The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Friends or Quakers, emerged from the religious turmoil of the 1650s as a denomination which sought a direct relationship with the divine without the mediation of paid clergy. By 1940 there were 20,000 members in Britain; today there are 14,000, and 300,000 worldwide. Many people are closely associated with the Society without becoming full members.
Respecting ‘that of God’ in everyone leads Quakers to pacifism and humanitarian service in time of conflict and war, and drew Friends into campaigning against slavery soon after the Society had been founded. Work for human rights and on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers springs from the same commitment.
Since the Peace Declaration of 1661, an important element of Quaker faith has been the ‘denial of all outward wars and strife’. Those registering as conscientious objectors during the First and Second World Wars were summoned to attend a tribunal, whose role was to assess the sincerity of individual applications. Imprisonment faced those who refused the tribunal’s decision, and thousands experienced harsh custodial conditions in the First World War. This earlier suffering contributed to more sympathetic treatment in the Second World War.
Quakers were not the only people to claim conscientious objection, although Friends were the only denomination to set up a service organisation committed to pacifist principles and open to all. Both Quaker service bodies – the Friends
Ambulance Unit and Friends Relief Service – sought to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars’, and to remove the causes of future conflicts through the service which they gave to victims.
The Society continues to work for a more peaceful world through active mediation and pressing for disarmament, and the promotion of programmes which can bring about social justice and sustainable development.