In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Quakers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Reference Resources
  • Primary Sources and Documentary Collections
  • Quaker Origins
  • English and Atlantic Contexts
  • European Connections
  • Interdisciplinary Perspectives
  • Biographical Studies
  • Women, Gender, and Family
  • Slavery and Antislavery
  • Benevolent Activism
  • Pacifism

Atlantic History Quakers
John Smolenski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0092


The Society of Friends, colloquially known as the Quakers, played a major role in shaping the religious culture of the Atlantic world. Emerging during the religious upheaval of the Interregnum period, the Society had its roots in George Fox’s itinerant ministry in the late 1640s; by 1652 a religious movement had coalesced under the leadership of Fox, Margaret Fell, and James Nayler, among others. Quakerism had ties to other contemporary groups, most notably the Seekers and Baptists, as some individuals moved from sect to sect during this tumultuous era. The development of an organized Meeting structure during the 1650s, however, solidified a distinctive Quaker identity among Friends. The Society of Friends was the largest Nonconformist denomination in England at the time of the Restoration, boasting as many as forty thousand adherents in 1660. It launched extensive missionary efforts during the 17th century, sending ministers throughout the Americas, continental Europe, and even the Middle East. Though their efforts in the Mediterranean bore little fruit, networks of Quaker itinerants established communities in Germany and the Netherlands. Moreover, Friends played a disproportionate role in Atlantic colonization. Seeking a refuge from English persecution, Friends took the lead in the creation of New Jersey and Pennsylvania while maintaining significant numbers in Rhode Island and Barbados. By the late 17th century, however, the Society had begun to take a “quietist” turn, eschewing evangelical efforts to seek new converts; it relied instead on birthright membership to maintain its numbers. In the 18th century, Friends played a leading role in social reform movements, most particularly as leaders in the antislavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic. They also established missions to improve the conditions for Native Americans and worked on behalf of prison reform. Frequently persecuted in Britain and America, Quakers were notable—if not notorious—for a number of reasons. Their fight against the Church of England challenged the boundaries of religious establishment, while their embrace of pacifism after the Restoration caused many to doubt their patriotism during Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the Seven Years’ War, and the American Revolution. Meanwhile, the active role women played in the Society as ministers challenged gender hierarchies. Finally, their embrace of a distinctive “plain style” that included unorthodox modes of dress and speech aroused controversy as well. Scholarship on early modern Atlantic Quakers has covered a wide range of topics, as scholars have used this minority denomination to explore broader issues in Atlantic history and culture.

General Overviews

No modern general overview of the Society of Friends in the early modern Atlantic exists. In the thoroughness of their research and the clarity of their prose, William Braithwaite’s studies still offer the best narrative of 17th-century Quakerism, with Braithwaite 2008a covering the period from the Society’s origins through the Restoration and Braithwaite 2008b covering the period between 1660 and roughly 1720. The author adopts an internal perspective, stressing the importance of developments within the movement over external factors in the Society’s history. These volumes still represent unparalleled research into the Society’s founding years. Nonetheless, the richness of Braithwaite’s institutional story sometimes comes at the expense of deeper analysis or efforts at situating the Society’s development in a broader British context. Barbour and Frost 1988 also serves as a useful introduction, offering a straightforward and detailed account of the Society of Friends over two centuries. Jones 2004 represents a dated but still useful examination of early Quakerism in North America, while Hamm 2003 offers the most up-to-date examination of the history of the Society of Friends in colonial British America and the United States from its first arrival through the present day. Ingle 1997 suggests that Quaker history might best be served by adopting a less parochial point of view. He notes that some of the more innovative work in the 1970s and 1980s done on early Friends was written by scholars influenced more by Marxist social history than by more traditional denominational historians (see English and Atlantic Contexts and Quaker Origins).

  • Barbour, Hugh, and J. William Frost. The Quakers. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

    Written by a historian of American Quakerism and one of English Quakerism, this history of the Society of Friends from its origins to the present provides a useful overview of the denomination. It is a handy reference for nonspecialists seeking to get acquainted with the Society’s development over time.

  • Braithwaite, William C. The Beginnings of Quakerism. 2d ed. Prepared by Henry J. Cadbury. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008a.

    The first volume of Braithewaite’s two-volume history, covering the years between the Society’s founding and the Restoration. Though dated, it remains an essential starting point for those studying Quaker history. Adopting a narrative rather than analytic approach, the author traces the movement’s history from radical sect to quietist denomination. First edition published by Cambridge University Press in 1912.

  • Braithwaite, William C. The Second Period of Quakerism. 2d ed. Prepared by Henry J. Cadbury. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008b.

    Following Braithwaite 2008a, this second volume covers the period between the Restoration through the early 18th century. A crucial work for those examining the decades in which Quakerism adopted a quietist rather than evangelical pose. First edition published by Cambridge University Press in 1919.

  • Hamm, Thomas D. The Quakers in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. .

    Though it extends well beyond the period of this bibliography, this book offers the best single-volume history of the Society of Friends in colonial Anglo-America and the United States from first settlement to the present day. It is an excellent starting place for readers’ interest in the most current interpretations of Quaker history.

  • Ingle, H. Larry. “The Future of Quaker History.” Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society 58.1 (1997): 1–16.

    This article urges Quaker historians to cast their net more broadly, focusing less on the internal history of the Society of Friends and more on placing Friends within their social, political, and cultural context. It provides a detailed overview of major trends in Quaker historiography from the 1960s through the 1990s.

  • Jones, Rufus M. The Quakers in the American Colonies. Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2004. .

    This narrative study still provides the most comprehensive look at Quaker settlement throughout colonial Anglo-America. Though somewhat dated in its analysis, it still provides a useful overview of colonial Friends throughout all Britain’s colonies. Originally published by Macmillan in 1911.

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