The Quakers




1647-1648:  George Fox, founder of the movement, had two transformative spiritual experiences, from which the basis of Quaker theology was derived.

1650:  George Fox was imprisoned in Derby for blasphemy. The Judge in his case coined the term “Quaker” as an insult, but it became the popular term for Fox and his adherents.

1652:  George Fox had a vision on the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire of a “great people to be gathered,” converted hundreds in the following weeks including at Firbank Fell, and including Margaret Fell. Her home Swarthmoor Hall in Ulverston became the headquarters for the movement.

1654:  The “Valiant Sixty” took the Quaker message across Britain and Ireland as the first wholescale missionary effort.

1656:  The headquarters moved to London. James Nayler was tried for blasphemy, and narrowly escaped the death penalty.

1660:  The restoration of the monarchy and the national church made life difficult for the Quakers for the next three decades. Thousands were imprisoned under new laws, and many leaders died.

1666:  The ecclesiological structure of the Quaker movement was settled.

1676:  Robert Barclay published his “Apology for the True Christian Divinity” in Latin and later in English; it was the first complete theology of the Quaker movement.

1681:  William Penn started the “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania.

1689:  The Act of Toleration and Affirmation Act of 1694 legalised Quaker faith in Britain.

1723:  The last of the Valiant Sixty, George Whitehead, died.

1737:  Quakers developed a list of members.

1760:  The height of the Quaker “reformation” occurred whereby there was a renewed effort to remain faithful in a world that was seen as corrupt and corrupting.

1788:  Quakers corporately opposed slavery.

1827:  The Great Separation between Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers began, leading to rival “Yearly Meetings” in several U.S. states

1843:  The Separation between Wilburite and Gurneyite Orthodox Quakers began.

1875:  The first Quaker pastor was hired, and also the term “Friends Church” was introduced.

1887:  The Richmond Declaration of Faith was agreed to at the annual Gurneyite Yearly Meetings in Richmond, Indiana.

1902:  The Quaker Mission to Kenya was initiated.

1917:  The American Friends Service Committee was established.

1928:  Herbert Hoover was elected as first Quaker President of the U.S.

1937:  The Friends World Committee on Consultation was formed.

1947:  The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the American Friends Service Committee and its British counterpart.

1968:  Richard Nixon was elected as second Quaker President of the U.S.

1986:  The First World Gathering of Young Friends was held at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.


One of the strengths of the early Quaker movement was its depth of leadership but George Fox (1624–1690/1691) is usually credited with founding the movement and being seen as its leader. Other notable founding Friends (as Quakers are also called) include Margaret Fell (1614–1704) and James Nayler (1618–1660).

Fox [Image at right] was born in Leicestershire in 1624. His father was a Churchwarden in Fenny Drayton but Fox was spiritually unsettled and found the responses of his minister, Nathaniel Stephens, unsatisfactory. He left his leather-working apprenticeship aged nineteen and travelled around the parliamentary army camps at the time of the English Civil War and stayed for a year with a Baptist uncle in London. By 1647, he claimed his “hopes in all men were gone” and that he had “nothing outwardly to help” him. In this low place he experienced a powerful transformation when he heard a voice claim “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition.” He understood the nature of a direct relationship with God, how he had been looking in the wrong places for answers (books and other people), that this experience was available to everybody, and that the resultant universal priesthood of all believers was the only and true way for humanity to be in right relationship with God. He understood this experience as salvific, developed a doctrine of perfection a year later, and framed his experience of Christ within in terms of an inward second coming of Christ.

All the traditional outward forms of Christianity (separated priests, sacraments, church buildings, the Christian calendar) were seen by Fox to be redundant and detrimental to the direct relationship with the Divine he advocated. Quaker worship was in silence and stillness with anyone able to offer “ministry” when divinely inspired.

Fox’s preaching had little success in the Midlands, and he was jailed in Derby 1650 for blasphemy (refusing to deny he was the son of God, as, he claimed, all those experiencing this new spiritual place, were). When he was released, Fox travelled north to the Doncaster region where he was able to connect with members of the Yorkshire seekers, a group who had removed everything but a minister’s message from their worship. Many of this group saw Fox’s message as the next step and rallied behind him, including some like James Nayler who would become key leaders of the movement. In the spring of 1652, Fox travelled westward with Richard Farnsworth. When they came to Pendle Hill in Lancashire, [Image at right] Fox felt “moved by the Lord” to go atop of it and did so “with much ado.” At the top and one the way down, he had a vision of “a great people to be gathered” and at the foot of the hill, was shown in another vision where this people were.

Two weeks later he reached Sedbergh at the time of the Whit Hiring Fair and the following Sunday, June 13, 1652 preached on Firbank Fell, winning converts among many of the Westmoreland Seekers and others. A few weeks later, he reached Ulverston and converted Margaret Fell and her household to the Quaker message, gaining gentry support and a new headquarters for the Quaker movement at Swarthmoor Hall. Margaret Fell was a very able organiser with considerable pastoral and theological skills. Her husband, Thomas Fell, was a circuit judge. He never became a Quaker but was helpful in various court cases involving Quakers.

In 1654, a major mission movement was organised with more than thirty pairs of ministers and elders (to nurture the ministry) travelling across England and Wales. This was hugely successful and by 1656, the headquarters had moved to London. Ronald Hutton has claimed that whilst those in London during Oliver Cromwell’s rule were looking anxiously across the channel, fearing a Catholic invasion, the religious revolution came from the north in the form of the Quakers.

Quakers were easily recognisable as they started to dress more simply (plain dress) and use the “plain” language. They refused to name days and months because of the pagan origins of the names and used numbers (e.g. first day instead of Sunday). They refused to pay tithes (supporting the opposition) or swear oaths (Matthew 5:34), and addressed everyone using “thee” instead of the polite and deferential “you.” Quakers only removed their hats in prayer and contravened usual forms of etiquette. They interrupted church services to preach and enacted signs. They took full advantage of the lack of censorship during the Republic and were prolific publishers. The movement, with its promise of universal salvation (as opposed to Calvinist predestination), spiritual equality of women, children and men, and its clear sense of religious morality proved very popular and some estimates suggest one percent of England became Quaker. Mission work abroad was started, and, in 1658, three Quakers went to convert the Pope and Mary Fisher had a cordial meeting with Sultan Mehmet IV.

In 1656, James Nayler enacted a sign of Christ’s return by riding into Glastonbury and Wells on a horse with other Quakers waving branches before him. When he repeated the sign in Bristol, he was arrested and tried for blasphemy. [Image at right] Seen by many as the co-leader of the Quakers, his case was politically sensitive and was referred to parliament. Supported by his Civil war Commander, John Lambert, he narrowly escaped the death penalty but was severely punished and then jailed. It was a fragile moment for the Quaker movement. Some felt Nayler had followed his own will rather than God’s,and advice appeared soon after on the need to ‘test’ leadings before enacting them. Nayler was released in 1659 but was soon afterwards attacked and died from his injuries. In 1659, Mary Dyer and three other Quakers were hanged in Boston by Massachusetts Puritans. [Image at right]

The restoration of the monarchy in Britain in 1660 brought new challenges. Whilst Charles II was open to ideas of religious toleration, parliament was not going to allow the monarch as much power as his father had enjoyed, and ministers and Bishops displaced and marginalised under the Republic wished to put unruly sects in their place. When the Fifth Monarchists took over the city of London in 1661, 4,200 Quakers were put into preventative custody. The Quaker response was for Fox and twelve others to sign a version of a document originally drafted by Margaret Fell reassuring the monarchy that Quakers would not take up arms as that was contrary to their faith.

Quakers were persecuted in the three following decades under the Conventicle Acts (forbidding nonconformist gatherings of more than five people), the Five Mile Act (forbidding nonconformist worship within five miles of an incorporated town) and from 1662 the Quaker Act specifically forbidding Quaker worship. Many of the key leaders died in prison and Fox came close to death twice. Margaret Fell had all her property confiscated for a time in the 1660s. Quakers began to implement a pattern of formal organisation (with Yearly Meetings and local Monthly Meetings) and to understand that the nation was not turning to God as quickly as they had once imagined. Indeed, after the mid-1660s, they also began to talk less about the second coming of Christ. Whilst they had never dated a return of Christ but had talked more of an unfolding or “realising” eschatology, delay altered Quaker rhetoric. Quakers had needed land for burial from the beginning but now Meeting Houses were built to allow growing numbers of Quakers to worship together.

Second generation converts like Robert Barclay (1648 – 1691) and William Penn (1644-1718) helped systematise Quaker faith and practice. Robert Barclay wrote a complete theology of the Quaker faith (“An Apology for the True Christian Divinity”), publishing it in Latin in 1676 and in English in 1678. This would become a standard work of Quaker doctrine for the following 150 years.

William Penn [Image at right] became the largest private landowner in the world in 1681 when the king repaid a debt owed to his
father with a huge tract of land in North America. Penn set about establishing the colony of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia as a “holy experiment” in Quaker governance. It was an experiment that lasted until the 1750s and one which gave emigrating Quakers a setting to put their ideas into practice.

The Act of Toleration of 1689, which allowed for the toleration of nonconformist worship, and Act of Affirmation in 1694, which allowed Quakers to legally affirm rather than swear an oath, brought Quakers in Britain some relief. However, for a second and third generation of Quakers, many now born into the true church, Barclay’s suggestion that people could miss their moment of salvation brought new anxieties. Diligence and obedience became key themes in eighteenth century Quaker spirituality. Worldly pursuits and fashions were eschewed and in the mid eighteenth century, Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic felt called to spiritual renewal fearing they had become too creaturely. Many Quakers had prospered in business with all the attendant temptations. Quaker spirituality was less confident, less apocalyptic and the preservation and presentation of purity through disowning the ‘delinquent’ became more important to the group than mission. The group became fully sectarian (including the enforcement of endogamy, plain dress and plain speech) whilst still engaging in business life and social reform such as the campaign against slavery. Spiritually, the emphasis on the inward continued and in some places became heightened to the point that even scripture was seen as outward and unhelpful or worldly.

In the nineteenth century, the influence of Evangelical revival contested this emphasis on the inward and on the authority of revelation. By the 1820s, Friends were internally divided between these two positions and in 1827, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting split into Hicksites, who emphasised the “Inward Light” and the Orthodox who were drawn to scriptural authority. The split was largely a rural/urban one, with the wealthy Quaker urban business elite tending to the Orthodox party. This “Great Separation,” mirrored in subsequent schisms in other American Yearly Meetings (as each decided who the true Quakers were and thus who they would stay in communication with) duplicated Quaker infrastructure (Meeting Houses for example) and led to divided kinship networks.

In the 1840s and 1850s, a further series of schisms took place within the Orthodox branch over whether religious authority rested in Scripture alone (Gurneyite) or in Scripture and revelation (Wilburite). All three groupings of Quakers believed they were the rightful heirs of the Quaker tradition and disowned the others. All three wrestled with the degree that they should work with non-Quakers on issues such as abolition.

Quakers in the Gurneyite tradition were the most inclined to ecumenism and in the late 1860s many became drawn to camp revival meetings. They detected some of the energy and spontaneity of early Quaker meetings there, a welcome antidote when silent meetings had become arid or legalistic. Quakers began their own revival meetings in addition to the silent “unprogrammed” meetings. The success of these brought in thousands of fresh converts (some meetings grew by fifty percent) and in order to transmit the faith, pastoral committees were set up. It was a short step to then hire pastors and from there to ask the pastor to lead the worship. The first pastor and “Friends Church” can be dated to 1875. By 1900, all but one American Gurneyite Yearly Meeting included pastors. This led to some further schisms from more conservative Quakers. In time these anti-pastoral Quakers would become linked with Wilburite Quakers as a Conservative branch.

In the 1880s, some Quaker pastors began to seek the possibility of water baptism and in reaction this, a conference of all Gurneyite Yearly Meetings was held in Richmond, Indiana in 1887. From this came the Richmond Declaration of Faith, which was subsequently adopted by all but one of the American Gurneyite Yearly Meetings. Tensions have resulted subsequently from differing ideas over what authority should be given to the Declaration, but it remains a key document for many Yearly Meetings.

Hicksite Quakerism survived the nineteenth century without further major schism although some meetings left to pursue their political aims with greater zeal. By the turn of the twentieth century, Hicksite Friends had become “modernist” and became part of a wider Liberal renewal movement.

In the twentieth century, different Yearly Meetings, particularly those in the U.S., joined together under umbrella affiliations. “Friends General Conference” was created to serve Hicksite Yearly Meetings. “Five Years Meeting” was formed in 1902 by Gurneyite Yearly Meetings that had accepted the Richmond Declaration. This later became “Friends United Meeting” (FUM). Over the century, Yearly Meetings that were more evangelical left FYM/FUM and are today unaffiliated or part of Evangelical Friends Church International (EFCI). There is a loose association of Conservative (Wilburite and anti-pastoral) Friends and some deliberately unaffiliated Liberal Yearly Meetings. When some Hicksite/Orthodox and Gurneyite/Wilburite Yearly Meetings reunited or consolidated between 1945 and 1968, the united Yearly Meetings sometimes jointly affiliated with FUM and FGC.

Quakerism today can be divided into Evangelical, Conservative and Liberal. “Liberal” is used to denote this part of the unprogrammed tradition with highly permissive attitudes to doctrine, but with a clear orthopraxis and commitment to peace and social justice. Conservative Friends are also unprogrammed, conserving traditional Quaker forms of worship and Quaker Christian understandings of spiritual experience. Alternatively, Quaker diversity can be categorised in terms of liturgical form: “unprogrammed” and “programmed or pastoral.” Pastoral Quakerism, fuelled by mission, represents ninety percent of global Quakerism.


At the heart of all Friends Churches and Quaker Meetings where the Quaker legacy remains salient and important is the idea of direct encounter with the divine. Quakers can be seen to be a church in the tradition of those who claim to be led by the Holy Spirit. The idea of inward baptism and communion, universal salvation and spiritual equality remains shared across the branches. Pastors have the gifts to lead the worship but do not have greater access to God, no greater spiritual authority than anyone else. Discernment is crucial for a group led by divine inspiration although the different branches will use Scripture in different ways as part of this process. All of the branches are involved in work around social justice and peace. Pacifism remains a hallmark of the Quaker movement whilst individual Quakers find themselves in different places on the subject of war and armed conflict. All Quaker Meetings and churches are committed to truth and integrity, simplicity of lifestyle, and a life of witness. Mission work is important for Evangelical Friends, less so for Liberal and Conservative Quakers. Liberal Quakers define themselves les in terms of doctrine and more in terms of their liturgical form, church life and personal lifestyle. Liberal Quakers emphasise the spiritual journey, a wide variety of ways of describing spiritual experience and ultimately a necessary human uncertainty about the mystery of faith.


Silent Worship remains central to Liberal and Conservative Friends even whilst it is now typically limited to an hour (instead of three hours as it was in the seventeenth century). These Quakers typically sit in a circle or square and meetings may be wholly silent or punctuated by ministry when anyone in the group might rise to speak. [Image at right] The idea is that these are words given by God to the individual to share. Ministries are normally short, and rarely more than five minutes. Some Meetings are totally silent; others may include numerous spoken contributions. Worship ends when the Elders shake hands, after which everyone may shake hands with their near neighbours.

Pastoral worship varies hugely in style, length and mode. It may be part of an all-day participation in church life or an hour long. A message from the pastor or invited guest may come early or late in the service, music may centre on hymns or choruses and may be accompanied by a robed choir or a handbell group or an electric band or a single piano. Outward sacraments are only rarely part of pastoral worship and remain optional. No outward forms are deemed essential.

Fellowship time is given great importance and in most traditions and so is adult education, the ongoing formation of thepriesthood of all believers.

Traditional Meeting Houses tend to be very plain, [[Image at right] and in a vernacular style. Friends Churches tend to reflect the period in which they were built.


The term “Gospel Order” is used to describe the ecclesiology of the Quaker movement.

Quakers make all decisions affecting the life of the group through a formalised discernment process. A “Clerk” presents the matter and it is considered in worship, with contributions arising as led. A minute is written to reflect “the sense of the Meeting” and this is also considered in worship. If the group cannot agree on an outcome, then the matter is held over. Unity is seen to reflect ‘the will of God’ disunity a sense of not having discerned sufficiently.

The ecclesiological structure is decentralised with as many decisions as possible taken locally. Yearly Meetings vary in how much authority thy have over their constituent meetings, or whether local meetings are largely congregational.

Roles within the Meeting or Church, such as Elder or Clerk, are typically rotated through the membership. There are systems of formal membership in all the groups and some roles are reserved for members.


The issue of where religious authority lies remains a difference across the branches. In the nature of schism, tendencies within each branch have been strengthened and amplified without any oppositional view. Thus Evangelical Friends contain constituencies rooted in a neo-fundamentalist adherence to scripture, holiness Friends, as well as more modernist Friends mixing rationalism, scripture and revelation. Conservative Friends rely on a traditional Quaker understanding of revelation checked by scripture, whilst Liberal Friends emphasise experience as primary. This broad category has accommodated a shift from a purely Christian understanding of spiritual experience to a form of Quakerism which includes Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan Quakers along with those without specific theological frames of reference as well as non-theist Quakers. This latter category incorporates all those for whom the term God feels inappropriate, including some agnostics and atheists.

There is a wide spectrum of belief between the different branches of Quakerism from ne-fundamentalism to atheism. Even within Yearly Meetings, there can be oppositional theological positions, although Evangelical groups tend to be defined by adherence to a set doctrine. Liberal groups are more centred on practice and lifestyle and accommodate theological diversity by emphasising the idea off “spiritual journey” and “spiritual seeking.” Theology is then seen as a personal, partial, or provisional formulation, thus allowing difference to be legitimated. Identity also differs in terms of whether Quaker identity is primary or e.g. Christianity. For some evangelical groups, their desire to serve the community has led to a decline in emphasis of the distinctively Quaker.

Two main forms of Quaker worship exist, “programmed” or pastoral, and unprogrammed. Pastoral worship accounts for ninety percent of Quakers today and consists of range of worship activities (e.g. prayer, praise, hymns, choruses, testimony, “communion after the manner of Friends” [silent worship] etc, discerned in advance by a pastor or pastoral team. Unprogrammed worship typically consists of an hour of silence in which anyone may “minister.” Some meetings are “semi-programmed” utilising elements of both forms, or having two periods of worship possibly split by fellowship time.

Quakers globally hold arrange of positions on homosexuality, rooted in part in different ethical stances. Evangelical Friends tend towards a deontological view of morality in which categories of behaviour are right or wrong, whereas Liberal Friends tend to focus on the consequences of behaviours. Abortion is another divisive issue, leading Quakers to vote for different Presidential candidates in some instances.

The issue of homosexuality has divided many Friends Churches and Yearly Meetings, sometimes transforming itself into an issue as to whether local Meetings need to adhere to Yearly Meeting discernment. After one Meeting issued a statement welcoming diversity amongst its congregation, the Indiana Yearly Meeting divided in 2014 over the issue of authority into two groupings: one upheld Congregationalist authority, the other supported the idea of Yearly Meeting authority over local discernment. Both groupings contained a mix of view on homosexuality (Friends Journal Staff 2013).

Division has been a part of Quakerism since its inception but particularly since the early nineteenth century. Some formerly divided Meetings have joined back together but increasingly diverse types of Quakerism has entailed further separations, and hybrid identities.

In the global north, the number of Quakers is falling, and the percentage of Quakers there has fallen dramatically set against the growth of Quakerism in Africa, Asia and Central and Southern America. Where numbers are particularly small, finding volunteers to take on roles can be difficult and organisational patterns have become more fluid too.

The number of converts into Quakerism remains high (ninety percent of the whole in Britain, for example. This can lead to challenges around faith transmission as well as the meaning of Quaker identity, especially in Liberal groups.

Quaker testimony, the way a Quaker life is led, has changed dramatically over the centuries. Very few Quakers now use the plain language or dress in a plain style, many celebrate Christmas (either religiously or as a cultural event) and particular aspects of Quaker behaviour have been replaced by more generalised aspirations, such as peace, simplicity, integrity. The “Peace Testimony” (historically the testimony against war) has become individualised in some settings and many Quakers joined up in the two World Wars. Mission in the Liberal and Conservative branches is expressed in terms of service.


Image #1: Image of George Fox.

Image #2: Photograph of Pendle Hill; photograph by Charles Rawding.

Image #3: Image of James Nayler (The “B” stamped on his forhead was the result of his conviction for blasphemy).

Image #4: Image of Mary Dyer being led to her execution.

Image #5: Image of William Penn.

Image #6: Image of women preaching at a Quaker meeting.

Image #7: Photograph of the interior of Pardshaw Meeting House, near Cockermouth in England. Photo by Andrew Rendle.


Material for this profile is drawn from Pink Dandelion, Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge University Press 2007) unless otherwise noted.


Angell, Stephen and Pink Dandelion, eds. 2015. Early Quakers and Their Theological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Angell, Stephen and Dandelion, Pink, eds. 2013. Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barclay, R., 2002 [1678]. An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, edited by Peter D. Sippel. Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press.

Dandelion, Pink. 2008. The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dandelion, Pink. 2007. Introduction to Quakerism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Durham, Geoffrey. 2010. The Spirit of the Quakers. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Endy, M.B., Jr. 1973. William Penn and Early Quakerism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Foster, Richard J. 1978. A Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Fox, George. 1995 [1952]. The Journal of George Fox, edited by J. L. Nickalls. Philadelphia, PA: Religious Society of Friends.

Friends Journal Staff. 2013. “Thomas Hamm on Division in Indiana.” Friends Journal, February 1. Accessed from on 6 December 2016.

Hamm, Thomas. 2003. The Quakers in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ingle, H.L. 1994. First among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, Thomas. 1941. A testament of Devotion. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Moore, Rosemary. 2000. The light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1644-1666. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Punshon, John. 1984. Portrait In Grey: A Short History of the Quakers. London: Quaker Home Service.

Skidmore, Gil, ed. 2003. Strength in Weakness: Writings by Eighteenth-century Quaker Women. Walnut Creek, CA : Altamira Press.

Stansell, Ron. 2009. Mission by the Spirit: Learning from Quaker Examples. Newberg, OR: Barclay Press.

Tousley, Nikki Coffey. 2008. “The Experience of Regeneration and Erosion of Certainty in the Theology of Second-generation Quakers: No Place for Doubt?” Quaker Studies 13:6-88.

Trevett, Christine. 1991. Women and Quakerism in the Seventeenth Century . Morley, U.K.: Sessions Book Trust.

Woolman, John. 1989. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, edited by P. P. Moulton. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press.

Ben Pink Dandelion

Post Date:
12 December 2016


Home | About Us | Partnerships | Profiles | Resources | Donate | Contact

Copyright © 2016 World Religions and Spirituality Project

All Rights Reserved

Web Design by Luke Alexander