A Protestant religious movement founded in England in the mid-17th century. Officially known as the Society of Friends, the Quakers were founded by George Fox in England in the 1650s. Although raised an Anglican, Fox began to preach in 1647 after a spiritual vision inspired him to minister. He called for a profound spiritual renewal within England, supported the prohibition of alcohol, and preached against holidays, sports, and all other activities that diverted attention from the spirit.
The group that arose around Fox professed the belief that Christ provided individuals with an inner light so that believers could experience personal illumination from God in their daily lives. Followers of Fox became known as Quakers because they reportedly shook when filled with the Holy Spirit. As part of what was considered a radical fringe, the Quakers attracted much persecution in England and the New World. They especially stood apart with their distinctive code of dress and manners and their refusal to observe status distinctions, swear oaths, or pay tithes to the established church.
Rhode Island was an early refuge for Quakers in North America and sheltered William Penn during the 1660s. When Penn inherited the large tract of land that became Pennsylvania, it provided Quakers with plenty of land in which to practice religious freedom and from which to gain a comfortable living. Other colonies were not so tolerant, however, and many persecuted them openly.
Quakers were among the earliest abolitionists in the New World. In England, Quakers were prominent in the antislavery and prison reform campaigns. Quakers did not believe in violence of any sort, so their members usually refused to take up arms even if the cause was a just one. Before the Civil War, breaking the laws of the land to keep the laws of their creed, Quakers smuggled many runaway slaves north on the Underground Railroad.
As the 1850s progressed, Quakers, including Lucretia Mott who founded both the Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, increased their antislavery activities. In Mott's case, she linked abolitionism with the newly emergent woman's movement. In the 1850s, Levi Coffin, also a Quaker, became a leading figure in the Underground Railroad, which appealed to a broad range of Quakers because they could circumvent what they considered to be unjust laws in a nonviolent fashion.
When war began in 1861, many Quakers were torn. While their religion precluded them from participating in the war, they also believed that the Union's cause was a just one. Quakers refused to pay commutation fees or hire a substitute to fight for them because doing so was de facto support of violence. Nevertheless, a number of Quakers quietly served in the Union Army. Most were not ostracized for their religion, which was a powerful example of the moral ambivalence that many Quakers had toward the Civil War. During the war and in the postbellum Reconstruction period, Quakers were at the forefront of private efforts to educate and support newly free African Americans.
Abolitionism and the Civil War; Churches; Mott, Lucretia Coffin
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