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The Religious Society of Friends - The Quakers in Britain

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The Quakers are a Christian group consisting of about 18,000 members in Britain and 305,000 members worldwide. It's difficult to give an accurate description of exactly what their faith is. Beliefs range from Buddhist-like interpretations of faith to those that incorporate Catholicism. Quakers are a highly organised faith, and as such have mostly uniform practices. As us the case with the Catholic Mass and Anglican Liturgy, a Quaker can walk into almost any meeting in Britain and recognise the format of the service.


The Religious Society of Friends (as the Quakers are formally known), was founded by George Fox in the 17th Century. From Leicestershire, Fox was a religious man and in his adult years his religious convictions brought him into conflict with the established church (Church of England). This led him on a spiritual journey that saw him travel around the country, at one point even ending up in prison. George Fox's status is often confused with that of a saint or even a prophet, whereas a more accurate title would be simply 'the first Quaker'.

Fox and his early co-founders went under various names including 'Seekers of Truth', 'Friends of the Truth' and 'Children of the Light'. In 1650 George Fox appeared before a judge on charges of blasphemy and the judge said that Fox and his friend should 'tremble at the word of the Lord'. He went on to describe them as 'quakers' and the name stuck. Today, Quakers refer to each other as Friends.

The movement continued to grow throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, spreading into Europe and North America. William Penn, the famous founder of Pennsylvania, was one of a few nobles who joined the Friends. Pennsylvania was originally established as a Quaker State and survived for almost 100 years without resorting to the use of armed forces. Indeed, Friends often mediated between natives and colonial settlers, usually with great danger from both sides. Pennsylvania state protected religious freedoms and provided a haven for many exiles from the puritanical rule of the eastern states. The Quaker government refused to pay taxes to fund a militia, and it was due to the objection of the majority that they eventually abdicated power in the mid-18th Century1.

Numbers declined in the 19th Century. But this period is full of what many regard to be 'famous Quakers'. Such names include:

  • Elizabeth Fry

  • The Cadbury family, who founded the Bournville Village as an attempt to improve workers' conditions

  • The Gurney and Barclay families who founded Barclays Bank

  • The Colemans of Norfolk who make the mustard

  • The Foxes who make the biscuits

Since only Anglicans were allowed to study at university in the UK, or hold public office, many Friends went into business.

The Quaker movement grew out of the Civil War and this led to the 'Peace Testimony'. However, it was through the travelled ranks of the parliamentarian armies that the Quakers found their first mass support, a fact which highlights that although most Quakers do not fight, some do when they feel there is no other way. This was the case with many men in WWI and WWII who felt they could not be conscientious objectors. Far from simply being passive, Quaker convictions call Friends to do what they can in times of war to help the needy and sick, and work to bring an end to the conflict. Many Quakers lost their lives on the front line while providing unarmed medical support through the Friends Ambulance Unit. Friends are also represented in the United Nations and have offices in Geneva and New York, their work involving welfare of refugees and conflict resolution.

What Quakers Believe

It is difficult to define what Quakers believe. There is no creed as Friends recognise that such verbal affirmations of faith are the result of the orthodox (meaning the right opinion) tradition within the church, and were developed in reaction to various heresies. It's worth consulting the Peace Testimonies to get an understanding of the views that unite Quakers. Beliefs of God differ among Friends. There are those that some would consider atheist, while others believe simply in a higher spiritual being, and some follow a Trinitarian view that God is the three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit unified. Similar differences can be found in Friends' views of the afterlife.

A common phrase that is heard among Friends is 'that of God in everyone'. This is the basic idea that underpins the testimonies Quakers witness. The theology stems from the view that as God is created, each of us have an element of God in us, just as the artist puts a bit of himself in his art. As a result, we each have an equal intrinsic value. And we must seek this value in others, regardless of how the bad in them appears to shield the good.

Again, Quaker views on evil differ. It is wrong to deny that suffering exists and to say otherwise does great disservice to those that have suffered. George Fox said that he 'should have a sense of all conditions'; we can use our experience of pains to go and help those who suffer. Some Friends believe that because of the inner God, He suffers with us, and rather than a single moment of suffering for sins on the cross, God experiences pain a million times with every living soul.

Quaker Worship

This is probably one of the most interesting and attractive aspects of the Quaker faith for many. The general format for a Quaker service or Meeting for Worship is that of an hour's silence, interrupted only by the preaching of anyone who feels they have something to say. Some people may sing, read passages from the Bible or any other book, some may even pray out loud for the group as a whole. The Meeting House (a Quaker Church) is unremarkable in many ways. It has no altar, there are no crosses, people sit facing each other, and it isn't considered sacred at any other time than when the Meeting is gathered. Seats are more usually arranged around a table on which there is a Bible and a copy of Quaker Faith and Practice which is equivalent to a book of procedures and personal experiences. Friends often read passages from these books out loud as ministry, and at the beginning of meetings to settle into the silence. More often than not children are present at the beginning, and sometimes at the end of the main meeting with the adults. However, they spend the majority of the time in a separate meeting, which might consist of various forms of prayer, learning about Quaker history or creating artworks as an expression of faith.

The end of a meeting is signalled by two appointed elders who shake hands as a sign of peace, and are followed by the rest of the attendees. Most meetings are followed by tea. Quakers believe that all life is an act of worship and so business and church affairs are conducted in the same format as the meeting. It is not a consensus or a majority that is sought, and no voting takes place. Instead they are waiting on God to provide them with the answers.

Weddings and funerals follow the same structure as a meeting. At weddings the couple stand and read a declaration of their intentions. The certificate is then signed by the couple, and usually all those present. Funerals begin with a short explanation as to the procedure for those unfamiliar with the Quaker tradition. Silence then follows with people rising to speak about the deceased.

There is no Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Confession or other sacraments. Some Quakers are also members of other churches because they disagree with the absence of one or all of these.


The Friends are a highly organised bunch and the church structure is similar to that of many other denominations. There is no ecclesiatical structure. There are no clergy in the Quaker faith, as all people are seen as ministers. However, there does exist, for more practical purposes, the posts of Clerk, Overseer and Elder. A Clerk is responsible for the affairs of the meeting. The Overseer has a pastoral responsibility to people at the meeting and is there to give advice and support. Elders are responsible for spiritual matters such as arranging bible study. These roles are not permanent and may be held by any member of the meeting: they are reselected usually for a three-year-period.

The national organisation consists of a number of stages:

  • Meeting for Worship – This is the weekly meeting.

  • Preparative Meeting – A preparative meeting is used to prepare for the regional monthly meeting. This is best compared to a parish council.

  • Monthly Meeting – This is a monthly meeting of the Preparative Meetings within a certain region.

  • General Meeting - These occur three times a year, and comes together to discuss topics of interest to Quakers.

  • Yearly Meeting – Consists of all the meetings in that country (or state). Its main function is as an event to make decisions for the whole Quaker community.

  • Meetings for Sufferings – These are called when a quicker response is needed from the Yearly Meeting. It consists of representatives from the Monthly meetings.

The word 'meeting', can refer to a specific place where a meeting takes place, a specific event such as the 'British Yearly Meeting', or a regional area such as with Monthly Meetings.

There are three stages to becoming a Quaker. Seekers are those who have attended one or two meetings with a view to finding out more about the Society. Attendees are those who attend meeting regularly but have not yet taken the decision to become Members. Members are those people who have publicly declared their wish to become a Quaker and have applied and been approved for membership by the Monthly Meeting. There is debate as to whether there should still be a membership as some see it as outdated. It comes from a time when to be a Quaker meant likely imprisonment so an outward sign of support was required. Some Quakers are termed as 'birthright members'; this means that the member is born a member because he or she has two Quaker parents. However, this is no longer the case.

Misconceptions and Dress

Historically Quakers are portrayed as wearing 17th/18th Century clothing and sporting large broad-brimmed hats. There is no rule saying you can't, but most Quakers, like most people, choose to wear something more modern. This fascination with dress code stems from the search for simplicity. Buttons and pockets were usually removed, and women wore simply fashioned dresses and bonnets. It was once easy to see who was and wasn't a Quaker; today this is reflected in the choice by many Quakers to avoid branded clothing .

Many have mistaken the Amish for Quakers. The Amish are of Dutch origin, and have absolutely no link to the Quakers, other than they happen to share the same bit of North America.

Shakers did stem form Quakerism, but maintain celibacy of their members, and so there are only three surviving members left.

1It is the link with Pennsylvania that gives the cereal company 'Quaker Oats' its name. The company was founded there and takes its name from the 'Quaker State', a name it is often given.

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