Quakers and persecution

Today we bring you a guest blog post from the Amazing Dr Rosalind Johnson, who is also a visiting fellow at the university of Winchester! Her subject of specialty is the Quakers, so we have asked her kindly if she would mind sharing her outstanding work on the area with us, and she accepted. Therefore, here we bring you: Quakers and Persecution 🙂


What did you do last Sunday morning? Stayed in bed? Went for a run? Watched cute cats on YouTube? Or maybe you went to church? Probably not many of us did the last of those, but for much of the seventeenth century, there would have been no choice – church attendance was compulsory, and repeated absence risked a fine or even imprisonment. The freedom we have today about how we choose to spend our time on a Sunday morning is in part due to the courage and tenacity of religious nonconformists, who refused to attend church but instead met in their own meeting places, away from state and church control.

The Quakers were among the most tenacious and determined of these groups. Quakers were one of the many radical religious groups to form in the religious turmoil after the Civil Wars of the 1640s. The term ‘Quaker’ was given to them in derision for their tendency to ‘quake’ with religious fervour, but Quakers adopted the term to describe themselves, although within the movement the term ‘Friends’ was more usual.

The man usually credited with being the founder of the Quaker movement was George Fox (1624-1691), son of a Leicestershire weaver. He believed that a formal education was unnecessary for preachers, the only qualification necessary was inspiration directly from God, and, controversially, that inspiration could be given to women as well as to men. Nor, Fox believed, was there any need for set rituals in church, and neither was there any need for church buildings. Early Quakers met where they could, in private houses, barns, even in the open air. Their religious meetings were characterised by waiting in silence for any Friend present to feel that God was calling him, or her, to speak. Fox and other Quakers used the Bible extensively to support their views, but held that what was important was that the individual follow God, rather than blindly follow Scripture or, worse, the interpretations made by paid ministers.

Fox preached for several years until his big breakthrough, beginning in the early summer of 1652. In what is now Lancashire and Cumbria he came upon large groups of ‘seekers’, people holding religious meetings independently of their parish church, but without being part of a particular sect. He made many converts and, having consolidated his base there, from 1654 he sent out pairs of evangelists to preach throughout England and elsewhere.

Fox had been gaoled for his own preaching activities, and would face several further episodes of imprisonment during his life. But he had been a largely isolated figure. Now, Quakers were travelling throughout the country, preaching and converting. Their success saw them come into conflict with local magistrates, who regarded them as potentially politically subversive, as well as having unorthodox religious views. The Quakers had no insurrectionary political agenda, but by the mid-1650s the large numbers attracted to the movement began to concern the authorities, worried about anti-government activities, and disturbances to public order. Rumours began to circulate. In December 1657 it was alleged that one Hampshire Quaker had predicted that before long people would have their bellies full of blood, while one Southampton Quaker was said to have enough arms to equip an entire company of soldiers.

In the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that Quaker evangelists, by now travelling and preaching throughout the country, were particularly liable to arrest and imprisonment. One of these was Anthony Mellidge, arrested in the Hampshire market town of Ringwood in February 1658 in the company of Quaker preacher Humphrey Smith and another Friend, William Bayly. All three men were imprisoned in the county gaol in Winchester, but were offered their liberty if they agreed to go quietly to their homes, and forbear from any preaching activities. This they refused to do, and remained in prison for over a year before their eventual release.

The county gaol of the seventeenth century was in Jewry Street; the present prison on Romsey Road is of nineteenth-century date. Nothing remains to be seen of the seventeenth-century gaol, but there is a plaque marking the site between Wetherspoons and the Discovery Centre in Jewry Street if you look carefully.

Conditions in the gaol were disgusting. Anthony Mellidge wrote from the prison that the place was more fit to be a pig sty than a prison, and that he and his fellow-prisoners had to endure, ‘the spewing and piss of the drunken prisoners that lie above us, [that] have commonly come down where we lie, and on our faces in the night, and on our food as we were eating’. Among the seven Quaker prisoners in the gaol at the time was Elizabeth Streater, separated from her young child whom she was still breast-feeding, for having had the temerity to lecture a clergyman in the street and then refusing to pay the £5 fine.

After the return of King Charles II in 1660, Quakers largely abandoned active evangelism, but as they continued to hold religious meetings in their own meeting places they were still regarded with suspicion by the authorities. Persecution intensified after a radical uprising in London in January 1661. This rebellion, though brief and easily defeated, was nonetheless armed and organised. The authorities, alarmed, arrested thousands of suspects throughout the country, including Quakers, none of whom had anything to do with the rebellion. One contemporary estimate claimed that over 4,230 Quakers were imprisoned nationally. In Hampshire the arrests included twelve men and eight women in Southampton, seventeen men in Alton, a man on his way to visit his sister, and a known preacher, Ambrose Rigge, taken on the road near Petersfield.

Most of those imprisoned in January 1661 had been released by the spring of that year. But persecution would continue throughout the reign of Charles II, albeit in peaks and troughs, depending on government policy at the time, and to an extent on the willingness of local officials to enact the law. There were arrests in the aftermath of the Quaker Act of 1662 and the Conventicle Act of 1664, though plague in many Hampshire towns in 1665-6 brought an effective halt to persecution. There were renewed arrests immediately after the passing of the second Conventicle Act of 1670. (A ‘conventicle’ was an illegal religious gathering.) The early years of the 1680s, the final years of the reign of Charles II, saw a fresh wave of persecutions.

Quakers could be victims of what appeared to be personal malice. In Portsmouth, they endured a particularly intense period of suffering for their beliefs in the early 1660s. The deputy governor, Colonel Legge, encouraged a systematic persecution of Quakers during which at least thirty meetings were broken up and Friends detained. Some were held in a tiny, damp cell or ‘hole’. At one time thirteen men and a boy were held there for several days, without room to lie down. A soldier who took pity on them and brought them water and other essentials was beaten and himself imprisoned in the guardhouse.

An attempt to discredit Quakers on the Isle of Wight was made by Colonel Walter Slingsby, deputy governor of the island, who in 1664 sent a copy of the Qur’an in English to some people he believed to be Quakers in the hope that they might turn Muslim. The choice of the Qur’an is less odd than it might appear, as the only English language interpretation then available in print was that by Alexander Ross, a former minister Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight.

Quakers fined for failing to attend church, or for being at a conventicle, refused to pay the fines. Failure to pay a fine could result in imprisonment, or goods might be forcible taken to be sold to pay the fine. In 1675 Fredrick Perdue, a poor boatman on the Isle of Wight, was fined for having been at a Quaker meeting. As he refused to pay the fine, officers took two boats, effectively depriving him of the means of his livelihood. They also attempted to take household goods, including the bed on which his wife was lying, though she was in labour at the time and had women assisting her.

The town council of Andover made a concerted attempt to close down the Quaker meeting in the town during the persecutions of the early 1680s. In May 1682 Friends were ordered out of their meeting-house, and the doors secured against them returning. Nevertheless, the Quakers continued to hold meetings in the town, despite repeated harassment, arrests and imprisonment throughout June and July of that year. Some local officials resorted to violence in an effort to intimidate Friends. Thomas Hooper was thrown to the ground with such force that he was briefly knocked senseless, and his terrified young son thrown to the ground as well.

In the face of these threats, it is remarkable that there are very few recorded cases of Friends renouncing their Quaker faith as a result of persecution. Richard Mountaine, one of the Andover Quakers gaoled in 1682, may have been one. He was in trouble with Friends two years later for ‘contrary’ behaviour, and was disowned in 1685 for marrying outside Friends, but if his experiences in gaol had weakened his commitment to Friends, he was an exception.

Furthermore, sometimes the authorities could appear to turn a blind eye to peaceful, if illegal, religious meetings. The campaign against Quakers in Portsmouth lost its momentum after the death of Colonel Legge in 1662, and Friends were largely left in peace thereafter. In 1672 Quakers in Alton built a new meeting-house only yards from the parish church, yet no Quaker would ever be arrested for being at a meeting there. And Andover Quakers, following their summer of persecution in 1682, continued to meet without any further harassment by the authorities.

But the threat of fines or imprisonment for meeting together was always present. In 1682 the tenants of the meeting-house at Alton, Thomas and Ann Bullock, knowing that they ran a very real risk of persecution for allowing illegal religious meetings to be held in the building in which they were living, let Friends know that they were prepared to suffer for this, if it was God’s will. Their faith would not be tested in this way, but they could not have known this at the time.

Nevertheless, despite the threats they faced, the evidence is that Quakers were not always preoccupied with surviving persecution. From the 1670s there are many surviving minutes of Quaker business meetings, which demonstrate that Quakers were occupied with relieving poor Friends, putting young people to suitable apprenticeships, approving couples who wished to marry, and dealing with backsliding members. Persecution happened, and was recorded, but it did not dominate the lives of Friends.

The legislation which Quakers had been waiting for finally arrived in 1689, one of the Acts of Parliament made following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. The Act of Toleration allowed most Protestant dissenters – including Quakers – the right to worship legally, if they registered their meeting places with either the civil or ecclesiastical courts. Hampshire’s Quakers registered their meeting places soon after the Act became law. It’s not known exactly what meeting places were registered, as very few meeting registrations survive for Hampshire until the second decade of the eighteenth century, but because the Quakers themselves kept such good records, we know that there were meetings in Alresford, Alton, Andover, Baughurst, Basingstoke, Bramshott, Fordingbridge, North Warnborough, Portchester, Portsmouth, Ringwood, Romsey, Southampton, Whitchurch, Winchester, and on the Isle of Wight.

At this time there were few meeting houses, as most meetings were held in people’s houses, though these also had to be registered as a place of religious worship. But gradually, as the threat of persecution for holding their religious meetings receded into memory, Quakers began to open meeting houses for religious worship. These included those at Alresford in 1704 and Portsmouth in 1710.

This was not the end of persecution for Quakers. They still refused to pay any form of tax to the church, a refusal that would see many fined and some imprisoned for years to come. Their refusal to conform in any way to the Church of England debarred them from many careers, though several Quaker families later made fortunes in industry. But, after over thirty years of persecution, the threat of arrest for meeting together was finally gone. And the Act of Toleration had an unintended consequence. Although it was still the law to attend a place of worship – either Church of England or a registered nonconformist meeting place – in practice, there was little attempt made to enforce this. The determination of Quakers and religious groups to worship in their own way had been achieved but would lead, unintentionally, to an increasingly secular society.


The entire team would like to say a trillion thanks to Rosalind, and wish her the best of luck with all her ongoing projects 🙂

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