Poll reveals mixed public perceptions of Britain's Quakers

By staff writers
December 6, 2009

A major study of public perceptions of Quakerism in Britain has produced mixed results, with large numbers of people having heard of Quakers but with some confusion over basic questions of identity.

The survey, which was carried out by an independent polling company using a representative sample, was commissioned by the Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, in an attempt to target their outreach more effectively.

Over three quarters (77 per cent) of respondents said they were “aware” of Quakers. Only 6 per cent thought that Quakerism had died out.

When asked a series of questions about Quakers, 60 per cent accurately identified Quakers as “a pacifist organisation”, while 33 per cent disagreed with the description. Thirty six per cent agreed that the Quakers are involved in social action.

But certain aspects of the poll results have caused some disappointment in Quaker circles, particularly the discovery that 52 per cent of people think that they “interpret religion in a very strict way”.

However, the implications of this may depend on whether respondents associated the word “strict” with narrow-mindedness or rather with a high level of commitment. Respondents were split roughly equally when asked if Quakers “interpret the Bible in a very liberal way that relates to today’s world”.

Twenty three per cent of those questioned regarded Quakers as a “closed” religious group, with 39 per cent disagreeing and 38 per cent saying they did not know. In reality, Quaker Meetings for Worship are open to anyone and a large percentage of British Quakers have joined the movement as adults.

The mixed results have already prompted some Friends to call on the Society to give greater priority to outreach at both national and local levels.

There are over 20,000 Quakers in Britain, but numbers have been declining in recent years. The international situation is more promising for the group, with over 300,000 throughout the world.

Quakerism began in England in the mid-seventeenth century, when it built on a number of radical religious and political tendencies in the aftermath of the English Civil War. While it is a basically Christian movement, Quakers have a distinctive interpretation of Christianity, with a focus on God’s inward presence in every individual. In recent decades, a number of British Quakers have chosen to avoid the word “Christian” when describing their religious identity.

Central to Quakerism is the notion of Testimony, a way of witnessing to inward experience of God’s love and truth through a way of living. This involves a commitment to particular forms of Testimony – such as peace, equality and simplicity – through both everyday life and political activism.

Full details of the poll results can be found on the website of The Friend magazine, at http://thefriend.org/uploads/Quaker_Presentation_1109.pdf.

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