Quaker History

The Religious Society of Friends was founded by George Fox in England in 1652. Friends, often called Quakers, believed that they could experience God directly in their lives without relying on paid clergy. They worshipped together in silence awaiting divine guidance to manifest itself; when it did, Friends stood to break the silence and speak. Believing that there is that of God in every person, Friends adhered to the authority of individual conscience over creed or law.

Persecuted as nonconformists by the Church of England, many Friends sailed to America, with some landing in Maryland in 1656. By 1700, there were 3,000 Friends in Maryland. Meetinghouses, as they called their places of worship, sprang up first on the waterways of the Eastern and Western shores of Chesapeake Bay, then inland as villages, towns, and cities were established.

Though Friends worshipped in silence, they did not withdraw from the world. Through acts of individual and corporate beneficence, they returned to their communities the fruits of their labors.  In their conduct of business, these early Friends were guided as are Friends today by a set of religious principles and practices that included strictures against activities such as betting and gambling, capital punishment, slavery, and all forms of war. They stood for integrity in business, penal reform, plainness of dress and language, relief of suffering, social order, and temperance. As today, all business decisions were reached by "the sense of the Meeting." These historic testimonies led the Society of Friends to be activists in causes that continue in the present.

Quakers have always tried to be friends to Native Americans. As early as 1795, Baltimore Friends were an active part of a larger Quaker committee to work in securing full rights for Native Americans. Philip E. Thomas assisted the Iroquois and Six Nations Tribes in securing 52,000 acres in New York State in 1839. Friends helped to establish the Baltimore American Indian Center in 1968.

Likewise Quakers have tried to ameliorate the injustice done to Africans brought to America as slaves. Today Friends continue to work for for civil rights and the empowerment of all peoples.

Early Friends were concerned for the education of all children, male and female. In Baltimore, Friends School was established in 1784. McKim's School was opened in 1821 as the first free school in Baltimore to educate indigent youth. Because women were refused degrees from Johns Hopkins University, she and four other Baltimore women pledged to raise $500,000 for Hopkins if the medical school would agree to admit women on an equal basis to men. It did and they raised the money.

Martha Ellicott Tyson was a founder of Swarthmore College. M. Carey Thomas founded Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and became the first female president of Bryn Mawr CollegeGuilford College and Haverford College are among Quaker colleges that continue today. Friends Association for Higher Education offers a list of Quaker colleges, universities and study centers.

In the twentieth century and continuing today, Quakers are active not only in opposing war but in striving to eliminate the causes of war. Friends urged conscientious objection and alternative service in both World Wars and during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. They organize relief services and try to affect the political process through vigils and demonstrations through organizations as the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the American Friends Service Committee.

Although estimates vary, there are approximately 350,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world, with about 85,000 in the United States. 

Links to more Information

The spread of the Society of Friends in North America

FAQs about Quakers

A resource list of writings about and by Historical Friends