'A Suffering People': English Quakers and Their Neighbours c.1650–c.1700

‘A Suffering People’: English Quakers and Their Neighbours c.1650–c.1700

Miller, John (Queen Mary, University of London)

Past & Present, 188 (2005) 71-103


Suffering was an integral part of early Quaker identity. In the 1650s, the Friends seemed to court violence, by outrageous and provocative behaviour: going naked as a sign, reproving townspeople in the marketplace for their wickedness, and denouncing ministers as hirelings in front of their congregations. Beaten, thrown to the ground, dragged through the mire and run out of town, they would dust themselves off and return to the fray, for this (to them) was a war, the ‘Lamb’s War’, in which Quakers were killed. After the Restoration, following George Fox’s ‘peace testimony’, they largely abandoned the Lamb’s War, but they still suffered extensive persecution and punishment for their refusal to pay tithes or swear oaths, and for their insistence on meeting publicly in defiance of the laws. They explained this refusal and this defiance in terms of obedience to the light of Christ within them: they were ‘not free’ to act otherwise. Meetings ignored orders from the authorities to disperse, because it was ‘not time’. Friends refused to enter into bail, to give sureties for good behaviour or to appear in court, because they would not admit to having done anything wrong, nor would they pay court fees when summoned to answer what they regarded as unfounded accusations, or jail fees after what they saw as unmerited imprisonments. Unwilling to resist actively, they submitted meekly to blows and missiles and to being driven through the streets like cattle — and they were not dispirited. As one remarked in 1683, ‘professors’ (those who merely professed religion, but were ‘out from the truth’) feared suffering. For those who lived in the truth, suffering was ‘easy, sweet and pleasant unto their souls’. As one Norwich Quaker wrote, the presence of the Lord made their troubles light.

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