The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, or Friends, is a religious community founded in England in the 17th century. Quakers are counted among the historic peace churches, and have congregations scattered across the world. Since its origins in England, Quakerism has spread to other countries, chiefly the United States, Kenya and Bolivia. The number of Quakers in the world is rather small (approximately 600,000), although there are places, such as Philadelphia, in which Quaker influence is concentrated.
The Quaker movement began in England in the early 1650s. Traditionally George Fox has been taken to be the founder or at least the most important early figure, but modern scholarship suggests a more complicated picture. Most likely, a number of radical Puritans, among them Fox, James Nayler, and Edward Burroughs, independently came to similar positions, eventually came into contact with one another, and then began to coordinate their preaching. However, since Fox outlived most of the others, his account of the early days as recorded in his Journal, while it may exaggerate his role, is the most detailed one available.
Fox and the other early Quaker preachers believed that direct experience with God was available to all people, without any mediation (e.g. through a pastor, or through sacraments). Friends have often expressed this belief by referring to "that of God in Everyone", "inner light", "inward Christ", "the spirit of Christ within", and many other terms.
Fox left home at age 19 in 1644 on a religious search that lasted about three years, until he reported hearing the voice of Christ, and undergoing a process of personal transformation by the workings of the "inward light". He began preaching publicly in 1648. At that time, Puritanism was predominant in England under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, but religious and political dissent were increasing. Fox was a highly vocal dissenter, as he considered many of the religious practices of the time to be inconsistent with Christian faith. In particular, he rejected the notion of a paid priesthood and of governmentally sanctioned church buildings (which he derided as "steeple-houses"), believing instead that everyone can be a minister and that any worshipful gathering of true Christians is equally legitimate. Thus, traditional Quaker worship had no individual in charge of conducting a planned service; instead, worshippers gathered in silence, which was only interrupted when someone in attendance felt moved by the Spirit to speak. Fox also believed the Puritans were wrong to regard literal reading of Scripture as a higher authority than personal experience of the divine, quoting Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians that "the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."
He began his career by speaking in outdoor public places and in congregations—something he continued to do throughout his life. In many cases this resulted in his abuse and imprisonment—especially when he came into "steeple-houses" to denounce the sermons after the minister had finished, which was the custom and legal during the Commonwealth). From 1652 onward Fox was closely associated with an earlier, very loosely organized movement of religious dissenters, the Seekers. Seekers typically believed that there was no true church in existence, and resigned themselves to waiting for God to reestablish his kingdom, either spiritually or temporally. They had many practices that were similar to the emerging Quaker movement; they had discarded all ceremony in worship and begun the practice of silent meetings which, as Fox rapidly gained followers among the Seekers, became the practice of Friends.
Fox was equally critical of many aspects of English culture besides religious dogma, particularly those that he saw as symptoms of pride and misuse of authority. In 1661, he and other leading Quakers made their first public profession of the peace testimony; it is unclear how universal pacifism was before then, many Quaker converts being sympathetic with the Puritan revolution or even members of the New Model Army, as James Nayler was. After that point, the Quakers maintained that the proper response to injustice was neither violence nor acquiescence, but peaceful non-cooperation. Fox's criticisms of his society were similar to those of the Seekers, Ranters, and Levellers, and he drew followers from all of these groups (as well as from dissatisfied members of Cromwell's movement), but differed from them in his urgent call for a revival of what he saw as original Christian faith and practice, based on obedience to the inwardly revealed word of God and public resistance to injustice. Early Friends saw themselves as "primitive Christianity revived", in William Penn's words, and saw their Puritan and Anglican persecutors as analogous to the Pharisees.
In 1656, a popular Quaker minister, James Nayler, went beyond the standard beliefs of Quakers when he rode into Bristol on a horse in the pouring rain, accompanied by a handful of men and women saying "Holy, holy, holy" and strewing their garments on the ground -- clearly imitating Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. While this was apparently a misguided attempt to emphasize that that "Light of Christ" was in every person, most observers believed that Nayler and his followers believed him to be Jesus Christ. The group was arrested by the local authorities and handed over to Parliament, where they were tried, probably illegally. Parliament was sufficiently incensed by Nayler's heterodox views that they punished him savagely and sent him back to Bristol to jail indefinitely. This was especially bad for the movement's respectability in the eyes of the Puritan rulers because some considered Nayler (and not Fox, who was in jail at the time) to be the actual leader of the movement. Many historians see this event as a turning point in early Quaker history because many other leaders, especially Fox, made efforts to increase the authority of the group over the leadings of the individual, to prevent similar behavior. In the 1660s and 1670s Fox traveled the country setting up a more formal structure of monthly (local) and quarterly (regional) meetings, which still survives today.
Starting in the late 19th century, some Quakers adopted the use of paid pastors, planned sermons, hymns and other elements of Protestant worship services. This type of Quaker meetings is known as "programmed meetings". Worship of the traditional, silent variety is called an "unprogrammed meeting", although there is some variation on how the unprogrammed meetings adhere strictly to the lack of programming. Some unprogrammed meetings may have also allocated a period of hymn-singing or other activity as part of the total period of worship, while others maintain the tradition of avoiding all planned activities.
There are generally two forms of worship that Friends participate in termed Programmed Worship and Unprogrammed Worship. Unprogrammed worship is the more traditional style of worship among Friends. During meeting for worship Friends gather together in expectant waiting for messages from God. They wait in silence. When a member feels led to share a message with the gathered meeting, they will generally raise and share. These messages often take the form of a statement, a reading, or a song. Traditionally messages, testimonies, ministry, or other speech are unprepared, and attenders are called on to discern the source of their inspiration—whether divine or ego. Generally meeting for worship lasts about an hour (although it can be shorter or longer depending on the group gathered).
Programmed worship grew out of the movement in 19th century toward paid pastors (see above). Worship at a Friends Church resembles more closely a typical protestant worship service in the United States. Typically there are readings from scripture, hymns, and a sermon from the pastor. Most Friends outside of the United Kingdom and the North Eastern region of the United States worship is this way.
Some Friends also hold what is termed Semi-Programmed Worship which brings programmed elements like hymns and scripture readings into an otherwise unprogrammed worship service.
While the different styles of worship generally reflect the theological splits within Quakerism, with unprogrammed meetings generally being more liberal than the Friends Churches, this is not a strict rule.
Friends try to treat all functions of the church as worship, including business, marriage and memorial services.
See main article on Quaker weddings.
Traditionally in a Friends Meeting when a couple decides to get married they declare their intentions to marry to the meeting. A traditional wedding ceremony in a Friends meeting is similar to any other Meeting for Worship, and therefore often very different from the experience expected by non-Friends. At the close of worship all of those present at the meeting are asked to sign the wedding certificate as witnesses that the wedding took place and acknowledging their presence at the service. Often these certificates are hung prominently in the homes of the couple throughout their married lives as a reminder of the vows they took, and the people they shared that moment of their lives with.
Decision making among Friends
Business decisions on a local level are conducted by the individual monthly meeting, in a monthly Meeting for Worship with a concern for business, or simply business meeting. A meeting for business is considered a form of worship, and all decisions must be reached in a manner that satisfies all participants (called "unity" or "sense of the meeting", but sometimes inaccurately called consensus).
Quaker "consensus" does not mean that every person simply gets an equal vote or that all members must "vote" in favour of the decision (i.e. unanimity). Using the technique of "expectant waiting", the Meeting for Worship for Business attempts to gain a sense of God's will for the community. Each member of the Meeting is expected to listen to that of God within themselves, and, when led, to contribute it to the group for reflection and consideration.
A decision is reached when the meeting as a whole feels that the "way forward" has been discerned. This may mean that those who are informed on or passionate about a given issue are willingly deferred to. However, in other cases some members of the Meeting will "stand aside" on an issue, meaning that the Meeting has achieved a sense of unity, but that, for their own personal reasons, they are unable to agree with the result. In still other cases a Meeting may reach a sense of unity notwithstanding that some members remain opposed, although the Meeting would probably proceed only after a good deal of discernment to ensure that the concerns of the dissenting members have been heard and the sense of the Meeting is a right one.
The business procedure of Friends often seems impractical to non-Quakers, and even Quakers will report that it does not always work as well as it is supposed to. Nonetheless, it has been a centre-piece of the Religious Society of Friends for over 350 years, at times seeing them through extremely difficult decisions and divisions.
Quaker memorial services are also held as a form of worship. Friends gather for worship and will offer rememberances about the person who has died. Memorial services will often last well over an hour, particullarly if there are a large number of people in attendance. Memorial services give everyone present a chance to remember the lost friend in whatever way they need, often bringing closure to most people present.
Quaker organization varies considerably by country and by tradition. The organisational structures amongst Quakers in the USA at present are described below.
In Programmed traditions the local congregations are referred to as "Friends Churches".
Local congregations of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition are called a Meeting (e.g. Smalltown Quaker Meeting or Smalltown Monthly Meeting) generally "Monthly Meetings" although some are smaller worship groups under the care of a monthly meeting. Monthly meetings are joined in regional groups called "Quarterly Meetings". Two or more quarters are then joined into a "Yearly Meeting". Yearly meetings are generally the largest body that holds direct religious authority of any kind. "Monthly", "Quarterly" and "yearly" refers to frequency of meetings for business. Any member of a monthly meeting can (and is encouraged to) attend sessions for their monthly, quarter, and yearly meeting at which the organizations business is transacted.
Unprogrammed Meetings do not have a paid pastor. Some of the traditional tasks of a minister may be taken on by committees within each meeting (often called "ministry and oversight", "ministry and counsel", "elders" or "overseers") they may handle the pastoral care and / or religious oversight portion of a pastor's role.
Usually, a "clerk" is appointed, who is responsible for many administrative and coordination duties.
Both clerkship and committee service are unpaid positions accepted by meeting members usually for a fixed period of time.
Some Yearly Meetings belong to larger organizations, the three chief ones being Friends General Conference (FGC), Friends United Meeting (FUM), and Evangelical Friends International (EFI), although most member organizations are from the United States. FGC is theologically the most liberal of the three groups, while EFI is the most conservative. FUM is the largest of the three. In addition, some monthly meetings belong to more than one of these larger organizations, while others are independent.
The Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) is the international Quaker organization which loosely unifies the diverse groups. FWCC was set up at the 1937 World Conference of Friends in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, US, "to act in a consultative capacity to promote better understanding among Friends the world over, particularly by the encouragement of joint conferences and intervisitation, the collection and circulation of information about Quaker literature and other activities directed towards that end." About 175 representatives, appointed by the almost 70 affiliated yearly meetings and groups, meet together every three years at Triennials, aiming to provide links among Friends. FWCC bring together the largest variety of Friends in the world.
There are also various associated Friends organizations including: a US lobbying organization based in Washington, DC, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL); several service organizations like the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); and the Quaker United Nations Offices.
Beliefs and practices of early Friends
Early Quakerism was full of a sense of spiritual egalitarianism, which included a belief in the spiritual equality of the sexes—remarkable for that time. Both women and men were granted equal authority to speak in meetings for worship. George Fox's wife, Margaret Fell, was equally vocal and literate as her husband, publishing several tracts in Quakerism's early days.
This equal status extended further into the social realm, and Quakers often ignored the social distinctions of the seventeenth century. This translated into several behaviours which offended those of high rank: Friends refused to doff their hat to those of higher status ("hat honor"), and also addressed high-ranking persons using the familiar forms of "thee" and "thou", instead of the respectful "you". (Later, as "thee" and "thou" disappeared from everyday English usage, many Quakers continued to use these words as a form of "plain speech", though the original reason for this usage had disappeared; their usage was also grammatically distinctive, saying "thee is" instead of "thou art", a holdover from a dialect formerly common in the north of England. This practice is rare among Quakers today.)
Early Friends did not believe in performing any special rites or sacraments, believing that holiness can exist in all the activities of one's life—all of life was sacred. Thus they did not perform baptisms as a rite of membership, and their method of worship was considered unorthodox and heretical. Quaker marriage ceremonies were performed in the manner as worship, meaning there was no priest or high official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union.
Early Friends also objected to the names of the days and months in the English language, because many of them referred to Roman gods and emperors. As a result, the days of the week were known as "First Day", "Second Day", and so forth. Similarly, the months of the year were "First Month", "Second Month", and so forth. Many Friend's organizations continue to use the "simple calendar" for official records.
Friends believe that the Bible is the word of God as interpreted by each person. Each Friend must interpret the Bible for themselves in the light of the same Spirit that they consider to have inspired the Bible. Thus Friends believe that divine revelation is not restricted to the Bible, but rather continues even today (this doctrine is known as continuing revelation). From this interpretation a common set of beliefs emerged, which became known as testimonies. Testimonies are not formal static documents, but rather a shared collection or view of how Quakers relate to God. Testimonies cannot be taken one at a time, as they are interrelated. As a philosophical system, they are coherent, even outside of Christian theology.
While the list of testimonies, like all aspects of Friends theology, is evolving the following is a generally accepted list.
- The Peace Testimony
- The Testimony of Integrity
- The Testimony of Equality
- The Testimony of Simplicity
- The Testimony of Community
The Peace Testimony
The Peace Testimony is the most static testimony; it is also the best known testimony of Friends. Unlike most of the testimonies of Friends the Peace Testimony is associated with a specific text. The text of the Peace Testimony derives from a letter addressed to King Charles II of England, which tried to convince him that the Quakers had not been involved in a plot against him. (The plot seems to have been led by the Fifth Monarchy Men, but it made Charles suspicious of religious Independents in general.) The following excerpt is often used:
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretence whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world . . . . . . . The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move us into it; and we certainly know and testify to the world that the Spirit of Christ which leads us into all truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world ... therefore we cannot learn war anymore. (Excerpts from a Statement by the Quakers to King Charles II - 1661)
This belief has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors and anti-war activists are Friends. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a charitable organization that has worked for peace and social justice throughout the world. The AFSC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 along with the UK's Friends Service Council on behalf of all of Quakerism.
The Testimony of Integrity
Early Friends realized that an important part of the message of Jesus was how we treat our fellow human beings. They felt that honest dealing with others meant more than just not telling lies. Friends feel 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, on the theory that one must speak truth at all times, and the act of swearing to it implied otherwise. Instead, Friends giving testimony in court, or being sworn into governmental office, "affirm" that they are going to tell the truth; the U.S. Constitution guarantees this option for anyone sworn into office in the United States. As an expression of the Quaker belief that one should mean exactly what one says at all times, Quaker businessmen did not haggle over prices, believing that to ask for a higher price than one was willing to accept was dishonest; this was contrary to common practice of the time. Instead, they offered a firm, fixed price for their goods or services.
The Testimony of Equality
A female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London in the 18th 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. Margaret Fell was one of the earliest leaders of the movement, while many of the leaders in the suffragette movement in the 19th century were drawn from the Quakers, including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. During the 1700s, Quakers felt that women were not participating fully in Meetings for Business as most women would not "nay-say" their husbands. The solution was to form two separate Meetings for Business. Many Quaker meeting houses were built with a movable divider down the middle. During Meeting for Worships, the divider was raised. During Business meetings the divider was lowered, creating two rooms. Each gender ran their own separate business meetings. Any issue which required the consent of the whole meeting—building repairs for example—would involve sending an emissary to the other meeting. This practice continued until there was no longer a concern over whether women would "nay-say" their husbands. (Some very old meetinghouses still have this divider, although it likely is nonmovable.) Friends were also leaders in the anti-slavery movement.Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (the most important yearly meeting in USA at the time) prohibited members from owning slaves in 1776, and on February 11, 1790 Friends petitioned the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery. American Friends were prominent participants in the Underground Railroad, a transportation network for sending escaped slaves to freedom. Quakers were among the first to pioneer humane treatment for the mentally ill, with The Retreat, in York England, an asylum set up by William Tuke (1732–1822) as a reaction to the harsh nature of 18th century asylum care.
The Testimony of Simplicity
Simplicity to Friends has generally been a reference to material possessions. Friends traditionally limited their possessions to what they need to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. In recent decades Friends have been less and less attentive to this testimony, although most still believe it is important. This testimony has in part evolved into the newer testimonies mentioned above.
From today's perspective, Friends have not always followed their own testimonies. While Friends were some of the first to oppose slavery in the United States (Germantown Monthly Meeting minuted their opposition to slavery in 1733), a number of Friends owned slaves. John Woolman (1720–1772) made it his life's work to convince other Friends of the evil nature of slavery.
A number of Friends also fought during World War II, feeling that the reasons for fighting outweighed the Peace Testimony in this instance.
Modern Quaker beliefs
Quakerism is a creedless religion. George Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists", and modern Quakerism is less concerned with theology than many other faiths. This lack of focus has resulted in a broad range of theologies from fundamentalist Christian to new-age universalist. Quakerism focuses more on faithfulness in life in the here and now than in ultimate destiny. Although Evangelical and programmed Quakerism has become more akin to Protestantism, many Quakers consider their faith neither Protestant nor Catholic, but rather an expression of a third way to experience Christianity. There is a wide range of beliefs among Quakers, and some Friends consider Friends of other persuasions to not be true Quakers.
Quakerism is often termed a mystical religion, but it differs from other mystical religions in two important ways. First, its mysticism is group-oriented rather than focused on the individual. The unprogrammed Quaker meeting is an expression of that group mysticism, where all the members of the meeting can together listen for the Spirit and, ideally (in what is called a "gathered meeting") build on what the others have said in developing themes and ideas. The other way in which Quaker mysticism differs is in its outwardly directed activism. Rather than seeking withdrawal from the world, the Quaker mystic translates his or her mysticism into action, and Quakers have traditionally applied their values towards working for social and political improvements.
Quakerism has always placed a great emphasis on the Inner Light as a source of inspiration. Early Friends believed in the truth of the Bible in addition to the continuing revelation from God through Inner Light that spoke to the authors of the Bible. This tension between these two sources of theological understanding ultimately erupted in the United States, between those who placed more emphasis on the Inner Light, and those who placed more emphasis on the Bible. Many evangelic Friends groups openly declare that the teaching of Inner Light is a dangerous heresy. Friends in the United Kingdom managed to hold these trends together without dividing into separate organizations (at the time of the splits there were very few Friends outside the United States and United Kingdom).
American Quakerism has split into several branches, starting with the "Orthodox/Hicksite" schism of 1827-28. Although other factors played a role in that schism, there was a driving theological element. The "Orthodox" branch had moved closer in theology to Protestantism, while the "Hicksite" branch had moved in a liberal direction. The Orthodox branch underwent a further split in the middle of the nineteenth century between the more evangelical "Gurneyite" Quakers, and "Wilburite" Quakers who adhered to more traditional Quaker beliefs. In the midst of this split are the "Beanite" or independent Quakers, who resemble an amalgam of Hicksite and Wilburite Quakerism, some of them adopting the label "Christ-Centered Universalism".
In theology, differences among Quaker groups have widened since the initial 19th century schism. Today Quakers range the theological spectrum from conservative evangelical to liberal Christian and non-Christians. Non-Christian Quakers are usually found in the unprogrammed meetings.
One trait continued by modern Friends is taking a dim view of titles and ranks. For example, at Earlham College, a Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, professors and administrators are addressed by their first name by students, without the use of "professor" or "doctor".
Though the practices of plain dress and speech made them known as a "peculiar people," for the most part, modern Quakers dress and speak in a manner indistinguishable from others, but some Friends do retain the use of "thee" with other Friends. Friends also use certain distinctive terms when describing their theology and practices:
- Convincement: the process of a non-Friend becoming a Friend.
- Birthright Friend: those Friends born into families that are members of a Friends Meeting
- Speaks to my condition: directly addresses my personal understanding.
- That of God in everyone: the belief of an Inner Light within all people.
- Hold in the Light: think about, pray for, or hold special thoughts about another person.
- Lay down: what you do to a committee that is no longer needed, i.e. you disband it.
- Clearness: a process undergone to discern rightness of action, similar to consensus (when applied to group decision-making), but guided by a spiritual belief in the guide of the Holy Spirit or Inner Light.
Origin of the name Quaker
There are two stories for where the name Quaker came from. The first is that it was an insult. George Fox reported in his journal that, in 1650, on one of the many times he was arrested, Justice Bennet of Derby "first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God." The second story is that Friends were observed to tremble from the emotion of providing ministry to their meeting, and were therefore termed Quakers.
- Bacon, Margaret H. The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America
- Brinton, Howard H. Friends for 350 Years ISBN 0-875749-03-8
- Birkel, Michael L. Silence And Witness: The Quaker Tradition
- Hamm, Thomas D. The Quakers in America ISBN 0-231-12362-0
- ed. Mullet, Michael New light on George Fox ISBN 1850721424
- Pym, Jim Listening to the Light: How to bring Quaker simplicity and integrity into our lives.
- Smith, Robert Lawrence A Quaker Book of Wisdom ISBN 0-688-17233-4
- ed. West, Jessamyn The Quaker Reader
- Wilson, Lloyd Lee Essays On The Quaker Vision Of Gospel Order
- For the food company, see Quaker Oats