Laws of the 17th Century Which Led to the
Persecution of Quakers
Barbara Blaugdone’s “An Account of the Travels, Sufferings, and Persecutions of Barbara Blaugdone” recounts her many arrests as she travels through England and Ireland, preaching Quaker beliefs. Her experience was certainly not unique, as many Quakers were similarly persecuted, including George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends. There were three primary laws in effect at the time of Blaugdone’s travels: The Uniformity Act of 1662, the Vagrancy Act of 1596 and the Blasphemy Act of 1650.
The Uniformity Act of 1662 under Charles II, which was preceded by similarly named acts in 1549, 1552 and 1559, sought to restore the dominance of the Church of England by establishing a set form of worship, which included compiling a new version of the Book of Common Prayer (Keir 240). The use of this book was mandatory at all religious services. Additionally, this Act made church attendance mandatory every Sunday, under the penalty of a fine of 12 pence (Thomas 1). This directly contradicted the Quaker belief that no place was holier than another, and that the church existed inside the souls of believers. For this reason Quakers did not feel the need to attend church, certainly not a man-made Anglican church, and were often penalized under this act. Additionally, Quakers often refused to pay the fine of twelve pence, and were as frequently imprisoned (Society of Friends 3).
In addition to being penalized under the Uniformity Act for not attending church, members of the Society of Friends could also be arrested for assembling to worship under the Vagrancy Laws, which were issued between 1596 and 1601. These laws were originally enacted to regulate the assembly of “masterless men,” i.e. those who were unemployed or not attached to noble households (Wesmith 4). However, the British government stretched these laws to include the case of traveling Quaker preachers (Society of Friends 3). Punishment for violating the Vagrancy Laws ranged from imprisonment or deportment to execution by hanging (Wesmith 4).
The Blasphemy Act of 1650 made illegal any blasphemous statement or act. Blasphemy is defined as: “profane speaking of God or sacred things or impious irreverence” (Oxford English Dictionary). More specifically, the British Government classified as blasphemous any person who claimed to be very God-like or equal to God. The Quakers were often arrested for preaching their belief in moral perfection and the possibility of transcending sin through communion with God.
These three laws, as well as additional regulations such as the requirement to swear an oath before testifying in court and the imposed paying of tithes to the church, made it extremely difficult for Quakers to practice and preach their faith as they wished. However, Blaugdone is only one of many examples of Quakers who bravely went forward, spreading their message despite this persecution. Their perseverance faced the Crown with the need to seriously consider religious tolerance, and all three of these laws were repealed with the Toleration Act of 1688 (Maitland 516).
Keir, Sir David Lindsay. The Constitutional History of Modern Britain. Sixth Edition. Oxford: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc, 1961.
Maitland, F.W. The Constitutional History of England. London: Cambridge University Press, 1911.
Smith, William. “Facts About Early Modern England : Vagrancy Laws.” Western Washington University. Accessed Feb. 16, 2005.
Society of Friends. Love to Know 1911 Online Encyclopedia. 2003. Accessed Feb 16, 2005. http://65.1911encyclopedia.org/F/FR/FRIENDS_SOCIETY_OF.htm
Thomas, Heather. Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 1998. Accessed Feb. 16, 2005. http://www.elizabethi.org