Quakers - Religious Society of Friends
Numerically, Quakers (officially the Religious Society of Friends) have always been a relatively small denomination, with an influence disproportionate to their size. 

Quakers can appear very different from other Christian groups:  Their fundamental “testimony” is that anyone and everyone can experience the promptings of God directly and immediately; simply through listening all people may perceive the word of God in their soul and endeavour to heed it. Terming such revelation the “inward light”, or the “Christ within”, the first Friends identified this spirit with the Christ of history.  Because “Christ has come to teach his people himself”, Friends have nothing resembling a creed or statement of belief.  No sacraments (such as Holy Communion and water Baptism), no Priests or Ministers, no hymns, no religious festivals, Quaker spirituality instead centres on the silent Meeting for Worship.

Friends come together, usually on a Sunday, and sit together in silence and stillness, with nothing pre-planned beyond when the meeting will start and finish (usually after an hour).  In the silence, worshippers seek to listen for the inward guidance of the Spirit, a direct personal experience that requires no external interpreter or mediator (as George Fox put it “and this I knew experimentally”).  During the meeting the silence may be broken if someone feels moved to stand and speak briefly, or pray, or possibly read from a book.  Silence and stillness, however, predominate.  At the end, two Friends will shake hands to signify the meeting is at an end.

The Meeting for Worship usual occurs in a Meeting House.  This is simply a furnished building with benches and chairs set in a square or circle.  There are no religious symbols, no crosses, no altar and no pulpit, instead there may be in the centre of the room a table on which may be flowers, a Bible and a copy of “Quaker Faith and Practise” (an anthology of Quaker experiences and insights).


Doctrines and Beliefs
Friends emphasize that there is  “that of God in every one”, but recognizes the presence of human injustice and cruelty in the world and seeks to ameliorate it. Quakerism is a way of life and Friends place great emphasis upon living in harmony with their convictions.  These convictions find expression as “testimonies”, public statements of principles that Friends as a community accept they should live by (as George Fox put it, “let your lives preach”). Friends' testimonies include:

Truthfulness (thus, historically, Quakers affirm rather than take an oath in a court of law, since all words should be truthful and taking oaths implies a double standard of truth).

Equality

Simplicity  (until late in the 19th century many Friends retained “plain” dress and “plain” speech, which employed “thee” and “thou” to all people, as opposed to the more formal “you”; and refused to address people by titles).

Peacefulness (the peace testimony is the best known Quaker testimony and is enshrined in a letter presented to Charles II in 1660, which memorably includes the phrase: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever”)

Quaker Peace and Social Witness works with, and on behalf of Friends in Britain to translate these “testimonies” into consistent social action.


Organisation

Quaker organization can seem a little opaque to outsiders. There are variations in organisation between different countries, but all follow more or less the same pattern. Taking the UK as an example:

Basically in the UK there is:

Britain Yearly Meeting, which covers England, Scotland and Wales, with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The decisions of the Yearly Meeting seek to resolve doctrinal or administrative questions (“concerns”) that are raised within its jurisdiction. Such decisions are not decided by a vote but rather members seek to discern “the sense of the meeting” by a process of deliberating the matter until a right way emerges and is assented to by the meeting.

Within BYM there are almost 500 local meetings, which in turn form larger units known as area meetings, of which there are seventy-three. Area meetings are part of yet larger units called general meetings. There are nineteen of these.

Local meetings (previously called preparative meetings (so called because they prepare business for the area meeting) can be of any size from 2 to 200 members - and attenders. Friends have no Priests or Ministers, but each local meeting will have a Clerk, and most will also have Elders and Overseers (responsible for spiritual and pastoral care of the meeting), a Treasurer and a few committees to help them carry out their responsibilities.

Area meetings (called monthly meetings until 2007) are the primary business meetings of the Society. Here membership is agreed upon, so that when an attender becomes a Quaker they are accepted into membership by the area meeting. Area meetings are also the responsible for, amongst other things, the holding of meetings for worship in their constituent local meetings, the appointment of Elders and Overseers and the maintenance of a register of members and membership applications. They also have responsibility for the supervision of weddings and funerals, and the appointment of prison ministers, hospital visitors and representatives to various other organizations.

There is also Meeting for Sufferings, which deals with many of the administrative aspects of Britain Yearly Meeting.

History and Origins

Friends began in the Seventeenth Century, a time of enormous religious upheaval.  The first Friends were gathered from diverse groups of Seekers, Ranters, Baptists and other sects of the radical counter-culture of Puritan England. Originally, Friends were drawn together through and received much inspiration from George Fox, who after a series of spiritual crises and experiences, in about 1647 began to preach the doctrine that “Christ has come to teach his people himself” not in any outward manifestation but as the  “Inward Light”. Although Fox did not intend to start a separate religious organisation, those individuals who were inspired by his preaching began to group together into the nucleus of a movement, calling themselves the Children of Light, the Friends of Truth, and, eventually, the Society of Friends. Although the derivation is uncertain they became known as “Quakers”, possibly because of the agitated movements some early friends experienced during moments of divine revelation or possibly from the waspish response of a Derby judge in 1650 when he was invited to “tremble at the Word of God” by George Fox. A Scottish Quaker, Robert Barclay, in “An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, as the Same Is Held Forth and Preached by the People Called in Scorn Quakers” in 1678, wrote the first complete exposition and defence of the doctrine of “inward light”.

In the Seventeenth Century Quakers and other dissenters were heavily persecuted. Early Friends saw their movement as “primitive Christianity revived”, and placed great emphasis on the words of Christ in the Scriptures, particularly, “Do not swear at all” (Matthew 5:34), and “Do not resist one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39). They refused to take oaths and preached against “all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons”; and often found it necessary to “speak truth to power” and resist the authority of Church and State. Because they rejected any organized Church, they would not pay tithes to the Church of England. Moreover, they met publicly for worship in contravention of the Conventicle Act of 1664, and as “publishers of Truth” published their understanding vigorously in hundreds of books and pamphlets, also in contravention of the law. George Fox was imprisoned in Derby in 1650, Carlisle in 1653, London in 1654, Launceston in 1656, Lancaster in 1660 and 1663, Scarborough in 1666 and Worcester in 1674!  However, meetings sprang up in England, then Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the West Indies, and America and on the Continent.

During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, The Society became chiefly known though the work of individual Friends, such as Elizabeth Fry who spent much of her time campaigning for literacy, privacy and better clothing for the women of Newgate Prison, and for prison reform in general. However, over the passage of time (and after a long period of introversion) a new spirit arose among Friends. Most abandoned their “plain” dress and speech and their hostility to such worldly pursuits as the arts and literature, and instead looked outward as to how their testimonies might be translated into corporate action. The First World War saw the appearance of the Friends Ambulance Unit and the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, and in 1947 the British Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee were together awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Currently there are nearly 500 Friends meetings in the UK, attended by around 25,000 people, with nearly 500,000 people worshipping in meetings in more than 30 countries worldwide.  The Friends World Committee for Consultation is the international organization of the society.
 

Links

Religious Society of Friends United Kingdom
Quakers in Canada
Religious Society of Friends  (Directory & Resource)

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