Society of Friends

Society of Friends

In 1643 George Fox, a shoemaker from Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, began toured the country giving sermons where he argued that consecrated buildings and ordained ministers were irrelevant to the individual seeking God. Three years later Fox had a divine revelation that inspired him to preach a gospel of brotherly love.

Fox formed a group called the Friends of Truth. Later they became known as the Society of Friends. Fox's central dogma was that of the inner light, communicated directly to the individual soul by Christ.

After 1656 followers of Fox refused to attend Anglican services or pay tithes. This resulted in George Fox being arrested. According to Fox's journal, Justice Bennet of Derby "was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord". Eventually members of the Society of Friends became known as Quakers.

During the reign of Charles II, 13,562 were arrested and imprisoned in England and 198 were transported as slaves, and 338 died in prison or of wounds received in violent assaults on their meetings. The Society of Friends continued to grow and by 1660 Fox had made more than 20,000 converts and missionaries were at work in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the American colonies.

After considerable debate, the Society of Friends evolved a form of organization with regular monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings. They selected elders, to watch over the ministry, and overseers to make provision for the poor and secure the education of the children. They wore plain clothes stripped of all ornament. Powdered hair or ruffles on the shirt were considered to be signs of vanity. Women were expected to wear sober clothes without frills or feathers. Worldly pleasures, such as the theatre, dancing, music, singing and cards were strictly forbidden.

Quakers regarded all humans equal before God and addressed everyone as "thou" and refused to refer to peoples' ranks and titles. Quakers also upset people by not showing respect by "doffing the hat". This made it difficult for Quakers to make friends with neighbours as they were unwilling to follow the traditional custom of taking off their hats when they entered a house.

The persecution of Quakers continued throughout the 17th century and many decided to emigrate in order to obtain religious freedom. In 1681 William Penn founded the American Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania. Two years later, Francis Daniel Pastorius from Germany, established Quaker settlement in America called Germantown. Both Penn and Pastorius campaigned against slavery in America.

In the 18th century the Quakers gradually abandoned some of their ideas such as disowning those who married non-Quakers and compulsory codes of speech. They also became involved in politics and social reform. The Society of Friends became the first religious group to denounce slavery and would not permit any of their members to own slaves.

In 1783 the Quakers presented the first substantial anti-slavery petition to Parliament and played a prominent role in the Anti-Slavery Society. Others like Elizabeth Fry joined prison reform movement whereas Joseph Lancaster worked for an improvement in education. Quakers also established the Peace Society that campaigned for an end to war and were also active in famine relief organizations.

By the beginning of the 19th century there were about 25,000 Quakers in Britain. Quakers had a reputation as successful entrepreneurs. A group of Quakers under the leadership of Edward Pease helped establish the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825. Companies established by Quakers during the 19th century included Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree, Huntley & Palmer, Bryant & May, Barclays and Lloyds.

In the religious census of 1851 there were 3,153,490 Protestant Nonconformists. This included 18,172 members of the Society of Friends.

Rudolf Ackermann, Quakers Meeting House, from Microcosm of London (1808)
Rudolf Ackermann, Quakers Meeting House, from Microcosm of London (1808)