Although the founding of Quakerism might seem to have been relatively straightforward, actually being a Quaker in the early days was far from it. Even, perhaps especially, during the Civil War period England was not the tolerant and liberal society we usually consider it to be today. Although there were few ‘statutory’ laws set by the Crown or by Parliament the common law of what was generally done up and down the land made by semi-independent judges and magistrates dictated far more of your daily life than today. For example, there were laws about what clothing a person was allowed to wear, when, where, and how they might go to church to worship God, and even laws which enforced extreme levels of politeness in public society — especially between members of ‘lower’ social classes to ‘upper’ ones. The testimonies of the first Quakers to equality and to the freedom of worship led them to flout these laws and social conventions with impunity. Many of them were ridiculed, spat at, beaten up, and even imprisoned for such heinous crimes as failing to bow and doff their caps at ‘betters’, as well as for the more serious offences of refusing to pay their tithes (10% of their earnings or produce every year) to the local vicar and of holding meetings for worship as they chose.
Thousands of early Quakers were imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs, many a number of times, including George Fox and Margaret Fell. A number of prisons around England can boast the honour of being able to put up plaques stating ‘George Fox slept here’, including Lancaster and Scarborough Castles and also Carlisle and Launceston prisons. One of the stories we like to tell our youngest Quakers is of the occasion when all of the adults of Reading Meeting were imprisoned for continuing to gather, and during that time the children kept the meeting going every Sunday in their absence. The penalties for being a Quaker did not stop at mere torture though – in England alone about 450 of them died on account of the poor conditions in prisons at the time and as a result of their treatment, and in the North American colonies (where the new movement had quickly started to take hold) the situation was even worse – the Massachusetts government made it illegal to be a Quaker there on pain of execution, and when in June 1659 Marmaduke Stevenson, William Robinson, and Mary Dyer travelled to Boston to test the new law they found it was no empty threat. Initially they were banished from the colony but they returned straight away — and then two men were hanged for it. Mary Dyer was granted a reprieve, but returned again in May 1660, and then she too was executed. Ironic considering how many European puritans had fled to the Americas in the first place in order to escape religious persecution.