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Quakers and social reform in England 1780-1870

Jones, Ann (2010) Quakers and social reform in England 1780-1870. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis considers Quaker social reform activism in England from 1780 – 1870 and explores the underlying motivations of those involved. An industrialising British society had given rise to major economic and social changes, resulting in rising poverty and crime. This in turn led to an interest by the middle and upper classes, of which Quakers were members, in reforming the morals of society and ensuring the transmission of middle-class values to create a civil society. The extent to which Quakers were involved with this moral reformation is explored, along with examining how integral their religious doctrine was to their involvement. Quaker humanitarianism is also considered in order to show that Quaker reform activism was informed not only by their theology, but also by their overriding concern with the welfare of all human beings. A growing interest in the well-being of others began to emerge in the early nineteenth century and Quakers were at the forefront of this growing humanitarianism. Quakers also held a strong belief in the primacy of the individual, with everyone being considered of equal worth. This notion of equality informed Quaker actions and led to the incorporation of very early human rights principles into their activism. The areas of reform investigated in this thesis for Quaker motivations are education, capital punishment and prison reform, poor relief, the abolition of slavery, and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in British colonies.

The historiography of nineteenth-century social reform movements has mostly neglected the Quaker contribution in this area and this thesis adds Quakers back onto the historical stage as subjects in their own right. The primary sources accessed for this thesis include reports and minutes from Quaker committees and organisations, along with interdenominational organisations that had a high percentage of Quaker membership. One Quaker journal in particular has also been utilised as another means of exploring Quaker thoughts and actions, as well as personal Quaker diaries and letters. These sources indicate that Quakers were integral and influential participants in reform activism, and not merely peripheral players as argued by some historians.

This thesis argues that Quakers were not a homogenous group, but a group with divergent beliefs and practices that played out in different ways. This thesis also argues that the notions of moral reform and humanitarianism/human rights in the nineteenth century were not rigid concepts, but were interchangeable depending on time, place, and context. Quakers took up the rhetoric of the middle-classes in relation to moral reform, but their actions also indicate that the human rights of others were often an overriding concern. This thesis positions Quakers as early human rights activists who fought for the rights of all individuals, underpinned by their religious understandings of the equality of all human beings.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Brash, Helen and Durey, Michael
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