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The civil war context

Dr Sarah Barber discusses the rise of Quakerism in the context of the English Civil War.
Hello. My name is Sarah Barber. I’m a senior lecturer at Lancaster University, and for the last 30 years, I’ve been a specialist in the 17th century. I began my career looking at the English Civil War and particularly, those radical ideas which emerged in the mid-17th century. And I’ve now extended that out to look at the 17th century across Europe and across to the Americas and particularly, the Caribbean where groups like the Sectaries and particularly the Quakers, were very active. Everyone knows the stories of the English Civil War. Even those people who know very little about 17th century history, will know of the characters that it produced.
Will have heard of Charles I, and will know of his stammer and his speech on the scaffold at his execution in 1649. Even more, will have heard of Oliver Cromwell, even if they know nothing about his Protectorate and the reign of Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s. It was during the reign of Oliver Cromwell in 1650s that the Quakers first started to emerge. The English Civil War is the stuff of romantic stories. We all know 1066 and all that in which the Cavaliers are wrong, but romantic, and the Roundheads are right, but revolting. And thus, the Civil War is presented as two elite sides engaged in a dog fight for the control of English politics and particularly of religion.
We know much less about the ordinary people in the 17th century– the sort of people who would become Quakers during the course of the 1650s. But for the Civil War period and beyond, we do know more because George Thomason collected one copy, at least, of all of the pamphlets and broadsides that were circulating on the streets of London during the 1640s and 1650s. And we have thousands of words written about Quakers and by Quakers, telling of their experience during the 1650s. Historians disagree about the causes of the English Civil War. Some will go right back to the Reformation in the early 16th century.
Some will say that the war was not even inevitable by August 1642, when fighting had started happening. But most agree that religion was an underlying cause and a grievance that many had– both amongst the elite and the ordinary people. A pamphlet of 1641 shows three ministers of the established church– those who governed the church structure. A fight between, on the one hand, the Catholic, considered to be of the devil, with, on the other hand, the righteous man of God, the Puritan minister. And in between the man-made religion of the Church of England. And in 1641-1642, it was a struggle for the soul of the Church of England that people were more concerned about.
During the course of the 1640s, the Civil War managed to loosen a number of the ties that people felt bound their lives. The first of these was the relaxation of censorship.
Because it was not possible to exercise censorship over the presses anymore in the 1640s because of the contingencies of war, the streets were flooded with the opinions of all manner of people who could get access to a printing press relatively cheaply and could start to churn out all manner of both satirical and deeply personal thoughts pieces. The second way in which the war loosened ties was the nature of the war itself. The romantic stories view of the Roundheads versus the Cavaliers, disguises the brutality of the reality. In the course of the 1640s, a higher proportion of English people were killed in the English Civil War than died in the First World War– nearly 4% of the English population.
And the war itself was not only bloody and brutal in its battles and skirmishes and its sieges, but also affected ordinary people and their everyday livelihoods. People had soldiers billeted on them. People were attacked. People were caught up in riots. Soldiers would steal livestock– cattle and sheep. And people would lose their lands. And the third way in which people felt that their ties were being loosened, was that without an elite to control their thoughts, they were now able to put out their own version of their religion, their relationship with their god.
And so they started to develop a more personal relationship with their notions of morality, the way in which they lived their lives, their relationships with their neighbours, and their relationship with their god and their religion.
Amongst the sectarian groups, were many who sought to find the Holy Spirit within, who would fast and pray, sometimes for hours and days on end, who would go without sleep, searching inside to try to find what they called the “still small voice” that would instruct them how to live a godly life. But there were also others who not only wanted to seek inside themselves for the still small voice, but who wanted to bear witness to that voice and many gained a following amongst others who saw in them, a godly person who was genuinely in touch with the Holy Spirit - groups like the Seekers, like the Muggletonians, some would say, the Ranters.
But most of those groups were seen as social threats in the 1640s and the 1650s. The Quakers emerged from out of that same milieu. These were people who sought to make sense of a rather brutal world in which they were living. A world in which it seems that maybe God had abandoned them or had certainly abandoned their neighbours. And sought to find that still, small voice within. They would meet together in groups, mainly in rural communities, and often sit for hours in silence until one felt the need to bear witness to their individual experience.
There are two key differences between the Quakers and the other sectaries who had similar views and similar approaches. One is the sense of individualism, that although they bore witness and often bore witness in front of their neighbours, they were only explaining their individual view. They weren’t offering it as a prophetic vision for others to follow. And the second reason that the Quakers would survive was because they chose to adapt their approach.
They became, after the Civil War period had ended, what is called Quietist– that they no longer disturbed church meanings, lived within their own communities, and kept a tight knit community of believers, meeting in the meeting house and refusing to take part in the politics and the social disruption that continued in the 1660s.

Watch this short video in which Dr Sarah Barbers talks about the rise of Quakerism in the context of the times.

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Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

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