Religious Society of Friends

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One of the smaller Protestant denominations, referred to also as Quakers, or Friends, or Friends Church.

Origin and history. It originated about 1650 under the leadership of George fox and other voluntary itinerant preachers. Within a decade, scores of these "first publishers of Truth" had carried their message throughout Great Britain and Ireland, to northern Europe, to the British colonies on the American seaboard, and to the West Indies. Regular meetings for worship were organized locally and continued to grow, although those in Holland, Germany, and the West Indies gradually died out.

Because of their rejection of compulsory church attendance and of military service and their deliberate disregard of minor social conventions, such as deference to superiors and judicial oaths, the Quakers met vigorous opposition nearly everywhere they went during their first half-century. At first this took the form of public disapproval or mob violence, but later special legislation against them was enforced by the courts. In Massachusetts, for example, four Quakers were executed between 1659 and 1661. Whatever the source of the nickname Quaker, it was used by the public in scorn. However, the unyielding pertinacity of the Friends, who refused to meet in secret, and their constant public nonresistance ultimately won them at least pity and toleration. In England their position improved after the Toleration Act of 1689, and by 1700 they had become a substantial segment of the total population both in Great Britain and the American colonies. In several of the latter they even held political control for a time. The areas of their greatest strength were Rhode Island, the Middle Colonies, and later Maine, North Carolina, and Nantucket, Mass. During the westward expansion movement, many Friends migrated into Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, partly to escape from the slave economy; later they moved farther west to the Pacific coast. After the Civil War, they made converts in the new Western settlements and undertook foreign missionary work in non-Christian cultures.

Doctrine. Arising as they did in England during the Commonwealth of Oliver cromwell, the Friends not only shared much of the prevailing antipapal bias of the puritans, but they went even further in rejecting formalism in worship and belief. They appealed to the absence of precedent in the New Testament for using "Saint" as in St. Paul's, for observing Christmas and other religious days, for giving tithes, for being married by a priest or with a ring, and for many other remnants of medieval "superstition." They preferred "divine immediate revelation" to the authority of church, creed, or Bible. They have retained their emphasis on continuing first-hand religious experience. In one sense they have been at the opposite extreme from Roman Catholicism, but in other respects, such as their relative freedom from bibliolatry and their tendency to mystical or quietistic piety, they are more parallel to it than to Protestantism. Their emphasis on experience put them on guard against mere verbalism. They knew and used the Bible, but not as the chief rule of faith and conduct. Theological criticism from their contemporaries forced them into formulating a theology of their own. Robert barclay in his classic Apology (1676) gave a logical defense of their views and practices, limiting himself to matters in which Quakers differed from the generality of Christians.

Freedom from a rigid creed has permitted great variety of belief in modern times and provided an excuse for inarticulateness. It has, however, posed problems to Friends and to members of other churches; ecumenical movements, otherwise congenial to Quaker participation, favor a statement of faith, no matter how simple or broad that statement may be. Meanwhile, what the early Friends called the Light Within or the Light of Christ is increasingly recognized as Christian experience in other groups.

Forms of worship. The Quakers early rejected most of the usual forms of Christian worship, Anglican or Roman, and even those of the Protestant sects. They fell into the practice of spontaneous, unprogrammed, cooperative worship. No human leader was designated and no formal ministry established to conduct worship. There were no consecrated buildings, persons, or objects; no hymns or other music; no reading or recitation; no ritual; no outward sacraments, not even baptism of water or the physical Eucharist. Women spoke and prayed as well as men, each whenever he felt moved. Silence was the background of worship and often its prevailing feature. This democratic and spontaneous type of worship is without much known parallel or precedent; it is one of the most distinctive features of Quakerism, still attractive to certain persons. In parts of America it has been superseded (except for the absence of sacraments) by something much like the usual type of nonliturgical Protestant service.

Organization. The Friends very early evolved a simple organization consisting of union in local meetings grouped into progressively larger units called respectively Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly Meetings. These are largely autonomous. Various larger groupings of Yearly Meetings came into existence in America, two of them by coincidence in the same year, 1902. One was called the Friends General Conference, the other the Friends United Meeting. A third grouping, the Evangelical Friends International was founded in 1990, emerging out of the Evangelical Friends Alliance (established 1965). The Evangelical Friends seek to retrieve what they believe to be the Christ-centered evangelical character of the early Friends movement.

Although each Yearly Meeting has its own printed Book of Discipline, there is in fact worldwide similarity of practice in this kind of "congregational" polity, with no real distinction between clergy and laity, nor between men and women. Leadership is "recognized" as existing without human appointment.

The proceedings in the meetings for business are as democratic as in those held for worship. The matters discussed are decided not so much by debate and voting, as by the gradual emerging of a consensus, called "the sense of the meeting," which it is the duty of the "clerk" who presides to wait for and to record. This kind of procedure has features as unfamiliar to most churches as is the distinctive Quaker worship. Communication among Friends and an indirect setting of standards have resulted from the regular presentation in the business meetings of a questionnaire called "queries," concerning the behavior of the members of the meeting. The solidarity of Friends, prior to the present use of church periodicals, was promoted as well by the constant intervisitation by "public Friends" to the various Quaker communities.

Membership rests upon individual attachment to a local meeting either by birthright, automatically applied to children of Friends, or by "convincement" expressed by a request to be included. In neither case is adherence marked by any elaborate formality such as Baptism or Confirmation. For many years membership was lost if a member married a nonmember.

Recent Trends. The early persecutions, subsequent quietism, and intermarriage within a small group of Friends, resulted in a close-knit, somewhat aloof culture. Outside contacts, secular and lately ecclesiastical, have changed this. Waves of political, social, and religious thought have penetrated the Religious Society of Friends; in America this led to actual schisms in 1827 and again later. Prominent figures in these alignments were Elias Hicks (17481830) of Long Island, N.Y., and Joseph John Gurney (17881846) of Norwich, England. In Gurney's thought, and in that of many Friends to this day, evangelical theology became more central and extreme than in early Quakerism (see evangelicalism). On the other hand, intellectualism and social concern gained fresh support from many.

The continuance of numerous schools and colleges established by the Friends attests the Quaker concern for education, originally, but not now, chiefly for their own children. At all periods Quakerism manifested a sensitivity to social needs; this was exemplified in the work of Elizabeth fry in prison reform and that of John woolman and John G. Whittier (the New England poet) in campaigns against slavery. Quakers also interested themselves in movements for justice for the Native Americans and for the humane treatment of the insane. Their opposition to war and their contributions to relief work, for which they received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, have made them widely known and given them an influence out of proportion to their small numbers.

In the 20th century, Friends from all countries were brought into fellowship by the Friends World Committee on Consultation (FWCC). Established in 1937, following the Second World Conference of Friends in Swarthmore, Pa., the FWCC promotes collaboration and exchange of resources at regional, national, and international levels through conferences, publications, consultations, studies, and meetings. Headquartered in London, England, the FWCC is registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the United Nations (U.N.), and participates extensively in U.N. endeavors to promote world peace. In the ecumenical arena, the Friends United Meeting and the Friends General Conference are members of the world council of churches, while the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is a member of the national council of the churches of christ in the united states of america.

Bibliography: Classics first pub. at the dates indicated are accessible in various later editions: r. barclay, Apology (1676). g. fox, Journal (1694). w. sewel, History of the Quakers (1722). j. woolman, Journal (1774). Modern works repr. or in print include w. c. braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1955); The Second Period of Quakerism (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1961). r. m. jones et al., The Quakers in the American Colonies (New York 1962); The Later Periods of Quakerism, 2 v. (London 1921). h. h. brinton, Friends for 300 Years (New York 1952). f. s. mead, s. s. hill and c. d. atwood, Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Nashville, Tenn.2001).

[h. j. cadbury/eds.]

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Religious Society of Friends, religious body originating in England in the middle of the 17th cent. under George Fox. The members are commonly called Quakers, originally a term of derision.

Origins and Early Years

Claiming that no theologically trained priest or outward rite is needed to establish communion between the soul and its God, Fox taught that everyone could receive whatever understanding and guidance in divine truth they might need from the "inward light," or "inner light," supplied in their own heart by the Holy Spirit. Many of his early converts were from among groups of separatists. Calling themselves Children of Light, Friends in the Truth, and Friends, they eventually agreed upon the name Religious Society of Friends.

The Friends regarded the sacraments of the church as nonessential to Christian life. They refused to attend worship in the established church and to pay tithes. They also resisted the requirement to take oaths and opposed war, refusing to bear arms. Believing in the equality of all men and women, Friends would not remove their hats before their alleged superiors. Consequently, they were subject to persecution until the passage of the Toleration Act of 1689.

The Friends in the United States

In colonial America the Friends often met with severe condemnation and some persecution, except in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where in 1682 William Penn settled his famous colony. As religious freedom grew, the Friends sent representatives to the Continent and to America, Asia, and Africa. Although for reasons of conscience Friends could not take an active part in the Revolutionary War, they were loyal in upholding the new national government. They subsequently found a wide field of activity in philanthropic movements, taking the lead in the effort to abolish slavery. Among noted American abolitionists were John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The Friends worked for prison reform (e.g., Elizabeth Fry), for improvement in insane asylums, for mitigation of the penal code (especially abolition of capital punishment), and for the betterment of common education.

In 1827 questions arising in connection with the preaching of Elias Hicks divided the American Friends into two groups, the "Hicksites," who placed emphasis upon the individual's belief as guided by revelation to his or her own spirit, and the "Orthodox," who gave to the elders the duty of decision as to soundness of doctrine. At the same time, under Joseph J. Gurney, there was an evangelical revival among Friends in the western states, with a tendency to discard many of the old forms and distinctions. Another break occurred in 1845 in New England, when the adherents of John Wilbur set up a new yearly meeting in protest against what they considered dangerous departures from the teachings and ways of the early Friends. Two superficial marks of the Friends generally disappeared—the plain language, in which they used "thee" to everyone as a mark of equality, and the plain gray dress, the broad-brimmed men's hats, and the women's bonnets.

The Service

Avoiding liturgies and all elaboration that might interfere with the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Friends often meet for worship without set form and frequently without stated leaders, in services known as "unprogrammed" meetings. Any member is at liberty to follow the impulse of the spirit in prayer, praise, or exhortation. A meeting may be spent entirely in silent receptivity and communion. A "programmed" meeting may have some form of ceremonial order. Ministers are not required to have special training; any man or woman who experiences the call to the work and gives evidence of sincerity and ability may be recorded as a minister. In more recent years, however, many of the Friends who seek the ministry have studied at theological schools.

The Organization of the Society

The organization of the Society includes meetings for worship and monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings. In the United States, the old lines of division between Orthodox, Hicksite, and Conservative (or Wilburite) Friends have grown considerably less, and there have been many signs of interest in reunion. The Religious Society of Friends is a member of the World Council of Churches. The Friends World Committee for Consultation is valuable to the international community of Friends, and the organization of the Wider Quaker Fellowship offers to non-Quakers, in sympathy with the Quaker spirit, a chance to aid in the work of the Friends. During the late 1990s, there were around 104,000 members in the United States and approximately 200,000 worldwide.

The Friends have long been workers in the cause of peace and international understanding. The accomplishments in overseas relief and reconstruction achieved by the American Friends Service Committee, organized in 1917, are widely recognized. This body and the Service Council of the British Society of Friends were jointly awarded the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize. Educational activity among the Friends has resulted in the establishment and support of a number of schools and colleges.


See R. M. Jones, The Faith and Practice of the Quakers (1927, repr. 1980); R. Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few (1984); B. Reay, The Quakers and the English Revolution (1985); E. D. Bonner and D. Fraser, ed., The Papers of William Penn (1986); R. S. and M. M. Dunn, ed., The World of William Penn (1987); H. L. Barbour and W. Frost, The Quakers (1988); M. H. Bacon, Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America (1989); J. Walvin, The Quakers: Money and Morals (1998).

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Re·li·gious So·ci·e·ty of Friends official name for the Quakers (see Quaker).

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Religious Society of Friends official name for the Quakers.