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Quaker history

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To find religion itself, you must look inside people and inside yourself. And there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right scent. Millions of people have it and donít know what it is they have. God is their guest, but they havenít the faintest idea that s/he is in the house. So you mustnít only look where God is confessed and acknowledged. You must look everywhere to find the real religion... Living with God is not an apparition but a wordless and endless sureness. Like the silence of two friends together. Bernard Canter, (1962).

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European history:

The movement was founded in England by George Fox (1624-1691), a nonconformist religious reformer. At the age of 19, he left home on a four year search, seeking answers to questions which had troubled him since his childhood. He sought guidance from a variety of the country's spiritual leaders. He gradually became disillusioned with those leaders and with the existing Christian denominations. At the age of 23, he heard a voice, saying "there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition". He felt a direct call from God to become an itinerant preacher and promote the concept of the Inward Light, or Inner Voice. He believed that an element of God's spirit is implanted within every person's soul. He called this "the seed of Christ", or "the seed of Light". Thus, everyone has an innate inner capacity to comprehend the Word of God & express opinions on spiritual matters. The term comes from John 1:9 in the Christian Scriptures: "The true Light, that lighteth every man that cometh into the world." Logical consequences of this belief were:

bullet that every man and woman has direct access to God; no priestly class or "steeple houses" (churches) are needed
bullet that every person - male or female, slave or free is of equal worth
bullet that there is no need in one's religious life for elaborate ceremonies, rituals, gowns, creeds, dogma, or other "empty forms."
bullet Following the inward light would lead to spiritual development and towards individual perfection.

Fox taught his followers to worship in silence. At their meetings, people would speak only when they felt moved by the Holy Spirit. He promoted simple living, and the prohibition of alcohol. He spoke against holidays, sports, theater, wigs, jewelry, etc. They thought of themselves as friends of Jesus and referred to themselves as "Friends of Truth" (from John 15:15). Later, they became known simply as "Friends".

The movement came into conflict both with Cromwell's Puritan government and later with the restored monarchy of Charles II, over a number of points: they refused to pay tithes to the state Church; to take oaths in court; to practice "hat honor" (doff their hats to the king or other persons in positions of power); or to engage in a combat role during wartime. They developed an intense concern for the disadvantaged, including slaves, prisoners and inmates of asylums. They agitated for an end to slavery, and for improvements in living conditions in penitentiaries and treatments in mental institutions.

Fox was greatly persecuted during his lifetime and imprisoned many times. Once, when he was hauled into court, he suggested that the judge "tremble at the word of the Lord". The judge sarcastically referred to Fox as a Quaker; the term stuck, and has become the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends. During the second half of the 17th century, over 3000 Quakers spent time in English jails for their religious beliefs; many hundreds died there. About 1660, a group of congregations were established, called preparative meetings. Once a month, these groups gathered together and held a monthly meeting. Four times a year, the latter groups would hold a quarterly meeting. Finally, all of the quarters would gather annually for a yearly meeting.

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North American history:

The first Quakers to arrive in America were viewed as dangerous heretics in many of the colonies. They were deported as Witches, imprisoned or hung. They found a sanctuary in the Rhode Island colony, which had been founded on the principle of religious tolerance. William Penn (1644-1718) and other Quakers played a major role in the creation of the colonies of West Jersey (1675) and Pennsylvania (1682). These colonies were noted for their toleration of minority religious groups, like the Jews, Mennonites, Muslims and Quakers. In 1688, a group of Friends in Germantown PA took a public stand against slavery; this is believed to be the first stirrings within a religious organization of the abolitionist movement in America. Initial opposition towards Quakers eventually waned, particularly after the Toleration Act of 1689. Quakers became accepted as a denomination and many colonies' constitutions exempted them from giving oaths in court. Quakers distanced themselves from society through their simple clothing and plain language (e.g. the use of "thee" and "thou" in place of "you"). As a group, they became well respected for their industriousness and high moral character.

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, tensions between Britain and the colonies increased. The Quakers tried to remain neutral. During the war, most refused to pay military taxes or to fight. They became intensely disliked for their stand; some were exiled.

Following the war, a number of Quaker organizations were formed to promote social change in the areas of slavery, prison conditions, poverty, native American affairs, etc. Quakers played a major role in organizing and running the "Underground Railroad" - a system which aided runaway slaves to escape to freedom in the northern states and Canada.

Early in the 19th Century, tensions increased within the movement over doctrinal matters. Elias Hicks from Long Island began preaching the primacy of the "Christ within" and the relative unimportance of the virgin birth, the crucifixion, resurrection and other fundamental Biblical beliefs. In time the movement split between the Hicksite and Orthodox factions. A second schism occurred in the 1840's among the Orthodox group. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting remained Orthodox, but the remaining Orthodox Meetings split between the more evangelical Gurneyites, and conservative Wilburites. By the early 20th century, the Quaker movement was divided into four groups:

bullet "Hicksites: a liberal wing concentrated in the eastern US, who emphasized social reform.
bullet "Gurneyites": the more progressive and evangelical Quakers who followed Joseph John Gurney, retained pastors, and were Bible centered.
bullet "Wilburites": the traditionalists who were more devoted to individual spiritual inspiration, who followed John Wilbur. They were mostly from rural areas, and retained the traditional Quaker speech and dress.
bullet "Orthodox": the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a Christocentric group.

The first and second World Wars created a crisis for the movement. Until that time, the Society was a pacifist organization. Any Quaker who became a soldier was ejected from the community. However, during the two wars, some men were drawn up by the nationalistic fervor, and entered the armed forces. During World War II, many American Quakers joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, an unofficial body supported by British Quakers. This allowed Quakers to volunteer as medical and ambulance personnel on the battlefields of the Middle East, India, China, and northwestern Europe. 1,2 This was a particularly high risk assignment. All four branches of the faith joined together at the time of the first World War to create the American Friends Service Committee. This agency allowed many Quaker conscientious objectors to help alleviate suffering while avoiding conscription.

There are about 300,000 members worldwide, including a large group in Kenya. In fact, the greatest concentration of Quakers live in Kenya, where they follow an evangelical interpretation of Quakerism. There are 125,000 in North America. In the United States, they are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. Although many had settled in the South during the 19th century, almost all later left in protest over slavery.

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References used:

  1. A list of books at: contains references to books on the Friends Ambulance Unit activities during World War II.
  2. "Friends Service Council Ė History of Organization," Nobel e-Museum, at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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