Brief History of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
The Religious Society of Friends (also known as Quakers) has its origins in the Protestant Reformation. It arose in England in the middle of the seventeenth century at a time of unrest in both religion and politics. Many religious seekers were dissatisfied with the established Church of England and yearned for a religion of personal experience and direct communication with God.
George Fox (1624-1691) was one of these seekers. He wrote that after much consultation with various religious leaders, “I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy…My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing.”
In 1647 Fox became an itinerant preacher, spreading his message that a direct, unmediated experience of God, leading to continuing revelation instead of a closed canon, is available to all people. By 1652 Fox had attracted a small group of devoted followers and the Religious Society of Friends of the Truth was born.
But the religious and political establishment of the time in England generally regarded Fox’s teachings as heretical and treasonous. Early Friends often disrupted ordinary church services and refused to honor the absolute authority of the scriptures, the established church, and the state. Friends were persecuted and jailed, not only for their religious beliefs but also for their egalitarian acceptance of “that of God” in all people, including men and women from every social and economic background.
The nickname “Quakers” was originally a term of derision, allegedly stemming from early Friends’ tendency to “quake” when they were about to speak in worship. Friends soon adopted the term as a symbol of their humility in the presence of the Divine, and “Friend” and “Quaker” are now used more or less interchangeably.
Although the seventeenth century spawned many dissident religious groups in England and Europe, the Friends were the only such group in England to survive and thrive into the present time. The Amish, the Brethren, the Mennonites and others were part of a similar religious and political movement in Europe.
Growth and Development
As early as 1656 Friends began to spread their message to the American Colonies, Europe, and the Near East. Quakers began to settle in the Delaware Valley in 1675, and in 1681 the King of England granted the land to the west of the Delaware River to William Penn in payment of a debt owed his father. Penn was a “convinced” Friend, and much of Pennsylvania’s early history was shaped by Quaker principles and practices.
By 1720 Quakers were a minority in Pennsylvania, and we lost our political control of the colony when we refused to participate in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Friends began to focus more inwardly, developing and articulating our structures and the core beliefs for which Friends are known today. For an explanation of these core beliefs, often referred to as “testimonies,” see Who We Are.
Friends’ testimonies have always led us to oppose the use of war and violence, and to advocate for the rights of women, African-Americans, and other disenfranchised minorities. In spite of our small numbers and lack of political power, American Friends played a major role in the movements to abolish slavery and for equal rights for women and freed slaves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Today, Friends are in the forefront of efforts to provide equal access to education, housing, food, and other basic rights to marginalized people here and all over the world. In the US we have taken a particularly strong role in movements to secure civil rights for sexual minorities, prisoners, and the poor, as well as efforts to protect our environment.
Today, over 350 years after the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers can be found throughout the US and the world, with a variety of practices and priorities that have been modified by the communities in which they settled. There are about 400,000 Quakers in the world today, and about 100,000 of them are in the United States.
Modern Friends place great value on putting our faith into action – by advocating for social justice, environmental, and human rights causes, as individuals and collectively through our meetings and organizations. We also emphasize living in harmony with our faith and persuading by example rather than preaching. We continue to honor the words of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Philadelphia: “True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.”
For more information on Quakers activities today, you can visit our resources page or check these websites for further reading:
Friends World Committee for Consultation – a network of tens of thousands of people who lobby Congress for peace and justice. A Quaker lobby in the public interest, bringing together people of many different faith and cultural backgrounds.
FWCC Worldwide Consultation – Friends around the world are responding to changes in the environment, climate, economy, society. These changes affect us all. They affect us at a practical level and at a spiritual level. Change also affects us all at a global level and in our local communities. FWCC works to unites Friends worldwide in response to global change.