The Quaker movement in Wales

Friday 24 August 2012, 11:01

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The term 'Quaker' is the name given to members of the Religious Society of Friends, one of the most interesting and intriguing sects to emerge from the post-Civil War chaos of 17th century Britain.

The movement spread across the whole of the United Kingdom but, for a brief period at the end of the century, Wales seemed to be something of a haven for this persecuted and widely misunderstood group of devout men and women.

The original Quakers were a small group who broke away from the established Church of England, under the leadership of George Fox, a weaver's son from Leicestershire. Fox believed that it was possible to experience Christ without necessarily having the intercession or benefit of clergy – in effect a “priesthood of all who believed".

Persecution in the 17th century

In a time of religious fervour, such a belief system inevitably brought Fox and his followers into conflict with the established church and with central authority. Quakers were widely persecuted under the Clarendon Code, and laws such as the Quaker Act (1662) and the Conventicle Act (1664) were used to abuse, imprison and inhibit their movements.

Such persecution did not stop them following their beliefs. And it did not stop the movement growing either. It is estimated that by 1680 there were as many as 60,000 followers in Britain.

The name Quaker stems from the early days of the movement. In the opinion of some, it originates from a time when George Fox was brought before magistrates to be questioned about his beliefs and made them tremble at the word of the Lord.

Early Welsh Quakers

From the late 1650s onwards the movement spread quickly into Wales. In the early days the main spokesman was John ap John - he, like other Quakers, would have deplored use of the word Leader. John, a follower of the great Morgan Llwyd, was zealous in his belief that Christ himself was a proponent of the concept of universal priesthood.

Anti-slavery

Other famous Welsh Quakers included Richard Davies from Welshpool and Thomas Wynne of Caerwys. Like all of the Quakers they were adamant that slavery should be abolished and were equally clear that they would never fight in war. They refused to swear oaths, to pay tithes to support the church or doff their hats to supposed superiors.

The Quakers in America

With such beliefs, persecution was both inevitable and draconian. As a result, from the 1680s onwards many Quakers chose to leave Britain and start a new life in America. Many of them joined William Penn who was then trying to create an ideal society in what became Pennsylvania.

What that meant, of course, was that many of the more dynamic and forward-thinking Quakers left their native lands. This was particularly the case in Wales. According to the Encyclopaedia of Wales: "The Quaker cause in Wales fared so poorly in the 18th century that even its supporters referred to themselves as the 'remnant'."

Sweet success

There were successful Welsh Quakers, of course, people such as the Lloyd family from north Wales, iron masters who went on to found Lloyds Bank, but there were very few people of the significance of the great English Quaker merchants like Fry, Rowntree and Cadbury.

Pacificsm and anti-war

The Quaker movement in Wales experienced something of a revival in the years following World War One when their pacifism and anti-war stance gained them new adherents. During the Depression the Maes yr Haf settlement at Trealaw was established in the Rhondda.

The Quakers were an important part of social care provision in the 1920s and 30s, a time when there was little state intervention or help for people in desperate social and economic positions:

“Unemployment had been a real problem, especially in the Rhondda and south Wales. That's why the Quakers were there, to help relieve unemployment. The Settlement supplied all sorts of services such as crafts, dressmaking, Boys and Girls Clubs. It wasn't called social work at the time but Maes yr Haf became a centre for all sorts of activity. It was quite an outstanding example of service to others.” (Barrie Naylor, quoted in Wales at War, Gomer Press.)

These days there is little need for the Quakers to offer social care to the needy but Quakers still meet regularly in Wales, their meeting houses being unadorned and very simple. It is the same with their graveyards, having no ornate crosses or memorials, but being incredibly moving and atmospheric because of that.

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