Quakers are a small Christian-derived religious community, focused on non-hierarchical, spontaneous experience of God in worship and social justice activism in the world. It grew out of the religious and social upheaval in 17th-century England and is now present around the globe
Quakerism began in the 1640s during the English Civil War, as one of a number of radical Puritan Christian movements flourishing during a time of huge social upheaval.
It challenged mainstream Christianity of the day by insisting that God could speak to and be present in anyone through the Holy Spirit — male or female, old or young, educated elite or peasant farmer.
Quaker worship meetings follow in this pattern by having no leader or minister and instead seeing members sit in silence until prompted to share something by God.
The movement has long had a strong emphasis on social action, and has left a significant legacy of reform-minded industrialists and campaigning organisations in Britain.
After beginning in Britain, the Quaker faith spread to the United States as many fled persecution at home. It has since been taken around the world, especially taking root in Africa.
In Britain in the past century, Quakerism has evolved to become a liberal and inclusive movement, happy to welcome a wide range of spiritualities and traditions. For instance, Quakers were the first religious group to support same-sex marriage.
It has always a small movement, and there are today about 12,000 Quakers in Britain, and between 350,000 and 400,000 worldwide.
How did Quakerism begin?
The founder of the Quakers was an English preacher from Leicestershire called George Fox. Believing he heard God’s voice, he began travelling the country during the English Civil War, attacking the established church and promoting a radical new form of Christianity.
He met many of the other dissenting Christian movements at the time, but found them lacking and so gradually came to form his own sect, gathering followers via open-air preaching.
His key distinction from the mainstream church was that all rituals, liturgy and structure, which had grown up around Christianity, could be ignored as God spoke directly to people via the Holy Spirit. The early Quakers rejected the need for priests or ministers, formal religious education, and church buildings.
Forming what became the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers spread throughout England in the following decades despite significant persecution and opposition from the authorities. Fox himself and other leaders were regularly jailed, and laws were passed that attempted to compel Quakers to make oaths of allegiance (which they believed was contrary to God’s will) to prevent them from holding meetings.
Despite this, the movement continued to grow and after the restoration of the monarchy in 1666 most formal persecution tailed off, with the Act of Toleration of 1689 passed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution giving Quakers and other nonconformist Christians freedom of worship.
From the 1650s some Quakers moved from Britain to start new lives in the North American colonies, with many in particular heading to Pennsylvania, an experimental colony founded by the English Quaker William Penn which promised religious liberty for all.
Into the 18th century, Quakers began to build a reputation in industry and business for fairness and high-quality goods. The three largest confectionery firms in England — Fry’s (founded 1761), Rowntree’s (1862), and Cadbury’s (1824) — were all run by Quaker families.
While in England, Quakers remained a quiet and fairly separate community, theological disputes increasingly overtook the American branch, leading to a number of internecine conflicts and schisms over spirituality, as well as worldly issues such as slavery and pacifism.
In the early 19th century Quakers were influenced by the Second Great Awakening, a huge evangelical revival in the United States. This led many American Quakers to move away from the distinctive simplicity and non-organised nature of the early movement, to develop instead more mainstream religious structures such as ministers, church services and missionary work to other countries. As a result, Quaker communities began to be formed around the world.
However, in Britain, most Quakers drifted towards modern and liberal interpretations of Christianity by the start of the 20th century. This saw them replace their earlier evangelicalism with more emphasis on scientific rationalism, biblical criticism, social action and suspicion of dogmatic creeds.
By the post-war era, British Quakerism continued this evolution and became an almost exclusively progressive, liberal form of Christianity, rejecting any formal doctrinal statements of belief and attracting many who preferred a more personal spirituality to organised religion.
What’s in a name?
Quakers normally refer to themselves as Friends, and the British Quaker organisation is formally called the Religious Society of Friends.
Early Quakers called themselves many different things, including Friends of the Truth, which eventually became just Friends.
“Quaker” is said to have been originally coined as an insult when the founder, George Fox, was being prosecuted in 1650 for blasphemy and urged the judge to “tremble at the word of the Lord”. Others say the name mocked early Quakers who sometimes shook in spiritual ecstasy during worship meetings. Although initially pejorative, Quaker speedily became the most common description for the group and for a long time has been accepted by Quakers themselves.
While Quakers today still use “Friend” internally, they are happy to describe themselves as Quakers and the Religious Society of Friends calls itself Quakers in Britain.
How is Quakerism organised?
In the UK, the vast majority of Quakers belong to the Britain Yearly Meeting, which as the name suggests meets once a year to discuss Quaker affairs and can trace its heritage back to the early days of the movement.
Each Quaker also belongs to a local meeting, which is both a weekly gathering for worship and also manages local issues for members.
Local meetings in turn are part of area meetings, organised regionally, which are independent charities. Area meetings liaise with the Yearly Meeting central staff, conduct Quaker marriages, manage finances, and record deaths.
Each Yearly Meeting also appoints members to a number of committees and bodies which make central decisions, interact with other organisations and faith groups, lead Quaker work on social issues, and run the headquarters of Friends House in central London.
From the local meeting upwards, Quakers reject formal leadership or hierarchies, and instead aim to make all decisions by consensus and open discussion.
Globally, British Quakers are part of the Friends Worldwide Committee for Consultation, an umbrella gathering of Quaker movements across the world. They periodically organise international conferences and other events.
What do Quakers believe?
This is an unusually difficult question to answer, as almost uniquely among religious movements the Quakers have never believed in codifying theology or doctrine. Early Quakers split from the mainstream church because they were convinced God spoke to all his people directly, without clergy, church services or theological education.
As a result, Quakers have always held that individuals can access divine wisdom and truth personally, through direct experience of God, and therefore it is inappropriate to draw up shared statements of belief. Therefore, it is often said Quakers are united more by their practice of worship than what they actually believe is happening in worship or who God is.
Although Quakerism is rooted in Christianity, today Quakers join the community from a variety of backgrounds and not all see Christian traditions as central to their own spirituality. Others, however, would define themselves as Christians and believe they share core tenets with other denominations and churches.
Despite this, there are some broad values and ideas that most Quakers share, some of which are present in Quaker Faith and Practice, a book produced by Britain Yearly Meeting since 1738 which includes testimonies, quotations from Quakers, and other efforts to summarise the Quaker experience in writing. However, there is no expectation that every Quaker must assent to everything in the book.
Key tenets for Quakers include peace, justice, equality, simplicity, sustainability and truth, although typically many would define some of these ideas in quite different terms.
The movement is particularly known for its social activism and campaigning. It has long been associated with pacifism, with Quakers famously refusing to fight in both world wars, and in recent years it has prioritised progressive social issues such as tackling climate change and inclusion for LGBTQ+ people.
Quakers have long been at the forefront of gender equality. Early Quakers in the 17th century insisted, much to the derision of their Christian contemporaries, that women as well as men could hear from God and minister in his spirit, and ever since the movement has had an emphasis on equality between the sexes.
How do Quakers practise their faith?
The central experience for a Quaker is their local meeting for worship. These typically would see members sit in silence in a circle, as they wait to be prompted by God to contribute something.
Any member when they want to can stand for “vocal ministry”, offering a reflection, insight or thought which they believe to be true and helpful.
Some members are given a responsibility to encourage and nurture the ministry of others during meetings, and are known as elders. Quaker Faith and Practice is normally on a table somewhere in the room, and often a Bible will be present.
Sometimes, Quaker meetings will engage in more structured or planned worship, which they call “programmed”, especially when gathering for a specific purpose or to deliberately include all ages of worshippers.
Quaker weddings also take place as a meeting for worship, with a similar emphasis on silence and spontaneous ministry contributions from anyone present.
In many ways, this practice, which is closely aligned with Quaker worship going back to George Fox, is what unites Quakers, rather than formal theological beliefs.
Although strongly influenced by their Christian heritage, within one local meeting you might find Quakers who believe different things are happening when they engage in this form of worship. Some Quakers claim dual religious identities, seeing no contradiction in being both Quaker and also Buddhist or Jewish, for instance. There are also non-theist Quakers, who do not believe in a traditional kind of god at all.
This form of spontaneous, deliberative, non-hierarchical meeting is also the root of how Quakers gather for non-religious affairs, eschewing formal leadership and instead offering every member an opportunity to contribute and shape the outcome of a meeting.
How many Quakers are there?
For many decades, the Britain Yearly Meeting has kept records of membership. In 2020 they show there were just over 12,100 registered Quakers, comprising 463 local meetings.
British Quakers, however, make up less than three per cent of Quakers worldwide, who are estimated to number 350, 000 to 400,000.
A small number of Quaker local meetings do not affiliate with the Britain Yearly Meeting. These mostly split off decades ago over disagreements regarding theology. Some instead are grouped with a more conservative Quaker movement in the United States.
British Quakers have been in a slow but steady decline for half a century, with their numbers falling from a 20th-century high of 21,000 in 1965. Since the 1990s, between 200 and 800 Quakers die or leave the movement each year.
Quakers are prominent in a number of social and political campaigns, particularly around pacifism and disarmament. They are also strong supporters of gay marriage, being the first religious group in the UK to support same-sex weddings in 2009.
Quaker Peace and Social Witness is one of the standing committees of the Britain Yearly Meeting and it co-ordinates campaigns on a range of issues, including climate change, migration and refugees, criminal justice reform, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and housing.
They have also campaigned in recent years against the government’s attempts to criminalise noisy or disruptive protests and to limit judicial review.
In 2019, the Quakers’ commitment to progressive social action brought it into conflict with other churches, through the umbrella group Churches Together in England. Their nomination as one of CTE’s joint presidents, a Quaker peace activist called Hannah Brock Womack, was rejected by the other denominations because she is married to a woman.
In 2022, the Yearly Meeting examined Quaker involvement in slavery in the past and voted to make financial reparations as a result and further establish themselves as an anti-racist church.
Tim Wyatt is a freelance religion journalist
The Quaker media office, [email protected] or 020 7663 1048 or 07958 009 703
Woodbrooke, the Quaker research and learning institution