We spend so much time complaining about religions that persecute us that we sometimes forget about the religions that support the cause of human rights for LGBT people. The Quakers certainly should be recognized for being probably the first religion to stick their necks out on our behalf. This happened during the 1970s when the battle lines began to be drawn between the church establishment and the emerging gay rights movement. Indeed, the Religious Society of Friends played a key part in establishment of free speech and freedom of thought here in the United States.
In the closing days of Women's History Month, I want to remember the Quaker women leaders for their courage in standing up for every human's right to follow her or his own conscience.
I was nearly 50 years old before I knew that my Warren immigrant ancestors were Quakers. Sir Richard Warren and his young son arrived in Boston in 1654 on the ship Endeavour. A genealogist cousin of mine had dug out the long-buried information.
It was in the mid-1600s that the Quakers first appeared in England, during a period of civil war when the Anglican Church was struggling with Puritan Protestantism to see which religion would control the country. Since neither Anglicans nor Puritans had any mercy for those who disagreed with them, it was inevitable that a radical group of dissenters like the Quakers would appear. George Fox and other Quaker leaders refused to recognize the authority of a state church, or the absolute authority of the Bible. They maintained that people should follow their own conscience and and listen to their own inner voice. Quakers shocked the establishment English by having no formal ministry or church services -- at their meetings, anybody could stand up and speak as the spirit moved them. Quakers refused to take their hats off to the King. They also took the 6th commandment seriously and refused to kill or serve in the King's army.
Worst of all, Quakers flouted the Bible teaching that women should be silent. Quaker women claimed a hefty degree of equality with men -- they spoke up at meetings, preached openly, and traveled around to speak out politically. They even dared to publish, at a time when women just didn't put their thoughts in print. Pioneering author Margaret Fell inked her historic essay "Women's Speaking Justified" in 1666, thereby launching a tradition of female radical liberationist writing that still continues today.
After Parliament outlawed services or meetings by any religion other than the established church, Quakers began fleeing for their lives to the colonies.
My ancestor Sir Richard must have found out pretty fast that Boston was the wrong place for a Quaker to get off the ship! Massachusetts Bay Colony was controlled by Puritans who were as nasty to other dissenters as the Anglican Church back home. Somehow Sir Richard and his son got out of Massachusetts unscathed and made their way to Long Island, where they helped to establish the famous Quaker community at Amity. The Dutch in New York colony were friendlier to religious diversity, as were the colonies of Rhode Island, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
The Warrens spent several generations on Long Island before migrating to West Virginia. There, in the late 1700s, they became free-thinking Methodists and later Freemasons. After the Civil War, my Freemason grandfather Dr. Otey Yancey Warren left the South and moved to Montana -- taking with him a tradition of independent thinking that survives in my family today.
The Friends' key role in establishment of religious liberty in America is seldom mentioned today. It's easy to understand why. Their rightful place in American history is being pre-empted by evangelical Protestants who love to posture about the importance of the Pilgrim Fathers, and to claim that they were the ones who struck the important blows for religious liberty. Yet the Pilgrim authorities were just as stiff-necked, cruel and intolerant as the Anglican authorities in England.
In Massachusetts Colony, Puritan hatred of Quakers went to incredible extremes. Quakers were formally banned by the passage of a law. They were hounded, imprisoned, branded and sometimes hanged. Quaker women were accused of being witches, stripped and publicly whipped. Among the notable women who were imprisoned and banished were Elizabeth Hooten, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin.
In 1660, the Massachusetts authorities went so far as to hang Mary Dyer, a Quaker leader who had defied banishment to return to the colony so she could fight for change in the colony's unjust religious laws. As her body swung there with long skirts billowing in the wind, a bystander said, "She hangs there as a flag." Dyer's execution stirred up so much controversy and revulsion against Puritan hegemony that it helped to dim intolerance in the colony.
By contrast, the colony of Pennsylvania, founded by Quaker leader William Penn, became a peaceful refuge for dissenters, and a leader in advocating tolerance. (As an interesting footnote, Penn's most prominent supporter in England was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham,
who was publicly and notoriously non-heterosexual and was one of the few titled peers to risk his own neck by speaking out against intolerance.) When the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment were finally added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, it was partly because of Quaker influence. It should also be noted that, by then, England had begun to realize it was time to give up the grisly war on dissenters -- in 1689 Parliament passed the Toleration Act, extending freedom of worship to all dissenters except Catholics.
Following their consciences, American Quakers pioneered a powerful commitment to social justice and political activism. As the 19th century came in, Quaker women educators helped to launch college education for American girls. Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and her sister Martha Coffin Wright, along with other prominent Quakers, were instrumental in launching the abolitionist movement and running the underground railroad for escaped slaves. Because of all the harsh treatment that Quakers had suffered in prison, Elizabeth Fry and other Quakers began working for American prison reform, humane treatment of inmates and abolition of the death penalty.
After the Civil War, Anthony, Mott, Wright and other Quaker women were among the early advocates for women's suffrage and women's liberation in the U.S. Eventually some Quakers joined the cause of reproductive freedom and pro-choice.
In the 20th century, the American Friends expanded their activism even more. During the world wars, many refused to serve in the military -- after some bitter court battles with the government, Quakers successfully established a legal standing for pacifism and conscientious objectors in uniform. The American tradition of supporting the Geneva Convention and advocating humane treatment of prisoners of war was also infuenced by Quakers (a tradition that our current administration has sadly abandoned during the Iraqi War).
Early in the black civil-rights movement, a young Quaker black man from Pennsylvania named Bayard Rustin, deeply influenced by the teachings of his Quaker mother, emerged as Martin Luther King's chief strategist. Rustin connected Dr. King with the non-violent ideals that would characterize King's leadership. Later Rustin came out one of the first black gay leaders.
As the feminist movement emerged in the 1970s, Quaker women writers like literary critic Margaret Ezell continued their tradition of marching to their own drumbeat. Ezell became a dissenter who differed sharply with movement icons like Virginia Woolf on how to look at women's history.
It's true that, over the century, the Friends had their doctrinal disagreements among themselves. Some groups -- especially in the South -- have shaded themselves towards evangelical Protestantism, complete with Bible-based moralism and formal services. But other groups have maintained the traditional MO, with the old emphasis on freedom of conscience -- which probably explains why Quakers were the first religion to welcome gay people. As early as 1963, British Quakers expressed tolerance towards homosexuality in a book titled Towards a Quaker View of Sex, published by the Friends Home Service Committee. In the 1970s, American Friends moved to support gay rights, and to open their meeting-house doors to LGBT worshipers.
Tolerant Quakers have stated, "To reject people on the grounds of sexual orientation is a denial of God's creation."
Today some Quaker groups, mostly in the Northeast, support same-sex marriage. But the issue continues to be hotly controversial among the different splinter groups of Friends. As I write this, a North Carolina group of gay-marriage-friendly Quakers had their meeting house yanked away from them by disapproving evangelical-type Quakers in that state.
Today the history of Quaker women waves like a flag for every American woman who has ever chafed at injustice against herself or others. Indeed, our nation is caught in a tragic moment of moving backwards on all those ideals that Quaker women fought for -- and sometimes died for -- notably the freedom of conscience that fundamentalist churchism is now trying so hard to squash. We could do worse than follow that flag.