A Brief History of Quakerism

The Quaker distinctive message has always been that God is equally available to all people, without the mediation of priest, Bible, creed, consecrated building, or outward sacraments. One early young convert, William Penn, was given land in the New World in settlement of a debt owed by the King to his father. Pennsylvania became a haven for religious refugees from Britain and the Continent and contributed to the ultimate establishment of religious freedom in the United States.

The close of the seventeenth century brought an end to persecutions. A period of “quietism” provided an exemplary way of life, of loving communities characterized by simplicity and serenity. A fine example of this way of life was John Woolman (1720-1772) of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He traveled by foot and horseback up and down the colonies, persuading Quaker slave owners to free their slaves. Woolman’s Journal is a classic not only of Quakerism, but of American literature.

Friends were, with few exceptions, neutral in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars; this cost them a great deal of membership and influence. Quakers were a part of the westward movement of European settlement across the continent.

Friends were active against slavery, founding antislavery societies, editing abolitionist papers, and playing an important role in supporting the escaped slave leaders of the “underground railroad” to help more slaves escape across the free but perilous northern states to Canada. Quaker women, first active in the anti-slavery movement, became the dominant leadership of nineteenth-century movements for women’s rights. Especially notable were Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters.

Friends also continued to struggle for fair treatment of Native American Indian. Friends’ efforts at fair treatment were overwhelmed by the land-hungry anti-Indian sentiment. The Civil War was as traumatic for Friends as for the nation as a whole. Sympathies were sharply against slavery, but the peace testimony was strong. Some enlisted and fought, but many Friends took advantage of the opportunity to “buy out” of the draft.

By the end of the nineteenth century Friends had developed into a network of boarding secondary schools in Britain and the eastern United States. These were followed by colleges in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, California, and Oregon.

In response to the harsh treatment of conscientious objectors in the World War of 1914-1918, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was organized in 1917 to provide alternative service. .

At the end of World War II, the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) evolved from the AFSC to be the Quaker lobby in Washington, and is recognized as one of the most accurate and reliable sources of Washington information.

Source: Barbour, H and Frost, JW, The Quakers. New York, Westport London: Greenwood Press (1988).