Sun | Feb 18, 2018

The story of the Quakers - Part II - Evolution and fragmentation

Published:Saturday | April 1, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The Religious Society of Friends, or the Quakers, is regarded as a reformation movement that had its origins in the mid-1650s. George Fox of Leicester, England, is credited as the founder of the society that challenged many of the fundamental beliefs and practices of the more established churches in England and Wales.

Fox and his followers were jailed multiple times as the established churches and the State strongly opposed their beliefs and activities, such as public meetings, which were banned. They were called "ranters" and "anarchists", serious threats to peace and social order, even though their approach was a non-violent one.

But persecution could not stop the Friends, as they were also called, from seeking 'the truth'. The signal from the "Christ from within" or the "inner light" was what they sought, and not the voice of man telling them who God was. They were steadfast in their belief that God was reachable, not living somewhere in Heaven, and by sitting in silent meditation, they would hear His voice.




From persecution in England and Wales, they fled to the British Isles, including Jamaica and North America (as early as 1658), where they were to encounter more opposition. Yet, in the USA, their membership proliferated, as, undaunted, they continued to espouse their perspectives of God and His relationship with mankind. Their influence, like their membership, grew, and the Quakers became pre-eminent social, business, and political affairs in the places where they settled.

In 1681, the Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania in a province called New England on the principles of pacifism and religious tolerance. The Quakers believed politics was a divine preoccupation and must be practiced by virtuous men and women in the way God intended it to be. So political activism was encouraged by Penn to encourage peace, justice, equality, charity, and liberty. This foray into politics by the Quakers came to be known as the 'Holy Experiment'.

The Quakers dominated politics in Pennsylvania, even forming the Quaker Party, but they also thrived in the areas of business and farming, and, of course, religion, as they were free from feudal elites, the dictates established by churches, tithes, oaths, taxes, compulsory military service, and war, all of which they opposed. Yet, with all the prosperity that the Quakers of New England experienced, Penn believed that his Holy Experiment was a failure as politics was threatening to shatter the core values of the movement.

It was not only politics that was undermining Quakerism. Social and economic successes were also pulling away the feet from under George's Fox's ideals. Dissenting voices got louder in the 1750s. Dissenters believe that the Quakers' involvement in politics was destroying the movement. They were falling head first into secularism. Strict enforcement of Quaker values, including withdrawal from public office, was demanded by 'reformers'. Social 'deviants' were expelled from the movement, and around the time of the American War of Independence, 1775-76, Quakers withdrew from public offices.




Over the years, however, the movement became fragmented as members had different perspectives on what Quakerism should be. Nowadays, Quakers have significantly different ways in which they interpret and practise their beliefs. The movement now has roots firmly anchored all over the world, and the original trunk of the Quaker tree has at least four major branches: liberal, conservative, pastoral, and evangelical, in the United States.

The features that distinguish the branches are the manner of worship (unprogrammed, silent worship without pastoral leadership versus programmed services guided by a pastor); emphasis on the author of the Bible versus the authority of the 'inward light'; missionary and evangelical work; and the three organisations in North America - Friends General Conferences, Friends United Meetings, and Evangelical Friends Church International, to which some Quakers are affiliated.

The Quakers' involvement in spreading 'the Truth' and politics was fraught with many challenges, but it was their role in the abolition of slavery, that was perhaps their most arduous undertaking.