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Faith and Practice

Pacific Yearly Meeting

of the

Religious Society of Friends

a guide to quaker discipline in the experience of pacific yearly meeting of the religious society of friends.
published 2001

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i: Pacific Yearly Meeting In Context

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A Brief History of the Religious Society of Friends

pym in context
quaker faith & spiritual practice
testimony & experience of friends
organization of the society
activities & organization of the YM
sources of quotations
index of sources
subject index

We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Friends who have permitted us to use material for this Faith and Practice.


 quakerism in the new world

 The movement spread rapidly in America. Yearly Meetings were founded: New England (1661), Baltimore (1672, in the middle of Fox’s two-year visit to America), Philadelphia (1681), North Carolina (1689), and New York (1695). Quakers organized colonies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and settlements in New York, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Barbados. Thus, there was a brief period when Friends thought that Quakerism would become the most influential religious movement in the American colonies.

 Although the number of Quakers has never become as large as anticipated, the influence of Friends’ ideas and values has been extensive throughout American society. Historically, Friends have built their Meetinghouse with adjacent land for a burial ground and a school. Today, Friends schools are respected as leaders in principled education. Friends founded excellent colleges and universities. Haverford, Swarthmore, Earlham, Guilford, and Whittier are only a few of those still flourishing today. Some have passed out of the direct supervision of Meetings, but most carry the philosophical imprint of their Quaker founding.

 Friends have also had a remarkable influence on penal reform and conditions in mental hospitals both in this country and in Great Britain. Many Friends today are active in the work of abolishing capital punishment.

 The movement’s sense of cohesion arose in large part because many Friends were led to travel in the ministry, making long journeys through the wilderness to witness to the workings of the Spirit. Some were heard and welcomed, some were whipped and imprisoned by local authorities, some were run out of town, and some died of exposure and disease. Friends nevertheless continued to hear and to heed their leadings.

 George Fox came by ship to America, landing at Barbados in 1671. He traveled through the colonies by horseback, by boat, and by foot. Both women and men were inspired to leave families to the loving care of their Meetings while they crossed the ocean and braved the new, wild territory to share their joyful message. Stephen Grellet, a member of the French nobility, wrote simply of his faithfulness to calls to preach, sometimes without knowing that anyone listened. Mary Dyer, Catherine Peyton, and Mary Fisher, each usually travela ling with a female companion, came to minister to Americans. While their messages were heard by some colonists, Mary Dyer was among four Quakers who were hanged for their teaching. The journal of Catherine Peyton (later Phillips) tells vividly of rigors of travel, the illnesses she endured, and her firmness in continuing to follow her leading. These traveling ministers and their visits played an important role in keeping alive a sense of community among scattered Friends.

 Mary Fisher, after returning to England briefly, traveled through the Mediterranean to bring the message to the Sultan of Turkey, returning to settle in the colonies. When Mary Fisher was talking with the Sultan of Turkey, he asked her what she thought of Mahomet.According to Brinton, her reply was “…that she knew him not, but Christ enlightened every man who came into the world. Him she knew…. And concerning Mahomet, they might judge him false or true according to the words and prophecies he spoke.” (Howard Brinton, Friends for 300 Years, Pendle Hill, 1965, p.159)

 During the 1700’s, slavery became a major concern among Friends in both Britain and America. Some Quakers had imported, held and sold slaves, but hearing the gentle yet persistent preaching of John Woolman, Friends who had formerly accepted the“ economic necessity” began to be uneasy. In corporate worship, they began to discern a leading to change their ways. First, they agreed that importing human beings was wrong. Then, step by step, individual Meetings declared their opposition to trading and owning slaves. By the end of the century, because of public preaching, individual conscience, and the disowning of members who did not comply, the Religious Society of Friends contained no slave owners. Many Quakers provided leadership in the movement for emancipation.

 Early Quakers were concerned with a “right ordering of one’s own life.” They tried to live in accordance with God’s will, and felt an evangelical imperative to spread their discovery of good news around the world. A period of “quietism” developed among the Quakers of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, during which they withdrew from political activity and other concerns seen as worldly. The evangelical spirit was temporarily muted. A more passive, inward life gained ascendancy as Friends focused on spiritual purity and the subordination of self-will. Personal feeling was considered a surer guide to Truth than reason. This tendency to withdraw from the world also coincided with a decline in numbers. The Religious Society of Friends became a smaller, closed society of “peculiar people,”† set apart from the world. The prophetic mission was mostly laid aside and the mystical encounter,which had always been at the heart of the Quaker experience, became more prominent.

† “Peculiar” in the seventeenth century meant “chosen.” Titus 2:14,
King James Version