The good book? Elizabeth Coleman on Quaker history and the Bible

‘Truth is good for us.’

‘We have much to be proud of, and much to be ashamed of, and we can learn from both.’ | Photo: by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

History is important to Quakers. When we first become interested in Quakerism, we learn about George Fox and his contemporaries, and later of John Woolman, who campaigned against slavery in the eighteenth century. There are many things in Quaker history to make us proud: our peace work, our anti-slavery campaigning, and our humanitarian work during the Irish famine and in post-war Germany. Learning our history has inspired us to good work. But it has also perhaps led us to be a bit self-righteous and smug. The fact is that our history contains some shameful truths, and we are only now beginning to come to terms with them. For example, John Woolman was working against slavery within the Society of Friends, where enslavement was the norm, and where some Quakers were slave traders. The Bryant and May factory, where workers (those famous ‘match girls’) suffered appalling conditions including ‘fossie jaw’, was owned by Quakers. Even employers we consider benevolent, such as the Rowntrees and Cadburys, were importing raw materials produced by Africans who often had to work under horrific conditions.

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