Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE RELIGION OF THE QUAKERS. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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THE RELIGION OF THE QUAKERS. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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THE RELIGION OF THE QUAKERS.
Being of opinion that the doctrine and history of so extraordinary a sect as the Quakers were very well deserving the curiosity of every thinking man, I resolved to make myself acquainted with them, and for that purpose made a visit to one of the most eminent of that sect in England, who, after having been in trade for thirty years, had the wisdom to prescribe limits to his fortune, and to his desires, and withdrew to a small but pleasant retirement in the country, not many miles from London. Here it was that I made him my visit. His house was small, but neatly built, and with no other ornaments but those of decency and convenience. The Quaker himself was a hale, ruddy–complexioned old man, who had never suffered from sickness, because he had always been a stranger to passions and intemperance. I never in my life saw any one have a more noble, or a more engaging aspect. He was dressed after the fashion of those of his persuasion, in a plain coat, without plaits in the side, or buttons on the pockets and sleeves; and he wore a beaver hat, the brim of which flapped downward like those of our clergy. He advanced toward me without moving his hat, or making the least inclination of his body; but there appeared more real politeness in the open, humane air of his countenance, than in drawing one leg behind the other, and carrying that in the hand which is made to be worn on the head. “Friend,” said he, “I perceive thou art a stranger, if I can do thee any service thou hast only to let me know it.” “Sir,” I replied, bowing my body, and sliding one leg toward him, as is the custom with us, “I flatter myself that my curiosity, which you will allow to be just, will not give you any offence, and that you will do me the honor to inform me of the particulars of your religion.” “The people of thy country,” answered the Quaker, “are too full of their bows and their compliments; but I never yet met with one of them who had so much curiosity as thyself. Come in and let us dine first together.” I still continued to make some silly compliments, it not being easy to disengage at once oneself from habits we have been long accustomed to; and after taking part of a frugal meal, which began and ended with a prayer to God, I began to put questions to my plain host.
I opened with that which good Catholics have more than once made to Huguenots. “My dear sir,” said I, “were you ever baptized?” “No, friend,” replied the Quaker, “nor any of my brethren.” “Zounds!” said I to him, “you are not Christians then!” “Friend,” replied the old man, in a soft tone of voice, “do not swear; we are Christians, but we do not think that sprinkling a few drops of water on a child’s head makes him a Christian.” “My God!” exclaimed I, shocked at his impiety, “have you then forgotten that Christ was baptized by St. John?” “Friend,” replied the mild Quaker, “once again, do not swear. Christ was baptized by John, but He Himself never baptized any one; now we profess ourselves disciples of Christ, and not of John.” “Mercy on us,” cried I, “what a fine subject you would be for the holy inquisitor! In the name of God, my good old man, let me baptize you.” “Were that all,” replied he very gravely, “we would submit cheerfully to be baptized, purely in compliance with thy weakness; for we do not condemn any person who uses that rite; but, on the other hand, we think that those who profess a religion of so holy and spiritual a nature as that of Christ, ought to abstain to the utmost of their power from Jewish ceremonies.”
“Why, there again!” said I, “baptism a Jewish ceremony!” “Yes, my friend,” said he, “and so truly Jewish, that many Jews use the baptism of John to this day. Peruse ancient authors, and they will show thee that John only revived this practice, and that it was in use among the Hebrews long before his time, the same as the pilgrimage to Mecca was among the Ishmaelites. Jesus indeed submitted to be baptized of John, in the like manner as He had undergone circumcision; but both the one and the other ceremony were to end in the baptism of Christ, that baptism of the spirit, that ablution of the soul which is the salvation of mankind. Thus the forerunner John said, ‘I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.’ St. Paul likewise, the great apostle of the Gentiles, writes thus to the Corinthians: ‘Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel.’ Accordingly Paul never baptized but two persons with water, and that against his inclination. He circumcised his disciple, Timothy; and the other apostles circumcised all those who were desirous of it. Art thou circumcised?” added he. “I really have not that honor,” replied I. “Wilt thou, friend?” replied the Quaker; “thou art a Christian without being circumcised, and I am one without being baptized.”
Thus did my pious host make a false but very specious application of three or four passages of Holy Writ, which seemed to favor the tenets of his sect; but at the same time forgot, very sincerely, above a hundred others that directly overturned them. I resolved not to contend with him, as there is nothing to be gained by arguing with an enthusiast: one should never pretend to revéal to a lover his mistress’ faults, to a lawyer the weakness of one’s cause, nor force the truth upon a fanatic. Accordingly I proceeded to other questions.
“Pray,” said I to him, “in what manner do you communicate?” “We have no such ceremony among us,” replied he. “How!” said I, “have you no communion?” “No,” answered he; “no other than that of hearts.” He then began again to quote his texts of Scripture, and read me a very curious lecture against the sacrament; and harangued with a tone of inspiration to prove that the sacraments were mere human inventions, and that the word “sacrament” was not once mentioned in the Scripture. “I must ask thy excuse,” said he, “for my ignorance; for I am sensible I have not employed a hundredth part of the arguments that might be made use of, to prove the truth of our religion: but thou mayest see them all amply unfolded in the ‘Exposition of Our Faith,’ written by Robert Barclay. It is one of the best books that ever came from the hand of man; our very adversaries confess it is dangerous, and that is sufficient alone to prove its goodness.” I promised to peruse this piece; and my Quaker thought he had already made a convert.
He then proceeded to give me a brief account of certain singularities, which make this sect the contempt of others. “Confess,” said he, “that it was very difficult for thee to refrain from laughing, when I answered all thy compliments without uncovering my head, and at the same time spoke to thee only with ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ However, thou appearest to me too well read not to know, that, in Christ’s time, no nation was so ridiculous as to use the plural for the singular. They said to Augustus Cæsar himself, ‘I love thee’, ‘I beseech thee’, ‘I thank thee’; and he would not even suffer himself to be called ‘domine’; ‘sir.’ It was not till long after his time that men took the ridiculous notion of having themselves called ‘you’, instead of ‘thou’, as if they were double, and usurped the impertinent titles of ‘lordship’, ‘eminence’, and ‘holiness’, which poor reptiles bestow on other reptiles like themselves; assuring them, that they are, ‘with the most profound respect’, and an infamous falsehood, their ‘most obedient humble servants’. It is the more effectually to secure ourselves against this shameful traffic of lies and flattery, that we ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ a king, with the same freedom as we do his meanest servant; and salute no person, as owing mankind only charity, and respect only to the laws.
“We dress also differently from others, and this purely that it may be a perpetual warning to us not to imitate them. While others pride themselves on wearing the badges of their several dignities, we confine ourselves to those of Christian humility. We shun all the assemblies of the gay, we avoid places of diversions of all kinds, and carefully abstain from gaming; for wretched would be our state, indeed, were we to fill with such levities the heart that ought to be the habitation of God. We never swear, not even in a court of justice; being of opinion, that the name of the Most High ought not to be prostituted in the frivolous contests between man and man. When we are obliged to appear before a magistrate, upon the concerns of others—for lawsuits are unknown among the Friends—we affirm the truth by our ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ and they believe us on our simple affirmation, while other Christians are daily perjuring themselves on the blessed Gospels. We never take up arms, not that we are fearful of death; on the contrary, we bless the instant that unites us to the Being of beings. The reason is, that we are neither wolves, tigers, nor mastiffs, but men and Christians. Our God, who has commanded us to love our enemies, and to suffer without repining, can certainly not order us to cross the seas, and cut the throats of our fellow–creatures, as often as murderers, clothed in scarlet, and wearing caps two feet high, enlist peaceful citizens by a noise made with two sticks on an ass’ skin extended. And when, after the gaining of a battle, all London blazes with illuminations, when the air glows with fireworks, and a noise is heard of thanksgivings, of bells, of organs, and of cannon, we groan in silence for the cruel havoc which occasions these public rejoicings.”
Such was the substance of the conversation I had with this very singular person;1 and I was greatly surprised when, the Sunday following, he came to take me with him to one of their meetings. There are several of these in London; but that to which he carried me stands near the famous pillar called the Monument. The brethren were already assembled when I entered with my guide. There might be about four hundred men and three hundred women in the place. The women hid their faces with their hoods, and the men were covered with their broad–brimmed hats. All were sitting, and there was a universal silence amongst them. I passed through the midst of them; but not one lifted up his eyes to look at me. This silence lasted a quarter of an hour; when at last an old man rose up, took off his hat, and after making a number of wry faces, and groaning in a most lamentable manner, he, half–mouthing, half snuffling, threw out a heap of unaccountable stuff—taken, as he thought, from the Gospel—which neither himself nor any of his auditors understood. When this religious buffoon had ended his curious soliloquy, and the assembly broke up, very much edified, and very stupid, I asked my guide how it was possible the judicious part of them could suffer such incoherent prating? “We are obliged,” said he, “to suffer it, because no one knows, when a brother rises up to hold forth, whether he will be moved by the spirit or by folly. In this uncertainty, we listen patiently to every one. We even allow our women to speak in public; two or three of them are often inspired at the same time, and then a most charming noise is heard in the Lord’s house.” “You have no priests, then?” said I. “No, no, friend,” replied the Quaker; “heaven make us thankful!” Then opening one of the books of their sect, he read the following words in an emphatic tone: “ ‘God forbid we should presume to ordain any one to receive the Holy Spirit on the Lord’s day, in exclusion to the rest of the faithful!’ Thanks to the Almighty, we are the only people upon earth that have no priests! Wouldst thou deprive us of so happy a distinction? Wherefore should we abandon our child to hireling nurses, when we ourselves have milk enough to nourish it? These mercenary creatures would quickly domineer in our houses, and oppress both the mother and the child. God has said, ‘You have received freely, give as freely.’ Shall we, after this injunction, barter, as it were, the Gospel; sell the Holy Spirit, and make of an assembly of Christians a mere shop of traders? We do not give money to a set of men, clothed in black, to assist our poor, to bury our dead, or to preach to the brethren; these holy offices are held in too high esteem by us to entrust them to others.” “But how,” said I, with some warmth; “how can you pretend to know whether your discourse is really inspired by the Almighty?” “Whosoever,” replied my friend, “shall implore Christ to enlighten him, and shall publish the truths contained in the Gospel, of which he inwardly feels, such a one may be assured that he is inspired by the Lord. He then overwhelmed me with a multitude of Scripture quotations, which proved, as he imagined, that there is no such thing as Christianity, without an immediate revelation; and added these remarkable words: “When thou movest one of thy limbs, is it moved by thy own power? Certainly not; for this limb is often liable to involuntary motions; consequently He who created thy body gives motion to this earthy tabernacle. Or are the several ideas, of which thy soul receives the impression, of thy own formation? Still less so; for they come upon thee whether thou wilt or no, consequently thou receivest thy ideas from Him who created thy soul. But as He leaves thy heart at full liberty, He gives thy mind such ideas as thy heart may deserve; if thou livest in God, thou actest and thinkest in God. After this, thou needest but open thine eyes to that light which enlightens all mankind, and then thou wilt perceive the truth, and make others perceive it.” “Why, this,” said I, “is our Malebranche’s doctrine to a tittle.” “I am acquainted with thy Malebranche,” said he; “he had something of the Quaker in him; but he was not enough so.”
These are the main particulars that I have been able to gather, concerning the doctrine of the Quakers. In the ensuing pages you will find some account of their history, which is still more singular than their opinions.
You have already heard that the Quakers date their epoch from Christ, who, according to them, was the first Quaker. Religion, say they, was corrupted almost immediately after His death, and remained in that state of corruption about sixteen hundred years. But there were always a few of the faithful concealed in the world, who carefully preserved the sacred fire, which was extinguished in all but themselves; till at length this light shone out in England in 1642.
It was at the time when Great Britain was distracted by intestine wars, which three or four sects had raised in the name of God, that one George Fox, a native of Leicestershire, and son of a silk–weaver, took it into his head to preach the Word, and, as he pretended, with all the requisites of a true apostle; that is, without being able either to read or write. He was a young man, about twenty–five years of age, of irreproachable manners, and religiously mad. He was clad in leather from head to foot, and travelled from one village to another, exclaiming against the war and the clergy. Had he confined his invectives to the military only, he would have had nothing to fear; but he inveighed against churchmen. Fox was seized at Derby, and being carried before a justice of peace, he stood with his leathern hat on; upon which an officer gave him a great box on the ear, and cried to him, “You unmannerly rascal, don’t you know you are to appear uncovered before his worship?” Fox very deliberately presented his other cheek to the officer, and begged him to give him another box on the ear for God’s sake. The justice would have had him sworn before he put any questions to him; but Fox refused, saying, “Friend, know that I never swear.” The justice, finding himself “thee’d” and “thou’d” by him, and enraged at his insolence, ordered him to the house of correction, there to be whipped. Fox returned thanks to the Lord all the way he went to prison, where the justice’s orders were executed with great severity. Those who whipped him were greatly surprised to hear this enthusiast beseech them to give him a few more lashes, for the good of his soul. These gentlemen did not wait for many entreaties: Mr. Fox had his dose doubled, for which he thanked them very cordially, and then began to hold forth. At first the attendants began laughing; but they afterward listened to him; and as enthusiasm is a catching distemper, many were persuaded, and those who had scourged him became his disciples. Being afterward set at liberty, he went up and down the country, with a dozen proselytes at his heels, declaiming against the clergy, and receiving flagellations from time to time. One day being set in the pillory, he made so moving a harangue to the crowd, that fifty of the auditors became his converts; and he won so much over the rest, that they tumultuously pulled his head out of the hole, and then went in a body to search for the Church of England clergyman who had been chiefly instrumental in bringing him to this punishment, and set him on the same pillory where Fox had stood.
Fox had the boldness to make converts of some of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers, who immediately quitted the service, and refused to take the oaths. Oliver, having as great a contempt for a sect which would not fight as Pope Sixtus V. had for another sect, dove non si chiavava, began to persecute these new converts. The prisons were crowded with them; but persecution seldom has any other effect than to increase the number of proselytes. They came forth from their confinement more full of zeal than ever, and followed by their jailers, whom they had converted. But what contributed chiefly to the spreading of this sect were the following circumstances: Fox thought himself inspired, and was therefore of opinion, that he must speak in a manner different from the rest of mankind: upon which he began to writhe his body, to screw up the muscles of his face, to hold in his breath, and to exhale it again in a forcible manner, insomuch that the priestess of the Delphic god could not have acted her part to better advantage. Inspiration soon became so habitual to him, that he could scarcely deliver himself in any other manner. This was the first gift he communicated to his disciples: these copied their master closely in his grimaces and contortions, and shook from head to foot at the instant of inspiration; and hence they got the name of Quakers. The vulgar, ever the dupes of novelty, amused themselves with mimicking these people, trembled, spoke through the nose, quaked, and fancied themselves inspired by the Holy Ghost. They only lacked a few miracles, and those they wrought.
This new patriarch Fox said one day to a justice of peace, before a large assembly of people. “Friend, take care what thou dost; God will soon punish thee for persecuting his saints.” This magistrate, being one who besotted himself every day with bad beer and brandy, died of apoplexy two days after; just as he had signed a mittimus for imprisoning some Quakers. The sudden death of this justice was not ascribed to his intemperance; but was universally looked upon as the effect of the holy man’s predictions; so that this accident made more Quakers than a thousand sermons and as many shaking fits would have done. Cromwell, finding them increase daily, was willing to bring them over to his party, and for that purpose tried bribery; however, he found them incorruptible, which made him one day declare that this was the only religion he had ever met with that could resist the charms of gold.
The Quakers suffered several persecutions under Charles II.; not upon a religious account, but for refusing to pay the tithes, for “theeing” and “thouing” the magistrates, and for refusing to take the oaths enacted by the laws.
At length Robert Barclay, a native of Scotland, presented to the king, in 1675, his “Apology for the Quakers”; a work as well drawn up as the subject could possibly admit. The dedication to Charles II., instead of being filled with mean, flattering encomiums, abounds with bold truths and the wisest counsels. “Thou hast tasted,” says he to the king, at the close of his “Epistle Dedicatory,” “of prosperity and adversity: thou hast been driven out of the country over which thou now reignest, and from the throne on which thou sittest: thou hast groaned beneath the yoke of oppression; therefore hast thou reason to know how hateful the oppressor is both to God and man. If, after all these warnings and advertisements, thou dost not turn unto the Lord, with all thy heart; but forget Him who remembered thee in thy distress, and give thyself up to follow lust and vanity, surely great will be thy guilt, and bitter thy condemnation. Instead of listening to the flatterers about thee, hearken only to the voice that is within thee, which never flatters. I am thy faithful friend and servant, Robert Barclay.”
The most surprising circumstance is that this letter, though written by an obscure person, was so happy in its effect as to put a stop to the persecution.
About this time appeared the illustrious William Penn, who established the power of the Quakers in America, and would have rendered them respectable in the eyes of the Europeans, if mankind could respect virtue when appearing in the shape of folly. This man was the only son of Vice–Admiral Penn, favorite of the duke of York, afterward King James II.
William Penn, when only fifteen years of age, chanced to meet a Quaker in Oxford, where he was then following his studies. This Quaker made a proselyte of him; and our young man, being naturally sprightly and eloquent, having a very winning aspect and engaging carriage, soon gained over some of his companions and intimates, and in a short time formed a society of young Quakers, who met at his house; so that at the age of sixteen he found himself at the head of a sect. Having left college, at his return home to the vice–admiral, his father, instead of kneeling to ask his blessing, as is the custom with the English, he went up to him with his hat on, and accosted him thus: “Friend, I am glad to see thee in good health.” The vice–admiral thought his son crazy; but soon discovered he was a Quaker. He then employed every method that prudence could suggest to engage him to behave and act like other people. The youth answered his father only with repeated exhortations to turn Quaker also. After much altercation, his father confined himself to this single request, that he would wait on the king and the duke of York with his hat under his arm, and that he would not “thee” and “thou” them. William answered that his conscience would not permit him to do these things. This exasperated his father to such a degree that he turned him out of doors. Young Penn gave God thanks that he permitted him to suffer so early in His cause, and went into the city, where he held forth, and made a great number of converts; and being young, handsome, and of a graceful figure, both court and city ladies flocked very devoutly to hear him. The patriarch Fox, hearing of his great reputation, came to London—notwithstanding the length of the journey—purposely to see and converse with him. They both agreed to go upon missions into foreign countries; and accordingly they embarked for Holland, after having left a sufficient number of laborers to take care of the London vineyard.
Their labors met with all the success they could wish in Amsterdam; but a circumstance which reflected the greatest honor on them, and at the same time put their humility to the strongest test, was the reception they met from the princess Palatine, Elizabeth, aunt of George I. of Great Britain, a lady conspicuous for her genius and knowledge, and to whom Descartes had dedicated his “Philosophical Romance.”
She was then retired to The Hague, where she received these Friends; for so the Quakers were at that time called in Holland. This princess had several conferences with them; they held several of their meetings at her house, and, if they did not make a perfect convert of her, they at least acknowledged that she was not far from the kingdom of heaven. The Friends sowed the good seed likewise in Germany; but had only an indifferent harvest; for the mode of “theeing” and “thouing” was not relished in a country where every one was obliged to make use of “your highness,” and “your excellence.” Penn soon quitted that country, and returned to England, having received advice that his father was ill, to see him before he died. The vice–admiral was reconciled to his son, and, though of a different persuasion, embraced him tenderly. William in vain exhorted his father not to receive the sacrament, and to die a Quaker; and the good old man entreated his son William to wear buttons on his sleeves, and a crape hatband in his beaver; but all to no purpose.
William inherited very large possessions, part of which consisted of crown debts, due to the vice–admiral for sums he had advanced for the sea–service. No moneys were at that time less secure than those owing from the king. Penn was obliged to go, more than once, and “thee” and “thou” Charles and his ministers, to recover the debt; and at last, instead of specie, the government invested him with the right and sovereignty of a province of America, to the south of Maryland. Thus was a Quaker raised to sovereign power.
He set sail for his new dominions with two ships filled with Quakers, who followed his fortune. The country was then named by them Pennsylvania from William Penn; and he founded Philadelphia, which is now a very flourishing city. His first care was to make an alliance with his American neighbors; and this is the only treaty between those people and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and that was never infringed. The new sovereign also enacted several wise and wholesome laws for his colony, which have remained invariably the same to this day. The chief is, to ill–treat no person on account of religion, and to consider as brethren all those who believe in one God. He had no sooner settled his government than several American merchants came and peopled this colony. The natives of the country, instead of flying into the woods, cultivated by degrees a friendship with the peaceable Quakers. They loved these new strangers as much as they disliked the other Christians, who had conquered and ravaged America. In a little time these savages, as they are called, delighted with their new neighbors, flocked in crowds to Penn, to offer themselves as his vassals. It was an uncommon thing to behold a sovereign “thee’d” and “thou’d” by his subjects, and addressed by them with their hats on; and no less singular for a government to be without one priest in it; a people without arms, either for offence or preservation; a body of citizens without any distinctions but those of public employments; and for neighbors to live together free from envy or jealousy. In a word, William Penn might, with reason, boast of having brought down upon earth the Golden Age, which in all probability, never had any real existence but in his dominions.
Some time afterwards he returned to England, to settle some affairs relating to his new dominions. King James II., who had loved his father, had the same affection for the son, and considered him rather as a great man than an obscure sectary. The king’s politics, on this occasion, agreed with his inclinations. He was desirous of pleasing the Quakers, by annulling the laws made against Nonconformists, in order to have an opportunity, by this general toleration, to introduce the Romish religion. All the sectaries in England saw the snare that was laid for them, and took care to be on their guard; they always unite when the Romish religion, their common enemy, is to be opposed. But Penn did not think himself bound, in any manner, to renounce his principles, merely to favor Protestants who hated him, in opposition to a king who loved him. He had established liberty of conscience in his American dominions, and he would not appear to intend to destroy it in Europe. He therefore adhered to James, and so strictly, that he was generally accused of being a Jesuit. However, the unfortunate King James II. was, like most princes of the Stuart family, an odd medley of grandeur and weakness; and, like them, always did too much or too little, lost his kingdom in a manner that could not be accounted for. All the English sectaries accepted from William III. and his parliament, the toleration and indulgence which they had refused when offered by King James. It was then the Quakers began to enjoy, by virtue of the laws, the several privileges they possess at this time.
Penn, having at length seen Quakerism firmly established in his native country, returned to Pennsylvania; where, at his arrival, he was received by his own people and the Americans with tears of joy, as if he had been a father, returned to his children after a long absence. The laws he had enacted had been religiously observed in his absence; a circumstance which had happened to no legislator but himself. After having resided some years in Pennsylvania, he quitted it, but with great reluctance, to return to England, there to solicit some matters in favor of the trade of Pennsylvania. But he lived not to revisit it again, being taken off by death in London, in 1718.
It was in the reign of Charles II. that they obtained the noble distinction of being exempted from giving their testimony on oath in a court of justice, and being believed on their bare affirmation. On this occasion the chancellor, who was a man of wit, spoke to them as follows: “Friends, Jupiter one day ordered that all the beasts of burden should repair to be shod. The asses represented that their laws would not allow them to submit to that operation. ‘Very well,’ said Jupiter; ‘then you shall not be shod; but the first false step you make, you may depend upon being severely drubbed.’ ”
I cannot guess what may be the fate of Quakerism in America; but I perceive it loses ground daily in England. In all countries, where the established religion is of a mild and tolerating nature, it will at length swallow up all the rest. Quakers cannot sit as representatives in parliament, nor can they enjoy any posts or office under the government, because an oath must be always taken on these occasions, and they never swear; so that they are reduced to the necessity of subsisting by traffic. Their children, when enriched by the industry of their parents, become desirous of enjoying honors, and of wearing buttons and ruffles; are ashamed of being called Quakers, and become converts to the Church of England, merely to be in the faction.
[1 ]The name of this Quaker was Andrew Pit; and the whole of the preceding chapter is strictly true, except in a very few circumstances. Andrew Pit lately wrote to the author, to complain that he had a little amplified facts, assuring him at the same time that God was greatly offended at his having diverted himself and his readers at the expense of the Quakers.