In the England of Paine’s youth religious intolerance was widespread. Despite The Toleration Act of 1689 that provided legal freedom of worship for all who swore allegiance to the monarchs, the Church of England and Rome and the Puritan sects such as the Quakers were extremely antagonistic toward each other.
Paine’s father Joseph Pain was a practicing Quaker and his mother was a member of the Anglican Church. When they were married in her church, Joseph was expelled from the Quaker community.
The term Quaker is a byname of the Christian Society of Friends or Friends church. George Fox (1624-1691) who founded the society in England in the 1600s attributed the term Quakers to Justice Bennet of Derby who in 1650 referred to the Friends as Quakers "because we bid them tremble at the word of God." The Quakers represented the extreme left wing of the 17th-century English puritan movement. They advocated the direct inward apprehension of God without creeds, clergy, or other ecclesiastical forms. The Friends church has a long tradition of actively working for peace and opposing war.
Being raised in a household with opposing religious views may have been the catalyst for Paine’s skepticism. At a young age Thomas Paine would have keenly aware of the prejudice and discrimination of the dominating Anglicans toward the Quakers of Thetford. His lifetime in defense of the underdog might well be traced to these experiences. Paine expressed appreciation for the Quakers "…care of the poor of their society…" and "…the education of their children." But the Quakers could not escape Paine’s critical pen as he wrote of their austerity in "The Age of Reason". "I cannot help smiling at the conceit, that if the taste of a Quaker could have been consulted at creation, what a silent and drab coloured creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed its gaieties, nor a bird been permitted to sing."
According to Sidney Hook in his introduction to the "Essential Writings of Thomas Paine", Paine "speaks harshly of the Quakers in and around Philadelphia." Paine was zealous in defending civil disobedience if it meant refusal to do what strained a man’s religious conscience. But he condemned actions that, under the plea of conscience interfered with the prosecution of the war for freedom and independence." Paine complained that the Quakers were advising their members to resist the American authorities in carrying out their tasks of defense against British aggression. While he defended the Quaker’s right to refuse to bear arms in any war under any circumstances, Paine thought it treasonous when they prevented others from bearing arms.