The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America
by Alan Nelson and John Malkin. (Excerpt)
The movement to create the Quakers – more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends began in England in the mid-1600s. A leather worker and shepherd named George Fox (1624-1691) led in developing this new Christian way of gathering, studying, praying and taking action. The first Quakers emphasized the importance of personal guidance and direct experience of the teachings of Jesus. From their early days, the Quakers challenged the authority and dogma of church and state and they questioned the notion that a minister or intermediary was necessary to know God. Quakers have often suffered imprisonment, confiscation of property and death in their struggles for freedom and justice. Fox wrote in his journal that he was frequently beaten or forced out of a town after verbally challenging clergy about matters regarding faith and politics.
Fox encouraged William Penn (1644-1718) to establish a colony in North America where a “holy experiment” could take shape. In 1681, King Charles II of England had settled a debt owed to Penn’s father by grating to William Penn ownership of a vast area of land in America. Penn left for America on August 13, 1682, to set up the colony with thousands of other Quakers who shared a vision of creating a community where they could worship as they chose without persecution by the British government or the Catholic Church. The “Holy Experiment” became known as Pennsylvania. There are currently about 300,000 Quakers worldwide.
Relations between Quakers and American Indians were peaceful, especially compared to the bloody history between American Indians and most other early Christian and non-Christian immigrant groups. Also, the Religious Society of Friends has always worked for equal rights for women, regarding women and men as equal children of God and equally capable of public ministry and of filling leadership roles in the Quaker community and church.
Quakers were among the first to oppose slavery in the United States and to prohibit it among their members. Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, protested slavery as early as 1688. John Woolman (1720-1772), a colonial Quaker, opposed and helped to eradicate slavery among Quakers in the United States.
Another Quaker, Levi Coffin (1789-1877), was called “the president of the Underground Railroad” because, using their home as a safe house, he and his wife and family helped about three thousand slaves escape to freedom. Coffin gave escaped slaves food, shelter, medical care and safe transportation. Such revolutionary social action was not popular with landowners, slaveholders, or some Quakers, who deemed Coffin’s actions “too radical.” In spite of death threats and attacks on their home, Levi Coffin and his family continued their liberating work rooted in Christian nonviolence to help ex-slaves begin new lives, free from their former “owners.”