Quaker History

Since its founding by George Fox in 17th-century England, the Religious Society of Friends – also known as Quakers – has been linked to specific social concerns including racial justice, peace and reconciliation, prison reform, health care, and human rights. Early Friends were largely religious dissidents and nonconformists, who emerged out of the larger Puritan movement protesting England’s rigid class society and the authoritarian powers of church and state. During this tumultuous century, hundreds of radical religious sects formed, although almost all ended with the death or demise of the religious founder. The Quakers were the exception, based primarily on the organizational structure developed by George Fox and his wife Margaret Fell, also a key figure in early Quakerism. Much of this structure continues today.

Although Quakers have always been well known for their social concerns, less well known is the prowess of early Quaker business leaders. Several Quaker families from that time formed an illustrious list of “Who’s Who” in England’s business community, including such names as Rowntree, Cadbury, Barclay, Lloyd, Gurney, and Clark. These immensely successful English industrialists and their families poured their good fortunes back into their communities in the form of social services at a time when the socio-economic dichotomy between the rich and poor was great. In addition to being good stewards, they provided unique leadership among the “Captains of Industry” by offering decent housing and services to their workers. Education as well became a cornerstone of Quaker excellence and belief in equality, as both girls and boys were admitted to most Quaker schools. In the United States, colleges or universities of Quaker origin include Haverford, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Earlham, Guilford, George Fox, Malone, and Johns Hopkins, among others.

Today, there are fewer than 400,000 Quakers worldwide, which makes them considerably smaller than most religious groups. Although this has been true from the start, the impact of Quakers as a social force has always outweighed their numerical strength.

The Roots of Right Sharing of World Resources

In 1967, the Fourth World Conference of Friends of the Religious Society of Friends was held in Guilford, North Carolina. At that time it approved three minutes: “The Vietnam War”; “Friends’ Response to Racial Conflict”; and “People, Food and the Sharing of Resources – A Vision for the Future.” It is this third minute that led to the formation of the Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR) program, which became a committee of FWCC (Friends World Committee for Consultation). It was funded originally by an appeal to Friends worldwide to contribute one percent of their income to right sharing. Recognizing that most of the world lives in poverty, this appeal was also aimed at increasing the general awareness among Friends that they needed personally to address the inequity of wealth in the world. It was important to remember that, if we felt personal abundance and understood that it was our good fortune simply to have been born in a particular region or country that offered more prosperous opportunities, we had an obligation to address this inequity. Indeed, imbalance of wealth is recognized by bodies such as the United Nations and the Bill Gates Foundation as a source of poverty in most countries of the world. What can we do, and what can we share? Addressing this question is consistent with the history of Quaker social action.

Based on a budget of $50,000, early projects focused on “programs designed to stimulate economic and social development, and to release greater human potential in developing countries.” They were originally in India, Guatemala, and Zambia. Later Right Sharing went into Kenya, which has the most Quakers of any single country in the world, as a result of Quaker initiatives beginning in 1902 that led to the establishment of schools and health clinics. (etc.)  It was also agreed early on that, in addition to funding projects, RSWR would engage in educational programs in the US to encourage discussion and understanding of how the imbalance of world wealth has long-term negative outcomes for public policy and economic development. 

Over time RSWR became sustainable enough that, by 1999, it moved out from under the umbrella of FWCC, developed its own 501(c)3 status, and continued its work of granting micro-credit to women’s self-help groups often ignored by large donors. Working in close partnership with our beneficiaries, Right Sharing has reached over 12,000 women and their families. Projects are currently focused in Africa and India. While we have moved from our original headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Richmond, Indiana, we have not deviated from our commitment to share our great abundance with those who have very little.