The Quakers are a religious group who are largely nondenominational and nonspecific in their beliefs and practices originating from the Christian tradition. Their primary focus and practice is on fostering peace in one’s heart and manifestly in the world through honoring the God within each individual through doing no harm. Honoring simplicity and the unity in all peoples as children of God, Quakers have been an ever present force for peace since their inception, and have suffered the judgements and privations that all do who devote their lives to peace. However, this society of friends continue to seek unity with nature and peace in the human community.
The Society of Friends, or the Quakers, began as a religious movement during Europe’s Protestant Reformation in the 17th century. There are many stories related to how the name of the organization originated, and “One story says that the founder, George Fox, once told a magistrate to tremble (quake) at the name of God and the name 'Quakers' stuck” (BBC) Quakers think of each other as friends first and foremost due to the words of Christ in John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (BBC). The Quakers hold no central dogma to define them, but live and practice the golden rule.
A reaction against the heavily structured and ordered nature of conservative Christianity, Quakers sought out simpler means to celebrate their faith. Disillusioned by the in-fighting, bickering over the meanings of doctrines, and the denominational wars which resulted, the Quakers are the most peace loving of all elements of Christianity. Disturbed by the hierarchies and classism reinforced by traditional church roles (priest, pastor, deacon, etc.), the Quakers sought out equality for all men, women, and children before their creator. As such, “Because the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century attempted to eliminate intermediaries between God and people, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, may be regarded as the fullest expression of the Reformation” (Barbour and Frost). While a primary focus of their faith is unity with nature as a means to connect with the creator, the Quakers represent an extremism in their devotion to peace which has incited conflict with those who use religion as a weapon.
Unity through nature was how Quakers would consistently come back to a place of peace within themselves and their turbulent world. One such example of this view of the divinity inherent in nature is from the 1711 poem “Apostrophe to Nature” by Lord Shaftesbury:
O glorious nature! Supremely fair and sovereignly good! All-loving and all lovely, all divine! Whose looks are so becoming and of such infinite grace; who study brings such wisdom, and whose contemplation such delight; whose every single work affords an ampler scene, and is a nobler spectacle than all which ever art presented! O mighty Nature! Wise substitute of Providence! (Clarke)
The beliefs of the Quakers are fundamentally idealist and naturalistic in perspective, representing the best of the Bible and Christian tradition. However, the Quakers do not believe that any book contains the actual and factual word of God. This is because of their humility, and their understanding that the Bible was written and interpreted by mankind. They believe that fundamental perspectives of peace and love should illumine the principles of Christianity. However, most Quakers do not identify themselves as Christians because the foundation of their practice is on seeking unity through love, and not divisiveness through detailed labeling (BBC). Their fundamental beliefs are:
• God is love
• the light of God is in every single person
• a person who lets their life be guided by that light will achieve a full relationship with God
• everyone can have a direct, personal relationship with God without involving a priest or minister
• redemption and the Kingdom of Heaven are to be experienced now, in this world. (BBC)
A Quaker service is called a “Meeting”, and generally takes place outdoors or in an open air pavilion. Quakers sit together in silence, and wait for the spirit of God within to move someone to speak. Sometimes an entire meeting could go by with no one saying anything, and then the meeting is a simple gathering of like-minded people meditating in nature. The Quakers often sing old fashioned hymns to close out their meetings, and rejoice in the simple things of life. However, unlike the Amish, they do not fear technology or culture as a temptation, but simply prefer simplicity.
That is a traditional Quaker meeting, while today in America the practice is sometimes modernized. Called programmed services, these are led by a pastor and are very similar to Protestant services. Quakers differ in their approaches as “In belief, some Friends place most emphasis on the authority of Christian Scripture, while others give greater emphasis to the authority of the immediate guidance of the Spirit. This dynamic tension has allowed for a wide range of religious perspectives” (QlCadmin). The unstructured lack of creed or clear description of Quaker beliefs sometimes allows for misconceptions that no beliefs are required to be a Quaker.
This is not the case, in that adopting a dogma is effectively taking on belief at second hand. Quakers desire a more personal faith rooted in a person’s inner conviction and on taking part in a shared investigation and celebration of the truth with the community of other Quakers (BBC). However, “Most Quakers take the absence of a creed as an invitation and encouragement to exercise an extra measure of personal responsibility for the understanding and articulation of Quaker faith” (QlCadmin). The desire for a personal relationship with the creator, and taking personal responsibility for their experience and beliefs is one of the most consistent characteristics of all who call themselves Quakers.
Quakers do not seek to make history, but are often found supporting positive movements throughout history. Unfortunately, for much of Quaker’s history they were considered heretics by their Christian brothers, and found difficulty in living peacefully. However, this has been a challenge for anyone who did not believe and follow Christian fundamentalism. Quakers continued to practice their simple faith, contributing peacefully throughout history to this day. For example:
• In the early 19th century, Quakers rallied against the social abuses of the day: slavery, poverty, horrible prison conditions, and mistreatment of Native Americans. Quakers were instrumental in the Underground Railroad, a secret organization that helped escaped slaves find freedom before the Civil War. 1
• During World War I and World War II, many Quaker men enlisted in the military, in non-combative positions. In the First World War, hundreds served in a civilian ambulance corps, an especially dangerous assignment which allowed them to relieve suffering while still avoiding military service.2
• Following World War II, Quakers became involved in the civil rights movement in the United States. Bayard Rustin, who worked behind the scenes, was a Quaker who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. 3
• Quakers also demonstrated against the Vietnam War, and donated medical supplies to South Vietnam.4
Unfortunately, it seems to seems to be a consistent human failing at this time in history to seek division over unity, and even within the Quaker faith there have been schisms over the years. The four primary divisions which occurred in the Quaker community are;
• “Hicksites” - This Eastern U.S., liberal branch stressed social reform.
• “Gurneyites” - Progressive, evangelical, Bible-centered followers of Joseph John Gurney had pastors to lead meetings.
• “Wilburites” - Mostly rural traditionalists who believed in individual spiritual inspiration, they were followers of John Wilbur. They also kept the traditional Quaker speech (thee and thou) and the plain way of dressing.
• “Orthodox” - The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was a Christ-centered group. (Zavada)
It was difficult for those with differing views to go their own way. This move was prompted over “Anxiety over Unitarian theology, languishing membership, industrialization, and the disciplinary powers of meetings, among other things, contributed to the splits. Quaker energies and voices, which had been better focused since the 1750s, became dissipated in intramural recriminations” (Barbour and Frost). The issue of slavery was a difficult one for the Quaker community to abide, and they were passionate divides on this issue. Within the context of each of their focuses these Quaker divisions continue to seek peace and communion. Although there were divisions, the Quakers made a practice of not disciplining others based on their beliefs, so all movements apart were peaceful ones (FGC).
Today Quakerism is practiced all over the world, but remains a relatively small religious practice, much like process theology. Consistently avoiding rituals, Quakers focus on the practice of “carr[ying] the sacred into every part of their lives. So, for example, they say that baptism should not be "a single act of initiation but a continuing growth in the Holy Spirit and a commitment which must be continually renewed” (BBC). This is a powerful practice which has the power to heal the heart of many divisions while heavily delineated denominations may inadvertently reinforce separation between the individual and the creator and the community (Bales and Watts).
Quakers practice around the world, working for peace in all parts of the world. A simply practice, revolutionary in its simplicity, Quakers set a living example for the words and example of the life of Christ. A new movement has this old fashioned tradition becoming “the new punk” as a new generation of young people react to the further divisions of mankind from nature due to technology. This practice helps people see the unity in the human community when so many sources are seeking to exploit differences.
1: Zavada, Jack.
2: Zavada, Jack.
3: Zavada, Jack.
4: Zavada, Jack.
Barbour, Hugh, and J. William Frost. “The Quakers.” History.com, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/topics/quakers
Bales, Micha, and Jon Watts. “A brief introduction to Quakersim.” Quakermaps.com, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.quakermaps.com/info
BBC. “Quakers.” Bbc.co.uk, 3 July 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/quakers_1.shtml
Clarke, Larry R. “The Quaker Background of William Bartram’s View of Nature.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 46, No. 3 (1985), pp. 435-448. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709478?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
FGC. “Facts about Quakers.” Fgcquaker.org, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.fgcquaker.org/explore/faqs-about-quakers
QlCadmin. “What do Quakers Believe?” Quakerinfo.org, 26 May 2011. Retrieved from: http://quakerinfo.org/quakerism/beliefs
Zavada, Jack. “Quakers History.” Christianity.about.com, 14 Jan. 2016. Retrieved from: http://christianity.about.com/od/quakers/a/quakershistory.htm