All Quakers in the world share common roots in a Christian movement that arose in England during the middle of the 17th century. Separations over our history have resulted in different branches of Friends that emphasize different parts of this common history, while having departed from it in different ways over the course of our evolution. Today, modern Friends exhibit significant variations in the ways we interpret our traditions and practice our beliefs.
Nowhere are these differences more marked than in the United States, which contains at least four distinct branches of Friends. The articles linked at the bottom of this page describe these branches in greater depth. Briefly, the features that distinguish the branches most markedly are:
- manner of worship ("unprogrammed" silent worship without pastoral leadership vs. "programmed" or "pastoral" worship guided by a pastor, with or without a period of silence);
- theological emphasis ("Orthodox," placing the strongest emphasis on the authority of Christian scripture, vs. "Liberal," placing the strongest emphasis on the authority of the Inward Light);
- evangelism (some branches practice missionary or evangelical work, as well as social service, while others limit themselves primarily to service work); and
- affiliating organizations (the three organizations through which many North American Friends are affiliated include Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, and Evangelical Friends Church International). Some Friends are not associated with any of these organizations; some are affiliated with more than one.
Liberal Friends meetings practice unprogrammed worship. They emphasize the authority of the Inward Light, and their membership contains both those who identify themselves as Christians and those who do not. They are often active in service work, but generally not in missionary or evangelical activities. Many liberal meetings are affiliated with Friends General Conference; some are dually affiliated with FGC and Friends United Meeting; some are independent (unaffiliated). Map of yearly meetings.
Conservative Friends are "conservative" in the sense that they tend to "conserve" the Friends tradition as it was believed and practiced in the mid-19th century. In their meetings, they adhere to unprogrammed worship, and some members continue to practice traditional "plainness" of dress and speech. They acknowledge the authority of Christ Within and also of the Christian scripture. [Conservative Friends do not have an affiliating organization beyond the level of their yearly meetings (regional groupings). Contact information for the three Conservative yearly meetings is listed at Quaker branches today.]
Pastoral Friends meetings practice "programmed" worship services often guided by pastors. This branch has traditionally emphasized the authority of Christian scripture. They are active in service and missionary work. Most pastoral Friends meetings are affiliated through Friends United Meeting.
Evangelical Friends churches are similar to other Evangelical Christian bodies, with a strong emphasis on the authority of Christian scripture. These Friends practice programmed worship and are more likely to call their congregation a "church" rather than a "meeting." They are active in missionary, evangelical and service work, and are generally affiliated with Evangelical Friends Church International.
For more in-depth information, see:
Different kinds or "flavours" of Friends - a more fully developed world perspective from the Friends World Committee for Consultation;
Branches of Friends in the Americas for an explanation that emphasizes the North American experience (prepared by Friends World Committee for Consultation--Office of the Americas);
A historical explanation of the branches of Friends (from FWCC-Americas); A graphic chart of the primary divisions among Friends;
A map of U.S. Quaker distributions with "branch" identifications;
The Separation After a Century : a 1927 article by Elbert Russell originally serialized in Friends Intelligencer and republished electronically by Friends Journal as part of their 50th Anniversary celebration.
Friends World Committee for Consultation counts five branches, based on affiliation networks. See an adaptation of their publication Branches of the Religious Society of Friends in the Americas.