Sunday, March 6, 2011


As I work my way through these English immigrants I’ve discovered that there’s something you can’t escape. Religious history and political history are Siamese twins. You can’t understand the one without the other. And it’s our loss.

Each section of Albion’s Seed has maps that show which part of England the majority of the members of the migrating group came from. Most of the Quaker immigrants came from northern counties including Yorkshire and Lancashire. As I was looking the maps, the highlighted regions seemed awfully familiar. They were. The counties that were home to the majority of Quaker immigrants overlap the paths the Irish monks took on their way to Europe. A path that took them through what became northern France and southern Germany all the way to the heel of Italy’s boot.

Those monks and missionaries planted their respect for the Creator and their belief that the believer could have a direct and person experience of God. Perhaps that belief wasn’t so unusual in mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Ekhart and Francis of Assisi. They all spoke of the Inner Light. Quakers also taught the Inner Light, but they went further in their beliefs. For a Quaker no intermediary between believer and Creator was necessary. No ordained ministers, no bishops. And at that point they parted company with just about everyone else in England.

Like all new believers, the early Quakers were eager to share what they had experienced. They ran into immediate problems. They claimed the right to preach where they would and refused to tithe to the Anglican Church. The one got them pilloried or imprisoned. The other led to confiscation of crops, stock and property. Often the value of what was taken was more than they owed the church. Quakers also believed in equality before God and probably got into more trouble for refusing to remove their hats when the met up with social superiors. Most Quakers also refused to swear oaths either to the King or in court.

Enter William Penn. The son of an admiral in favor with the court of Charles II he converted in his early twenties. He managed to get himself arrested almost immediately for attending Quaker meetings. Young William traveled with George Fox not only in England but in Europe. He soon turned his hand to writing for the church. He turned out more than sixty pamphlets or short books, almost half of them on liberty of conscience.

One of the reasons I took more time with the Quakers had to do with a 1670 court case. Penn was arrested with William Meade and charged with preaching to a crowd of more than five people. They were denied the right to see the charges against them and the judge directed the jury to reach a jury without the defense being allowed to present a case.

The jury returned a not guilty verdict. They were “invited” to change their verdict. The jury refused. The impasse continued over several days. When the jury continued to refuse to change their minds, the judge committed the defendants and the jury to Newgate prison. Penn and Meade for contempt and the jurors because he could I guess. One of the juror’s petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. After all he hadn’t committed a crime, he just refused to change his mind. Eventually, after some polite judicial back and forth over just which court he needed to go to for the writ, it was granted. The justices also ruled that juries had the right to be free of intimidation. The right to habeas corpus in cases of unlawful detention was also upheld. Even though the trial was held in seventeenth century England, these rights found their way into American law.

Cross posted in Walking With Hope.

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