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Religious Society of Friends

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The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, or Friends, is a religious community founded in England in the 17th century. Quakers are counted among the historic peace churches, and have congregations scattered across the world. Since its origins in England, Quakerism has spread to other countries, chiefly the United States, Kenya and Bolivia. The number of Quakers in the world is rather small (approximately 600,000), although there are places, such as Philadelphia, in which Quaker influence is concentrated.



Various names have been used for this movement and its adherents. These include:

  • Saints
  • Children of light
  • Friends of the Truth
  • Quakers
  • Religious Society of Friends
  • Society of Friends

In the first few years of the movement, Quakers thought of themselves as the restoration (or at least part of it) of the true Christian church after centuries of apostasy. For this reason, during this period they often referred to themselves as simply the "saints" or the "children of light". Another common name was "Friends of the Truth", reflecting the central importance in early Quaker theology of Christ as an inward light that shows you your true condition.

The name "Quaker" was first used in 1650, when preacher George Fox was brought before Justice Bennet of Derby on a charge of blasphemy. According to Fox's Journal, he "called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God." (Here Fox would have meant Christ by "word of God"; see #Beliefs and practices of early Friends.) Indeed, early Friends did tremble and shake at their meetings, and spent many pamphlets defending "quaking" as a biblical phenomenon. Some Friends disliked the name, including Fox, but it began to stick nonetheless. It seems there may have been an attempt, after a 1654 meeting in Leicestershire, to become known as the "children of light", but this was not successful.

The name "Religious Society of Friends" came many years later, in the 18th century. This remains the official name to this day, although often "Quakers" is added in parentheses for the sake of clarity. Also, there are some Friends, usually in "unprogrammed" meetings, who object to the word "religious" and refer to themselves as part of the "Society of Friends". There are some local congregations ("monthly meetings") that for this reason do not include "religious" in their name, while all larger Quaker organizations , such as yearly meetings , use the full name.


See main article Quaker history

The Quaker movement began in England in the early 1650s. Traditionally George Fox has been taken to be the founder or at least the most important early figure.

As the movement expanded, it faced opposition and persecution. Both in the British Isles and the British colonies Quakers were imprisoned and beaten. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, some Quakers were even put to death for upholding their beliefs. The state of Pennsylvania was founded as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith. Despite the persecution, the movement grew steadily into a strong and united Society.

During the 19th century Friends in Ireland and the United States suffered a number of separations. In 1827, Elias Hicks was expelled for expressing universalistic views, and in 1828, a number of Friends in sympathy with him separated to form a parallel system of yearly meetings in America. The remaining Orthodox Friends in America were exercised by a transatlantic dispute between John Joseph Gurney of England and John Wilbur of Rhode Island. Gurney, troubled by the example of the Hicksite separation, emphasized Scriptural authority and favored working closely with other Christian groups. Wilbur, in response, defended the authority of the Holy Spirit as primary, and worked to prevent the dilution of Friends tradition of Spirit-led ministry. After privately criticizing Gurney in correspondence to sympathetic Friends, Wilbur was expelled from his yearly meeting in a questionable proceeding in 1842. Over the next several decades, a number of Wilburite-Gurneyite separations occurred. (See A short history of Conservative Friends for further information.)

In the midst of this split are the "Beanite" or independent Quakers, who resemble an amalgam of Hicksite and Wilburite Quakerism, some of them adopting the label "Christ-Centered Universalism".

Friends in Britain remained united for the most part during the course of these separations.

Beliefs and practices of early Friends

Experiencing God

Fox and the other early Quaker preachers believed that direct experience with God was available to all people, without any mediation (e.g. through a pastor, or through sacraments). Friends have often expressed this belief by referring to "that of God in Everyone", "inner light", "inward Christ", "the spirit of Christ within", and many other terms.

The Bible

Early Friends believed that Christ, not the Bible, was the Word of God; for example, according to Robert Barclay the scriptures "are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners" (Apology prop. 3).

Early Friends did however believe that Christ (or the light) would never lead them in ways that contradicted the Bible, and so making the Bible subordinate to the inner light led to fewer conflicts then than it does today.


Early Friends did not believe in performing any special rites or sacraments, believing that holiness can exist in all the activities of one's life—all of life was sacred. Thus they did not perform baptisms as a rite of membership, and their method of worship was considered unorthodox and heretical. Quaker marriage ceremonies were performed in the manner as worship, meaning there was no priest or high official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union.


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 meetings for worship. George Fox's wife, Margaret Fell, was equally vocal and literate as her husband, publishing several tracts in Quakerism's early days.

This equal status extended further into the social realm, and Quakers often ignored the social distinctions of the seventeenth century. This translated into several behaviours which offended those of high rank: Friends refused to doff their hat to those of higher status ("hat honor"), and 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; their usage was also grammatically distinctive, saying "thee is" instead of "thou art", a holdover from a dialect formerly common in the north of England. This practice is rare among Quakers today.

Names of Pagan Origin Early Friends also objected to the names of the days and months in the English language, because many of them referred to Roman gods and emperors. As a result, the days of the week were known as "First Day" for Sunday, "Second Day" for Monday, and so forth. Similarly, the months of the year were "First Month" for January, "Second Month" for February, and so forth (though researchers should remember however that before the Gregorian calendar was adopted, "First Month" was March rather than the current January). Many Friends organizations continue to use the "simple calendar" for official records.

Modern Quaker beliefs


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.

The Bible

As time passed, conflicts between what the Bible appeared to teach and how Friends believed they were being led by the spirit began to arise. Some Friends decided that in these cases the Bible should be authoritative, in effect making explicit early Friends' assumption that the spirit would never lead contrary to scripture. For example, the Richmond Declaration of 1887 declared, among other things, that any action "contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion".

Other Friends, partly under the influence of movements such as liberal Protestantism, decided that it was possible to be truly led in ways contrary to scripture, and that in such cases scripture should give way. Still other Friends rejected (or began to neglect) the Christian Bible altogether; hence in many liberal (usually unprogrammed) Friends meetings one will encounter Sufi, Buddhist, Jewish, nontheist and otherwise non-Christian Friends.

In all cases however, modern Friends believe in the necessity of being continually guided by the inward light. Divine revelation is therefore not restricted to the Bible, but rather continues even today; this doctrine is known as continuing revelation. From this interpretation a common set of beliefs emerged, which became known as testimonies. (See #Testimonies for a list and description of them.)

Creeds Quakerism is a creedless religion. George Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists", and modern Quakerism is less concerned with theology than many other faiths. This lack of focus has resulted in a broad range of theologies from fundamentalist Christian to new-age universalist. Quakerism focuses more on faithfulness in life in the here and now than in ultimate destiny. Although Evangelical and programmed Quakerism has become more akin to Protestantism, many Quakers consider their faith neither Protestant nor Catholic, but rather an expression of a third way to experience Christianity. There is a wide range of beliefs among Quakers, and some Friends consider Friends of other persuasions to not be true Quakers.

Range of Theology In theology, differences among Quaker groups have widened since the initial 19th century schism. Today Quakers range the theological spectrum from conservative evangelical to liberal Christian and non-Christians. Non-Christian Quakers are usually found in the unprogrammed meetings.

Egalitarianism One trait continued by modern Friends is taking a dim view of titles and ranks. For example, at Earlham College, a Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, professors and administrators are addressed by their first name by students, without the use of "professor" or "doctor".

Quaker Terminology Though the practices of plain dress and speech made them known as a "peculiar people," for the most part, modern Quakers dress and speak in a manner indistinguishable from others, but some Friends do retain the use of "thee" with other Friends. Friends also use certain distinctive terms when describing their theology and practices:

  • Convincement: the process of a non-Friend becoming a Friend.
  • Birthright Friend: those Friends born into families that are members of a Friends Meeting
  • Speaks to my condition: directly addresses my personal understanding.
  • That of God in everyone: the belief of an Inner Light within all people.
  • Hold in the Light: think about, pray for, or hold special thoughts about another person.
  • Lay down: what you do to a committee that is no longer needed, i.e. you disband it.
  • Clearness: a process undergone to discern rightness of action, similar to consensus (when applied to group decision-making), but guided by a spiritual belief in the guide of the Holy Spirit or Inner Light.


Testimonies are not formal static documents, but rather a shared collection or view of how Quakers relate to God. Testimonies cannot be taken one at a time, as they are interrelated. As a philosophical system, they are coherent, even outside of Christian theology.

While the list of testimonies is evolving, like all aspects of Friends theology, the following is a generally accepted list.

  • The Peace Testimony
  • The Testimony of Integrity
  • The Testimony of Equality
  • The Testimony of Simplicity
  • The Testimony of Community

From today's perspective, Friends have not always followed their own testimonies. While Friends were some of the first to oppose slavery in the United States (Germantown Monthly Meeting minuted their opposition to slavery in 1733), a number of Friends owned slaves. John Woolman (17201772) made it his life's work to convince other Friends of the evil nature of slavery.

A number of Friends also fought during World War II, feeling that the reasons for fighting outweighed the Peace Testimony in this instance.

The Peace Testimony

See main article on the Peace Testimony.

The Peace Testimony is the most static testimony; it is also the best known testimony of Friends. Unlike most of the testimonies of Friends the Peace Testimony is associated with a specific text. The text of the Peace Testimony derives from a letter addressed to King Charles II of England, which tried to convince him that the Quakers had not been involved in a plot against him. (The plot seems to have been led by the Fifth Monarchy Men, but it made Charles suspicious of religious Independents in general.) The following excerpt is often used:

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretence whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world…
The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move us into it; and we certainly know and testify to the world that the Spirit of Christ which leads us into all truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world … therefore we cannot learn war anymore. (Excerpts from a Statement by the Quakers to King Charles II, 1661)

This belief has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors and anti-war activists are Friends. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a charitable organization that has worked for peace and social justice throughout the world. The AFSC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 along with the UK's Friends Service Council on behalf of all of Quakerism.

Because of the peace testimony, Friends are often considered as one of the historic peace churches, along with the Mennonites and Brethren.

The Testimony of Integrity

Early Friends realized that an important part of the message of Jesus was how we treat our fellow human beings. They felt that honest dealing with others meant more than just not telling lies. Friends feel that it is important not to mislead others, even if the words used are all technically truthful.

Early Friends 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. Instead, Friends giving testimony in court, or being sworn into governmental office, "affirm" that they are going to tell the truth; the U.S. Constitution guarantees this option for anyone sworn into office in the United States. As an expression of the Quaker belief that one should mean exactly what one says at all times, Quaker businessmen did not haggle over prices, believing that to ask for a higher price than one was willing to accept was dishonest; this was contrary to common practice of the time. Instead, they offered a firm, fixed price for their goods or services.

The Testimony of Equality

Friends believe that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. Since all people embody the same divine spark all people deserve equal treatment. Friends were some of the first to value women as important ministers. Margaret Fell was one of the earliest leaders of the movement, while many of the leaders in the suffragette movement in the 19th century were drawn from the Quakers, including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. During the 1700s, Quakers felt that women were not participating fully in Meetings for Business as most women would not "nay-say" their husbands. The solution was to form two separate Meetings for Business. Many Quaker meeting houses were built with a movable divider down the middle. During Meeting for Worships, the divider was raised. During Business meetings the divider was lowered, creating two rooms. Each gender ran their own separate business meetings. Any issue which required the consent of the whole meeting—building repairs for example—would involve sending an emissary to the other meeting. This practice continued until there was no longer a concern over whether women would "nay-say" their husbands; some very old meetinghouses still have this divider, although it likely is nonmovable.

Friends also eventually became leaders in the anti-slavery movement, although a realization of the wrongness of slavery did not develop for almost a century. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (the most important yearly meeting in USA at the time) prohibited members from owning slaves in 1776, and on February 11, 1790 Friends petitioned the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery. American Friends were prominent participants in the Underground Railroad, a transportation network for sending escaped slaves to freedom. Quakers were among the first to pioneer humane treatment for the mentally ill, with The Retreat, in York England, an asylum set up by William Tuke (17321822) as a reaction to the harsh nature of 18th century asylum care.

The Testimony of Simplicity

Simplicity to Friends has generally been a reference to material possessions. Friends traditionally limited their possessions to what they need to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. In recent decades Friends have been less and less attentive to this testimony, although most still believe it is important. It is now often taken to have an ecological dimension: that Friends should not use more than their fair share of the Earth's limited resources. This testimony has in part evolved into the newer testimonies mentioned above.

Quaker worship

There are generally two forms of worship that Friends participate in termed Programmed Worship and Unprogrammed Worship. Unprogrammed worship is the more traditional style of worship among Friends. During meeting for worship Friends gather together in expectant waiting for messages from God. They wait in silence. When a member feels led to share a message with the gathered meeting, they will generally rise and share. These messages often take the form of a statement, a reading, or a song. Traditionally messages, testimonies, ministry, or other speech are unprepared, and attenders are called on to discern the source of their inspiration—whether divine or ego. Generally meeting for worship lasts about an hour (although it can be shorter or longer depending on the group gathered).

Programmed worship grew out of the movement in 19th century toward paid pastors (see above). Worship at a Friends Church resembles more closely a typical protestant worship service in the United States. Typically there are readings from scripture, hymns, and a sermon from the pastor. Most Friends outside of the United Kingdom and the North Eastern region of the United States worship in this way.

Some Friends also hold what is termed Semi-Programmed Worship which brings programmed elements like hymns and scripture readings into an otherwise unprogrammed worship service.

While the different styles of worship generally reflect the theological splits within Quakerism, with unprogrammed meetings generally being more liberal than the Friends Churches, this is not a strict rule.

Friends try to treat all functions of the church as worship, including business, marriage and memorial services.

Quaker weddings

See main article on Quaker weddings.

Traditionally in a Friends Meeting when a couple decides to get married they declare their intentions to marry to the meeting. A traditional wedding ceremony in a Friends meeting is similar to any other Meeting for Worship, and therefore often very different from the experience expected by non-Friends. At the close of worship all of those present at the meeting are asked to sign the wedding certificate as witnesses that the wedding took place and acknowledging their presence at the service. Often these certificates are hung prominently in the homes of the couple throughout their married lives as a reminder of the vows they took, and the people they shared that moment of their lives with.

Decision making among Friends

Business decisions on a local level are conducted by the individual monthly meeting, in a monthly Meeting for Worship with a concern for business, or simply business meeting. A meeting for business is considered a form of worship, and all decisions must be reached in a manner that satisfies all participants (called "unity" or "sense of the meeting," it is a unique form of consensus).

Quaker "consensus" does not mean that every person simply gets an equal vote or that all members must "vote" in favour of the decision (i.e. unanimity). Using the technique of "expectant waiting", the Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business attempts to gain a sense of God's will for the community. Each member of the Meeting is expected to listen to that of God within themselves, and, when led, to contribute it to the group for reflection and consideration.

A decision is reached when the meeting as a whole feels that the "way forward" has been discerned. This may mean that those who are informed on or passionate about a given issue are willingly deferred to. However, in other cases some members of the Meeting will "stand aside" on an issue, meaning that the Meeting has achieved a sense of unity, but that, for their own personal reasons, they are unable to agree with the result. In still other cases a Meeting may reach a sense of unity notwithstanding that some members remain opposed, although the Meeting would probably proceed only after a good deal of discernment to ensure that the concerns of the dissenting members have been heard and the sense of the Meeting is a right one.

The business procedure of Friends often seems impractical to non-Quakers, and even Quakers will report that it does not always work as well as it is supposed to. Nonetheless, it has been a centre-piece of the Religious Society of Friends for over 350 years, at times seeing them through extremely difficult decisions and divisions. Quaker-based consensus has been successfully adapted to use in secular settings in recent years (see Consensus decision-making).

Memorial services

Quaker memorial services are also held as a form of worship. Friends gather for worship and will offer rememberances about the person who has died. Memorial services will often last well over an hour, particularly if there are a large number of people in attendance. Memorial services give everyone present a chance to remember the lost friend in whatever way they need, often bringing closure to most people present.


Quaker organization varies considerably by country and by tradition. The organisational structures amongst Quakers in the USA at present are described below.

In Programmed traditions the local congregations are referred to as "Friends Churches".

Local congregations of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition are called a Meeting (e.g. Smalltown Quaker Meeting or Smalltown Monthly Meeting) generally "Monthly Meetings" although some are smaller worship groups under the care of a monthly meeting. Monthly meetings are joined in regional groups called "Quarterly Meetings". Two or more quarters are then joined into a "Yearly Meeting". Yearly meetings are generally the largest body that holds direct religious authority of any kind. "Monthly", "Quarterly" and "yearly" refers to frequency of meetings for business. Any member of a monthly meeting can (and is encouraged to) attend sessions for their monthly, quarter, and yearly meeting at which the organizations business is transacted.

Unprogrammed Meetings do not have a paid pastor. Some of the traditional tasks of a minister may be taken on by committees within each meeting (often called "ministry and oversight", "ministry and counsel", "elders" or "overseers") they may handle the pastoral care and / or religious oversight portion of a pastor's role.

Usually, a "clerk" is appointed, who is responsible for many administrative and coordination duties.

Both clerkship and committee service are unpaid positions accepted by meeting members usually for a fixed period of time.

Some Yearly Meetings belong to larger organizations, the three chief ones being Friends General Conference (FGC), Friends United Meeting (FUM), and Evangelical Friends International (EFI), although most member organizations are from the United States. FGC is theologically the most liberal of the three groups, while EFI is the most conservative. FUM is the largest of the three. In addition, some monthly meetings belong to more than one of these larger organizations, while others are independent.

The Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) is the international Quaker organization which loosely unifies the diverse groups. FWCC was set up at the 1937 World Conference of Friends in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, US, "to act in a consultative capacity to promote better understanding among Friends the world over, particularly by the encouragement of joint conferences and intervisitation, the collection and circulation of information about Quaker literature and other activities directed towards that end." About 175 representatives, appointed by the almost 70 affiliated yearly meetings and groups, meet together every three years at Triennials, aiming to provide links among Friends. FWCC bring together the largest variety of Friends in the world.

There are also various associated Friends organizations including: a US lobbying organization based in Washington, DC, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL); several service organizations like the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); and the Quaker United Nations Offices.

Quaker organizations

See also

Recommended reading

  • Bacon, Margaret H. The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America
  • Brinton, Howard H. Friends for 350 Years ISBN 0-875749-03-8
  • Birkel, Michael L. Silence And Witness: The Quaker Tradition
  • Hamm, Thomas D. The Quakers in America ISBN 0-231-12362-0
  • ed. Mullet, Michael New light on George Fox ISBN 1850721424
  • Pym, Jim Listening to the Light: How to bring Quaker simplicity and integrity into our lives.
  • Smith, Robert Lawrence A Quaker Book of Wisdom ISBN 0-688-17233-4
  • ed. West, Jessamyn The Quaker Reader
  • Wilson, Lloyd Lee Essays On The Quaker Vision Of Gospel Order

External links

Information on Quakers and Quakerism

Quaker organizations

Quaker study centres

Quaker links

Quaker books and writings

For the food company, see Quaker Oats

Last updated: 10-18-2005 10:57:06
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