John Wilhelm Rowntree

Eldest son of Joseph Rowntree. He had an international outlook for the Rowntree & Co business bringing new ideas concerning the exploitation of new markets and international business strategies. Even more importantly, he is widely regarded as the father of a new branch of ‘Liberal’ Quakerism, together with the American Quaker Rufus Jones.

He attended Bootham School and entered the Cocoa Works in 1886, just three years after the death of his uncle, Henry Isaac, and at a time of rapid expansion of the company. He became a member of the board of directors in 1897. It was the year of the founding of the Rowntree business as a limited company and shortly afterwards an export department was established. John Wilhelm was one of the closest advisors of his father, however, he also promoted business plans that Joseph Rowntree didn’t approve of. This included the establishment of a Rowntree cocoa plantation abroad.

John Wilhelm feared that rivals like Cadbury and other companies from America or Germany would gain too much control over supplies and he envisioned Rowntree & Co. becoming a multinational enterprise with its own plantations and branches in the United States, Canada and Australia. In 1898 he sailed to the West Indies to find a proper place for his plantation project and in 1899 he was able to convince the company to buy estates in Jamaica and Trinidad, even though his father still had doubts about the project and the resources it required. Nevertheless, by 1900 Rowntree & Co. was selling its products in Australia and New Zealand and during the 1900s the company established contacts in Canada and the United States.

Adult schools and Quaker relevance

John taught at adult schools in York as soon as he was old enough and carried on through out his life.  John Wilhelm’s philosophy was based on the idea that only through education could individuals achieve religious fulfilment and only through understanding modern ideas and social needs could Quakerism become relevant to people’s lives.

It was at the London Yearly Meeting of 1893 that John Wilhelm made his first plea to the Society of Friends to move from the evangelical certainties of the mid nineteenth century towards a more open, liberal outlook. John Wilhelm believed Quakers should reject reliance on the Bible as the cornerstone of their faith and return to the early tradition of the divine ‘Inner Light’ within all people as the source of religious inspiration. This would make the faith less dogmatic and allow Quakers to take their place in the modern world.

Making religion relevant

John Wilhelm believed that religion should be relevant to society’s needs. He spoke for many Friends when he argued that Quakers should pursue vigorously their peace mission and join wider non-conformist campaigns on issues such as temperance and social reform.

At the age of 27 he spoke at the Manchester Conference that was a decisive moment for the New Theology of British Quakerism. He envisioned a revitalised faith ‘deeper in its basis, clearer in its vision, broader in its charity…and as warm in its love’ rising out of the ‘seeming chaos’ of the modern world. He wrote ‘ Friends are not bound by a heritage of creeds, and need not break with their great past to put themselves in touch with the present’.

A history of Quakerism

John Wilhelm worked closely with the American Quaker, Rufus Jones, in pursuing these ideas. He planned to write a Quaker history with Rufus Jones which would illustrate the link between early Quakers and the new ideas. John Wilhelm also played a leading role in organising summer schools and he saw education of the young as a cornerstone fore the future and survival of the Society of Friends.

Early death

He was in America seeking medical treatment for his debilitating blindness when he died unexpectedly, aged only thirty-six. His history of Quakerism was completed by Rufus Jones and W.C.Braithwaite. The movement that John Wilhelm inspired continued after his death, culminating in the establishment and development of the educational centre of Woodbrooke College in Birmingham. His only son, Lawrence, died at the age of 22, fighting in World War One.


Allott, Stephen (1995): John Wilhelm Rowntree 1868-1905 and the Beginnings of Modern Quakerism, York: William Sessions Ltd.

Gillman, Frederick J. (1916): The Workers and Education: a Record of some Present Day Experiments, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 35-37.