The Society of Friends

A 17th century portrait of George Fox

A Brief History of the Religious Society of Friends

George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, did not set out to create a new sect of Christianity. In reality, as a young man he was yearning for authenticity in the Church of England and couldn't find it. In despair, he retreated to a high point in his native Lancastershire called Pendle Hill. There he heard a voice that told him he needed no intermediary figure in the form of a priest or cleric to be close to the Creator, that every person had “that of God” inside them and if they listened they could learn to discern God's will for them and their lives.

Fox was so excited by his experience on Pendle Hill, he immediately began to speak to people about the message he was given. In England, the King James version of the Bible had been published just a generation before. Fox had read it so many times he could quote long passages. He began to attract large crowds wherever he spoke. Most listeners were working class people but among the followers were people of high rank and wealth, like William Penn, who eventually emigrated to the U.S. with a large following of Friends. Penn's colony, called Pennsylvania, whose charter guaranteed complete freedom of religion and conscience, was the model for the Constitution of the United States of America.

“Quakers” (a derisive name given by a judge in the 17th century) were persecuted in England for refusing to pledge allegiance to the King. Obedience to the Throne might require them to fight in the King’s Army or do things counter to their beliefs. They were imprisoned, tortured, ridiculed in public, and often had their tools confiscated for payment of taxes to the Church of England. This made them incapable of making a living practicing their trades. The persecution only made their numbers grow. The Religious Society of Friends was formalized to organize assistance to Quakers suffering in prison and to support the women and children of Quaker men in prison. Women also were jailed. Margaret Fell, an early follower of George Fox whom he eventually married, served a total of five years in prison because of her beliefs and activism.

Liberalization in English society stopped the persecution and a land grant to William Penn from King Charles II in 1681 provided the opportunity for many Quakers to start over in the “colonies.” Known for keeping their promises, always telling the truth, and producing high quality goods at a fair, uniform price, many Quakers prospered. People trusted them and the name “Quaker” became synonymous with quality and fairness. This is how the Quaker “brand” became associated with oatmeal, even though the company producing Quaker Oats had no relationship to actual Quakers.

Because of Friends’ basic beliefs in the divinity and dignity of all people, Quakers have been at the forefront of every progressive social movement in U.S. history, starting with the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, prison reform, the civil rights movement of the 1950’s-60’s, nuclear nonproliferation, and refugee relief and immigration rights.

The oldest religious lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. is the Friends Committee on Legislation. Founded in 1943, FCNL is highly respected and often invited to share its research and positions with Congress.

The American Friends Service Committee, considered to be the service “arm” of the Religious Society of Friends in the U.S., shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 along with the British Friends Service Council for their work resettling, feeding and clothing displaced persons after World War 2 in Europe. The AFSC continues to be deeply involved in humanitarian work around the globe, engaged in “removing the causes of war” which lead to perpetual poverty and social injustice and, inevitably, conflict. As a former Nobel laureate, the AFSC is able to nominate a candidate each year for the world’s most respected peace prize.