Quaker Practices and Beliefs

Quaker Hat and Speech Practices

Refusal to remove their hats in court, and the use of thee and thou in addressing people of any rank in society, are practices for which members of the Friends are well known, but their reasons for doing those things may not be as well understood, nor the effects these practices had on non-members at that time. In The Beginnings of Quakerism, William C. Braithwaite describes these practices and the reasons behind them. I'd like to cite a few examples from the book, and then quote briefly what Braithwaite said about them.

One example concerns Thomas Olliffe of Brampton, Northamptonshire. After he had joined the Friends, his family asked him to provide for himself, because he was a trouble to them, "being out of their life and cannot join with them in their customs, but rather deny them in obedience to the Lord." He later became Governor of New Jersey.

Another example concerned Ellis Hookes of Odiham, Hampshire, who was beaten by both Lady and Sir William Waller because of his refusal to be converted from Quakerism by her, and for his forthright way of addressing her (calling her Woman, rather than a more respectful term). His father, on hearing about the incident, told them to turn him out of doors, which they did. But the father later softened in his attitude, leaving his son a substantial inheritance.

A third example is Thomas Ellwood of Crowell, Oxfordshire. He addressed his father using thee, rather than you, and kept his hat on when talking to him. His father hit him with his fists, and snatched off his hat and threw it away. Thomas also refused to remove his hat at the dinner table, and was told to eat with the servants, which he did. Thomas finally left home and went to London, where he was a reader to the blind John Milton.

These examples show the strong reactions to the Quakers' customs, but today we might not understand why. Braithwaite explains:

It will be evident that taking up the cross of Quakerism with regard to such matters as the plain language and hat-honour involved a very real separation from the world. The gospel words were found true, "I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father ... and a man's foes shall be they of his own household" (Matt. x. 34- 36). In that ceremonious age Quaker plainness seemed not only ill-bred but deliberately offensive. The hat was at this time commonly worn in the house and in church, but not during prayer nor in the presence of superiors. Lord Clarendon says that in his younger days he never kept on his hat before those older than himself (except at dinner), nor when grace was said at meals. (1) To be uncovered before anyone was, accordingly, a distinctive mark of deference. It was the same with the plain language. When Lord Coke desired to anger Raleigh at his trial, he had addressed him with the insulting words, "All that Lord Cobham did was at thy instigation, thou viper: for I thou thee, thou traitor." But "thou" was the regular form of speech to inferiors, long after "you" had become customary between persons of equal rank. Fuller lays down the usage thus - "We maintain that 'thou' from superiors to inferiors is proper, as a sign of command; from equals to equals is passable as a note of familiarity; but from inferiors to superiors, if proceeding from ignorance, hath a smack of clownishness; if from affectation, a tone of contempt." For a servant to address his master with "thou," or a son his father, was therefore a gross affront and an act of insubordination, and we need not be surprised at the angry scenes which followed. It should be remembered, however, that in the North of England "thou" was, and still is, the regular form of familiar speech, and cases of offence would in this part of the country seldom occur.

With Fox and his followers "the determination to 'thou' all men was not a piece of capricious trifling. It flowed from the principle which pervaded his whole conduct, the desire of piercing through the husk and coating of forms in which men's hearts and souls were wrapped up, and of dragging them out from their lurking-places into the open light of day." (2) By refusing the homage of the hat, and the customary titles of honour, by using the plain language and declining to pledge healths, Fox was witnessing for reality in life and was applying a test to the Puritan professors by which their patience and kindliness and moderation were tried. He was at the same time putting the followers of Quakerism to a test, which inured them to reproach, taught them to despise the false standards of the world, and led them into the way of the cross. But though these stringent testings resulted, the plain behaviour practised by Friends was above all due to their single-hearted dedication to what they understood was required of them by God, and to the sense that with Him there was no respect of persons. Howgill and Penn and Barclay (3) all make use of a passage in the letter to the Roman matron Celantia, attributed to Jerome (Epitstles, No.148, edn. Vallarsi) :

"Heed not thy nobility, nor let that be a reason for thee to take place of any; repute not those of meaner extraction to be thy inferiors, our religion admits no respect of persons, nor doth it lead us to value the outward condition of men, but their in-ward frame and spirit: it is hereby that we pronounce men noble or base. With God, not to serve sin is the only freedom, and to excel in virtue is to be noble. ... Besides it is a folly for any to boast his gentility, since all are equally esteemed by God. The ransom of the poor and rich cost Christ an equal expense of blood. Nor is it material in what estate a man is born, since all are equally new creatures in Christ."

The witness of Friends was accordingly a standing rebuke to the world and to Christians for their emphasis on those differences in rank and position which amount to nothing in the sight of God. In the early ages of Christianity, the sense of brotherhood among the disciples of Christ had been so strong as to dissolve all social distinctions, and there was something of the same experience among the early Friends. Servants in the households of Friends became in many cases Publishers of Truth; women were given their sphere of work as well as men; men of standing, like Gervase Benson, were content to call themselves "husbandmen"; (4) citizens of position offered themselves as prisoners in the place of their friends; the Quaker groups took the burden of relieving their own poor; the Quaker slave-holder in Barbados, at a time when the oppression involved in slavery was still unperceived, was at least made alive to his responsibilities. The moral alertness of Fox's mind is well illustrated by his letter in 1657 "to Friends beyond sea that have Blacks and Indian Slaves." God, he says, is no respecter of persons, He has made all nations of one blood, and enlightened every man that came into the world. The gospel is glad tidings to every captivated creature under the whole heavens. And so, recognizing these things, Friends are to have the mind of Christ, and to be merciful as their heavenly Father is merciful. (5)

The witness of Friends on points of speech and dress thus touched some of the greatest issues of life, and is not to be treated as an excrescence on their main message. We ought rather to feel that the main message, under the conditions of that age, could not have been uttered in its purity and force if Friends had shrunk from giving it fearless application to these parts of life.
  1. See note in Camb. Journ. ii. 482; also F.P.T. 285 (cited ante, p. 198). Friends were careful to take off their hats in prayer. See ante, pp. 202, 247. 354.
  2. Guesses at Truth, 1878 edn. p. 127.
  3. Howgill's Works. p. 489 ; Penn's No Cross, No Crown, cap. ix. ; Barclay's Apology, Proposition xv. Cf. Penn's Pref. to Fox's Journ. xxxi.
  4. F.P.T. 251.
  5. Epistles, No. 153

Source: William C. Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism, 2nd edition.
Cambridge: University Press, 1961, pp 493-495.

In 1689, George Whitehead and other prominent Quakers presented an address to the House of Commons regarding their refusal to swear or take an oath, instead asking that they be allowed to affirm in courts and other such settings. In that year, under the joint rule of William and Mary, the Act of Toleration was passed by Parliament, allowing Quakers more freedom of religion, including the freedom from taking oaths. Click on this link to see a transcription of the Quakers Address. (51k, pdf format)

Quakers and Warfare

Braithwaite cites several examples of men who became convinced Quakers while serving in the army or navy, and who either resigned or were discharged because they could no longer perform their military duties in good conscience. One of these was William Edmondson, the Quaker missionary. Another was Thomas Lurting, a sailor from Stepney, who served with distinction in the navy for some years, but became convinced that warfare was wrong. He was nearly killed by his captain for his refusal, but his fearlessness cooled the captain's anger. Lurting later served on merchant ships as a mariner, but was impressed into the navy on several occasions, where his principles were again put to the test.

Source: The Beginnings of Quakerism, pp. 521-522.

Link to my Sufferings page.

This file was last updated on 9/19/2004.

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