William Penn quote, KeongDaGreat: Shutterstock

For a group committed to nonviolence, the early Quakers in Ireland were surprisingly militant. No, they didn’t bear arms or compromise their Peace Testimony. But they were so opposed to what they considered idolatry—so convinced that both Catholics and Protestants had betrayed true religion—that they frequently invaded churches mid-service to loudly proclaim how wrong these ways of worship were in God’s eyes.

Did this win the Society of Friends good will? No, it did not. Often, they were hauled off to jail, feeling themselves honored to be thus persecuted for the Lord’s sake, as they understood him.

Yet, here and there, other dissatisfied people left their Catholic or Anglican or Presbyterian churches to join the Friends. In so doing, they abandoned the prescribed worship handed down through the centuries to sit quietly and listen, seeking to understand what new revelations God had for them.

Besides the Quaker convictions opposing war and violence, other counter-cultural beliefs typified the Friends long before they went “mainstream.” Among these practices were a high view of women’s leadership and the importance of the female voice. It is not surprising to discover Quaker suffragettes on both sides of the ocean: Anne Knight, the Priestman sisters, Helen Bright Clark and her daughter Alice in Britain, for example; Lucretia Mott, Rachel B. Anthony and her sister Mary in America.

Every person, male or female, young or old, was believed to have within him or herself a portion of the light of Christ by which they could bless and guide, nurture and inspire their community. This fundamental Quaker belief still orients most Quaker communities today, even though there have been splits and divisions regarding many other doctrines and practices through the years. Some Friends today are little different from other Evangelical Christians, whereas at the other end of the spectrum there are Quakers who do not find belief in Christ necessary.  

Quakers were “plain”; they did not believe in acquiring wealth for its own sake. Yet they became wealthy. Their work ethic of diligence, hard work, integrity, and care for their employees reaped the dividends of trust and admiration. Decisions about what to do with their collective wealth were made in community. Thus, for example, in Ireland during the Great Hunger, the small number of Friends (8,000 at their peak) fed, clothed, employed, and educated more Irish Catholics than any other group, including England, despite their tensions over religious beliefs and practices.

In the United States, the Quakers were the first group to reach the public consensus that slavery was wrong and who decreed no Quakers could own slaves. Getting there was not easy—you can read the remarkable story of John Woolman (The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition is a good place to start) to understand how costly it became. John Woolman believed that the practice of owning slaves by many wealthy Quakers in America in the 18th century was a consequence of greed, a betrayal of Christ’s love for every person. John was “plain” to a degree not often found even among Friends.

There’s much more to say, but to not overload you, I’ll leave this as an introduction and add more as we go along.