In seventeenth century England, religion was a central concern not only of individuals but of the State. The civil government, whether king or parliament, chose which denomination to “establish.” As temporal power changed hands in vicious civil wars, sometimes Catholics, sometimes The Church of England, sometimes Puritans ruled the land. Each faction, when it had the power, insisted that all subjects attend its worship, adhere to its theology, and pay its tithes. The established church was a broker of wealth and power to its clergy, who vied for rich parishes. Dissenters were persecuted severely. Many “priests” or “ministers” were hypocritical if not corrupt - busy climbing higher on the backs of their parishioners rather than humbly serving them.
But a new Spirit was afoot. The Bible was becoming widely published and read in common English (this is when the King James Bible was produced) and the laity was beginning to seek the truth, rather than just accepting what the established church of the moment declared the truth to be. Around 1650, a number of these seekers rediscovered the fundamentals of primitive Christianity. At first, they called themselves, “the innocent people of God,” or, “Friends of the Truth.” Theirs was a revolutionary discovery which challenged not only the specific tenets of all the other Christian sects, it challenged the fundamental nature or all religions which were, “made by hands.”
The first Friends were thoroughly steeped in scripture and in the theological dispute of the day. Yet it was by direct revelation of the Holy Spirit that they found the Truth. Looking at the hypocrisy of the professional, “hireling” clergy, they saw that being educated in a seminary, and having played church politics successfully was not what qualified a person to be a minister of Christ. Just as He had once called unlearned fishermen to be His apostles, now He, by the Holy Spirit, directly called and anointed, from all walks of life, a body of fearless evangelists who valiantly spread His gospel through England and the world.
Many of these first Friends, including George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn, were severely persecuted for their vision of the saintly life to which Christ calls all of us, and for their implacable insistence on living that life regardless of the material consequences, taking at face value Christ’s innovation to join Him in the Kingdom that is not of this world. Their property was often seized, their persons were thrown into cold, filthy dungeons, to suffer and, sometimes to die. But they always treated their tormentors with love and a genuine concern for their immortal souls. The Spirit was with them so powerfully that thousands joined them to worship God “in Spirit and in Truth.” Many healings and other miracles accompanied their ministry.
One time an early Friend, George Fox, admonished a cruel judge that he should tremble and quake in awe of God’s power. The Judge sneeringly called Fox and his Friends a bunch of “Quakers” and the name stuck. That night, the judges bed trembled and quaked so violently that the judge was thrown to the floor!
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