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E: Quaker History
Background to the Society

The movement began in Britain in the 1650s when George Fox gathered together groups of "seekers" or dissidents. They felt the Churches had led people away from the real aims of Christianity and become bogged down in traditional ritual and power politics. They were trying to renew the church by living their lives more simply and truthfully following, they hoped more closely, the example of Jesus' life. There is no doubt that the Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity, but today not all Quakers centre their faith on Jesus. Some Quakers find traditional religious language inadequate to describe their inner experiences, and look beyond Christianity for inspiration. So the seeking for spiritual truth, which marked early Quakers, is still very much alive today.

The Society has always appeared very different from other Christian groups, having no priests, or creeds or need for special buildings. Men and women have long been treated as equals and all members share the spiritual and practical tasks necessary to maintain the group.



Quakerism has no creeds, believing that forms of words are inadequate for expressing the great truths of the Spirit, and no sacraments, reasoning that the whole of life is sacred. Most Quakers will also refuse to take the oath in a court of law, considering that to do so implies a double standard of truth – one when under oath and another when not. Fortunately the law in the UK allows for affirmation instead, although Quakers avail themselves of this for a very different reason from unbelievers.

This, written in 1726, from 'The Works' of William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) is enlightening: "Thy humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear make them here strangers. This world is a form; our bodies are but forms; and no visible acts of devotion can be without forms. But yet the less form in religion the better, since God is a spirit; for the more mental our worship, the more adequate to the nature of God; the more silent, the more suitable to the language of a spirit."

The Religious Society of Friends is a small group (about 18,000 in Britain, much larger numbers in the Americas and Africa) with a special view of what religion means. The name "Quakers" was originally a nickname but now they are happy to be called either Friends or Quakers.

William Penn, the founder of a state that lasted for 75 years without a military force, said that true Godliness shouldn't turn people out of this world, but should make them more able to live in it and excite their endeavours to amend it. Is this an impossible aim? Quakers believe it is possible - and in today's world vital.