Quaker Mission work over the centuries has had three strands – (a) spreading the Quaker message to non-Friends (b) visiting and strengthening existing Friends, and (c) service (education, health…) in relation to Friends’ missions. These strands have often been interwoven, with varying thicknesses at different times and places, but all three continue to the present day.
George Fox, the key founder of the Quaker movement in 1652, travelled extensively ‘ in the ministry’. He had a vision of ‘a great people to be gathered’ and wherever he went he spoke passionately about his faith, so the new ‘Society of Friends’ grew rapidly. Many other early Friends joined him in this work, becoming known as the ‘Valiant Sixty’. At first the work was at home in Britain and Ireland, but they were soon spreading the word in mainland Europe, and in colonial North America and the Caribbean. In their travels they supported existing groups of Quakers, as well as making many new Friends. While strands (a) and (b) were dominant , there was service in the form of schools and huge efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the many persecuted Friends.
By C18, the proselytising fervour had diminished. Quakers were no longer being persecuted, and had become a strongly connected network within and between Britain and America. The network was constantly being reinforced through mutual visits, business transactions, and intermarriage. Friends travelling in the ministry now focused on strand (b) - reinforcing Quaker principles within the Quaker community, with very little emphasis on ‘conversion’. Service continued in the form of mutual support for each other’s enterprises, as well as through the many Quaker schools.
Early in C19, a new evangelical fervour took hold across many Christian denominations, including Friends. At the same time, global communications were opening up, so Friends became more aware of countries beyond Europe and North America, and some of them travelled to these new places. These two factors led Quakers (and many other denominations) to re-enter the mission field. All three strands featured - Friends travelled with their Bibles to new pastures, spreading their Quaker faith, travelling ministers regularly visited new and well-established meetings, and schools were set up at several missions. Destinations included Australia, Russia, South Africa, Mexico, and Jamaica.
For much of C19 these Quaker missionaries went wherever they felt led to go, usually with the support of their meeting, but without the backing or planning framework of a mission board. Most denominations had established these early in the century, but it was not until 1868 that the Friends Foreign Mission Association (FFMA) was set up, in London, to serve both American and British/Irish Friends. FFMA then sent missions to India, Madagascar, the Middle East, Pemba (now in Tanzania), China and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
By the beginning of C20, a large group of North American meetings had set up their own Board, the American Friends Board of Foreign Missions (AFBFM). They maintained existing missions and developed new ones - Cuba (1900), Kenya (1902), Bolivia (1919), and Burundi (1930).
The experience of WWI gave Friends much food for thought. In Britain there was new thinking about the roles Quakers should play in the world, given the experience of relief work and conscientious objection during the war. Peacebuilding and help for those in need, of all faiths and none, became central. FFMA was absorbed into the Friends Service Council in 1927 and mission work as such eroded away. Later some activities that might have been done by missionaries in the past re-emerged in the form of community development projects.
In North America the path was different. The American Friends Service Council (AFSC) was set up in 1917, but mission work continued separately, though AFBFM itself disintegrated. After WW2, there was renewed interest in mission work, and Friends United Missions (FUM) was set up in 1965. FUM today has offices in the US and Kenya. All three mission strands have featured in FUM’s work since then - East African and US Friends have collaborated to extend Quakerism to new places in Africa, notably Rwanda, whilst also sustaining each other, and developing educational and health services.
In parallel with this, some US Friends felt the need for more evangelical work than FUM was undertaking. In 1947 they set up the first of several successive bodies to coordinate this, culminating in Evangelical Friends International (EFI) in 1989. They have opened up many new mission fields in Central and South America, and in Asia.
Today mission work continues in these places, much of it led by African and Asian Friends, and featuring all strands. There are also Quaker service organisations in several countries.