With all the talk of “witch hunts” lately, we’ve noticed that sometimes people confuse Quakers with the Puritans. Clearly they haven’t heard the story of Mary Dyer.
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- Max Carter outlines the greatest theological differences between the Quakers and the Puritans as being about predestination and sin. Do these feel like relevant theological discussions today? Why do you think that Quakers were so passionate about these arguments?
- Max quotes George Fox in saying that “there is that ocean of darkness and death but above it an infinite ocean of light and love.” What is the significance of this quote for you?
Max Carter: An old professor of mine at Earlham College, Earlham School of Religion, Hugh Barbour, once wrote a book called “The Quakers in Puritan England.” And it places the first Quakers within the context of the Puritan revolution in England in the mid-1600s. Hugh would describe Quakers as “left-wing Puritans.” They out-Puritan-ed the Puritans.
Were Quakers Puritans?
Now there were several similarities to the Puritans. The Quakers sought to purify the Church, the Church of England at that time. Some within the context of the Church, working from within to purify it. Others leaving the established church because they felt it was a corpse that couldn’t be resuscitated. But there was an attempt at least in the 1640’s, 1650s to purify the Church, to bring it back. To restore original Christianity in the expression of the Church of England.
The Puritans, however (as an official body, capital “P” Puritans), had some beliefs that Quakers disagreed with. These were the major differences between that body of reformers. Primarily, it was that the Puritans believed in predestination, and Quakers believed in the possibility of all people being saved, that there was that “Light” within that when turned-to could lead to salvation, even if one had never heard the name of Jesus, because it was not the name it saved but the power that that name signified, that that name represented, that life and power that John’s gospel says is within each person.
So Quakers believed that when a person, whether they were a professing Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or a Native American or you name it, turned to that inward light which was the light and life and power of Christ within, they could overcome their sin and darkness, turn to the light and be made whole, be “saved/” That was a major difference.
“Preaching Up Sin”
Another major difference that Quakers had with the Puritans was that the Puritans were constantly—as George Fox said—preaching up sin. Constantly referring to humans as “loathsome sinners” as Jonathan Edwards once said, “dangling by a slender thread over the very pits of hell,” and nothing they could do would save them because of their sinful nature in both mind and body.
And as George Fox and other Quakers proclaimed, “You keep preaching up sin, you Puritans. You keep emphasizing the sin of Adam.” “In Adam’s fall we sinnèd all,” as the old McGuffey’s Reader used to say. What about the second Adam? What about Christ, the second Adam, who removes our sin, whose life and light and power enables us to overcome sin? Whereas George Fox once proclaimed, “There is that ocean of darkness and death but above it an infinite ocean of light and love.” And we can come through the darkness into that infinite ocean of light and love.
And so Quakers emphasized that possibility and continually railed against the Puritans for “preaching up sin” rather than that blessing of the second Adam.
Conflict Between Quakers and Puritans
The Quakers were not overly popular with the early Puritans, because there’s no fight like a family fight, and here these Quakers were these “left-wing” Puritans who had these disagreements over the understanding of sin, human nature and the possibility of salvation, opposing predestination and the elect, and were banished from Puritan colonies.
In Massachusetts in the 1650s, it was a capital offense to be caught “driving while Quaker” the third time. You come to the colony as a Quaker the first time, you were turned around and sent back at the captain’s expense. Second time, you were whipped, tortured, often women stripped to the waist, tied to the back of ox carts and whipped and tortured. Sometimes, full body cavity searches to see if there was Quaker material they were trying to smuggle into the commonwealth.
Third time, you were executed. Not that Quakers bear grudges, but we can still name them. William Leddra, Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson, and Mary Dyer. Mary Dyer being hanged in 1660 created such a stir that a woman was being executed that even King Charles II sent a missive back to the commonwealth of Massachusetts saying, “Uh, you can torture them. You can beat them, but just don’t hang them anymore.”
Why Quakers Persisted
Knowing that they faced persecution and possibly even death, why would Quakers insist on continuing to go into places where they weren’t welcome? Well, for one, Quakers saw this as a sign of their own commitment to the Christian way. That of course, being good students of the Bible themselves, they knew that the prophets were persecuted, that the early Christian disciples were persecuted, that that was the “badge of courage,” perhaps, that it tested their resolve. It tested their commitment to the Christian faith to be willing to march right into persecution and possibly even death as bearers of truth. So part of it was that understanding that they were in a great crowd of witnesses to the cost of discipleship and were willing to bear that.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.