In a nutshell, we’re a religious group who try to put our faith into action every day of the week, not just on ‘special’ days and in special places. We don’t have fixed and formal creeds (we try not to put God into a box of our own human making), considering that each of us has our own path to God which we must experience for ourselves rather than having it ‘taught’ to us by an external authority – be that a priest or a book. We put our faith into action through our testimonies – a testimony to peace, to equality, to simplicity, and to truth. In Britain, and in many other parts of the world, we practice a form of worship which follows no set form or pattern, but rather is based on a silence in which any or none may be inspired to speak. In practice, Quakerism is not a ‘spectator sport’ – all share in the responsibility for our meetings for worship, and all share in the responsibility of the practical and spiritual work which needs to be done to maintain the local meeting and the wider organisation.
Before we get on to the real nitty gritty of who we are, it’s worth spending just a few lines emphasising just who we’re not. There are a wealth of misconceptions around (a few of which we’ve admittedly built up for ourselves), which it is important to clear up now to save confusion later.
First of all, we’re nothing to do with the man on the porridge packet – we don’t have a particular penchant for eating oats (though you will admittedly find a lot of lentils and nut roasts in Quaker kitchens), and we have nothing to do with the company which shares our name; in fact the company name was reputedly… ‘borrowed’ from us because they wanted to trade on our reputation for wholesomeness and honest dealing!
Neither are we the people who don’t use much technology – on the contrary, Quakers have often been at the forefront of developments in science and technology, from Abraham Darby’s development of the process for smelting iron at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and John Dalton’s pioneering work in meteorology, colour blindness, and the theory of gases, right through to James Lovelock’s development of the Gaia Hypothesis and invention of the microwave oven, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of the pulsar in modern times. We don’t drive around in a horse and buggy, and neither do we routinely dress in the period clothing of the 17th century. Although there have been some historic similarities, we’re not the same as the Amish, and we’re also not to be confused with another religious group with a similar name, the Shakers – we don’t particularly craft furniture which is stunning in its beautiful simplicity. It does just so happen that the Shakers’ founder, ‘Mother’ Ann Lee, was originally brought up a Quaker in Manchester, England, but Quakerism didn’t really float her boat so off to the USA she sailed to set up her own group.
The woman on the back of the £5 note, Elizabeth Fry (not Elizabeth Windsor, she’s on the front!) was indeed a Quaker who we’re particularly proud of, and has ended up in your wallet by virtue of her work in prison reform. She lived about 200 years ago, and today we dress as little like her as we do like the man on the porridge packet.
Most importantly, we didn’t die out years ago, but are in fact a group of people who feel we have a message which is as modern and as relevant to today’s society as was its message in the days of our founding during the turbulent period of the English Civil War 350 years ago.
Today in the UK there are, according to the official published statistics, about 25,000 Quakers, of whom about 15,000 are in formal membership of the organisation which goes by the name of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. When it comes to numbers they admittedly are not particularly impressive ones – but actually, we’re not really fussed about trying to impress you with our numbers, and are more concerned to demonstrate to you our work and our values.
You’ve read this far and quickly learned who we aren’t, now it is time to learn who we are. Before clicking the next link, I have to stress that this website is primarily about Quakers in Britain, so all references to ‘Quakers’ should really be read as ‘Quakers in Britain’, but that would get tedious both to write and to read after a while. We share a lot with Quakers in the rest of the world, but in parts there are a few important differences where it would be wrong to imply similarity. I’ll talk a little bit about those differences in a later chapter.
So, we’re a religious group. The most obvious question an enquirer might ask of somebody who is a member of a religious group is “what do you believe, then?”