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38

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

QUAKER MEETING

HOUSES IN BRITAIN

Marion Barter, Ingrid Greenhow and Linda Monckton

T

HE QUAKER movement had its

origins in the religious and political

turmoil of the mid-17th century.

George Fox, from Leicestershire, became

the main protagonist of the movement,

turning his back and pouring scorn on

the established church. Fox claimed that

each person can have a direct relationship

with God, so there was no need for priests

or churches (or ‘steeple houses’, as Fox

dismissively called them). From around

1647 he travelled on foot as an itinerant

preacher and, during a journey to the

North of England, he met groups of

Seekers or Separatists, who were already

open to new ideas. The term Quaker was

first used in about 1650 and Quakers –

formally, the Religious Society of Friends

– are also known simply as Friends.

The movement emerged in 1652,

when large gatherings heard Fox speak in

the open air in Cumbria and Yorkshire,

on hillsides such as Firbank Fell near

Sedbergh, places which are arguably

as important to Quaker heritage as

the meeting houses built later in the

17th century. Fox, who recorded his

journeys and beliefs in a series of journals

published in the 1670s, observed that

‘the ground and the house were no

holier than another place’. Early Friends

met together in silent worship in barns,

orchards, on hilltops and in each other’s

homes. Intolerance and persecution were

constant threats to the ability of Quakers

to meet. Such persecution affected all

those of faith who chose not to conform

to the established church, but Quakers

were singled out in 1662 by the passing

of the

Quaker Act

, which led to further

imprisonments simply for attending

Quaker meetings. The level of persecution

led some Quakers to leave England for

America where, in 1681, Pennsylvania was

founded by the Quaker William Penn.

Brigflatts Meeting House (1675, Grade I), on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales (Photo: Andrew Green)