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History of Quakers and human rights

One of the founding principles of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was the recognition that every member of society is unique and their life must be valued. This quickly led Quakers to take radical positions based on their spiritual experience, such as opposition to war and the death penalty.

These ideas led to a wide range of practical protects undertaken by members of the Society, such as the first attempt at mental health care, in the house of John Goodson in 1673, and late the first mental health hospital, ‘the Retreat’, which was established in 1796 and continues its work today.

Another well known example is Elizabeth Fry who led campaigns for improved detention conditions in Britain in the 19th Century. She later also advised on prison regimes in France, Germany, Italy and Russia. In recognition of the impact of her work her image could be found on British £5 notes for many years. Today, Quakers continue to be active as prison chaplains, prison visitors and campaigners for reform of immigration detention.

Michael Bartlet, former Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for Quakers in Britain, has written, “An early conception of human rights is implicit in the seventeenth century political and religious experience of Friends. Such rights are inherent in the ‘neighbour principle’ as a source of social responsibility, common to world faiths.” Some Quakers have also been influenced by the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn who has argued that Buddhism focus on personal liberation through the cycle of life, should today be understood as a requirement for work to bring about social liberation for all people.

Around the world Quaker organisations are working to promote and protect human rights. This includes peacebuilding efforts by Kenyan Friends, and the Sanctuary Everywhere programme led by American Friends Service Committee in the US. The work of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva has also included a human rights programme for many decades, positively affecting global discussions on child soldiers, conscientious objectors to military service and the children of prisoners.



1650s – The Quaker movement begins in Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, working for peace, simple living and equality between all people.

1750s – Quakers begin campaigning against the Atlantic slave trade.

1790s – Quakers establish new centres for adult education, as well as a humane and progressive mental health hospital in the city of York.

1810s – Quakers begin work to improve prison conditions. Prison reform has been a major element of Quaker campaigning ever since.

1930s-40s – Quaker famine relief efforts in Europe, and evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi Germany. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief becomes Oxfam. Quakers are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

1960s – Quakers help found Amnesty International, promote racial equality and encourage more acceptance of same-sex relationships – one of the first faith groups to do so.

1970s – Quaker Houses are established in Belfast to promote reconciliation and peace, as well as in Brussels to bring Quaker values to the European institutions – work which continues here today.

1990s – Quaker representations to the United Nations in Geneva and New York help develop the Landmine Ban Treaty.