Religious Liberty Day: for Friends & Others
If I was the Quaker Pope, Fifth Month (May) 24 would be one of the biggest Quaker holidays/festivals on our [non]liturgical calendar. That’s because it is (or should be), “Religious Liberty Day.”
It was on the 24th of Fifth Month, in 1689, that the Toleration Act, in official jargon, “received the Royal Assent,” and thus became law in England and its dominions.
Why is this important to Quakers?
Because that’s the day when Quakers & Quakerism became legal. It marked the successful conclusion to almost thirty years of suffering, organizing and lobbying.
I won’t try to recap this long, often bloody history. But from all accounts, it was tough: thousands of Quakers were jailed, many more lost property, and several hundred died as a result of their persecution.
Even those who simply wanted to be quiet Friends at home were not safe: informers and accusers earned bounties for denouncing others as heretics or “recusants.” A recusant was someone who refused to attend official Church of England services, and was thus presumed to be a Catholic. Catholics were then regarded as traitors plotting to overthrowing the government. They also met and worshipped in secret.
Quakers did not resist their persecution violently (leading Friend George Fox was imprisoned twice in this period, for a total of more than two years); but they did not passively put up with it either: they continued to meet openly, and protested persistently. They also created a centralized defense committee structure in London, soon headed by a new “Meeting for Sufferings.”
This committee compiled details about individual cases of persecution. They presented stacks of this data and petitions for relief of those in prison to royal officials and Parliament. This effort soon became a continuing lobby.
Such work was expensive even then: Friends needed to hire lawyers to draw up petitions and argue on their behalf, and soon the Committee was keeping a lobbyist busy full-time.
(Yes, this was not unlike today’s Friends Committee on National Legislation in the U.S. — except that FCNL does not normally have to petition to get hundreds of Quakers out of prison. Fortunately.) So London Friends also collected donations from Friends nationwide, to cover the expenses.
The petitions and lobbying not only aimed at getting individual Friends out of prison; they also called for a change in policy, to end persecution and make Friends and their Meetings legal.
Besides the persistent Quaker lobbying, other political factors soon came into play. In 1688, King James II, who was Catholic, was overthrown by nobles who wanted a Protestant monarch and favored his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William. This change, which happened with comparatively little bloodletting, came to be called the “Glorious Revolution.”
This royal soap opera concerns us because another part of the deal with William and Mary was that once crowned, they would support a formal policy of religious toleration. The Toleration Act was the result, which they signed into law on May 24, 1689: Religious Liberty Day.
The law allowed Friends [finally!] to meet openly, without penalty. And it respected Quaker scruples about taking oaths by permitting an unsworn declaration of loyalty to the Crown. It marked the dawn of religious liberty for them.
But its toleration was limited: it did not include Catholics or Jews, or any non-trinitarian Christian. Oaths were still required for admission to universities or service in parliament; these restrictions lasted in to the 1800s.
And one other requirement catches the eye. The Act stated in Article V that “if any assembly of persons dissenting from the Church of England shall be had in any place for religious worship with the doors locked, barred, or bolted, during any time of such meeting together, all and every persons or persons, that shall come to and be at such meeting, shall not receive any benefit from this law, but be liable to all the pains and penalties of all the aforesaid laws recited in this act . . . .” (Emphasis added.)
That passage reflected the suspicion that meetings behind locked doors involved “popish” plots and treason more than worship. But this was not a problem for Quakers, part of whose witness had been that they met openly, and demanded the liberty to do so undisturbed.
Despite its limitations, this law, much of which reflected the years of Quaker lobbying and petitioning, brought religious liberty to many other non-Anglican churches, especially the Congregationalists and Baptists, who had been meeting secretly. (Toleration for Catholics and Jews came much later.)
The spirit of Religious Liberty has risen again in Quaker history, as in the struggle to end slavery.
It is tragic that today some groups use a distorted version of “Religious Liberty” to justify oppression. That only makes it more important for Friends and others who cherish authentic religious liberty to remember its history, celebrate it, and keep it real.
May 24 is a fine day to do that.
And so is every other day.