Quakers History

Brief History of the Quakers Denomination

A meeting of the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends (1725).
A meeting of the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends (1725).

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Belief that every person can experience an inner light given by God led to the founding of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers.

George Fox (1624-1691), began a four-year journey throughout England in the mid-1600s, seeking answers to his spiritual questions. Disappointed with the answers he received from religious leaders, he felt an inner call to become an itinerant preacher. Fox's meetings were radically different from orthodox Christianity: silent meditation, with no music, rituals, or creeds.

Fox's movement ran afoul of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government, as well as that of Charles II when the monarchy was restored. Fox's followers, called Friends, refused to pay tithes to the state church, would not take oaths in court, declined to doff their hats to those in power, and refused to serve in combat during war. Further, Fox and his followers fought for the end of slavery and more humane treatment of criminals, both unpopular stands.

Once, when hauled before a judge, Fox chided the jurist to "tremble before the word of the Lord." The judge mocked Fox, calling him a "quaker," and the nickname stuck. Quakers were persecuted across England, and hundreds died in jail.

Quakers History in the New World

Quakers fared no better in the American colonies. Colonists who worshiped in the established Christian denominations considered Quakers heretics. Friends were deported, imprisoned, and hanged as witches.

Eventually, they found a haven in Rhode Island, which decreed religious tolerance. William Penn (1644-1718), a prominent Quaker, received a large land grant in payment for a debt the crown owed his family. Penn founded Pennsylvania colony and worked Quaker beliefs into its government. Quakerism flourished there.

Over the years, Quakers became more accepted and were actually admired for their honesty and simple living. That changed during the American Revolution when Quakers refused to pay military taxes or fight in the war. Some Quakers were exiled because of that position.

In the early 19th century, Quakers rallied against the social abuses of the day: slavery, poverty, horrible prison conditions, and mistreatment of Native Americans. Quakers were instrumental in the Underground Railroad, a secret organization that helped escaped slaves find freedom before the Civil War.

Schisms in the Quaker Religion

Elias Hicks (1748-1830), a Long Island Quaker, preached the "Christ within" and downplayed traditional biblical beliefs. That led to a split, with Hicksites on one side and Orthodox Quakers on the other. Then in the 1840s, the Orthodox faction split.

By the early 1900s, Quakerism was divided into four basic groups:

"Hicksites" - This Eastern U.S., liberal branch stressed social reform.

"Gurneyites" - Progressive, evangelical, Bible-centered followers of Joseph John Gurney had pastors to lead meetings.

"Wilburites" - Mostly rural traditionalists who believed in individual spiritual inspiration, they were followers of John Wilbur. They also kept the traditional Quaker speech (thee and thou) and the plain way of dressing.

"Orthodox" - The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was a Christ-centered group.

Modern Quakers History

During World War I and World War II, many Quaker men enlisted in the military, in non-combative positions. In the First World War, hundreds served in a civilian ambulance corps, an especially dangerous assignment which allowed them to relieve suffering while still avoiding military service.

Following World War II, Quakers became involved in the civil rights movement in the United States. Bayard Rustin, who worked behind the scenes, was a Quaker who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Quakers also demonstrated against the Vietnam War and donated medical supplies to South Vietnam.

Some of the Friends schisms have been healed, but worship services vary widely today, from liberal to conservative. Quaker missionary efforts took their message to South and Latin America and to east Africa. Currently, the largest concentration of Quakers is in Kenya, where the faith is 125,000 members strong.

(Sources: QuakerInfo.org, Quaker.org, and ReligiousTolerance.org.)

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Zavada, Jack. "Quakers History." Learn Religions, Sep. 10, 2021, learnreligions.com/quakers-history-4590178. Zavada, Jack. (2021, September 10). Quakers History. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/quakers-history-4590178 Zavada, Jack. "Quakers History." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/quakers-history-4590178 (accessed June 9, 2023).