History of Quakers in Britain and Ireland

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.

This article follows on from the one on Early Quaker History, and deals with Quakerism in Britain and Ireland after 1658. The Quakers had emerged as an organised movement between 1652 and 1654. By 1658 that movement had spread over the whole of England, made inroads into Scotland and Ireland, started to establish itself in America and continental Europe, and had its first major scandal when James Nayler made a symbolic entrance into Bristol in a manner considered blasphemous. It was still an expanding movement with the beginnings of organisation.

17th century

The trial of James Nayler was followed by a period of increased but unsystematic persecution. During this period the travelling ministers succeeded in continuing their proselytising work, though under greater difficulties. At the same time the political scene entered a period of uncertainty with the death of Oliver Cromwell followed, within a few months, by the collapse of the Protectorate. George Fox's advice, not always heeded, was to keep clear of the factions which now started disrupting the country.[1] The London leadership of the Quaker movement, among whom Edward Burrough was prominent, tried to influence whichever was the government of the time in a continued radical direction, but the strength of feeling in favour of stability through a restored monarchy was too strong.[2][3]

The Restoration at first made very little difference to the level of hostility with which the Quakers had to deal, but in 1661 Venner's revolt, though no Quakers were involved, led to the banning of Quaker and Baptist meetings, as well as those of the Fifth Monarchists who were responsible. The Quaker leaders issued the Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers, considered the first expression of the "Peace Testimony", and stating: "... the Spirit of Christ which leads us into all truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world." Despite this, the Cavalier Parliament passed the Quaker Act (and subsequently two Conventicle Acts), enabling systematic persecution which brought the growth of the Quaker movement to a standstill. Among the leading ministers, Burrough and Richard Hubberthorne died in prison. The story of the children of Reading continuing to hold the Quaker meeting on their own has passed into Quaker mythology. In 1672 the king issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which resulted in an easing of the persecution, but parliament, recalled the following year, compelled him to withdraw it, and in 1675 he called for the penal laws to be strictly enforced. In Scotland and Ireland there was the same story of persecution according to locality. In the Aberdeen area, for example, even though a former Provost of Aberdeen, Alexander Jaffray, was convinced, the persecution was severe.

At the same time as the persecution, there was a major dispute within the Quaker movement, basically about the prescriptive attitude of the leadership in general and George Fox in particular. The dispute centred on the person of John Perrot (though he departed for America in the middle of it) and on the issue of whether men should remove their hats when prayer was offered.[4]


Despite this episode, the trend towards institutionalisation and centralisation continued. In 1666 George Fox, whose authority was now dominant, was released from imprisonment in Scarborough castle and soon set about travelling the country establishing Quarterly Meetings, which typically covered the area of a county and oversaw Monthly Meetings covering one or more local meetings. The Monthly Meetings were self-selecting after the original appointments, and provided the representatives to the Quarterly Meetings. He also established Women's Meetings, with welfare functions.[5] The Women's Meetings had their difficulties within this framework. Some Quaker men sought to exclude them from those concerns in which they had some powers and responsibilities, such as allocating poor relief and in ensuring that Quaker marriages could not be attacked as immoral. [6] A system of correspondents was set up for these local meetings to communicate with the Meeting for Sufferings in London; and that helped to organise relief, propaganda, appeals to central government and legal advice, to counteract the persecution. The Second Day Morning Meeting, held weekly for all recognised ministers present in London that week, was established in 1672 and largely controlled the publications issued in the name of Friends as well as carrying out other co-ordinating work.[7] Gradually, the London Yearly Meeting of Quakers from all over England and Scotland emerged as the final decision-making body, with the Meeting for Sufferings dealing with matters in the intervals between.

The organisation of Monthly Meetings, Quarterly Meetings, Meeting for Sufferings, and Yearly Meeting stayed in place after the ending of active persecution. The other institution which helped to give coherence to Quakerism was that of travelling ministers. Monthly Meetings were responsible for designating certain Friends as Ministers. Once appointed, they might, with the agreement of the Monthly Meeting, travel anywhere in the country or beyond. Likewise, the Monthly Meeting would accept ministers from elsewhere, and provide for them. The Meeting for Sufferings and Yearly Meeting were all male bodies, and the men's Monthly and Quarterly Meetings had far more power than the women's, but many of the ministers were women.[8]

Around 1675, there was a split in the movement, usually called the Wilkinson-Story Separation, though the main leaders as it developed were John Story and William Rogers. It mainly took the form of a protest against the fairly strict discipline imposed by the Monthly and Quarterly Meetings, and also against the Women's Meetings. Some Quakers in Wiltshire and other areas withdrew into separate meetings, but these did not last.

Further persecution and the beginnings of toleration

The Quakers continued to meet openly, even in the dangerous year of 1683. Heavy fines were exacted and, as in earlier years, women were treated as severely as men by the authorities. On the accession of James II, Quakers presented to the new king a petition showing that at that time there were 1460 Quakers in prison. The list shows considerable variation from one county to another. Yorkshire, admittedly the largest county, had the largest number, 279, more than twice any other, while neighbouring Derbyshire only had one. Yorkshire was followed by Devon with 104, and Bristol (listed separately though not a county), 103. In the north-west Quaker heartland, Lancashire had 73, Westmorland five, and Cumberland 22. The list is also significant in demonstrating the strength of Quaker organisation: the system of sending accounts of "sufferings" to London enabled them to produce statistics of this nature. The petitioning produced some results, though the king could not get laws repealed.[9] William Penn for English matters, and Robert Barclay for Scottish both had influence at court, and this helped with individual cases brought to their attention. In 1688, James VII and II issued, in Scotland and then England, the Declaration of Indulgence, which declared all laws restricting freedom of religion suspended. This was declared invalid by Parliament after the 1688/9 revolution.

The major change to the legal persecution of English and Welsh Quakers came after the Glorious Revolution in 1689 with what is usually called the Toleration Act: "An Act for exempting Their Majesties' Protestant subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the penalties of certain laws". For most people this required taking an oath attesting their protestantism and loyalty to the regime, but those with scruples against swearing could make Declarations. The act was negative in nature: it removed penalties, but not the liability to pay tithes. It did not enable dissenters to hold public office or attend universities. The restrictions resulted in Quakers and other dissenters using their energies (and capital) in other directions, including trade, technology and scientific enquiry.[10]

A system similar to the one of Quarterly and Monthly Meetings was extended to Ireland in 1669,by George Fox working with prominent Irish Friends. Here, as in England, there was persecution depending very much on the inclination of the local men in power. The events following the 1688 Revolution brought dangers of another sort, with Quakers attempting to remain neutral non-combatants (though with a natural protestant bias) in the War of the two kings, frequently having goods taken by all the differing parties in succession, as conflicts went to and fro. It was estimated that about £100,000 was lost. Quakers in England made collections for the relief of their co-religionists in Ireland, but further help was refused.[11] The war was followed, however, by comparative toleration,[12] and this resulted in growing prosperity, to the extent that certain Quaker leaders, Edmundson among them, started a movement to try to restore a spiritual simplicity.[13] Ireland developed its own Yearly Meeting as the autonomous decision-making body, unlike Scotland, which remained part of London Yearly Meeting.

George Fox died in 1690. The leading figure in the leadership of the movement was now George Whitehead, though William Penn was the one most in the public eye. Whitehead, who lived to 1723, had been among the first "Publishers of Truth". He was a controversialist, a legal expert, and an effective lobbyist, but was one to consolidate the position of Quakers rather than take it forward. From now on the Quakers were anxious not to be seen as subversive, trying instead to conciliate the monarchy and parliament. One of the rewards of this was a change in the law enabling them to make declarations in courts, rather than swear oaths. In 1715 this liberty was extended to Scotland.

Quaker women in the later part of the century

Friends were among the first women to petition Parliament, the monarchy, and the Anglican Church hierarchy. The Quaker women, exhibiting agency or self-sufficiency, entered into a larger political debate with these religious and secular authorities as they petitioned for the restoration of the monarchy and protested against injunctions, the payment of tithes, forfeiture of property, the tendering of oaths and imprisonment, on behalf of themselves and their spiritual sisters and brothers. This shared dialectic - centring on ideas of subjugation and resistance, obedience and punishment, coercion and subversion - demonstrates how the women used their positions of spiritual authority to actively negotiate for power and to gain legal redress. From early days, female Friends had reminded authority figures that as handmaidens selected by God, no earthly authority could gainsay their claims. From the 1670s to the end of the century, as the Society of Friends grew more institutionalised, a shift occurred as Quaker women gradually adopted intelligent and logical arguments based on carefully culled biblical examples and legal precedents. Using reasoned and calm voices, they aimed their publications at a court of public opinion to persuade their readers, as well as the authorities they opposed, of the legitimacy of their ideals and beliefs. Many refused to accept their exclusion from the political community by acting in ways that most women could not act in the late Stuart Era.[14] At this stage, however, the main decision-making bodies among Friends were all male.

Social reform

The most remarkable Friend of the end of the 17th century was John Bellers, who continued the social tradition of the early Friends by attacking the treatment of poor people and making proposals to improve their situation. His ideas anticipated those of Robert Owen, who was enthusiastic about Bellers, and also anticipated Marx's labour theory of value, but the only practical effect was that Quakers in Bristol and London set up Workhouses of their own.[15]


British Quakers, from being a sect with revolutionary ideas, settled down to become a mostly prosperous, mostly inward-looking body. One revolutionary idea they still clung to, that they could live under the direct guidance of God, though the individual's perception of that guidance had to be tested by the wider community. The term "quietism", which has been applied to this period, differed from the continental (Catholic) quietism. It was basically non-activist. For instance, John Kendall, a Colchester Quaker, wrote in 1763: "As we are not able, by our weak capacities, to judge of things rightly, the best way for us is to leave the event to the disposal of the all-wise Providence."[16] During this period, despite the earlier protests of Margaret Fell, the dress became standardised: broad hat, dull colours, no lapels or ornaments. As other dress fashions changed, this became distinctive. The Quaker usage of addressing individuals as "thee" or "thou", in order to express equality before God (the "plain speech"), likewise continued long after social conventions had changed, and also helped to mark them as a people apart.

Because Quakers in financial difficulty could apply for help, and orphaned children were also given support, it became necessary to define the membership, which began to be recorded. The first definition of membership by the London Yearly Meeting was produced in 1737. The practice of "disownment" — proclaiming that someone was not in unity with the main body of Friends — had been in use since the earliest years, but now it had additional applications. Previously acknowledged members could be disowned for various faults, including disorderly walking, bankruptcy, and marrying non-Quakers, though as the discipline was applied by Monthly and Quarterly Meetings, practice varied. To try to cope with this variation, in 1782 London Yearly Meeting agreed to publish extracts of minutes and other guiding documents, for the use of Meetings. This was the beginning of what British Quakers term their "book of discipline".[17]

Trade and industry

While some 18th century British Quakers, like the American John Woolman deliberately restricted their incomes in order not to be too encumbered with worldly affairs, others were quite happy to make money. Quaker ironmasters were among the first to take advantage of the new techniques in iron production, notably the moves away from use of charcoal and towards casting directly from newly produced iron. Their co-operation with each other made it possible to work on the greater scale which those techniques required. The most notable were the Darbys, starting with Abraham Darby I, who came to Coalbrookdale in 1708. He brought in techniques from the Netherlands and appears to have introduced some innovations of his own.[18] In 1704 a group of Quakers took over a pre-existing chartered company for mining and smelting lead, soon combining it with another company, and introducing their own, more successful, processes. The Quaker Lead Company, as it was commonly known, was a comparatively good employer, and also made charitable donations. It remained a major undertaker in lead and copper mining well into the next century. [19]

Another innovator was William Cookworthy (1705-1780), who made the first British porcelain.[20]

Trading dynasties established themselves in Dublin and Cork, as well as major British towns.

Later in the century Quakers were setting up banks. Barclays Bank stems from the Quaker goldsmith John Freame (1665-1745), the partnership of whose business changed over the generations, with the Quaker Barclays' name entering the bank title, leaving it, and eventually taking it over. Lloyds Bank started with the Quaker Sampson Lloyd II in 1765. These were not the only ones. There were also several small English Quaker banks, arising from the financial needs of enterprises in local communities, these eventually amalgamating with each other and then with larger banks. Irish Quaker banks followed a similar course of development.[21] It has been remarked that "the development of the banking houses . . . . .presented the Friends who were bankers with an acute situation in which many failed to reconcile the demands of their business with their strict habits as Friends".[22] By the 1820s William Cobbett was condemning Quakers wholesale because of the bankers' effects upon farming and farmers.[23]

Money-making might also be through practices that Quakers came to regard as unacceptable. Some were slave-owners, though a stand was eventually taken against them. Others made money out of trading in goods and vessels seized in war, though by 1758 this had been unequivocally condemned by the Yearly Meeting.[24]

Education and science

Quaker schools had come and gone since the earliest days. Gradually boarding schools were established on a lasting basis.

Exclusion from the English universities did not stop the development of some innovatory Quaker scientists. These included the botanist Peter Collinson (1693-1768) and the physician John Fothergill (1712-1780) who evaded the ban on nonconformists by going to Edinburgh University and became a leading proponent of empirically-based medicine and an early epidemiologist. He also founded Ackworth School. Both were correspondents of Benjamin Franklin.[25] Of a later generation was the chemist John Dalton (1766-1844)

Tithes, rates and the militia

Quakers continued to refuse to pay tithes and church rates. As these had virtually ceased to be collected in towns, those most affected were the few Quaker farmers remaining. It was a common complaint that when the distraints were made, goods to more than the value of the claim were taken, though sometimes the officer responsible was honest enough to return the difference. Towards the end of the century, government legislation introduced new demands which the Quakers refused to meet. Certain parishes could be designated to offer a bounty to men joining the militia or the navy. This bounty would be paid by the Overseers of the Poor, who could pay for it by an addition to the poor rate. This addition, which was supposed to be (but was not always) kept distinct from the poor rate, Quakers would refuse to pay, and would again be distrained upon. They could also be fined for refusing to pay for a substitute for the militia and for refusing to transport a militiaman's baggage — this last again falling mainly upon farmers, who were more likely to have horses and carts.

Campaigns and evangelicalism

Among the factors which led to Quakers becoming more outward-looking towards the end of the 18th century, perhaps the two major ones were the rise of Methodism, and the persistence of the tradition of independent thinking and following of conscience. The Methodist influence led to a greater tendency to evangelicalism. As for the tradition of independent thought, the Quakers had originally insisted that their faith was founded in personal experience, and though this strand was buried for a time, it persisted. Independent ideas about the authority of scripture divided Quakers in Ireland and England, and led to withdrawals,[26] but at the same time the following of conscience led to campaigning on moral and political issues. Evangelicalism and work for reform went together easily enough. William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton were at the centre of a group of evangelical Anglicans, but in their efforts against slavery and for prison reform worked in close contact with some of the leading Quakers, who were thought by some others to have been unduly influenced by them, and had certainly adopted some evangelical practices.

Following the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, and the changes to the electoral system in the Reform Act of 1832 a Quaker, Joseph Pease, was elected to Parliament. The reformist House of Commons allowed him to affirm instead of taking the oath. He was soon followed by John Bright who rose to become a Cabinet minister.

Abolition of slavery

The lead in anti-slavery work had been taken by American Quakers, but the British, once involved, pursued it vigorously. As they refused to take the oath, they could not sit in Parliament, but it was acknowledged that the money they devoted to the cause and the petitions they presented had given them a leading position in the abolitionist campaign.[27]

Prison reform

Elizabeth Fry is the Quaker best known for her work in prison reform, and this was true at the time, as well as now, though there were others active in the field, including her brother Samuel Gurney. She may have had more impact in European states where she won the sympathy of autocratic rulers, than in Britain, where her influence was largely restricted to bringing the issue into the public domain. The policy of solitary confinement which resulted was not what she would have wished.

Adult Schools

The Adult School movement had Methodist origins in Nottingham in 1798, and soon after flourished in Bristol on an interdenominational basis. It was taken up by many Quaker meetings and to them became an important adjunct and recruiting ground. The Friends First Day School Association was started in 1847, and although it was mainly made up of junior schools to start with, the adult schools came to dominate. These schools at first straddled the ground between elementary education and religious indoctrination. They drew many people in with the prospect of bettering themselves, and tried, often successfully, to bring them over to the belief system of their instructors. Their activities evolved, and by 1910 they had as their official objects the development of personal character and the encouragement of mutual assistance. Most of them had offshoots such as savings clubs, temperance societies, funds for sick members, and women's meetings.


In the rising of 1798, the Quakers, easily distinguished by their so-called "plain dress", were not subjected to the same killings and mistreatment as other Protestants.[28]

The 1840s saw the short-lived appearance of a small, but vocal and high-profile, sub-sect, the "White Quakers". Getting their name from their undyed clothing, they advocated a "return" to simplicity and unworldliness, and were vehement in their attacks on mainstream Quakerism. Their community came to practise a form of communal ownership. There were never more than about 50 adults, but they had sympathisers among mainstream Quakers who felt that the conspicuous prosperity of some detracted from their religious life.[29]

During the Irish potato famine, the "Great Hunger" of 1845–48, Irish Quakers were active in relief work, which they undertook on a strictly non-sectarian basis. A central relief committee was set up in 1846, with correspondents in the provinces, and some local committees were also set up. They responded to requests from local organisers, but also tried to get the government and the Irish gentry to play their part.[30]


At the end of the 19th century Seebohm Rowntree undertook a pioneering and influential study of poverty in York, followed up by a second, less influential survey in 1936.

Manchester Conference and after

Evangelicalism often took the form of an adherence to the words of scripture, without the emphasis that early Quakers laid on it of looking to the spirit in which the words were written and the spirit in which they were read. Towards the end of the 19th century, British Friends were ready to turn gently away from their evangelical adherence. Although they were represented at the Richmond Conference called in 1887 by Indiana Yearly Meeting to resolve some of the doctrinal differences between Yearly Meetings, they did not endorse the scripture-based Declaration which resulted. The immediate manifestation of their change of direction was the Manchester Conference of 1895, at which many opinion-formers in London Yearly Meeting put their weight behind the idea that modern thinking on several fronts was to be accepted, not seen as a problem. Among the outcomes were the setting up of Summer Schools for instruction and discussion, the founding of Woodbrooke College in Birmingham, and a developing interest in social issues as well as the peace testimony. Notable British Quakers of the late 19th and early 20th century include the businessmen Richard and George Cadbury, developers of the well-known chocolate company Cadbury's, who did much to improve the lot of their employees. During this period, the use of the "plain speech and the distinctive clothing gradually died out.

The First World War divided British Quakers, with many of them thinking that participation in the war should be supported. However, the introduction of universal conscription for men between certain ages helped to maintain unity, as this was an attack on liberty of conscience, and it could be strongly opposed. Although legislation on conscientious objection was introduced, the law and its application were far less liberal than they later became. It has been estimated that about a third of Quaker men of military age served in the forces, but many conscientious objectors were determined to uphold the peace testimony in full. Others watered it down with service in the Friends Ambulance Unit or a medical corps.[31]

The creation of an independent state covering most of Ireland made no formal difference to the Quaker structures. Ireland Yearly Meeting continued to cover the whole of the island, though the majority of the members were in the protestant Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. Irish Quakers continued their co-operation with London Yearly Meeting (recently renamed as Britain Yearly Meeting), notably through the Friends Service Council, which, under various names, undertook overseas work in various forms.


  1. Moore, R. The Light in their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2000. ch 13
  2. Reay, B. The Quakers and the English Revolution. Temple Smith. 1985. p 82
  3. Moore
  4. Moore, ch 15
  5. Braithwaite, W. The Second Period of Quakerism. 2nd ed prepared by Cadbury, H. Cambridge University Press. 1961.
  6. Kay S. Taylor, "The Role of Quaker Women in the Seventeenth Century, and the Experiences of the Wiltshire Friends." Southern History 2001 23: 10-29. Issn: 0142-4688, not online
  7. Moore, ch 17
  8. Lloyd, A. Quaker Social History 1660—1738. Longmans Green. 1950
  9. Sewel, W. The History of the rise, increase, and progress of the Christian people called Quakers. 4th ed James Phillips & Son. 2nd vol 1800
  10. Hill, C. Reformation to Industrial Revolution. Revised ed. Pelican Books. 1969
  11. Chapman, G. The History of Ballyhagan and Richhill Meetings. Richhill Preparative Meeting. 1979
  12. Harrison, R. Cork City Quakers 1655-1939. Private publication 1991
  13. Carroll, K. William Edmundson: Ireland's first Quaker. Journal of the Friends Historical Society, vol 60 no.1
  14. Susanna Catherine Calkins, "Prophecy and Polemic: Quaker Women and English Political Culture, 1650-1700." PhD dissertation Purdue U. 2001. 318 pp. DAI 2002 62(12): 4294-A. DA3037546 Fulltext at ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  15. Braithwaite; also Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, under George Whitehead and John Bellers
  16. Kendall, J. Memoirs of the Life and Religious Experience of John Kendall to which are added Letters . . . . London. 1815
  17. Extracts from the minutes and advices of the Yearly Meeting of Friends held in London, from its first institution. (Second edition.London. 1802)
  18. Raistrick, A. Quakers in Science and Industry. David & Charles. 1968. ch 4.
  19. Raistrick, ch 5
  20. Selleck,A. Plymouth Friends: a Quaker history. Reprint from Transactions of the Devonshire Association. Part 1 vol 98, 1966; pt 2 vol 99, 1967.
  21. Raistrick, ch 10
  22. Raistrick, p 319
  23. Cobbett, W. Rural Rides. 26 July & 7 August 1823, & 3 September 1826
  24. Selleck,A. Plymouth Friends: a Quaker history. (as above); Stagg, R. Friends' Queries and General Advices 1682—1860. Journal of the Friends Historical Society, vol 49 no. 4. 1961
  25. Raistrick chs 8 & 9
  26. Punshon, pp 153-162
  27. Buxton, C. Memoirs of Thomas Fowell Buxton. 1849. esp ch 8
  28. Hamilton, David I. The Divine Protection of Dinah Goff. Journal of the Friends Historical Society, vol64, 2013 (published 2015)
  29. Gregory, James. "Some Account of the Progress of Truth as it is in Jesus": the White Quakers of Ireland. Quaker Studies vol 9,issue 1 article 6, available at[1]. Chapman, G. The History of Ballyhagan and Richhill Meetings. Richhill Preparative Meeting. 1979
  30. Harrison, ch 4
  31. Rubinstein, D. Friends and War 1899—1945.Journal of the Friends Historical Society, vol 65, 2014 (published 2016)