Friends, Religious Society of

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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.]

Religious Society of Friends

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

Friends, Society of

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Religious Society of Friends

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Religious Society of Friends official name for the Quakers.

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