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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IV. The Early Quakers

§ 1. George Fox and the Rise of the Quaker Movement in England

THE RISE of the quaker movement in England, which began with the public preaching of George Fox, just about the time of the execution of Charles I, was marked by a surprising outburst of literary activity. The new conception of religion was propagated with extraordinary zeal, and seemed likely at one time not only to change the face of English Christianity but to mould, after the quaker pattern, the religious life of the American colonies. It was essentially the rediscovery, by men and women whose whole training and environment were puritan, of the mystical element which lies close to the heart of Christianity, but which puritanism, with all its strength, had strangely missed. It was a revivified consciousness of God, bringing with it the conviction that the essence of Christ’s religion is not to be found in submission to outward authority, whether of church or of Bible, but in a direct experience, of God in the soul, and in a life lived in obedience to His will inwardly revealed.

The overmastering enthusiasm kindled by the new experience, due, as Fox and his followers believed, to the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit, impelled them to make it known by pen as well as voice. Rude countrymen from the fells of Westmorland, as well as scholars with a university training—even boys like James Parnell, who died a martyr in Colchester castle at the age of nineteen—became prolific writers as well as fervent preachers of mystical experience and practical righteousness. Books and pamphlets, broadsheets and public letters, followed one another in rapid succession, setting forth the new way of life, defending it against its adversaries, andpleading for liberty of conscience and of worship. The organisation by which they contrived to get so large a mass of writing into circulation is not yet fully understood. But the fact that they found readers affords noteworthy evidence of the ferment of men’s minds in that day, and of the dominance over their thoughts and lives of the religious interest.

Of all this vast output, there is not much that could possibly, by its intrinsic qualities, find any permanent place in English literature; its chief interest now is for the curious student of religious history. Nor can it be said to have influenced in any appreciable degree the intellectual outlook of English-speaking peoples, except in so far as it was one of the unnoticed factors in the evolution of religious thought from the hard dogmatism of puritan days to a more liberal and ethical interpretation of Christianity. Most of the early quaker writings, having served their temporary purpose, were read, so far as they continued to be used at all, by the adherents of the new conception of religious life, and by few or none beside.