Quakers and Quakerism
The Religious Society of Friends was founded by George Fox (1624 -1691) in the middle of the 17th century in Northern England. He was an English dissenter, living at a time of great social upheaval and unrest, who rebelled against what he saw as the corruption of the religious establishment and the political authorities of the time. The name ‘Quaker’, originally a term of ridicule, derived from a statement of Fox’s, when he told his followers "to tremble at the Word of the Lord", but before long became accepted as the name of the movement. He preached throughout Britain, North America and the Low countries and was persecuted and imprisoned by the authorities for his beliefs.
He believed that the light of God was in every person and that everyone could have a direct relationship with God without involving a priest or minister, with Quaker worship consisting of silent waiting and participants contributing as the spirit moves them. The passing of the Toleration Act in 1689, eventually allowed for freedom of conscience and so gradually Quakers became more tolerated, if not still totally accepted. Indeed some Quakers, such as William Penn, had already left for America to escape persecution, establishing their own state of Pennsylvania, with a legal framework, where power was derived from the people, much like a Quaker Meeting.
While comparatively small in its membership, the Society has nonetheless been hugely influential in the history of reform, and Quakers have played a significant role in such movements as the abolition of slavery, promoting education and equal rights for women, campaigning on behalf of gay rights, and working for the humane treatment of prisoners, famously through the work of the 19th century philanthropist Elizabeth Fry. Above all they have campaigned tirelessly for peace between nations, and in 1947, the Quaker movement worldwide was awarded the Nobel Peace prize on account of the relief work they did in both World Wars, particularly through the work of The Friends Ambulance Unit.
From the earliest days of the Quaker movement, constraints were placed upon them by varying acts of parliament, some of which were still in force in the early 19th century. The Test and Corporation Acts, for instance, restricted entry to the world of universities and public service, to members of the Church of England, which affected not only Quakers but other non-conformists and Catholics as well. In addition, Quaker principles of peace, truth and simplicity, often created their own difficulties regarding a career, closing options such as the military or arms manufacture. Of necessity, therefore, Quakers took up manufacturing and trade where their very honesty and straightforwardness brought them success. As Chris Bullard and Sheila Williams say in their booklet ‘Quaker Enterprise and the Railways’:
‘In proportion to their small number, it is amazing that so many well-known companies and Banks were founded by Quakers….(but) Quakers had their own networks that could be used to enable, encourage and help sustain their businesses.’
Many of these, such as George Cadbury, Joseph Fry and Joseph Rowntree were successful, not only because they were trusted but also because they used their money philanthropically, caring for their work force, providing good conditions in which to work and in many cases pleasant places to live such as Bournville in Birmingham. Today Quakers work just as actively as ever to try and improve the human condition. Their particular concerns continue to be with human rights, with social justice and environmental issues, peace and freedom of conscience, being paramount. Though no longer dressed in the Quaker attire of the early years, they still seek to live simply, so as make this a better world.
For more information on Quakers, please visit www.friendshouse.co.uk