Historical Perspective



Before looking at the state of the Religious Society of Friends today, it would be good to look at the world in which Quakers live and move. I find it salutary and inspiring to see how our world differs from and yet is similar to the world of John Stephenson Rowntree (1859), George Fox (1652) and even Jesus of first century Nazareth. It is tempting to call for a return to the basics of Christianity, or early Quakerism. But on examination one often finds the retreat is fuelled by a sentimentality and romanticism that never existed.


Jesus of Nazareth, as an historical person, was probably a carpenter, in a fishing village of a country under Roman domination with a strong culture of resistance to authority. As a carpenter he was highly skilled builder of boats, houses, furniture and other tools an implements – not unlike the village carpenter described by Walter Rose1 - a technologist, tradesman and community leader of his day. Even in medieval Britain the carpenter was the site manager as well as a craftsman in his own right. Just because we look on carpenters as of no account, it would be misleading to think of Jesus in the same terms.

We think of Palestine of the first century as a poor culture with people living in mud huts. My visits to the Tepee of Native American Indians and to the modern cave dwellers in Southern Spain showed me that our stone-age and agrarian ancestors were far from poor in culture. Furthermore first century Palestine lay at the heart of the trading and technology world, in the area where our Neolithic ancestors developed the innovation of agriculture that made our present world possible.

The Romans in their excesses have received a bad modern press and yet much of our present world owes its existence to the technology, and culture that they left us. While they took control by brutal conquest and exacted tribute, yet they ruled benignly and with tolerance, especially of indigenous religions, and brought the stability needed for good business and cultural advancement.


Quakerism was born in a time of political turmoil, religious ferment and economic hardship after years of civil war. The old established philosophy and traditional certainties were rejected and replaced, per force with individual responsibility and determinism, as common men began to think for themselves. Medieval ways of thinking had been thrown off but the new understandings of Science and the achievements of technology were still to come. Society was small and communities were very much face-to-face groups.

George Fox reviewed the sects of his day, studied the Bible, talked with priests and ministers of religion, and finally consulted his own inner leadings. He offered a way of equality before God, and direct access to God. He placed responsibility for each person’s salvation in that person’s own hands. In short he offered personal individual control in the face of the uncertainties of the time. This brought early Quakers into direct conflict with the authorities since Quakers challenged the civil and religious authorities.

Quakerism endured where other sects of the time faded away, in part because it spoke to the condition of the time, in part because it provided a unique form of worship and in part because George Fox and Margaret Fell laid down an effective system of governance and management in the business method, the travelling ministers and the care of those who were suffering. The focus of early Quakers on the social ills of their time in health, prisons, industry, education and so on, not only focused Friends’ minds and fired their enthusiasm, it gave clear benefits to society at large and, in time, earned Quakers much respect for their integrity and good service.

By the mid nineteenth century the movement was in crisis. Not from outside pressures but from its very success. The harsh discipline, born of seventeenth century Presbyterianism and Puritanism was proving too much. From early times Quakers had kept records of their numbers and activities. John Stephenson Rowntree was able to analyse this data using the (irreligious?) methods of science and mathematics (statistics to you and me). The end result, 30 years later, was a change in the rules for disownment.

In 1652 the world was very different from today. The Royal Society was still to be founded and science as we know it did not exist. Democracy (in Britain) and communism were not yet invented. The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions had barely started. Most people still lived and worked on the land. Education was usually through apprenticeship to a master tradesman or going into service as page or handmaid. The greatest furore was due to the translation of the Bible into English and its dissemination through printing in the previous century and the work of the Lollards. People, especially Quakers, were challenging the authority of the Establishment and especially the Church.

Then society was stable and structured. Most people knew who they were and knew their place in society. Life was hard but straightforward. Everyone was part of a group, a team, cooperation was not an option, it was part of the fabric of life. The execution of the King and the consequent loss of divinely authorised, kingly governance was still to prove a dire threat to that structure.

Even when making strategic decisions, for most people the information was readily to hand. People knew each other and were part of the same day-to-day community. The further down the pecking order you were the less responsibility you had. So when it came to making collective decisions Quakers well understood what it meant to ‘come with heart and mind prepared’ to a ‘Meeting for Worship for Business’ in which they waited in silence and ministry for the Clerk to discern the sense of the Meeting’ as to the will of God on the matter before them.


In 1859 John Stephenson Rowntree, at 24, won an essay competition that inspired the present competition. His world was of Victoriancolonialism at its height, The Great Exhibition of 1851 celebrating English engineering, design and colonialism was less than a decade in the past. In spite of this Charles Dickens’ London was still a reality. Very different from George Fox’s world!


Since then Britain has changed dramatically. The significant events and experiences since then would include the events in this table.

Event Date
Science History massive explosion of understanding and professionalism since Second World War
Behaviourism early 20th century,
Modern Art – non-representative art exploring languages of experience 1860-1970
Slavery ended in USA 1865
Karl Marks Das Capital first volume published 1867
Psychology Wundt’s first psychology laboratory 1887
Cinema First film 1888
Wright Brothers first heavier-than-air flying machine 1903
Relativity published by Albert Einstein 1905
Model T Ford's mass-produced automobile 1908
Plastics Bakelite invented 1912
First World War 1914-18
Communist Revolution 1917
Prohibition in the USA 1919-1933
Roaring Twenties 1920s
Advertising in its modern form 1920s and 1950s
BBC Radio and later television broadcasting 1927
Stock Market Crash 1929
Television available in USA since 1930 and widely in England since the 1950s
Holocaust 1933-45
Colour photographyKodak colour film 1935
Second World War 1939-45
Electronic Computers 1940-45
National Education Act 1944
Atomic Bomb 1945
National Health Service 1946
First Man on the Moon Neil Armstrong 1969

There are many more people today that ever before and we now see the whole planet not just our family or village as our community. Today we have made individual freedom not just a right but a cult. With freedom comes choice, responsibility, accountability, insecurity, fear and anarchy.

The world in which I live and move and have my being is richer (in many meanings of that word), our understanding of our world is more complex, the relationships, issues and choices are more subtle, the propaganda more powerful. I can no longer assume that I know all I need to know, that I understand all that there is to understand, that I know everyone I need to know or that I can instantly and reliably appreciate the consequences of a decision before me. I could give up – and on some matters I do. But I can’t give up on decisions that are central to me or to those I care about.
What use is my Quakerism today if it gives me no help or support?


Many important things have not changed over many centuries. The poor and taxes are still with us. Social injustice, and abuse are still with us, sometimes in new forms. Crime and exploitation of the vulnerable are still with us.

It came as something of a shock to me to realise that for the last 20,000 years human behaviour has not really changed. Our social structures, cultures, crafts, science and technologies have changed, but us not at all. We value brutality and violence less and value tolerance and equality more and we care more about our environment than in the past but the underlying patterns and mechanisms of human behaviour and psychology have not changed in any perceptible way.


What of the future out there?

7.1 Doomsday scenarios are easy

It is easy to think of doomsday scenarios – indeed we are bombarded daily with messages of disaster, war, famine and abuse. We are constantly being told the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.
Global warming. Over next 20 years sea levels will rise reducing the amount of land and climate bands will move towards poles. The most vulnerable will suffer most.
Nuclear War. Threat of nuclear war and consequent nuclear fall out has not gone away although the immanent-ness has retreated from the time of the Cuban missile crisis – as North Korea’s recent test have shown.
• Dictatorship by stealth. The presidential style of Thatcher and Blair might develop by more stealth into a full dictatorship.
• Collapse of pension system. Following the global banking crisis (which might be repeated) the pension finds and schemes are already showing signs of strain.
• Failure of health and education systems. Both these systems are showing signs of increasing cost and declining standards of service.
• New technology. It is not difficult to see genetic engineering of humans, increased surveillance and analysis of individual lives.
• Collapse of consumerism. The collapse of our consumerism society is an unthinkable consequence of the failure of our financial and political systems when we can no longer buy what ever we want. As unthinkable as the fall of the aristocracy or slavery seemed in the colonials upper classes of the nineteenth century.
Day of the Triffids. Any one or combination of doomsday scenarios might cause the breakdown of law and order, government and security into individual anarchy, so powerfully depicted by John Wyndam.

7.2 More positive scenarios are more difficult

• We might solve the problem of supplying enough energy per person on the planet.
• We might solve the happiness and equality problem.
• We might solve the problem of feeding everyone on the planet.
• We might find cures for all our diseases.
• We might find a formula for justice for all and learn how to police our society with compassion and safety.
• We might learn how to live with out war and violence.


Does any of this have anything to do with Quakerism or does Quakerism have anything to say about it?
With this perspective in mind, I turned to the condition of Quakerism today in my experience.

(Words: 1855)

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