The English Civil Wars and Quaker Persecution
The English Civil Wars began originally as a dispute over financial matters between the King of England (Charles I) and Parliament, but the underlying issue of this time, concerned the religion of the nation, which at the time included Scotland, Ireland, and part of North America. The Parliament consisted mostly of Protestant middle-class gentries and merchants. They did not believe in the King’s proposal of religious standardization that he tried to enforce on the entire nation. The proposal was the catalyst for two wars between Scotland and England from years of 1638-1640, as well as a larger divide between the King and Parliament.
The events of these years led to a split in the nation over alliances. Those who supported the King were known as Royalists (or Cavaliers). This group was made up of higher-class citizens who respected social organization and solidity, as well as the King’s High Anglican beliefs. The opposing group, the so-called Roundheads, was made up of middle-class citizens who did not support a social hierarchy and were considered Puritans (a derogatory term at the time for radical reformers). By 1647, the English Civil War was under way.
The war between Scotland and England raged for the next five years. In 1649 Charles I was eventually convicted of treason and beheaded by the Parliament of England. As the right of the throne of England passed on to Charles II, an idea supported by both Ireland and Scotland, the Royalist English army was decisively defeated by the Roundheads. The monarchy of England was abolished, and a Commonwealth created. It was not until nine years later that Charles II returned from exile and resumed the monarchy of England.
During this war, actually driven by economic concerns, many religious radical groups were forming among the Roundheads. One of the most important groups was formed in 1650, and was later dubbed the “Quakers.” This religious movement held that the presence and grace of God was inside of everyone; they felt no need for elaborate church services, priests, or offerings of any kind. The Quakers also believed in the equality of men and women well ahead of their time. The lack of gender hierarchy in their religion led to others in the English nation to perceive them as a threat to their social and political structure.
The Quaker beliefs threatened the privileged in a way that no other dissenting group did. Their refusal to acknowledge the higher-class as superior to them caused widespread hatred for this evangelistic group. Word began to spread about the Quakers being witches, blasphemers, and heretics. The Quakers preached against the war and refused to take oaths to anyone but God, threatening the authority of the public army. They began to interrupt church services, until laws were passed to stop them; this began the tradition of speaking after the services. Officials persecuted the Quakers, imprisoning and torturing them, for their religious beliefs. It was thought that they would try to over take the government.
This persecution caused some Quakers to immigrate to places such as the American colonies, but there still remained a large population of Quakers in Europe. These people viewed the imprisonment, the torture, and the hardships as suffering that they enjoyed spiritually as their payment to God. This persecution, immigration, and acceptance of suffering began to slow down around the 1670s, but did not completely die until around the beginning of the 18th century. This concluded over fifty years of persecution brought on by the religious intolerance of a scared nation.
“English Civil War.” The Encyclopedia of Britain. 10th ed. 1993.
- - - . The Encyclopedia of Religion and War. 4th ed. 2004.