Quakers - Society of Friends - History of Religion
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Quaker wedding
A Quaker wedding (1800s in England)

In 1648 AD, some people in England felt unhappy with the way Puritan Christians were praying to God, and they started to do things their own way. One early Quaker was a man named George Fox, but generally the Quakers (who call themselves the Friends) had no leaders, priests, or ministers, because they thought everyone ought to decide for himself or herself how to worship God, and they should worship directly, not through another person. So different Quakers might believe very different things about God.

By 1677, these ideas led to many Quakers being arrested and sent to jail in England. Some of them, led by William Penn, decided to leave for North America, where they settled the state of Pennsylvania (where many Quakers still live today). There were also many Quakers in New Jersey, Rhode Island and North Carolina.

Most Quakers lived by two main principles. They went to Quaker meetings, where people sat in silence, thinking and praying, and spoke if they felt God wanted them to. Both men and women could speak in meeting. Quakers showed their religion by action, trying to help the poor or make peace where there was war. Quakers also campaigned for women's rights and for the rights of the Native Americans.

Quaker meeting
A Quaker meeting in the 1700s

Because Quakers were very careful never to be dishonest in any way, people knew they could trust them, and so many Quakers did very well in business and banking and shipping, and became rich.

This idea of taking action led the Quakers who had moved to North America to refuse to take sides in the American Revolutionary War in the 1700s. They did not believe that it was right to fight, no matter what the reason was. Some people thought that Quakers were traitors.

Although in the 1700s some Quakers had owned African people as slaves, by the 1800s most Quakers decided that slavery was wrong, and so they helped many hundreds of people to escape to freedom on the Underground Railway. Because this was against the law, some Quakers went to jail or paid big fines for helping men and women escape from slavery. During World War I, again Quakers refused to fight, and some went to jail for it. In World War II, a few Quakers agreed to fight, while others worked in emergency medicine for wounded or sick soldiers. Many Quakers refused to pay some of their taxes, so that their money wouldn't be spent on fighting.

Learn by doing: visit a Quaker meetinghouse
More about slavery

Bibliography and further reading about the Quakers:

Ghost Dancers
More about American religion
American History
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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