An Introduction to the Religious Society of Friends

by Laurence Barber, Yarmouth Meeting

I. To Begin

You have probably heard of the Quakers. Perhaps you have met some, or read about them, or even attended a Quaker meeting. But you may still have a number of questions, such as: Who or what are these Quakers? What do they believe? How do they worship? How do they act?

These pages will try to answer some of the most common of those questions. You should realize that because Quakers are individualistic and have no authoritative creed or standard of action, no statement can be true of all Quakers, in all meetings, in all parts of the world. Yet there are, naturally, some common norms which are reflected in many of the answers given here.

Obviously this brief document may not answer all of your questions. The better way of learning about Quakers is to seek them out, talk with them, worship with them. I hope you will feel moved to do so, for only in that way can you really come to "Know the Quakers".

Who (or what) are the Quakers?

Quakers are actually the persons who are "The Religious Society of Friends". This group developed in England as part of the religious ferment of the mid-17th century, and its name came from John 15, verse 14: "... for I call you Friends who do my commandments." Hence the Society of Friends has a Christian basis, but stems from protest against religious establishment and authority.

Then why are they called "Quakers"?

In its earliest days the Society of Friends was subject to persecution because of its dissent from the established church. During one court trial George Fox, the movement's leader, told the judge that he feared no temporal punishments but did quake and tremble lest he failed to obey God's commands. The judge’s terming of Fox and his followers as "Quakers" was taken up by the group and has been willingly used ever since. Thus the names "Quakers" and "Friends" have become interchangeable, and I have so used them throughout these pages.

How numerous are they?

There are not very many Quakers when compared to the size of most other religious groups. In the United States there are about 125,000 of them; in Great Britain about 25,000, around 30,000 in East Africa, and another 15,000 in all the rest of the world.

Are they the same as Shakers?

Definitely not. The Shakers were a small American sect who lived in celibate colonies. Their beliefs and practices were completely different from those of the Quakers, although initially somewhat influenced by them. The Shakers, withdrawn from the world, have now virtually disappeared. The Quakers, as we shall see, are a flourishing part of the active world.

Does one have to be a member of the Society of Friends to attend a Quaker meeting?

Of course not. Any one is welcome. While Friends are not known for missionary efforts or proselytizing, they are eager to have any one who is interested come to join in worship. Friends have always regarded themselves as "seekers" rather than guardians of some revealed truth. Very many persons who are now practicing Quakers started out in other religious faiths or with no religion at all. They came to Friends meetings seeking to find a body of beliefs and practices which would be satisfying to their needs, as well as to meet persons whose attitudes were sympathetic or stimulating. Obviously these inquirers were not Quakers when they first attended a Friends meeting. Equally obviously, some of them found what they sought.

As we shall see, Quaker beliefs assume an equality of all persons regardless of age, sex, color, or social habits. And by and large Friends have been able to act according to that standard, trying to be truly friendly to all.

Do all Quakers believe and act alike?

As you no doubt realize, in almost all religious denominations there are shadings of belief and worship from church to church or person to person. This may be especially true of the Quakers, since they have no authoritative creed or hierarchy.

Thomas Bodine, a prominent New England Quaker, has written: The Society of Friends around the world is divided into two major groupings, on the surface totally different in both faith and practice. About one quarter of the Quakers in the world worship on the basis of silence, without paid pastors or a fixed statement of belief. This quarter of the Quaker world population is primarily English-speaking and service-oriented. Some ... may be Christ-centered and Bible-based, but primary emphasis as a group is on the social gospel and the peace testimony. High on (the) list of priorities are equality and justice and social action. The other three-quarters of the world population of Quakers, including the very large number of Friends in East Africa and Latin America, are pastoral, programmed "born-again" Christians with a fixed order of worship, paid pastors, and little or no appreciation of silent waiting upon the Lord. This far larger body of Friends may support a social gospel and may try to follow the teachings of the human Jesus, but their primary emphasis is on personal salvation, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Bible as the Word of God. Both groups can cite the words and practices of early Friends in the 17th century to support their type of Quakerism as the only valid form of Quakerism. Both ... have an equal claim to be called Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends or the Friends Church." Over the years diversity among Quakers has led to discomforts, disagreements, and internal groupings and regrouping. Yet there has always been some recognition of that underlying identity, and today in many ways and in many institutions all Quakers try to achieve unity in working together.

Then are You describing ALL Friends or only SOME of them?

As you can see, the pastoral Friends, in many meetings of the central and western United States, have much similarity to many of the so-called "main line" protestant denominations, and thus you probably would not find their worship or practices very unfamiliar.

The material on the following pages tries to portray the attitudes and practices of the Quakers in Thomas Bodine's first grouping. These are the ones who usually follow a traditional style of worship and whose theological beliefs and social attitudes might be characterized as liberal. In general it describes Friends in England, the eastern United States, and the newer meetings in urban and academic communities. They are the Quakers among whom I have lived and whom you, the reader, are most likely to meet.

You will notice, however, that frequently I must say "many Quakers" or "most Friends" do or believe such and such. This reflects individualism and variety even among that non-pastoral stream of Quakerism. At the same time, you must accept that when I say "Quakers believe this" or "Friends do that" we have to recognize that those beliefs or acts are not necessarily shared by every member of the Society of Friends, especially by many pastoral or evangelical Friends. Hence all I can attempt is to help you to know some but not all Quakers.

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II. Quakers and Belief

What do Quakers believe?

It's difficult, possibly dangerous, to try to summarize any faith in two or three sentences. But in brief Friends believe that the Spirit of God is present in every human being, and every one who seeks to do so can communicate directly and continuously with God at any time and place, needing no clergy or intermediaries. Every one also has responsibilities toward all other persons since they contain something of God. In both relationships -- with God and with other humans -- one relies upon guidance by the inner light which comes from God.

Do they have a formal creed?

They have strong beliefs but no formal creed. The Society of Friends does not require of its members the acceptance of any formula of belief. It holds that the basis of religious fellow- ship is an inward, personal experience, and the essentials of Quaker unity are the love of God and the love of all humanity.

How do these Quakers define God?

Quakers have always tended to speak of the "inner light" or spirit rather than of any more personified God. In general they believe that God is revealed to an individual in the way that each can best understand through the lives of Jesus and others, through the beauties of nature, through the arts and sciences. Through the love of family and friends- One of the values of the Society of Friends is that it allows, even forces, each member or attendee to develop a personal definition of God. Thus to some Quakers God may be a rather specific or concrete figure. To others God may be a rather vague force. But nearly all accept the existence of something which distinguishes human beings from the rest of the world, and which gives each of us a recognition of existence, an ability to think, a willingness to set moral standards of right and wrong, and an acceptance of the responsibility to follow that which is right.

What about the position of Jesus?

Here we begin to concentrate on the kind of Friends whom we characterized as holding to unprogrammed worship and non-conservative- beliefs. Many of these Friends would question the divinity of Jesus. In fact rather than being trinitarian they seem to hold a unitarian belief, with God and the Holy Spirit as interlocked. Jesus is thus regarded as a person who more than most achieved sensitivity to God and the ability to express it. At least to a lesser degree this is also regarded as true of many other religious seers and leaders. Quakers do not establish ranks of saints or prophets, but they respect those persons in the past and present who seem to have this Christlike ability to express religious thinking and to show others the way in which we should try to live.

How do Quakers regard the Bible?

They certainly give the Bible full respect as a major religious writing. But few if any Quakers would claim that God dictated the Bible word for word in King James English or even in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Many Quakers feel that during the world's history many scriptures have been written as expressions of religious thinking and that we can profit from all of these. Thus while Quakers no doubt tend to study and quote the Bible as their most common religious document, they may also read a variety of other religious writings, seeking to draw inspiration from them.

How do they Pray?

Friends do not think that prayer on bended knees with eyes closed is the only kind of real prayer. In fact they rarely pray in this fashion. Nor do they feel that prayers must be according to a fixed wording or even uttered aloud. Prayer may take the form of a sudden appeal to the divine for strength to do one's best. Or it can be expressed through constantly thinking about some one who is in difficulty and how that person can be helped. Or it may be an expression of gratitude to God for such joys and beauties as a lovely symphony or the first flowers in spring.

Do Friends believe in the sacraments?

Friends believe that no ritual is needed to establish the relationships between God and humans. God is available at all times to those who seek and wait in reverence. Sacramental rituals encourage people to mistake outward forms for inward substance and to substitute momentary events for ongoing spiritual processes. Instead, every action and all life should be regarded as sacramental.

Are Quakers "born again"?

They see no reason why this should be necessary. If each of us has that of God within us, and is guided by the inner light of that divinity, we should continue throughout our lives trying to live as best we can by that light. Quakers think very little about sin, but when they do they regard it not as anything innate but as a failure to live as well as one should and could. As such, it is in the past and atonement for it is not through some penance or now birth, but in a renewed and continued attempt to do better in the present and future. Friends are confident that God supports this effort, and that such support does not depend on some sudden point of conversion or salvation. Similarly, Friends are sure that from birth they are in this relationship with God as part of their very existence and hence there is no need or question of "accepting Christ" or "being saved" or "being redeemed from sin". God is always present and it is merely a matter of being as sensitive as possible to the divine presence and guidance.

What do Friends believe about life after death?

Most Quakers probably have rather vague feelings concerning life after death. Certainly few believe in a semi- material heaven with pearly gates, and virtually none accept the existence of a hell with eternal fire. As to what may continue after one dies, Friends hold no doctrine as a group, and individual concepts no doubt differ widely.

Friends are primarily concerned with one's life and responsibilities here on earth, rather than in that vague hereafter. They recognize that one can try to build something of a heaven (or drift into something of a hell) here and now, and they feel that the responsibility for doing one's best in the present life cannot be dodged by hoping that some next one may be better. And certainly they do not accept that one’s errors in this present life can condemn one to perpetual punishment.

Thinking as they do, Quakers attach relatively little importance to funerals. The body which life has left often is cremated, and burial is primarily a family affair. However, a few days after death a memorial service is usually held. The friends and relatives of the one who has died gather to worship, and to express their love and respect for that person and the impact which he or she has had an their lives.

Friends are well aware that a life dedicated to serving God and one’s fellows, even from humble circumstances, may be of profound influence to improve a bit of the world. This improvement, lasting into future years, can be a form of immortality through which the individual continues to live.

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III. Quakers and Worship

What goes on in Meetings for Worship?

Religious worship can be defined in many ways and takes many forms. Worship to Friends is a way of communication with God, however God may be defined. In it the worshiper shares with God the joys and concerns of the world, and in turn somehow receives from God guidance and support in dealing with the world and with one's self.

Friends have always felt that this communication can be facilitated by a combination of silent thought and group communion. Hence when the Quakers we are describing enter a meeting for worship they sit in silent expectation waiting on the Lord". The result is guided by the Holy Spirit and cannot be preprogrammed, so there is no ritual or planned service, no hymns or liturgy and no priestly leadership. Instead each individual as part of the group must be guided by the Spirit to form inwardly his or her own mode of worship.

Why the silence?

Sitting in silence is unusual for most people. It produces a tension, which one feels somehow needs to be broken. But when one becomes accustomed to it, a period of silence can be a kind of relaxation in a busy and noisy world. At the same time it can be an opportunity for active reaching out, to think, to consider what really is important. Few of us seem to find occasion to stop in our busy days and really try to communicate directly with God in a two-way relationship. The silence of a Quaker meeting is an opportunity and incentive to do this.

Then why not just sit in silence at home?

There is more to a group of people who meet together searching for God’s love and truth than merely a collection of individuals. The earliest Quakers felt that Jesus was present in their meetings. In the modern more skeptical day we might not express it that way. But there is a certainty that in a Meeting of sincere worshipers something greater than all of them is created. Part of this is produced by the companionship of other seekers; often it is stimulated by the occasional spoken messages; mystically it is still a consciousness of the presence of God.

What do people think about during Meeting?

Ideally every one attending a Quaker Meeting for Worship (or any other religious service) should be able to concentrate completely on God, think high-minded thoughts, and receive inspiration. Some Friends have always felt this should be done through seeking in their silent worship to shut off or rise above individual thoughts and reach an emptiness open to the speaking of God. As one of the early Quaker writers put it, "When the soul comes to this silence and as it were brought to nothingness as to her own workings, then the devil is shut out."

For most of us, however, worship involves processes of thought, and these are not always as open to God as we might wish. We tend to carry into the period of worship all the baggage of worldly interests and worries. Especially in the early part of the meeting, as people assemble and the group "settles down", one is still likely to think about mundane matters such as pending problems, duties for the week ahead, or the happenings of the day.

Gradually, and often by an effort of will, you usually are able to put such matters into a deeper or broader perspective and to consider some of their fundamentals rather than incidentals. Or you may be able to leave these worldly concerns completely aside and move to think about some particular aspect of what one’s relationship to God or humans should be. This may be encouraged or guided, as we shall notice, by the words which some one in the meeting may feel moved to speak.

Finally, in the most productive worship, your thinking may move toward ways to apply that which has been under consideration, what your duties are in doing this, and how God is leading and supporting you in what should be done.

Much of the effectiveness of applying one’s thinking in the ways which I have just described depends on the mood of the individual and even of the group as a whole. There are times when we simply cannot rid our thinking of personal worries or momentary events and transcend them to thoughts on a more religious level. Friends recognize that on such occasions the results of a meeting for worship may not seem very valuable or satisfactory. Yet they feel that the effort to worship and even the quietness of meditation usually is beneficial, and that more often than realized at the moment a seemingly less-than-ideal period of worship may in the long run have given something of eventual value.

Why do people sometimes speak?

Even though Friends feel that silence is a basic help to worship, they believe that at times one can be "moved" by God to communicate something helpful to the other worshipers. In fact they become rather bothered if meeting after meeting goes by in total silence.

What one is moved to say may take many forms, drawing from prayers, from the Bible or other inspirational writings, from poems, from deep concerns of the day, from personal happenings, from current time marks such as New Year's or Easter. Ideally, the speaking is brief, perhaps merely a few sentences. It is not a sermon, but merely a communicating of what one feels God-inspired to share with the others.

It is expected that after some one speaks there should again be silence for a few minutes, as the worshipers ponder the implications and applications of what has been said. This may lead to further speaking as the original concept is expanded or molded, but not to debating or argument. Some in the group may feel that a message has spoken to their condition"; others may not. Often worshipers discover that the words which are spoken express what they themselves have been thinking, or guide them to new and better directions.

But those who speak in Meeting for Worship supposedly do so because they feel they have to, not just because an intriguing thought has crossed their minds. And when some one speaks from that deep motivation it does not seem to break into the silence. Instead what is said tends to enhance the silent worship, making it more fruitful to all present.

How do You know when a Meeting for Worship ends?

After about an hour some designated Friend will shake hands with those next to him or her, and this is repeated by the others present. The clerk then welcomes visitors, who are encouraged to introduce themselves. Announcements are made of coming events of interest and of any personal occasions such as sickness or travel. Often the meeting for worship is followed by a brief fellowship period with refreshments.

Although a Meeting for Worship usually lasts for approximately one hour, that duration may vary at times. If some one has been moved to speak near the end of the hour, the time may be extended to allow every one to absorb what has been said. Conversely, if it seems that fruitful meditation has ended early, and if children (or even adults) begin to squirm in non-worshipful fashion, it may seem best to "break meeting" early. As in so many other matters among Friends, there are habits but no fixed rules.

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IV. Quakers and the World Around

Is it true that Quakers are pacifists?

In 1661 English Quakers presented to King Charles II the following statement, which has served as a guide for Friends ever since:

"We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any or under any pretence whatsoever ... 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 any more."

Is this why the Society of Friends is known as "one of the historic Peace churches"?

To Friends, all churches ought to be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. Yet while some members of all Christian denominations have at any given time been pacifists, very few churches have ever adopted pacifism as one of their basic tenets. In America the Mennonites and the Brethren have always held to a pacifist belief. Although their other religious beliefs and practices are rather different from those of the Quakers, all three groups have increasingly worked together to oppose the use of violence in international, community, and personal affairs, to search for peaceful alternatives to violence, and to provide services and reconciliation which might lessen the resort to violence. Hence their historic classification as "peace churches".

Are all Quakers Pacifists?

While nearly all Friends hold as an ideal the 1661 statement, some Friends have gone to war in what they felt were just causes requiring violent action. Others, unwilling to kill, have felt they could serve in non-combatant posts, especially in medical units. Since 1940 American Friends have generally been allowed by law to perform alternative civilian public service. Yet some Friends have felt conscientiously unable to submit themselves to any system of military compulsion. They have refused to accept assignment by selective service either to the armed forces or to civilian service, or have refused even to register for the draft. This has usually led to prison sentences as law violators.

Friends as a whole have steadily opposed any system of selective service or military registration. Recognizing that each individual must as a matter of conscience decide how to deal with such a system, they have advised young people as to the issues involved and the implications of each option. They have tried to give loving understanding to each one in the course of action chosen, with special support to those who choose the more absolutist stands.

Older Friends, women, and others not directly facing military registration or service, have always felt a personal responsibility to demonstrate their pacifist beliefs by carrying on relief work and by making non-military sacrifices. Most refrain from occupations and investments which would in any way support warfare or military action or preparation. Some feel impelled to refuse to pay taxes which would be used for military purposes.

How do Friends justify their Pacifist stand?

On several bases.

From a strictly religious point of view one can start with the simple Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill". Friends cannot accept that God allows certain individuals with swords, revolvers, or nuclear bombs to destroy others of his children.

Believing that there is that of God in every one, they cannot reconcile this with any divine intention that sheer might should make right. In other words, they do not believe that superior use of violence in any kind of dispute carries either a moral superiority or any proof that a winning cause was logically more valid. Friends tend to assume that in any differences there may be some rationale for all points of view, and that lasting, satisfying, just solutions are not unilaterally imposed but must reconcile to the greatest possible degree the needs and feelings of all parties concerned. Otherwise the underlying tensions will remain unresolved.

From a material aspect, Friends are horrified at the waste of human life, time, material, and financial resources not only in war itself, but in so-called "defense". They feel that sufficient effort and good will could make all those resources available instead to productive uses such-as the food, education, and medical care needed throughout the world. They believe very deeply that this, rather than destruction, is what would be asked by any God in whom they could believe.

Doesn't this imply objection to ALL violence, not just to war?

Obviously. The same analysis applies to beating a child or spouse, or to civil rioting, as to war among nations. Each substitutes force and violence for the more difficult path of finding a just solution. Quakers are as fully opposed to personal, family or community violence as to war. They recognize that not all violence is physical, and have always been concerned about the use of economic, social, or psychological force. These, too, are denials of justice to those in whom there is that of God.

What if a Quaker were confronted by a mob, or a murderer, or robber, or rapist?

Being only human, the Friend might not act in full accordance with these ideals. As prudent people, most Friends probably would try to avoid situations which could produce such confrontation; at least they would not rashly seek them. This is not always possible. In such an event, most might try to flee. Again, that may not be possible.

Quakers who kept their ideals intact would then be likely to try to reason with the attackers, to appeal to their better nature (that of God?), to their sense of fairness, to common sense.

Beyond this, it would be hard to predict. Some Friends, regardless of ideals, would undoubtedly resist with whatever weapons and force they could muster. A few would cling to their faith, as have a few Christians in all ages and accept the violence, trying to remember God’s love and mercy, difficult though that might be. As In most Quaker responses to situations, we must remember that Friends are seekers, not saints. They try to follow their ideals, but cannot guarantee to achieve them.

Isn't this conscientious objection to violence a rather passive or negative attitude?

Perhaps my description has given that wrong impression. "Pacifism" is not Passive-ism" or merely objection to violence. It carries the connotation of "peace-making". The peace testimony of Friends is a positive affirmation of the power of good to overcome evil.

George Fox asked Friends to "live in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars". In other words, Friends should not merely object to war and other violence, nor try to remain free from it, but should take active steps to make that violence unnecessary and to keep it from occurring, by trying to remove its occasions" or causes.

Specifically, how can that "active peacemaking" be done?

In international affairs, this has led Quakers into a number of activities. In years gone by, individual Friends have traveled to reason with national leaders, hoping to encourage them into peaceable rather than aggressive policies. Quakers have supported a succession of organizations such as the International Court of Justice, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. They now maintain centers in New York, Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna where diplomats can met for quiet unofficial discussion. Seminars for officials and international work camps for youth are other Quaker-sponsored devices.

Friends recognize, however, that the causes for international conflict are often economic, demographic, geographical, and historical. Hence they have tried to identify and work on problems in these fields. They have helped in the reconstruction or rebuilding of depressed areas; they have aided refugees, they have encouraged Arabs and Jews to meet and talk together. In all of this, they have offered love and understanding as well as material help, and have tried to aid all parties. Even when our own country has been a party to conflict, as in Vietnam or Central America. Friends have insisted that love and help must be channeled in some way to the people of the opposing side, as a mark of belief in their divinity and as part of an effort to bring both sides closer together.

Conflict can be within a community or between individuals. Hence Quakers have always felt a responsibility to deal with the occasions or causes of such conflicts. One of their first concerns was for those in prison, resulting in part from the direct experience of many early Quakers as prisoners. Later the Friends were strong opponents of slavery, and this was followed more recently by support of the civil rights movement. Another concern was with the treatment of persons in poor mental health, and the improvement of mental hospitals.

Much of this seems to have been in the past. What of the present?

The effort to promote world peace certainly is ever continuing the Quaker interest in reform of prison conditions has been kept alive by the direct prison experience of draft protesters, and now also involves action to humanize court and police practices. The civil rights concern now extends to groups such as Indians and Hispanic- Americans as well as blacks. Nearly all Quakers support in some way the drive for equal rights for women, and this has now broadened into concern for battered women and children. During the 1980’s a large number of Friends who had already been objecting to nuclear arms became concerned at the dangers from other nuclear uses, for generation of power or other purposes. This was one aspect of a major concern at the increasing violation of the environment as a whole.

Most recently Quakers have given special attention to efforts toward reducing tensions in Central America. They have opposed United States intervention in that area, and have participated in providing sanctuary for refugees from persecution there.

All of these concerns call for involvement at the community level as well as nationally. As with Quaker conscientious objection to war and military build-up, nearly all of them have led Friends not only to oppose what they regard as wrong, but also to search and support for peaceful, conciliatory, and constructive alternatives.

What do you mean by a "concern"?

London Friends have defined this as "a sense of obligation to do something, or to demonstrate sympathetic interest in some individual or group, as a result of what is felt to be a direct intimation of God's will."

With the individualism of Friends, a concern usually begins with one person, who may act on it alone or who may share with others to see if they wish to join in furthering it. Sometimes a local or regional Friends Meeting may take up the concern; occasionally it becomes supported and acted on by Friends throughout the country. People may have differing degrees of sensitivity to any concern. Clearly no one person has time or other resources to do justice to all those problems which may be brought to their attention. Hence each Friend tends to concentrate on one or more concerns, while hoping that other persons may be moved to do justice to other equally important needs.

Isn't all this effort extremely ambitious for a small group?

Friends realize that their own resources are limited. The also recognize that they have no monopoly in feeling concerns. Other persons may similarly have noticed certain needs. Many Quaker social projects are designed as pilots, to test and publicize in the hope that other organizations will be led to expand upon them. Friends themselves join together, concentrating their resources on certain projects. Over the past 70 years they have channeled much of their work through the American and British Friends Service Committees. In all their efforts the Quakers have been happy to receive support from sympathetic non-Friends. Conversely, individual Quakers are encouraged to work for their concerns as members of various local or national bodies which draw from society as a whole.

Doesn't much of this get Quakers into political action and even into conflict with the government inevitably?

We have noted that the Society of Friends was born in an attitude of opposition to established religious beliefs and practices, social customs and even laws. We have also seen that the pacifist testimony has sometimes led to opposition to law. Thus Quakers have often felt it necessary to state their ideas and concerns boldly to the government. This is especially true in the 20th century, when so much of the social and economic order is regulated by government. Improvements, changes, protections often require changing laws or regulations or administrative actions. Quakers find themselves asking this in numerous ways. They write letters to officials or call on them, acting either as individuals or as Meetings. A Friends Committee on National Legislation serves as their lobby in Washington. Frequently Friends feel called to participate in demonstrations to make visible and vocal protests against existing conditions. In the recent past they did this regarding civil liberties and the war in Vietnam. Currently many Friends take part in demonstrations against nuclear arms and power, American intervention in Central America or racial violence in South Africa or the Middle East.

Sometimes, as with conscientious objection to military service, some Quakers have felt civil disobedience to be necessary. A few have refused to pay income taxes for military expenditures. Some have intentionally violated local or state ordinances which they felt immoral or anti-social.

In general, Quakers are quiet and law-abiding persons. Hence it is often surprising to the general public and to law-enforcement personnel that there are occasional times when some Friends, lovingly, calmly, and with full recognition of the consequences, find it necessary to become law-breakers because of what they feel is a more compelling mandate from God. They are not revolutionaries, nor are they anti-democratic. Whatever the rest of the world chooses to do, these Friends must act as they feel right for themselves. And other Quakers who may not follow that same leading nonetheless generally support those dissenters in their acts of conscience.

How can Friends consider all this social and political action appropriate for a religious society?

Some time ago a "mission and service" conference of Quakers of all types and from all over the world revealed two basic attitudes. Some Friends were "dedicated to evangelical methods and believed that social and economic improvement follows when a person has been saved and brought into the church. They found it difficult to understand (the alternate approach of) Quaker outreach which stresses the need to change society. The need to care for the physical and social needs of people, without an explicit effort to preach the gospel." The first approach tries to bring people into a state of religious satisfaction, in the belief that they will then be able to work: out with God’s help their personal, economic, and social problems. The second tries first to help deal with those problems, in a belief that once they are alleviated the persons involved will better be able to relate to God.

Even in the past not all Friends felt comfortable with an emphasis on social action and on political action to facilitate it. Some Friends have always been more interested in concentrating on spiritual or even theological matters. For some years in the 19th century there was a period of "quietism" or withdrawal, when Friends were even advised against seeking or holding public office.

On the other hand, Quakerism has at times had a dynamic of religious conversion. Some pastoral Quaker groups still feel a call to missionary work, both In the United States and overseas. In doing this, they have provided medical, educational, and other assistance along with their efforts at religious propagation. This has, for example, resulted in the huge concentration of Quakers in Kenya, and to the more recent spread of Quaker influence in Latin America.

But as I have emphasized, Friends have no creed to present, and a great many Friends, especially in the unprogrammed meetings, believe rather deeply that what one first has to share is not the "Good News" of a particular religion, but loving help toward one’s neighbors, especially those who are less fortunate and more needy.

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V. Quakers as Persons

Many persons wonder what individual Quakers are really like. In the words of the English statement quoted at the beginning of these pages. "We are not queer, nor are we saints." Like almost every one else, Quakers try in their lives to be as good as possible. Yet also, like almost every one else, we often fail to reach this goal.

What are Quaker lives and homes like?

Much like those of other Americans, at least on the surface. You probably couldn’t spot a Quaker easily on the street or in a factory or office. And a Quaker home would look much like those of the neighbors. Ideally, however, Friends try to live temperately, to achieve simplicity, and to use energies and resources toward constructive ends. Most Quakers find this produces a life of considerable satisfaction and joy. They seem able to achieve much happiness even though they are acutely aware of how much needs to be done to improve their own actions and the lot of many, many others.

Are Quakers opposed to things like music, dancing, art, and humor?

Just because Quakers worship silently and aim at simplicity doesn’t mean that they are opposed to the arts as a means of adding to the beauty of life. Many Friends are artists and musicians; some do dance; and although they see life as a serious matter most Quakers have a well developed sense of humor. In line with their desire to make all actions best serve God. Friends naturally do try to avoid the more frivolous types of music and other arts.

What about such practices as smoking or drinking?

Many Friends are completely opposed to these practices.

Some do engage in them, but probably all agree that at least temperance is called for and that we would be better off abstaining from them. The belief is that such activities, especially when excessive, divert one’s energies, time, and resources from more desirable uses. Friends are also well aware of the health and addiction dangers which may be involved. Friends also look unfavorably on gambling, not only for itself but for its leading to compulsive behavior.

Don’t Quakers sometimes go in for rather unusual or off-beat actions and movements?

The majority of Quakers would be regarded as living very "normal" lives. Naturally their social concerns encourage them to support innovation and change. The individual freedom of each Friend in seeking truth results in a degree of experimentation by many, whether in material directions such as vegetarianism or building communes, or in philosophical ones such as yoga or other forms of meditation. Many recent experiments have resulted from the efforts of Friends to seek the greatest possible simplicity in their style of life.

Why do Quakers refuse to take oaths?

Quakers feel that swearing to the truth of a statement implies that otherwise one might not be truthful. Since they believe that one should always tell the truth, and also find Biblical injunctions against swearing, Quakers are willing only to "affirm" that what they say, in court or elsewhere, is the truth.

Why do Quakers say "thee" and "thou"?

Actually, nowadays they don't, except perhaps to use "thee" and thou" as special words of intimacy, such as occasionally within the family. In the early 1600’s, however, people used the plural "ye" (you) when addressing equals or superiors, and the singular "thee" to inferiors. Quakers, believing in the equality of all persons before God, insisted on addressing every one regardless of rank by the simple singular terms. In later years every one has come to use "you" and "yours" for all persons regardless of number or rank. Thus Quaker plain speech has now become archaic and an affectation, and is rarely used, at least in public.

Early Quakers objected to the "pagan" naming of the days and months, and substituted a simple numbering of them. This has continued, to a certain extent, in references to "First Day Schools", for instance, instead of "Sunday Schools" and in a rather common use in Quaker business records of such terms as "Third Month", "Fifth Day", etc..

Similarly, as occurs in many other organizations, Friends have developed a number of terms of internal language. They "settle down" into a meeting for worship and then later "break" rather than "end" that meeting. In their business Friends "approve" or "are comfortable with" a decision, which is then "minuted" or recorded. Questionable behavior calls for "eldering" from "weighty Friends".

Don’t they usually wear gray dresses and bonnets or broad-brimmed hats?

Not at all. Again, in the 1600’s most Quakers were from the lower classes and dressed plainly and in utilitarian style. All of them objected to the frills and excesses of dress in Restoration England. For many years Quakers clung to the plain costumes of that early period. But nowadays nearly all of them dress and look like every one else, although they do try to avoid excessive ornamentation of costume and a very few still feel that "plain dress" for men and women is a way of showing a commitment to simplicity of life.

Incidentally, the figure on the Quaker Oats box does not wear the simple plain traditional dress, nor for that matter, does the Quaker Oats Company have any connection with the Religious Society of Friends, any more than do the makers of Old Quaker whiskey.

What Is the status of women among Friends?

Women have always been completely equal to man in the Society of Friends. All are alike in communion with God, in participation in Meetings for Worship and Business, and in holding offices. Many Quakers once were pioneers in the British and American women’s suffrage movements, even as many now are active in the equal rights effort.

How do Quakers get married?

Friends regard marriage as basically a commitment between two individuals, which should be entered into soberly and carefully. At the same time, it is of importance to God and to society, and should be done openly. A Quaker wedding thus is a covenant made by the two parties before God. The couple asks their local Monthly Meeting to accept the "care and oversight" of their wedding. The Meeting appoints a "clearness committee" which meets with them to review their readiness for marriage and discusses with them, and sometimes with their parents, the plans for their wedding and their married life.

This committee reports back to the Meeting. If the Meeting agrees to take responsibility for oversight of the wedding, a special Meeting for Worship is arranged, to which the friends and families of the couple are particularly invited. At that meeting, after silence has deepened, the couple exchange a promise to take each other as husband and wife, to be loving and faithful to each other, with God’s help, as long as they both shall live. Later in the meeting some of those attending may be moved to speak, expressing joy in the marriage and wishes for its success. At the end of the meeting a certificate describing the event is signed by the couple, by those attending as witnesses, and by the clerk (which satisfies the civil legal necessities).

How do Quakers feel about such matters as birth control, abortion, and homosexuality?

Each Friend makes an individual decision regarding these subjects. Especially within the unprogrammed meetings that decision is likely to be sympathetic to them, and in fact many of those meetings have made public statements to that effect. Undoubtedly a very sizable proportion of Friends couples practice birth control. A number of local Monthly Meetings have approved legal abortion with proper medical care, while favoring earlier steps which could minimize the need for abortion. As for homosexuality, it is not regarded as a moral issue, and most Friends meetings have no hesitation in welcoming homosexuals or lesbians. Recently many Friends have developed a special concern to support persons ill with AIDS.

Is divorce permitted?

Perhaps the wording should be "Do Quakers look favorably on divorce?" To this the answer is fundamentally "No". As we have seen, the couple being married in a Quaker wedding promise to be loving and faithful "as long as we both shall live". Divorce is clearly a negation of this promise. Nevertheless, a number of Quakers do get divorced. Other Friends try to understand the reasons which produce this action and are sad but sympathetic to the feelings of both parties. As in so many other instances of conflict, Friends feel a responsibility to provide early help in trying to find and remove the tensions which might lead to the breaking up of a marriage.

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VI. The Religious Society of Friends

The basic unit of the Society of Friends is the individual local Friends Meeting, called a "Monthly Meeting". Persons become members of the Society by becoming members of a Monthly Meeting.

Why Is the term "Monthly Meeting" used?

Although each local Friends group ordinarily meets for a weekly worship service. Usually on Sunday ("First Day") morning, or alternatively on a mid-week evening, it holds a meeting to handle business once each month. Hence for business or structural purposes it is a "monthly meeting" and such has long been the name applied to the organized local Quaker groups. There are about 1000 monthly meetings in the United States and Canada.

Do all Quaker groups have this name?

Many programmed or pastoral groups are called "Friends Churches". Even among non-pastoral Quakers there are some small or now "Worship Groups" or "Preparative Meetings" which are not yet large enough or strong enough or permanent enough to be Monthly Meetings.

Are Monthly Meetings joined to one another in any way?

Several neighboring meetings are usually associated in a Quarterly Meeting. As the name indicates these ordinarily have three or four gatherings during the year, at which representatives from the monthly meetings discuss matters of joint concern.

Monthly meetings within a larger area, sometimes covering several states, join in a Yearly Meeting. There are thirty of these in the United States and Canada. Some overlap geographically, allowing monthly meetings to group themselves with others which they feel are most similar in attitudes and practices. The Yearly gatherings not only are occasions for business but promote spiritual inspiration as well as sociability.

Most of the Yearly meetings are members of some national grouping such as Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, or the Evangelical Friends Association. Internationally there is a Friends World Committee for Consultation which ties together Quakers all over the world.

What are the relationships of Quakers with other churches?

Friends do not feel that they have a monopoly road to truth. While happy with their own beliefs and practices, they recognize that other people may seek and find God in other ways. Many persons prefer a more structured creed and practice than are offered by Quakerism as we are describing it. Hence Quakers are tolerant of other religious groups, hoping that each of them can contribute toward meeting the religious needs and preferences of at least some seekers.

Friends wish to work harmoniously with other religious groups, especially in promoting social improvements on a basis of conscience. Obviously in some cases differences are too great to enable joint action. Friends might find it hard to take part in a city-wide evangelical crusade, while some other churches might not feel able to join in the Quakers' conscientious objection to military service. Thus, while Quakers are sympathetic to ecumenical movements, their somewhat unique beliefs and practices often mean that cooperation rather than unification seems marked out for them.

How do Friends business meetings operate?

Friends have always felt that business of their "religious society" should be dealt with in the presence of God. That is, a meeting for business should really be a meeting for worship at which business is carried on. Efforts are made, therefore, to conduct business meetings in a loving and prayerful and calm manner. Each monthly meeting chooses a Clerk, one of whose major duties is to schedule business, present it to the Meeting, and after adequate discussion see that the consensus or "sense of the meeting" is recorded or "minuted".

Why don’t Friends vote in their business meetings?

Friends believe that numbers and majorities do not necessarily make right; they can at times be hasty or wrong. Since business meetings are part of their worshipful "waiting on the Lord", Friends hope that God will lead them toward a right decision on matters brought to those meetings. Discussion and prayer -- and sometimes silent worship -- should make that right decision evident to all attending. The effort should be that of a joint search for God’s will, rather than argumentative debate or clashing proposals.

To an amazing extent this process does secure unity. When it does not, Friends ordinarily prefer to delay action, even when this is inconvenient or disadvantageous, hoping to move eventually to agreement rather than to coerce even a few or a single member.

What about finances?

If by that you mean to ask whether there is a collection or offering at unprogrammed Quaker meetings, the answer is "No". Each local meeting has a budget, and members and regular attendees are encouraged to contribute according to their means. Local meetings pay toward the expenses of quarterly and yearly meetings as well. Individual Friends and local meetings make donations for support of particular concerns and national and international Quaker activities.

Do children and young people have any place in the Society of Friends?

Most Monthly Meetings have First Day Schools, even as other churches have Sunday Schools. These usually meet at the same time as the weekly meeting for worship. Their studies include Bible material, Quaker history and background, and often an emphasis on current personal and social problems.

Friends are concerned that children should be fully part of the Meeting community. As a practical matter, small children find it hard to sit in a silent meeting for a full hour. Yet Friends believe that children should gradually become used to silent worship and hopefully should grow to gain from it even as their elders do. Because of this, unprogrammed meetings arrange to have the children of the First Day School spend a quarter hour or so attending part of the meeting for worship.

Where numbers allow. Meetings set up Young Friends activities for high school or college age young people, with social programs and discussions for their interest. At Yearly Meetings there are usually special Young Friends sessions, and there are a number of regional and national gatherings and organizations for them.

Many Quaker activities for youth involve community service, especially in the form of work camps, ranging from weekend help for some local social service enterprise all the way to a full summer on a project in some foreign country working with young people from other lands.

Quakers have always been interested in education, and have often been experimenters and innovators trying to improve its quality. There are several Quaker-established colleges, the best known being Swarthmore, Haverford, and Earlham; and Quakers have sponsored many secondary and primary schools, both on a boarding and a day attendance basis.

How does one become a member of the Society of Friends?

As already mentioned, membership is through the Monthly Meeting. A person who has attended meetings for worship and other Quaker activities, has read in Quaker literature and become informed as to the faith and practice of Friends, and has decided that this is the orientation which he or she seems to hold, is an appropriate person to apply for membership. The Monthly Meeting appoints a committee to consult with the applicant, and if satisfied that he or she knows what they are doing and can properly take on the responsibilities of membership, accepts that person as a member.

Children are often registered, at the request of their parents, to be junior members until they reach an age to decide whether they want to ask full adult membership status. Friends living away from home sometimes are considered "sojourning members" in the meeting at their temporary location. Friends moving to a new permanent location are encouraged to transfer membership to a nearby meeting and become fully active in it.

Lacking a formal creed, the Society of Friends cannot set fixed qualifications for membership. While it can expect that those who apply do so after careful thought and with adequate information, it has always held that no one has found full truth or perfection, that every one is constantly a "seeker", and that becoming a member of the Society is merely a step, and an early one at that, in this search.

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Further Reading

Often you will find that your local public library has books indexed under "Quakers", "Religious Society of Friends", or "American Friends Service Committee".

Most Friends meetings also have small libraries and will be glad to suggest reading material which can be loaned to you.

The Friends Book Store, 156 North 15th Street. Philadelphia. Pa. 19102, will send a listing of items currently on sale, as will Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center in Wallingford, Pa., 19086.

Nearly all Yearly Meetings have compiled books engrossing their "Faith and Practice".

A local Friends meeting in your area can loan you a copy or tell you where to write to buy one.

London Yearly Meeting prepared in 1860 a very wide-ranging anthology of quotations entitled Christian Faith and Practice in the Experience of the Society of Friends.

The Quaker Reader edited by Jessamyn West is somewhat similar and draws more heavily on American sources.

Among the more general books on Friends are "The People Called Quakers" by D. Elton Trueblood, and John Henry Robert's "Quakers by Convincement".

"A Procession of Friends: Quakers in America", by Daisy Newman, and "The Quiet Rebels - the Story of the Quakers in America" by Margaret H. Bacon, are primarily historical, as is Howard H. Brinton's "Friends for 300 Years".

David Hinshaw's "Rufus Jones, Master Quaker" is a biography of one of the most prominent modern American Friends.

"Quaker Experiences in International Conciliation" by C. H. Mile Yarrow and the earlier "Quaker Ways in Foreign Policy"by Robert C. Byrd describe the peacemaking efforts of Friends.

The American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102 has issued a variety of publications on Quaker social concerns, from details of projects to overviews of subjects such as the draft, abortion and birth control, and criminal justice.

Finally, if you seek a novel describing Quakers and their life, you might look for "The Peaceable Kingdom" by Jan do Hartog, "I Take Thee, Serenity" by Daisy Newman, or "Except for Me and Thee" and "Friendly Persuasion" by Jessamyn West -- the last of these was publicized and described by President Reagan in his 1988 Moscow summit conversations.

Copyright © Laurence Barber, 1990, 1999


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