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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Persecuted Protestants


Photo credit: ceridwen / Friends' Meeting House, St Giles / CC BY-SA 2.0

This image shows the present-day meeting house of the Society of Friends, who are popularly known as the Quakers. The founder of the Friends was a Leicestershire weaver George Fox (1624-91), who after 1647 began to preach publicly a spirituality based on direct access to God through the inner ‘Light of Christ’ without any need of texts or churchmen. During the later phase of the turbulent Civil Wars (1647-49) and during the Interregnum (1649-60), Quakers held mass meetings where people quaked in ecstasy, hence the name.

Quaker preachers arrived in Oxford in 1654 and were invited by the surgeon Richard Bettris and his wife Jane to hold meetings in their home in New Inn Hall Street. From the start the Quakers were subjected to abuse and persecution. During the 1650s students regularly disrupted their twice-weekly meetings, and after the Restoration in 1660 the Quakers experienced arrests, fines, and spells in jail. In 1670, a parliamentary statute effectively banned them and other Dissenters from holding meetings for worship. Identified as one of the radical sects of the Civil Wars, the Quakers were believed to be intent on overthrowing the established Church and social order. 

The Quakers obtained a measure of toleration during the short reign of the Catholic James II (r.1685-88), but it was after his deposition that they along with other Protestant sects were granted freedom of worship by act of Parliament. This enabled the Oxford Society of Friends to build a proper Meeting House behind 63-4 St Giles. But the numbers of Quakers in Oxford waned during the eighteenth century, and the building was sold in the 1860s.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Society gained new members, and 43 St Giles’ was purchased in 1939, and the Friends moved there permanently in 1946.