An Extremely Brief History of Quakers

An Extremely Brief History of Quakers

What is now known as Quakerism first emerged during the social and political turmoil of the English Civil War during the middle years of the seventeenth century. It had its roots several decades earlier, among the Seekers. Seekers shunned creeds, and were often considered heretical. Their meetings did not involve clergy, silence replaced liturgy, and attention was given to direct inspiration and religious experience. The organisation was informal, and respected other Christian denominations, other religions and atheism. Seekers were local to parts of northern England, and were from a specific stratum of society. Quakers drew from every stratum of society and quickly spread throughout England, the British Isles and beyond. Some Seekers later became Quakers.
 
Copies of William Braithwaite's history of Quakerism.
Copies of William Braithwaite’s history of Quakerism.
 
Four names frequently associated with the beginnings of Quakerism are George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn and James Naylor. The early years were very difficult, partly because the authorities, both Church and state, were extremely uneasy, not to say intolerant, of any beliefs or behaviour that might be perceived as challenging existing power and authority, readily imprisoning or torturing anyone about whom they felt suspicious; but also because Quakerism was new with everything yet to be worked out. George Fox and James Naylor are credited with developing some of the early spiritual understanding; George Fox and Margaret Fell are credited with formulating an organisational structure that allowed for both freedom and discipline. William Penn is credited with founding a state (Pennsylvania) based on Quaker principles.
 
The first Quakers believed that they were returning to the true roots of Christianity. These seventeenth century Quakers were exuberant both in their worship, sometimes meeting for several hours, and also in attempting to shake off the shackles of the state religion. They were often upstarts who disrupted Anglican church services (attendance at which was compulsory), and were arrested for their efforts. They resisted paying tithes to the church, which landed them in prison. Persecution of Quakers became intense, and laws were passed to try to prevent Quakers from meeting together. Many Quakers ignored the laws. George Fox and James Naylor, amongst many others, spent a lot of time in jail. Quakerism was forced to adapt.
 

Since its inception, Quakerism has been in a near permanent state of change, Quakers of each century have re-invented what it is to be a Quaker. This flux may be due to one of the defining characteristics of Quakerism: the absence of any credal statement of belief, coupled with a reliance on religious experience, direct inspiration and mechanisms for incorporating into Quaker practice and witness what is perceived to be ‘the will of God’. This approach is both remarkably robust, yet also its weakness, for the history of Quakerism is rife with schism. There were Quakers of northern England who felt a reluctance for the centre of Quakerism to relocate to London. There were Quakers who wished to give emphasis to the Bible, and Quakers for whom the inward experience was all important. There were Quakers who desired a minimal statement of Christian belief, and Quakers for whom such a statement was anathema. In the United States there were Quakers who supported the anti-slave federal government in waging war against the slave states of the Confederacy, and Quakers who wished to have nothing to do with fighting wars. There were Quakers of the rural mid-west who wanted hymns and pastors, and Quakers of the east coast who wanted unprogrammed meetings. In time, some Quaker congregations in the United States become almost indistinguishable from other Christian denominations, both in terms of religious observance and of belief; whereas others, especially in Britain, but also on the east coast of the United States, straddle the marcher lands between Christianity and other forms of spirituality.
 
Eighteenth century Quakers in Britain were socially shunned and so turned inwards to the Quaker community, dressing conservatively (as seen on the Quaker Oats logo), and were withdrawn in their religious observance. Barred from entering university, and therefore from any formal profession, they were vigorous in their pursuit of commerce, including banking (Lloyds and Barclays Banks were both founded by Quakers) and brewing, biscuits (Huntley and Palmer was a Quaker company) and confectionery (Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree were all Quaker businesses), and shoe-making (Clarks was a Quaker company). They earned a reputation for honesty and fair dealing. They were also increasingly vociferous in their opposition both to slave ownership and to the international slave trade.
 
Nineteenth century Quakers, on the other hand, became increasingly evangelical in their Christianity, full of missionary zeal, both to poor, working class people in Britain, setting up schools in working class areas; and also to people in colonised lands overseas, such as in East Africa. They were also leading lights in the temperance movement, and active in prison reform.
 
Twentieth century Quakers, especially in Britain, became renowned for their pacifism and conscientious objection. This first became significant with military conscription during the First World War. Some Quakers refused to be enrolled into military service, and were imprisoned. Others were forced into enrolment, but refused to fight, for which they were court-martialled. Some acted as stretcher bearers, rescuing wounded soldiers from the battlefield. There was little general social acceptance of the conscientious objection of Quakers. During the Second World War, some Quakers joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, again rescuing wounded combatants. Quakers were present when some of the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. It was American Quakers who were particularly instrumental in organising the Kindertransport, removing German Jewish children to places of safety.
 
During the second half of the twentieth century, Quakers were at the heart of the peace movement, in such organisations as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and at peace camps outside nuclear weapons bases such as Greenham Common, Molesworth and Faslane. Quakers were instrumental in the foundation of Oxfam, with its concern for economic justice for the developing world. Also from the middle of the century, Quakers were far out in front of the other churches in championing gay rights, and campaigning for gay marriage.
Twenty-first century Quakers have, amongst other things, been working to challenge social inequality and injustice in Britain.
 
What is obvious from this history of change is that Quakers have been consistent in their concern for society. This is called ‘faith in action’. Whilst, at least today, as in the earliest days, Quakers occupy a broad spectrum of theological belief, the continuing history of Quakerism shows considerable single-mindedness in enacting its belief in social concern. Some Quakers might express this as ‘building God’s kingdom here on Earth’, others might say that they are responding to ‘the light of Christ’, and yet others might say that they experience an inner imperative to live out the principles of love and truth.