I am a Quaker, and have been since 1996, about a year after I first went to a Quaker meeting. There aren’t that many Quakers in the UK, around 20,000 is the number of Quakers registered as members, although many more attend meetings every week without registering their membership. The proper name for the organization is The Religious Society of Friends, which is represented in the UK by Britain Yearly Meeting, which is a charitable organization.
The name “Quakers” is said to come from George Fox, one of the founders of the movement in the 17th century, telling a judge or magistrate to “quake before the Lord”, but it is true that people do sometimes shake in meeting when they feel compelled to get up and speak. What sort of meeting Quakers hold will vary around the world; in the UK most meeting will be silent meetings, where people only get up and speak if they feel they are being moved to do so. In other parts of the world, especially in the US and in countries in Africa, the meeting may be indistinguishable from other church services. Those meetings are described as “programmed”, meaning that the contents and form of the meeting is decided in advance, where an “unprogrammed” meeting is one where the worship is silent and ministry is unplanned. There are two different types of Quaker meeting in the US after a schism in the 19th century, and a lot of differences between the more liberal Britain Yearly Meeting and US Quakers. This is especially so in the realm of same-sex marriage, which has been recognised in the UK since 2009, although not legally accepted by the state until 2014, while this is a controversial subject with many US Quakers still.
Of course, the involvement of some early Quakers, like William Penn, in the settlement of America, leads many US researchers back to England for their origins.
The heart of Quaker life is that each person is responsible for what they believe, and should be trying to live by those beliefs. There is no dogma, nothing that the society tells its members to believe, but of course the origin of the Quaker movement is in Christianity. This being the case, it is amazing how congruent most people’s beliefs are with the witnesses for truth, peace, social justice and economic justice. There is a set of questions that every Quaker is supposed to read and think about, called Advices and Queries, which spoke to me very clearly when I first came to Quakers… which includes the exhortation (A&Q 17) to “think it possible you may be mistaken”. I loved the idea of a group which asked its members to look for new light wherever they might find it, rather than banning books or thoughts, but at the same time told them to consider that they might be wrong in their thinking.
The original organization of the Quaker movement was not at all liberal, however, and reading many of George Fox’s diatribes is like reading a hellfire and damnation preacher from any age. The movement was born at a time when England was in chaos around the time of the civil war, and the religious persecution which affected anyone outside the state religion of the Church of England, led to many Quakers being imprisoned or having their possessions seized for meeting illegally. Much of the structure of the organization goes back to that time, when whole meetings might disappear overnight because all the members had been sent to gaol.
The consequence of the laws that were passed to limit the freedom of people outside the church of England, which included the Catholics, Jews, Puritans and other dissidents as well as the Quakers, was to prevent anyone from those other groups from going to university, joining the armed forces, taking up a profession or an official position. Thus about the only jobs open to Quakers in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was going into some form of industry. Many Quaker families were famously successful in businesses, and many of those names are just as famous today. The most well known is probably Cadbury, but Terry’s, Huntley and Palmer, Barclay’s Bank, Bryant and May, Clark’s shoe company, J.S. Fry, Rowntrees, and Waterford Crystal were all Quaker businesses. Strangely enough, Quaker Oats is not one of those companies!
In Uxbridge, the meeting I am still attached to, the Hull family were very prominent in the town, and they had interests in Corn dealing and banking, setting up a special savings bank for the poor as well. They had commercial interests, but also put money into charitable works, setting up schools for the poor as well as lending the town the money for building the new Market House. They had links to other Quaker families around the country, through marriage between families.
From the beginning of the movement right up to the 1860s, it was a closed community, in that it was against the rules of the organization to “marry out”, ie to marry someone who wasn’t a Quaker themselves. It was also against the rules to marry in a “steeplehouse”, or church, although some members were prevailed upon by their families to marry in churches because the state didn’t then recognize marriage inside the meeting as a legal marriage, and grandparents worried about the legitimacy of their grandchildren and the difficulties of inheritance.
However, the consequence of the closed community was that the big Quaker families established in one area of the country tended to marry each other. Thus, the same names arise in different combinations, and you may find background information on a family in a history for the meeting they attended. It is said that the Quaker yearly meeting was an opportunity for a Quaker to find a wife outside their normal social circle, and many marriages were agreed following meetings there.
The other helpful part of Quaker ancestry, is that Quakers are exceptionally good at paperwork. Thus, they kept very good records from the 17th century on, and when a marriage happened in a meeting, everyone present signed the marriage certificate (although there are gaps, as with any old records). The library at Friends House in London, is open to all for research, and they produce a useful leaflet (pdf here) about Quaker Genealogy. There are a great number of books about meetings, about industry, about individual Quakers, and so there may be a great deal of research already done for your ancestors if they were Quakers. There is a very useful book about Quakers in Industry, which contains potted biographies for Quakers in the 17th to 19th centuries. The original records for births, marriages and deaths are now at the National Archive. The indexes are available to search on BMDregisters but those resources are not free.
Apart from studying the members of Uxbridge Quaker meeting for the 350th anniversary of the meeting, when I researched the family history of my sisters-in-law, I was astonished to find Quakers as far as the eye could see in some parts of it. I have found no Quakers in my own tree. However, due to the practice of marrying inside the movement, once you find one Quaker, you are almost bound to find more!
There is a Quaker Family History Society which is a paid membership society with a newsletter several times a year. There are also a number of websites about famous Quakers from the past, including Jenny’s Famous Quaker Pages (there is an older website here too).
If you need help with your Quaker ancestors, why not contact me on the link above?
The photograph above shows Haslington Hall in Cheshire, taken by John W. Schulze on a creative commons attribution licence. It was once owned by Randol Vernon, a Quaker who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1682.