Most faith groups have specific beliefs that their membership is expected to follow. Sometimes, as in the case of the Roman Catholic church, these requirements are numerous. The Religious Society of Friends is near the opposite end of the religious spectrum. They rely heavily upon spiritual searching by individual members, individual congregations and meetings (regional assemblies). This makes the Quakers difficult to describe in a short essay. We attempt here to portray mainstream Quaker practice. Some Quaker meetings at the liberal and evangelical ends of the spectrum differ significantly from what is covered below.


The movement was founded by in England 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 perfection.

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 go to war. 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 meeting.

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 exiled.

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 social reform
  • "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 group

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, many men were drawn up by the nationalistic fervor, and entered the armed forces. All four branches 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. 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.


As with all large denominations, individual Quakers are religiously diverse. Their beliefs range from Evangelical (conservative) to liberal. The following beliefs are common to most Quakers:

  • Friends believe that there exists element of God's spirit in every human soul. Thus all persons have inherent worth, independent of their gender, race, age, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. Their opposition to sexism, racism, religious intolerance, warfare and the death penalty comes from this belief.
  • Simplicity, pacifism, and inner revelation are long standing Quaker beliefs. Their religion does not consist of accepting specific beliefs or of engaging in certain practices; it involves each person's direct experience of God.
  • There is a strong mystical component to Quaker belief. In the moving words of one reviewer of this essay, "In Meeting for Worship, God is there..God is probably always there, but in Meeting, I am able to slow down enough to see God. The Light becomes tangible for me, a blanket of love, a hope made living."
  • They do not have a specific creed; however, many of the coordinating groups have created statements of faith. The statement by the largest Quaker body, the Friends United Meeting includes the beliefs in:
    • true religion as a personal encounter with God, rather than ritual and ceremony
    • individual worth before God
    • worship as an act of seeking
    • the virtues of moral purity, integrity, honesty, simplicity and humility
    • Christian love and goodness
    • concern for the suffering and unfortunate
    • continuing revelation through the Holy Spirit
  • Many do not regard the Bible as the only source of belief and conduct. They rely upon their Inner Light to resolve its many contradictions. They also feel free to take advantage of scientific and philosophical findings from other sources.
  • Individual Quakers hold diverse views concerning life after death. Few believe in the eternal punishment of individuals in a Hell.
  • All aspects of life are sacramental; they do not differentiate between the secular and the religious. No one day or one place or one activity is any more spiritual than any other.


Individual, autonomous congregations are still referred to as "Meetings". There are a number of geographically defined Yearly Meetings in North America. In Europe, a Yearly Meeting may comprise all congregations within a country. The largest Quaker associations in North America are:

  • Friends United Meeting which coordinates 14 yearly meetings and includes about 60,000 members in North America, and 140,000 worldwide. They are an outgrowth of the "Orthodox" group. They publish a periodical, Quaker Life
  • Friends General Conference links together about 500 meetings and worship groups, comprising some 35,000 members. They follow the original "unprogrammed" style of worship service, and are largely an outgrowth of the Hicksite movement. They publish the FGC Quarterly.
  • Evangelical Friends International is composed of almost 300 conservative Quaker churches in North America, involving over 30,000 members. Worldwide, their membership is about 100,000.
  • The Friends World Committee for Consultation is an international body centered in London, England. It was created "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 60 Yearly Meetings and groups, representing more than 300,000 Friends, are affiliated with the FWCC. Representatives meet every three years at Triennials.


  • On a per-capita basis, they have probably contributed more in the promotion of tolerance, peace and justice than any other Christian denomination. They have been influential beyond what their numbers would suggest in many areas: promotion of world peace, abolition of slavery, fair treatment of Native Americans, universal suffrage, prison reform, improvement in mental hospitals, etc.
  • Some of the Yearly Meetings publish a Book of Discipline or a book on Faith and Practice. These are not sets of strict rules. They are general guidelines for living and include Quaker history, excerpts from the journals of old and weighty Friends and poetry. Also included are monthly queries, which the individual member and meetings can use to explore what they are doing to make a positive impact on the world.
  • Women obtained equal status to men throughout most of the Quaker movement early in its history - centuries earlier than in most other denominations.
  • In England and some areas of the US, meetings are held in silence. Attendees speak when moved to do so. Elsewhere in North America, services have programmed orders of worship, usually led by a pastor.
  • They usually arrange the congregation in a square or circle, so that each person is aware of everyone else, yet no one person appears raised above another in status.
  • Programmed services may be composed of prayer, readings from the Bible, readings from the Book of Discipline, a sermon, hymn singing, music, and "free worship based upon silent waiting,"
  • They do not have a ritual of baptism. Rather, they believe in the "inward baptism of the Holy Spirit" described in Ephesians 4:4-5.
  • Business meetings seek to reach a consensus; no voting is used.
  • Throughout their history, Quakers have refused to take oaths. Their belief is that one should tell the truth at all times. Taking an oath implies that there are two types of truthfulness: one for ordinary life and another for special occasions.

Useful References

Some excellent WWW sites are:

Hit Counter