Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part I

Historical Narrative




The Rise and Spread of Quakerism


It was during the reign of the Stuarts in England that Quakerism first appeared. The absolution of Charles I was at that time in sharp conflict with the chartered rights of Englishmen; and the great and influential Church of England was doing all in its power to crush the new-born Puritan advance. Royal tyranny had come face to face with the rising spirit of popular liberty, and religious intolerance was being met on every hand by an insistent demand for freedom of worship. There were Roundheads and Cavaliers, High-churchmen and Non-conformists, Puritans and Separatists, Presbyterians and Independents; and in addition to this turmoil of conflicting and contending factions in religion, England was plunged into all the horrors of a civil war. In this period of political, social, and religious upheaval Quakerism was born.

The real message of Quakerism contained little that was new: from a religious point of view it was little more than a revival of primitive Christianity.(1) With all the vitality of a new movement it grappled with the great religious, social, and political problems of the day; and, partly because of the resistless power of its simple message, many of the forces which have oppressed humanity have since disappeared. Against Roman Catholic and Puritan intolerance alike, against the wrongs of human slavery and against the ravages and the barbarity of war, the Quakers have consistently raised their protest. Time after time they have suffered persecution for the sake of their testimonies; but what has cost them dear has been the world’s gain.(2) Small as has always been the Religious Society of Friends, in the work of reform and in the uplift of humanity it has borne a share out of all proportion to its numbers.(3) And now at a time when internal decay and the larger religious movements of the day threaten the existence of this peculiar sect, the world is just beginning to awaken to an adequate appreciation of the work which the Quakers have done.(4)

            For the origin of the message, the testimonies, and the fundamental principles of the Society of Friends, one instinctively turns to the life and the work of its founder, George Fox. From him came the cardinal teachings of Quakerism and its form of organization—at once so simple and so efficient that, notwithstanding the altered circumstances of the Society and the changing times, both remain to-day, in all parts of the world where Quakers are found, essentially as they were within forty years after the rise of the order.

            George Fox was born “in the month called July, in the year 1624, at Drayton in the Clay, in Leicestershire.” His father, Christopher Fox, was a weaver by profession, and because of his upright character was often spoken of as “Righteous Christer”.(5)  His mother possessed a deeply religious temperament, and was tenderly devoted to her family. In his youth, George was of a retiring disposition, being “religious, inward, still, solid, and observing, beyond his years”.(6) As he grew into a larger consciousness of life he became troubled in spirit over what he believed to be the inherent sin within him. Amidst the intensity of his inward struggles, at the age of nineteen years, on “the ninth of the seventh month, 1643”, he left home, “broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old”, and began to wander from place to place in search for rest of soul. He sought the counsel and comfort of many priests and religious people of England, but he “found no comfort from them.” A certain priest at Mansetter in Warwickshire at one time bade him “take tobacco and sing psalms”(7) to quiet the agony of his troubled heart. Often he walked in lonely places, and out under the stars at night. So heavily weighed the sense of the world’s lost condition upon him that he said his blood seemed “dried up with sorrows, grief, and troubles”, and he almost wished that he had never been born.

            As Fox longed for spiritual rest, so he continued to search. For over a year he wandered through Derby shire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire, during which time he relates: “I fasted much, walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my bible, and sate in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself: for I was a man of sorrows in the time of the first workings of the Lord in me.”(8) When he had come to the point where his confidence in the priests and his faith in men generally were gone, so that he had nothing outwardly to help him, “then, O then,” he says, “I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ When I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”(9)

            From this time on Fox had a realization of God such as few men in any times have experienced. Indeed, form the intense inward struggles of this one man have emanated influences which have profoundly affected the world’s thought. Consciousness of inherent sin, futility of all earthly agencies to redeem, personal and direct divine revelation, and a universal and inherent ability to perceive God—these constitute the message which George Fox brought to the world. He preached these ideas with all of their power and freshness to a people already torn with many dissensions, and they were like oil throw upon flames. The very term “Quaker”(10) tells the story. With astounding rapidity the teachings of George Fox spread in England, and for a time it seemed as though the faith of the whole nation would be shaken.

            England was well prepared to receive the message of the Quakers. The English Reformation had done its work. About the middle of the seventeenth century great gatherings for the discussion of religious questions were common in the fields, at the fairs, in the market-places, and at the churches. In his Journal, Fox makes frequent reference to his attendance at such meetings even before he began to preach. There was also a widespread knowledge and interest in the scriptures among the masses of the people. The half-century before the time of George Fox has been described as a period when “England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible. It was as yet the one Englishman; it was read at churches and read at home, and everywhere its words, as they fell on ears which custom had not deadened to their force and beauty, kindled a startling enthusiasm.” Moreover, the “whole moral effect which is produced now-a-days by the religious newspaper, the tract, the essay, the lecture, the missionary report, the sermon, was then produced by the Bible alone.”(11)

            Fox early took advantage of these two agencies. The general religious gatherings offered an excellent opportunity to propagate religious ideas; and his extensive knowledge of the scriptures made it possible for him to appeal strongly to the masses of the people. At first he seems merely to have attended these meetings, occasionally taking part in the open discussions, but by 1647 he was actively engaged in preaching. Throwing his influence boldly against ecclesiasticism, he soon became one of the most powerful preachers of the day.

            William Penn, who knew Fox personally, said of him:

            He was a man that God endowed with a clear and wonderful depth, a discerner of others’ spirits, and very much a master of his own…And his ministry and writings show they are from one that was not taught of man, nor had learned what he said by study…He had an extraordinary gift in opening the scriptures. He would go to the marrow of things, and shew the mind, harmony, and fulfilling of them with much plainness, and to great comfort and edification…But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence ad solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.(12)

            Such was the man and such was his message. He began his work in  the northern counties of England, and with marvelous rapidity his doctrines spread in all directions. In an epistle written to a friend in 1676 he says:

            The truth sprang up first to us, so as to be a people to the Lord, in Leicestershire [his home county] in 1644, in Warwickshire [the county adjoining on the south] in 1645, in Nottinghamshire in 1646, in Derbyshire in 1647 [both counties adjoining on the north], and in the adjacent counties in 1648, 1649, and 1650; in Yorkshire in 1651, in Lancashire and Westmoreland in 1652, in Cumberland, Durham, and Northumberland in 1653, in London and most of the other parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in 1654.

            In 1655 many went beyond sea, where truth also sprang up, and in 1656 it broke forth in America and many other places. (13)

            Thus, within a period of about ten years the new movement had taken root in Great Britain and Ireland, and then spread to the colonies. Naturally enough, persecution pursued the Quakers; but persecution served only to fan the flames and spread the sparks. Fox imbued his followers with his own spirit and enthusiasm. In the year 1654 he records that there were about sixty ministers whom “the Lord raised up, and did now send abroad out of the north country.”

            One distinguishing feature marks this period of Quaker history, namely, its all-absorbing missionary spirit. To the Quakers there was no sacrifice too great to be mad, and no suffering too keen to be endured for the sake of the spread of “truth”. A second order of Jesuits seemed to have appeared. They were persecuted, it is true, but they wore out persecution  by their passive resistance. To the confiscation of their estates they patiently submitted. They were throw into loathsome prisons, but even there they preached the message. Nothing could crush them. Driven by the spirit within them and by the severe laws, they migrated to other lands. France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Italy, Turkey, and Palestine were visited. The Czar of Russia was supplied with literature which explained the new message, and an attempt was made to convert the Pope at Rome.(14) Then the movement swept westward, and Barbadoes, Bermuda, and Jamaica were overrun by the Quakers. (15)

            On the eleventh day of July, 1656, a day full of import to the red men of America, to the white men who were to supplant them, and to the negroes here to be enslaved, the first Quakers landed on the shores of New England—a landing long to be remembered in the annals of that Puritan realm.


Notes and References


1. In 1698 William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, published a little book entitled Primitive Christianity Revived. This book has always been acknowledged by the Society of Friends as a clear and candid, though brief, exposition of its beliefs upon the great and cardinal principles of Christianity. It shows clearly that the message of the Quakers was the plain Gospel message of the primitive church.


2. Some idea of the extent to which the Friends suffered for the sake of their testimonies may be gained by the following facts:

During a period of twenty-five years under Charles II it is said that there were “13,562 Friends…imprisoned in various parts of England, 198 were transported as slaves beyond seas, and 338 died in prison or of wounds received in violent assaults on their meetings.”—Quoted from William Beck’s The Friends, p. 65, in The American Church History Series, Vol. XII, p. 204.

During the American Revolution the Quakers were again subjected to the most bitter persecutions because of their refusal to serve in the army or pay war tithes. In one Quarterly Meeting alone in Pennsylvania over $68,000 was levied between 1778 and 1786 in fines against members of the order.—See Sharpless’s A History of Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, Vol. II, p. 177.


3.  In America the relative numerical strength of the Quakers to other religious denominations is shown by the following statistical table found in The American Year Book for 1910, p. 735.



Rank In 1909





Roman Catholic



Methodist Episcopal



Regular Baptist (South)



Regular Baptist (Colored)



Methodist Episcopal (South)



Presbyterian (Northern)



Disciples of Christ



Regular Baptist (North)



Protestant Episcopal






Lutheran Synodical Conference



African Methodist Episcopal (Zion)



Lutheran General Council



African Methodist Episcopal



Latter-Day Saints



Reformed (German)



United Brethren



Lutheran General Synod



Presbyterian (Southern)



German Evangelical Synod



Colored Methodist Episcopal



Methodist Protestant



United Norwegian Lutheran






United Presbyterian



Greek Orthodox (Catholic)



Lutheran Synod of Ohio



Reformed Dutch



Evangelical Association



Primitive Baptist



Society of Friends (Orthodox)




4.   In a little pamphlet of sixteen pages, written by Dr. David Gregg, and entitled The  Quakers as Makers of America, there is an excellent summary of the contributions which the Quakers have made to society.


5. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), p. 55.

6. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), p. XXIV.

7. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), pp. 56, 57, 58.

8. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), p. 59, 60.

9. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), p. 60.


10. In October, 1650, George Fox was confined in the house of correction at Derby, where he remained for a period of six months, on a charge of blasphemy. While in confinement there he wrote to the several priests and magistrates who had been responsible for his imprisonment, warning them of the judgments of God which would come upon them, and bidding them to “tremble at the word of the Lord”. Justice Bennett, one of the magistrates thus addressed, picked up the phrase and called Fox and his followers “Quakers”. Like most catch-words, the term soon became widely used, usually in derision. The Friends, however, early termed themselves “Children of Light”; a little later they adopted the name “Friends of Truth”; and finally they chose the term “The Religious Society of Friends”, which is generally used as the official title of the Society. The terms “Quaker” and “Friend”, however, are used interchangeably among the members of the order.


11. Green’s A Short History of the English People, pp. 447, 449.


12. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), pp. XXVI, XXVII.


13. Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), pp. 157, 647.


14. For an account of the work of the Friends in Europe see Braithwaite’s The Beginnings of Quakers, Ch. XVI.


15. In 1671 George Fox, accompanied by a number of Friends, visited Barbadoes for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. After laboring there several weeks they went to Jamaica, and remained there for about seven weeks before coming to America. In his recent work on The Quakers in the American Colonies, p. 26, Rufus M. Jones says, “The island of Barbadoes was, during the seventeenth century, the great port of entry to the colonies in the western world, and it was during the last half of that century, a veritable ‘hive’ of Quakerism. Friends wishing to reach any part of the American coast, sailed most frequently for Barbadoes and then reshipped for their definite locality. They generally spent some weeks, or months even, propagating their doctrines in ‘the island’ and ordinarily paying visits to Jamaica and often to Antiqua, Nevis, and Bermuda.”



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