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date: 30 September 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces the Quaker movement in terms of a brief historical overview. Beginning in the late 1640s under the leadership of George Fox, Quakerism is now a global movement comprising four main traditions. Quakerism has had a complex and fascinating history across three-and-a-half centuries, and scholars in history, sociology, theology, and literary and women’s studies, have found a wealth of interest in the analysis of this unusual religious community. This chapter gives a comprehensive overview of this scholarship and describes the arrangement of the other chapters that make up this book.

Keywords: Quaker, history, theology, sociology, women, religious, Fox

Quakers are a fascinating religious group both in their original ‘peculiarity’ and in the variety of reinterpretations of the faith since its early beginnings. The way they have interacted with wider society is a basic but often unexplored part of British and American history. This book charts Quaker history and the history of its expression as a religious community.

A brief historical overview

Quakerism began in England in the 1650s. George Fox, credited as leading the movement, had an experience of 1647 in which he felt he could hear Christ directly and inwardly without the mediation of text or minister. Convinced of the authenticity of this experience and its universal application, Fox preached a spirituality in which potentially all people were ministers, all part of a priesthood of believers, a church levelled before the leadership of God. True spirituality was inward and the outward forms of Christianity, such as set apart ministers, church buildings, sacraments, and ‘times and seasons’ (the Christian calendar) were anachronistic and apostate. Fox preached that this was an age of a new covenant with God, the beginning of the end of the world. Quakers represented the true church and the only right way to a salvation available in this life, but all could become Quakers. All could realize salvation and consequent perfection. In 1652, we see the beginnings of an organized movement, noted for the depth and quality of its leadership amongst men and women in the north of England, amongst young and old.

To secure and nurture this direct encounter with the Divine, Quakers worshipped in silence. They were active as missionaries and Quakerism became the most successful sect of the 1650s and by 1680 numbered one per cent of the English population. While true worship was inward, the transforming experience many encountered, their ‘conviction’ or ‘convincement’, led to distinctive forms of witness. Quakers refused to remove their hats to anyone except when in prayer. They listed days and months by number, not (p. 2) (pagan) names, thus Sunday was first day. They started to wear plain clothes and eschew anything considered superfluous or vain, such as titles or gravestones. They opposed outward war while conducting their own spiritual warfare, the Lamb’s War, to bring about an intimacy between heaven and earth on a global scale. They refused to pay tithes to the ‘hireling ministry’ or for the upkeep of ‘steeple houses’, and refused to swear oaths after the injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to swear not at all.

The 1650s, with the lack of censorship in England, provided a fertile seedbed for the Quaker movement, but the 1660s brought heavy persecution. From the 1680s, particularly with the invitation to create a Holy Experiment in Quaker Pennsylvania, Quakers emigrated en masse. Quakers became a transatlantic community, joined together by their testimony and also by marriage ties in a group that only allowed marriage to another of the true church. This transatlantic community went through various changes in the 140 years following the establishment of Pennsylvania. Most notable was a ‘Quaker reformation’ led by John Woolman and others, that created a ‘great turning’ in the 1750s on the issue of slavery. Many Quakers had been slaveholders in the 1750s and before, but Elizabeth Cazden, among others of our contributors, traces how slavery became a disownable offence in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting by 1774, and other Yearly Meetings in America shortly thereafter. She also discusses the broader effects that this had on Quakers—for example, the significant amount of anti-slavery work that some Quakers did, but also the strong persistence of racial prejudice in many Quaker quarters, including exclusion of blacks from most American Quaker schools until the mid-twentieth century.

Quakers in America underwent a series of schisms in the nineteenth century, and creating in the twentieth century three distinct traditions of Evangelical (in two main groupings), Conservative, and Liberal. In general, as Thomas Hamm has demonstrated so thoroughly in his work, the nineteenth century was a time of great change among all varieties of Quakers. Some changes occurred similarly in all the branches, although at a different pace in each, including diminishing use of plain speech and plain dress and a willingness to read novels and plays and not to see such activity as sinful. Influential in these changes was an 1858 contest in Britain; a prize was offered for the best essay on the causes of decline among Friends. The winning essay by John Stephenson Rowntree decried such Quaker attributes as the over-emphasis on silence, the disuse of the Bible in worship, the downplaying of intellectual qualifications, and the limitations of the travelling ministry, the deficiencies in higher education among Quakers, Puritanical attitudes towards music and the arts, and disownment of those who ‘married out of meeting’ (Russell 1979, 390). All branches of Friends in America and in Britain instituted reforms in many or all of these areas over succeeding decades. Elizabeth O’Donnell explains the great growth of higher education among Quakers from 1830 to 1960; the institution of postgraduate centres of study at Woodbrooke in Birmingham, UK in 1903 and at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, US in 1960 being only two examples.

Of great importance for the future development of Friends was the Friends’ international mission movement, explored by Jacci Welling. This nineteenth-century (p. 3) missionary initiative began in earnest in Britain in the 1860s and spread rapidly to America. Missionary movements were undertaken in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Not all missionary work bore equal fruit, but missions to Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa, beginning in 1903, and missions to Guatemala, Bolivia, and elsewhere in Latin America, beginning about the same time, have borne considerable fruit. As a consequence of the liberalization of British Quakerism, beginning at the Manchester Conference in 1895, British Friends gradually withdrew from international mission work over the next two generations, but many evangelical Friends in America have maintained a strong missionary emphasis. To a large degree because of these missions, most Friends (as Quakers are also called) in the world today are Evangelicals of various kinds. Generally, they have adopted a pastoral system (which appeared among Quakers in America during revivals in the 1870s and 1880s), and their worship includes music, vocal prayer, a sermon, etc. Thus, the successes of missions to Africa, Asia, and Central and South America have given new geographical emphases to world Quakerism. Today, of 400,000 Quakers worldwide, one third are in Kenya, with a further 12 per cent in Bolivia, and silent worship is now a minority practice. The range of styles and types of Quakerism worldwide is huge. There are small isolated groups of primitive Quakers meeting in silence, still preferring plain dress and speech, Conservative Quakers with their own Yearly Meetings, Liberal Quakers whose beliefs extend beyond Christianity to other forms of theism and non-theism, Quaker Meetings with pastors, Friends churches whose emphasis is still predominantly Quaker, and others that have chosen to place community witness before sectarian legacy and identity, and Quaker mega-churches with thousands of participants and large pastoral teams. There are those who emphasize behaviour and witness as the basis of Quakerism, those who define their Quakerism in terms of belief. There are those for whom communion and baptism is purely inward, those for whom the outward elements can be a helpful addition to worship. Buildings vary from rented rooms in community centres to large purpose-built sanctuaries with bell towers. As such, while this book offers an introduction to one religious group, that group is a very broad church and the history and theology of the Quakers raises important insights into the study of religion and society as a whole.

Quaker historiography

Modern Quaker Studies began with Robert Barclay of Reigate and his unfinished, voluminous 1876 publication The Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth. Barclay was an evangelical Friend who used his own reading of the early history to justify the form of Quakerism he most preferred. However, his history was also to prove seminal for Friends of other persuasions, as they came to review the past. Liberal Friends such as J. W. Rowntree believed an understanding of Quaker history was the key to a (Liberal) Quaker revival. When Rufus Jones (1909, 1911, 1914, 1921) and W. C. Braithwaite (1912, 1919) took on Rowntree’s vision for a comprehensive and complete history of (p. 4) Quakerism as a means to this revival, the Victorian Barclay was the author they used as both a foundation and a departure point for their own interpretation of the essence of Quakerism. Rather than posit Quakerism as essentially evangelical, with George Fox and the early missionaries as proto-pastors, as Barclay had, Jones in particular presented Quakers as essentially, and foremost, mystical.

The work of Braithwaite and Jones formed the seven-volume Rowntree series published between 1912 and 1927. Alice Southern (2011) has explored the agenda behind the Rowntree series—that one aim of these ambitious works was to prepare the way for a liberal transformation in the Religious Society of Friends, while showing how such interpretations might be grounded in an affirmation of early Quaker tradition.

Jones’ view has since been much challenged and Melvin Endy summarizes concisely the competing interpretations of Quakerism in his 1981 article in Quaker History, between Jones’ view that located the beginnings of Quakerism with Christian mystics and the view espoused in various ways by Geoffrey Nuttall (1946), Hugh Barbour (1964), and Frederick Tolles (1960) that Quakerism can be best understood as a wing of Puritanism. This view of a Quakerism rooted in Puritanism, the ‘Puritan School’, gathered pace in the middle of the twentieth century.

A third strand of interpretation emerged in the mid-twentieth century when Lewis Benson (1944, 1966) argued that to see Friends in terms of mysticism alone was insufficient. Quakerism, Benson said, was about the inward experience of the Light of Christ and the universal mission that was led and fed by this experience. His prophetic Christianity was about a dialogical relationship with God, of hearing and obeying, and he framed Quakerism within a more biblical sense of history than had Jones.

In the 1970s and 1980s, in counterpoint to previous ‘insider’ accounts of Quakerism, Christopher Hill (The World Turned Upside Down, 1972) and Barry Reay (The Quakers and the English Revolution, 1985) presented Quakerism from a Marxist or materialist perspective. Hill and Reay made the question of the connection between Quakers and the radical Civil War sects a much more vital one. Certainly Rufus Jones and others had discussed the Civil War sects prior to Hill, but Hill made that connection come alive. Reay used hard data and their discussion was presented in an accessible way. Equally materialist was Larry Ingle’s 1994 biography of George Fox, emphasizing the social and historical rather than the theological.

Richard Bailey (New Light on George Fox, 1992) established Fox’s concept of ‘celestial flesh’ as a way of describing divine in-dwelling. Bailey also offered a theory of the divinization of Fox in the 1650s and 1660s and the de-divinization of Fox after 1670. Fox was brought down to the level of an Apostle, other Friends to the state of believers. His work has been partnered by that of Michele Tarter who has looked in particular at the experience of early women Friends. In this, she is part of a movement that has rightly placed the experience of women at the heart of Quaker history. Other scholars to focus on women’s experience include Catie Gill (2005), Elaine Hobby, Sandra Holton (2007), Bonnelyn Kunze (1994), Rebecca Larson (1999), Phyllis Mack (1989, 1992), Elizabeth O’Donnell (1999), Sally Bruyneel (2010), and Christine Trevett (1991, 2000).

(p. 5) If Jones, the ‘Puritan school’, and Benson were the key Quaker theorists of the first half of the twentieth century, Douglas Gwyn (Apocalypse of the Word, 1986 and others) emerged in the second half of the century as the fourth main Quaker theorist of Quakerism. His doctoral work on ‘apocalyptic’ and his complementary and contrasting approaches to understanding the nature of Quakerism have been seminal to most of the more recent scholarship. Gwyn alone, though with later agreement of Dandelion (Liturgies of Quakerism, 2005), and Moore (The Light in their Consciences, 2000), argues that early Friends until 1666 felt they were living out a ‘realizing eschatology’, ie an unfolding endtime. In all his work, Gwyn is similarly trying to understand how Friends compensated for the defeat of the ‘Lamb’s War’ and how they sustained themselves following 1666.

Not all scholars agree with this view of early Friends and few place the same emphasis on eschatology that Gwyn does. Carole Spencer (2007) is one of those who wishes to downplay the central emphasis Gwyn gives to eschatology and the apocalyptic in the thought of early Friends. For her, this is only one element of seven, which characterized early Friends’ theology, a collective group of characteristics which she sees as unmistakable ‘Holiness’ in character. Spencer argues that early Friends preached a radical Protestant holiness that in time was reproduced in Methodism. Spencer claims that this Holiness theology is a thread that runs throughout Quaker history. Her work rewrites the family tree of Quakerism as she places the Quaker Holiness Revival of the 1870s as central in the genealogy of the Quaker traditions.

A nascent form of liberal Quaker theology, with many complexities and occasional contradictions, has been discerned in the work of William Penn by Melvin Endy, Jr. (1973) and Hugh Barbour (1991), among others.

Astute close readings of seventeenth-century texts have yielded large dividends in two recent works. Psychological sensitivity and structuralist readings of primary texts play a large part in Hilary Hinds’ (2011) examination of Fox and early Quaker culture. Hinds mines thoroughly early Quaker theology and rhetoric for its broader cultural and discursive significance, e.g., exploring the various ways that early Quakers made their lives preach. Playing off works such as Gwyn and Dandelion (2005), Hinds argues that the careful chronologizing of works such as Fox’s Journal actually plays an important part in emphasizing the place of the unfolding endtime in early Quaker thought, since it highlighted the intention of early Quakers to witness to the work of the indwelling Christ through their own lives, as they were living them. Using texts of 79 Quaker impromptu sermons (or ‘messages’) from the seventeenth century, Michael Graves (2009) explores the role of memory and what he calls ‘metaphor clusters’ in making lengthy, compelling extemporaneous sermonizing possible.

In later eras, Quaker publishing has been immense. The role of Quakers in anti-slavery movments has been an especially productive area. John Woolman’s life and thought has been probed sensitively by Michael Birkel (2003); Mike Heller (2003); and Geoffrey Plank (2012), and his coworker Anthony Benezet has received welcome attention in Maurice Jackson (2009). Lucretia Mott has received attention from Carol Faulkner (2011); Beverly Palmer et al (2002); and Dana Greene (1980), among others. (p. 6) Conservative Quaker anti-slavery, in the person of Pennsylvania Quaker Benjamin Coates, is illuminated in a collection of letters edited by Emma Lapsansky-Werner and Margaret Hope Bacon (2005). A more radical, utopian side of Quaker anti-slavery is thoroughly explored in Thomas D. Hamm’s God’s Government Begun (1995). Issues of American Quakers and racial justice have been further explored in a new narrative treatment from Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye (2009); in Thomas Kennedy’s study (2009) of the most important Quaker project to issue from the Reconstruction period, Arkansas’ Southland College; and in a collection of primary source documents edited by Harold D. Weaver, Jr., Paul Kriese, and Stephen W. Angell (2011). This is but a small sampling of the new publications in the areas of Quaker race, slavery, and anti-slavery. While there is room for much more work, Quaker relationships with aboriginal peoples in parts of the present or former British Empire such as Australia and the United States have occasioned both scholarly works and other works of critical reflection in recent decades (Kelsey 1917; Hixson 1981; Milner 1982; Carter 1989; Swatzler 2000; Brindle 2000; Pencak and Richter 2004; Walker 2006).

New editions of the Journal and letters of Elias Hicks (Paul Buckley 2009, 2011) and of Allen Jay (2010) have provided new light on life and thought on both sides of American Quakers’ Hicksite–Orthodox divide. More work is needed, though, especially in examining the development of Evangelical Friends. Arthur Roberts, leading evangelical Quaker historian and theologian starts some of that work with his chapter in this volume and forthcoming work by Timothy Burdick looks at shifts in evangelical identity amongst Friends in Oregon (Burdick, forthcoming). Thomas Kennedy’s British Quakerism, 1860–1920 (2001) provides what is perhaps the definitive treatment of the British Quaker generational transformation from an evangelical Orthodox into a liberal Quaker community.

The theology of Rufus Jones and his ecumenical leadership continues to receive its due share of attention. The searching critiques of Jones by late-twentieth-century Quaker theologians are concisely summarized by Wilmer Cooper (2005) and Endy (1981). But also see new portrayals of Jones’ mysticism (Matthew Hedstrom 2003); of his legacy in the continued witness of Douglas Steere, Thomas Kelly, Howard Brinton, and Howard Thurman (Leigh Schmidt 2005; Anthony Manousos 2010; Glenn Hinson 1998; Stephen Angell 2009); and of his contribution to reimagining Protestant missions (Angell 2001). David Johns (2011) collects the most significant work of important twentieth-century British Quaker theologian Maurice Creasey, into book format for the first time.

Ron Stansell’s Missions by the Spirit (2009) offers invaluable reflections on the life and contributions of Quaker missionary pioneers in East Africa (Arthur Chilson), Guatemala (R. Esther Smith), India (Everett Cattell), and Bolivia (Jack Wilcutts). Not all individual Quaker mission fields have received suitable scholarly attention, but one that has received illuminating examination has been the Quaker missions that brought about what is the largest national Quaker set of churches as of the publication of this handbook—the Quaker churches in Kenya. See especially Levinus Painter (1966); Ane Marie Bak Rasmussen (1995); Esther Mombo (1998); Herbert and Beatrice Kimball (2002); Stephen Angell (2006c); and Benson Khamasi Amugamwa (2008).

(p. 7) Varieties of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Quaker engagements with the Bible can be seen in the prolific scholarly contributions of Paul Anderson (e.g., 2000) and Henry Cadbury (e.g., 1953); in Michael Birkel’s Engaging Scripture (2005;, and in an edited volume by Paul Buckley and Stephen Angell (2006), among others. In the present generation, works of Quaker theology and spirituality with creative (and, Quakers would say, Spirit-led) attention to present-day realities and with depth in classical Quaker traditions continue to appear, e.g., Wilmer Cooper (2001), John Punshon (2001), Michael Birkel (2004), Lloyd Lee Wilson (1993, 2005), and Margery Post Abbott (2010). Spiritual classics such as Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion (1941) and Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and other works (Foster, 1978, 1981, 1985, 2011) continue to bring Quaker spiritual insights to a wider public.

Editorial choices

Quaker studies is a vibrant field, relating very much to the wider study of Christianity, theology, and social history. The two postgraduate centres at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana in the US and at the University of Birmingham in the UK are constantly producing new thinking and writing, and increasing numbers of students and academics are interested in the contribution Quakerism has made to the history of religion.

This led to one of the challenges of editing this volume: how much cutting-edge thinking to include? For example, some traditional categorizations such as Quietism representing eighteenth-century Quakerism are currently in the process of being questioned. The challenge for us was whether to omit the term ‘Quietism’ as the label for that period or to include it with caveats. At the time of writing, the research awaits completion, and testing by the academic community and so we have taken the latter route. However, it highlights the fact that in a vibrant academic field, even traditional ways of analysing the past are open to constant reinterpretation. We are not claiming the final word. We hope to have been faithful to the best of published scholarship.

The chapters themselves are not always as heavily referenced as a journal article would be, but each chapter concludes with a list of suggested further reading and together with the references cited are compiled into a healthy bibliography. Where possible we have used accessible and in-print editions to help those interested in accessing the primary material.

We have also, of course, needed to assert consistency over the various chapters. You will find different authors emphasizing different scholarly accounts, for example, between Gwyn and Spencer, but we have been firm on matters of style and phraseology. The term ‘Inner Light’ came into the Quaker vocabulary in the latter part of the nineteenth century and is today used interchangeably with ‘Inward Light’ by modern Friends. Some have argued it has changed the meaning of the term, shifting the location of the Divine from outward from which Light comes inwardly to an inner deity within (p. 8) or to a change of consciousness. However, ‘Inner Light’ is also mistakenly used to refer back to early Friends who never used the term. They used ‘the Light Within’ or ‘Inward Light’. Except where explicitly referring to the ‘Inner Light’ as an idea, we asked authors to use ‘the Light Within’ to accurately express this key Quaker concept.

We have struggled to include as much material as we would like on Quakerism in the global south in spite of the distribution of Quakerism. This is partly due to the resource gap between north and south, and the lack of good academic research on this new location of majority Quakerism. While we have deliberately tried to emphasize the contribution and experience of women Friends, this is still largely an unwritten story. The same is true of Black Friends, generally.

The pattern of the book

This Handbook aims for a broad, thorough, in-depth treatment of the Quaker tradition in all chronological periods, with coverage of Quaker meetings and churches in all parts of the world, and including both men and women. All of the chapter authors were informed from the outset of the editors’ wish for both breadth and depth in coverage, and have endeavoured to craft their chapters accordingly.

Recognizing the multidimensional nature of our subject matter, this book consists of 37 individual chapters, for which the editors have devised four main headings: the History of Quakerism; Quaker Theology and Spirituality; Quaker Witness; and Quaker Expression. We invite the readers to dive into the sections and chapters of most interest to them, but also to recognize the complex and holistic nature of the society, church, and movement before them. To the extent that one can sample from all of these main sections, or even read the whole book through, the reader will gain a fuller appreciation of Quakerism in all of its historical and present-day dimensions.

The first eight chapters present the history of global Quakerism from 1647 to 2010. This is initially presented chronologically. Rosemary Moore explores the first period of Quakerism, and Richard Allen the years following 1660 to the end of the seventeenth century. Robynne Healey looks at the eighteenth century, and Thomas Hamm the bulk of the nineteenth, and the various separations that occurred then. After the separations in the nineteenth century, the section ends with an overview of the four main traditions from 1887 to 2010. J. William Frost explores Modernist/Liberal Friends, and Lloyd Lee Wilson the Conservative Tradition. Gregory Hinshaw examines the development of Five Years Meeting into Friends United Meeting, and Arthur Roberts the tradition of Evangelical Quakerism, today represented by Evangelical Friends Church International.

The next nine chapters explore various topics related to Quaker theology and spirituality. After Carole Spencer sets out the theological contexts of the varieties of Quakerism, Stephen Angell examines the key theological issues surrounding‘God, Christ, and the Light’, and Nikki Coffey Tousley explores the topics of ‘Sin, Convincement, (p. 9) Purity, and Perfection’. Howard Macy unpacks the complex issues around Quakers’ relationship to the Scriptures, and Doug Gwyn looks at the issues of ‘Eschatology and time’, so key to Quaker origins, and which have gone through various shifts in understanding since. Gerry Guiton illuminates theological aspects of Quaker engagement with politics, while Mary Garman alerts us to the gendered dimension of Quaker spirituality with her chapter on ‘Quaker Women’s Spirituality’. Michael Birkel then explores some of the practical dimensions of Quaker spirituality in his chapter on ‘Leadings and Discernments’. David Johns caps this section with an explanation of Quakers’ diverse forms of worship, and interrelates that activity to Quakers’ unusual understanding, within the Christian context, to sacraments as ‘inward’ rather than ‘outward’.

The third section incorporates fourteen chapters on Quaker witness. The variety of the witness covered will be disclosed by a glance at the contents: ministry and preachingby Michael Graves; travelling ministry written by Sylvia Stevens; missions from Jacci Welling; ecumenism and interfaith by Janet Scott; plainness and simplicity by Emma Lapsansky; slavery, anti-slavery, and race by Elizabeth Cazden; peace and war relief by Lonnie Valentine; penal reform by Mike Nellis and Maureen Waugh; asylum reform by Charles Cherry; education by Elizabeth O’Donnell; business and philanthropy by Mark Freeman; the family by Edwina Newman; sexuality by Petra Doan and Elizabeth Kamphausen; and youth and young adults by Max L. Carter and Simon Best. Quaker faith and practice is often understood and organized around testimony, witness collectively observed by the meetings as a whole. Several of the most widely observed aspects of testimony, including peace, equality, and simplicity (or plainness), receive their fullest examination in this section.

Our final section, on Quaker expression, includes six diverse chapters. From their earliest days, Quakers were known as ‘Publishers of Truth’, and the meaning of this expression, in its most literal sense, is explored by Betty Hagglund in her chapter ‘Quakers and Print Culture’. Quakers’ evolving aesthetics around their meeting houses and churches, and their evolving interactions with art from early prohibitions or discouragements to a cautious or enthusiastic embrace, is explored in Roger Homan’s chapter. Philosophical dimensions of Quaker expression are developed in Jeff Dudiak and Laura Redieh’s chapter on philosophy and truth, and in Jackie Leach Scully’s chapter on ethics, and Geoffrey Cantor shows us how Quakers have been involved in scientific discovery from shortly after their founding. Finally, Marge Abbott invites us to consider what directions the Quakers’ future may take. All these chapters have been written by the leading scholars, supported by an equally able collection of chapter consultants (many of whom were also authors) who checked for missing detail and emphasis, given our desire to be global in our coverage. We are very grateful to everyone who contributed with such excitement and enthusiasm. We are also very grateful to Steve Olshewsky for his help with compiling the bibliography, Marylin Inglis for her copy-editing, and colleagues at Oxford University Press for their continued support.

This book offers the reference guide to the history and theology of Quakerism worldwide in all its traditions as well as pertinent overviews of how Quakers have responded, for example, in the fields of politics, business, science, education, art, and aesthetics. We hope you will find it as rewarding to read as we have found it to edit. (p. 10)