Quaker History


The Religious Society of Friends arose in England in the middle of the seventeenth century. During this era many restless spirits arose who questioned authority and looked for a different foundation for their faith. Among these restless spirits was George Fox.

George Fox, born in 1624, wandered as a young man among Puritans, Baptists, and Seekers, looking for spiritual fulfillment and relief from inner turmoil. He spent much time alone and was unable to find help from clergymen. In 1647 he had the spiritual experience, which we recognize as the turning point in his life:
“And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy… Thus when God doth work who shall prevent it? And this I knew experimentally.”

At the age of 28, in 1652, after five years of preaching and two imprisonments, he came to northwest England where he shared his discovery, convinced large numbers, and helped to initiate the Quaker movement among fellow seekers. Many early Quaker leaders, both women and men, felt led directly by the Spirit to travel in the ministry, join with others for worship, and accept the risks of persecution. Among the convinced was Margaret Fell, whose home became a center for Quakercommunication and hospitality, and who later married Fox.

As Quakers were transformed by their direct experience of the Divine, they saw the world in a whole new light. Fox demanded for himself and for others a life of holy obedience in even the small details of life. Quaker testimonies developed which gave outward expression to inward convictions. Central among these was the peace testimony, articulated in a declaration given to the King in 1661:

“All bloody principles and practices, we…do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world.”

While the Quaker movement began as a group held together by no visible bond but united by its own sense of kinship of spirit, it was soon found necessary to have some sort of organization to deal with practical matters. Arrangements had to be made to validate marriages without officiating clergyman, to care for the poor, to arrange burials, and to keep records of births, marriages, sufferings and deaths. Friends faced the question: how can a free fellowship based on divine guidance from within set up any form of church government providing direction from without? As early as 1652 William Dewsbury urged Friends to set up general meetings, to be attended by Friends in a limited area to meet immediate needs. Care was taken not to produce an authoritarian code. In 1656 at a meeting of Friends in Balby, Yorkshire, a letter was composed giving advices, rather than formulating rules of behavior. The letter concluded:

“Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter; for the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life.”

George Fox also perceived a need to bring order out of confusion by setting up Monthly Meetings for business in both Britain and America, and then a system of Quarterly and Yearly Meetings. The first Quaker meetings for business were made up of men only, but by 1656 women’s meetings began to appear.

The period following the end of persecution in England brought about by the Toleration Act of 1689 found the Quakers almost exhausted. Some of the most active Friends had migrated to America where they were engaged in setting up a new society and a new way of life. In Pennsylvania, under the leadership of William Penn, they founded a new commonwealth, the Holy Experiment, where they hoped Truth might reign.

The Quietist movement, which affected Quakers in this era, saw worship as a passive experience, a time of receptivity and waiting for divine guidance. Yet this guidance could lead to significant action. Friends were led to advocacy of significant social reforms and Quakers during this time continued to be active in political affairs in Rhode Island and New Jersey, as well as Pennsylvania.

The most important product of the flowering of Quakerism in this period in the New World was a unique Quaker culture, a clearly defined way of life with a spiritual basis affecting every aspect of life. In Quaker communities the meeting was the center, and often included a school. Its whole emphasis was on life itself in home, meeting, and community.

Exemplifying the best in Quaker thought in this period is a quote from John Woolman, who looked at the whole universe in a spiritual light:

“Our Gracious Creator cares and provides for all his Creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship, and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the Creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest, from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives.”


In 1827 Quakerism split into two branches, Orthodox and Hicksite. The separation was rooted in mainly theological differences of evangelicalism vs. mysticism and rationalism.

In the late nineteenth century many Orthodox meetings, especially in the Midwest, came under the influence of revivalism, which brought in many new members. A pastoral system developed among many, although not all, Orthodox Friends.

Hicksite Friends remained “unprogrammed” and based their worship on silence and without pastors. Some Hicksite Friends, such as Lucretia Mott, were swept up in the atmosphere of radical reform of the 1840’s and advocated women’s rights. After the Civil War the utopian impulse declined and the late nineteenth century is often viewed as a rather conservative period for Hicksite Friends Hicksite Friends also expanded westward. For example, Illinois Yearly Meeting of which Evanston Meeting is a member, was founded in 1871 after Friends settled in Illinois.


By the late nineteenth century, Friends, like many other religious people, were impacted by Darwinism and evolution, scholarly Biblical criticism, the Social Gospel and other religious trends, which can be grouped under the label “modernism.” Many Hicksites and some Orthodox, began to embrace modernism, but with a unique Quaker twist. They believed that Quaker belief in the Inner Light, which Friends had held since the seventeenth century, paved the way both for an acceptance of a more universalist, non-dogmatic understanding of Christianity, and also the way toward a deeper mystical practice.

Friends began to organize large conferences to discuss children’ and adult education and social concerns. These conferences joined together in 1900 to form Friends General Conference, which united all Hicksite Friends.

In 1902 FGC created the Committee on the Advancement of Friends Principles, staffed by Henry Wilbur, who believed that the religious society of Friends could play an important role in addressing the scientific advances and social problems of the twentieth century. Friends began to turn away from the largely inward focus of nineteenth century Quakerism and actively promote social and spiritual testimonies.

The Committee contributed to new growth and vitality among unprogrammed Friends. They corresponded and traveled to areas where Quakerism traditionally had been weak and Friends moved to towns where there was no Quaker meeting. Many meetings grew up near colleges and universities. Most new meetings were unaffiliated, but many later affiliated with FGC.

In the course of the twentieth century a number of Quaker-related organizations arose as channels for Friends’ social concerns in addition to the work done by monthly and yearly meetings. Prominent among these are the American Friends Service Committee, founded in 1918, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, organized in the 1940s. The formation of Friends World Committee in the 1930s provided a vehicle for cooperation and dialog among the branches of Friends.


Friends responded to social movements of the late twentieth century, such as the civil rights, antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements, based on a testimony of equality, “that of God’ in every person. Quakers have formed groups to raise new concerns, such as Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, Friends in Unity with Nature, and gatherings of people of color.

Unprogrammed Friends are a theologically diverse group, with universalist and Christocentric strands, and often some combination of the two. What unites unprogrammed Friends is not theology, but rather a way of living grounded in direct experience of the Spirit in meeting for worship and meeting for business. This way of living and being together requires careful listening to achieve unity amid the diversity of perspectives.