Quakers and Puritans

In most people’s minds the two are the same thing: in fact Puritans, both here in England and particularly in America were fierce persecutors of the Quakers. Their beliefs were radically different, though they started, in a sense from the same place.

Puritans took one part of St Paul’s theology and, following Calvin’s lead, concentrated on original sin, the Fall from grace and human beings need for God’s grace to redeem them. Quakers started from an awareness of grace and of being freed from sin. Early Quakers took this to such an extreme that they were accused of antinomianism, teaching that everything was permitted.

We should remember that our view of Quakers and Puritans is influenced on the one hand by the heirs of the Puritans in the Free Churches and on the other by modern Quakerism. Christopher Hill remarked that the nineteenth century nonconformist was to the seventeenth century Puritan what vinegar is to wine. Likewise, today’s pacifist and liberal Quaker is not the same as the violently apocalyptic visionaries of the 1650s.

The role of women was one area that divided Puritans and Quakers: the former believed that women should take the place allotted to them in scripture and followed a literalist translation of St Paul’s teaching. Many prominent Quakers were women who taught, preached and prophesied. And why not? George Fox consistently taught that God’s Inner Light shone in the hearts of all people.

The role of government was one which also separated them. Quakers here followed a literalist reading of the Scriptures and refused to swear oaths, bringing them into direct conflict with the civil authorities. Refusal to swear the Oath of Allegiance could lead to indefinite imprisonment during the Restoration and many Quakers were to suffer this, in may cases dying in prison. However, after 1660 George Fox and his followers were keen to deny any wish to overthrow the government, pointing, like Puritans to those passages of Scripture where Paul tells Christians that they must obey the authorities.

Puritans in England followed Calvin’s political teaching that earthly ruler are to be obeyed. However Calvin does not, as Luther was forced to, give a “blank cheque” to earthly rulers. He taught that the common people must obey the magistrates: however if the magistrates (in England represented by Parliament) should decide to revolt against the King…

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