Religious Society of Friends or Friends Church
Quaker Star
Symbol used by Friends' service organizations since the late 19th century
TheologyVariable; depends on meeting
Distinct fellowshipsFriends World Committee for Consultation
AssociationsBritain Yearly Meeting, Friends United Meeting, Evangelical Friends International, Central Yearly Meeting of Friends, Conservative Friends, Friends General Conference, Beanite Quakerism
FounderGeorge Fox
OriginMid-17th century
Separated fromChurch of England

Quakers, also called Friends, are a historically Christian group whose formal name is the Religious Society of Friends.[2] Members of the various Quaker movements are all generally united in a belief in the ability of each human being to experientially access the light within, or "that of God in every one".[3]

Some may profess the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine derived from the First Epistle of Peter.[4][5][6][7] They include those with evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional Quaker understandings of Christianity. There are also Nontheist Quakers whose spiritual practice is not reliant on the existence of God. To differing extents, the different movements that make up the Religious Society of Friends/Friends Church avoid creeds and hierarchical structures.[8] In 2007, there were about 359,000 adult Quakers worldwide.[9] In 2017, there were 377,557 adult Quakers, with 49% in Africa.[10]

Around 89% of Quakers worldwide belong to the "evangelical" and "programmed" branches of Quakerism[11]—these Quakers worship in services with singing and a prepared message from the Bible, coordinated by a pastor. Around 11% of Friends[12] practice waiting worship, or unprogrammed worship (more commonly known today as Meeting for Worship), where the order of service is not planned in advance, is predominantly silent, and may include unprepared vocal ministry from those present. Some meetings of both types have Recorded Ministers in their meetings—Friends recognised for their gift of vocal ministry.[13]

The first Quakers lived in mid-17th-century England. The movement arose from the Legatine-Arians and other dissenting Protestant groups, breaking away from the established Church of England. The Quakers, especially the ones known as the Valiant Sixty, attempted to convert others to their understanding of Christianity, travelling both throughout Great Britain and overseas, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of these early Quaker ministers were women.[14] They based their message on the religious belief that "Christ has come to teach his people himself", stressing the importance of a direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and a direct religious belief in the universal priesthood of all believers.[15] They emphasized a personal and direct religious experience of Christ, acquired through both direct religious experience and the reading and studying of the Bible.[16] Quakers focused their private life on developing behaviour and speech reflecting emotional purity and the light of God.[17]

In the past, Quakers were known for their use of thee as an ordinary pronoun, refusal to participate in war, plain dress, refusal to swear oaths, opposition to slavery, and teetotalism.[18] Some Quakers founded banks and financial institutions, including Barclays, Lloyds, and Friends Provident; manufacturing companies, including shoe retailer C. & J. Clark and the big three British confectionery makers Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry; and philanthropic efforts, including abolition of slavery, prison reform, and social justice projects.[19]

In 1947, the Quakers, represented by the British Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[20][21]


Beginnings in England

George Fox, an early Quaker

During and after the English Civil War (1642–1651) many dissenting Christian groups emerged, including the Seekers and others. A young man, George Fox, was dissatisfied with the teachings of the Church of England and nonconformists. He had a revelation that "there is one, even, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition",[22] and became convinced that it was possible to have a direct experience of Christ without the aid of ordained clergy. In 1652 he had a vision on Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England, in which he believed that "the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered".[22] Following this he travelled around England, the Netherlands,[23] and Barbados[24] preaching and teaching with the aim of converting new adherents to his faith. The central theme of his Gospel message was that Christ has come to teach his people himself.[22] Fox considered himself to be restoring a true, "pure" Christian church.[25]

In 1650, Fox was brought before the magistrates Gervase Bennet and Nathaniel Barton, on a charge of religious blasphemy. According to Fox's autobiography, Bennet "was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord".[22]:125 It is thought that Fox was referring to Isaiah 66:2 or Ezra 9:4. Thus, the name Quaker began as a way of ridiculing Fox's admonition, but became widely accepted and is used by some Quakers.[26] Quakers also described themselves using terms such as true Christianity, Saints, Children of the Light, and Friends of the Truth, reflecting terms used in the New Testament by members of the early Christian church.

James Nayler, a prominent Quaker leader, being pilloried and whipped

Quakerism gained a considerable following in England and Wales, and the numbers increased to a peak of 60,000 in England and Wales by 1680[27] (1.15% of the population of England and Wales).[27] But the dominant discourse of Protestantism viewed the Quakers as a blasphemous challenge to social and political order,[28] leading to official persecution in England and Wales under the Quaker Act 1662 and the Conventicle Act 1664. This was relaxed after the Declaration of Indulgence (1687–88) and stopped under the Act of Toleration 1689.

One modern view of Quakerism at this time was that the relationship with Christ was encouraged through spiritualisation of human relations, and "the redefinition of the Quakers as a holy tribe, 'the family and household of God'".[29] Together with Margaret Fell, the wife of Thomas Fell, who was the vice-chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and an eminent judge, Fox developed new conceptions of family and community that emphasised "holy conversation": speech and behaviour that reflected piety, faith, and love.[30] With the restructuring of the family and household came new roles for women; Fox and Fell viewed the Quaker mother as essential to developing "holy conversation" in her children and husband.[29] Quaker women were also responsible for the spirituality of the larger community, coming together in "meetings" that regulated marriage and domestic behaviour.[31]

Immigration into North America

The persecution of Quakers in North America began in 1656 when English Quaker missionaries Mary Fisher and Ann Austin began preaching in Boston. They were considered heretics because of their insistence on individual obedience to the Inner light. They were imprisoned and banished by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their books were burned, and most of their property confiscated. They were imprisoned in terrible conditions, then deported.[32]

Quaker Mary Dyer led to execution on Boston Common, 1 June 1660

In 1660, English Quaker Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony.[33] She was one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. In 1661, King Charles II forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism.[34] In 1684, England revoked the Massachusetts charter, sent over a royal governor to enforce English laws in 1686 and, in 1689, passed a broad Toleration Act.[34]

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania and West Jersey, as a young man

Some Friends immigrated to what is now the Northeastern region of the United States in the 1660s in search of economic opportunities and a more tolerant environment in which to build communities of "holy conversation".[35] In 1665 Quakers established a meeting in Shrewsbury, NJ (now Monmouth County) and built a meeting house in 1672 that was visited by George Fox in the same year.[36] They were able to establish thriving communities in the Delaware Valley, although they continued to experience persecution in some areas, such as New England. The three colonies that tolerated Quakers at this time were West Jersey, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, where Quakers established themselves politically. In Rhode Island, 36 governors in the first 100 years were Quakers. West Jersey and Pennsylvania were established by affluent Quaker William Penn in 1676 and 1682 respectively, with Pennsylvania as an American commonwealth run under Quaker principles. William Penn signed a peace treaty with Tammany, leader of the Delaware tribe,[37] and other treaties followed between Quakers and Native Americans.[25] This peace endured almost a century, until the Penn's Creek Massacre of 1755.[38] Early colonial Quakers also established communities and meeting houses in North Carolina and Maryland, after fleeing persecution by the Anglican Church in Virginia.[39]

In a 2007 interview, author David Yount (How the Quakers Invented America) said that Quakers first introduced many ideas that later became mainstream, such as democracy in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution from Rhode Island Quakers, trial by jury, equal rights for men and women, and public education. Even the Liberty Bell itself was cast by Quakers.[40]


Early Quakerism tolerated boisterous behaviour that challenged conventional etiquette, but by 1700, they no longer supported disruptive and unruly behaviour.[41] During the 18th century, Quakers entered the Quietist period in the history of their church, becoming more inward-looking spiritually and less active in converting others. Marrying outside the Society was outlawed. Numbers dwindled, dropping to 19,800 in England and Wales by 1800 (0.21% of population),[27] and 13,859 by 1860 (0.07% of population).[27] The formal name "Religious Society of Friends" dates from this period and was probably derived from the appellations "Friends of the Light" and "Friends of the Truth".[citation needed]

Divisions of the Religious Society of Friends

Conservative Friends


Friends United Meeting


Evangelical Friends International


Friends General Conference

Friends General Conference

Showing the divisions of Quakers occurring in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Around the time of the American Revolutionary War, some American Quakers split from the main Society of Friends over issues such as support for the war, forming groups such as the Free Quakers and the Universal Friends.[42] Later, in the 19th century, there was a diversification of theological beliefs in the Religious Society of Friends, and this led to several larger splits within the Quaker movement.

Hicksite–Orthodox split

The Hicksite–Orthodox split arose out of both ideological and socioeconomic tensions. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Hicksites tended to be agrarian and poorer than the more urban, wealthier, Orthodox Quakers. With increasing financial success, Orthodox Quakers wanted to "make the Society a more respectable body—to transform their sect into a church—by adopting mainstream Protestant orthodoxy".[43] Hicksites, though they held a variety of views, generally saw the market economy as corrupting, and believed Orthodox Quakers had sacrificed their orthodox Christian spirituality for material success. Hicksites viewed the Bible as secondary to the individual cultivation of God's light within.[44]

With Gurneyite Quakers' shift toward Protestant principles and away from the spiritualisation of human relations, women's role as promoters of "holy conversation" started to decrease. Conversely, within the Hicksite movement the rejection of the market economy and the continuing focus on community and family bonds tended to encourage women to retain their role as powerful arbiters.

Elias Hicks' religious views were claimed to be universalist and to contradict Quakers' historical orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. Hicks' Gospel preaching and teaching precipitated the Great Separation of 1827, which resulted in a parallel system of Yearly Meetings in America, joined by Friends from Philadelphia, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Baltimore. They were referred to by their opponents as Hicksites and by others, and sometimes themselves, as orthodox. Quakers in Great Britain recognised only the Orthodox Quakers and refused to correspond with the Hicksites.

Beaconite controversy

Isaac Crewdson was a Recorded Minister in Manchester, UK. His 1835 book A Beacon to the Society of Friends strongly argued that the inner light was at odds with a religious belief in salvation by the atonement of Christ.[45](p155) This Christian controversy led to Crewdson's resignation from the Religious Society of Friends, along with 48 fellow members of Manchester Meeting and about 250 other British Quakers in 1836–37. Some of these joined the Plymouth Brethren Church.

Rise of Gurneyite Quakerism, and the Gurneyite–Conservative split

Joseph John Gurney was a prominent 19th century British Friend and a strong proponent of evangelical views

Orthodox Friends became more evangelical during the 19th century[46] and were influenced by the Second Great Awakening. This movement was led by British Quaker Joseph John Gurney. Christian Friends held Revival meetings in America and became involved in the Holiness movement of churches. Quakers such as Hannah Whitall Smith and Robert Pearsall Smith became speakers in the religious movement and introduced Quaker phrases and practices to it.[45](p157) British Friends became involved with the Higher Life movement, with Robert Wilson from Cockermouth meeting founding the Keswick Convention.[45](p157) From the 1870s it became commonplace in Great Britain to have home mission meetings on a Sunday evening with Christian hymns and a Bible-based sermon alongside the silent meetings for worship on Sunday morning.[45](p155)

The Quaker Yearly Meetings supporting the religious beliefs of Joseph John Gurney were known as Gurneyite yearly meetings. Many eventually collectively became the Five Years Meeting and then Friends United Meeting, although London Yearly Meeting, which had been strongly Gurneyite in the 19th century, did not join either of these groups. These Quaker yearly meetings make up the largest proportion of Quakers in the world today.

Some orthodox Quakers in America disliked the move towards evangelical Christianity and saw it as a dilution of Friends' traditional orthodox Christian belief in being inwardly led by the Holy Spirit. These Friends were led by John Wilbur, who was expelled from his yearly meeting in 1842. He and his supporters formed their own Conservative Friends Yearly Meeting. In the UK in 1868 some Friends broke away from London Yearly Meeting for the same reason. They formed a separate body of Friends called Fritchley General Meeting, which remained distinct and separate from London Yearly Meeting until 1968. Similar Christian splits took place in Canada. The Yearly Meetings that supported John Wilbur's religious beliefs were known as Conservative Friends.

Richmond Declaration

In 1887, a Gurneyite Quaker of British descent, Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, proposed to Friends a statement of faith known as the Richmond Declaration. This statement of faith was agreed to by 95 of the representatives at a meeting of Five Years Meeting Friends, but unexpectedly the Richmond Declaration was not adopted by London Yearly Meeting because a vocal minority, including Edward Grubb, opposed it.[47]

Missions to Asia and Africa

Friends' Syrian Mission, 1874, built this mission house in Ramallah

Following the Christian revivals in the mid-19th century, Friends in Great Britain wanted to start missionary activity overseas. The first missionaries were sent to Benares (Varanasi), in India, in 1866. The Friends Foreign Mission Association was formed in 1868, and sent missionaries to Madhya Pradesh, India, forming what is now Mid-India Yearly Meeting; and later to Madagascar from 1867, China from 1896, Sri Lanka from 1896, and Pemba Island from 1897.[48] The Friends Syrian Mission was established in 1874, which among other institutions ran the Ramallah Friends Schools, which still exist today. Swiss missionary Theophilus Waldmeier founded Brummana High School in Lebanon in 1873.[48] Evangelical Friends Churches from Ohio Yearly Meeting sent missionaries to India in 1896,[49] forming what is now Bundelkhand Yearly Meeting. Cleveland Friends went to Mombasa, Kenya, and started what was the most successful Friends' mission. Christian Quakerism spread within Kenya and to Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda.

Theory of evolution

The theory of evolution described by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859) was opposed by many Quakers in the 19th century,[50] particularly by older evangelical Quakers who dominated the Religious Society of Friends in Great Britain. These religious leaders were suspicious of Darwin's theory, and believed that natural selection needed to be supplemented by another process.[51] For example, influential British Quaker scientist Edward Newman[52] said the theory was "not compatible with our notions of creation as delivered from the hands of a Creator".

But some young Friends, such as John Wilhelm Rowntree and Edward Grubb, supported Darwin's theories, adopting a doctrine of progressive revelation with evolutionary ideas.[51] In the United States, Joseph Moore taught the theory of evolution at the Quaker Earlham College as early as 1861[53] and was probably one of the first teachers in the Midwest to do so.[54] Acceptance of the theory of evolution became more widespread in those Yearly Meetings, which moved toward liberal Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries,[55] while a belief in creationism persists within evangelical Friends Churches, particularly in East Africa and parts of the U.S.

Quaker Renaissance

In the late 19th century and early 20th century a religious movement known as the Quaker Renaissance movement began within London Yearly Meeting. Young Friends in London Yearly Meeting at this time moved away from evangelicalism and towards liberal Christianity.[56] This Quaker Renaissance movement was particularly influenced by Rowntree, Grubb, and Rufus Jones. These Liberal Friends promoted the theory of evolution, modern biblical criticism, and the social meaning of Christ's teaching—encouraging Friends to follow the New Testament example of Christ by performing good works. These men downplayed the evangelical Quaker belief in the atonement of Christ on the Cross at Calvary.[56] After the Manchester Conference in England in 1895, one thousand British Friends met to consider the future of British Quakerism and, as a result, liberal Quaker thought gradually increased within London Yearly Meeting.[57]

Conscientious objection

FAU ambulance and driver, Germany, 1945

During World War I and World War II, Friends' opposition to war was put to the test. Many Friends became conscientious objectors and some formed the Friends Ambulance Unit with the aim of co-operating with others to build up a new world rather than fighting to destroy the old, and the American Friends Service Committee. Birmingham, UK had a strong Quaker community during the war.[58] Many British Quakers were conscripted into the Non-Combatant Corps during both world wars.

Formation of Friends World Committee for Consultation

After the two great wars brought the different kinds of Quakers closer together, Friends from different yearly meetings—many of whom had served together in the Friends Ambulance Unit, on the American Friends Service Committee, and in other relief work—later held several Quaker World Conferences; this resulted in the creation of a standing body of Friends, the Friends World Committee for Consultation.

Evangelical Friends

After World War I, a growing desire for a more fundamentalist approach among some Friends began a split among Five Years Meetings. In 1926, Oregon Yearly Meeting seceded from Five Years Meeting, bringing together several other yearly meetings and scattered monthly meetings. In 1947, the Association of Evangelical Friends was formed, with triennial meetings until 1970. In 1965, this was replaced by the Evangelical Friends Alliance, which in 1989, became Evangelical Friends Church International.[59]

Role of women

Sugar Grove Conservative Friends Meeting House, built 1870 in Indiana, with an openable partition between male and female sections

In the 1650s, individual Quaker women prophesied and preached publicly, developing charismatic personas and spreading the sect. This practice was bolstered by the movement's firm concept of spiritual equality for men and women.[60] Moreover, Quakerism initially was propelled by the nonconformist behaviours of its followers, especially women who broke from social norms.[61] By the 1660s, the progress of the movement resulted in more structured organisation, which led to separate women's meetings.[62] Through the women's meeting, women oversaw domestic and community life, including marriage.[31] From the beginning, Quaker women, most notably Margaret Fell, played an important role in defining Quakerism.[63][64] Others active in proselytising included Mary Penington, Mary Mollineux and Barbara Blaugdone.[65] Quaker women even published at least 220 texts during the seventeenth century.[66] But some within the Quaker movement resented the power of women within the community. In the early years of Quakerism, George Fox faced resistance in developing and establishing women's meetings. As controversy increased, Fox did not fully adhere to this agenda; for example, he established the London Six Weeks Meeting in 1671, as a regulatory body, led by 35 women and 49 men.[67] Regardless, conflict culminated in the Wilkinson–Story split, in which a portion of the Quaker community left to worship independently in protest of women's meetings.[68] After several years, the schism became largely resolved, testifying to the resistance of some within the Quaker community, and to the spiritual role of women that Fox and Margaret Fell had encouraged. Also particularly within the relatively prosperous Quaker communities of the eastern United States, the focus on the child and "holy conversation" gave women unusual community power, although they were largely excluded from the market economy. With the Hicksite–Orthodox split of 1827–28, Orthodox women found their spiritual role decreased, while Hicksite women retained greater influence.

Friends in business

English Quaker John Cadbury founded Cadbury in Birmingham, England in 1824, selling tea, coffee and drinking chocolate.

Described as "natural capitalists" by the BBC, dynasties of Quakers were successful in business matters.[19] This included ironmaking by Abraham Darby I (which played an important role in the Industrial Revolution that commenced in Britain),[69][70] and his family; banking, including Lloyds Banking Group (founded by Sampson Lloyd),[70] Barclays PLC,[70] Backhouse's Bank and Gurney's Bank; life assurance (Friends Provident); pharmaceuticals (Allen & Hanburys[70]); chocolate (Cadbury,[70] Terry's, Fry's[70]); confectionery (Rowntree[70]); biscuit manufacturing (Huntley & Palmers[70]); match manufacture (Bryant & May, Francis May and William Bryant) and shoe manufacturing (Clarks). In the United States, the prominent department store chain, Strawbridge & Clothier of Philadelphia, was owned by Quakers.

Friends in international development

International volunteering organisations such as Service Civil International and International Voluntary Service were founded by leading Quakers.

Eric Baker, a prominent Quaker, was one of the founders of Amnesty International and also the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The Quaker Edith Pye established the national Famine Relief Committee in May 1942, encouraging the setting up of a network of local famine relief committees, among the most energetic of which was the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. This evolved to become the charity Oxfam.

Friends in education

Initially, Quakers had no ordained clergy, and thus needed no seminaries for theological training. In England, Quaker schools sprang up, with Friends School Saffron Walden being the most prominent.[71] Quaker schools in the UK and Ireland are still supported by The Friends' Schools' Council[72] to this day.

Later, in America, they founded William Penn Charter School (1689), Wilmington Friends School (1748),[73] Moorestown Friends School (1785), Westtown School (1799), Germantown Friends School (1845), Scattergood Friends School (1890), Haverford College (1833),[74] Guilford College (1837), Olney Friends School (1837), Pickering College (1842), Earlham College & Earlham School of Religion (1847), Swarthmore College (1864), Wilmington College (Ohio) (1870), Penn College (Iowa) (1873), Bryn Mawr College (1885), Friends Pacific Academy (now George Fox University) (1885), Cleveland Bible College (now Malone University) (1892),[75] George School (1893), Friends University (1898), Training School for Christian Workers (now Azusa Pacific University) (1899),[76] Whittier College (1901), and Friends Bible College (now Barclay College) (1917).[77]

In Australia, the Friends' School, Hobart was founded in 1887 and has grown to become the largest Quaker school in the world. In Great Britain, they organised Woodbrooke College in 1903. In Kenya, Quakers founded Friends Bible Institute (now Friends Theological College) in Kaimosi, Kenya, in 1942.

Friends and slavery

Some Quakers in North America and Great Britain became well known for their involvement in the abolition of slavery. But until the American Revolution, it was fairly common for Friends in British America to own slaves. During the early to mid-1700s, disquiet about this practice arose among Friends, best exemplified by the testimonies of Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, and this resulted in an abolition movement among Friends. By the time of the American Revolution few Friends owned slaves. At the war's end in 1783, Yarnall family members along with fellow Meeting House Friends petitioned the Continental Congress to abolish slavery. In 1790, the Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress as the first organization to take a collective stand against slavery and the slave trade.

One example of a reversal in sentiment about slavery took place in the life of Moses Brown, one of four Rhode Island brothers who, in 1764, organized and funded the tragic and fateful voyage of the slave ship Sally.[78] Brown broke away from his three brothers, became an abolitionist, and converted to Christian Quakerism. During the 19th century, Quakers such as Levi Coffin played a major role in helping enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad.[79] Quaker Paul Cuffee, a free black sea captain and businessman, was active in the abolitionist and resettlement movement in the early part of that century.[80] Quaker Laura Smith Haviland, with her husband, established the first station on the Underground Railroad in Michigan. Later, Haviland befriended Sojourner Truth, who called her the Superintendent of the Underground Railroad.[81]