John Smolenski

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:

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The Society of Friends, colloquially known as the Quakers, played a major role in shaping the religious culture of the Atlantic world. Emerging during the religious upheaval of the Interregnum period, the Society had its roots in George Fox’s itinerant ministry in the late 1640s; by 1652 a religious movement had coalesced under the leadership of Fox, Margaret Fell, and James Nayler, among others. Quakerism had ties to other contemporary groups, most notably the Seekers and Baptists, as some individuals moved from sect to sect during this tumultuous era. The development of an organized Meeting structure during the 1650s, however, solidified a distinctive Quaker identity among Friends. The Society of Friends was the largest Nonconformist denomination in England at the time of the Restoration, boasting as many as forty thousand adherents in 1660. It launched extensive missionary efforts during the 17th century, sending ministers throughout the Americas, continental Europe, and even the Middle East. Though their efforts in the Mediterranean bore little fruit, networks of Quaker itinerants established communities in Germany and the Netherlands. Moreover, Friends played a disproportionate role in Atlantic colonization. Seeking a refuge from English persecution, Friends took the lead in the creation of New Jersey and Pennsylvania while maintaining significant numbers in Rhode Island and Barbados. By the late 17th century, however, the Society had begun to take a “quietist” turn, eschewing evangelical efforts to seek new converts; it relied instead on birthright membership to maintain its numbers. In the 18th century, Friends played a leading role in social reform movements, most particularly as leaders in the antislavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic. They also established missions to improve the conditions for Native Americans and worked on behalf of prison reform. Frequently persecuted in Britain and America, Quakers were notable—if not notorious—for a number of reasons. Their fight against the Church of England challenged the boundaries of religious establishment, while their embrace of pacifism after the Restoration caused many to doubt their patriotism during Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the Seven Years’ War, and the American Revolution. Meanwhile, the active role women played in the Society as ministers challenged gender hierarchies. Finally, their embrace of a distinctive “plain style” that included unorthodox modes of dress and speech aroused controversy as well. Scholarship on early modern Atlantic Quakers has covered a wide range of topics, as scholars have used this minority denomination to explore broader issues in Atlantic history and culture.

Article.  10437 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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