Faith and Practice
The Religious Society of Friends, sometimes called Quakers, began in England over 350 years ago at a time of great religious and political turmoil. The established church in England then put great emphasis upon outward ceremony and little emphasis upon inward experience and righteous living. As a result, many people were restless and dissatisfied, seeking for a religion of personal experience and direct communion with God. George Fox, the leader of the Quaker movement, was born in 1624. Although an earnest seeker, he could not find peace and satisfaction in the established church. When, after a long search, he despaired of finding help from the religious leaders of his day, he heard a voice within saying, "There is One, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition."
This glorious witness of the living Christ within his own heart was the answer to his search for reality. He had found the way to direct communion with God -- without ritual or ceremony and without the help of ordained clergy. This was a revolutionary discovery for his day, and he soon ran into strong opposition. George Fox and thousands of his followers were imprisoned in the years of terrible persecution that followed. These Friends were concerned to find again the life and power of the early Church. They sought reality of experience and were little concerned with ritual and speculative theology. In worship, they met together seeking for the living presence of God as an immediate and present reality. In everyday life they were known for sincerity, honesty, simplicity, gentleness, and loving kindness.
The famous philosopher William James once said: "In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness and a return to something more like the original truth than [people] have ever known in England." The movement grew rapidly in the latter half of the 17th Century, and by the time of the death of George Fox in 1691 there were between 40,000 and 50,000 Quakers in England. Great numbers of these early Friends came to America. Pennsylvania was settled under the leadership of William Penn. Other colonies such as New Jersey, Maryland, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and others had large numbers of Quaker settlers. Today Friends are scattered around the world. Strangely enough, the largest yearly meeting is neither in England nor in the United States, but in East Africa. The name "Friends" is taken from the words of Jesus: "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14). The term Quaker was first a nickname given to early Friends because they "trembled under the power of God."
What Do Friends Believe?
Friends hold many beliefs in common with other Protestant denominations. As Protestants we emphasize the redeeming grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We believe in the life everlasting. We believe in the inspiration of the holy scriptures, and we especially emphasize the continued guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit which gave us the scriptures. Our statements of faith are based upon the teachings of Jesus as we understand them, and upon the realities of our own spiritual experiences.
Quakers today strive to make our spiritual reality visible to the world through simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality. While it is not always lived by every member of every meeting for worship, it is at the heart of Quaker culture and many strive to make these things the testimony of our lives.
Simplicity - People genuinely hunger for a deeper understanding of how to make their life richer in spirit and less cluttered in soul. Many non-Quakers are writing and talking about this and Quakers have historically embraced it as a significant part of our collective voice. Simplicity is not only about the stuff we own but it's also about the state of our soul. Is it cluttered and chaotic or is there a sense of balance and contentment? Stewardship of our world and things in our world is also important to Quakers. Many Friends seek to live simply, guarding against waste and resisting extravagant consumption that leads to inequities and impoverishment of life in our world.
Peace - The world is full of strife, hate and violence. In smaller ways, many people are restless and discontent and trying to fill their souls with short term fixes and spiritual substitutes. Friends know a peace that comes through the Living Christ that teaches how to live in peace with others. In addition to peace on a personal level, Quakers strive to actively work for peace and justice in the world and to live in life affirming ways to resolve conflict and turn away from violence, war and destruction.
Integrity - A favorite Quaker phrase is, "Let your life speak." Friends strive to make our walk match our talk. Friends seek to live lives that are whole and integrated. Quakers try to be honest in all ways and live with an undivided hearts. The world seeks a faith and way of life that is authentic, real, and undivided. The testimony of Quakers today calls us to that authentic Christian life.
Community - People are fragmented and disconnected in the modern world. There is a longing to live relationally and not just be hooked up to technology and gadgets. Quakers value relational connection with others and seek to experience it in our worship and in our lifestyles.
Equality - Friends value everyone regardless of their station in life, their titles, gender, or even values. Quakers offer a place for both men and women in ministry and consider everyone equal in the sight of God. Quakers acknowledge that there is that of God in everyone.
(much of the above paragraph is shared from writings of Jim Newby and Scott Wagner)
The Quaker system is quite simple. The local group is called a Meeting (what most people think of as a church). The gathering for worship is called a meeting for worship, not only because the people meet together, but also because they meet God. The local group is called a Monthly Meeting because the Meeting meets monthly to conduct business. All the Monthly Meetings in a given locale assemble several times (four, historically) per year for worship and business; this is called the Quarterly Meeting. The Quarterly Meetings in a given location (state or region) send representatives to an annual gathering called a Yearly Meeting. And several Yearly Meetings have associated themselves together in a cooperative group which meets every three years, with headquarters in Richmond, Indiana. This is called Friends United Meeting.
In a Monthly Meeting, the principal officer is a clerk, who sits at the head of the meeting for business. The whole group seeks to find the will of God in a spirit of worship. The clerk does not take a vote, but seeks to find unity of mind and heart upon which the group can take action. If there is disunity, action is delayed until harmony can emerge.
In the early days, Friends did not have pastors, and some Yearly Meetings are still non-pastoral. In recent years most of the Yearly Meetings belonging to Friends United Meeting adopted the pastoral system because a full-time person was needed to promote the spiritual interests and general activities of the membership.
In most meetings, there is a period of silence during which individuals are encouraged to participate as they feel led. Silence in itself is not worship; rather it is an opportunity to worship, to seek, listen to, and commune with God.
Making A Difference
Historians generally agree that the Quakers have wielded an influence for righteousness far out of proportion to their numbers. Quaker concern has always reached out to the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering. For example, in 18th century England the mentally deranged were imprisoned, chained, and beaten. The Quakers felt that this cruel treatment was not right and that disturbed people should have loving care, a peaceful atmosphere, and some interesting work to do with their hands. Thus Friends laid the foundation for the modern care of the mentally ill and established the first institutions for this purpose.
In the settlement of America, William Penn and other Quaker leaders felt that the Indians should be treated with "openness, brotherhood, and love." In turn, the Indians pledged their good faith and friendship so long as " the creeks and rivers run and while the sun, moon, and stars endure." While other settlers were fighting wars with the Indians, the Quakers lived with them in peace.
The first public protest against slavery in America was made by the Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1688. From that day forward the Friends were leaders in the movement for the abolition of slavery.
The Friends were centuries ahead of their times in granting equality to women in the affairs of the Meeting, in education, and in civil rights. The democracy which we enjoy today in America is due in no small measure to the ideals of the early Friends in refusing to recognize rank or title as a mark of superiority.
One of the greatest contributions of Friends through the years has been in the realm of peacemaking. In 1947, the American Friends Service Committee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "in recognition of a 300 year old ideal." Friends seek to live "in that spirit which takes away the occasion for war."
Adapted from WHO ARE THE QUAKERS? A BRIEF STATEMENT BY SETH B. HINSHAW