Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends

The early Dissenting movements had their roots in Puritan dissatisfaction with the religious settlement imposed by Elizabeth I as her response to the Protestant Reformation which swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. They were motivated by a desire to recover a purer, more primitive form of Christian belief and organisation based firmly on the teaching of the Bible.  Although the Baptists and the Independents were the largest movements within the “Old Dissent” in Wales, the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, have a significant place.

The Quaker movement grew out of the turmoil of the Civil War: debates were rife about disparities of wealth and power, about the need for greater social justice and about whether God was about to intervene in apocalyptic, end-of-the-world fashion. Freedom of conscience and freedom of worship were on the agenda for many who wanted change. In this climate, their founder George Fox became convinced that it was possible to have a direct experience of Christ without the aid of an ordained clergy and began to travel in England exhorting his hearers to respond to the inner light which he believed was in everyone.  Fox’s highly individualistic interpretation of the Gospel was accompanied by a call to a straightforward sincerity which could not fail to offend those in authority. This included a refusal to offer forms of respect such as bowing or doffing the hat, a refusal to swear oaths, and an emphasis on plain speaking devoid of the trappings of conventional politeness.

Quakerism entered Wales in 1653 when John ap John, a member of the Independent congregation in Wrexham, was sent by his minister Morgan Llwyd to Fox’s base at Swarthmore Hall in Lancashire to learn about his teaching at first hand. He returned a convinced Quaker and thereafter devoted his energies to promoting Fox’s teachings in Wales.  In Wales some of the first converts to the Friends’ teachings came from such congregations, which were already sensitized to the need for religious and social reform. In South Wales some of those who turned to Quakerism in 1654 had previously been part of the congregation of the recently-deceased William Erbery, a radical preacher and writer from Roath.  In 1657 Fox himself travelled round Wales in the company of ap John who, as a Welsh speaker, could act as his interpreter. The work had some immediate success particularly in Radnorshire and Meirioneth.

After the Restoration in 1660, Quakers were attacked alike by Anglicans and the major dissenting denominations for their unorthodox religious beliefs, and by the civil powers for their intransigent behaviour towards those in authority. They were marked out for particularly severe and systematic persecution: the Quaker Act of 1662 was explicitly designed to curb their liberty to hold meetings and to prevent their refusal to take oaths. There were the economic hardships of fines and seizure of goods; curbs on their movements; sometimes violent interruption of their worship and even imprisonment. For Quakers refused to conform to such things as the payment of tithes, attendance at an Anglican church and, as a people who had declared that belief in God was incompatible with warfare, the upkeep of militia. In these and other ways, they believed, they were reviving a form of Christianity closer to its ‘primitive’ form.

After decades of difficulties for religious dissenters, which affected Quakers more than most, and inspired by dreams of religious freedom and the opportunity to create a godly society, many opted to emigrate to Pennsylvania and settle on land acquired by the Quaker William Penn. The emigration, which began in 1662, caused a heavy decline in the Quaker community in Wales. In her novels Y Stafell Dirgel and Y Rhandir Mwyn (in English, published as The Secret Room and Fair Wilderness) the Welsh author Marion Eames recalled Quakers’ experience in the Dolgellau region in the 1670s and then their emigration. Quaker numbers in Wales suffered a blow as a result, and their numbers fell further in some areas in the 18th and 19th centuries.

During the 18th century, Quakers entered the Quietist period in their history, and they became more inward looking spiritually and less active in converting others. In this period Quakers were clearly distinguished by their plain dress, and marriage to other than a fellow Quaker brought ‘disownment’. People looked favourably on the Friends’ integrity and some were attracted both to the silence in their worship and the preaching ability of some of their men and women, but few at this time chose to become Friends. The numbers of Quakers in Wales remained small:  the 1851 Religious Census included returns from only 5 Quaker congregations and they had only increased to 6 in number by 1905.

Quakers were increasingly active in business from the late 18th century onwards, and in Wales they left their mark in coal, iron and steel working, in porcelain manufacture, and in banking. They have also been active in philanthropic causes and in promoting social justice. Meanwhile the traditional constraints in ‘plain’ dress and in marriage practices started to loosen. By the 20th century they had disappeared. Today there are around twice the number in membership of the Society of Friends in Wales than was the case a century ago. In addition to these, a significant percentage of worshipers with Friends are not in membership but may have been associated with meetings for a long time, while others are relative newcomers.

Quaker places of worship are known as meeting houses, as indeed were those of the early Independents and Baptists. A few are centuries old, such as Dolobran (1700) near Meifod, Montgomeryshire, whilst the thatched building at The Pales in Llandegley, Radnorshire (1717), with an adjoining burial ground dating from 1673, is Wales’s oldest meeting house in continuous use.  Today there are 29 Quaker meetings in Wales, held in a wide variety of locations, some in their own meeting houses and some in rented premises.

Unlike many other groups that have emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has actively tried to avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. There are no ministers, there is no formal preaching in their meetings which include a large element of silent waiting on God, and Quakers do not observe the sacraments of baptism and holy communion.

Neil Sumner (with grateful thanks for material provided by Christine Trevett and Lionel Madden)