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 origin in England, Quakerism has spread to other countries, chiefly the United States, Kenya and Bolivia. The number of Quakers in the world is relatively small (approximately 600,000), although there are places, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, in which Quaker influence is concentrated.

Even though Friends do not have a universal set of doctrines to which all members subscribe, certain concepts have been settled on by consensus. The most central concept of all is the Inner Light. The Inner Light is a guiding force within each person, which has been understood in several different ways but always accepted by various branches within the Society.

Belief in the Inner Light has led to the development of several key concepts that are referred to as Testimonies. The Testimonies involve a commitment to such issues as peace, equality between the sexes and among the races, living simply, and maintaining personal integrity. They are explained in more detail in a subsequent section below and in separate articles.


Basic divisions and organization

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

In Great Britain

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 organized 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, published by Britain Yearly Meeting.)

In the United States

Friends in the United States are more divided organizationally, although they are still united by many common bonds. Two main types of worship have emerged in the US, generally described as programmed and unprogrammed. Along with this division of worship style come several differences of theology and vocabulary.

A local congregation in the unprogrammed tradition is called a meeting, or a monthly meeting (e.g., Smalltown Meeting or Smalltown Monthly Meeting). These meetings are called unprogrammed because there is no fixed plan for worship. Unprogrammed meetings 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 typically handled by pastors in other settings. These people are often called "ministry and oversight committee", "ministry and counsel committee", "elders", or "overseers." Usually a "clerk" is appointed, who is responsible for many of the 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, but many retain aspects of unprogrammed worship, including periods of silence. The programmed tradition also has attracted a form of Evangelical Christianity within it.

Although "programmed Quakerism" has become more akin to mainline 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 the viewpoints held by the larger Quaker community.

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


George Fox, one of the early Quaker leaders
George Fox, one of the early Quaker leaders

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

  • Seekers
  • Saints
  • Children of the 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 Inner 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, Bennet "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 (including Fox) disliked the name, but it began to stick nonetheless. There was apparently 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

Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania
Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania

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. Quakers were imprisoned and beaten in both the British Isles and the British colonies. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, some Quakers (most famously Mary Dyer) were put to death for upholding their beliefs. The state of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith. Despite 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 universalist views. The next year, a number of Friends in sympathy with him separated to form a parallel system of yearly meetings in America, referred to as Hicksite. 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, i.e. the Inner light, 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 Joel Bean was an Orthodox Friend who opposed the extreme evangelicalism that was creeping into his branch of Quakerism. He formed a new branch of Quakerism in the western part of the United States. 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 of 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. Since Friends believe that everyone contains "that of God", 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, Quaker mysticism is primarily group-oriented rather than focused on the individual. The unprogrammed Quaker meeting may be considered 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.

Second, Quaker mysticism includes a strong emphasis on 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 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.

Another term used to refer to the Quaker practice of stillness or silent worship -- a component common to both programmed and unprogrammed meetings -- is quietism.

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 would never lead them in ways that contradicted the Bible, and so making the Bible subordinate to the spirit 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 non-Christian Friends.

In nearly 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.

Friends believe 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 is sacred. Thus they did not perform baptism as a rite of membership, and their method of worship was considered unorthodox and heretical. Friends also believe that any meal with others can be a form of communion.


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: the vanity and superiority associated with fanciness, the conformity associated with wearing the latest fashions, and the wastefulness of frequently buying new styles and spending money on adornment. At one time this practice of plainness allowed other people to identify Friends easily. Many people are still familiar with 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 by most Quakers today; however, the principles behind them 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: honesty, class distinction, and vestiges of paganism. These principles were put into practice by affirming rather than swearing oaths, 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.


For more information about Quaker Egalitarianism see Testimony of Equality

Early Quakerism included a strong sense of spiritual egalitarianism, including 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.

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

For more information on this topic see Testimony of Integrity

Early Friends believed that an important part of Jesus' message was how we treat our fellow human beings. They felt that honest dealing with others meant more than just not telling lies. Friends continue to believe 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, believing that one must speak truth at all times, and the act of swearing to it implied otherwise.

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. Some Friends do retain the use of "thou" and "thee" with other Friends. Friends also use certain distinctive terms when describing their theology and practices:

  • Convincement: the process of a non-Friend deciding to become a Friend.
  • Birthright Friend: those Friends born into families that are members of a Friends Meeting. (This is no longer recognized officially by British Friends.)
  • Weighty Friend: a Friend, often (though not always) older, whose opinion or ministry is especially valued.
  • Ministry: the act of speaking during a meeting for worship.
  • 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, according to Quaker belief, by the Holy Spirit or Inner light. Friends often work with Clearness committees when struggling 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".


Quaker testimonies are the traditional statements of Quaker belief. Testimonies are not formal static documents, but rather a shared collection or view of how Quakers relate to God and the world. 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 well. For example 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 continued to own slaves.

While the list of testimonies is evolving (see 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.

Also known as the Testimony of Truth, or Truth Testimony, 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 to Friends having a reputation for being 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

Friends Meeting House, Manchester.
Friends Meeting House, Manchester.

Friends treat all functions of the church as a form of worship, including business, marriage, and memorial services, in addition to regular worship services. There are two main styles of Quaker worship, programmed and unprogrammed.

Unprogrammed worship is the more traditional style of worship among Friends and remains the norm in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. During an unprogrammed 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 (give "ministry"). Traditionally, messages, testimonies, ministry, or other speech are unprepared, and members are called on to discern the source of their inspiration—whether divine or ego. Sometimes a meeting is entirely silent, sometimes quite a few people speak. The number of people speaking is unrelated to how gathered a meeting feels to its participants. Generally meeting for worship lasts about an hour (although it can be shorter or longer depending on the group gathered).

Unprogrammed worship is deemed to start as soon as the first member of the congregation is seated, the other participants entering the room in silence. The Meeting for Worship ends when a predetermined person (usually an "elder") shakes the hand of his or her neighbor. All the members of the assembly then shake hands with their neighbors, after which one member (usually the "clerk") usually rises and extends his or her greetings. Many meetings serve coffee or tea after meeting, which gives everyone an opportunity to catch up with friends and chat with visitors.

Programmed worship arose in the US in the 19th century in response to large numbers of converts to Quakerism during the national spiritual revivalism of the time. Worship at a Friends Church resembles 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 US Quakerism, with unprogrammed meetings generally being more theologically liberal and programmed Friends churches more theologically conservative, this is not a strict rule. The UK did not undergo the same schisms as the US and continued with unprogrammed meetings. As a result, there is a broader spectrum of theological beliefs within Britain Yearly Meeting.

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. Quaker marriage ceremonies were performed in the same manner as worship, meaning there was no priest or high official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union. The pair did, and still do, marry one another before God and human witnesses gathered.

Decision making among Friends

Business decisions on a local level are conducted at 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").

There is no voting. Instead, the Business Meeting 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. Each member listens to others' contributions carefully.

A decision is reached when the meeting as a whole feels that the "way forward" has been discerned. Occasionally, some members of the Meeting will "stand aside" on an issue, meaning that these members do not share in the general sense of unity but are willing to allow the group to move forward. In still other cases a meeting may reach a sense of unity notwithstanding that some members remain opposed, although the meeting would proceed only after considerable time was spent in discernment to ensure that the concerns of the dissenting members have been heard and the sense of the meeting is clear.

The business procedure of Friends can seem impractical. While the process can be frustrating and slow, at its best it works very well. By the time a decision is made, all the issues have been worked out and the group is ready to implement the decision. Making decisions by the sense of the meeting has been a centerpiece of the Religious Society of Friends for over 350 years, at times seeing them through extremely difficult decisions. Quaker-style decision making has been 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 offer remembrances about the person who has died. Memorial services often last over an hour, particularly if there are a large number of people in attendence. Memorial services give everyone present a chance to remember the lost individual in their own way, often bringing closure to most people present.

Quaker organizations

Many schools around the world were founded by Friends. For a list of such schools with links to other articles, see List of Friends Schools.

National or regional bodies of Friends are called yearly meetings. For a wider treatment of yearly meetings and a list of yearly meetings around the world, see Yearly meeting.

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). (In each of these three groups, 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. 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 of Friends. 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 called the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL); several service organizations like the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quaker United Nations Offices, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, and the Friends Committee on Scouting.

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