GGod calls us to treat all people with justice and mercy. This message is a consistent theme both in the Hebrew prophets and in the Christian Bible. This theme is also central to the teachings of all the great world religions including Islam, Buddhism, and Baha’i.
Jesus launched his ministry by reading from the Book of Isaiah in his home synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4: 14-22
Early Friends recognized that God was working and speaking through many that the established church failed to recognize as having this potential. The Church only recognized religious leadership coming through men who were trained in the priesthood through formal university training—which at that time was restricted to those from the upper strata of society. This is turn led them to a different way of treating women, working people, and even children in ways that were very different than these groups’ position at that time.
Unfortunately, this understanding of justice was severely limited in terms of many groups marginalized in their world, including especially slaves. Friends have gradually extended their understanding of justice over the centuries.
George Fox and other early Friends were adamant in asserting the fact that God speaks and works through women. Many early Quaker leaders, including perhaps a dozen of the “Valiant Sixty” were women.
Margaret Fell wrote an in-depth piece in 1656 called “Women Speaking Justified” which rebutted the arguments given restricting women’s ministry as being a misinterpretation of Paul’s statements and views. She focuses on the way Jesus treated and related to women, their role in the community of Jesus’ followers, and in the early church.
When Fox set the structure of local meetings, he set up separate women’s and men’s meetings for business. Whatever Fox’s original intention in setting up these separate meetings, the result was that women had extensive leadership experience in working in and running meetings for business as well as in preaching and evangelistic work. These used this accumulated experience to take a leading role in 19th century movements for women’s suffrage, abolitionism, and other reform movements. It is also worth noting that women were the central leaders of a new religious movement (the Shakers) that spun off the Religious Society of Friends at the end of 18th century.
Margaret Fell’s extensive administrative gifts were invaluable to the Quaker movement in providing financial support to traveling ministers, their families, and those suffering for their beliefs—as well as communicating regularly with the network of new meetings and corps of traveling ministers.
Many denominations only began allowing women into the ministry near the end of the 20th century.
Economic Justice and Social Class
The early Quaker movement was led not only by both genders but also by people from a variety of social classes. Fox was the son of a weaver and worked for as an apprentice shoemaker and grazing sheep and cattle. James Nayler was a farmer. Some early Friends (e.g. William Penn and the Peningtons) were from the upper class but most were not either wealthy or university trained.
When the reformed Baptist preacher Roger Williams debated for three days with three Quaker men, one of his biggest criticisms directed towards Friends was that they treated their servants and children as equals.
John Woolman wrote a tract called A Plea for the Poor that argued with great force against the hardships faced by poor and working people. He blamed the suffering of these children of God on the desire of those with more for more than they really need. He argues for tenderness for those in need, and how wrong it is to cling to “claims grounded on prior possession”. (You can buy this as a pamphlet from Pendle Hill Publications.)
There is a Quaker Socialist Society in Britain Yearly Meeting. A number of leading Friends in the US including George Lakey also speak of themselves as democratic socialists and strongly critical of the corporate capitalist system and how it impacts working people, the poor, and Third World countries.
William Penn owned slaves. You can view his slave quarters if you visit Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County. George Fox visited enslaving Friends in the Caribbean. He expressed concern about the suffering of slaves but did not issue any wholesale condemnation of the practice of enslaving. It has been suggested that a majority of the first generation of Friends in the Americas held slaves in the 17th century although the practice declined rapidly among Friends in the northern colonies during the 18th century.
The first formal protest against the institution of slavery by a religious body in the world was made in 1688 by four Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania: 1688 Quaker Petition Against Slavery
A number of Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting worked actively against slavery. Benjamin Lay was the most radical in his protests against slaveholding, which resulted in his being read out of his meeting.
John Woolman used quieter methods of protests and traveled extensively to visit enslaving Quakers in the south. By 1776 (around the time of Woolman’s death in York, England) Philadelphia Yearly Meeting united in taking the stand that slaveholding was inconsistent with membership in Friends.
In the following decades all the northern yearly meetings in the U.S. and Canada took the same position. However, most of these same yearly meetings were strongly resistant to Friends working to abolish slavery generally. Only a small percentage of U.S. Quakers were involved either in abolitionist struggle of the Underground Railroad.
Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, Christianity was used as an excuse for subjugating, killing, extracting resources from, or enslaving non-Christian peoples. This idea that some peoples believed and practiced the wrong faiths was used to justify:
- Forced conversion, conquest, and persecution of people adhering to indigenous non-Christian religions across Europe
- Attacks by Europeans against Islamic kingdoms of the Middle East during the Crusades and the persecution and expulsion of Muslims from Spain
- Conquest, enslavement, land theft, and both physical and cultural genocide against Native peoples of the Americas, and
- Kidnapping of African peoples, transportation via the slave trade to the Americas, and chattel enslavement of these kidnapped peoples and their descendents in perpetuity.
Roman Catholic popes issued a series of papal bulls known as The Doctrine of Discovery during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is important to recognize that these particular papal bulls were in no sense the origin of this principle of using Christianity as the justification for conquest, chattel slavery, resource extraction, forced conversion, and genocide. And the same principle has been passed down to the legal systems of the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand.