Quakers are a small Christian religious community focused on the non-hierarchical, spontaneous experience of God in worship and activism for social justice in the world. It grew out of the religious and social upheaval in 17th century England and is now present all over the world
Quakerism began in the 1640s, during the English Civil War, as one of the radical Puritan Christian movements that flourished in a time of tremendous social upheaval.
He challenged the mainstream Christianity of the time, emphasizing that God could speak to anyone and be present to anyone through the Holy Spirit: man or woman, old or young, educated elite or peasant.
Quaker worship meetings follow this pattern in that they have no leader or minister and instead see members sit in silence until God prompts them to share.
The movement has long placed a strong emphasis on social action and has left an important legacy on reforming industrialists and campaigning organizations in Britain.
After the Quaker faith began in Britain, it spread to the United States as many fled persecution in their own country. Since then it has spread throughout the world, especially in Africa.
In Britain, Quakerism has evolved over the last century into a liberal and inclusive movement, keen to welcome a wide range of spiritualities and traditions. For example, the Quakers were the first religious group to support same-sex marriage.
It always has some traffic, and there are about 12,000 of them todayQuakers in Britainand between 350,000 and 400,000 worldwide.
How did Quakerism begin?
The founder of the Quakers was an English clergyman from Leicestershire named George Fox. Believing he heard the voice of God, he began traveling the country during the English Civil War, attacking the established church and promoting a radical new form of Christianity.
He encountered many of the other deviant Christian movements at this time, but found them wanting and so gradually created his own sect, gathering followers through open-air preaching.
Its main distinction from the mainstream church was that all the ritual, function and structure that had sprung up around Christianity could be ignored if God spoke directly to people through the Holy Spirit. Early Quakers rejected the need for priests or ministers, formal religious education, and church buildings.
The Quakers formed what would become the Religious Society of Friends and spread throughout England in the following decades, despite considerable persecution and opposition from the authorities. Fox himself and other leaders were regularly imprisoned, and laws were passed that attempted to force Quakers to take an oath of allegiance (which they believed was against God's will) to prevent them from holding meetings.
Nevertheless, the movement continued to grow, and after the restoration of the monarchy in 1666, most official persecution ceased, with the Toleration Act of 1689 passed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, granting Quakers and other nonconformist Christians freedom of worship.
Beginning in the 1650s, some Quakers from Britain moved to start new lives in the North American colonies, with many moving particularly to Pennsylvania, an experimental colony founded by the English Quaker William Penn, who advocated religious freedom for all who promised.
As early as the 18th century, Quakers began to build a reputation in industry and business for honesty and high quality products. The three largest confectionery companies in England - Fry's (founded 1761), Rowntree's (1862) and Cadbury's (1824) - were all run by Quaker families.
While Quakers in England remained a quiet and fairly segregated community, theological disputes increasingly transcended the American branch, leading to a series of bloody conflicts and schisms over spirituality, as well as secular issues such as slavery and pacifism.
In the early 19th century, Quakers were influenced by the Second Great Awakening, a huge evangelical revival in the United States. This led many American Quakers to move away from the characteristic simplicity and disorganized nature of the early movement and instead develop more dominant religious structures such as ministers, church services, and missionary work in other countries. As a result, Quaker communities began to form around the world.
In Britain, however, most Quakers turned to modern and liberal interpretations of Christianity in the early 20th century. In doing so, they replaced their earlier evangelicalism with a greater emphasis on scientific rationalism, biblical criticism, social action, and suspicion of dogmatic beliefs.
In the post-war era, British Quakerism continued this development, becoming an almost exclusively progressive, liberal form of Christianity, rejecting all official doctrinal statements of belief and attracting many who preferred a more personal spirituality to organized religion.
What is a name?
Quakers usually call themselves Friends, and the British Quaker organization is officially called the Religious Society of Friends.
The early Quakers called themselves many different things, including Friends of Truth, which eventually became Friends.
It is said that "Quaker" was originally coined as an insult when its founder, George Fox, was prosecuted for blasphemy in 1650 and urged the judge to "tremble at the word of the Lord." Others say the name mocked the early Quakers, who sometimes trembled in spiritual ecstasy during worship meetings. Although Quaker was originally pejorative, it soon became the most common descriptor for the group and was long accepted by Quakers themselves.
While Quakers still use "Friend" internally today, they like to describe themselves as Quakers, and the Religious Society of Friends refer to themselves as Quakers in Britain.
How is Quakerism organized?
In Britain, the vast majority of Quakers belong to the British Yearly Meeting, which, as the name suggests, meets once a year to discuss Quaker affairs and traces its heritage back to the early days of the movement.
Each Quaker is also part of a local meeting, which is both a weekly worship meeting and also manages local matters for members.
Local meetings, in turn, are part of regionally organized area meetings, independent charities. District Assemblies liaise with Yearly Meeting Headquarters, conduct Quaker weddings, manage finances and register deaths.
Each annual meeting also appoints members to a number of committees and bodies which make central decisions, interact with other organizations and religious groups, direct Quaker work on social issues and run Friends House headquarters in London.
From the local assembly, Quakers reject formal leadership or hierarchies, and instead strive to make all decisions based on consensus and open discussion.
Around the world, British Quakers are part of the Friends World Consultation Committee, an umbrella gathering of Quaker movements around the world. They regularly host international conferences and other events.
What do Quakers believe?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer, as Quakers, almost exclusively among religious movements, never believed in codifying theology or doctrine. The early Quakers broke away from the mainline church because they believed that God spoke directly to all His people, without clergy, church services, or theological teaching.
As a result, Quakers have always believed that individuals can access divine wisdom and truth personally, through direct experience of God, and therefore it is inappropriate to create common statements of faith. This is why it is often said that Quakers are united more by their worship practice than by what they really believe happens in worship or who God is.
Although Quakerism has its roots in Christianity, Quakers today join the community from a variety of backgrounds, and not all see Christian traditions as central to their own spirituality. However, others would identify themselves as Christians and believe that they share basic principles with other denominations and churches.
Nevertheless, there are some broad values and ideas shared by most Quakers, some of which are also present inQuaker Belief and Practice, a book produced by Britain Yearly Meeting from 1738, containing testimonies, quotations from Quakers and other attempts to summarize the Quaker experience in writing. However, it is not expected that every Quaker must agree with everything in the book.
Important principles for Quakers include peace, justice, equality, simplicity, permanence, and truth, although many would typically define some of these ideas in very different terms.
The movement is best known for its social activism and campaigning. It has long been associated with pacifism, with Quakers known for their refusal to fight in both world wars, and in recent years has prioritized progressive social issues such as addressing climate change and LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Quakers have long been at the forefront of gender equality. The first Quakers in the 17th century argued, to the ridicule of their Christian contemporaries, that both women and men could hear about God and serve in his spirit, and the movement has emphasized gender equality ever since.
How do Quakers practice their faith?
The central experience for a Quaker is their local meeting for worship. They usually see members sitting in a circle in silence, waiting for God's prompting to contribute.
Each member can, if they choose, champion the "vocal ministry," offering a reflection, insight, or thought that they believe is true and helpful.
Certain members are given the responsibility to encourage and nurture the ministry of others in the congregations and are known as elders.Quaker Belief and Practiceit usually lies on a table somewhere in the room, and there is often a Bible as well.
Quaker meetings sometimes engage in more structured or planned worship, which they refer to as "scheduled," especially when they gather for a specific purpose or to intentionally involve all ages of worshipers.
Quaker weddings are also held as a gathering for worship, with a similar emphasis on silence and spontaneous contributions from all present.
In many ways this practice, which is very similar to Quaker worship dating back to George Fox, is what unifies Quakers rather than formal theological beliefs.
Although heavily influenced by their Christian heritage, at a local gathering you may find Quakers who believe that different things happen when they participate in this form of worship. Some Quakers claim a dual religious identity and see no contradiction in being both Quaker and Buddhist or Jewish, for example. There are also non-theistic Quakers, who do not believe in any traditional kind of god at all.
This form of spontaneous, purposeful, non-hierarchical gathering is also the basis of how Quakers meet for non-denominational matters, eschewing formal leadership and instead offering each member the opportunity to contribute and determine the outcome of a formation of the meeting.
How many Quakers are there?
For decades, British Yearly Meeting has maintained membership records. They show that there were just over 12,100 registered Quakers in 2020, consisting of 463 local meetings.
However, British Quakers make up less than 3 percent of Quakers worldwide, estimated at 350,000 to 400,000.
A small number of local Quaker meetings are not affiliated with British Yearly Meeting. These were largely divided decades ago due to differences of opinion about theology. Some instead group with a more conservative Quaker movement in the United States.
British Quakers have been in slow but steady decline for half a century, down from a 20th-century high of 21,000 in 1965. Every year since the 1990s, between 200 and 800 Quakers have died or left the movement.
Quakers are prominent in a number of social and political campaigns, especially around pacifism and disarmament. They are also staunch supporters of same-sex marriage, having in 2009 become the first religious group in Britain to support same-sex marriage.
Quaker Peace and Social Witness is one of the standing committees of Yearly Meeting Britain and co-ordinates campaigns on a range of issues including climate change, immigration and refugees, penal reform, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and housing.
They have also campaigned in recent years against government efforts to criminalize noisy or disruptive protests and limit judicial review.
In 2019, the Quakers' commitment to progressive social action brought them into conflict with other churches, through the umbrella group Churches Together in England. Their appointment as one of the co-chairs of CTE, a Quaker peace activist named Hannah Brock Womack, was rejected by the other denominations because she is married to a woman.
In 2022, the Annual Meeting considered the Quakers' past involvement in slavery and voted to make financial reparations as a result and to further designate it as an anti-racist church.
Tim Wyatt is a freelance religion journalist
The Quaker Media Bureau,[email protected]from 020 7663 1048 from 07958 009 703
Woodbrook, the Quaker research and learning institution