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.


Basic divisions and organization

In many ways it is difficult to describe the Religious Society of Friends without making numerous qualifications and listing exceptions to whatever can be generally said. Like many movements, the Friends movement has evolved and changed and split into various smaller subgroups. In order to understand other aspects of the Religious Society of Friends, it is helpful to understand the basic divisions and organization.

In Britain there has been a high level of organizational unity throughout the history of the Society. The local Friends meetings there are called 'preparative meetings'. Several local meetings are part of a 'monthly meeting'. Several 'monthly meetings' are organised into a 'general meeting'. Formerly, 'general meetings' were called 'quarterly meetings', and, while they continue to meet up to three times per year, they usually play no direct role in Quaker structures. 'Monthly meetings' are represented directly in 'Meeting for Sufferings', which meets in between yearly meetings. (For further information, see Quaker Faith and Practice ( for Britain Yearly Meeting.)

In America there has been more splintering, although Friends still have many common bonds uniting them in spirit. The two main branches in America are sometimes described as programmed and unprogrammed.

A local congregation in the unprogrammed tradition is called a meeting or, more commonly, a monthly meeting (e.g. Smalltown Quaker Meeting or Smalltown Monthly Meeting). These meetings are called unprogrammed because they follow the custom of waiting in silence until somebody is moved to speak. There is no paid pastor, although various committees and individuals may be appointed to fulfill important duties. These people are often called "ministry and oversight committee", "ministry and counsel committee", "elders" or "overseers" they may handle the pastoral care or religious oversight portion of a pastor's role. Usually, a "clerk" is appointed, who is responsible for many administrative and coordination duties. Several local monthly meetings are part of a regional group called a quarterly meeting, which is usually part of an even larger group called a yearly meeting.

In programmed traditions the local congregations are often referred to as "Friends Churches". They usually have a paid pastor. Their services are planned ahead of time and include hymns, prayers, and sermons by the pastor. They resemble Protestant churches.

There are also semi-programmed Friends Meetings, in which there is some planning of the service and some silent waiting on the Spirit.


Various names have been used for the Friends 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 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 monthly meetings that for this reason do not include "religious" in their name, while most 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, while Friends in Great Britain generally remained united.

Hicksite-Orthodox Split 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 Quakers who did not follow Hicks are called Orthodox.

Gurneyite-Wilburite Split The Orthodox Friends in America were exercised by a transatlantic dispute between Joseph John Gurney of England and John Wilbur of Rhode Island. Gurney 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. 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.)

Beanites The "Beanite" or independent Quakers resemble an amalgam of Hicksite and Wilburite Quakerism, some of them adopting the label "Christ-Centered Universalism".

Beliefs and practices of 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). Fox described this by writing in his journal that "Christ was come to teach his people himself."

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. Everyone contains the seed of God, and much of the Quaker perspective is based on trying to hear what the Inward Guide is saying to us. Isaac Penington put it this way in 1670, "It is not enough to hear of Christ, or read of Christ, but this is the thing - to feel him my root, my life, my foundation..."


Quakerism is often termed a mystical religion, but it differs from other mystical religions in two important ways. First, its mysticism is primarily 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") the Spirit moves people to speak such that disparate comments are later seen to be part of a larger theme or idea. 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. Action, in turn, leads to greater spiritual understanding — both by individuals and by the Meeting as a whole. Quakers refer to calls of the Spirit to do some particular act as a Leading. John Woolman is one example of how an individual or group with a Leading — in his case the abolition of slavery — can change both individuals, the Society of Friends and the world at large for the better. In the process, the Spirit manifests itself in new ways and informs the mysticism of the Meeting community.

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.

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". Today Evangelical Friends believe that the Bible is authoritative and that personal leadings are not right if they are contradictory to its teachings.

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.)


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 on ultimate destiny. Although Evangelical and programmed Quakerism have 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 discovering what it truly means to be Quaker means struggling with these different viewpoints in the Meeting and in across all the different branches of Quakerism.

Authentic listening to the Spirit cannot be reduced to a formula, and God's revelation continues as history unfolds. A formal creed would be an obstacle - both to authentic listening and to the recognition of new insight.


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.


For more information about Quaker Plainness see the articles on the Testimony of Simplicity and other Quaker testimonies

Like many aspects of Quaker life, the practice of plainness has evolved over time, although it is based on principles that have been a lasting part of Quaker thought. These principles are now part of the Testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, and Integrity. Friends have practiced plainness in their dress and outward appearance as well as in their speech.

Quakers wore plain clothes in order to address three concerns: (1) the vanity and superiority associated with fanciness, (2) the conformity associated with wearing the lastest fashions, and (3) the wastefulness of frequently buying the latest styles and spending extra money on adornments. At one time this practice of plainness allowed other people to identify Friends easily. Many people still have the image of the Quaker man in a gray or brown suit with a flat broad-brimmed hat and the Quaker woman in a plain dress and bonnet. These specific practices are not followed among most Quakers today; however, the principles that they are based on are just as important to Quakers as ever, and most Friends apply them to their daily lives in new ways.

Plainness in speech addressed other concerns: (1) honesty, (2) class distinction, and (3) vestiges of paganism. These principles were applied to affirming rather than swearing in court, setting fixed prices for goods, using familiar forms for the second person pronoun, avoiding the use of honorific titles, and using numbers rather than names for the days of the week and the months of the year.


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 as 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 form of "thee", instead of the respectful "you".

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". It is generally accepted in Quaker communities for children to address adults by their first names.

Oaths and fair-dealing

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.

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's deciding to become a Friend.
  • Birthright Friend: those Friends born into families that are members of a Friends Meeting. (This is no longer recognised officially by British Friends.)
  • Speaks to my condition, "Friend speaks my mind": 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. Friends often work with Clearness committees when stuggling with a difficult issue.
  • Proceed as Way Opens: to undertake a service or course of action without prior clarity about all the details but with confidence that divine guidance will make these apparent and assure an appropriate outcome.
  • I hope so: (British usage) during a meeting for worship for business, when the clerk asks those present if they agree with a minute, Friends will usually say "I hope so" rather than "yes". It is meant in the sense of "I hope that this is the true guidance of the Holy Spirit".


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

From today's perspective, Friends have not always followed their own testimonies perfectly. One example relates to equality. 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. It was John Woolman (17201772) who made it his life's work to convince other Friends of the evil nature of slavery. Another example relates to peace. Although Friends have always opposed violence, a number of Friends fought during World War II, feeling that the reasons for fighting outweighed the Peace Testimony in this instance. Despite the inner struggles and conflicts that Friends face in regard to living out the Peace Testimony, all Friends believe in peace as an ideal.

While the list of testimonies is evolving (Quaker Testimonies leaflet (, 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 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. The belief that violence is always wrong has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors, advocates of non-violence and anti-war activists are Friends. Because of the peace testimony, Friends are often considered as one of the historic peace churches. In 1947 Quakerism was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the prize was accepted by the American Friends Service Committee and Friends Service Council.

The Testimony of Integrity

See main article on the Testimony of Integrity.

The essence of the Testimony of Integrity is placing God at the center of one's life and refusing to place things other than God there—whether it be oneself, possessions, the regard of others, belief in principles or something else. To Friends integrity is in choosing to follow the leading of the Spirit despite the challenges and urges to do otherwise.

This testimony has led Friends to be honest and fair in their dealings with others. It has led them to give proper credit to others for their contributions and to accept responsibility for their own actions.

The Testimony of Equality

See main article on the Testimony of Equality.

A female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London in the 18th century
A female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London in the 18th century

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 and to campaign for women's rights, they became leaders in the anti-slavery movement, and were among the first to pioneer humane treatment for the mentally ill and for prisoners.

The Testimony of Simplicity

See main article on Testimony of Simplicity.

Simplicity to Friends has generally been a reference to material possessions and is often referred to as plainness. Friends traditionally limited their possessions to what they need to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. Recently this testimony often is taken to have an ecological dimension: that Friends should not use more than their fair share of the Earth's resources.

Quaker 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. 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 theologically liberal and programmed Friends churches more theologically conservative, 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 a form of worship, and all decisions are reached so that they are consistent with the guidance of the Spirit (called "unity" or "sense of the meeting").

The "sense of the meeting" 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). Listening for the Spirit in "expectant waiting", the Meeting for Worship with a concern for 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 can seem impractical to non-Quakers. While the process can be frustrating and slow, it has been a center-piece of the Religious Society of Friends for over 350 years, at times seeing them through extremely difficult decisions and divisions. Quaker-based decision making has been successfully adapted for 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 remembrances 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 Organizations

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.

Some Quaker organizations

For a list of yearly meetings around the world, see Yearly meeting

See also

Recommended reading

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
For the game players, see Quake
For the motor oil, see Quaker State
For the parrot, see Quaker Parrot

bg:Квакери da:Kvker de:Quker es:Cuquero eo:Kvakerismo fr:Quaker it:Quaccheri hu:Kvkerek nl:Quakers ja:クエーカー no:Vennenes samfunn pl:Kwakrzy ru:Квакеры zh:贵格会


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