With “peace” as one of its guiding testimonies, Quakerism is often associated with pacifism. However, although the words may sound alike, “pacifism” is often anything but “passive.” From the refusal of many in the Society of Friends to take part in the horrific violence of the slave trade in the 1600s, to those who put their lives on the line by refusing to participate in wars or by speaking out for the humane treatment of all in our society, Quakers have a long legacy of confronting injustices and actively advocating for equality and the betterment of humanity.
Quaker History, Notable Quakers, and a Legacy of Activism
The Religious Society of Friends came about in England during the mid-1600s, with George Fox emerging as one of the major early leaders in the movement. During a time of religious, political, and economic upheaval, Quakerism offered a response to, and a protest of, a system that many felt was inherently unequal. Many Quaker beliefs--that men and women were spiritual equals; that each individual could have a direct relationship with God instead of going through a “higher” church authority; that titles and honorifics such as “Your Lordship” should not be used--were considered radical at the time, and thousands were imprisoned, tortured, or executed for speaking out.
Quakers were among the first abolitionists in colonial North America, beginning their protests to end slavery in the late 1600s. However, some Quakers were themselves slave owners at the time. Yearly Meetings took up the issue, and, by 1776, all the Yearly Meetings in America had concluded that slavery was incompatible with Friends teachings. Many Quakers subsequently participated in campaigns to end slavery in society, and in helping to feed, shelter, and guide those who were on their flight to freedom.
From the Society of Friends’ founding in the 1600s, Quakers also held a progressive view toward women’s equality (at least by the standards of their time), and many joined the crusade for women’s rights in the 19th century. One notable Quaker suffragette was Lucretia Mott, who strove both for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of women to participate in the abolitionist movement. She continued her quest for the equal treatment of women after the 1865 abolition of slavery, fighting alongside African Americans for the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul were two more Quaker women who are renowned for their dedication to women’s rights and suffrage.
Other endeavors of the Religious Society of Friends to promote general human respect included advocating for humane treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill, and campaigning against war and violence as a means of settling international disputes.
Friends schools like Sandy Spring Friends School endeavor to carry on this Quaker legacy of peaceful protest and social activism promoting respectful treatment of all.