes the transformational spiritual journey of the first Quakers, who were inwardly guided by God to work and witness for radical changes in their society. Focusing on ten elements of the spiritual journey, this book is a guide to a Spirit-filled life, designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. Our Life is Love has been reviewed by Marty Grundy in Friends Journal, by Carole Spencer in Quaker Religious Thought, and by Stuart Masters on A Quaker Stew.
A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.
Both books are available in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website for Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey.)
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