What does Quakerism have to do with socialism?

Picture: Cover of ‘Britain’s First Socialists’ by Fenner Brockway, with a foreword by Tony Benn

This month, for the first time ever, a Quaker Meeting for Worship will be listed in the Labour Party Conference programme. In contrast to the usual format – with invited speakers and prepared speeches – most of the meeting will take place in silence. The only people to stand and speak will be those who feel inwardly moved in the moment.

For those familiar with more conventional arrangements, this will be new and unusual. But with the connections between Quakers and radicalism reaching back centuries, we might also ask what took so long. 

The seventeenth century radical groups of the English Revolution are often referred to ‘Britain’s First Socialists’ (see picture) as well as forerunners to modern movements for human rights and environmental justice. Amongst these were the Levellers who demanded political and civil liberties to be extended beyond the landowners and the Diggers who redistributed land through direct action.

Many Levellers and Diggers, including some of their most prominent spokespeople, went on to become Quakers, who were another emergent group of the time who believed that the equality they demanded in the world should be expressed in their faith communities too. As a testament to the divine equality of all people, they met without priests, without set sermons, and – perhaps most radically for their time– with the full expectation that women or men might equally speak their truth.

These actions were seen as revolutionary and were not welcomed by the political or church establishment. Quakers were persecuted remorselessly, especially after 1660 when Britain’s brief republic came to an end. Nonetheless, the movement continued to grow.

One of the first generation to grow up as part of this new faith community was John Bellers, who elaborated a reform of society that was distinctly ’socialist’ (although the word was not used until later). Bellers devised practical measures for a national system of hospitals, a system of local ‘colledges’ where people would have education and employment, and a continental body on which each country would have proportional representation, that would ensure peace in Europe. Socialists as different as Robert Owen, Karl Marx and Eduard Bernstein all read and referenced Bellers. The modern reader might recognise in Bellers’ ideas an anticipation of the NHS, the Welfare State and the founding ideals of the European Union.

Yet for all the fervour of their first earliest years, the Quakers began to look inwards. This was in part an act of self-preservation. It was also linked to a theological shift. The group had first blossomed in the belief that the egalitarian society described by Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth was imminent. In this state of being ‘The last would be first and the first would be last’. Yet a new order of merchant aristocrats and City financiers was now very much first, and that did not seem likely to change any time soon.    

So a period of ‘quietism’ began. If you have in your head any stereotypes about the peculiar customs of Quakers, the chances are that they stem from this time. Many Quakers wore ‘plain dress’ – typically grey so as not to be seen to be showing off. In continuity of a tradition begun by earlier Friends they addressed all in the familiar ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ rather than the formal ‘you’ in order to emphasise their commitment to equality.

The increasingly insular nature of the group also allowed for efficient community organising. The first British campaigns against slavery emerged at this time, with Quakers amongst the first groups of non-enslaved people to commit to the cause. Many of the female slavery abolitionists went on to become advocates for women’s suffrage, including Essex Quaker Anne Knight who wrote the first British pamphlet demanding the right to vote for women. 

Although no longer being imprisoned for their beliefs they were still barred from university. As a result many Quakers entered business. No longer in opposition to wealthy elites they increasingly became them, and instead of pursuing radical change channeled their efforts into less challenging philanthropy. As the industrial revolution took hold, the Quakers increasingly became separated from the working classes and their associated movements.

There were still some connections– for example a Quaker helped to finance Robert Owen’s attempt in New Lanark which modelled better conditions for workers and pioneered primary education. In Birmingham the Cadbury family built a village for their workers – a project that to some extent foreshadowed the Welfare State. In York Joseph Rowntree began funding studies into the systemic causes of poverty. Taken together though, the most prominent Quaker figures reflected a reforming wing of the wealthier classes rather then agitators for change from below. Occasionally, they were not even as enlightened as that – most notoriously at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow – and trades unions were formed to challenge their power.

Involvement in politics was still frowned upon by many in the Quaker community, and those who did become MPs tended to be industrialists with a liberal outlook. Nevertheless, they succeeded in being of use to the more radical movements. For example while John Bright MP, was not a prominent part of the Chartist movement, he spearheaded the campaign against the hated Corn Laws, and then later guided the Second Reform Act through parliament which extended the ballot to many working class voters, going some way to enacting the first of the Chartists’ demands.

In the late nineteenth century intellectual reading groups grew, from which emerged the Fabian Society, of which a Quaker – Edward Pease – was amongst thefounders. It took the birth of a radical Christian Socialism though, as represented by the charismatic working-class leader Keir Hardie, to bring the movements back together. Spurred an opportunity to enact the social gospel and Jesus’ teachings of peace, Quakers flocked to join the Independent Labour Party, and many ILP-ers in turn became Quakers.

The First World War helped cement this relationship, when the Quakers became one of the only British faith groups to oppose it and the ILP the only major British political group to do so. Prominent anti-war activists such as future Labour leader George Lansbury toured public meetings in Quaker Meeting Houses, which also provided much of the physical infrastructure of the No Conscription Fellowship.  The Cadbury and Rowntree families also provided financial support for one of the largest peace groups of the time, the Union for Democratic Control, headed by future Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, which called – prophetically – for peace terms that would not lead to another world war. 

The Quaker couple Ada and Alfred Salter were also active in opposing the war.‘Patriotic’ mobs attacked their meetings. Nevertheless, Ada – already co-founder and President of the Women’s Labour League -went on to become the first female mayor in London and the first female Labour mayor in Britain. From this position she devoted herself to improving housing provision and beautifying the city. Alfred – a doctor – treated poverty-stricken patients for free and imported into Bermondsey the latest medical clinics and facilities, creating in miniature an ’NHS before the NHS’. In 1922 he was elected as Labour MP for Bermondsey.

They suffered most for their peace activism – which is what Quakers are still probably best known for today, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, long supported by Quakers, to the coalition to stop the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which had its opening meeting at the giant main hall of the Quakers’ Friends House building in London. 

Each year (usually) in the same room, a lecture is given in honour of the Salters, organised by the Quaker Socialist Society. Often this has been given by a Quaker politician – such as Catherine West MP (2019), Molly Scott Cato MEP (2017) or Jude Kirton Darling MEP (2015). On other occasions it has been given by a thinker who shares Quaker values, including, in 2010, Tony Benn.

Writing in 2011 and reflecting on Quaker activism, Guardian columnist Anne Karpf shared her view that Quakerism is “more like a political movement or even party – a kind of wish-the-Labour-party-were-like-this party.” In this she was slightly wide of the mark. There are Quakers today of many political parties, and the UK’s parliamentarians currently include five Quakers in total, spanning the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour. The Quaker Socialist Society too is not party-political.

Yet there is also a commonality. The very foundations of Quakerism were moulded in opposition to the political establishment, as were the foundations of socialism. It’s true that on the whole socialist movements do not practice collective stillness. But perhaps that could change. After all, Quakers like to share.

So if you feel the need to sit quietly and prepare inwardly, at Conference this year or elsewhere, the doors of the Meeting House are open to you.

Stop Trump(ism)

Quaker Socialists at the Trump demonstration, 2018
Quaker Socialists on the march against Donald Trump

On Tuesday 4 June Donald Trump will be visiting Britain for a state visit. To mark the occasion, hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets to show that we reject the misogny, racism and climate denialism that he is a manifestation of.

Quaker socialists will meet at 11am by the steps of St Martins in the Fields church, near Trafalgar Square. It’s likely we’ll be there until around 12 before joining in with the wider movement. Look out for the Quaker Socialist Society banner.

We recommend bringing a drink, snack, suncream and hat (just in case). There is a co-op nearby, and there is a coffee shop (with toilets) in the crypt of the church.

We are not organising a Quaker Meeting for Worship this time, but if you need some quiet time, Westminster Friends Meeting House (3-5 minute walk) has its regular Tuesday Meeting for Worship from 13.00 – 13.30, see https://westminsterquakers.org.uk/ . There are also toilets there.

The Fellowship of Reconciiation and Peace Pledge Union will be meeting at the same location as us, and we are happy to be amongst friends.

We look forward to seeing you there

More info: https://www.stoptrump.org.uk/

Quaker Meeting during Labour Party Conference

The Quaker Socialist Society and Brighton Quakers extend a welcome all visitors to and residents of the Brighton area on 22 September.

Whether you are attending Labour Party Conference or not, you are invited to join us in stillness in a Meeting for Worship at 10.30am on Sunday morning at the Friends Meeting House, Ship Street, BN1 1AF, followed by refreshments. Everybody is welcome.

The Quaker Socialist Society provides fellowship and a forum for people who believe that political affairs are an essential part of Quaker life. We stand for ethical socialism, social justice and a fair, safe and peaceful world. We are not politically partisan.

This is the first time we have helped organised a Quaker Meeting during a party conference, and if it goes well it opens the possibility of organising others with other parties.

If this will be your first time at a Quaker Meeting, you might find the below video helpful, made by QuakerSpeak – a project of Friends Journal in the USA.

Quaker Socialist Society AGM

Our AGM will take place on Friday, 24 May 2019, at 3pm, at St Pancras Church Hall, Euston Road, London, just a few hundred yards away from Friends House

DRAFT AGENDA

  1. Minutes of the AGM held on 9 June 2018 (attached)
  2. QSS Committee report
  3. Appointment of Officers (see list overleaf)
  4. To agree a QSS constitution (draft attached)
  5. Membership subscriptions
  6. Revision of Quaker Faith and Practice – social testimony
  7. Future events
  8. Date and venue of next AGM

All are welcome to come, and if you are not a member of the Quaker Socialist Society yet, you can join on the day


Quaker Faith and Practice: a digital response

What we learnt when we posted Quaker Faith and Practice quotes on social media

The current edition of Quaker Faith and Practice (Photo: BYM)

Last year it was decided that Quaker Faith and Practice – the anthology of Quaker spirituality – would be revised beginning in 2019. There’s a substantial section in the middle of the book on social action in which Quaker Socialists take a special interest. So to start preparing our contribution to the process we tried posting a passage every day to the Quaker Socialist Society Facebook page along with a picture, to see what would happen.

There’s a difference between social media interactions and traditional Quaker discernment. Nevertheless, part of our politics is also based on participation. With around 1000 followers of the Quaker Socialist page, we were interested in what we’d learn by freely inviting people to ‘like’, comment or discuss in an open way. As it turned out we learnt a huge amount. Here are some of the headlines: 

There’s a lot of it

It took us from the start of the year to the middle of April to get through a single chapter (and it’s a 29 chapter book!). Interest dipped at times, and long verbose sections got very little traction at all. The length is potentially a problem if the book is to become something that a reader might peruse before coming to their first Quaker Meeting.

We could be much more feminist than this     

The most popular three quotes by individuals (rather than groups) are all by women: namely Ursula Franklin, Elizabeth Fry and Eva Pinthus. Nevertheless, despite being the chapter that explores women’s rights, only one in three contributors to the chapter is a woman, and in the first 30 entries only two women are featured at all. To make matters worse, too much of the language of the male writers suffers from being gendered.

For a faith group that is majority female and has a long association with feminism, we can do much better than this, and this revision is an opportunity to do so. 

We need to address white privilege  

Despite several passages about racism and privilege, and a section on the Quakers’ anti-slavery activism, as far as we know there are no quotes by non-white individuals at all in this chapter. In the context of live conversations about power and privilege in Britain Yearly Meeting, including whose voices are heard and whose voices aren’t, this must be an urgent wake-up call, through the revision process and beyond. We can do much much better than this.

In fact we need to address privilege in general 

Many of the contributions on poverty and unemployment come from those who seem to be richer, that exclude by implication some readers who are not. Although Quakers are known for philanthropy, many well meaning passages have not aged well, attracting such descriptions as ‘condescending’, ‘patronising’, and in some cases, even ‘uninformed’. This revision again offers a chance for reflection, and amending those sections that don’t represent who we would like to be.

We still love the classics

Our book is improvable – which is why we’ve decided to improve it. Even whilst acknowledging the problems though – for example of gendered language – some parts of it remain well loved classics.

The top ten most ‘liked’ quotations are listed here.

Top ten quotes from Quaker Faith and Practice

In light of the current review of Quaker Faith and Practice, for 103 days we posted the whole of the ‘social responsibility’ section of Quaker Faith and Practice on social media, one per day, inviting you to like and comment.

Now we’ve had chance to go through and compare, we can reveal the most popular ten quotes:

1.

“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.” – Ursula Franklin, 1979

2.

“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.” – Yearly Meeting in London, 1727

3.

“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’.” – Elizabeth Fry, 1827

4.

“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.” –
Eva I Pinthus, 1987

5.

“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.” – Joseph Rowntree, 1904

6.
“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.” – George Fox, 1668

7.

“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.” – William Penn, 1682

8.

“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.” – Harvey Gillman 1988

9.

“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.”
– Deborah Haines, 1978

10.

We are all the poorer for the crushing of one man, since the dimming of the Light anywhere darkens us all” – Michale Sorensen, 1986



Salter Lecture 2019 by Catherine West MP: Friday 24th May 2019

Catherine West MP will deliver the Quaker Socialist Society Salter Lecture 2019, at 12.30 on Friday, May 24, at the start of Yearly Meeting at Friends House, London.

The title of the Salter Lecture this year will be ‘Solutions for a Divided Society’ and it will be delivered by Catherine West, the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.

At a time when, after nine years of severe austerity, British society has become polarised not only between rich and poor but also between the socially disenfranchised and the metropolitan elites, Catherine will examine from a Quaker Socialist perspective the problems austerity has left us, and offer her own distinctive solutions.

Past Salter Lecturers have included Molly Scott Cato MEP, tax justice pioneer Richard Murphy and socialist campaigner and writer Tony Benn.  This year’s lecture will be introduced by Haifa Rashed.

To attend, visit the Yearly Meeting website. Although attendees at Yearly Meeting are usually either members or attenders of the Society of Friends (Quakers) you do not need to be a Quaker to attend the Salter Lecture.