History and Significance of Quaker Symbols in Sect Formation

Author: Thomas, Kathleen H.
This study presents a descriptive and analytical account of Quaker symbols, from their origins to the present day. The rejection of social norms is set in the context of 17th century Britain where it aroused the hostility of the state and people. It shows that symbols played a significant role in the formation of the sect out of an individualistic movement, and the structure of an organization which remains basically the same today and which continues to practice minimal ritual.


"Quaker, virtually since their seventeenth-century beginnings, have exercised a persistent fascination for those outside their fellowship. Their rejection of conventional civilities. . . their insistence, till very recent times, on plain speech. . . their adoption of distinctive plain garb; and their general rejection of pomp and ceremony, have served to set them apart from the generality of their fellow men. It is the cultivation of these symbolic gestures, their origin, and their eventual decay and abandonment, that form the substance of Kathleen Thomas's absorbing and excellent book. Culling from a wide range of sources of Quaker social history, Mrs. Thomas, in a richly illustrated text, explores these various practices and indicates their function in the boundary maintenance of a small, self-conscious sect. . . . she both paints a vivid picture and presents a cogent analysis of the distinctive Quaker ethos and the basis of its durability. Without descending into sociological jargon, but with an acute awareness of the salient sociological issues, her argument is at the same time both intrinsically exciting and intellectually challenging. . . . One can only welcome enthusiastically a study which is as much an ethnography as a history, and which combines theoretical rigour with a sustained and detailed narrative which brings the texture of Quaker culture vibrantly to life." - Bryan Wilson

"This subtle and elegant book places a description of the symbols of 'the Friends' within the major sociological and anthropological treatments of signs and of symbolical behaviour. . . . and admirably clear account of what Quakers did, why they did it, and how alarming to at least their earliest contemporaries these now apparently unexceptional people were." - Dr. J. G. Davies

Table of Contents

Table of contents (main headings):
1. Defining Basic Terms
2. Fundamental Ideas in Early Quakerism
3. Symbolic Actions of the Early Days
4. Meetings and Meeting Houses
5. Symbolism and Ritual in the Later Centuries
6. The Significance of Organization
7. Symbolic Importance of Head, Hair, and Hat
8. Symbolism in Meeting and Meeting-House
9. Symbolism in Speech and Silence
10. Quakerism: Symbols and Community
Bibliography; Index