Quaker Socialist Society submission to the Book of Discipline Revision Group

The collective book of testimony, Quaker Faith and Practice, is currently in the process of being updated. Following a process of conversations and discernment spanning more than a year, this is the Quaker Socialist Society’s submission to it.


The Quaker Socialist Society is a recognised group of Britain Yearly Meeting, the representative organisation for Quakers in Britain. QSS is not affiliated to any political party and is open to all those who on ethical grounds wish for an egalitarian, peaceful, green and democratic society. 

We aspire to encourage the practice of ethical socialism in everyday life, and organise the annual Salter Lecture, which is delivered as part of the Yearly Meeting programme. 

Quaker Socialist Society hopes that its objectives and activities will inform the spiritual and material development of Quakerism and bring Quakerism to the notice of the wider world. 

Revision of Quaker Faith and Practice 

We welcome the revision of Quaker Faith and Practice and are grateful for the opportunity to feed into it. We relish the prospect of a readable, user-friendly volume Friends could make available at events which explains to newcomers what Quakers are about and might interest readers in coming to further Quaker gatherings.   

In the spirit of participation and preparation, in the first months of 2019, we posted every single passage from the current ‘Social Responsibility’ chapter to social media, one per day, inviting people to ‘like’ or comment. From this we were able to identify some particularly popular quotes from the present version as well as some themes from the comments, in particular the current under-representation of women and people from ethnic minorities in the text. 

We also noted that some of the passages are overlong and that the political and social activity of the Society of Friends since 1919 could be better reflected. The trade union, anti-racist and feminist movements after 1919 are not referred to, but the anti-slavery, women’s suffrage and CO movements before 1919 are. This leads to a party-political bias, with Liberal MPs quoted but not Labour or Green. The suggestions that follow seek to address these observations. 


1. Audit of the current text.

We are aware it could be easier to find content to add than to cut, and don’t want to risk perpetuating this problem through this submission. 

We are also aware that, particularly in sections addressing – for example – inequality, a great deal of the current language has become rather dated, and can sound somewhat patronising – even condescending. There is also a significant amount of strongly gendered language, not reflective of the insights of feminism. 

Rather than suggest particular passages for removal we propose an audit of the current material, identifying any passages which don’t reflect our modern understandings of equality, and to prioritise these for taking out. 

We realise that this could imply the need to say a fond farewell to the ‘origins of a Quaker Social Order’ from the next iteration of QFP which while still inspirational in its message now appears sufficiently dated in its language that it may be ready for updating.

If this is too radical a suggestion then perhaps each chapter’s quotes could be laid out chronologically, demonstrating the evolution of Quaker thought.

2. History chapter 

The format of the current book as an anthology means that there are a number of longer passages which appear to have been included because of the history they convey rather than because of their spiritual content. We propose stripping these out, and replacing them with an introductory historical chapter, giving an overview of the Quakers’ development. 

In addition to the stories of Margaret Fell and George Fox, we hope that this might mention social radicals such as Gerald Winstanley and John Lilburne of the Diggers and Levellers respectively, both of whom went on to join the Quakers.

In the second generation we hope mention might be made of John Bellers who elaborated a Quaker reform of society which prefigured universal education, the NHS and the Welfare State. Bellers has been hailed as the first Quaker Socialist since, unlike Lilburne and Winstanley, he had an understanding of labour and a social programme to help the poor.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we hope the history chapter would include mention of moderate Quaker reformers such as Elizabeth & George Cadbury and more radical ones such as Ada & Alfred Salter. We also hope this will take a global perspective, rather than a narrowly British one.  

A history chapter would also provide a means for QFP to honour ‘friends of the Friends’ such as Sojourner Truth, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King among others, all of whom had close associations with Quakers and whose ministry has shaped the witness of our society significantly.

3. Social Responsibility 

The new Quaker Faith and Practice needs to be able to engage with people where they are, including online. This was part of our thinking in committing four months to online conversations about the section on Social Responsibility. Below these introductory comments are listed the ‘top ten’ most popular passages in order. 

Through this process we noted that only one in three contributors to the present social responsibility chapter is a woman, and that in the first 30 entries only two women are featured at all.  Despite this, the most popular three quotes by individuals (rather than groups) are all by women. We also note that some of these passages (E.g. William Penn 1682, Michael Sorensen, 1986) reflect the male-gendered language we have highlighted above as problematic. 

Searching for pictures of contributors revealed that, despite being the chapter that covers Quaker attitudes to tackling racism, not a single named contributor to this chapter at present is a person of colour. 

The following are the texts currently included in Quaker Faith & Practice which were most welcomed by our respondents. 

1 – Ursula Franklin, 1979 

“I have never lost the enjoyment of sitting in silence at the beginning of meeting, knowing that everything can happen, knowing the joy of utmost surprise; feeling that nothing is pre-ordained, nothing is set, all is open. The light can come from all sides. The joy of experiencing the Light in a completely different way than one has thought it would come is one of the greatest gifts that Friends’ meeting for worship has brought me.

I believe that meeting for worship has brought the same awareness to all who have seen and understood the message that everyone is equal in the sight of God, that everybody has the capacity to be the vessel of God’s word. There is nothing that age, experience and status can do to prejudge where and how the Light will appear. This awareness – the religious equality of each and every one – is central to Friends. Early Friends understood this and at the same time they fully accepted the inseparable unity of life, and spoke against the setting apart of the secular and the sacred. It was thus inevitable that religious equality would be translated into the equality of everyday social behaviour. Friends’ testimony to plain speech and plain dress was both a testimony of religious equality and a testimony of the unacceptability of all other forms of inequality.” 

2. Yearly Meeting in London, 1727

“It is the sense of this meeting, that the importing of negroes from their native country and relations by Friends, is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.” 

3. Elizabeth Fry, 1827 

“Much depends on the spirit in which the visitor enters upon her work. It must be in the spirit, not of judgment, but of mercy. She must not say in her heart I am more holy than thou, but must rather keep in perpetual remembrance that ‘all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God’.”

4. Eva I Pinthus, 1987

“The duty of the Society of Friends is to be the voice of the oppressed but [also] to be conscious that we ourselves are part of that oppression. Uncomfortably we stand with one foot in the kingdom of this world and with the other in the Eternal Kingdom.” 

5. Joseph Rowntree, 1904

“Much of current philanthropical effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness and evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes. The soup kitchen in York never has difficulty in obtaining financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support.”  

6. George Fox, 1668 

“Then I came to Waltham and established a school there for the teaching of boys, and ordered a women’s school to be set up at Shacklewell to instruct young lasses and maidens in whatsoever things were civil and useful in the creation.”  

7. William Penn, 1682 

“True godliness doesn’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it… Christians should keep the helm and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world and leave those that are in it without a pilot to be driven by the fury of evil times upon the rock or sand of ruin.” 

8. Harvey Gillman 1988 

“The word ‘testimony’ is used by Quakers to describe a witness to the living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based on the realisation that there is that of God in everybody, that all human beings are equal, that all life is interconnected.  

It is affirmative but may lead to action that runs counter to certain practices currently accepted in society at large. Hence a pro-peace stance may become an anti-war protest, and a witness to the sacredness of human life may lead to protests against capital punishment. 

These testimonies reflect the corporate beliefs of the Society, however much individual Quakers may interpret them differently according to their own light. They are not optional extras, but fruits that grow from the very tree of faith.” – 

9. Deborah Haines, 1978 

“I think I have wasted a great deal of my life waiting to be called to some great mission which would change the world. I have looked for important social movements. I have wanted to make a big and important contribution to the causes I believe in. I think I have been too ready to reject the genuine leadings I have been given as being matters of little consequence. It has taken me a long time to learn that obedience means doing what we are called to do even if it seems pointless or unimportant or even silly. The great social movements of our time may well be part of our calling. The ideals of peace and justice and equality which are part of our religious tradition are often the focus of debate. But we cannot simply immerse ourselves in these activities. We need to develop our own unique social witness, in obedience to God. We need to listen to the gentle whispers which will tell us how we can bring our lives into greater harmony with heaven.”  

10. Michael Sorensen, 1986

“We are all the poorer for the crushing of one man, since the dimming of the Light anywhere darkens us all”

4. Additions for consideration

We suggest the following passages for consideration as additions which could be included in the upcoming text. 

1. George Fox, 1659, translated into Modern English by Rex Ambler

Let all those abbey lands and glebe lands that are given to the priests be given to the poor of the nation, and let all the great houses, abbeys, steeple houses and the palace of Whitehall itself become houses for the care of the needy, or for some use other than they have now, so that the blind and disabled can go there. Let all these fines that get paid to the lords of the manors be given to poor people instead, for the lords have enough already. Let the poor, the blind and the disabled be provided for by the nation, so that there needn’t be a beggar in England.”

2. Anne Knight, anti-slavery activist and early campaigner for women’s right to vote.

“Brothers, if only your declaration of principles would proclaim loudly the complete abolition of all privileges of sex, or race, or birth, of caste and of fortune, you would soon see in your ranks women of spirit and intelligence who would uphold your heroic efforts and help you to triumph.” 

By linking the issues of race, wealth and gender she prefigured what might now be referred to as an intersectional approach.

3. Alfred Salter, 1914 

“Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into the body of a German workman.  See! The Son of God with a machine gun, ambushing a column of German infantry, catching them unawares in a lane and mowing them down in their helplessness.  Hark! The Man of Sorrows in a cavalry charge, cutting, hacking, thrusting, cheering.  No! No! That picture is an impossible one and we all know it!”

4. Bayard Rustin

“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so the wheels won’t turn” 

5. Barrington Dunbar, 1970 

“I can identify with Jesus, a man of deep commitment and with a revolutionary strategy, who gathered together a disciplined people in his effort to share with them his vision of the beloved community, of the Kingdom of God, freed from the barriers of race, clan or creed. 

I can identify with Jesus the revolutionary who was put to death on a cross because he proved to be a threat to the existing social order, as he sought to remove the barriers which separated Jews from Gentiles, the taxpayer from the fisherman. 

As I identify with Jesus the revolutionary, and with the historical circumstances of his human life, I see an example of a personal encounter through which God makes himself known”

6. The Quaker Women’s Group, 1986

“Wars are not isolated phenomena; there are ways of leading up to them and away from them, behaviour which provokes them and which calms or stops them. They are part of the human process of relationships on an individual, a national and an international scale” 

From the Swarthmore Lecture ‘Bringing the Invisible in to the Light\

7. Helen Steven, 2005

We can view Jesus’ whole ministry as a life lived in deliberate opposition to the domination of his time. It was not enough to show compassion for the poor and dispossessed, the whole system of oppression which left people in poverty and despair had to be challenged”.

8. Esther Mombo, 2006 

“Some readers have wondered whether the Bible can ever liberate women from a patriarchal, male-chauvinistic system of oppression…those who embrace a reader-centred approach – like most African women theologians would argue differently…Quakers included, African women have embraced the Bible and use it to analyse their particular situation of triple sexism: sexism in the African culture, sexism in the colonial culture, and sexism in the biblical culture…the Bible as such is not an instrument of oppression of women, but rather a lopsided interpretation of the Bible which has been vested with ulterior motives”

From ‘The Quaker Bible Reader’

9.  Vanessa Julye, 2019

Our past is not divorced from the present; we cannot fully understand and adequately respond to the racial injustices of the present without understanding racial injustices of the past. Many times, the racial discrimination or exploitation of the present is not a new creation but rather a redesigned extension of oppressive structures and beliefs of the past… 

In order to begin a journey of healing our trauma from racism, it will be important for us to know and understand our own individual cultural heritage. We also need to have an honest understanding of how our ancestors contributed to this world and undergirded the structure of white supremacy. Also, we need to understand how we continue to maintain vestiges of this structure in our behaviors today. It is only possible to change a system once you have a clear understanding of how it operates. Acknowledging the pain and celebrating the accomplishments will help us be able to transform members of our religious communities and eventually the inhabitants of the world into peaceful human beings.”

10. As our tenth proposal, we offer this array of quotations from Ada and Alfred Salter 

Alfred Salter: 

“You will only overcome force by love. (A silly, sloppy sentiment, you say!) You will only overcome arrogance by humility. You will only conquer brutality by kindliness. You will only supersede militarism by developing in the hearts of all peoples the spirit of brotherhood and forbearance; war does not do that. This war will not do that. It will leave behind a bitter heritage of hate to bear more fruit in due season.

“Let us not forget that Socialism is a great faith, prompted by a great religious motive, and inspired by a great humanitarian spirit… It is the greatest religious movement since the early days of Christianity.”

Ada Salter:

“We have had to ask ourselves whether it is any good making speeches and passing resolutions against war in general during a time of peace, if now, when the test has come, we are in favour of this particular war… We are always against the last war; we are always against the next war; but we are not against the present war.”

Ada Salter:

“Always act according to truth and principle and you will never feel anxious or distraught.”

Ada Salter:

“The cultivation of beauty should be considered a civic duty.”

She also said: “The cultivation of trees and flowers should be considered a civic duty.”

Ada Salter:

“If evil or wrong methods are deliberately adopted in order to gain quickly some desired end, that end if attained will never be worth the effort put forth, nor will the ideals for which you are striving be realised.”

Ada Salter: 

“When Trade Unionists fully realise that all workers, men and women, youths and maidens, are members one of another, then we shall hear more than the rumble of the revolution in the distance – the revolution will be here.”