Christianity: Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

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Christianity: Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

FOUNDED: 1652 c.e.


The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, emerged in the 1650s in England and soon expanded to the American colonies and else-where. The term "Friend" derives from John 15:14, where Jesus says, "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." According to one account, the name "Quaker" was given to Friends by a judge who observed their tendency to tremble under divine conviction.

The immediacy of religious experience is held by Friends to be the core of the spiritual quest. In their commitment to integrity and authenticity, Friends have provided several "testimonies" about the unmediated character of worship, the spiritual nature of the sacraments, peace and nonviolence, plainness in speech and lifestyle, and a method of decision making in which believers are led by God in unity.

There are now some 400,000 Friends throughout the world: 95,000 in North America; 25,000 in Britain and Europe; 180,000 in East and Central Africa; 90,000 in Latin America; and 10,000 in Australia and Asia.


George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was born at Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, England, in 1624. A preacher, he received a vision in 1652 of "a great people to be gathered," and when he later gave a three-hour sermon at Firbank Fell, the vision was fulfilled. The crowd was so moved by the experience that several dozen, called the "Valiant Sixty," set off to preach the good news. Within a decade the movement had grown to more than 10,000 people, and despite restrictive laws, by the turn of the century the number had reached 50,000. After William Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania in the 1680s, Friends continued to migrate from England to the colonies, where they had a great impact upon the development of American democracy and social ethos.

British and American Friends contributed significantly to the abolitionist movement and other social reforms. In the United States Friends living in slaveholding regions migrated north and west, later to became the backbone of the pastoral and evangelical developments among Quakers. In 1827 a major split developed among American Friends, as the followers of Elias Hicks split off from orthodox Friends in an attempt to preserve the inwardness of religious experience and authority. Followers of John Wilbur also split off, seeking to preserve the plain testimonies of Friends in speech and dress and reacting against more expressive and ordered approaches to worship and teaching. The pastoral Friends, or those employing pastors, emerged in the 1870s and 1880s as Quaker preachers joined with other revivalist ministers in the healing of the nation after the Civil War. This accounts for four major groupings of Friends in the United States and beyond: Friends General Conference (Hicksite, nonpastoral, and theologically liberal), Friends United Meeting (orthodox and largely pastoral), Evangelical Friends International (pastoral and theologically conservative), and Conservative Friends (Wilburite, nonpastoral, and theologically conservative). The most significant demographic development among Friends during the twentieth century was the missionary expansion into Latin America, Africa, and Asia.


Despite the fact that Friends consider themselves noncredal, they have doctrines and expectations of moral conduct. Among the yearly meetings of Friends around the world, each has its own Constitution and Discipline or Faith and Practice, in which central doctrines are spelled out. The leading theological treatises of Friends include Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678) and Joseph John Gurney's Peculiarities of Friends (1824). The closest thing to a common confession is the "Richmond Declaration of Faith," a statement approved in 1887 by orthodox Friends gathered from most sectors of American Quakerism but excepting Hicksites and Wilburites. The statement was drafted by Joseph Bevan Braithwaite of the London Yearly Meeting, and following the conference, most Friends affirmed it.

According to the declaration, Friends affirm one holy, all-wise, and everlasting God. They affirm the redemptive and revelatory mission of Jesus Christ, through whose saving death believers receive remission of sins and through whose presence they are granted life and direction. Friends believe in the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit and in its ability to deliver humanity from the grip of sin. The Holy Scriptures are seen as having been given by inspiration and are held to be authoritative for faith and practice. On these matters most Friends are quite close to orthodox Christian groups, although liberal Friends have placed greater emphasis on the universal and continuing work of revelation.

Being somewhat at odds with such faith statements, Hicksite (Friends General Conference) and British Friends especially have upheld the doctrine of the Inward, or Inner, Light, existing within every person. Rooted in the biblical teaching that Christ was the "Light" that illuminated all humanity (John 1:9), Friends have believed that all persons have access to the saving and revealing work of God regardless of their era, where they live, or their religion. The Light is apprehended inwardly, although its origin comes from beyond the individual. George Fox described Christian witness as "speaking to that of God in everyone," and Friends are happy to affirm authentic spirituality without restricting it to credal definitions—Christian or otherwise.

Friends hold several other distinctive positions on doctrinal issues. These include baptism, in which the spiritual experience is held to be more important than the ceremony. The true evidence of spiritual baptism is not the water of the rite but the changed life of the believer. On the Lord's Supper, Friends affirm that the presence of Christ is encountered within the meeting for worship and that authentic communion happens as believers abide in Christ and he in them. Authentic worship is held to be mediated solely by the workings of God within and among the hearts of persons and not by human agents, such as priests or pastors. Friends hold that liberty of conscience may require a person to defy civil authorities. Peace and nonviolence are required of believers, and oaths are seen as going against the command of Jesus.

Because the Light of Christ is accessible to all, Friends believe that effective witnessing involves listening as well as sharing. The conversion process is described not as proselytization but as "convincement." Friends hold that the ministry is a calling for all believers. Ministry has its roots in a transforming experience and a sense of calling, and it depends on the operation of the Holy Spirit in a person's life rather than on organizational structure or formal education.


For Friends moral conduct is central to the life of the spirit and calls for adherence to a number of commitments based on the teachings of Jesus. Among them are nonviolence and peacemaking. Friends have historically opposed capital punishment, and they take great care to be fair and honest. Friends are known for practicing plain speech and simple living. Friends have suffered at the hands of judges for refusing to swear oaths in court, although they will "affirm" that they are speaking the truth.

The causes embraced by Friends have included prison reform, care for the mentally ill, advances in medicine and technology, the abolition of slavery and racism, woman suffrage, ecological concerns, and Third World development. Friends have sought to be good stewards, returning their bounty to the service of humanity and the glory of God. It is believed that a person's calling should not be contrary to his means of employment but complementary to it. Friends have often given their lives to the service and educational professions, with 11 colleges and universities in North America alone having been founded by Friends.


In addition to the Bible, Friends use such modern anthologies as Christian Faith and Practice and Quaker Faith and Practice. Thomas Kelley's A Testament of Devotion (1941) and Hannah Whitehall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life (1875), in addition to the journals of George Fox and John Woolman, have become devotional classics.


Because Friends focus on spiritual reality, they have resisted the use of sacred symbols. The transformed human life and the fruit of the spirit are considered to be the true outward evidence of God's presence and work. Nonetheless, the meeting for worship is sometimes closed with a handshake.


George Fox (1624–91) is credited with founding the Religious Society of Friends. In the 1680s William Penn founded the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania (Penn's woods). Elizabeth Fry was known for her championing of prison reform in nineteenth-century England. In the twentieth century two U.S. presidents, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, had Quaker backgrounds, though of the two, only Hoover was a practicing Quaker while in office. Henry J. Cadbury, a leading twentieth-century New Testament scholar at Harvard University, was a founder of the American Friends Service Committee, a pioneering organization in peace and justice work. In 1947 he received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the committee, while Margaret Backhouse accepted the award on behalf of the British Friends Service Council, later renamed Quaker Peace & Social Witness.


Robert Barclay (1648–90) is credited with being the first genuine Quaker theologian. During the mid-nineteenth century Joseph John Gurney outlined a systematic theology of Friends and furthered progressive orthodoxy among American Friends. The nineteenth-century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier and the twentieth-century novelist James Michener were both Quakers. In the twentieth century Everett Cattell contributed to the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Fellowship of India, and Douglas Steere broadened an appreciation for the spirituality of world religions. Among modern writers Rufus Jones, D. Elton Trueblood, Parker Palmer, and Richard Foster are among the most noted.


The organizational structure among Friends is informal. The presiding officer at "meetings for worship" at which business is conducted is called a "clerk," and councils of elders, overseers, and stewards care for the needs of the local meeting. "Unprogrammed" Friends do not employ pastors or preachers, but "programmed" Friends "release" pastors and others for the ministry.


Because a church is not considered to be a building but rather the gathered people of God, Friends refer to the local congregation as a "meeting" and the place at which they gather as the "meetinghouse." Meetinghouses tend to be plain, and they characteristically have a large room for worship along with rooms for other purposes. The worship room is often arranged with the chairs or pews facing one other or in a semicircle and with the "facing bench," at the front, occupied by elders, or "weighty Friends," who have been recognized for their spiritual maturity and effectiveness in spoken ministry. Pastoral Friends use buildings similar to those of other Protestant churches, and they sometimes refer to their congregation as a church rather than a meeting.


Friends honor the sanctity of human life and seek to be effective stewards of the created order. They hold relationships to be of first importance. Because obedience to God is the first step of discipleship, waiting in silence is often considered a sacred endeavor for discerning the divine will.


Friends hold all days to be sacred and of equal importance before God, and they have traditionally refused to honor national and religious holidays. In the past Friends also rejected the ordinary names for days and months, such as Sunday and January, because of their pagan roots, choosing instead to use numbers—"first day" (Sunday), "second day" (Monday), and "first month" (January)—as is done in Scripture.


Friends oppose a person's setting off his or her status by means of dress or ornaments and therefore have testified against distinctive clothing. In previous centuries Friends advocated plain dress, often gray or black.


Quakers advocate healthy diets. Some Friends have supported animal rights and been advocates for cooperative systems of food production. In providing alternatives to more addictive substances, Friends were forerunners in the chocolate industry, and root beer was first introduced in 1876 as a marketable product by Charles Hires, an American Quaker.


There are considerable differences in worship between "unprogrammed" and "programmed" Friends. Within the four main organizations of Quakers, Friends General Conference and Conservative Friends are largely unprogrammed, not using pastors or orders of worship, while Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International use pastors and an informal order of worship.

Worship among unprogrammed Friends is unstructured, with periods of silence providing an opportunity for those who feel led to speak to do so. Silence is not the goal but rather involves creating the opportunity to attend and respond to the presence of God. The meeting for worship tends to run an hour in length. As people enter the room, they do so in silence, and the first half hour or so is a time of "centering" thoughts and sentiments upon God. Several people may feel led to speak, but rarely is a person expected to speak more than once in a meeting. A person's contribution is released to the rest of the meeting, and if it resonates with others, the message is built upon. Sometimes a passage of Scripture or another text is read, and in more expressive meetings singing is not uncommon.

The weddings and funerals of unprogrammed Friends follow the same format. A minister does not officiate at a Quaker wedding. Instead, God joins the couple in matrimony as vows are exchanged in the presence of family and friends. It is customary for all present to sign the certificate of marriage as witnesses. At a Quaker funeral spontaneous sharing is expected, especially as those present share thoughts about what the life of the deceased has meant to them.

Meetings of programmed Friends are often similar to other Low Church (less formal), Protestant orders of service. Programmed friends employ pastors and other leaders of worship, and the service might include hymns, public prayers, and a message by the pastor. There is also time set aside for open (unprogrammed) worship, sometimes called "communion after the manner of Friends." Although it is customary for the pastor to speak, primary emphasis is placed upon responding to the leadings of Christ with spontaneity.

Friends, both unprogrammed and programmed, advocate regular times of personal prayer and devotional reading.


With a few exceptions Friends are understated in the celebration of rites of passage. When attenders become members, they are introduced to the meeting, and if they have not already done so, they give testimony to their spiritual experience and commitments. Especially in programmed traditions babies are dedicated to God and prayed for, as parents and members alike pledge themselves to their careful upbringing. Upon entering adulthood, those born into the meeting, or "birthright" Friends, are invited to declare their own interest in becoming full members.


Criteria for membership are determined within each yearly meeting. While Friends do not proselytize, most believe in evangelism, or the sharing of good news. Pastoral Friends have followed enthusiastically in the tradition of the early Quakers, who sought to reach the world for Christ, and missions of evangelical Friends are the primary reason the movement doubled in size and expanded to Latin American and Africa during the twentieth century. More liberal Friends have been prolific as writers and pamphleteers.


Friends have been among the most tolerant of religious groups. Many in the twentieth century extended their inquiry into global spirituality by sharing fellowship with those from other religious traditions. Friends have been active in the ecumenical movement and have strongly opposed religious oppression and discrimination.


Friends have been forerunners in areas of social justice, including education, alleviation of poverty, and human rights. The Retreat (in England), opened in 1796, was the first facility designed for the care of the mentally ill, and in the nineteenth century Joseph Lancaster developed a program for offering free education to street children in London. In the United States, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet were leaders in the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony were leaders in woman suffrage.


Quaker egalitarianism extends to family life. Husbands and wives share roles equally and seek to work in a complementary partnership. Parents seek to explain to their children why a decision is worthy and try to help them understand the larger principles behind it. Because corporal punishment is at odds with Quaker commitments to nonviolence, parents resort to other means in exercising their authority.


On abortion evangelical and pastoral Friends tend to be pro-life, while liberal Friends tend to be pro-choice. Liberal Friends oppose capital punishment, although some more conservative Friends favor it for violent crimes. On homosexuality evangelical and more conservative Friends believe that repentance and providing the necessary support to overcome the practice is the loving approach, while liberal Friends tend to be affirming of same-sex relationships.

Quotes from George Fox,
Founder of the Quakers

A 1647 passage from George Fox's Journal illustrates how the idea for the Religious Society of Friends began in his own life experience: "And when all my hopes in them [religious leaders] and in all 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."

Another (1656) shows his conception of how Friends should live: "And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: 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 every one."

A minority of Friends, mostly within unprogrammed meetings, have argued that although the Quaker movement had Christian beginnings, its universal ethos transcends Christianity to include other religions (especially the Baha'i faith and Buddhism) and even atheism. Most Friends, however, while appreciating the interest of inclusivity, view this tendency as a departure from the historical and spiritual basis of Quaker faith and practice, which is Christ-centered in both religious experience and commitment.


While Quakers oppose self-aggrandizing aspects of the arts, they have nonetheless made distinctive artistic contributions. Quaker musicians have composed works with a social or spiritual message, and revivalist Friends have excelled in musical ministries. Edward Hicks (1780–1849), who is known as one of the foremost American folk painters, produced more than 100 renditions of Isaiah's "Peaceable Kingdom" motif, characteristically featuring William Penn's treaty with the Indians. Likewise known for their social commentary are the wood-block prints of Fritz Eichenberg (1901–90), more than 100 of which were featured in Catholic Worker magazine.

Paul N. Anderson

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity, Protestantism


Anderson, Paul. Meet the Friends. Rev. ed. Newberg, Ore.: Barclay Press, 2003.

Barbour, Hugh, and J. William Frost. The Quakers. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Barbour, Hugh, and Arthur O. Roberts, eds. Early Quaker Writings. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1973.

Barclay, Robert. Barclay's Apology in Modern English. Edited by Dean Freiday. Newberg, Ore.: Barclay Press, 1991.

——. Barclay's Catechism and Confession of Faith. Edited by Dean Freiday and Arthur O. Roberts. Newberg, Ore.: Barclay Press, 2001.

Fox, George. George Fox's "Book of Miracles." Edited by Henry J. Cadbury. Philadelphia: Friends Uniting in Publication, 2000.

——. The Journal of George Fox. Edited by John L. Nickalls. London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975.

Garman, Mary, Margaret Benefiel, Judith Applegate, and Dortha Meredith, eds. Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women's Writings, 1650–1700. Wallingford, Eng.: Pendle Hill Press, 1995.

Hamm, Thomas. The Transformation of American Quakerism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Houlden, David. Friends Divided: Conflict and Division in the Society of Friends. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1988.

Punshon, John. Encounter with Silence. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1987.

——. Portrait in Grey: A Short History of the Quakers. London: Quaker Home Service, 1984.

——. Reasons for Hope: The Faith and Future of the Friends Church. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001.

Trueblood, D. Elton. The People Called Quakers. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1971.

Woolman, John. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. Edited by Philips Moulton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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Christianity: Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

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Christianity: Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)