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The Quakers, formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, is a Protestant (Christian) denomination formed during the religious upheaval in 17th century England who sought the revival of what they considered to be original Christianity. They earned the name "Quakers" for how members shook, or "quaked", reflecting their struggle against their inner motives "under the Light."[1] Many migrated to America in the 1600's, especially to New Jersey and the region around Philadelphia in the colony of Pennsylvania, which was owned by Quaker leader William Penn.

Quakers have a history of activism. There were active Quaker leaders in many American reform movements past and present, especially abolition of slavery, Native Americans' rights, prohibition, women's rights, civil rights, prison reform, hospital reform, and world peace. Famous Quakers include founder George Fox, feminist Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, Presidents of the United States Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon and others.

Quakerism today is perhaps unique among Protestant denominations in lacking a written dogma describing what all Quakers believe. If one tries to generalize about "all Quakers", at least one Quaker will take exception. It is perhaps appropriate to speak of majority opinions related to Quakerism, and in doing so, a general belief in pacifism would probably be appropriate, as well as peace, nonviolence, social justice, respect for all, etc. During the American Revolutionary war, Quakers who were staunch pacifists found themselves faced with tough choices, caught between friends, relatives and neighbors needing defense during the war and their own deep-seated preference for avoiding violence. Some Quakers who did choose to participate in defending themselves ended up, ironically, facing sanction from other Quakers after the war had ended.

Quakers do not tend to call their facilities "churches"; instead, they call them "meeting houses", and the group of Quakers who attend at a certain meeting house will refer to their group as a whole as "the Meeting". Services are called "meetings". Facilities too; one can say, for example, "She attends the Shrewsbury Meeting".

In some cases, Quaker meetings do not feature a designated speaker[2]. Any in attendance may speak if they wish, but sometimes, no one at all speaks, and the assembly sits quietly in contemplation for the duration of the service. It is customary, if someone wants to say something during a Quaker meeting, for the person about to speak to stand up first, then sit down when done speaking. Some meetings may be utterly silent, which can be startling to a newcomer--to sit in a room full of people with no one saying or doing anything. On other occasions, though, several or even many people may decide to speak for a while; those are affectionately termed "popcorn meetings". Nowadays, not all Meetings belong to the unprogrammed tradition, but even if they don't always do it, there will likely be occasions in which a sustained silence occurs in the crowded congregation room. A Quaker wedding, for example, may choose to have an unprogrammed time, during which anyone present may speak, or not.

Current status

There are about 100,000 Quakers in the United States today. Hamm (2003) identifies seven currently contested issues--the centrality of Christ, leadership, religious authority, sexuality, identity, unity, and growth. The Quakers are heavily involved with the Peace Testimony, support for "People of Color", the American Friends Service Committee, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. They are well known for their support of liberal arts colleges including Haverford College and Swarthmore College (near Philadelphia) and Earlham College (in Richmond, Indiana). A majority are affiliated with the Society of Friends (Five Years Meeting); others belong to the smaller Religious Society of Friends (General Conference), the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), and the more fundamentalist Association of Evangelical Friends.

About 20,000 Quakers now live in the United Kingdom, and several thousand in Canada. Overseas missions, starting in 1903, were most successful in Africa, especially Kenya, which has 300,000 Quakers in 15 Yearly Meetings.[3]

Despite the wide variation in beliefs in different traditions, they do communicate with each other. The Friends' World Committee for Consultation[4] maintains a small permanent office and organises a triennial conference.

Quaker beliefs

The core beliefs among American Friends in the 21st century are worship that is based on the leading of the Spirit; the ministry of all believers; decision making through the traditional Quaker business process; simplicity as a basic philosophy of life; and a commitment to education as a manifestation of Quaker faith.[5] Quakers are considered among the historic pacifist churches, though not all branches adhere to this.

Although most Quakers revere the Bible and quote from it extensively, they do not consider it as authoritative as the Inner Light. They deny the special authority of an ordained clergy and reject all ritual in religious worship. They believe that a true church is created by the fellowship of man rather than a building people meet in to worship. Small groups of Quakers gather weekly for devotion in "meetings" where members usually sit together silently in a bare room, waiting for the Inward Christ to speak through one of them who may be inspired to "give testimony." There is no altar, no recitation of prayers, and no hymn singing at the meeting. The Bible is rejected as the authoritative word of God and replaced with the authoritative messages of the Inward Christ.

From the beginning, Quakers have had an aversion to set creeds. For this reason, while most would agree that Quakerism is a Christian tradition, there are growing numbers, especially in the United Kingdom and other places where the liberal unprogrammed tradition predominates, who do not personally regard themselves as Christian, instead identifying as non-theist, humanist, agnostic, universalist or in some cases as belonging to another religious tradition.

There are some "pastoral" Quaker meetings, however, which have "programmed" worship, with hymns and other music, scripture readings, and a sermon or message from a designated pastor, along with a brief period of silence for testimony.


In the Quaker faith, the word "testimony" is used to describe a "living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life."[6] A testimony differs from a creed in that they are spiritually, inwardly governed by the individual and are not imposed upon the membership. They serve as basic guidelines to live by, with the flexibility to be interpreted by the individual "under the Light."

  • Testimony of Peace (see below) - This is the testimony that Quakers are most known for. It stems from their belief in human equality and their conviction that love is at the heart of existence. Quakers live this testimony by being actively involved in peace activism.
  • Testimony of Simplicity - The call for simple living and resisting the temptation of material dependencies in order to maintain spiritual responsiveness.
  • Testimony of Truth and Integrity - The belief that truth should be spoken in all aspects of life. From early days, Quakers refused to take oaths, as this implied that there were different standards of truth-telling.
  • Testimony of Equality - The belief that all humans are of equal spiritual worth. It rejects the social class hierarchy and encourages equal treatment in all areas for all human beings.



See separate article Early Quaker History

George Fox, speculative drawing c.1834

Quakerism arose during the favourable conditions created by the English Civil War. The standard account has George Fox as the motivating force, with the origins being mainly in the north of England. From 1654, the movement began expanding rapidly, to the alarm of many, and by 1658 Quaker meetings were established throughout England, and had spread to Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, other parts of Europe, and, notably, the American plantations.

British and Irish History

See separate article History of Quakers in Britain and Ireland

In 1660, following the Restoration of Charles II the Church of England was re-established as the official church. Quakers were wrongly associated with Venner's Rising in 1661, a failed attempt to overthrow the monarch. This led to the first public statement of the peace testimony (see below), a Declaration Concerning Wars and Fighting, in which it was said that "All bloody principles and practices, as to our own particulars, we utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under an pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world."[7] Persecution, in many areas was harsh, until the Toleration Act of 1689 which allowed all major Protestant groups in England at the time (apart from Unitarians), including Quakers, to practise their religion openly. By 1690 there were about 50,000 Friends in 700 congregations in England and Wales. The center was London, with about 10,000.

British Quakers were not subject to the schisms that affected their fellows across the Atlantic. Notable British Quakers of the nineteenth century include prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and businessmen Richard and George Cadbury, of the well-known chocolate company Cadbury's, who did much to improve the lot of their employees. During both World Wars, many Quakers became conscientious objectors, and in the Second World War, the Friends' Ambulance Unit was set up to allow Friends to reduce the suffering caused by war.[8]

Quakers in America

See separate article: History of Quakers in the Americas

The Quaker missions to North America and the Caribbean resulted in the rapid development of Quaker communities in the eastern settlements and eventually across the continent. From there, other missions went out to Africa, Asia and South America, with the result that the majority of Quakers are now found in Africa and South America.

Peace Testimony

The Peace Testimony prohibited Friends as a group from supporting a war. It proved highly controversial among Quakers, for they also believed in their duty to uphold the government. There has always been a continuum of beliefs among Friends, from pacifism and peace activism, to outright military activity.[9] The Quaker-controlled colony of Rhode Island took part in King Phillip's War of 1675-76.[10] By contrast, the Quaker-controlled Pennsylvania colonial government blocked the formation of local militias; helpless settlers were massacred in Indian raids in the French and Indian War of the 1750s. The failure to protect settlers caused serious dissension in the Quaker community, which verged on schism. The solution adopted was for the Quakers to withdraw completely from the government.[11]

Although the Peace testimony remained important for some Quakers, in practice the majority supported American wars, according to an Indiana case study. When the United States entered World War I in 1917 nearly all Indiana Quakers ceased any peace advocacy and probably two-thirds of eligible Indiana Quakers served in the military. In World War II, most Quakers regarded it as a just war and it is estimated that 90% served, although there were some conscientious objectors. In the late 1940s some radicals refused to register for conscription, but they were not well supported and many Quakers regarded the Korean War (1950-53) as a justifiable police action. Although opposition to the Vietnam War steadily grew, conservative Quakers were uncomfortable with the radical tendencies of conscientious objectors and some Indiana Quakers openly supported the war. No Indiana congregations endorsed civil disobedience, and two opposed it. In 1990 the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends declared opposition to the use of force in the Persian Gulf, but by then the majority of Indiana Quakers no longer considered themselves pacifists.[12]

American Friends Service Committee

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) began in in 1917 and in 1947 received the Nobel Peace Prize. Founded to aid conscientious objectors during World War I, the AFSC continued to promote pacifism during World War II. During the Cold War, it focused on providing relief to European countries that suffered from superpower conflicts and worked for reconciliation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1947 the AFSC decided to become more involved politically and to rely on professionals, but it failed to effect changes in American public policy. The turn to professional lobbying diluted the Quakers' religious message.[13]


Hanson (2005) explores the work of Henry Wilbur in the organization and outreach of the Friends General Conference (FGC) and the Committee for the Advancement of Friends Principles (CAFP) during the early 20th century. Wilbur became involved in promoting Quakerism when he moved to New York in 1896 and argued for better organizational structure for the Advancement of Friends Principles in 1899. The CAFP was created in 1902 with the mission of evangelization among Friends and others seeking religious truth, primarily through the organization of reading groups and weekend conferences. In 1905 Wilbur became the first paid staff member of the committee. Wilbur's efforts and expertise became so essential to the Quaker community that, in 1911, he became the general secretary of the FGC.[14]

Role of women

One of the Quakers most radical innovations was a more nearly equal role for women. In the early days, despite the survival of strong patriarchal elements, they believed in the spiritual equality of women, who were allowed to take a far more active and prominent role than had ordinarily existed before the emergence of radical civil war sects. However, some early Quaker defences of their female members could be equivocal. Women were recognized as ministers from the beginning, though it took some time for them to have any say in the running of affairs other than those thought to be women's particular province. Now there is no distinction of function in most Yearly Meetings.

Public perception of Quakers

The perceptions outsiders have held of Quakers has included friendly and hostile elements.[15] In his campaign for president in 1928, for example, Herbert Hoover's religion came under attack as inappropriate for a commander in chief.

The Quakers became known for their inventiveness, entrepreneurship, business acumen, and their interlocking business ties; they were trusted by outsiders who welcomed the self-censorship Quakers imposed on each other to maintain high ethical standards. Many leading British entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th centuries were Quakers, especially merchants in London and industrialists who pioneered the Industrial Revolution in machinery, metals, textiles, railways and food products. A handful of Quaker families (the Darbys, Reynolds, Lloyds, Champions, and Rawlinsons) dominated the British iron industry. The Barclays and Lloyds were powerful bankers.[16] Quakers were disproportionately representation among physicians, and among the scientists of the Royal Society.[17]

There was a great deal of popular representation of Quakers---in jokes, popular magazines, novels, images, advertising and other media---from 1850 to 1920.[18] Popular representations of Friends typically approved the devout distinctiveness attributed to stereotypical Quakers, as evidenced by their plain dress, plain speech, and refusal to swear oaths. The fact that Quakers were changing was ignored as the popular perception idealized a plain-dressed, old-fashioned representative of a national purity, piety, and unity.

The most striking images of Quakers included plain speech, abolitionism and women's rights, pacifism and war, plain dress (in the form of the Quaker bonnet), and the famous Quaker Oats character used in advertising oatmeal. The plain speech testimony seemed to acquire new and greater significance in the broader culture at the same time Quakers were abandoning the witness. Plain speech became an attractive and admirable anachronism, signifying an imagined set of old-fashioned values. The Quaker witnesses for reformism and pacifism were reshaped to suit opposing purposes. Plain dress and appearance became the attractive and malleable image of a religious sectarian, as authors, artists, and entrepreneurs fashioned a normative and vaguely religious referent for American moral superiority.[19]


  1. Barbour and Frost (1988) p.28
  2. [1]
  3. See [2] Rasmussen, (1995) and Smuck, (1987)
  4. [3]
  5. Hamm (2003) p. 64
  6. Quaker Faith & Practice, 1994, 23.12. Retrieved on 2007-08-30.
  7. quoted Quaker Faith and Practice. The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)in Britain. 1995
  8. http://www.quaker.org.uk/Templates/Internal.asp?NodeID=146514&int1stParentNodeID=93929&int2ndParentNodeID=89813&int3rdParentNodeID=89813&strAreaColor=aqua
  9. Chuck Fager, "A Great Deep: The Peace Testimony and Historical Realism," Quaker Theology #6 Spring 2002 online edition
  10. "Rhode Island exiled Indians, supplied boats to the Plymouth and Massachusetts armies, blockaded Philip. . . provisioned and provided a safe haven for colonial troops, raised and dispatched soldiers, stored ammunition, transported troops . . . to battle, encouraged the mobilization and training of the local militias, deployed gunboats, manned an official garrison, contributed troops to the final search for Philip himself-–and at last, tried and executed prisoners of war." Meredith Baldwin Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 170.
  11. Illick (1976) esp 201, 212-20
  12. Thomas D. Hamm, Margaret Marconi, Gretchen Kleinhen Salinas, and Benjamin Whitman, "The Decline of Quaker Pacifism in the Twentieth Century: Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends as a Case Study." Indiana Magazine of History 2000 96(1): 44-71. Issn: 0019-6673 Fulltext: Ebsco
  13. H. Larry Ingle, "The American Friends Service Committee, 1947-49: the Cold War's Effect" Peace & Change 1998 23(1): 27-48. Issn: 0149-0508 Fulltext: Ebsco
  14. Roger Hansen, "'Hungering and Thirsting for the Contact with Kindred Spirits': Henry Wilbur and the Committee for the Advancement of Friends' Principles, 1900-1914." Quaker History 2005 94(2): 44-55. Issn: 0033-5053 not online
  15. Grubb, M. (ed) Quakers Observed in prose and verse: an anthology 1656 - 1986. William Sessions. 1993
  16. Barbour and Frost (1988) p 86-88; Ann Prior and Maurice Kirby, "The Society of Friends and the Family Firm, 1700-1830." Business History 1993 35(4): 66-85. Issn: 0007-6791 Fulltext: Ebsco
  17. Walvin, The Quakers: Money and Morals. (1997).
  18. Connerley, (2006)
  19. Connerley, (2006)