Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone. -- George Fox, 1656
The Spiritual Journey
The ex-nun, Karen Armstrong1, says in her History of God:2
There have been many theories about the origin of religion. Yet it seemed that creating gods is something that human beings have always done. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is simply replaced.
The religion of the western world is primarily Christianity. The dominant way of functioning within Christianity, after learning its message, is to establish ultimate authority. Catholicism relies on an established hierarchy and the authority of the Pope, while Protestants rely on a trained clergy teaching the authority of the Bible -- many believing that every word in it is both true and sacred. One group of Christians, the Quakers, seek guidance from the teachings of the Bible and Jesus, but ultimately rely on continuous revelation and the spiritual discernment of its religious community as its primary guide and authority. Quakerism -- A Brief Overview contains an account of how this small group of seekers have traveled on their spiritual journey.
Friends have found that God's direction is more easily discerned in the worshipful silence of the group. This search is not a solitary endeavor; rather, the Spirit is often shared in the communion of group silence through the spoken ministry of worshippers. The communal silence of Quaker Meeting for Worship provides spiritual nourishment and inspiration to serve the Divine and the divine in others and ourselves. To attain this experience of renewal, Friends open themselves to leadings from the "voice within." An attender should not he discouraged when "centering down" presents difficulties, since even experienced Friends sometimes find it difficult to close out the cares of the present.
The silent gatherings for worship instituted by founder George Fox and the early Seekers are still the center of Quaker life. These are open to all and are utterly simple: a coming together for a quiet hour in communion before God without liturgy or sacraments and without music or Bible readings -- although some meetings do have short "opening exercises" where the leader may use music and read from the Bible or other literature. Those coming together are invited to worship and to follow the leadings of the Spirit as whether or not to speak. Out of the silent and expectant worship, anyone may minister when truly moved.
Quakers is the name most often used to describe the 215,000 worldwide members of the Religious Society of Friends. The name Friends is frequently used as well. At its beginning in the 1650s in England, under the leadership of George Fox, the early followers were called Seekers, Seekers of the Truth, Friends of Truth or Children of the Light. Despite much persecution from the crown, Cromwell and other Puritans, many of these seekers spread the word of this religion which appeared to capture much of the spirit of the early Christians. Friends travelled with their message to the English colonies and to several countries in Europe and gained many adherents.
They were first called Quakers after Fox was taken to court to answer for his unorthodox views. Fox, on trial, told the judge to tremble and quake at the word of the Lord. When the judge asked Fox if he were a quaker, Fox proudly acknowledged it and the term "Quaker," meant to be derisive, was applied to him and his followers. It is now used interchangeably with Friend, the name derived from John 15:15:
...but I have called you friends; for all things I have heard from my Father, I have made known unto you.
Quakers and some other religious groups of the 1600s believed that the "Christ within" or "Inner Light" is in every person. Robert Barclay, an early Quaker leader and theologian, named as "the Quaker text" the Biblical passage (John 1:9) which said:
That (God) was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
Friends felt this was the essence of their relationship with the Divine Spirit. To reach it, one stilled oneself. Thus, living in the Spirit was sacramental, and there was no place -- nor need -- for creeds, dogma nor external celebration of sacraments.
This was the message of Fox and early Friends
- The Divine Spirit is in every human being.
- All have immediate access to God, and God to us.
Since we are all ministers, we have no need of ordained priests, nor do we need consecrated buildings nor the outward celebration of sacraments.
- Worship is most blest by gathering together in expectant silence to wait for God's guidance, which comes through either the stillness or the word of those moved to speak.
- A return to "primitive Christianity" enables all to truly follow the religion of love taught by Jesus as a way of life and the one way that should permeate our everyday living.
What Do Quakers Believe?
"By whose authority?"-- a good place to start
Quakerism depends on neither the Bible nor on priestly tradition. However, Friends do value the Bible and recognize the "priesthood" of all believers. Genuine belief cannot be second hand. George Fox said...
You will say, Christ saith this and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?
The belief that there is "that of God in every one" is the fundamental basis of Quakerism which has led to the following tenets and practice of this religion:
- the elimination of the need for a "hireling minister"
or other intermediary between the individual and God
- the opportunity and obligation for each to seek God's leading, both individually and corporately in worship
- as the writers of the Bible were inspired, the manifestation of the Inner Light also allows us to experience the continuing revelation of God
- the accordance of equality and respect to all
- the leading to respond to the needs of all peoples
- the refusal to take oaths, for there is but a single standard of truth
- the commitment to live simply so that others can simply live
- the "living" of the sacraments rather than the observation of them outwardly
- the conviction that peace can best be attained by striving to trust tolove rather than by reacting to fear
This revolutionary message is still the basis
of the Quaker faith.
To give life to these deeply hold concerns and understandings, Friends have developed, over the last almost 350 years, many testimonies, which might be called the Quaker equivalent of the creeds of other churches. The important differences between creeds and testimonies are that the former are theological and doctrinal and the latter, spiritual and ethical.
A concern held by Friends is that one's outward life needs to bear witness to truth discerned inwardly. Four main inter-connected testimonies are:
- Equality: there is that of God in each person and each has opportunities to express that divinity
- Integrity: a person needs to be truly in harmony with oneself and to be whole spiritually one needs to live one's beliefs
- Peace: the basic testimony shows both a positive concern towards taking away the occasion of all wars and the commitment to non-violence in resolving all matters of conflict
- Simplicity: a commitment to -- living simply so that others may simply live; avoiding all excess; living intentionally and withrestraint; and being true to one's beliefs
Ways that are: "existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social or economic system" 3
The 19th century American historian George Bancroft said:
The rise of the people called Quakers is one of the memorable events in the history of man. It marks the moment when intellectual freedom was claimed unconditionally by the people as an inalienable birthright.
Quakers think of life as sacramental and of all persons as being of value. Religion is not just a Sunday ceremony but is inseparable from everyday living. In the seeking of alternatives, Quakers are responding to that of God in each person and following the early preaching that our lives should speak. This commitment does not mean that Quakers live in a straight-laced conformity -- actually, there is a great deal of individualism among Friends. It is not a society of saints, but it does lead to an emphasis on responsibility and action. Some of the actions have included efforts in the field of conflict resolution and better treatment of the poor, disadvantaged and afflicted -- both in war and in peace -- as well as improving our social fabric.
Since the 1650s, the thread of seeking alternatives has been visible in Friends' lives. Quakers have been willing to oppose unjust laws, for they have felt their first allegiance was to God, not the state. In the early days of persecution, over 15,000 Friends were jailed for steadfastly living their beliefs, and more than 450 died from the effects of the horrible conditions in prisons. Four were even executed in Boston for bringing seditious teachings there.
Early Quakers were imprisoned for many reasons including refusal to pay tithes, swear oaths, serve in the army or seeming to be disrespectful of "superiors." As Alexis de Tocqueville was told by a Quaker in 1837, "The terrible sufferings of our forefathers and mothers in the prisons of the seventeenth century have given us as a people a special interest in the management of prisons and the treatment of crime."
An example of an alternative was the way in which William Penn changed the unjust criminal legal system. Penn and William Meade had been charged with "preaching in Gracechurch Street." The judge demanded a guilty verdict and, when the jury refused to deliver that verdict, he jailed them for contempt. The twenty-six year old Penn eloquently encouraged the jury to vote their conscience. They did and thus this famous trial established the integrity of the jury.
By 1813, prison conditions had improved slightly but were still terrible. Elizabeth Fry, concerned about the unjust system, had to plead to be allowed into Newgate prison to begin her work of teaching and clothing the prisoners. Most Quakers still see the death penalty as a denial of God's presence in every one and continue to work for its abolition.
Further concerns about social conditions led Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch to address these problems as they especially related to immigrants. They each received a Nobel Peace Prize for this work at Hull House (Chicago) and in Massachusetts and in their work for peace through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Before the right to worship as they desired was won by all citizens in England, William Penn was able to establish a royal colony in the New World guaranteeing that right. His Holy Experiment alleviated oppressive conditions for Quakers and all other settlers. This alternative form of government, as codified through Penn's Charter of Liberty of 1701, permitted the new colony to enjoy 70 years of a just and fruitful society. A "new" alternative to war was demonstrated by Pennsylvania's peaceful co-existence with the other colonies. The 1683 treaty and other agreements also established a pattern of peace and fair dealing with the Native Americans. Voltaire called it, "...the only treaty that was never sworn to and has never been broken." For three centuries Quakers have continued to work for this fair treatment.
Other ways in which Friends sought alternatives to "conventional wisdom" were by living in and creating an environment where slaves were freed and women were empowered. Many Quakers were active in helping slaves to freedom. Levi Coffin of Indiana was know as the "president" of the Underground Railroad. Laura Haviland was honored by the citizens of Adrian, Michigan with a statue after her death. Thomas Garrett of Delaware lost all of his property and was imprisoned for his work with Sojourner Truth. Lucretia Mott and several other Quaker women were leaders during the 19th century, both in the struggle to free slaves and in the women's suffrage movement.
During the 20th century, members such as Bayard Rustin, organizer of the famous civil rights march on Washington, as well as many others have been active in the civil rights movement, following their concern to ease the plight of those who suffer because of their conscience, youth, gender, color, religion or ethnic origin. These actions have frequently been taken with other religious groups. As a result many Quakers have been cooperatively active in settlement houses and other welfare organizations. With the Brethren and Mennonites in a New Call to Peacemaking, Friends take action in support of the traditional testimony on peace of these three religions.
Modern Quakers also carry on the tradition of the early ones by continuing the pioneering treatment of mental illness. In England and the United States, Quaker hospitals were the first to start the "gentle" treatment of the mentally ill. Programs abolishing shackling, ridicule of the "crazies" and jail-like warehousing of the "inmates" were put in place. Friends Hospital in Philadelphia discovered the beneficial effect of encouraging patients to garden and were pioneers in establishing Horticultural Therapy as a recognized discipline in the treatment of those suffering with mental illness.
A similar concern for the elderly in the 19th century led Friends to found boarding homes for their own members' care; these are now open to others without discrimination. 20th century innovations have included Quaker pioneering in the development of "Life-care Communities" for the elderly. Nineteen such communities under the direct care of Friends have been established since 1970. As a direct result of this involvement, Friends have also been the pioneers in the movement to Untie the Elderly, also called "restraint reduction."
The care for the environment, rather than "dominion" over it, has continued to be a concern of Friends from the days when William Penn wrote:
...education in the natural sciences would go a great way to caution and direct people in their own use of the world that they were better studied and knowing in the creation of it.
He laid out Philadelphia with his vision:
...that it may be a greene country towne which will never be burnt and be wholesome.
Many of the early arboretums in this country were established by Friends whose "spiritual descendants" continue their vital concern with environmental issues. Dutch Friends founded Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, at the start of the "green" movement, and American Quakers now have a nationwide Friends Committee on Unity with Nature.
By responding to testimonies, this small but fervent group has had and continues to have other impacts on society and the world including the founding of Pennsylvania and New Jersey; strong leadership in the colonies of North Carolina and Rhode Island; a major impact on the US Constitution, Bill of Rights and UN Charter; the establishment of public education; many innovations in the scientific, industrial and commercial area; and promoting mediation and conflict resolution. The adoption of current testimonies and the dedication to them encourages members to seek positive alternatives to the problems of living so that they may better carry out that commitment.
The English historian, G. M. Trevelyan wrote:
The finer essence of George Fox's queer teaching, common to the excited revivalists who were his first disciples, and to the Ôquiet' Friends of latter times, was surely this -- that Christian qualities matter much more than Christian dogmas. No church or sect had ever made this its living rule before. To maintain the Christian quality in the world of business and domestic life, and to maintain it without pretension and hypocrisy, was a great achievement of an extraordinary people. England may well be proud of having produced and perpetuated them.
Quakers in Today's World
The American Friends Service Committee is supported by most of the Quaker yearly meetings and by many individual Quakers, together with many other concerned people who feel that this organization is doing an effective job in assisting people all over the world. The AFSC was founded in 1917 and concentrated its efforts on war relief and aid to refugees. Now the AFSC works in fields of community development, international service and affairs, and peace education.
For this involvement in trying to ease the life of many, it and the Friends Service Council (the British Friends counterpart) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. AFSC's executive secretary and Board of Directors are Quakers as are about one third of its staff of 500.
Although Quakers have a testimony of peace, this does not require each member to be an active pacifist. The basic position on pacifism is subject to the individual's spiritual leading. This may lead one Friend to go to prison for refusing to register, another to join the armed forces, sometimes only in non-combat status. Thus in WW II about 8000 American Quakers served in the military -- 900 of them in noncombatant posts, while 800 served in Civilian Public Service camps and 80 were imprisoned for refusing to register.
Another Quaker organization which supports the peace testimony is the Friends Committee on National Legislation. FCNL is the first and oldest religious lobbying group in Washington and is supported by all branches of Quakerism. Members of Congress will frequently request position papers from FCNL because they respect the integrity and accuracy of the reports, even though they may not agree on the solutions offered.
The other important expression of Friends concern for peace, supported by Quakers around the world, is found at the United Nations offices in both Geneva and New York. At both sites there is a Quaker team which arranges, amongst other activities, opportunities for delegates to confer with one another in a nonthreatening environment.
George Fox's words on refusing a captaincy in Cromwell's army still express the religious basis of the Quaker opposition to all war. But Quakerism provides no easy answers -- each one must choose his or her own way of working to end violence in society.
The smallest "unit" of Friends is a Worship Group. This occurs when several Friends or friends of Friends in an area wish to get together and hold meeting for worship, perhaps in their homes. As the group grows, they may become a preparative meeting under the care of an established meeting. These Friends will meet regularly for worship but do not take care of business matters such as holding "clearness committees" for requests for membership or marriages. The next and most important stage of a group is to become a monthly meeting. This basic unit takes care of all legal and spiritual matters concerning its members. Although its relationship with other Friends of quarterly or yearly meeting is close, the monthly meeting is autonomous.
Business is conducted at a Meeting for Worship for Business and is under the care of a Clerk. This member is responsible for discerning the sense of the meeting, and then preparing a statement or minute which encompasses the decision(s) made. Friends do not vote, but seek to reach unity (not necessarily unanimity) in their decisions. A Recording Clerk (Secretary), Treasurer and Recorder (of membership statistics) are other officers appointed by the Meeting. In most monthly meetings there are several committees including Religious Education, Ministry and Worship, Overseers, etc. These further the work of the Meeting in its "pastoral" care and aid the members in living the testimonies. From the very beginnings of Quakerism, women have been serving on all these committees and as clerks.
Members from several nearby monthly meetings meet together four times a year for worship and business in a quarterly meeting. Yearly meeting, which meets annually to conduct business, comprises all members of the monthly meetings within its area. Every member is encouraged to attend these sessions for worship and business and to work on yearly meeting committees which provide services for Friends in monthly and quarterly meetings. These aids include preparing religious education materials, coordinating activities, revising the book of Faith and Practice, providing library services and facilitating actions on other concerns.
There are 35 yearly meetings in North America. 19 yearly meetings, with 638 worshipping groups (at least one in each of the 50 states and 9 of the Canadian provinces) and 37,500 members meet in worshipful silence with neither pastor nor ritual. Twelve of these unprogrammed yearly meetings have been formed in the last 45 years. The other branches of Quakerism use the pastoral and programmed form of worship.
Marriages take place in a Meeting for Worship. The couple requests clearness from the monthly meeting. When that is given, overseers are appointed to help with the marriage proceedings and make sure that the legal requirements are fulfilled. Before the marriage ceremony, the bride and groom walk in together, rather than following the medieval custom of having the father hand over the bride as chattel to her intended husband. During the worship, the couple rise and state their vows. Ministry during worship usually centers on aspects of marriage and well wishes to the couple. After Meeting for Worship, those attending sign the certificate as witnesses, a custom which goes back to the days when the certificate was the only "evidence" of the marriage, since both Quakers and their marriages were then illegal.
Education of children has long been a concern of Friends who have built and operated many schools. William Penn's thinking was instrumental in encouraging public education. After the Civil War, Friends set up many schools in North Carolina, which eventually became the nucleus of that state's education system. Quaker colleges have earned renown for their intellectual stimulation and excellence. Friends' schools have achieved much success although less than 30% of the student body is now poor, disadvantaged, minority or Quaker. A recent study showed that nearly one-third of the adult members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting are involved in the field of education in Quaker and public schools, colleges or other institutions.
after almost 350 years
Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) are a small group of religious seekers of just under 300,000 members. They are only .0085% of the entire world's Christians. The majority of Friends since the late 19th century have worshipped with pastors, sermons, hymns and set prayers; they are to be found in the Western Hemisphere and Africa.
The Friends described herein are less than 20% of all Quakers. They are the unprogrammed ones. They continue to accept the understanding of earlier Quakers who felt that they had rediscovered the original message of Jesus without the overlay of the interpretations of the centuries.
Many of these Friends have gone beyond their local community to give service to the wider world. Among these Quakers there have been numbers of prominent scientists, educators, pioneering industrialists, bankers, seven Nobel prize winners, three Pulitzer prize winners -- including the first to a woman political cartoonist, several ambassadors, the world's first woman president of a political party, and one of the two Quaker presidents of the United States of America.
This small group which eschews titles or special attention, has received both. In this century alone Friends have had numbers of members knighted by foreign governments, been given a nation's highest civilian award and in one case the USSR paid a pension to the widow of a Friend who lost his life to typhus, caught during his effort to drain marshes there.
In this century alone, there are some 100 organizations which have been founded by individual Friends, groups of Friends or Friends working with others. These range alphabetically from the Aids Quilt Project and Amnesty International through Belgium-American Foundation; CARE; Equal Rights Amendment; Girl Scout Cookies; Greenpeace; Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation; the Law of the Seas Treaty; Life Care Communities; National Peace Academy; OXFAM; SANE; SEICUS; WILPF; Women's Political Party; World Federalists through to and including Youth Hostels.
This record and these accomplishments do not make Friends saints, or even closely resembling saints. But it does indicate the power that humanity has if it wishes to devote itself wholeheartedly to fully living out its positive beliefs, whatever these may be.
To quote Billy Wyler, director of Jessamyn West's Friendly Persuasion film:
The trouble with Quakers is that there are not enough of them!
1 Professor at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, London, and Honorary Member of the Muslim Social Scientists. 2 Borzoi Book: Alfred A. Knopf ©1993 3 Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 9th ed. 1983
For further information on Quakers or the place of the Meeting for Worship nearest to you, contact: