Today, Quakers are a small group nationally, numbering around 14,000 members, plus about 10,000 non-members and children. Although the origins of Quakerism are British, most Quakers today are to be found in America and Africa. Worldwide there are some
380,000 adult members.
Origins of Quakerism
Quakerism dates from the 17th Century. Its founder, George Fox, was brought up in Leicestershire in a religious family. He became discontented with the Anglican Church’s teaching and practices, including the existence of a priesthood. After years of spiritual struggle, he became convinced that there is something of God in everyone and that anyone can communicate with the God within if they are open to the leadings of the ‘inner Light’. Following the example of Jesus, Fox preached that true religion is ‘inward’ and not ‘outward’. This explains why, today, Quakers worship in plain, domesticstyle buildings and that we make no use of religious symbols or rituals. Early Quakers met largely in silence, and thought of worship as waiting together and listening for the leadings of the Spirit. We still think of Worship in this way. In these post-Darwinian times, Quakers leave it to individuals to interpret words like ‘spirit’ and ‘God’ in their own way.
Where our name comes from
The early Quakers called themselves ‘Friends of Truth’ ; in time, this became
The Religious Society of Friends’. However, when some early Quakers
appeared in court charged with meeting illegally, they were mocked by
the judge as ‘Quakers’, probably because many shook and quivered during
the intensity of their ministry. The nickname has stuck. We also often refer to
ourselves as ‘Friends’.
Quakers and Social Reform
Quakers have long been involved in social reform, especially prison reform, mental health, the abolition of slavery, housing, overseas aid, enlightened employment practices and refugee support. We also have a strong commitment to peace. Many Quakers have been conscientious objectors in times of war, and this also includes peace-building. Friends are often to be found working in conflict zones around the world. That said,
by no means all Quakers today are pacifists, as is often thought. Today, members of Milton Keynes Meeting are individually involved in a wide range of social actions. As a Meeting, we have joined Citizens:mk to campaign for social justice in Milton Keynes and we support our local Food Bank and homelessness charities.
Quakers and Trade
Early Quakers, like other dissenting (non-Anglican) groups, were denied the chance to go to University (only Anglicans were allowed to do that). So they went into trade and very many Quakers prospered because of their reputation for honesty and quality. Many banks were founded by
Quakers, including Barclays and Lloyds. Other firms founded by Quakers include Cadbury’s, Fry’s, Terry’s and Rowntree’s—promoting drinking chocolate as an alternative to beer. Fox’s biscuits and Clarks shoes are also Quaker in origin. Many of these large firms pioneered enlightened employment practices, the model village at Bournville, Birmingham, being the best known.
Two main branches of Quakerism
In the eighteenth century, Quakerism became strongly influenced by the Evangelical Revival which had been started by the Methodists John and Charles Wesley. For most of the 19th. century, Quakerism was dominated by evangelicalism. It had also spread to, and prospered in, America. However, in the late nineteenth century, when the ideas of Darwin and critical approaches to the Bible began to challenge evangelical beliefs, British Quakers embraced liberalism and corporately rejected the idea that the Bible was the complete and final word of God. In Britain today, there are a very small number of evangelical Quaker Meetings in Britain.
Finding out more
For more on Quaker history visit Quakers in Britain