The brief history below comes from our national Quaker website’s Our history.
The Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) began as a movement in England in the seventeenth century, during the English Civil War. It was a time of unrest and change throughout Britain. Quakers were one of several groups who challenged many of the beliefs and ideas of the time. This timeline describes key moments in the history of Quakers.
1647 George Fox recognises God’s light is within everyone
George Fox was born to strict religious parents in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, in 1621. He was largely self-educated and attended parish church regularly with his parents until the age of nineteen.
At this point, he became dissatisfied with the religious practices and beliefs of those around him. This led to a personal crisis in Fox and he left his job and home to go looking for spiritual nourishment.
In 1647 he came to the belief that people could have a personal experience of God, which he called the ‘Inner Light’. He started travelling all over the country preaching to people and converting them to ‘Friends of the Light’. He was often punished and imprisoned for preaching his radical vision. This vision included denouncing the need for priests or churches, as they prevented a direct and personal experience of God, and expressing the incompatibility of belief in God and warfare.
In 1652 Fox climbed Pendle Hill, in Lancashire, and had a vision of God. After this moment, Fox’s preaching activity increased and the religion grew until by 1660 there were 50,000 followers.
In 1669 Fox married Margaret Fell, who he had convinced of his vision some years earlier, the two put in place a structure and organisation for the religion. Fox also travelled to Europe, the West Indies and America to help the spread of Quakerism.
“Just as Quakers do not limit the service of God to certain times, or places, or people, so they do not have a set-apart priesthood… There is no need for any specific person to be designated prophet, priest, or church leader.” Harvey Gillman, 1988 (Quaker faith & practice 27.36)
1652 Birth of Quakerism in the North of England
By 1652 George Fox had been travelling extensively in the Midlands and North of England, drawing people to the Quaker faith. It was in the North of England that Fox would meet many of the important early Quakers who would help spread the religion, such as James Nayler, William Dewsbury and Richard Farnsworth.
In the spring of 1652, Fox climbed Pendle Hill, in Lancashire and had a vision of people waiting to be brought into the light. This energised Fox’s preaching and over the following years, the numbers drawn to his vision increased dramatically, so that by 1660, there were around 50,000 Quakers.
1655 Margaret Fell shapes national Quaker organisation
Margaret Fell made Swarthmoor Hall into the nerve centre of early Quakerism. It was here that George Fox planned a campaign to travel nationwide and spread the religious movement. Fell also started an early form of charitable organisation from here in the 1650s; the Kendal Fund gathered contributions and organised to support travelling ministers and others in need.
In the 1650s the Valiant Sixty, around 60 early Quaker preachers would set out on an organised mission to spread the work of Quakerism in various parts of Britain. This was also supported by the production of many pamphlets by Fell and other Quakers.
1660 Restoration of monarchy – systematic persecution of Quakers
From 1659 the climate in England started to turn against the many sects that had appeared around the time of the civil war. Quakers became associated with radical groups such as the Fifth Monarchy Men and the Levellers. This fear of radical elements in society reached its peak in 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne, and a subsequent purge of the leaders of the regicide. Quakers suffered systematic persecution with imprisonments, the breaking up of Quaker meetings and mob attacks.
These ‘sufferings’ were recorded in detail by Friends in the Great Books of Sufferings. You can find the Great Books of Sufferings in the Library at Friends House.
They were recorded at Meeting for Sufferings, which gradually widened in scope to deal with administration of the society and still meets today. Quakers still keep a record of ‘sufferings’ today for members who face fines or imprisonment for protesting and acting out their beliefs.
1689 Act of Toleration allows Quakers to worship legally
The Toleration Act of 1689 was heralded for ‘securing religious liberty to the people’, allowing nonconformist Christians to practice their faith in their own places of worship, with their own teachers, and using their own materials. However Quakers still had to register their meeting places and were forbidden from meeting in private homes.
Nonconformists still had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown; as Quakers did not believe in oaths, many were still persecuted well into the next century for disobeying this law, as well as for refusing to pay taxes.
1755 Quaker marriage becomes legal in England
Before 1753 the legal status of Quaker marriage in England was undefined. This had repercussions for Quaker families who, among other issues, had no legal right to inherit.
The Marriage Act (also known as Hardwicke Act) in 1753 exempted Quakers and Jews from the marriage practices of the Church of England, and gave their unions legal recognition. This was not extended to other nonconformist churches of the time.
In contrast Scottish law dating back to the pre-Reformation canon always recognised marriages without a priest or minister and therefore Quaker marriage has always been legal in Scotland.
1758 Quakers begin campaigning to abolish slavery
Yearly Meeting in 1758 advised all Quakers ‘to avoid being in any way concerned, in reaping the unrighteous Profits arising from that iniquitous Practice in dealing in Negroes and other slaves’. In 1761 Yearly Meeting took the unprecedented action of making a ‘Strong Minute’ forbidding any Quaker from participating in the slave trade. The statement was plain and unequivocal in its wording, describing slavery as ‘repugnant to our Christian profession’ and ‘reproachful to society’.
In 1783, British Quakers established the Friends Committee to Promote the Abolition of the Slave Trade and began petitioning Parliament. A pamphlet produced by Quakers William Dillwyn and John Lloyd The case of our fellow creatures, the oppressed Africans was printed over 12,000 times and distributed to all sitting MPs. The committee in 1787 joined with Anglican campaigners and became the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Led by the parliamentary spokesperson, William Wilberforce, the society campaigned on a strong abolitionist platform.
These efforts were successful and the slave trade was abolished in 1807 throughout the British Empire. It took until 1833 for the Abolition of Slavery Act to be passed by the British Parliament, which began to formally end slavery in British colonies.
1796 Quakers pioneer humane mental care at The Retreat, York
The death of Hannah Mills in York Asylum in 1790, horrified the local Quaker meeting of which she had been a part. William Tuke, a Quaker businessman and philanthropist in York, was charged with finding humane treatments for those placed in asylums. Tuke gathered support from Quakers around the country and in 1796 opened The Retreat, an establishment just outside York.
Patients were treated with sympathy, dignity, and respect, and The Retreat banned the use of chains, manacles, and physical punishment. Tuke’s centre pioneered the use of personalised attention and an early example of occupational therapy was developed, introducing walks and farm labouring in easy, quiet surroundings. The Retreat had a profound influence on public opinion, ultimately resulting in fundamental reform of the laws surrounding mental illness and its treatment, and the centre occupies a central place in the history of psychiatry.
Thomas Scattergood, a Philadelphia tanner who suffered from depression, wrote that upon visiting The Retreat and witnessing the decent treatment of its patients he ‘vented a few tears’. Similar Quaker treatments were established shortly afterwards in the United States, including a network of Quaker hospitals in Pennsylvania.
1813 Elizabeth Fry starts prison reform work at Newgate Prison
Elizabeth Fry visited the mixed Newgate Prison in 1813 and was horrified by the conditions that she witnessed. Severely affected by the overcrowded, inhumane conditions at the prison, she recorded: “All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke are really indescribable”.
In 1818, she toured the prisons of England and Scotland and established Ladies’ Associations to support and educate female prisoners across the country. Her work in Newgate focused on the treatment of the prisoners and she consistently endeavoured to raise public awareness to the inhumane conditions of the prison. As the first woman to ever give evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons, Fry revealed the facts she had unearthed and outlined the principles of reform that she considered essential.
In 1819, Fry founded The Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners at Newgate, comprised of twelve members; eleven from the Society of Friends. The Association provided clothing, instruction and employment for the women and introduced them to scripture. They wished to encourage in female prisoners “those habits of order, sobriety, and industry which may render them docile and perceptible whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it”.
Ultimately the Association would grow to become the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Newgate, and subsequently the rest of the prison system, was transformed by Fry’s pioneering campaign. She is widely acknowledged as the central figure of prison reform in Britain. From 2001 to 2017 this work was recognised on the English £5 note.
1825 Quaker firms open first steam railway, ‘Stockton & Darlington’
As early inventors pioneered steam locomotion, Quakers were at the forefront of this technological development. Quaker connections financed the development of the early Stockton & Darlington railway in the North East; it became known as the ‘Quaker Line’.
Edward Pease, a Quaker, had intended the line to be horse-drawn, but was influenced by ongoing correspondence with George Stephenson to work it (at least partially) by steam. Supported by a network of Friends, the Pease family opened the line in 1825. Its success as both a commercial and infrastructure project ensured that Quakers were centrally involved in the construction and running of five more railways in Britain, including the London–Birmingham mainline.
1870s Growth of Quaker confectioners
The Cadburys of Birmingham, Rowntrees of York, and Frys of Bristol, are perhaps the best-known of all Quaker businesses. Pioneering industrial practice which combined philanthropy and charitable trusts, the chocolatiers broadened the reach of their businesses to provide accommodation for their workers, politically campaign for improved labour laws, and established businesses which united profit and ethical practice. These businesses are no longer Quaker-owned but the legacies of these Quaker families continue.
1890s Quaker banks Barclays and Lloyds thrive
Lombard Street in London gained a reputation as the financial centre of the city in the nineteenth century. Quakers ran over seventy banks at the height of financial expansion in industrial Britain, pioneering fair and honest financial practice such as bill-broking from the early 1760s well into the 1890s. The early diaries of the bankers John Gurney and John Freame, note that their commitment to Quaker duty was viewed as unusual by their contemporaries, and it was said they “were known to have suspended their business affairs for weeks and months in order to devote themselves to religious matters”.
Quakers gained a reputation for honesty and integrity in their business practice and the proliferation of Quakers within the banking industry was commented upon: “it is not altogether surprising, because it would seem that a definition of the qualities which go to make up the typical ‘Quaker’ would fit equally well the typical, or at least ideal, private banker.” Barclays and Lloyds, now well-known as two of the ‘big five’ high street banks, were founded by Quakers during this early period from partial mergers of smaller banks. They are no longer Quaker-owned.
1920 First conference of Quakers worldwide
A proposal was suggested at Yearly Meeting 1916 for a post-war conference “of all those who bear the name of Friend” with the intention of “giving full consideration to the deeply important subject of how to secure a general and lasting peace”. In November 1916, Meeting for Sufferings appointed a committee to begin arrangements and considerations for a Peace Conference of all Quakers. The World Conference was proposed in 1917, and during World War I preparations to facilitate the gathering continued between British Quakers in London and American Quakers in Richmond and Philadelphia.
936 delegates assembled at Devonshire House – the former central offices of British Quakers – on 12 August, 1920 to begin the All Friends’ Peace Conference. Friends began with discussion of the historic Testimony and its application to “the conditions of the world today”. Attending the conference, Henry Hodgkin noted the enduring effects of the war on participants:
“During the war we have all passed through deep waters and out of our struggle and sorrow new convictions have been won and… old ones have been strengthened. For ourselves, the War has meant a certain measure of isolation and misunderstanding, but also a great fellowship with many very fine spirits in various circles. Even more important, it has led us to see that the way for social renewal is the way of Christian adventure, the full acceptance of all risks entailed in the way of love.”
The Swarthmore Lecture, The Nature and Authority of Conscience was delivered by Rufus Jones at the beginning of the Peace Conference, and the session was closed with the Message to Friends and Fellow-Seekers which demonstrated how the Quaker vision could be taken into the future by Quakers all around the world.
Read more about Quakers and World War I.
1927 Friends House opens as the home of Quakers in Britain
Quaker architect Hubert Lidbetter (1885-1966) was the winner of a competition to design a new home for Quakers in London which opened to public entries in 1923. Moving from its base at Devonshire House in Bishopsgate, the new building was constructed on Euston Road, close to Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross railway terminals. Friends House was completed in 1927 and awarded a medal for design by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Now a Grade II listed building, it not only contains within it the organisation space of Britain Yearly Meeting but also a restaurant, café, bookshop, bookable meeting rooms, and the large meeting house space, latterly referred to as The Light, which was renovated in 2014. For more information about Friends House facilities please visit the Friends House website.
1938 Quakers evacuate children from Nazi Germany on Kindertransport
In 1933 London Yearly Meeting appointed a Germany Emergency Committee to help Jewish people and other victims of Nazi persecution leave Germany. Bertha Bracey was appointed its secretary and led the committee’s work to evacuate and support refugees. For the next five years Bracey and the committee supported hundreds of Jews seeking to escape: lobbying the British government, filing paperwork on behalf of the displaced people, and seeking to help those imprisoned for supporting their work.
The violence of Kristallnacht on 9/10 November 1938, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, was a catalyst for the GEC to drastically increase its work. Invited by German Jews, a six-person Quaker mission was sent to ascertain the facts of the violent event and the mission reported back to British Jews and the British Government. Based on their report a delegation of British Jews met with Neville Chamberlain, only five days after Kristallnacht, to ask him to lower the barriers to immigration and admit children, but their requests were denied. A joint Jewish/Quaker delegation including Bertha Bracey met the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, only a few days after Chamberlain. At a Commons debate later that evening, the Home Secretary announced that ten thousand children were to be admitted to Britain.
The Germany Emergency Committee opened offices in major German and Nazi-occupied cities across Central Europe where permits could be obtained for children. Quaker and Jewish organisations in Britain began to make arrangements to accommodate and support the refugees. Dovercourt holiday camp near Harwich, Cheadle Hulme House, and Bunce Court were three of the first sites which were opened to help with the effort around Britain.
The evacuation of these children became known as the Kindertransport. The first train left for England on 1 December 1938, only three weeks after Kristallnacht. The trains continued to come until war broke out in September 1939. Ten thousand children were evacuated from Nazi Germany in this short time.
1947 Quakers awarded Nobel Peace Prize for their relief work
Quakers were first nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912, when a member of the Danish Parliament nominated the Peace Committee of the Society of Friends in London. In 1923 and 1924, respectively, Quakers were nominated by Professor Walther Schücking for their post-war food relief work in Germany. Subsequently Quakers were also nominated in 1936, 1937, and 1938, and Nobel Committee member Wilhelm Keilhau remarked:
“No reasons have been cited [for nomination], the proposers probably thought it was unnecessary. For anyone who has participated actively in peace work knows that the Society of Friends can be seen in a way as the oldest peace organisation in the world. It is actually somewhat surprising that the first proposal took until 1936 to be made, …here we have a candidacy that can be supported as a century-long activity that could be brought forward at any time.”
In 1947 the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the peace prize would be awarded to the Quakers represented by “their two great relief organisation, the Friends Service Council in London (FSC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia” for ‘pioneering work in the international peace movement and of humanitarian work carried out without the regard for race or nationality’ . In the presentation speech the committee stated:
“It is not just the extent of their work or in its practical form that the Quakers have given most to the people they have met. It is in the spirit in which this work is performed.… The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting peace. …They have shown us the strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit over force.”
1997 Quakers work at the UN to bring about Landmine Ban Treaty
Quakers have had an international presence in Geneva since the foundation of the League of Nations in the early 20th century. This historic presence became the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) which has staff in Geneva and New York; the Geneva office is closely supported and funded by Quakers in Britain. In the mid-1990s QUNO’s Disarmament programme under David C. Atwood became involved in the landmine work through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). QUNO played an important role in the 18-month period prior to the completion of the Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban Convention in 1997, hosting off-the-record meetings with sympathetic governments and helping to reframe the convention as a humanitarian, rather than a military issue.
From 1999 to 2004 QUNO supported meetings between governments and civil society to strengthen mechanisms of the convention. The work of QUNO continues to this day focused around its five programme areas: Peacebuilding & Prevention of Violent Conflict, Food & Sustainability, Human Rights & Refugees, Peace & Disarmament, and Human Impacts of Climate Change.