A Brief Introduction to Quakerism

“Christ is come to teach his people himself”

-George Fox



Quakerism 101

Quakerism arises out of a radical interpretation of Christianity that understands Christ as being a living reality in personal experience, not only in the Bible and Church tradition. The basic discovery of the Friends movement is – in the words of George Fox, the movement’s founder – that “Christ is come to teach his people himself.”

While Friends today understand this in a variety of different ways, the foundational belief that underlies all of Quaker faith and practice is that God is knowable by every human being, and that the Spirit of God will lead us into all truth if we are faithful in hearing and obeying God’s voice in our hearts. Friends believe that all people have the capacity to know the truth in their hearts and to discern the will of God. Furthermore, Friends believe that not only are we able to know God’s will, but that through God’s grace we are empowered to do it.

Inward Truth; Outward Faithfulness

Quaker woman preaching to crowdFriends testify to an inward experience of the Spirit of Christ that is available to each individual; but Quakerism is not an individualistic path. Just as the Holy Spirit speaks to us directly as individuals, we also experience God speaking to us as a group when we gather with the intention to receive God’s will together. Some Friends express this experience by speaking of the “Testimony of Community.” All Friends believe that to be fully faithful to God, our individualism will be brought under control and we will be gathered into community that seeks to know and live out the divine will.

Quakers believe that all of life has the potential to be sacramental. That is to say, the reality of God’s power and love can be embodied and experienced in every aspect of life. Rather than placing our emphasis on specific days, times, rituals or ceremonies, Friends place our focus on the possibility of God’s presence and action in every moment.

The Social Testimonies

Beyond these convictions that Friends hold in common, which could be referred to as our “religious testimonies,” we also share a number of commitments that could be called our “social testimonies.” Of these, the one which Quakers are best known for is the Peace Testimony. Friends oppose war in all forms, based on our conviction that Christ has commanded us to lay aside our earthly weapons and rely only upon the power of God’s love, trusting in God’s justice. This conviction goes further than simply denying participation in war: Friends seek to let our whole lives be expressions of peace in a world that is wracked by conflict and violence.

The Peaceable Kingdom, by Fritz EichenbergAnother of Friends’ core beliefs is the Testimony of Simplicity. It is our conviction that God should be the Center and Orderer of our lives, and we seek to let all of our actions, possessions and relationships be in the service of Truth. This testimony includes seeking to lead lives of material simplicity, trusting that God has indeed provided for the needs of all, but recognizing that material luxury leads to spiritual deprivation and environmental destruction.

Friends recognize that all people are loved by God and have value based on their relationship with their Creator. From this basis, Friends have developed a Testimony of Equality, which emphasizes the fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. Friends reject titles, honorifics and other social constructions that are designed to elevate individuals based on human standards of prestige. Similarly, we believe that we are to treat with love and respect those whom the wider society rejects or deems inferior.

Finally, as Friends have lived into an intimate relationship with Truth, we have been convicted that all of our lives must be in accordance with that Reality. The Testimony of Integrity is a recognition that the Spirit calls us to lead lives of honesty in all our dealings. We are called to lead lives of openness and authenticity, speaking clearly and honestly, and showing consistency between our religious faith and the way that we live.

Quaker Practice

There are two corporate practices that are distinctive to Friends and which deserve special attention in any introduction to the Quaker movement: Waiting worship and Friends’ decision-making process.

Quaker WorshipFriends form of worship is based on our faith that if we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, God will be present with us and guide us in our worship together. The heart of our worship together is expectant waiting on God, often referred to as “open worship,” “silent worship,” or “unprogrammed worship.” Friends sit together for approximately an hour (though it could be longer or shorter, depending on how we feel led by God). During this time, our worship is based in expectant silence. We wait on God, opening ourselves to the Spirit’s working in our hearts and praying that God give us a message as individuals, as well as for the group as a whole. Sometimes, no one speaks during the entire hour. Other times, there may be several messages that God gives us to speak or sing out loud. Whether or not there is vocal ministry, there is often a felt sense of Christ’s presence with us.

Friends way of making decisions is based on this same expectation that God’s Spirit will be present with us and guide us as a group. When Friends meet together to make decisions as a group, we spend a significant amount of time in expectant waiting – just as in Meeting for Worship. Unlike Meeting for Worship, however, we come to the meeting with specific questions for God, seeking guidance in our affairs as a community. In coming to decisions, Friends do not vote. Instead, we seek the “sense of the Meeting” – the discernment of the gathered community of what God’s will is for that community at that time. While there are some apparent disadvantages to the Friends manner of decision-making, one great advantage is that when Friends come to a decision, there is a sense that God has led us to it. Consequently, decisions made in the manner of Friends tend to garner much greater commitment from all involved in the process – even those who would have personally preferred that a different choice be made.

The Modern-Day Diversity of Friends

In the past 150 years, Friends in North America have diverged widely in faith and practice. While Friends as a whole can still generally affirm the belief and practices outlined above, divisions in North American Quakerism have become increasingly entrenched over the past century. At this point in time, there are five general perspectives to be found within the Religious Society of Friends: universalist Liberal, Christ-centered Liberal, conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist. These perspectives are not well-defined, identifiable groups; rather, they are points on a spectrum that runs through North American Quakerism.

Universalist Liberal

Friends gathered on the porch of a meetinghouseFriends of this perspective, while recognizing that Quakerism has historically been a branch of the Christian Church, do not believe that Quakerism is or should be limited to a Christian – or Western – understanding. Friends who hold this perspective often see Quakerism as a meeting ground for followers of various world religions – and of none at all. The Friends practice of worship in expectant silence is often seen as particularly conducive to interfaith dialogue, as people of all faiths can benefit from contemplation and grounded sharing.

Universalist Liberal Friends tend to put little or no emphasis on religious beliefs as a basis for membership in the local Meeting. Instead, adherence to Friends practices – however interpreted by the individual – is the cornerstone of participation in the Society of Friends.

In North America, Friends from this perspective are primarily found in the Liberal Yearly Meetings.

Christ-Centered Liberal

Dialogue between Christ-centered Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends at QuakerCamp, 2008The Christ-centered Liberal viewpoint is that, while Quakerism should not be defined by any particular set of beliefs, the life and teachings of Jesus are central to their personal faith journey. Some Christ-centered Liberal Friends would self-identify as Christians; others would not. On an individual level, the perspective of Christ-centered Liberal Friends is different from that of universalist Liberal Friends; however, there is not necessarily any conflict between these two perspectives in their view of the Meeting community.

Christ-centered Liberal Friends are in general agreement with universalists in their view of the role of belief and practice. While Christ-centered Friends find the life and teachings of Jesus to be deeply significant for them as individuals, they are often comfortable co-existing in Meetings that have no common faith in Jesus. They see sharing in a loving community, relying on Friends practices, and listening for truth wherever it can be found, as a sufficient basis for membership in the Meeting.

Friends from this perspective can be found throughout the Religious Society of Friends in North America; especially in Liberal Yearly Meetings, but also in many Orthodox Yearly Meetings.

Conservative

Friends at the General Gathering of Conservative FriendsFriends who hold a conservative viewpoint (whether or not they are members of a Conservative Yearly Meeting) are in some ways similar to Christ-centered Liberal Friends. Both see Friends practices of waiting worship and decision-making as being central to their understanding of what it means to be a Friend, and both have a personal commitment to Jesus as Guide and Teacher. Unlike Christ-centered Liberal Friends, however, Friends from the conservative perspective hold that faith in Jesus Christ and fidelity to the Christian tradition are essential for the Meeting community as a whole. While seeking not to be legalistic about beliefs, Friends from the conservative viewpoint see common Christian faith – not only common worship and decision-making practice – as being the basis for membership in the Meeting.

Friends with a conservative perspective can be found in the Conservative Yearly Meetings, but also to some degree in the Liberal and Orthodox branches.

Evangelical

Friends worshiping in the pastoral traditionEvangelical Friends are those who have been influenced, to some degree or another, by the Protestant stream of Christianity that is predominant in North America. While in agreement with conservative Friends that Christian faith is crucial for the Meeting as a whole, evangelical Friends are more open to modifying Friends practice to better suit what they sense to be the needs of their local community. While most evangelical Friends still practice waiting worship, almost all evangelical Friends now include prepared elements in their worship services. Employing congregational singing and prepared sermons, Meetings with a predominantly evangelical viewpoint might, at first glance, appear similar to mainstream Protestant services. Some are even more experimental, including praise bands and electronic presentations.

The great majority of evangelical Friends employ pastors to assist with education, worship services and pastoral care of the congregation. But unlike in many other Christian churches, evangelical Friends pastors are understood to be servants of the Meeting. The local meeting for business is the ultimate decision-maker, with the pastor serving as an honored – but equal – member of the church.

There are Friends of an evangelical perspective throughout the Orthodox and Evangelical branches.

Fundamentalist

Friends singing in worshipFundamentalist Friends share a religious culture and self-understanding that is highly influenced by Evangelical Protestantism. Friends from the fundamentalist stream tend to have fully programmed worship services, in the celebration-oriented style of the wider Evangelical Protestant Church.

Fundamentalist Friends have a very high view of Scripture, holding the Bible as the primary authority in the life of the Church. They tend to assign more authority to the pastor than most evangelical Friends churches. In some cases, the pastor, along with a small group of leaders, serve as the primary decision-makers for the church.

Fundamentalist Friends can be found in the Evangelical branch, and to a lesser degree in the Orthodox branch.