Quakers, the Rowntrees’ relation towards the national Society of Friends
The Rowntrees’ life and work is informed by their Quaker faith, which is seen especially in a sense of quiet service, public responsibility, civic pride, pragmatism and trustworthiness. Joseph Rowntree (Senior) was instinctively attracted to the growing evangelical spirit amongst Quakers in the early 19th century, and he found the quietist views prevalent in the previous period unpalatable.
He became a friend of one of the leading evangelical Quakers, Joseph Gurney, and was impressed by his teachings as rendering ‘essential service to the Society of Friends by bringing before it more clearly the fundamental doctrine of salvation and faith in Jesus Christ.’ By the late 19th century this evangelical approach was being rejected by his grandson’s generation as being desiccated and outdated. John Wilhelm’s fervour and eloquence in speech and writings, combined with personal charisma, had made him by 1904 a highly regarded and influential figure among liberalising Quakers.
He believed the Society should take serious stock of itself, in particular, that it should pay attention to new approaches to the Bible, developments in modern thought and the arts, and new scientific discoveries and theories. The Society at the time was losing its most promising youth, discouraged by the oppressive narrow attitudes, anti-intellectual approach and stereotyped doctrine of the ageing evangelically-dominated ministry.