The Religious Society of Friends, whose members are known as Quakers or Friends,1 was founded in England in the seventeenth century as a Christian religious denomination by people who were dissatisfied with the existing denominations and sects of Christianity. Historians generally credit George Fox as being the principal co-founder and the group's most important early leader.2
Since its beginnings in England, Quakerism has spread to many other countries and today the highest concentration of Quakers are in Africa. Although the total number of Quakers is relatively small, approximately 350,000 worldwide,3 there are places, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Newberg, Oregon; Greenleaf, Idaho; Richmond, Indiana; Friendswood, Texas; Birmingham, England; and Greensboro, North Carolina where Quaker influence is concentrated.
Unlike many other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has avoided creeds, and tried to avoid hierarchical structure.4
The various branches have widely divergent beliefs and practices, but the central concept to many Friends is the "Inner Light." Accordingly, individual Quakers may develop individual religious beliefs arising from their personal conscience and revelation coming from "God within"; further, Quakers feel compelled to live by such individual religious beliefs and inner revelations. Today, Quakers have a wide variety of views and beliefs, and they still place a strong emphasis on direct experience of God, for everyone. Many Quakers feel their faith does not fit within traditional Christian categories of Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, but is an expression of another way of experiencing God.
The Society of Friends is counted among the historic peace churches that have promoted non-violence and pacificism.
HistoryQuaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania
The Religious Society of Friends began in England in 1648, as a Nonconformist breakaway movement from English Puritanism. As the movement expanded, it faced opposition and persecution. Friends were imprisoned and beaten in both Great Britain, Ireland and the British colonies. William Penn was imprisoned in England on a number of occasions. In the 1670 "Hay-market case," William Penn was accused of the crime of 'preaching Quakerism to an unlawful assembly', and while he freely admitted his guilt he challenged the righteousness of such a law. The jury, recognizing that William Penn clearly had been preaching in public, but refusing to find him guilty of speaking to an unlawful assembly, attempted to find Penn guilty of "speaking in Gracechurch-street." The judge, unsatisfied with this decision, withheld food, water, and toilet facilities from the jurors for three days. The jurors finally decided to return a not guilty verdict overall, and while the decision was accepted, the jurors were fined. One of the jurors appealed this fine, and Chief Justice Sir John Vaughn issued an historically-important ruling: that jurors could not be punished for their verdicts. This case is considered significant milestone in the history of jury nullification.5
In the Massachusetts Bay colony, Friends were banished on pain of death - some (most famously Mary Dyer) were hanged on Boston Common for returning to preach their beliefs. In England Friends were effectively banned from sitting in Parliament at Westminster from 1698-1833. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, as a safe place for Friends to live and practice their faith. Despite persecution, the movement grew steadily.
In the first few years of the movement, Quakers thought of themselves as part of the restoration of the true Christian church after centuries of apostasy. For this reason, during this period they often referred to themselves as simply the "saints." Other common names in the early days were "Children of the Light" and "Friends of the Truth," reflecting the central importance in early Quaker theology of Christ as an Inner light that shows you your true condition.
The name "Quaker" was first used in 1650, when George Fox was brought before Justice Bennet of Derby on a charge of blasphemy. According to Fox's journal, Bennet "called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God",6 a scriptural reference (e.g., Isaiah 66:2, Ezra 9:4). Therefore, what began apparently as a way to make fun of Fox's admonition by those outside the Society of Friends became a nickname that even Friends use for themselves.
The name "Religious Society of Friends" came many years later, in the 18th century. This remains the most widely-accepted name to this day, although often "Quakers" is added in parentheses for the sake of clarity. However, there are some Friends who prefer other names: some evangelical Friends' organizations use the term "Friends Church," and some Friends (usually in unprogrammed meetings) object to the word "religious" and refer to themselves as part of the "Society of Friends." There are some monthly meetings that for this reason do not include "religious" in their name, while most larger Quaker organizations, such as yearly meetings, use the full name.
In 1827, a division occurred within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting when its members could not agree on who was to be clerk. The issue involved the visits and preaching of Elias Hicks in violation of the will of numerous meetings; they claimed his views were universalist and contradicted the historical tradition of Friends. The same year, a number of Friends in sympathy with him separated to form a parallel system of yearly meetings in America, referred to as Hicksite and those who did not were called Orthodox; ultimately five yearly meetings divided.
The splits in New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings were overcome in 1955 when in each yearly meeting the Orthodox and Hicksite meetings merged; in Baltimore, Maryland, the division ended a decade later.Quakers in Pennsylvania meeting with Native Americans
The Beaconite Controversy arose from the book "A Beacon to the Society of Friends," published in 1835 by Isaac Crewdson.7 He was a minister in the Manchester Meeting. The controversy arose in 1831 when doctrinal differences amongst the Friends culminated in the winter of 1836-1837 with the resignation of Isaac Crewdson and of 48 fellow members of the Manchester Meeting. About 250 others left in various localities in England including prominent members. A number of these joined themselves to the Plymouth Brethren and brought influences of simplicity of worship to that society. Notable among the Plymouthists who were former Quakers included John Elliot Howard of Tottenham and Robert Mackenzie Beverley.
The Orthodox Friends in America were exercised by a transatlantic dispute between Joseph John Gurney of England and John Wilbur of Rhode Island. Gurney emphasized scriptural authority and favored working closely with other Christian groups. Wilbur, in response, defended the authority of the Holy Spirit as primary, and worked to prevent what he saw as the dilution of Friends tradition of Spirit-led ministry. Wilbur was expelled from his yearly meeting in a questionable proceeding in 1842. Over the next several decades, a number of Wilburite-Gurneyite separations occurred. The Wilburite tradition is carried on today to varying degrees by the conservative yearly meetings of Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina; Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is generally considered the most traditional in this regard, retaining more rural Quakers who use the plain language and continue wearing plain dress more than the other two.8
Joel Bean was an Orthodox Friend who opposed the extreme evangelicalism that was creeping into his branch of Quakerism. He formed a new branch of Quakerism in the western part of the United States when his membership was terminated by the Iowa Yearly Meeting.
The "Beanite," or independent, Quakers resemble an amalgam of Hicksite and Wilburite Quakerism. During the 1980s, some of them adopted the label "Christ-Centered Universalism."
Beliefs and practices of Friends
A great diversity of viewpoints can be found among Quaker groups regarding the role and status of scripture, creeds, and sacraments in their communal and individual lives.
George Fox and the other early Quakers believed that direct experience of God was available to all people, without mediation.9
Modern Quakers often express this belief in many ways, including the attitude of trying to see "that of God in everyone"; finding and relating to "the Inner light," "the inward Christ," or "the spirit of Christ within." Early Friends more often used terms such as "Truth," "the Seed," and "the Pure Principle," from the principle that each person would be transformed as Christ formed and grew in them. The ability to "see the light" or see "that of God in everyone" enables Quakers to cast aside more superficial differences and focus on the spiritual elements which connect all people.
Since Friends believe that each person contains God, much of the Quaker perspective is based on trying to hear God and to allow God's Spirit free action in the heart. Isaac Penington wrote in 1670: "It is not enough to hear of Christ, or read of Christ, but this is the thing - to feel him my root, my life, my foundation… ."10
Quakerism is often termed a mystical religion because of its emphasis on the personal experience of God. However, at first glance it differs from other mystical religions in at least two important ways:
First, Quaker mysticism is primarily group-oriented rather than focused on the individual. The Friends' traditional meeting for worship may be considered an expression of group mysticism, where all the members of the meeting listen together for the Spirit of God, speaking when that Spirit moves them. On the other hand, it is also possible to consider the Quakers as a special kind of religious order (like the Franciscans, who also practice group mysticism), living the mystic and monastic tradition in their own way.
Second, Quaker mysticism as it has been expressed after the late nineteenth century includes a strong emphasis on its outwardly-directed witness. Rather than seeking withdrawal from the world, the Quaker mystic translates his or her mysticism into action. They believe this action leads to greater spiritual understanding - both by individuals and by the Meeting as a whole. It is also possible to consider the Quakers as a kind of humanistic religion in the sense of Erich Fromm. In this view, mysticism includes social and political activities.
Early Quakers rejected the mainstream Protestant idea of "sola scriptura," that the Bible is God's written word and therefore self-authenticating, clear and its own interpreter; instead, they believed that Christ, instead of the Bible, is the Word of God. Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology that the scriptures "are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners".11 Similarly, George Fox recounted an incident in his Journal in which a minister claimed that the scriptures were authoritative, Fox "… was commanded to tell them God did not dwell in temples made with hands. But I told them what it was, namely, the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions and judgements were to be tried; for it led into all Truth, and so gave the knowledge of all Truth".12
Early Quakers believed that Christ would never lead them in ways that contradicted the Bible; this belief prevented conflicts between Friends' leadings and their understanding of the Bible.
As time passed, conflicts between what the Bible appeared to teach and how many Friends believed they were being led by the Spirit began to arise. Some Friends decided that in these cases the Bible should be authoritative. Today, Evangelical Quakers believe the Bible is authoritative, for the Bible was inspired by God's Spirit and this belief is affirmed in the "Richmond Declaration."13
Other Quakers, partly under the influence of movements such as liberal Protestantism, decided that it was possible to be truly led in ways contrary to scripture, and that in such cases scripture be secondary. Indeed, some even rejected the Bible altogether. In nearly all cases, modern Friends believe in the necessity of being continually guided by God. Divine revelation is therefore not restricted to the Bible, but rather continues even today; this doctrine is known as continuing revelation.
Generally, Quakerism has no creed. George Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists," and modern Quakers are generally little concerned with theology, and are more concerned with acting in accord with the leading of the Spirit. Quakers have historically expressed a preference for guidance by the Spirit over knowledge derived from logic or systematic theology.14: "After a while there came a priest to visit him, with whom also I had some discourse concerning the Truth. But his mouth was quickly stopped, for he was nothing but a notionist, and not in possession of what he talked of." Eschewing notions of "authoritative" doctrines, diverse statements of "Faith and Practice" and diverse understandings of the "leading of the spirit" have always existed among Friends. The leading to lay down all sense of authoritative theology (notions thereof) results in broad tolerance within the Society for earnest expressions of "the light within."
Most Friends believe a formal creed would be an obstacle - both to authentic listening and to the recognition of new insight. On the other hand, some Friends have enumerated and subscribed to a set of doctrines, such as the "Richmond Declaration" or the "Beliefs of Friends" stated by Evangelical Friends International, which are comparable to mainstream Protestant confessions of faith.
As a public statement of faith, many Yearly Meetings publish their own version of a book often called Quaker Faith and Practice which expresses their sense of truth and purpose; these documents are generally revised every few years.
Additionally, a common set of practices called Testimonies" emerged among Quakers that spoke of key principles and beliefs they held dear.
Early Friends did not believe in the reliance upon practice of the outward rites and sacraments, believing that holiness can exist in all the activities of one's life - all of life is sacred. They experienced baptism by the Holy Spirit as an inward, transforming experience and knew communion with Christ in the midst of gathered worship in the expectant silence. Thus they did not perform baptism as a rite of membership. These Friends also believed that any meal with others could be a form of communion.
At various times some individuals or small groups of Friends have published corrective cautions against adopting the prohibition of some rite as itself being creedal. The focus should be upon God as Present Teacher, rather than on some human ritual, or the absence of a ritual. Most Friends therefore do not prohibit rites or ceremonies, but they do counsel against allowing these human inventions to take the place of direct experience and leading by God.
Since their beginnings, Friends have practiced "plainness" in how they dress and speak. This has come to be known as their testimony of simplicity.
Traditionally, wearing plain clothes was an answer to a number of Friends' concerns. Expensive styles were used to show social inequality and make statements about wealth. Only a select few could afford expensive adornments, which could then be used to exacerbate differences between people based on class, where people in fancy clothing would not want to be seen socializing with others dressed tattily. This was inspired by the Quaker testimony to equality. In addition, the frequently buying of expensive new styles and discarding what had been bought a month ago, was considered wasteful and self-seeking, where Friends instead aimed to focus on simplicity, and the important things in life. Notably, Friends did not consider it right to judge people on their material possessions, but this could not be achieved in a society which placed an emphasis on keeping up to date with inconsequential but expensive new trends. At the time, this practice of plainness meant Friends were obviously identifiable.
As fashions changed over time, the Quaker ideal of plain dress stood out against contemporary clothing. As a result, the traditional forms of this practice were dropped by most Friends. Today, it is more likely that Friends will try to put their faith into action by dressing in a plain version of current fashions - such as avoiding clothing displaying designer labels. They may also try to buy only the clothing they need, and pay more for fairly traded clothing that has been made ethically.
The logo of Quaker Oats shows a stereotypical 1700s Quaker wearing traditional clothes. As the Quaker Oats brand shares the Quaker name, despite having no links with the Society of Friends, there is now a somewhat popular misconception that Friends today still wear the traditional clothing. A very small minority of contemporary Friends have taken up the traditional dress once again,15 but they are few in number.
Plainness in speech addressed other concerns to materialism: honesty, class distinction, vestiges of paganism and the speaking of truth. These principles were put into practice by affirming rather than swearing oaths, setting fixed prices for goods, avoiding the use of honorific titles and using familiar forms for the second person pronoun. Early Friends also objected to the names of the days and months in the English language, because many of them referred to Roman or Norse gods, such as Mars (March) and Thor (Thursday), and Roman emperors, such as Julius (July). As a result, the days of the week were known as "First Day" for Sunday, "Second Day" for Monday, and so forth. Similarly, the months of the year were "First Month" for January, "Second Month" for February, and so forth. For many Friends today, this is no longer a priority, though the tradition is still upkept by some.
Like many aspects of Quaker life, the practice of plainness has evolved over time, although it is based on principles that have been a lasting part of Quaker thought. These principles now form part of the Quaker testimonies.
Quakers hold a strong sense of spiritual egalitarianism, including a belief in the spiritual equality of the sexes. From the beginning both women and men were granted equal authority to speak in meetings for worship. Margaret Fell was as vocal and literate as her husband, George Fox, publishing several tracts in the early days of Quakerism.
The Friends' attitude towards egalitarianism was also demonstrated by their refusal to practice "hat honour" (Quakers refused to take their hats off or bow to anyone regardless of title or rank), and their refusal to address anyone with honorific titles such as "Sir," "Madam," "Your Honour," or "Your Majesty." This testified to the Friends' understanding that, in the eyes of God, there was no hierarchy based on birth, wealth, or political power - such honours they reserved only for God. This practice was not considered by Friends to be anti-authoritarian in nature, but instead as a rebuke against human pretense and ego.
Today, resistance to "hat honour" does not prevail as it once did - most hat customs are not practiced in contemporary daily life - and the individual Friend is left to decide whether or not to practice "hat honour" as a matter of conscience.
Friends have founded many schools and colleges; however Friends have often cautioned against the admission of education credentials as either a form of honoring humans instead of God or as a substitute for a relationship with God.
Oaths and fair-dealing
Early Friends believed that an important part of Jesus' message was how we treat our fellow human beings. They felt that honest dealing with others meant more than avoiding direct lies. Friends continue to believe that it is important not to mislead others, even if the words used are all technically truthful. Early Friends refused to swear oaths, even in courtrooms, believing that one must speak truth at all times, and the act of swearing to it implied different standards of truth with and without oaths; this doctrine is attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:34-37).
- 5:34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
- 5:35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
- 5:36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
- 5:37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (King James version)
Some Friends have accepted the use of "affirmations" rather than oaths, believing that the problem with oaths is that by swearing an oath, you are admitting that you otherwise might not be expected to tell the truth.
Quaker worshipFriends Meeting House, Manchester, England.Friends Meeting House, New York City.
Friends treat all functions of the church as a form of worship, including business, marriage, and memorial services, in addition to regular meeting for worship. The two main forms of Quaker worship are often referred to as "programmed" and "unprogrammed."
While the different styles of worship generally reflect the theological splits, with unprogrammed meetings generally being more theologically liberal and programmed Friends churches more theologically conservative, this is not a strict rule. Many meetings hold both programmed and unprogrammed services or other activities. Some "Conservative" meetings are unprogrammed yet would be generally considered to be theologically closer to most programmed meetings.
Unprogrammed worship is the more traditional style of worship among Friends and remains the norm in Britain, Ireland, continental Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and parts of the United States. During an unprogrammed meeting for worship, Friends gather together in "expectant waiting" for divine leadings. Sometimes a meeting is entirely silent, sometimes quite a few people speak. Meeting for Worship generally lasts about an hour.
When they feel they are led by the spirit a participant will rise and share a message (give "vocal ministry") with those gathered. Typically, messages, testimonies, ministry, or other speech are not prepared as a "speech." Speakers are expected to discern the source of their inspiration - whether divine or self. After someone has spoken, it is expected that more than a few moments will pass in silence before further Ministry; there should be no spirit of debate.
Unprogrammed worship is generally deemed to start as soon as the first participant is seated, the others entering the room in silence. The Meeting for Worship ends when one person (usually predetermined) shakes the hand of another person present. All the members of the assembly then shake hands with their neighbors, after which one member usually rises and extends greetings and makes announcements.
Programmed worship resembles a typical Protestant worship service in the United States. This tradition arose among Friends in the United States in the nineteenth century in response to large numbers of converts to Quakerism during the national spiritual revivalism of the time. Typically there are readings from scripture, hymns, and a sermon from the pastor. A period of silence (similar in practice to that of unprogrammed meetings, though generally shorter) is included in some Programmed Friends worship services. Most Friends in the southern and central United States worship in this way.
The Friends meetings started in Africa and Latin America were generally started by Friends from programmed elements of the society, therefore most African and Latin American Friends worship in a programmed style.
Some Friends also hold what is termed Semi-Programmed Worship, which brings programmed elements like hymns and readings into an otherwise unprogrammed worship service.
Traditionally, when a couple who are a part of a Quaker Meeting decide to get married they declare their intentions to marry to the meeting. The meeting will typically form a "clearness committee" that meets with the couple to provide counsel and ascertain the clearness of their intent.
A traditional wedding ceremony in a Friends meeting is similar to any other unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, which can be very different from the experience expected by non-Friends.
- "The simple Quaker wedding where the couple, together with their friends, gather in worship… a number of those attending the wedding may be unfamiliar with worship based on silence."16
There is no official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union; the pair marry one another before God and gathered witnesses. After exchanging vows, the meeting returns to open worship and guests are free to speak as they are led. At the rise of meeting all the witnesses, including the youngest children in attendance, are asked to sign the wedding certificate.
In the early days of the United States, there was doubt whether a marriage solemnized in such a manner was entitled to legal recognition, leading at least one jurisdiction, Florida, to enact special legislation on the subject.17
In recent years Friends in Australia, Britain and some meetings in North America have celebrated weddings or civil partnerships between partners of the same sex.
Quaker testimonies are an expression of "spirituality in action".18 They can be regarded as the traditional statements of Quaker belief, though Quakers avoid creeds. The Testimonies are not a formal, static set of words, but rather a shared view of how many Quakers relate to God and the world. This leads to each Quaker having a different understanding of what the testimonies are, and while the ideologies remain quite similar for all Quakers, they go by different names, and different values are included throughout the Religious Society of Friends. The Testimonies are interrelated and can be seen as a coherent philosophical system, even outside Christian theology. The testimonies have not always been consistent, but throughout their history they have challenged Friends and provided them guidance.
The list of testimonies is, like all aspects of Friends theology, continuously evolving - so as to be relevant to today, but the following are common:19
- Integrity (or sometimes Truth)
Some Friends also include other testimonies, such as Unity, Community, Compassion, Justice, Truth, Stewardship and Sustainability. In the USA, Children and Friends school students are often taught the acronym SPICES, which stands for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship. In the UK, the acronym STEP is used, or more affectionately, PEST, which includes the testimonies to Peace, Equality, Simplicity and Truth. Truth tends to be the more common name of the integrity testimony in the UK, although Integrity is also sometimes added as a fifth testimony. Similarly, in recent years the Environment has also come to be regarded by some in the UK as an "emerging testimony," one that is respected and valued, but has not traditionally been prioritised.
An interesting example of Quaker attitudes is in the writings of William Penn, "Some Fruits of Solitude In Reflections And Maxims", written in his retirement.
Excerpt: "The Wise Man is Cautious, but not cunning; Judicious, but not Crafty; making Virtue the Measure of using his Excellent Understanding in the Conduct of his Life. "
The Peace Testimony is probably the best known testimony of Friends. The belief that violence is wrong has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors, advocates of non-violence and anti-war activists are Friends. Because of their peace testimony, Friends are considered as one of the historic peace churches. In 1947 Quakerism was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which was accepted by the American Friends Service Committee and British Peace & Social Witness on behalf of all Friends. The Peace Testimony has not always been well received in the world; on many occasions Friends have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in military activities - many conscientious objectors have been Quakers.
Some Friends today regard the Peace Testimony in even a broader sense, refusing to pay the portion of the income tax that goes to fund the military. Yearly Meetings in the United States, Britain and other parts of the world endorse and support these Friend's actions.20 campaigns in the European Parliament for the right of conscientious objectors in Europe not to be made to pay for the military. It should be stressed that these Friends are not trying to get out of paying taxes and they would willingly give the money to peaceful purposes. Some do pay the money into peace charities and still get goods seized by bailiffs or money taken from their bank account.
In America, others pay into an escrow account in the name of the Internal Revenue Service, which the IRS can only access if they give an assurance that the money will only be used for peaceful purposes. Some Yearly meetings in the US run escrow accounts for conscientious objectors, both within and outside the Society.
Many Friends engage in various non-governmental organizations such as Christian Peacemaker Teams serving in some of the most violent areas of the world.
EqualityA female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London in the eighteenth century
Friends believe that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. Since all people embody the same divine spark all people deserve equal treatment. Friends were some of the first to value women as important ministers and to campaign for women's rights; they became leaders in the anti-slavery movement, and were among the first to pioneer humane treatment for the mentally ill and for prisoners.
Also known as the Testimony of Truth, or Truth Testimony, the essence of the Testimony of Integrity is placing God at the center of one's life. To Friends, integrity is in choosi