The origin of the Quakers

The Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, emerged from around the early 1650s in the period of religious, political and social turmoil following the English Civil Wars. The distinguishing essence of the Quaker message was that the Spirit of God resided in every person and that the individual could have a personal and direct experience of Christ and God without the requirement of this being mediated through a priest or minister.

The radical social and religious egalitarianism that flowed from this position, including refusal to pay tithes and other opposition to the privileged position of the established church, refusal to doff their hats to social superiors or to use the accustomed forms of polite address, and the level of equality accorded to women, has sometimes led historians to refer to Quakers as the left wing of the Puritan Revolution. This activity also resulted in many decades of sustained repression by the state, both under the period of the Commonwealth and after the restoration of Charles II, including imprisonment (during which many Quakers died) and distraint of property.

The Quaker movement began in the rural north of England but quickly spread south with both London and Bristol becoming important centres of activity. By the end of the seventeenth century Quakers were the largest dissenting religious community in England. This process of growth presented issues for an entity that began as a highly individualistic body and there were moves, beginning with a meeting of Quaker elders at Balby in Yorkshire in November 1656, to establish guidelines on governance and practice in a number of areas.