Day 125: Quakers and Witchcraft



The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, were often accused of witchcraft in the early days of the movement. The Puritans looked at the mystical experience of the Quakers as being more of the Devil than of God, and felt like this sort of “possession” as it was often referred to, was of the same kind as they saw with those accused of witchcraft. While both the Puritans and the Quakers put an emphasis on miracles and the working of the Divine in the world around them, it was the Puritans who often mocked and abused the Quakers for believing in the curative powers of prayer and Divine intersession. For the Puritans sickness was seen as being directly related to sin, yet for Quakers like George Fox idea was that the human, however sinful, could be freed by their relationship with the “Light” within us all. This philosophy led to the Quaker healing practices often being labeled as witchcraft; witchcraft being seen generally as a subversion of power of the established Church. It became so that, as Sue Friday puts it, “The anti-authoritarian Quakers had not only eliminated an ecclesiastical hierarchy within their organization, but challenged the dominant government and church policies.” (Friday, 94). This sort of subversion was viewed on par with that of the so called “witches” that the Puritans were want to persecute. In this way we can see how connected Quakerism actually was to other folk beliefs also being persecuted by the Puritans at that time, e.g. folk magic and folk healing in general.

Women were often attracted to Quakers because of their anti-hierarchy stance and belief that men and women alike were children of God. This was in direct opposition of the Puritan stance on women, which viewed them as the source of all sin and therefore barred them, “the opportunity to participate in church government or the ministry.” (Friday, 94). With the Quakers women found equality they hadn’t been afforded for years, and for many of them like servants, Quakers gave them a sense of relief they had never known with the Catholic Church, Church of England, or with the Puritans. Because of this treatment of women the Puritans were given even more reason to accuse the Quakers of being witches.

Quakers have since the beginning been a religion focused on a mystical connection with the Divine in a very physical way. In Quaker worship members wait in silence for “that of God” to appear in someone. The manifestation of this presence often appears in the form of a “testimony” that is spoken by a member. Historically Quakers got their name (although it was originally a derogatory term) because members giving testimony would often shake or “quake” when speaking because of the overwhelming presence of God. This “quaking” led Puritans, Anglicans, and Baptists to accuse Quakers of becoming possessed by the Devil. This same accusation often carried over into Quaker healing sessions, which were often held in silence and involved the same sort of “quaking” as in Meeting for Worship. Puritans drew similarities between the healing work of Quakers and that of the folk healers that they were accusing of being witches.

When we look at early Quaker healing practices we have to refer to those few journal sources that we have. One great source is the journal of George Fox, who is often cited as the “founder” of the Friends movement, but really only rallied the already formed groups of Friends together. But, I will say that if it weren’t for the outspoken Fox the Friends would have probably all been killed off within a few years of the birth of the movement. In George Fox’s journal were are able to get a glimpse of how early Quakers felt about healing. It’s filled with miraculous healings, but Fox’s writings also contain references to herbalism and folk healing practices. In fact many of the early Quakers were herbalists, doctors, and apothecaries. They were never told to abandon their work when they joined the Quakers, but instead they were simply asked to think about how their work serves God and the world around them. In this was many of the healings we see among Quakers have both a physical element, seen in any herbal treatments or “physicks”, and a spiritual element seen in the gathering of Friends for healing sessions. Healing became for Friends as important of a work as worship itself, and often Meetings for Worship included miraculous healings of the members (as an aside it was not uncommon for early Quaker Meetings for Worship to last anywhere from three hours most of the day, so it was likely there would have been many opportunities for public healings as well as member testimonies).

George Fox’s relationship with other healers was usually always one of deep respect. In his journal he records many conversations with doctors and herbalists about their craft, and even at one time seeks to create a school that included a medicinal garden and courses on healing. He even often encouraged Friends who were doctors and herbalists to gather together to discuss how the movement affected their craft. Many other Quakers were known healers, although they might have never received any “formal” training. We have handwritten copies of recipe books, which include instructions for preparing both foods and medicinal items, from several Quaker women including William Penn’s mother.

Fox’s approach to those considered “conjurors” was much along the same lines as other healers and cunning folk. He often stood against them and their work, mostly as these conjurors were seen either as frauds and thieves, or as people who used their “gift” to harm others or make money. This was not an unusual distinction to make at this time. Quakers were much like other folk healers in the distinction between those who use their “gift” for good and those who use it for bad or selfish purposes. Unfortunately the Puritans didn’t make any such distinction and often burned both categories as witches.

There’s an interesting episode in Fox’s journal involving an altercation with a “conjuror” while Fox was imprisoned:

“There was also in the jail, while I was there, a prisoner, a wicked, ungodly man, who was a reputed conjuror. He threatened how he would talk with me, and what he would do to me; but he never had power to open his mouth to me. And once the jailer and he falling out, he threatened he would raise the Devil, and break his house down, so that he made the jailer afraid. Then I was moved of the Lord to go in his power, and rebuke him, and say unto him, ‘Come let us see what thou canst do; do thy worst,” and I told him the Devil was raised high enough in him already, but the power of God chained him down, so he slunk away from me.”

Fox as well as other Quakers were often very fervent in their belief in the immanent power of God in their lives. This belief gave rise to a movement of miraculous healings amongst Quakers. Many of these were recorded in Fox’s “Book of Miracles” which was unfortunately destroyed by later Quakers who wanted to separate themselves from what they viewed as their more mystical past. References to the “Book of Miracles” appear in others of Fox’s writings, and many of the miracles that would have been recorded can be read about in his Journal, but we don’t have even a quarter of what would have appeared in the “Book of Miracles”. This belief in miracles was another thing that separated Quakers from other religious groups at the time. By the mid 17th century the Anglican Church was still persecuting anything it considered “Popish” which in this case included much of the folk magic and folk healing traditions of Britain at that time. Along with it the Puritans, who would eventually seize all power in England, were seeking its own reforms of the Anglican Church (you can read about the Puritan influence on the Anglican Church elsewhere) as well as persecuting religious minorities and those it considered “witches”. And many of the religious minorities like the Baptists, Ranters, Muggletonians, Diggers, etc. were just seeking to survive, often at the expense of other religious groups. The Baptists were one example of this. They often sided with Anglican and Puritan leaders against the Quakers and helped them imprison and kill many early Friends.

All of this tension regarding Quaker miracles, which were often either completely denied by non-Quakers or viewed as witchcraft, led to a swift decline in religious healings and belief in miracles after the deaths of early Quaker leaders. Today you won’t find many modern Quakers talking about miracles, although many Quaker Meetings still hold what they call “Healing Circles” or “Meetings for Healing”.

In the end I’ve chosen to talk on this subject because 1) I’m a Quaker, and 2) this blog is about folk healing and folk magic in it’s various forms. To put it in perspective, the healing practices the early Quakers held were influenced by a folk culture that goes back centuries, and represents a living tradition that despite persecution didn’t ever die out. It influenced those Baptists and Puritans too who would eventually bring this folk culture over to America. The healing work I do today is a direct descendent of those beliefs that were so often called “witchcraft”. I’m the distant relation of healers who managed to keep their traditions alive through persecution and displacement.

A few great resources for more information:

Cadbury, Henry J. “George Fox’s Book of Miracles”
Carroll, Kenneth L. “Singing in the Spirit in Early Quakerism” from Quaker History vol. 73 no. 1, pp. 1-13
Friday, Sue “Witchcraft and Quaker Convincements” from Quaker History vol. 84 no. 2, pp. 89-115

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