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The Quakers, or Friends, were formed in the mid-17th Century by an English shoemaker, George Fox (1624-1691). His core belief was that man did not need an intermediary to establish a relationship with God — no trained ministers, no formal church services. Fox believed instead that an “Inner Light” directed man toward divine truth.
The Friends quickly became the most despised sect in England because the stands they took offended so many segments of society. Anglican authorities were affronted by the Quakers’ refusal to pay tithes or to attend services, and civil officials were disturbed by the Friends’ refusal to bear arms, participate in warfare, take oaths, or doff their hats before their betters. The Quakers pointedly used the words thee, thy and thou when addressing people of all ranks — a highly insulting practice because those words were ordinarily used only when speaking to servants.
Suspicions were also raised by the Quaker practice of men and women playing equal roles in their religious meetings. The other denominations of the day almost universally excluded women from all but mere attendance at services.
The Quakers made no apology for giving offense. They believed that all people were equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, equality should prevail throughout society. The Friends also rejected the Calvinist conceptions of original sin and predestination.
No liturgies were followed at the Friends’ meetings and members would often sit in silence for long periods. The term “Quaker” was used by those outside of the group and referred to the quaking movements made by some Friends during their services as they awaited divine inspiration. Further, Fox contributed to the use of that term by repeatedly admonishing his followers to “tremble at the name of the Lord.”
Early communities of Friends in America thrived in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, where they made many contributions to public welfare: educational reform, the improvement of conditions in prisons and asylums, and leadership in the anti-slavery movement where they were prominent in the operation of the Underground Railroad.
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