Nine Questions About Friends

Who are the Quakers?
Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a community which began in England over three hundred and fifty years ago. Friends were probably first called “Quakers” by a seventeenth-century judge who wanted to insult them; Friends, however, accepted the name.

What do Quakers believe?
Friends rely on direct guidance of the Inner Light, which the Gospel according to John identifies with the divine Logos, the eternal and living Word of God, and which Friends see manifested in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and many others who have devoted themselves to working for justice, peace, and human liberation. Consequently, Friends reject formal creeds and doctrines. They expect their community to be held together not by conformity of thought but by love. Their religious life is centered on seeking to discern and follow the divine Light.

What are the Quaker “testimonies”?
Through their openness to the guidance of the Light, Friends have been led to live in certain ways. Friends often try to describe their way of life by enumerating certain principles, or testimonies, which seem essential to it. These include simplicity of life, equality of both sexes and of all persons, personal integrity, active concern for the liberation of the oppressed, love of enemies, the cultivation of non-violence, open worship, and free ministry. In practice, the testimonies take sometimes a positive form, sometimes a negative one. Positive forms include the Quaker United Nations Office, which assists with international conflict resolution, and the American Friends Service Committee, which provides relief to both sides in armed conflicts and also works for social and racial justice and harmony. Negative forms include Friends’ refusal to swear, to gamble, or to take part in war. Some testimonies, such as the simplicity of Friends’ meetinghouses or the lack of ritual in Quaker worship, are highly positive to Friends but may seem negative to others.

How do Friends worship?
In traditional Quaker worship, there are no pastors, rituals, or programmed activities such as readings or music. Worship is held “on the basis of silence,” so that each worshiper may, in unity with all those assembled, open her mind and heart to the leading of the divine Spirit. Historically, this has been called “waiting on the Lord.” During the silence, which usually lasts for about an hour, anyone who discerns a call to ministry may rise and speak. (Friends have never restricted ministry to ordained persons, males, or any other group.) When the meeting for worship has been “gathered into the Life,” those present feel themselves joined together in love, transformed in spirit, and strengthened for service.

How do Friends make decisions?
Friends make their decisions in a spirit of worship, waiting upon the Light for guidance. All persons have an equal say in the process, because the Light is accessible to all. No vote is taken; when the community comes to be united as of one mind in the spirit of love, then it recognizes that a decision has been reached.

Do Friends believe in the Bible?
Friends see the Bible as a precious record that has been left to us by writers who were inspired by their encounters with God. Friends assert, however, that the same encounter and inspiration are available to us today. Quakers have always maintained that only those who are themselves inspired by the same Spirit that inspired the scriptures can properly understand the meaning of the Bible. So it is the experience of the Light in one’s heart, and not the Bible, that is the primary source of truth for Quakers. Since the Bible is not the Word of God for Friends, but only a pointer to the living Word, Quakers are not concerned with such questions as biblical inerrancy. The Bible is for them a tool, not a rule.

How do Quakers view other faiths?
As John Woolman, the Quaker “saint” and anti-slavery activist, wrote long ago, the pure Light of God in each human heart is “confined to no form of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” Having experienced for themselves the truth of Woolman’s statement, Quakers do not seek to “convert” others to Quakerism, but only to help others to discover the leading of the divine Light within and among themselves.

What is Friends’ history in the United States?
Quakers arrived in the colonies of North America in the middle of the seventeenth century. In many places, they were persecuted and killed by the Puritans. Baptist leader Roger Williams, who believed that God abhors intolerance, sheltered some Friends in Rhode Island. When King Charles II ceded the colony of Pennsylvania to the Quaker William Penn, Friends established a government there based on Quaker principles. Members of any faith were permitted to live in the colony. Native Americans were compensated for their lands and were not warred against. Quaker merchants established strict standards of honesty in business. This “holy experiment,” centered in Philadelphia (“the City of Love”), lasted until non-Quakers gained control of the state legislature and began a war against Native Americans. Quakers have been active in many of the great movements of United States history. Friends were among the most active and vocal abolitionists, working also in the “Underground Railroad” to help slaves escape to freedom. Quakers have also made important contributions in prison reform, education, social work, racial equality, the peace movement, and the women’s movement.

Is there a very brief summary of Quakerism?
Because Quakerism is a way of life rather than a system of belief, the best brief summary of what it is about is probably George Fox’s exhortation to early Friends. “Be patterns, be examples,” Fox wrote, “in all places, islands, countries, nations, wherever you come, that by your life and example you 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, whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you….”

This document was written by our member George Amoss Jr. © 1992, 2015

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