The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers or Friends, is a branch of the Christian church founded in England during the 17th century. Quaker congregations are scattered across the world. Though the number of Quakers in the world is rather small, Quakers have shaped the world to a degree far beyond their numbers.
The founder of the Quaker movement was George Fox, who believed that the direct experience of the divine presence was available to all, without the need for any kind of mediation. This was revealed in his autobiography by the words, "There is One, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to my condition." Quakers often express a related belief that there is "that of God in Everyone", sometimes known as the "Inner Light".
George Fox rejected the notion of the paid priesthood, believing instead that everyone can be a minister. Traditional Quaker worship, as established during his life, was conducted without any individual in charge of conducting a planned service. Instead, worshipers gathered in silence, which was only interrupted when someone in attendance felt moved by the Spirit to speak.
Early Quakerism was full of a sense of spiritual egalitarianism, which included a belief in the spiritual equality of the sexes--remarkable for that time. Both women and men were granted equal authority to speak in Quaker meetings for worship.
This equal status extended further into the social realm, and Quakers often ignored the social distinctions of the seventeenth century. This translated into several behaviors which offended those of high rank. Friends refused to doff their hat to those of higher status. Quakers also addressed high-ranking persons using the familiar forms of "thee" and "thou", instead of the respectful "you".
Later, as "thee" and "thou" disappeared from everyday English usage, many Quakers continued to use these words as a form of "plain speech", though the original reason for this usage had disappeared. The use of this plain speech, and certain forms of plain dress, tended to separate Quakers as a distinct community. However, these practices are rare among Quakers today.
Many other early Quaker beliefs set them apart from early Christians and society at large. Quakers did not perform baptisms as a rite of membership, and their method of worship was considered unorthodox and heretical. Quaker marriage ceremonies performed in the manner of Quaker worship, meaning there was no priest or high official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union.
Quakers refused to swear oaths, even in courtrooms, on the theory that one must speak truth at all times, and the act of swearing to it implied otherwise. Contrary to common practice of the time, Quaker businessmen did not haggle over prices; instead, they offered a fair, fixed price.
Quakers also believed in the "Peace Testimony", a general opposition to participation in war. This belief has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors and anti-war activists come from the Quaker tradition.
Collectively, the various uniquely Quaker beliefs (including peace, simplicity, the Inner Light) are known by Friends as testimonies.
Since its origins in England, Quakerism has spread to other countries, chiefly the United States and Kenya. American Quakerism has split into several branches. Some contemporary Quakers have resumed the traditionally Protestant use of paid pastors and have instituted more traditional, Protestant worship services; this type of Quaker worship is known as the "programmed meeting". Worship of the more traditional Quaker variety is called an "unprogrammed meeting". Quakerism in the United Kingdom has managed to avoid these schisms.
Although these schisms partly stem from differences over the nature of a meeting for worship, a perhaps more significant role is played by theological differences left over from the 19th century. Some contemporary Quakers, especially among the programmed variety, hold fast to more conservative Christian theology. Among unprogrammed meetings we find very liberal theological beliefs, and even some Quakers within this group do not identify themselves as Christians.
Quakerism has always placed a great emphasis on the Inner Light as a source of inspiration. Early Quakers believed in the truth of the Bible, but also believed that the Inner Light could speak to everyone just as it spoke to the authors of the Bible. This tension between these two sources of theological understanding ultimately erupted, at least in the U.S., between those who placed more emphasis on the Inner Light, and those who placed more emphasis on the Bible. Quakers in the United Kingdom managed to hold these trends together without dividing into separate organizations.
Quaker policy and financial decisions are decentralized. All such decisions are conducted by the individual meeting for worship. Worship is conducted every Sunday, and business meetings come once a month. Thus a meeting for worship is also known as a Monthly Meeting. A meeting for business is considered a form of worship, and all decisions much be reached in a manner that satisfies all participants (sometimes called consensus).
Monthly Meetings are grouped on a regional basis into Yearly Meetings. Some Yearly Meetings belong to still larger organizations, the three chief ones in the United States being: Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, and Evangelical Friends International. The Friends General Conference is theologically the most liberal of the three groups, while the Evangelical Friends International the most conservative. In addition, some monthly meetings belong to more than one of these larger organizations.
Quakerism is a creedless religion, and there is some variety of theological belief among Quakers. Goerge Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists", and modern Quakerism is less concerned with theology than many other faiths are. (That being said, there is, however, a greater degree of emphasis on Christian theology in the programmed meetings than in the nonprogrammed meetings. ) Unlike Protestant theologies, Quakerism does not concern itself with faith as a means to salvation; in fact, it generally does not deal with the question of salvation or the afterlife at all, prefering instead to focus on the spiritual life in the here and now. Although Evangelical and programmed Quakerism has become more akin to Protestantism, many Quakers do not consider their faith either Protestant nor Catholic, but rather a an expression of a third way.
Quakerism is often termed a mystical religion, but it differs from other mystical religions in two important ways. First, its mysticism is group oriented rather than focused on the individual. The unprogrammed Quaker meeting is an expression of that group mysticism, where all the members of the meeting can together listen for the Spirit and, ideally (in what is called a "gathered meeting") build on what the others have said in developing themes and ideas. The other way in which Quaker mysticism differs is in its outwardly directed activism. Rather than seeking withdrawal from the world, the Quaker mystic translates his or her mysticism into action, and Quakers have traditionally applied their values towards working for social and political improvements. Many abolitionists in the 19th century were Quakers, as were others who worked for prison reform or world peace. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker charitable organization that has worked for peace and social justice throughout the world.
Notable Quakers include:
- Robert Barclay
- William Penn
- John Woolman
- Elizabeth Fry
- Lucretia Mott
- Herbert Hoover
- Richard Nixon (raised as a Quaker)
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