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Religious Society of Friends

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The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers or Friends, is a branch of the Christian church founded in England during the 17th century. Quaker congregations are scattered across the world. Though the number of Quakers in the world is rather small, Quakers have shaped the world to a degree far beyond their numbers.

Table of contents

History

The founder of the Quaker movement was George Fox, who believed that the direct experience of the divine presence was available to all, without the need for any kind of mediation. This was revealed in his autobiography by the words: "There is One, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to my condition." Quakers often express a related belief that there is "that of God in Everyone", sometimes known as the "Inner Light".

George Fox rejected the notion of a paid priesthood, believing instead that everyone can be a minister. Traditional Quaker worship, as established during his life, was conducted without any individual in charge of conducting a planned service. Instead, worshippers gathered in silence, which was only interrupted when someone in attendance felt moved by the Spirit to speak.

Early Quakerism was full of a sense of spiritual egalitarianism, which included a belief in the spiritual equality of the sexes - remarkable for that time. Both women and men were granted equal authority to speak in Quaker meetings for worship. George Fox's wife, Margaret Fell-Fox was equally vocal and literate as her husband, publishing several tracts in Quakerism's early days.

This equal status extended further into the social realm, and Quakers often ignored the social distinctions of the seventeenth century. This translated into several behaviours which offended those of high rank. "Friends" refused to doff their hat to those of higher status. Quakers also addressed high-ranking persons using the familiar forms of "thee" and "thou", instead of the respectful "you".

Later, as "thee" and "thou" disappeared from everyday English usage, many Quakers continued to use these words as a form of "plain speech", though the original reason for this usage had disappeared. The use of this plain speech, and certain forms of plain dress, tended to separate Quakers as a distinct community. However, these practices are rare among Quakers today.

Many other early Quaker beliefs set them apart from early Christians and from society at large. Quakers 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 was sacred. Thus they did not perform baptisms as a rite of membership, and their method of worship was considered unorthodox and heretical in the early days. Quaker marriage ceremonies are performed in the manner of Quaker worship, meaning there was no priest or high official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union.

Quakers refused to swear oaths, even in courtrooms, on the theory that one must speak truth at all times, and the act of swearing to it implied otherwise. Instead, Quakers giving testimony in court, or being sworn into governmental office, "affirm" that they are going to tell the truth; the U.S. Constitution guarantees this option for anyone sworn into office in the United States. As an expression of the Quaker belief that one should mean exactly what one says at all times, Quaker businessmen did not haggle over prices, believing that to ask for a higher price than one was willing to accept was dishonest; this was contrary to common practice of the time. Instead, they offered a firm, fixed price for their goods or services.

On February 11, 1790 the Society of Friends petitioned United States Congress for the abolition of slavery.

Historical Business Meetings

At one point, Quakers felt that women were not participating fully in Meetings for Business. Women would not "nay-say" their husbands. The solution was to form two separate Meetings for Business. Quaker meeting houses were built with a movable divider down the middle. During meeting for Worship, the divider was raised. During Business meetings the divider was lowered, creating two rooms. Each sex ran their own separate business meetings. Any issue which required the consent of the whole meeting - building repairs for example - would involve sending an emissary to the other meeting. This practice continued until there was no longer a concern over whether women would "nay-say" their husbands.

Testimonies

Quakers believe that the Bible is the word of God as interpreted by each person. Each Friend must interpret the Bible for themselves in the light of the same Spirit that they consider to have inspired the Bible. Thus Friends believe that divine revelation is not restricted to the Bible, but rather continues even today (this doctrine is known as continuing revelation). The method of interpretation is similar to the principle of seeking that of God in everyone. From this interpretation a common set of beliefs emerged, which became known as testimonies. Testimonies are not formal static documents, but rather a shared collection or view of how Quakers relate to God. Testimonies cannot be taken one at a time, but are interrelated. As a philosophical system, they are coherent, even outside of Christianity.

The list of testimonies is also not static. The following is a generally accepted list.

  • The Peace Testimony
  • The Testimony of Integrity
  • The Testimony of Equality
  • The Testimony of Simplicity
  • The Testimony of Unity with Creation (new)
  • The Testimony of Living In The World (new)

The Peace Testimony is the closest thing to a static testimony. It is also the best known Quaker testimony. In its short form it reads:

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretence whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world . . . . . . . The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing of evil and again to move us into it; and we certainly know and testify to the world that the Spirit of Christ which leads us into all truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world ... therefore we cannot learn war anymore. (Excerpts from a Statement by the Quakers to King Charles II - 1660)

This belief has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors and anti-war activists come from the Quaker tradition.

From today’s perspective, Quakers have not always followed their own testimonies. While Quakers were some of the first people to oppose slavery, a number of Quakers owned slaves. John Woolman[?] (1720-1772) made it his life’s work to convince Quakers of the evil nature of slavery. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (the most important meeting in USA at this time) prohibited Quakers from owing slaves in 1776. American Quakers were prominent participants in the Underground railroad, a transportation network for sending escaped slaves to Canada.

A number of Quakers also fought during World War II, feeling that the reasons for fighting outweighed the Peace Testimony in this instance.

Quakers as a "Peculiar People"

By the nineteenth century, certain Quaker practices had evolved which tended to distinguish them in their personal lifestyles from the rest of society. The Quaker testimony of simplicity, for example, led many Quakers to adopt a distinctive clothing style, known as plain dress. Similarly, the testimony on plain speech, which led to the use of "thee" instead of "you", continued long past the original reason for it. This style of speech, however, was grammatically distinctive; rather than saying "thou art", Quakers said "thee is". This usage is very rare among Quakers today, although it has not entirely disappeared.

Early Quakers also objected to the names of the days and months in the English language, because many of them referred to pagan gods. As a result, the days of the week were known as "First Day", "Second Day", and so forth. Similarly, the months of the year were "First Month", "Second Month", and so forth. This practice sometimes crops up even today in Quaker meetings for worship or business, particularly in reference to Sunday, which is often referred to as "First Day".

Because of these practices, Quakers were known as a "peculiar people". For the most part, modern Quakers dress and speak in a manner indistinguishable from others. However, they do frequently use certain distinctive terms when describing Quaker theology or practices among themselves, including:

  • Convincement - the process of a non-Quaker becoming a Quaker.
  • Speaks to my condition - 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.

Quakerism today

Since its origins in England, Quakerism has spread to other countries, chiefly the United States and Kenya.

Quakerism has always placed a great emphasis on the Inner Light as a source of inspiration. Early Quakers believed in the truth of the Bible, but also believed that the Inner Light could speak to everyone just as it spoke to the authors of the Bible. This tension between these two sources of theological understanding ultimately erupted, at least in the U.S., between those who placed more emphasis on the Inner Light, and those who placed more emphasis on the Bible. Quakers in the United Kingdom managed to hold these trends together without dividing into separate organisations.

American Quakerism has split into several branches, starting with the "Orthodox/Hicksite" schism of 1827-28. Although other factors played a role in that schism, there was a theological element in it as well. The "Orthodox" branch had moved closer in theology to Protestantism, while the "Hicksite" branch had moved in a liberal direction. The Orthodox branch underwent a further split in the middle of the nineteenth century between the more evangelical "Gurneyite" Quakers, and "Wilburite" Quakers who adhered to more traditional Quaker beliefs.

Starting in the late 19th century, some Quakers have adopted the use of paid pastors and have included a planned sermon, hymns and other elements of Protestant worship services. This type of Quaker worship is known as the "programmed meeting". Worship of the more traditional Quaker variety is called an "unprogrammed meeting", although there is some variation on how the unprogrammed meetings adhere strictly to the lack of programming. Some unprogrammed meetings may have also allocated a period of hymn-singing or other activity as part of the total period of worship, while others maintain the tradition of avoiding all planned activities. Unprogrammed meetings do not have a paid pastor; the leadership role is normally taken up by ministry & council[?] or a "clerk", which is a volunteer position assumed by a meeting member for a fixed period of time.

In theology, differences among Quaker groups have widened since the initial 19th century schism. Today Quakers range the theological spectrum from conservative evangelical to the very liberal fringe of Christianity. Some Quakers do not even identify themselves as Christians. Almost all non-Christian Quakers would be found in the unprogrammed meetings.

Organization

Quaker policy and financial decisions are decentralized. All such decisions are conducted by the individual meeting for worship. Worship is conducted every Sunday, and business meetings come once a month. Thus a meeting for worship is also known as a Monthly Meeting. A meeting for business is considered a form of worship, and all decisions must be reached in a manner that satisfies all participants (called "unity", but sometimes inaccurately called consensus).

Quaker "consensus" does not mean that every person simply gets an equal vote, since that would mean that some members would be voting on issues they were uninformed on or less than interested in. Instead, there is "unity," where those who are informed on or passionate about a given issue are willingly deferred to. However, it is not always the same elite group which is given deference, but a shifting authority, individual to each situation.

Monthly Meetings are grouped on a regional basis into Yearly Meetings. Some Yearly Meetings belong to still larger organizations, the three chief ones in the United States being: Friends General Conference[?], Friends United Meeting[?], and Evangelical Friends International[?]. The Friends General Conference is theologically the most liberal of the three groups, while the Evangelical Friends International is the most conservative. In addition, some monthly and yearly meetings belong to more than one of these larger organizations, while others are completely independent of all three.

Those who join the Religious Society of Friends are said to be convinced Quakers; this is in contrast to those who, as children, were raised as Quakers. They are called "birthright Quakers". Within liberal Quakerdom, birthright Quakers, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist. All children raised as Quakers must confirm their membership as adults. Becoming a Friend first involves meeting with a Clearness Committee, which consists of members of the Monthly Meeting. If the applicant is accepted, there is no rite of baptism associated with becoming a member. A similar process is used for people resigning their membership. A Clearness Committee meets with the person and discusses the reason for leaving. While it is uncommon for a meeting not to accept a resignation, it does happen.

The FWCC (Friends World Committee for Consultation) is one of the international Quaker organizations which loosely unifies the diverse individual groups. It was set up at the 1937 World Conference of Friends in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, USA, "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.

Quaker Spirituality

Quakerism is a creedless religion. George Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists", and modern Quakerism is less concerned with theology than many other faiths are. (That being said, there is, however, a greater degree of emphasis on Christian theology in most programmed meetings than in most nonprogrammed meetings.) Quakerism focuses more on faithfulness in life in the here and now than in ultimate destiny. Although Evangelical and programmed Quakerism has become more akin to Protestantism, many Quakers consider their faith neither Protestant nor Catholic, but rather an expression of a third way.

Quakerism is often termed a mystical religion, but it differs from other mystical religions in two important ways. First, its mysticism is group-oriented rather than focused on the individual. The unprogrammed Quaker meeting is 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") build on what the others have said in developing themes and ideas. The other way in which Quaker mysticism differs is in its outwardly directed activism. Rather than seeking withdrawal from the world, the Quaker mystic translates his or her mysticism into action, and Quakers have traditionally applied their values towards working for social and political improvements. Many abolitionists in the 19th century were Quakers, as were others who worked for prison reform or world peace. Quakers were among the first to pioneer humane treatment for the mentally ill, with The York Retreat[?], an asylum set up by William Tuke[?] (1732-1822) as a reaction to the harsh nature of 18th century asylum care. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker charitable organization that has worked for peace and social justice throughout the world. The AFSC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

There is also a Quaker lobbying organization based in Washington, DC, Friends Committee on National Legislation[?] (FCNL).

Origin of Name Quaker

There are two stories for where the name Quaker came from. The first is that it was an insult. George Fox reported in his journal that, in 1650, on one of the many times he was arrested, Justice Bennet of Derby "first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God." The second story is that Friends were observed to tremble from the emotion of providing ministry to their meeting, and became Quakers.

Famous Quakers

Notable Quakers include:

Quaker Organizations

See also: Quaker tapestry

External Links



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