Reformed Reflections

Movers and Quakers (The Society of Friends) 1

Sharon, a community about 50 kilometres north of Toronto, has a unique tourist attraction with a singular history. Sharon was founded in 1812 by David Willson, a Quaker, who broke away from his Society of Friends - as the Quakers are officially called. He named his group the Children of Peace. His contemporaries called them Davidites. Willson and his followers built a temple, which became known as the Temple of Sharon. This impressive structure has no architectural equal in the world. It now operates as a museum.

About 30 kilometres northeast of Toronto is Uxbridge, the town where my wife was born and raised. Just outside of Uxbridge is a hamlet called Quaker Hill, where in 1809 the local Quakers built their Friends' Meeting House. They also provided the first school in the township. These American Quakers with British roots did not come to settle as a group in Uxbridge Township. Starting in 1801, they arrived over several years. The settlement was interrupted by the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Their beliefs prevented most of the Quakers from taking oaths or bearing arms. During that war some even returned to the United States. Others refused to participate and were jailed. One Uxbridge Quaker, who had helped transport cannons, was dismissed by the Quaker Meeting as a result.

The Friends' Meeting House was the first church in Uxbridge. This log building sat looking over the Uxbridge valley and was the only place of worship for many years. It was replaced by a frame building in 1820 and still exists as the area's oldest building. The Uxbridge Quaker community was small. In 1833 there were 1830 individuals in Uxbridge, and only five of them were Quakers. The Quaker community never had more than about twenty families at one time. Although the Friends's Meeting House was closed in 1925, it remains today as a memorial to the Quaker pioneers who started the Uxbridge settlement.

The Uxbridge Quakers were not the first to come to Canada. In the late l7th century Quaker Publishers of Truth visited Newfoundland. In the mid-l8th century Quaker whalers from Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, came to Nova Scotia but their settlements did not last. During the American War of Independence, some Quakers settled in a number of places in what is now southern Ontario. They also began arriving from England and Ireland in1820s. Their numbers grew and by 1860 there were 7300 Quakers in Ontario. In time their number dwindled to about 1000, which has been maintained to this day. At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of Quaker settlements were founded in Western Canada. There are now approximately 200, 000 Quakers throughout the world, of which more than 60 percent live in the United States, and 11 percent in the British Isles. They are also in Taiwan and Latin America. Dutch, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Scandinavian, Middle Easterners, Indians, and French-speaking Quakers are all few in number. Although their membership is small, they have had a lasting and deep influence upon Western society far out of proportion to their numbers.

Who are these Quakers?

Their tumultuous history has its origins in the radical wing of English Puritans of the 1640s. Their founder was George Fox (1624 -1691), a weaver's son who apprenticed as a shoemaker. From boyhood he heard Puritan preaching and became familiar with the English Bible. At the age of nineteen, shocked by the contrast between the profession and practice of nominal Christians, he left home and began his spiritual quest. By temperament he was a mystic, who longed for direct and unhindered approach to God. In the 1650s he preached the message of the New Age of the Spirit, after having failed to find spiritual peace in the churches of his time. He wrote, "And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing to outwardly help me, nor could tell them what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition.'" That was for Fox the Inner Voice, or Inner Light, based on the description of John 1:9: "The true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." This voice, according to Fox, is available to all. It has nothing to do with ceremonies, rituals, or creed. The "Inner Light" was as important as Scripture; sacraments, ceremonies, and clergy were abandoned. From this emphasis on "Inner Light" and the guidance of the Spirit emerged the typical Quaker meeting wherein people waited in silence for the Spirit to speak in and through them. Fox committed himself to follow and others to follow the Inner Light. As someone wrote, "To Friends, every person is a walking church, every heart is God's altar and shrine." Fox renounced oath taking, insisted on total honesty and truth-speaking, practiced simplicity in dress, food, and speech. He was opposed to participation in war, protested against all formalism and sham in worship, permitted women to preach, refused to remove his hat to those in authority, denounced special class privileges, and used the singular "thee and thou" in his speech, while the common people were supposed to address their betters as "you." He was fearless, often imprisoned for preaching his conviction, pioneered care for the poor, the aged, and the insane. He advocated prison reform, opposed capital punishment, war, and slavery.

The name Quaker was an early derisive nickname, associated with the trembling of the "Friends" at their meetings. Fox described its origin as follows: "The priest scoffed at us and called us Quakers. But the Lord's power was over them, and the word of life was declared with such authority and dread to them, that the priest began trembling himself; and one of the people said, 'Look how the priest trembles and shakes, he is turned a Quaker also.'" According to Fox, the first person to use the term was Justice Bennet of Derby. But that title is no longer derisive, and Friends use it also of themselves.

The traditional date for the origin of the Society of Friends is 1652, when Fox brought "convincement" to a group of seekers in the household of Judge Fell and his wife Margaret of Swarthmore Hall in Lancashire. A large number of seekers became his followers. Societies of Friends were founded in many places and hundreds of missionaries became "publishers of Truth." From 1630 until 1689, more than 3000 Quakers suffered for conscience' sake, and 300 to 400 died in prison. But their persecution and martyrdom led to growth. When Fox died, the Quakers numbered 50,000.

Johan D.Tangelder
June 2002