I have heard that it can take many years for someone to walk into a Quaker meeting for the first time, and for some, it can take courage. Recently a number of us reflected on what brought us to Quakers. Amongst us, there are Friends who first came to meeting decades ago, people who have only recently found Quakers, and those in-between. There are probably as many reasons as there are people as to ‘why’ someone is drawn towards the Religious Society of Friends; and for some, the initial motivation can be a moving away from something else.

As I reflected on my own journey I wondered how Quakers in the past might have discovered our form of worship and our community.  I often go the online version of Quaker Faith & Practice for ‘…advice and counsel (and) the encouragement of self-questioning’, and when I want to learn more about the history of our Society. In the chapter ‘Openings’ there are some early examples of how women and men came to Quakers and for some, what attracted them.

Margaret Fell (1614–1702) first came across George Fox, founder of Quakerism, in 1652 when he visited her home, her then husband Judge Thomas Fell being away. The following day George Fox stood in the ‘steeplehouse’ (church) and challenged those there. Of the scriptures he said, ‘Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’ This was a revelation to Margaret Fell and she became convinced of the truth of the Quaker way. After her husband’s death, she married George Fox and had a significant influence on the development of the new movement.

Mary Pennington (1625? – 1682) was also attracted to this new form of worship. ‘Before she had heard of Quakers she had been uneasy about having her baby daughter ‘sprinkled’. In 1634 she married Isaac Pennington, and they found peace in worship with Friends …’

Isaac Pennington (1616 – 1679) changed his mind after hearing a Quaker:

‘At last, after all my distresses, wanderings and sore travails, I met with some writings of this people called Quakers, which I cast a slight eye upon and disdained, as falling very short of that wisdom, light, life and power, which I had been longing for and searching after… After a long time, I was invited to hear one of them (as I had been often, they in tender love pitying me and feeling my want of that which they possessed)…’ And as a result of this meeting Isaac Pennington, ‘…met with the true peace, the true righteousness, the true holiness, the true rest of the soul, the everlasting habitation which the redeemed dwell in.’

Another person who was convinced was Thomas Ellwood (1639-1713), who first experienced Quaker worship at the home of family friends, the Penningtons. There are also references to the Light being found in children. A particularly heartwarming story is of a Bristol meeting in 1682 being kept up by children of between ten and twelve whose parents had been imprisoned. Another route to Quakerism is therefore from parent to child. We have few birthright Quakers within our meeting, but we did draw some parallels between these stories from 350 years ago, and our own routes to a Quaker meeting and to the Quaker way.

Certainly, a number of folk in our meeting had been encouraged by someone else, who was not necessarily a Quaker themselves. One was a neighbour, and another ‘my atheist daughter’. What was common to all in our group was the warm welcome they had experienced when they first came.

Some were brought to meeting the first time by a Quaker, perhaps a personal friend or someone they came across. This was my experience. I was on a course when I overheard some people talking about Quakers. I rather casually expressed an interest.  Someone who turned out to be a Friend invited me to accompany her when she went to meeting. I jumped at this, went, and have been attending regularly for nearly 20 years, immediately feeling that I was in the right place, and ‘had come home’.

I had been curious about Quakers for years, having read ‘… the first report of a Religious body that espoused a positive understanding of homosexuality…’ ie.  ‘Towards a Quaker view of sex‘. This liberal and compassionate approach to sex and relationships (not only to homosexuality) made more sense to me than traditional church teachings. I was also attracted by Quaker ‘faith in action’ and as we compared notes, we discovered that at least two of our group had been drawn to Quakers by the peace testimony ie. our witness to non-violence. They had been involved in CND and other peace groups and at the same time had been searching for a spiritual home.

Outside our Meeting House, we have a board stating that ‘All are welcome’. One person said that she had walked past the Meeting House many times and wondered whether to go in. She had had Quaker friends in the past, and one day, for no particular reason, she stepped inside. However, it can be difficult sometimes to take the first step.  One person said she felt rather shy about doing so until an invitation went out to the local community to ‘Meet a Quaker’. She went and has been coming ever since.

Finally, there are those who had felt increasingly out of step theologically (or for some other reason) with their current church. One had ‘… tried out all the local churches and only came to Quakers at the end’. And another remembered, ‘Elsewhere I always found something to rail against – but not at Quakers. There I realised I wouldn’t be told but would have to find out for myself – and that is what still (after decades) brings me to Quakers’.