The Quakers emerged as one of the most durable of the many offshoots of Christianity that arose during the ferment of the Civil War in the 17th century. Persecution appeared only to strengthen their resolve to ‘speak truth to power’ and oppose what they regarded as immoral laws. They dispensed with the outward symbols and structures of mainstream Christianity, meeting together to worship in silence in the belief that everyone possesses the ability to know God directly. Although Quakers possess no creed or formal statement of belief, they have ‘testimonies’ (guiding principles of truth, equality, peace, simplicity and community). These initially acted as a strict demarcation from the outside world, but were later interpreted as a guide to ethical engagement with society.
The role of women in the Quakers
From the first, the Society professed a belief in the equality of men and women. From the early period into the 19th century, this often appeared to be nominal – although, the author points out, there has been a long tradition of women participating in church affairs and in other Quaker, or Quaker-inspired, activities (the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, for example). The 19th century saw a move away from the more conservative, male-dominated approach of the 18th, and by the 20th century the high level of women’s involvement in the Quaker tradition of service was undeniable.
The Quakers in South Africa
The presence of Quakers in South Africa can be traced back to the 18th century. During the Boer War, their adherence to the peace testimony and the idea that ‘there is that of God in everyone’ led them to oppose the British colonial authorities: Quaker-influenced reports on the conditions the Boers suffered in the British concentration camps helped raise awareness of the brutality of the war. However, they exhibited a paternalistic attitude towards black South Africans; few raised their voices against the blatant prejudice written into the Act of Union instituted after the Boer War.
Quakers and racism
The pivotal role Quakers played in the abolition of slavery is well known, but the history of their opposition to racism was more equivocal. In the US, following the abolition of slavery, many Quakers failed to welcome those of African or mixed race heritage into their local communities, exhibiting a social prejudice that did not sit well with their belief in equality. The author suggests that the lack of an unbroken anti-racist tradition may have played a part in the problems South African Quakers have encountered in trying to attract more black members, despite their opposition to apartheid.