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
(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).
(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
(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
Quaker Peace and Social Witness works with, and on behalf of Friends in
Britain to translate these “testimonies” into consistent social action.
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
Religious Society of Friends United Kingdom
Quakers in Canada
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