Spiritual Ancestors

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.

1657 declaration of faith written by Christopher Holder and two other Quakers in Boston prison.

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.)

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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23 Responses to Spiritual Ancestors

  1. nancyhaines says:

    Hi Marcelle,

    This is an interesting post about the Puritans in New England, but you have conflated the Puritans with the Pilgrims. They were two distinct and separate religious groups.

    https://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/24/nyregion/l-separating-the-pilgrims-from-the-puritans-080128.html#:~:text=Pilgrims%20were%20separatists%20who%20first,establish%20the%20Massachusetts%20Bay%20Colony .


    • Dear Nancy, Thank you for referencing this article from the New York Times about the distinction between those who came to Plymouth colony and those to Massachusetts Bay. I agree with those historians who say that Pilgrims were on the extreme end but still on the spectrum of Puritans. It’s my understanding that the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay colony were also separatists but did not openly declare this for fear of losing their charter. When the Arabella and the rest of their fleet carrying John Winthrop and others traveling to settle the Massachusetts Bay colony left the shores of England in 1630, they dumped their Church of England prayer books into the ocean.

  2. Homer Wood says:

    Thank you Marcelle. I was not aware of the difficulties that the early Quakers faced.

  3. kate glick says:

    Very nice Marcy!!!

  4. Thanks, Marcelle! It’s always good to see the American perspective on things that I know from the English point of view – while also acknowledging the different Scottish perspective I’m gaining from my ecumenical colleagues in Scotland. Huge hugs and good wishes for the coming year – and nice to see that Homer’s also reading you
    Much love, Mary

    • Thanks for commenting, Mary! Someday I’d like to talk to you about the Scottish perspective you are gaining. I’ve discovered I not only have English and Irish ancestors (which I knew about), but some Scottish ones, too.

  5. onesunnylady says:

    I enjoyed your recap of Quaker history. Thank you! Blessings, Sylvia

  6. Daniel Flynn says:

    Dan Flynn & Kate McNally Square Ambiorix 30, Apt. 48, 1000Brussels, Belgiumand Ruedes Prés 73, boîte 12, 4802 Verviers, Belgium Dear Marcelle,Thank you for such an enlightening blog on this last day of 2022 in the Gregorian calendar. I look forward to learning about your biological ancestors.The blog reminded me of one of the reasons I no longer belong to or support a church, but instead seek to practice positive principles from non-institutional spiritual sources in all my affairs. See the attached copy of my spiritual journey talk, from Obedience to Choice, in the inaugural online monthly meeting of the Quaker Universalist Group in July. It is one of the reasons I continue to do service for Médecins Sans Frontières who deliver care to all in emergency need in our world regardless of religion, culture, gender, or origin, and join with my wife Kate in supporting local charities in the African Great Lakes Region through a young Consortium http://www.copgla.org/ that is now affiliated with the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teamshttps://friendspeaceteams.org/agli/• In Friendship • Bien amicalement • In amicizia • Mit freundlichen Grüßen • En amistadDan, fellow QUIPer

    Daniel Clarke Flynn, J.D. Brussels and Verviers, Belgiumhttps://www.goodreads.com/author/show/21518406.Daniel_Clarke_Flynn



    https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/people/kate-mcnally/ https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/christian-alternative-books/our-books/quaker-quicks-simple-faith-complicated-world https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/meet-the-2023-eva-koch-scholars/

    https://bravespaces.blog/  (Kate’s blog) Mobile and WhatsApp: +32 474 710 173

    • Dear Daniel, I, too, support the work of Doctors Without Borders (their English name) and I’ve heard great reports about the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams. Thanks for sharing those links and for all the ways you seek to practice positive principles and be of service.
      Blessings for the new year! Marcelle

  7. That is quite some story and I hadn’t realised how badly early Quakers were persecuted on arrival in the New World.

    • Thank you. Yes, it’s shocking how people with religious views different from the standard ones in whatever place they were in were highly persecuted in previous eras, not only the Quakers but many others in their time.

  8. kariefiroozmand says:

    Thank you, Marcelle, for this compact message about how revelation continues and our part begins in listening.

  9. Hi Marcelle et al. Your blogs are always moving messages on timely subjects for Friends! The courage and passion of Friends who felt led to bring their understanding of faithfulness to the Puritan autocracy of Massachusetts is inspiring and challenges to reflect what we are will risk and do in the service of Truth today.

    Even Elizabeth Hooton–who has been called Fox’s first follower and by others his mentor who may have helped him discover important pieces of his vision–traveled to Massachusetts Bay Colony and (as an older woman) was whipped out of Boston and left in precarious circumstances in the countryside. (I appreciate your wonderful 2006 FJ article “Elizabeth Hooton: A Mother of Quakerism” https://www.friendsjournal.org/2006102/ )

    My only “stop” in your blog is your suggestion that Friends in general related to Native communities on the basis of equality and respect. Francis Hodgins’ 2021 FJ article “How George Fox, William Penn, and Benjamin Franklin Approached North America’s Indigenous Tribes” raises serious questions about how Penn treated Native peoples in Pennsylvania and contrasted it with the respect that Fox and even Benjamin Franklin felt towards Indigenous inhabitants of the areas being colonized by the English.

    It is tremendously important that we understand these early Quaker ancestors’ journey and discern ways we can follow in their footsteps.

  10. litebeing says:

    This blog about your spiritual ancestors Marcelle is such a wonderful way to end this calendar year. I always admired your devotion and serious study about the heart and roots of Quakerism. I find there is often hypocrisy lurking in what we call ” recorded history. ” Humans tend to fear other humans and this fear often leads to tragedy. As someone with Jewish and Italian ancestors ( among others), the relentless patterns of rejection, destruction, and utter cruelty is one I know of all too well.

    I hope that as we continue to grow individually and collectively that the darker aspects of our nature such as enslavement, incarceration, bigotry, war, etc will be replaced with acceptance, tolerance, inclusion and peace. All of us at some point were indigenous. I look forward to your next post as genealogy is one of my passions.


  11. Thank you, Linda. It’s a formidable challenge to face all the negative aspects of our nature, in ourselves, our society, and our ancestors. I didn’t know that genealogy is one of your passions.

  12. graceworks00 says:

    I’ve thought this but I hadn’t the scholarship you have. I’m very grateful.

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