Bill Walley gave the following invited talk to Staffordshire’s SACRE (Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education) at its meeting on 7th July 2005.
Background to Quakerism
Quakerism was founded in 1652 by George Fox who preached a very simple but radical Christian message – he encouraged people to listen to the spirit in their hearts and obey its guidance in their daily lives. They called themselves ‘Friends of the Light’ but became known by the nickname Quakers, a name that was first conferred on George Fox by Justice Bennett in 1650 when Fox told him to tremble at the word of the Lord. This name is now synonymous with our formal name – the Religious Society of Friends. Fox taught that the spirit, which had inspired the writing of the scriptures, was still working and living in the hearts of men and women, ready to reveal fresh truths. He taught his followers to “Be still and cool in your own mind and spirit from your own thoughts, and then you will feel the principle of God turn your mind to the Lord.” They met in their own houses in silent worship, seeking God’s guidance, without creed, ritual or designated Minister. This inner, mystical approach to religion has led to many spiritual insights which Quakers still hold dear today and have documented in our book ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ Our peace testimony, our social witness and our willingness to draw inspiration from many sources, including the teachings of other faiths, all stem from such leadings of the spirit. We have no formal statements of belief, and belief is rarely if ever discussed, since ours is essentially an experiential religion. Newcomers to Quakerism often find this difficult to come to terms with, since for many it requires a change of mindset. The long silence can also be challenging to some. Thus, we encourage newcomers to attend Quaker meetings for some considerable time before applying for membership. We do, however, have a set of ‘Advices & Queries’ that offer guidance on the Quaker way of life.
Most Meetings for Worship are now held in purposed-built Meeting Houses, or hired halls, but a few are still held in dwelling houses. The meeting room is set out with seats or benches in a square or circle around a central table on which is placed copies of the Bible, Quaker Faith and Practice and the Advices and Queries, for use during meeting if so required. We worship in silence for one hour, but if anyone feels so moved by the spirit to minister or read to the meeting he or she may do so. One or two such contributions are quite normal, but totally silent meetings are also quite common. We have no Ministers, but we appoint, for three year terms, Elders (who are responsible for fostering our spiritual life) and Overseers (who are responsible for fostering our social life). In the 1980s, small groups of Friends worldwide, but especially in Britain, recorded the history of Quakerism on 77 tapestry panels, which are now on public displayed at Kendal MH.
The Present Situation in Staffordshire
In Staffordshire, there are presently seven Quaker meeting, which in order of decreasing size are Wolverhampton, Stafford, Uttoxeter, Stoke, Stone, Lichfield and Leek. The Meeting Houses at Leek, Stafford and Uttoxeter are historic purpose-built buildings. Wolverhampton has a modern purpose-built Meeting House, and Stoke has a purpose-converted building, while Stone and Lichfield use hired premises. These seven meetings make up Staffordshire Monthly Meeting, so named because it meets monthly, in a spirit of worship, to discuss business matters (e.g. Reports from conferences and committees, membership matters, finances etc.). Each of the seven individual meetings send representatives to the Monthly Meeting. Monthly Meeting in turn sends representatives to the various committees of our national body (known as Britain Yearly Meeting – because it holds a yearly meeting which is open to all Quakers in Britain).
Brief History of Meetings in Staffordshire
In the late 17th century there were some 140 Quaker families in the whole of Staffordshire attending meetings in dwelling houses in Leek, Keele, Stafford, Uttoxeter, Lichfield, Tamworth and Wolverhampton. In those days the Staffordshire Moorlands were the real stronghold of Quakerism in the county, with about 200 people attending various meetings in private houses. Although the remoteness of the area is thought to have provided some safety from persecution, James Brindley’s Quaker grandparents, Henry and Alice Bowman from Alstonfield, suffered much for their faith, including a period of imprisonment.
Quakerism was also quite strong in the Uttoxeter, where it is recorded that some 20 families were attending meetings.
In 1685, one such family, Walter Pixley, his wife and daughter Martha, were imprisoned in Stafford Gaol along with may other local Quakers. All suffered severe hardship at the hands of the brutal gaoler, but were eventually released after the Pixley’s non-Quaker daughter Mary, a young woman whom they had adopted as a baby when she was abandoned by her mother, rode to London to see William Penn. He got her an audience with King James II, who subsequently ordered the release of the prisoners and dismissed the gaoler. The Pixley’s later sailed to Pennsylvania with William Penn.
Staffordshire’s first purpose-built Meeting House was built at Leek in 1697.
In the early 18th century, when the persecutions had ceased, two new Meeting Houses were built, one at Uttoxeter in 1706 and the other in Stafford in 1730. However, after been relieved of the hardship of persecution, Quakers gradually became rather introspective and exclusive – a trend which George Fox’s widow did much to oppose. This, together with mass emigration to America, led to a prolonged period of decline. Records of Quakers in Lichfield disappeared in the early part of the century, and a new group in the Burton area ceased to exist by the middle of the century.
The 19th century was a difficult period for Quakerism in Staffordshire. There was further decline in some of the old centres, faltering growth in others, but significant growth in a new centre. Wolverhampton meeting closed in 1806, but it was revived 90 years later. Leek Meeting House closed in 1848, re-opened 1880, but closed again 16 years later, when it was leased to the ‘William Morris Labour Church’. A Quaker meeting was re-established in Lichfield in 1816, but close 13 years later. The Uttoxeter meeting declined to just three Quaker families by 1812, but it survived for another 75 years before the Meeting House was closed and subsequently leased to various individuals. However, a Quaker meeting was established in Stoke in 1831 and this grew in the second half of the century to become the largest meeting in the county. Records show that by 1867 there were only 44 members and 15 attenders in the whole of Staffordshire, but that 30 of the 44 members were in Stoke.
At the start of the 20th century Quakerism became more open and liberal, and numbers started to increase. The re-established meeting at Wolverhampton grew to be the largest in Staffordshire. The Uttoxeter Meeting House was re-opened in 1922 and has remained so ever since. In 1926 a meeting was re-established in Burton, and an old brewery office was converted to a Meeting House, but in 1975 it was sold and the Burton Friends were united with the Uttoxeter meeting. In 1939 the Leek Meeting House was re-opened as a Quaker meeting, and has remained so ever since. The Stone meeting (of which I am a member) was establish in 1978. For several years we met in the home of two local Friends, but then we moved for several years to a room in St Dominic’s Priory before returning to the Friends’ home while we sought more permanent accommodation. Two years ago we moved to rooms in the restored Victorian Railway Station in Stone, which has proved ideal for our purpose, despite the high speed trains. Finally, in 1993 a Quaker meeting was re-established in Lichfield.
Our current membership for the whole of Staffordshire is about 150 members and 140 attenders. Wolverhampton is still our largest meeting and Leek our smallest. Although there has been some decline in membership over the past 30 years, we seem to have more attenders nowadays, possibly due to the changing nature of our membership. An increasing percentage of our members are ‘convinced’ Quakers not ‘birthright’ Quakers. That is, they were not born into Quakerism but joined in later life. In addition, we now have some members and attenders who are also members of other faiths (e.g. within Britain YM there are Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists).
Clearly, Quakers in Staffordshire showed resilience in surviving the 19th century, but if we are to survive the 21st century, I feel we will need to find a more effective means of outreach that is consistent with our aversion to proselytising.
Bode H. (1999) “James Brindley” Shire Lifelines.
Brayshaw A. N. (1969) “The Quakers: Their story and message” Paperback edition, Friends Home Service Committee.
Britain Yearly Meeting (1994) “Quaker Faith and Practice”
Skellam L. (2005) “Quakers in Leek”, Staffordshire Quaker, Spring 2005.
Stuart D. & Kent W. E.(1976) “The Quaker Meeting House, Uttoxeter, Staffordshire”, Dept. of Adult Education, University of Keele.