Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Society of Friends in Canada


[This article was written in the 1930's and published in 1948. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

Friends, Society of. The Society of Friends had its origin in England in the seventeenth century, largely through the ministry of George Fox. His call to repentance was so insistent, that people quaked under his preaching, hence the term "Quakers," by which his followers have been known ever since. The movement early took root in the American colonies, and, in spite of persecution, prospered in New England and other districts.


The arrival of Friends into Canada may be said to date from 1776, when the American colonies became independent. The Society of Friends, in its opposition to war, could not in conscience take part in any military activity. Though the majority of the Friends remained in the United States, not a few found their way to Canada, only to be followed later by relatives and friends. Settlements were formed in the Maritimes and Lower Canada, but mostly in Upper Canada, the three main "quarters" being Pelham, Yonge Street, and West Lake. A few centres in Western Canada were occupied in later years, chiefly in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia.


When Friends began to migrate into Canada, the organization of the Society had become fixed. The unit of authority was the "Yearly Meeting", which exercised jurisdiction over a certain geographical area, and of which all Friends within that area were members. Subordinate Meetings had certain duties, but the Yearly Meeting was the final court of appeal and the interpreter of the discipline. The main testimonies to the "type of spiritual life", for which the Society stood, were "plainness of speech, behaviour and apparel," "refusal to take an oath," "immediate guidance by the Spirit of God", and the rejection of the external observance of baptism and of the Lord's Supper. A peculiarity of the Society was that it never had a formal creed; the main emphasis was placed on experience, rather than on doctrine. It was distinctly under the influence of the mystical movement known as "Quietism". Gradually, however, another influence began to appear, - the type of thought connected with the evangelical revival under the Wesleys, which, felt first in England, spread to the United States and to Canada. The conflict of these two schools split the Society in 1828 into "Orthodox" and "Hicksite", the former insisting on doctrinal soundness, the latter favouring certain latitude in thought and custom.


The year 1867 was Confederation year in Canada. The various Meetings of the Society were united in that year in the Canada Yearly Meeting. The simplicity of frontier life, to which Quakerism had been peculiarly adapted, was gone, and it found it difficult to adapt itself to new conditions. Nothing seemed possible but to try to preserve the ancient landmarks and to keep up the old traditions. Thus the inevitable occurred. Concerned mainly with internal affairs, a movement arose for the revision of the Society's discipline. Other matters also revealed strong difference of opinion. In 1881 the Society was impoverished by a further division -a division, which arose out of the controversy between Gurney and Wilbur, whose respective followers were known in Canada as "Progressives" and "Conservatives". Trouble arose between these two branches of Quakerism over West Lake property; resort was had to the courts, and in 1886 the Supreme Court of Canada awarded the property and the name of the Society to the Progressives. It was a lamentable affair, and both branches of Friends suffered material and spiritual losses.


In the earlier days the Friends maintained schools for their children, to which, however, other children were free to come; in them the boys and girls were educated on a somewhat high level, which with their strict moral discipline gave them later considerable influence in their community. 9f schools appealing beyond their own locality were the Friends' Seminary at West Lake (1841-69), the Rockwood Academy (founded in 1850, but closed a few years later), and Dickering College. The last-named was established at Dickering, Ontario, in 1878, through the influence of John R. Harris, of Rockwood; it was found necessary to close it for a time, but it was re-opened in 1892 with 95 pupils. In the Christmas vacation of 1905 disaster overtook it in the destruction by fire of its main building. The school has been rebuilt, not at Dickering, but at Newmarket, where it continues as a residential school for boys only, and as a centre of agricultural and industrial training.


Though never numerous in Canada, the Friends have always stood for virtues of sober, simple Christian living and character, and thus have left their impress in many a Canadian community. See A. G. Dorland, A history of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Canada (Toronto, 1927).


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College