Within the family of Christian movements, the Religious Society of Friends is an example of a group of people who chose to take the road less traveled when it came to matters of faith and social action. Often referred to as Quakers, Friends are found in many countries around the world, and in fact are enjoying the creation of new local congregations or meetings in the United States. Here is some background on the Religious Society of Friends and the current state of Quakerism today.
Founded in 17th century England, the Religious Society of Friends grew out of the faith experiences of George Fox. Unhappy with the Christian faith traditions of the day, Fox chose to join with none of them and turned to the canon of scripture used by Protestant Christianity for inspiration. Out of his studies, Fox had several religious experiences that led him to proclaim that God was immediately accessible to all humankind, with no need for any ecclesiastical mediator. This was possible, according to Fox, because there was “that of God” in everyone and the Holy Spirit could touch and commune with that divine spark in each person, provided the individual was willing to set aside earthly cares and become open to the presence of God.
As Fox proclaimed his newfound understandings, others responded and the movement began to come together. Originally referred to as Seekers of Truth, this new group of Christians began to refer to themselves as Friends, owing to a New Testament passage that recorded Jesus as referring to those who followed His teachings as friends. While many flocked to the new movement, Fox also angered many in the religious establishment. The result was that a number of adherents were imprisoned and some put to death. As religious tolerance grew in Great Britain, the Religious Society of Friends began to set up as basic system for worship and conducting business that is still used by many Friends today.
The origin of the nickname “Quaker” is usually attributed to two different scenarios. In the first, Quaker was a term of derision that referred to the way that many believers would seem to quake with emotion during the Friends meeting for worship. Another instance refers to a judge telling Fox he would soon quake before the law, with Fox replying that he would quake before no man, only before God.
Quaker teachings regarding the nature of God and the scriptural canon were generally in line with mainstream Christianity. Several beliefs made them unique, however. The Light Within refers to the divine spark in all persons, and tended to lead Friends to reject the depravity concepts espoused by Calvinism. The Quaker Peace Testimony established the long held belief of not bearing arms, and calls Friends to not make war upon anyone, although the Peace Testimony does not prevent Friends from serving in wartime medical units. Friends traditionally are less likely to be literal in their understanding of scripture, although there is one portion of the Religious Society of Friends that places a great deal of emphasis on the use of scripture.
Traditional worship among Friends was and still is simple and can take place in just about any setting. Friends would gather into worship that did not involve a minister or designated speaker, and did not include hymns or pre-planned vocal prayers. The feel of the service was that of expectant waiting, where all would settle in to a silent state awaiting the Spirit of God to speak to the group through one of the persons present. The meeting for worship would end when one Friend would perceive that it was time and would so signify by joining hands with the person sitting next to him. In this manner, all persons slowly joined hands and the meeting would be officially over.
The Quaker balance between listening to the Light Within for instruction and relying upon the written word of scripture was always hard to maintain. In the early 19th century, Quakers who held the Inner Light to be the final authority and those who held that scripture was necessary to check individual and congregational spiritual leadings went their separate ways.
Another split later in the century further divided the Scriptorians into two groups, with one of the groups becoming more evangelical in their interpretation of Quakerism and adopting the use of full time pastors and modifying worship to more closely resemble a typical Protestant service. Still later in the 20th century, this group of evangelicals split again, with one group maintaining a more moderate doctrinal stance and the second leaning further into evangelical thought and practice.
The Religious Society of Friends today has several smaller groups within this framework. Friends General Conference represents Friends who tend to a more liberal religious understanding and who practice traditional Quaker worship. Friends United Meeting (FUM) uses a worship style that usually includes a period of silent meeting and the remainder earmarked by a sermon and vocal music. FUM has an extensive missionary outreach in Africa, where the majority of its membership is found.
Evangelical Friends International (EFI) affirms the traditional Quaker understandings, but with a clear emphasis on scripture. EFI Quakerism currently is expanding in South American countries. Conservative Friends attempt to maintain a balance between the Inner Light and scripture, and also have those among them who still practice plain speech and plain dress. British Quakerism today continues mainly in the traditional silent worship, with the doctrinal approach being similar to Friends General Conference. In the United States, there are a number of independent Quaker meetings, who work with other Friends in common cause, but choose not to join with any particular Friends organization.
As a movement, the Religious Society of Friends has contributed to human rights and social reform far beyond its roughly 350,000 members. Prison reform, peace initiatives, and community planning are just three of the areas where Friends have contributed to the welfare of the world in general. While their numbers may be relatively small, the Religious Society of Friends continues to quietly make a difference in many lives and in many places.