Who are the Quakers?

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The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) arose in mid-17th century England, during the religious, social and political upheaval of the English Civil War. Founded by George Fox (1624-1691), the movement was not intended as a new denomination, but rather as a rediscovery of original Christianity without institutional limitations. With recently-acquired access to the Bible in English, converts to this new view called themselves "Friends of Truth," considering themselves to be friends of Jesus, after the Gospel of John 15:14 ("You are my friends if you do what I command you").

And when all my hopes in men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh! Then I heard a voice which said, 'There is One, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.' And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.

  - The Journal of George Fox, 1647

Subtitled The voice of one crying in the wilderness. A young man on a mountaintop, storm clouds behind him, his arms outstretched with a red-bound book - a bible? - in one hand. He wears what may be leather jacket and breeches, and his hair is longish.
"George Fox on the Mount of Vision", mural, Governor's Reception Room, State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. - Violet Oakley

The Religious Society of Friends, quote, might be thought of as a prism through which the Divine Light passes to become visible in a spectrum of many colours, many more in their richness than words alone can express, end quote. Faith and Practice
"Prism", Title panel, © Quaker Tapestry Scheme. One of 77 panels of community embroidery made by 4,000 people from 15 countries.
www.quaker-tapestry.co.uk



The Light may illuminate a gathered group as well as an individual heart and bind the group together in a community of faith, of conscience, or of experience.

  - Gordon Browne, Executive Secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas (1981-1988)

What Friends Believe

Friends have traditionally rejected creeds, but today's Quakers generally agree on these tenets:

  • There is That of God in all persons, often called the Seed or Christ Within or Inward Light, which can guide and shape each life in accordance with the will of God.
  • God is directly accessible to all persons without the need of either an intermediary priest or ritual. God speaks in a manner that is personal, direct and certain - a continuing revelation. This discernment is clarified through collective worship.
  • The Scriptures can be understood only by entering into the Spirit which produced them. Divine revelation did not end with the publication of the Bible but has continued through history and remains available to the person or worshipping group open to receive it.
  • True religion cannot be learned from books, set prayers or rituals alone, but comes from direct experience of God.
  • The infinity of Divine Truth cannot be confined by a creed or dogma. To do so would trivialize it and deny the importance of experiencing it directly.
  • Friends continually work to remove the causes of conflict and war, striving to trust in love rather than to react in fear.
  • God's creation should be respected and preserved. Concern for the environment and right sharing of resources are evidence of this respect.
  • The power and love of God is over all, erasing the artificial division between the secular and religious. All of life, when lived in the Spirit, becomes sacramental. Quakerism is thus a way of life, putting faith into daily actions.

MOCKED as trembling with religious zeal, Fox and his followers adopted the term "Quakers" as their own. Despite oppression and imprisonment, their numbers continued to grow throughout the 17th century. Missionaries volunteered in the New World, Turkey, and Russia during those first decades, and the faith has since spread around the globe.

World Family of Friends. Walk cheerfully over the world ... answering that of God in everyone. Words scattered about include sharing traditions, churches, meetings, FWCC, the Americas, Africa, Europe and Near East, Asia and West Pacific, and some names of countries.
"World Family of Friends", Final panel, © Quaker Tapestry Scheme. One of 77 panels of community embroidery made by 4,000 people from 15 countries.
www.quaker-tapestry.co.uk
Picture of the globe in background, with line of people in foreground including adults with children, someone with a basket on her head African style, someone in a wheelchair, and an older woman with a cane, all in silouette.
Poster for Friends United Meeting's Triennial, 1999. Quaker Life, June, 1998

Map of the US with Canada and Mexico on top and bottom, with icons for the number of meetings or churches in each state of the four major branches of the RSoF in America, named as Unprogrammed, Conservative, Pastoral, and Evangelical. Copyright Sally Rickerman, 6/93.
The Breadth, Depth and Stretch of Quakerism in North America
Number of meetings/churches per state/province, by branch

QUAKER forms of worship have diversified over 350 years, especially in response to geographical distance, scattered populations, or periods of revival and evangelism common to American Protestantism. Worship presently occurs in unprogrammed meetings where spoken ministry arises spontaneously out of silent waiting upon the Spirit, in meetings or churches with pastors and programmed worship, and in combinations of both. Each congregation (meeting or church) is autonomous but shares experience and insight by gathering annually in geographical regions called Yearly Meetings (similar to synods or dioceses) which overlap according to diversity in worship. Though methods and emphasis in worship now differ, Friends remain united in concern for traditional Quaker beliefs and social testimonies.

Painting of Friends in meeting for worship, with the faint presence of Jesus standing on the facing bench, his arms out over the group. Women and men are divided across the room, women in the foreground. Women wear blueish-grey dresses and white bonnets and shawls, men wear dark grey or black suits, most with with dark wide-brimmed hats. The mix of ages is notable, including a very young girl seated in the rear-most bench to the left side of the picture, who faces the viewer from between a man and woman, presumably her parents.
"The Presence in the Midst" - J. Dayle Penrose, 1916

Photo of a half-dozen Friends sitting together on several wooden benches, some heads bowed in worship while others gaze forward. All wear relatively plain modern dress; they are aged approximately from thirties to retirement age.
Friends in worship: present-day unprogrammed, non-pastoral, waiting worship. - Bruce Stromberg, Pendle Hill.
A large auditorium or church hall, photographed from the balcony with hundreds of people seated below and in the balcony. A grand piano and standing microphone are visible in the central space below.
Programmed, pastoral, evangelical worship - Oregon Yearly Meeting (now Northwest Yearly Meeting), 1975. The Quakers, Barbour and Frost, 1988.

Testimonies in Daily Life

Painting. A woman, perhaps in her thirties, stands in the second row of the facing benches in a meeting for worship, one hand up somewhat as if speaking, while an older man next to her cups his ear. More than a dozen others are visible in the two facing benches and two of the front benches in the main part of the meeting room, many have their heads bowed in worship while a few gaze up. They are divided by gender from one side to the other, and remarkably, the shades of gray and cut of their plain dress vary considerably. Two young girls sit on a facing bench, one of them wears a light blue dress and light-colored hat, the other in a green dress appears to look straight at the viewer.
"The Message" - J. Walter West

A Quaker testimony is a belief that stems from our fundamental understanding of religious truth. It is a corporately held belief about how we should individually act. In practicing them, we witness to our understanding of the very nature of God's spirit of love and truth.

  - Jonathan Dale, English Quaker, 1996

Equality

Seeking to affirm the divine potential in each of us leads to building community. Equality needs to be implemented through social justice, as we strive to reflect God's equal valuation of us in our treatment of one another. Friends support equality, regardless of race, gender, faith, class, financial status and age.

Community

The Religious Society of Friends is a community of faith based on experience of a transforming power named many ways: the Inner Light, the Living Christ Within, the Divine Presence, That of God Within. Friends join together in worship, in caring for the business of their meetings and churches, and in acting corporately upon their beliefs in the wider world.

We know ourselves as individuals but only because we live in community. Love, trust, fellowship, selflessness are all mediated to us through our interdependence. Just as we could not live physically without each other, we cannot live spiritually in isolation. We are individually free but also communally bound.

  - Janet Scott, English Quaker, 1980

Simplicity

While visible outward signs such as plain speech and plain dress are rarely used, Friends still advocate sufficiency, without excess. Today "plain" means keeping mental and fiscal proportion in a very material world. Quakers aim to focus on what is essential and eternal, by exercising spiritually-led restraint in their daily lives.

The testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light, outward expressions reflective of the inward experience of divine leading, differently described by various friends and in changing eras.

  - Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Faith & Practice, 1997

More than seven people sit on the pavement in front of the White House, one wears a sign that reads Violence Begets Violence, stop the (war, presumably). Three men in dark uniform with badges and dark glasses stand among them, one putting plastic handcuffs on a young man in a cap, who faces away from them on his knees with his arms behind him.
Demonstration regarding violence in Yugoslavia. Washington, DC, June 1999. - Terry Foss, AFSC

Peace

Since all human beings are children of God, Friends are called to love and respect all persons and to over come evil with good. This involves a range of actions, from working to remove the roots of violence through refusing to participate in physical violence - including military-related efforts, as well as psychological and economic violence, to striving to ease the sufferings of all victims of violence.

Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. ... So the seeds of war swell and sprout and grow and become strong until much fruit is ripened. ... May we look upon our treasures ... and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions

  - John Woolman, American Quaker, c.1764

Integrity & Truth

... swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay be nay.

  - Bible, James 5:12

Behavior should be consistent towards every person and situation. Friends thus use fixed prices rather than haggling and refuse to take oaths. They bear witness publicly to their beliefs even if it might result in punitive consequences. Quakers try to be consistent in word and deed.


Copyright © 2000-2001, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting