Despite being founded in England, Kenya is now home to more Quakers than any other country

Having Quaker family members and ancestors, I was interested to learn how Kenya became the country with its largest number of followers.

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Quakers in Kenya
Quakers in Eldoret. Photo: WorldQuakerDay.org

The Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) began life as an English movement during the seventeenth century Civil War, as one of several groups who challenged many of the beliefs and ideas throughout this time of unrest and change across Britain.

Quakers are among the world’s most celebrated peacemakers and have been nominated for a Nobel peace prize six times for their relief work with the victims of war and famine, finally winning the prize in 1947. They also famously drove ambulances along the front lines in both world wars.

However, despite being founded in England, they are one of Britain’s smallest denominations, with only around 23,000 regular worshippers, but their overseas footprint is huge.

But how did the religion develop such a large following in Kenya?

The story begins, not in England, but in the USA when, on April 23, 1902 three Friends; Arthur Chilson, Edgar Hole, and Willis Hotchkiss, set sail from New York to Mombasa.

Travelling on behalf of the Cleveland Friends Meeting, the trio made their way by rail from Mombasa to Kisumu and then by foot to Kaimosi where they established a mission on August 17.

From there, Quakerism grew and spread throughout Kenya during the twentieth century. Another hospital opened in Lugulu, followed by an epilepsy colony, an agricultural college and a college of technology, along with many new churches.

Kaimosi Mission Hospital was founded in 1941 followed by the opening of The Friends Bible Institute a year later. The town is now also home to a University College, a Theological College and a College of Science and Technology, all founded by Quakers.

Quakers in Kenya
A Quaker meeting in Kitale. Photo: WorldQuakerDay.org

That famous peacemaking the Quakers have become synonymous with has also been used to great effect in Kenya. They initiated a huge effort to promote reconciliation among the many tribes and ethnicities when rivalries boiled over into political violence after the 2007 election, when more than 1,000 people killed.

Sometimes, peacemaking can be misinterpreted and in 2007, Kenyans did not want to be told to damp down campaigns against corruption and vote-rigging. So instead, the Quakers tried to help channel the protests into Gandhian non-violence and the country proved to be fertile ground for such a message.

Following last month’s election, the result of which was annulled by the Supreme Court on Friday, it was active again in helping to promote a “non-violent way forward”.

The style of worship has also helped the religion to grow in Kenya thanks to its more charismatic, energetic and voluble meetings than the traditional silent ones. Training Kenyans to train others in peacemaking has also proved to be very effective.

However, the old British chocolate Quaker families; Rowntree, Fry and Cadbury are still involved and have foundations which help to fundraise, but increasingly, overseas work depends on trusts and foundations.

The catch-22 situation they have found themselves in is that their most effective work is discreet and unpublicised, making it difficult to raise money for successes they can’t boast about.

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