Introduction to Quakerism

The following article was written by Michael Gittins of Farnham Meeting. I think it is a good summary of what Quakerism means in the UK.
Posted by Frank R, 26/01/2015 ~


As a preface to the notes below there are three important points to bear in mind.

  1. Of the approximately 360,000 Quakers in the world, only about 11% practise the unprogrammed “waiting worship” and they are found mainly in the UK, Europe and the eastern side of the USA. Elsewhere, especially in the USA and where American missionaries have worked (particularly Kenya) Quakers have been influenced by churches such as the Methodists and Baptists and have “programmed” worship, sometimes led by a paid pastor, in which there may be a period of silence.
  2. With regard to the Bible, liberal Quakers are well aware of the findings of modern Biblical scholarship, especially since the finding in 1947 of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in Egypt, which have cast entirely new light on the development of early Christianity. Consequently, the view that the Bible is the definitive word of God is no longer tenable for many, though the Bible remains a source of inspiration, together with the scriptures of other religions.
  3. This is a period of uncertainty for Quaker thinking on the subject of God. Traditional “theist” Quakers may still think in terms of a transcendent Superlative-human, who redeemed a fallen world by the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. However, in the light of modern knowledge about the physical universe and its origins and development, many now find such ideas untenable and either hold agnostic views or are moving towards ideas of God in terms of the energy and fields making up the universe. Uncertainty is no bad thing. Gerald Priestland called Quakerism “a religion of reasonable uncertainty” and a recent Free Thinking lecture by Karen Armstrong was entitled “The Importance of Being Uncertain”. Certainty can close the door to further discovery. Uncertainty leaves it open.

Note one: Origins of Quakerism

They were a 17th century reform sect, reacting against the established Church of England and its taxes. George Fox (1624-1691) emerged as its main leader and set up its basic organisation, ably supported in later life by his wife Margaret Fell.

Note two: Outline of Quaker history

Quakers were severely persecuted in the latter part of the 17th century (together with other dissenting groups) and after an initial burst of evangelical fervour retreated into a very closed, “quietist” group until about the middle of the 19th century. Then a liberalising movement set in but differing strands of thought remain within the Society.

Note three: Rejection of creeds

There has always been among Quakers a suspicion of creeds which try to crystallise beliefs in words and hinder the working of inspiration or the “Inner Light”, which the early Quakers regarded as superior to the Scriptures and the Church. They probably believed also in the Biblical advice in 2 Cor. 3.6 that “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life”.

Note four: Absence of sacraments

As with the Salvation Army, the traditional sacraments, such as baptism and confirmation, play no part. London Yearly Meeting in 1986 said, “The whole of our everyday experience is the stuff of our religious awareness: it is here that God is best known to us. However valid and vital outward sacraments are for others, they are not, in our experience, necessary for the operation of God’s grace. We believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church”.

Note five: Are Quakers Christians?

What is the definition of a Christian? If we take the definition of evangelical Christians as being someone who has given his/her life to Jesus as a personal saviour and hopes for eternal life with him after death, then most Quakers would not qualify. If we mean someone who tries to follow the teachings and life of Jesus, then many Quakers would be happy to term themselves Christian.

Note six: Do Quakers believe in God?

What/who is God? It is pointless trying to answer any questioner who simply takes the word for granted, without any attempt to define what is meant. God as a transcendent being who created the universe and then sent his only son to redeem a fallen world is still a core belief for many Quakers but for many others the idea of God as the creative energy in the universe is a concept which may gain ground as we understand more and more about the physical nature of the universe.

Note seven: What do Quakers believe happens after death?

Those who think in traditional Christian terms may believe in some form of afterlife in a heavenly state. Others may not believe in any afterlife or may just have a completely open mind. However, the emphasis for Quakers is not on trying to work a passage to an afterlife but on trying to live in the present, the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus called it, and to transform this world.

Note eight: Are Quakers pacifists?

Some are but there is no obligation to be so. In WW2 some registered as conscientious objectors, some enlisted and fought as soldiers and a good many joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, an independent unit but liaising closely with the army, of course. The real emphasis should be on peace-making or mediation, both before and after conflicts. This is where Quakers devote money and human resources in numerous crisis areas in the world and have become respected for it.

Note nine: What “scriptures” do the Quakers use?

We value the Bible but, as said above, don’t regard it as the authoritative word of God. The scriptures of all major religions are respected and studied. The nearest we have to “Scriptures” would be the publication “Quaker Faith and Practice, which is an attempt to express Truth through the vital personal and corporate experience of Friends, as well as describing the current structures of the Society.

Note ten: How do Quakers worship?

In the UK the “unprogrammed” (largely or completely silent) format is the norm. However, some meetings will start with a short reading of one of the ‘Advices and Queries’ or a short passage from Quaker Faith and Practice. This may set in train a line of thought which may be expanded by other “ministries” (spoken contributions). Traditionally worshippers were waiting to be inspired by the Inner Light (or Holy Spirit). Today the silence may be a chance to “centre down”, allow the mind to free itself from the preoccupations of the ego and open itself to “the spiritual”, defined by one writer as “anything transcendent or something that deeply moves us and connects us in one way or another to something larger than ourselves”. What distinguishes Quakers from other sects which use silence or stillness is that in a Meeting for Worship Quakers hope to seek the divine through corporate listening in stillness/quiet and that people do not necessarily need a priest to mediate to do this.

Note eleven: Quaker testimonies.

The testimonies are the guiding principles for behaviour. The four most well-known are: Truth/Integrity, Equality/Sustainability, Simplicity and Peace. Many Quakers now see these as verbs/on-going processes rather than nouns to be achieved, so will put the word “seeking” in front of them.

Note twelve: How do Quakers co-operate with other churches?

This will vary a lot according to local circumstances and the nature of the local meeting. However, Quaker meetings often belong to the local Churches Together organisation, as in Farnham. There may be participation in joint celebrations but it is probable that most contact will be through joint social activities, such as support for the local Foodbank. In Farnham the co-operation is good.

Note thirteen: What is the role for Quakers in the modern world?

Here are three personal suggestions:

  1. To bear continuing witness to the value of silence in worship. Psalm 46.10 says, “Be still and know that I am God”. Silence has always been present in the monastic orders but seems to have died out in mainstream religious worship.
  2. To bear continuing witness to the value of action, especially in mediation work, over creedal orthodoxy.
  3. To be a buffer at times between competing extreme and intolerant ideological groups in areas such as religion and politics, such as in Northern Ireland. The absence of labelling beliefs gives a certain freedom of action.