A possible Quakers’ extinction crisis

17the century denomination

The Society of Friends, also called Friends Church, byname Quakers, is one of those Protestant denominations that arose in mid-17th-century England, dedicated to living in accordance with the “Inner Light,” or the light within, as metaphors for Christ’s light shining on or in them. or direct inward apprehension of God, without creeds, clergy, or other ecclesiastical forms.


At first, it were small groups of Seekers, which came from separatist Puritans in 16th-century England. Those people walking away from the main churches came together in silence, often sitting there for minutes without a sound, just having the feeling to be together in meditation. Members spoke only when inspired to do so.

George Fox.jpg
George Fox, the principal leader of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakerism)

George Fox, the son of a weaver of Drayton-in-the-Clay (now called Fenny Drayton) in Leicestershire, was the founder of the Society of Friends in England. He began his public ministry in 1647 and recorded that in 1650

“Justice Bennet of Derby first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God.”

Separated from the common national worship

Preston Patrick Hall in 2010

In 1652 a number of people in Westmorland and north Lancashire who had separated from the common national worship, came under the influence of Fox, and it was this community (if it can be so called) at Preston Patrick which formed the nucleus of the Quaker church. For two years the movement spread rapidly throughout the north of England, and in 1654 more than sixty ministers went to Norwich, London, Bristol, the Midlands, Wales and other parts. Fox and his fellow-preachers spoke whenever opportunity offered, — sometimes in churches (declining, for the most part, to occupy the pulpit), sometimes in barns, sometimes at market crosses.

Shakers or quakers

It is likely that the name ‘Quaker’ or ‘Shaker’, originally derisive, was also used because many early Friends, like other religious enthusiasts, themselves trembled in their religious meetings and showed other physical manifestations of religious emotion.

Millenarianism, mortalism, anti-Trinitarianism, Hermeticism and a rejection of Predestination. Such ideas became

“commonplace to seventeenth-century Baptists, Seekers, early Quakers and other radical groupings which took part in the free-for-all discussions of the English Revolution.”

Puritan Revolution

They gathered during the Puritan Revolution against the authoritarian rule Charles I, king of Great Britain and Ireland (1625–49) which led to his execution. They gathered in houses to wait upon the Lord because they despaired of spiritual help either from the established Anglican church or the existing Puritan bodies—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists—through which most of them had already passed.

The movement in its early days faced strong opposition and persecution, perhaps because they found such attention by many and because they were for the abolition of slavery, to promote equal rights for women, and peace. Also the fact that they did refuse to go to the services of the Church of England, and for refusing tithes.


The movement continued to expand across the British Isles, and Fox and others travelled in America and the West India Islands, whilst Friends found their way to Africa; others made their way to Rome; two women were imprisoned by the Inquisition at Malta; two men passed into Austria and Hungary; and William Penn, George Fox and several others preached in Holland and Germany.

It is surprising that they so easily could get people to convert. In a decade perhaps 20,000 to 60,000 had been converted from all social classes except the aristocracy and totally unskilled labourers. The heaviest concentrations were in the north, Bristol, the counties around London, and London itself. Travelling Friends and Cromwellian soldiers brought Quakerism to the new English settlements in Ireland; Wales and especially Scotland were less affected.

Organisation of Quaker community

It was only gradually that the Quaker community clothed itself with an organisation. The beginning of this appears to be due to William Dewsbury (1621–1688) and George Fox; it was not until 1666 that a complete system of church organisation was established. The introduction of an ordered system and discipline was, naturally, viewed with some suspicion by people taught to believe that the inward light of each individual man was the only true guide for his conduct. The project met with determined opposition for about twenty years (1675–1695) from persons of considerable repute in the body. John Wilkinson and John Story of Westmorland, together with William Rogers of Bristol, raised a party against Fox concerning the management of the affairs of the society, regarding with suspicion any fixed arrangement for meetings for conducting church business, and in fact hardly finding a place for such meetings at all. They stood for the principle of Independency against the Presbyterian form of church government which Fox had recently established in the “Monthly Meetings”. They opposed all arrangements for the orderly distribution of travelling ministers to different localities, and even for the payment of their expenses; they also strongly objected to any disciplinary power being entrusted to the women’s separate meetings for business, which had become of considerable importance after the Plague (1665) and the Fire of London (1666) in consequence of the need for poor relief. They also claimed the right to meet secretly for worship in time of persecution. They drew a considerable following away with them and set up a rival organisation, but before long a number returned to their original leader. William Rogers set forth his views in The Christian Quaker, 1680; the story of the dissension is told, to some extent, in The Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, by R. Barclay (not the “Apologist”); the best account is given in a pamphlet entitled Micah’s Mother by John S. Rowntree.


In the second half of the 17th century Quakerism took root in Maryland and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. and flourished in Rhode Island, where Friends for a long time were in the majority.

The most famous Quaker colony was Pennsylvania, for which Charles II issued a charter to William Penn in 1681. Penn’s “Holy Experiment” tested how far a state could be governed consistently with Friends’ principles, especially pacifism and religious toleration. Toleration would allow colonists of other faiths to settle freely and perhaps become a majority, though consistent pacifism would leave the colony without military defenses against enemies who might have been provoked by the other settlers.

Zeal of the Quaker body

From the beginning of the 18th century the zeal of the Quaker body abated. Although many “General” and other meetings were held in different parts of the country for the purpose of setting forth Quakerism, the notion that the whole Christian church, would be absorbed in it, and that the Quakers were, in fact, the church, gave place to the conception that they were “a peculiar people” to whom, more than to others, had been given an understanding of the will of God. The Quakerism of this period was largely of a traditional kind; it dwelt with increasing emphasis on the peculiarities of its dress and language; it rested much upon discipline, which developed and hardened into rigorous forms; and the correction or exclusion of its members occupied more attention than did the winning of converts.

Doctrine of the Inward Light

Elias Hicks engraving.jpg
Elias Hicks (1748–1830) traveling Quaker minister from Long Island, New York.

During the 18th century the doctrine of the Inward Light acquired such exclusive prominence as to bring about a tendency to disparage, or, at least, to neglect, the written word (the Scriptures) as being “outward” and non-essential. In the early part of the 19th century an American Friend, Elias Hicks, pressed this doctrine to its furthest limits, and, in doing so, he laid stress on “Christ within” in such a way as practically to take little account of the person and work of the “outward,” i.e. the historic Christ. The result was a separation of the Society in America into two divisions which persist to the present day.

Quakers, Shakers and Beaconites – Beacon Controversy

Isaac Crewdson Lewis.jpg
Isaac Crewdson (1780–1844) minister of the Quaker meeting at Hardshaw East, Manchester + writer of A Beacon to the Society of Friends (1835)

That separation arose from a controversy in 1831 amongst Manchester Quakers over the spiritual emphasis of Quakerism
These differences culminated in 1835 when Isaac Crewdson of Manchester published A Beacon to the Society of Friends. That counter movement in England became known as the Beacon Controversy, and was advocating views of a pronounced “evangelical” type. Much controversy ensued, and a certain number of Friends (Beaconites as they are sometimes called) departed from the parent stock. They left behind them, however, many influential members, who may be described as a middle party, and who strove to give a more “evangelical” tone to Quaker doctrine. Joseph John Gurney of Norwich, a brother of Elizabeth Fry, by means of his high social position and his various writings (some published before 1835), was the most prominent actor in this movement. Those who quitted the Society maintained, for some little time, a separate organisation of their own, but sooner or later most of them joined the Evangelical Church or the Plymouth Brethren, where Biblical prophecy and the Second Coming of Christ were emphasized.

Distinctive views

Nearly all their distinctive views (e.g. their refusal to take oaths, their testimony against war, their disuse of a professional ministry, and their recognition of women’s ministry) were being put forward in England, by various individuals or sects, in the strife which raged during the intense religious excitement of the middle of the 17th century.

The same as the Brothers in Christ, Friends have always held that war is contrary to the precepts and spirit of the Gospel, believing that it springs from the lower impulses of human nature, and not from the seed of divine life with its infinite capacity of response to the Spirit of God.

Philanthropic organisations

From the time of the American Revolution, Quakers have been active in ministering to refugees and victims of famine — so much so that the entire Society of Friends is sometimes taken for a philanthropic organisation — yet this work, recognised in 1947 by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the American Friends Service Committee and the (British) Friends Service Council, has mobilised many non-Quakers and thus exemplifies the interaction between the Quaker conscience and the wider world.

In decline

Like many religious groups, the Quakers saw their membership in the 21st century spiraling down. Membership of the yearly meeting at the end of 2020 was only 12,125 (12,498 in 2019), a decrease of 373. During the year 218 came into membership. The membership of 139 adults was terminated and area meetings recorded 330 deaths.

Since 2000, the number of all members and attenders has shrunk by a third to around 20,000. In the same period, the number of children in membership or attending has dropped by three quarters to just over a thousand.

For some Quakers need to make fewer structural changes than society does.

the Quaker business method is an excellent grounding for genuine non-hierarchal community. {Quaker communities in a time of crisis}

At the end of last century Pat Saunders believed that we seem to be at a turning point in human history. She said:

We can choose life or watch the planet become uninhabitable for our species. Somehow, I believe that we will pass through this dark night of our planetary soul to a new period of harmony with the God that is to be found within each of us, and that S/he will inspire renewed confidence in people everywhere, empowering us all to co-operate to use our skills, our wisdom, our creativity, our love, our faith – even our doubts and fears – to make peace with the planet. Strengthened by this fragile faith, empowered by the Spirit within, I dare to hope.

Others believe

We are on a fast-track to an unlivable planet. On all the available evidence if we leave the current system and its leaders in place, a humanitarian cataclysm, the likes of which the world has never seen before, will arrive in the next few decades. I am a science journalist. I have searched and searched for any scrap of evidence to suggest that this is not the case. But it is. Today a person must act. I do not mean everyone should join XR. But we must all act somehow to bring about the system change that the human future depends on. {Quaker communities in a time of crisis}

The decline in Quaker numbers slowed in the mid to late eighties and even picked up a bit one year. This was the period when Quakers were very active in the peace and LGBTQ+ liberation movements,

and James Brooks doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.

In any case, like other denominations in decline, that group should ask themselves urgently:

are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? {Quaker communities in a time of crisis}




  1. Quakers: Their History, Beliefs and Meticulous Records
  2. Friends Advocacy: Stop Yemen War
  3. When Christians Attack Other Christians
  4. Testimony and Ukraine War
  5. Welcoming the Stranger
  6. Worship Sharing on the Peace Testimony
  7. Don’t Let This Ruin Your Coffee: Quakers
  8. Chester County’s Friends Association Celebrates 200th Anniversary
  9. Saving our Soil
  10. Living in Challenging Times
  11. Forever young
  12. An Introduction to Degrowth
  13. Burt-brings-the-hurt
  14. William Penn and White Fragility
  15. The Quakers and the Underground Railroad
  16. Letter to Murray McCully, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 15 August 2012

Published by Marcus Ampe

Retired dancer, choreographer, choreologist Founder of the Dance impresario office and archive: Danscontact-Dansarchief plus the Association for Bible scholars, the Lifestyle magazines "Stepping Toes" and "From Guestwriters" and creator of the site "Messiah for all". - Gepensioneerd danser, choreograaf, choreoloog. Stichter van Danscontact-Dansarchief plus van de Vereniging voor Bijbelvorsers, de Lifestyle magazines "Stepping Toes" en "From Guestwriters" en maker van de site "Messiah for all".

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