George Fox parchment

George Fox’s writing
{Image source unknown}

The movement now known formally as The Society of Friends and informally as the Quakers was founded as a radical Christian movement in 17th century England.

George Fox

George Fox

Contemporary drawing of George Fox (1624-1691) {Image: public domain}

The principal founder of the Society, George Fox, was born in Leicestershire. His aim was to take belief and believers back to the original and pure form of Christianity.

He believed that everyone should try to encounter God directly and to experience the Kingdom of Heaven as a present, living reality.

Fox objected to the hierarchical structure (such as clergy) and the rituals (such as sacraments) of the churches of his time, and rejected the idea that the Bible was the ultimate authority. Not surprisingly, these views infuriated the mainstream churches.

Fox also got into political trouble because of his preaching that there was something “of God in every person” had worrying implications for the hierarchical social structure of his time.

This perceived threat to the religious and political establishments of his time led to 6,000 Quakers being imprisoned during the 1660s. Fox himself was imprisoned eight times and Quakers were persecuted in Britain on a large scale until 1689.

By the time he died in 1691, his movement had 50,000 followers.

Fox's Pulpit, Firbank Fell

In 1652, George Fox preached to around 1000 people from this rock on Firbank Fell, Cumbria, now known as “Fox’s Pulpit” {Image © David Medcalf, Creative Commons Licence}


Origin of the term ‘Quakers’

According to the autobiography of George Fox, the principal founder of the movement, it was a magistrate “who was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord”. Fox had been brought before the magistrates in 1650 on a charge of blasphemy.

The movement’s followers called themselves “Friends of Truth”, or simply “Friends”. Although the term “Quaker” was apparently originally a derogatory nickname, Friends didn’t seem to dislike it that much and later adopted the term themselves. Today “Friend” and “Quaker” are used more or less interchangeably.


Quaker missionaries arrived in the USA in 1656 (the first two known arrivals are Mary Fisher, who had been a housemaid, and Ann Austin). Such missionaries were persecuted at first, and four were executed. However the movement appealed to many Americans, and it grew in strength, most famously in Pennsylvania which was founded in 1681 by William Penn as a community based on the principles of pacifism and religious tolerance.

Mary Fisher before the Sultan Mehmed IV

MARY FISHER explaining  her beliefs to the Sultan Mehmed IV in 1658. She had travelled to the Ottoman Empire not long after she and Ann Austin had been deported back to England from Massachusetts, where both of them had been stripped, searched for signs of witchcraft and imprisoned. {Image source: A Popular History of the United States, Bryant & Gay, 1881 – via ushistoryimages.com. Public Domain}


Quakers and slavery

Riveted iron manacles

Riveted iron manacles {image: courtesy of Replicawarehouse} ✔

The origins of Christian abolitionism can be traced to the late 17th Century and the Quakers. Several of the Quaker leading lights, including George Fox and Benjamin Lay, encouraged fellow congregants to stop owning slaves.

By 1696, Quakers in Pennsylvania officially declared their opposition to the importation of enslaved Africans into North America. Along with the Anglican Granville Sharp, Quakers established the first recognised anti-slavery movement in Britain in 1787.

[Some accounts suggest that there were some Quakers who didn’t “practise what they preached”. Well, things haven’t changed!   🙂 ]

Other Quaker sociopolitical activities

Quakers have played a part in:

  • criminal law reform
  • prison reform – particularly through the work of Elizabeth Fry
  • reducing poverty
  • ending the slave trade
  • ending the opium trade
  • women’s rights
  • anti-racism
  • human rights

and many other campaigns. Quakers have been active in many charities.

SS Sirius

The little Quaker passenger/cargo ship SS Sirius was the first to cross the Atlantic entirely under steam (1838). She ran out of coal and had to burn her masts, spars & some furniture to make port!
{Image: public domain}


The Rajah Quilt, 1841 {Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra}. There is a story about famous Quaker Elizabeth Fry giving thread, needles and fabric to women convicts who were bound for transportation. The Rajah sailed with 179 female prisoners from Woolwich in 1841, bound for Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania).  It has been suggested that this work demonstrates that  the women recognised the benefits of the Fruits of Industry and were willing to reform their ways.


'Quaker gun'

A ‘Quaker gun’ is a make-believe canon, often simply a log painted black, intended to fool the enemy. Used during the American Civil War (1861-5). The name derives from Quakers’ traditional opposition to war & violence. Photo: Quaker gun mounted on bluff of Port Hudson, La. {Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. No known restrictions on publication.}


FAU Ambulance

The Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) was a volunteer wartime and postwar service founded by Quakers. It operated on and off between 1914 and 1959 in 25 different countries. {Photo: 1945, probably Wolfsburg, Germany, provided by Vernon White}


Some famous Quakers

  • George Fox (1624-1691) – founder of Quakerism
  • William Penn (1621-1670) – friend of George Fox, founder of Pennsylvania
  • John Woolman (1720-1772) – an American Quaker involved in the abolition of slavery
  • Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) – British prison reformer
  • Benjamin Lay (1681–1760) – zealous opponent of slavery
  • Lucretia Mott (1793 – 1880) – vigorous antisavery campaigner
  • Joseph Rowntree (1837-1925) – Chocolate manufacturer
  • George Cadbury (1839-1922) – Chocolate manufacturer
  • Edward Lloyd (1648-1713) – founder of Lloyd’s of London
  • Edward Pease (1767-1858) – main promoter of the world’s first passenger-carrying steam railway
  • Joseph Pease (1799-1872) – first Quaker member of Parliament
  • John Bright (1811-1889) – British Radical politician and a renowned orator
  • John Dalton (1766-1844) – British scientist who came up with the atomic theory of matter
  • Thomas Young (1773-1829) – first to perform a double slit experiment and to show that light acts as a wave
  • Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) – astrophysicist; the Eddington Limit named in his honour.
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943) – astronomer, discoverer of pulsars
  • Elizabeth Brown (1830-1899) – Her work on the daily recording sunspots earned her a distinguished reputation among the astronomers of her day
  • Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) – professor of physics; Fellow of the Royal Society; Lonsdaleite – a form of diamond found in meteorites – named in her honour
  • Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) – physician, pathologist, pioneer in preventive medicine, Hodgkin’s lymphoma named afer him
  • Luke Howard (1772-1864) – came up with nomenclature system for clouds: cumulus, stratus, cirrus, cirrostratus, stratocumulus, etc
  • Henry Doubleday of Coggeshall (1808-1902) – horticulturalist; Henry Doubleday Research Association (now known as Garden Organic) named after him.
  • Margaret Drabble (born 1939) – novelist, award-winning books include The Millstone and Jerusalem and the Golden
  • Walt Whitman (1819-1892) – American poet (Leaves of Grass, etc.), humanist
  • Paul Eddington (1927-1995) – actor
  • James Dean (1931-1955) – actor
  • Judi Dench (born 1934) – actress (Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love); “M” in James Bond movies
  • Ben Kingsley (born 1943) – actor, Best Actor Academy Award for Gandhi (1982)
  • Cassius Coolidge (1844-1934) – painter known for his paintings of dogs playing poker
  • Tom Robinson (born 1950) – singer-songwriter, bassist and radio presenter

[Historical note. Quaker Oats have no connection with the Quakers other than the fact that in 1877 a Henry Seymour – the founder of what was initially called the Quaker Mill Company – trademarked the Quaker brand after reading an encyclopedia article on Quakers.]