The Penn-Mead Trial

Back in England Quakers caused even more trouble for the legal system when in 1670 William Penn and William Mead were on trial in London under the Conventicle Act, which was created specifically to prohibit the kind of outdoor disruptive preaching which was the early Friends’ stock in trade. The jury refused to convict them, despite being ordered to by the judge, considering that the law in question was morally wrong and that the defendants were being unfairly treated during their trial. The judge then found the jury in contempt of court and threatened to detain them without food or water until they returned the verdict he wanted them to give. For nine weeks a stand-off occurred with the jury refusing to give in, some of them being sent to Newgate Prison, until finally the High Court of Common Pleas got involved and forced the trial judge to accept the jury’s verdict. The principle of Jury Nullification, where the fundamental right of a jury to find according to its own conscience rather than how the law or judge dictates was thus firmly enshrined into the British constitutional system, and then spread into the liberal democracies of the rest of the world.

Eventually in 1689 the worst of the persecutions came to an end with the Act of Toleration, whereby churches were allowed the freedom to worship in the way they felt, and Quakerism started to flourish not only in England but in other parts of the world as well.

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