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Religious Freedom Lessons from the Quakers

What a 17th-century woman leader taught me about fighting for freedom—for all

I’m not a Quaker, but the Quakers are a big part of my family history. My mother’s family came to America with William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania. As a result, the Quakers loomed large in my imagination when I was growing up. As a young teenager I became interested in the abolitionist movement of the 1800s, and I was delighted to find that the Quakers played a significant role in abolishing slavery. So, when I came across Margaret Fell, a woman who is known as “the mother of Quakerism,” I wanted to know more.

Margaret Fell was born in 1614 and lived almost a century, dying in 1702. In her late teens, she married Thomas Fell and became the lady of Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria, England. When she was in her late 30s, she heard George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers), and was completely convinced of the Quaker beliefs.

The Fells’s impressive estate became a center of Quaker activity as Margaret took charge of communicating, personally and officially, to missionaries of the movement. She also became a fundraiser for these missionaries, which was invaluable because she had contacts among the wealthy in England. Unfortunately, Thomas died just a few years later, but that didn’t stop Margaret’s ministry. Their home become a haven for those who were being persecuted for their faith by the government.

Because she was part of the gentry and therefore had standing in society, she lobbied for George Fox and others who were often at odds with King Charles II’s rule concerning freedom of religion. But her bold stance was not without cost. When she was 40, Margaret was arrested for allowing Quaker meetings to be held in her home and for failing to take an oath (Quaker beliefs hold that all people are equal and thus one shouldn’t swear loyalty to the king). She defended herself by saying "as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it." Her stand resulted in four years of prison, but she didn’t lose focus. While in jail, she wrote prolifically, including a Scripture-based argument for women serving in ministry. When she was released, she married George Fox.

It wasn’t until after George’s death, though, in the 1690s, that Margaret finally saw at least partial legal tolerance of the Quakers. Until her death, Margaret continued to fight for religious freedom, and for following God with the freedom Christ gives. In the last decade of her life, she firmly opposed fellow Quakers who tried to establish standards of conduct, such as what Quakers should wear. Margaret felt establishing such standards and rules took the focus off of Christ, his kingdom, and the freedom he provides.

I’ve spent some time thinking about Margaret and what I can learn from her today. These are some of the things that have been running through my mind:

I should not take religious freedom for granted.

Margaret was willing to give up her own freedom in order to gain religious freedom for others. As Christian leaders today, the temptation as things heat up in our society is to circle the wagons and create a society that only includes those who are like us. We want to maintain our freedoms as we restrict the freedoms of those who believe differently from us. As our society continues to change, we have to allow those who follow different religions the freedom we so crave ourselves. If we don’t do that, it spells doom for the religious freedom of those who come after us. Whatever religious group is dominant will give their own favor and restrict the freedoms of everyone else, and we can’t count on Christians being in charge in our society.

That means as church leaders we must help our congregants understand that advancing Christian freedom means we advance the freedom of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Jews, and so on. After all, England was a “Christian” nation when the Quakers were being horribly persecuted. That doesn’t mean we water down what we believe or affirm what others believe, but we must fight for everyone’s right to believe whatever their consciences confirm. We will only have freedom if everyone has freedom. And the only chance we have of persuading them that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, is if they see we are on their side.

I need to stand for truth, even if it costs me.

As our society becomes more pluralistic, we will become more and more odd to those around us. I’m sure the fellow gentry of England thought Margaret had become strange and radical. And she had!

I want the people in my church to realize we can’t go on as our American ancestors did. We do not live in a society that comprehends us, and we most likely never will again. Standing for Christ will not mean we simply demand our rights; it will mean we sacrificially demonstrate what it means to be Christ-like. That will cost me something—it may cost me a great deal.

It may also look differently from what we Christians are expending our energy on right now. It will mean less time trying to create a society that adopts our morals and a lot of time going to bat for others, even people who do or believe things we don’t approve of or condone.

Cultural Christianity has to take a backseat. We can’t be Christians who simply want a comfortable life. We can’t want Christianity simply because it supports the lifestyle we crave for ourselves and our families. We must be true, genuine Christians who let Christ turn our lives upside down. We have to face our biases and our sins. We have to admit that although we are good at standing for a moral code of ethics, we really stink at hypocrisy, pride, anger, lust, prejudice, and more. We have to stand for truth.

I can’t waste time on things that don’t matter.

I love that Margaret refused to get pulled into condoning piddly stuff, such as what Christians should wear. It makes me take care as I communicate with those in my church that we don’t get hung up on outward appearances and rules. It’s such a temptation because having a set of rules to adhere to makes the Christian life so much easier. We can just check things off the list, and feel we’ve arrived. What that leads to, though, is an attitude of judgment toward others who don’t know or understand the rules. Instead, Christ calls us to lay our lives bare and to let him pull apart all the loose threads as he weaves us into a tapestry that tells his story through our lives. That’s the kind of church I want to be part of. And when I get to heaven, I can’t wait to talk it over with Margaret.

JoHannah Reardon loves her church and ministry, but always wants to model what it means to more faithfully follow Christ. Find her family devotional, Proverbs for Kids, and her many novels at www.johannahreardon.com. Look for her upcoming book No More Fear, which will be out in the fall of 2016.

July18, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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