Meeting for Sufferings

Meeting for Sufferings is British Friends’ key strategic body.  It began in 1675, at a time when Quakers in Britain, Ireland, and parts of colonial North America were being imprisoned and having their money and property confiscated because of their refusal to give up their beliefs.  Friends in London held a conference that year, and agreed

that certain friends of this Citty be here nominated to keep a Constant Meeting about Sufferings 4 times a year, with the day and time of each meeting here fixed and setled’.    

Each of the six London monthly meetings (meetings covering a geographical area within London), sent two representatives.  Quarterly (regional) meetings across the country were also invited to send representatives.

Yearly Meeting entrusted MfS with the task of obtaining exemption from swearing an oath and being allowed to affirm instead.  This was achieved through the Affirmation Acts of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

In 1702 Yearly Meeting (British Friends) agreed a new constitution for MfS. All Quarterly (regional) Meetings in correspondence with Yearly Meeting were included. Thereafter MfS met at the beginning of each of the four law terms, Hilary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas.  In addition, London members met weekly, usually on a Friday morning. MfS was now in a position to act speedily and in a coordinated way, on behalf of Friends.

A striking example of this was the historical anti-slavery campaign towards the end of the eighteenth century. Friends’ regular and easy communication and strong organisation enabled them to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery amongst Friends country wide, and hence to raise funds, publicise the issues, and participate in the sugar boycott. This was a significant contribution to the movement for the abolition of slavery. 

During the nineteenth century the number of committees expanded to include a Continental Committee linking Great Britain with small groups in Europe, Australasia and Africa.  Some committees undertook relief work and the anti-slavery committee which grew out of The Slave Trade Committee of 1783-1792 was re-established.  In 1888 the Peace Committee was formed and committees were established to express Friends’ views on the opium traffic and on betting and gambling. MfS sent a delegation to the Tsar of Russia, led by Joseph Sturge, in a vain attempt to avert the Crimean War. MfS worked on the abolition of the system of tithes, a tax to support the Church of England.

Despite Friends’ testimony to equality, membership of MfS was entirely male until the 1896 Yearly Meeting decided that women Friends could also participate. The first women Friends took their seats in 1898.  One of the first representatives Anna Littleboy recalled that

While kindly and courteously received, it was made evident that the presence of women was not exactly welcomed by most of the other members, and the clerk impressed upon them that the meeting was for the conduct of business and not for speeches.

Passenger railway services were now making it possible for Friends outside London to attend meetings more easily and so the constitution was revised to enable Quarterly meeting representatives to attend all meetings.  The Friday morning meetings ceased in 1901.

Three days after the declaration of World War I MfS met to consider their response. During the war they were active in relief work and in supporting conscientious objection. The concept of the Friends Ambulance Unit was mooted in the margins of that meeting, and though never officially adopted as an MfS initiative, received great support.

Since then MfS has continued to address social issues such as support for those in prison, those suffering mental illness, relief, response to war and more recently same sex marriage.  In 1997 MfS revived the practice of maintaining a register of Friends before the courts or imprisoned for matters of conscience. 

There have been a number of constitutional changes in recent years. In 1965 Yearly Meeting decided that representation should be more diverse and more local, and representatives were nominated from Monthly (now Area) Meetings.  More significantly, Yearly Meeting established a separate trustee body in 2006, in the light of charity law changes, relieving MfS of some of its duties and asking it to focus on visionary and strategic issues.

MfS continues to attempt to fulfil the functions defined by Yearly Meeting in 1883.

A standing committee of this meeting...entrusted with a general care of whatever may arise during the intervals of this Meeting, affecting our religious society and requiring immediate attention’.