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Snapshots of Quaker History



George Fox recognised that God's light is a seed or potential within every person.
He started to travel throughout England preaching and converting people to what he called ‘Friends of the Light’. His vision was radical. He rejected church and clergy as they interfered with the individual experience of a direct and personal relationship with God, and also because they failed to uphold the incompatibility of a belief in God with social inequalities and warfare.


George Fox strongly urged slave owners to improve the treatment of their slaves and urged them to base their treatment on the belief in the equality of all people.


In 1660, the Stuart monarchy was restored under King Charles II.  There was a lot of distrust of the radical religious sects that had developed over the previous 10 years. Quakers suffered systematic attacks, persecution and imprisonment. 

Quakers declared that the spirit "will never move us to fight." 

Quakers petitioned Charles II and Parliament in 1660 and 1662 for freedom of conscience in religious matters and for the first time Quaker commitment to nonviolence was expressed. The testimony for peace that Margaret Fell described has stayed at the core of Quaker religious experience, leading to war relief work and conflict transformation. 

Persecution of Quakers continued with many Quakers being imprisoned and suffering extreme punishment for gathering illegally to worship. In 1663, a group of children continued to hold their meetings after all the adults were thrown into prison.

Important Early Quaker Publication

Margaret Fell: Women’s Speaking Justified, concerning the role of women in preaching and ministry.


A court refused to find William Penn and William Mead guilty of preaching to an unlawful assembly. This set a precedent for the independence of juries. Penn was later granted large tracts of land in North America which lead to the founding of Pennsylvania and the migration of many Quakers to the state set up on Quaker principles.

Important Early Quaker Publication

Robert Barclay: Apology
Argued that personal experience of God is more meaningful than scripture.

Following a visit to Barbados, George Fox again urged Quakers to remember the equality of all people especially in regard to those who were slave owners.


The first Quaker elected to the British Parliament is not allowed to take his seat after refusing to take the oath of Allegiance to the Crown.



Quakers in Pennsylvania worked towards the abolition of the slave trade.


American Quaker John Woolman urged Quakers to “live answerable to the design of our creation” calling them to live a simple life with careful use of the earth’s resources. Woolman was also one of the most outspoken opponents of slave ownership among Quakers.


British Quakers established the Anti-Slavery Committee that was instrumental in driving the movement throughout the next 50 years. The Slave trade was abolished in 1807 and ultimately slavery was forbidden throughout the British Empire in 1833.  


Quakers played prominent roles in the establishment of The Retreat in York, an institution with enlightened treatment and care for the mentally unwell, and the adult education movement particularly for working class women.



Elizabeth Fry made her first visit to Newgate Prison in London. Her response to the inhumanity she saw there eventually led to widespread reform of prisons in the UK and established new standards throughout the prison service. Quaker involvement with prison reform and prisoner aid continues today.


William Pease became the first Quaker Member of Parliament after legislation was passed which allowed Quakers to affirm that they were telling the truth rather than take an oath on the Bible.


First Quaker Meeting established in Mexico. Today, 17% of the world’s Quakers are in central and south America.


As Dissenters, Quakers had never been allowed to hold public office or attend universities and in the 19th century this resulted in a great expansion of Quaker involvement in industry. The Quaker reputation for speaking the truth and acting with strict moral integrity worked well for them and they became prominent leaders in commerce and many emerging industries such as banking, pottery and the chocolate industry. Many of their ventures were allied to innovative and far ranging employment and social initiatives such as Bourneville, the village created by George Cadbury for his workers at the Cadbury chocolate factory.



First African Quaker Mission established in Kaimosi in Eastern Kenya. Today 45% of the world’s Quakers are in Africa. 


Based on the Quaker Peace testimony, 3 Quaker MPs drew up the provision for conscientious objectors to be incorporated in to the 1916 Military Service Act. This now forms part of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

2nd World War

Throughout the 1930s Quakers in Germany were active in finding ways to save the lives of refugees. From 1939 they worked with English Quakers and other groups to ensure the safe passage of thousands of Jewish children and looked after them in their countries of refuge.

In 1942 Quakers were instrumental in setting up the relief organisation Oxfam and in 1947, Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in the reconstruction of Europe after the devastation of the war.

Quakers  who sought to make a positive contribution towards alleviating the suffering in the 2 world wars, set up and operated the Friends' Ambulance Unit. A statement of purpose written by trainees in 1939 reads:

We purpose to train ourselves as an efficient Unit to undertake ambulance and relief work in areas under both civilian and military control, and so, by working as a pacifist and civilian body where the need is greatest, to demonstrate the efficacy of co-operating to build up a new world rather than fighting to destroy the old. While respecting the views of those pacifists who feel they cannot join an organization such as our own, we feel concerned among the bitterness and conflicting ideologies of the present situation to build up a record of goodwill and positive service, hoping that this will help to keep uppermost in men's minds those values which are so often forgotten in war and immediately afterwards.  

The unit functioned from 1914 - 1919, 1939 - 1946 and in the post war era until 1959. It was staffed primarily by registered conscientious objectors and worked in 25 countries world wide. It was cited in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize made to Quakers in 1947.


Landmark events for Quakers in the 1960s were the founding of Amnesty International in 1961, the publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex, (1963) which encouraged a more inclusive view of same sex relationships, and in the same year, Quaker Bayard Rustin was the primary organiser of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” march in Washington.

1980s & 90s

Quakers played a prominent role in working for peace in Northern Ireland and in setting up ‘Turning the Tide’ workshops in non-violent resolution of differences which are now held worldwide. Quakers also played an active role in the successful movement to ban the deployment of land mines (1997). 

Since 2000

In many countries Quakers have played important roles in the movement to recognise same sex marriage. This is work that continues internationally.  In 2014, Quakers in Britain divested from fossil fuels. Aotearoa NZ Quakers have taken similar action since 2015.