RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS (QUAKERS)
To find religion itself, you must look inside people and inside yourself. And
there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right
scent. Millions of people have it and don’t know what it is they have. God is
their guest, but they haven’t the faintest idea that s/he is in the house. So
you mustn’t only look where God is confessed and acknowledged. You must look
everywhere to find the real religion... Living with God is not an apparition but
a wordless and endless sureness. Like the silence of two friends together.
Bernard Canter, (1962).
The movement was founded in England by George Fox (1624-1691), a nonconformist
religious reformer. At the age of 19, he left home on a four year search, seeking answers
to questions which had troubled him since his childhood. He sought guidance from a variety
of the country's spiritual leaders. He gradually became disillusioned with those leaders
and with the existing Christian denominations. At the age of 23, he heard a voice, saying "there
is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition". He felt a direct call
from God to become an itinerant preacher and promote the concept of the Inward Light,
or Inner Voice. He believed that an element of God's spirit is implanted within
every person's soul. He called this "the seed of Christ", or "the
seed of Light". Thus, everyone has an innate inner capacity to comprehend the
Word of God & express opinions on spiritual matters. The term comes from John 1:9 in
the Christian Scriptures: "The true Light, that lighteth every man that cometh
into the world." Logical consequences of this belief were:
|that every man and woman has direct access to God; no priestly class or "steeple
houses" (churches) are needed|
|that every person - male or female, slave or free is of equal worth|
|that there is no need in one's religious life for elaborate ceremonies, rituals, gowns,
creeds, dogma, or other "empty forms."|
|Following the inward light would lead to spiritual development and towards individual
Fox taught his followers to worship in silence. At their meetings, people would speak
only when they felt moved by the Holy Spirit. He promoted simple living, and the
prohibition of alcohol. He spoke against holidays, sports, theater, wigs, jewelry, etc.
They thought of themselves as friends of Jesus and referred to themselves as "Friends
of Truth" (from John 15:15). Later, they became known simply as "Friends".
The movement came into conflict both with Cromwell's Puritan government and later with
the restored monarchy of Charles II, over a number of points: they refused to pay tithes
to the state Church; to take oaths in court; to practice "hat honor"
(doff their hats to the king or other persons in positions of power); or to
engage in a combat role during wartime.
They developed an intense concern for the disadvantaged, including slaves, prisoners and
inmates of asylums. They agitated for an end to slavery, and for
improvements in living conditions in penitentiaries and treatments in mental institutions.
Fox was greatly persecuted during his lifetime and imprisoned many times. Once, when he
was hauled into court, he suggested that the judge "tremble at the word of the
Lord". The judge sarcastically referred to Fox as a Quaker; the term
stuck, and has become the popular name for the Religious Society of Friends. During
the second half of the 17th century, over 3000 Quakers spent time in English jails for
their religious beliefs; many hundreds died there. About 1660, a group of congregations
were established, called preparative meetings. Once a month, these groups gathered
together and held a monthly meeting. Four times a year, the latter groups would
hold a quarterly meeting. Finally, all of the quarters would gather annually for a yearly
North American history:
The first Quakers to arrive in America were viewed as dangerous heretics in many of the
colonies. They were deported as Witches, imprisoned or hung. They found a sanctuary in the
Rhode Island colony, which had been founded on the principle of religious tolerance.
William Penn (1644-1718) and other Quakers played a major role in the creation of the
colonies of West Jersey (1675) and Pennsylvania (1682). These colonies were noted for
their toleration of minority religious groups, like the Jews, Mennonites, Muslims and
Quakers. In 1688, a group of Friends in Germantown PA took a public stand against slavery; this is believed to be the first stirrings within a
religious organization of the abolitionist movement in America. Initial opposition towards
Quakers eventually waned, particularly after the Toleration Act of 1689. Quakers
became accepted as a denomination and many colonies' constitutions exempted them from
giving oaths in court. Quakers distanced themselves from society through their simple
clothing and plain language (e.g. the use of "thee" and "thou" in
place of "you"). As a group, they became well respected for their
industriousness and high moral character.
In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, tensions between Britain and the
colonies increased. The Quakers tried to remain neutral. During the war, most refused to
pay military taxes or to fight. They became intensely disliked for their stand; some were
Following the war, a number of Quaker organizations were formed to promote social
change in the areas of slavery, prison conditions, poverty,
native American affairs, etc. Quakers played a major role in organizing and running the "Underground
Railroad" - a system which aided runaway slaves to escape to freedom in the
northern states and Canada.
Early in the 19th Century, tensions increased within the movement over doctrinal
matters. Elias Hicks from Long Island began preaching the primacy of the "Christ
within" and the relative unimportance of the virgin birth,
the crucifixion, resurrection and other fundamental Biblical
beliefs. In time the movement split between the Hicksite and Orthodox
factions. A second schism occurred in the 1840's among the Orthodox group. The
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting remained Orthodox, but the remaining Orthodox Meetings split
between the more evangelical Gurneyites, and conservative Wilburites. By the
early 20th century, the Quaker movement was divided into four groups:
|"Hicksites: a liberal wing concentrated in the eastern US, who emphasized
|"Gurneyites": the more progressive and evangelical Quakers who followed Joseph John Gurney, retained pastors, and were Bible centered.|
|"Wilburites": the traditionalists who were more devoted to individual
spiritual inspiration, who followed John Wilbur. They were mostly from rural areas,
and retained the traditional Quaker speech and dress.|
|"Orthodox": the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a Christocentric
The first and second World Wars created a crisis for the movement. Until that time, the
Society was a pacifist organization. Any Quaker who became a soldier was ejected from the
community. However, during the two wars, some men were drawn up by the nationalistic
fervor, and entered the armed forces. During World War II, many American Quakers
joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, an unofficial body supported by
British Quakers. This allowed Quakers to volunteer as medical and ambulance
personnel on the battlefields of the Middle East, India, China, and northwestern
Europe. 1,2 This was a
particularly high risk assignment. All four branches of the faith joined together at the time of the
first World War to create the American Friends Service Committee. This agency
allowed many Quaker conscientious objectors to help alleviate suffering while avoiding conscription.
There are about 300,000 members worldwide, including a large group in Kenya.
In fact, the greatest concentration of Quakers live in Kenya, where they follow
an evangelical interpretation of Quakerism. There are
125,000 in North America. In the United States, they are concentrated in the Northeast and
Midwest. Although many had settled in the South during the 19th century, almost all later
left in protest over slavery.
- A list of books at:
http://www.pym.org/ contains references to books on the Friends
Ambulance Unit activities during World War II.
- "Friends Service Council – History of Organization," Nobel
Copyright © 1996 to 2006 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson