The Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) began in England in the 17th century by people who were dissatisfied with the existing denominations and sects of Christianity. Unlike other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has tended toward little hierarchical structure, and no creeds.

History and Development

The movement was founded in England by George Fox (1624-1691), a nonconformist religious reformer. At the age of 19 he left home to seek “answers.” He sought guidance from the country’s leading spiritual advisors but quickly became disillusioned with their teachings and existing Christian denominations. He toured the country giving sermons where he argued that consecrated buildings and ordained ministers were irrelevant to the individual seeking God.

At the age of 23 he had a “divine revelation”; a voice which he claims told him "there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition”.  He believed that an element of God’s spirit is implanted within every person’s soul. He called this "the seed of Christ”, or "the seed of Light". Therefore, he believed that everyone has an innate inner capacity to comprehend the Word of God and express opinions on spiritual matters. The term comes from John 1:9 in the Christian Scriptures: "The true Light, that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

The movement came into conflict both with Cromwell’s Puritan government and later with the restored monarchy of Charles II, over a number of points: they refused to pay tithes to the state Church; to take oaths in court; to practice "hat honour" (tip/remove their hats to the king or other persons in positions of power); or to engage in a combat role during wartime. They developed an intense concern for the disadvantaged, including slaves, prisoners and inmates of asylums. They agitated for an end to slavery, and for improvements in living conditions in penitentiaries and treatments in mental institutions. 

The term Quaker comes from a comment made by a judge to Fox as he was about to be imprisoned.  When he was being taken away, Fox told the judge to "tremble at the word of the Lord”.  The judge sarcastically referred to Fox as a Quaker. The term stuck and has become the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends. During the second half of the 17th century, over 3000 Quakers spent time in English jails for their religious beliefs; many hundreds died there.

In 1660, a group of congregations were established, called preparative meetings. Once a month, these groups gathered together and held a monthly meeting. Four times a year, the latter groups would hold a quarterly meeting.  Finally, all of the quarters would gather annually for a yearly meeting. The Society of Friends had continued to grow so that by this time Fox had made more than 20,000 converts, and missionaries were at work in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the American colonies.

North America

The persecution of Quakers continued throughout the seventeenth century and many decided to emigrate in order to obtain religious freedom. The first Quakers to arrive in America were viewed as dangerous heretics in many of the colonies. They were deported as Witches, imprisoned or hung. They found a sanctuary in the Rhode Island colony, which had been founded on the principle of religious tolerance. William Penn (1644-1718) and other Quakers played a major role in the creation of the colonies of West Jersey (1675) and Pennsylvania (1682). These colonies were noted for their toleration of minority religious groups, like the Jews, Mennonites, Muslims and Quakers.

In 1688, a group of Friends in Germantown PA took a public stand against slavery; this is believed to be the first stirrings within a religious organisation of the abolitionist movement in America. Initial opposition towards Quakers eventually waned, particularly after the Toleration Act of 1689. Quakers became accepted as a denomination and many colonies’ constitutions exempted them from giving oaths in court. Quakers distanced themselves from society through their simple clothing and plain language (e.g. the use of "thee" and "thou" in place of "you"). As a group, they became well respected for their industriousness and high moral character.

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, tensions between Britain and the colonies increased. The Quakers tried to remain neutral. During the war most refused to pay military taxes or to fight. They became intensely disliked for their stand; some were exiled.

Following the war, a number of Quaker organisations were formed to promote social change in the areas of slavery, prison conditions, poverty, Native American affairs, etc. Quakers played a major role in organising and running the "Underground Railroad" - a system that helped runaway slaves to escape to freedom in the northern states and Canada.

Early in the nineteenth century, tensions increased within the movement over doctrinal matters. Elias Hicks from Long Island began preaching the primacy of the "Christ within" and the relative unimportance of the virgin birth, the crucifixion, resurrection and other fundamental Biblical beliefs. In time the movement split between the Hicksite and Orthodox factions. A second schism occurred in the 1840s among the Orthodox group. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting remained Orthodox, but the remaining Orthodox Meetings split between the more evangelical Gurneyites, and conservative Wilburites. By the early 20th century, the Quaker movement was divided into four groups:

1 - "Hicksites: a liberal wing concentrated in the eastern US, who emphasized social reform.

2 - "Gurneyites": the more progressive and evangelical Quakers who followed Joseph John Gurney, retained pastors, and were Bible centred.

3 - "Wilburites": the traditionalists who were more devoted to individual spiritual inspiration and followed John Wilbur. They were mostly from rural areas, and retained the traditional Quaker speech and dress.

4 - "Orthodox": the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a Christocentric group.

The first and second world wars created a crisis for the movement. Until that time, the Society was a pacifist organisation. Any Quaker who became a soldier was ejected from the community. However, during the two wars, some men were drawn up and entered the armed forces. During World War II, many American Quakers joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, an unofficial body supported by British Quakers. This allowed Quakers to volunteer as medical and ambulance personnel on the battlefields of the Middle East, India, China, and north-western Europe. All four branches of the faith joined together at the time of the First World War to create the American Friends Service Committee.


As with all large denominations, individual Quakers are religiously diverse. Their beliefs range from Evangelical (conservative) to liberal. The following beliefs are common to most Quakers:

• Friends believe that there exists an element of God’s spirit in every human soul.

• Simplicity, pacifism, and inner revelation are long standing Quaker beliefs. Their religion does not consist of accepting specific beliefs or of engaging in certain practices; it involves each person’s direct experience of God.

• They do not have a specific creed; however, many of the coordinating groups have created statements of faith. The statement by the largest Quaker body, the Friends United Meeting, includes beliefs in:
- true religion as a personal encounter with God, rather than ritual and ceremony
- individual worth before God
- worship as an act of seeking
- the virtues of moral purity, integrity, honesty, simplicity and humility
- Christian love and goodness
- concern for the suffering and unfortunate
- continuing revelation through the Holy Spirit

• Many do not regard the Bible as the only source of belief and conduct. They rely upon their Inner Light to resolve what they perceive as the Bible’s many contradictions. They also feel free to take advantage of scientific and philosophical findings from other sources.

• Individual Quakers hold diverse views concerning life after death. Few believe in the eternal punishment of individuals in a hell.

• All aspects of life are sacramental; they do not differentiate between the secular and the religious. No one day or one place or one activity is any more spiritual than any other.

• Quakers have had a tradition of opposing war. They have followed the beliefs of the early Christian movement which was strongly pacifist.

Quakers Today

There are about 300,000 members worldwide, including a large group in Kenya. In fact, the greatest concentration of Quakers lives in Kenya, where they follow an evangelical interpretation of Quakerism. There are 125,000 in North America. In the United States, they are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. Although many had settled in the South during the 19th century, almost all later left in protest over slavery.




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