Quakers are in some ways an odd lot, at the margins of history, yet influential out of all proportion to their numbers. Quaker beliefs influence many of the ideas on this website. I include this section to help make plain some of the origins of these ideas and to make where I come from more transparent to those readers who are interested in such things.
This account of Quakerism is necessarily my own, not another’s. Another Quaker is likely to write quite a different story of Quakerism. In no way, therefore, can this section be seen as the “correct” account of Quakers and Quakerism, only the one that best reflects my own understanding.
What makes Quaker beliefs distinctive?
Quakers have sometimes been seen as a “third way”, neither quite Protestant nor Catholic but somehow a mixture of both. Other aspects of Quaker belief have more in common with Orthodoxy than western religious practice. Over the years, most Quakers haven’t been too bothered about which pigeon holes they are posted in.
Though Quakers spring from the dissenting tradition within the heart of Puritanism, early on they rejected many of the dogmas about who was “saved” and who was not, believing that Jesus came as Messiah for all humankind.
At the heart of this belief is the understanding that, with Jesus’s resurrection, the Spirit of God was shared with all humanity and that this means that anyone who seeks God can find her, whether they have heard of Jesus or not. This is also why the early Quakers believed that each one of us is instilled with a hunger for God and a sense of what is from God and what is not. This knowledge is planted as a seed within each one of us. If we turn within to focus on this seed, God can lead us into conformity with his will, just as Jesus was.
This belief meshes with the Quaker belief that all people everywhere are created in God’s image – as seen in Jesus – and that the seed within gives every person the potential for acting rightly in God’s will. Here there is an overlap with Orthodox practice. Contemplation is at the root of transformation.
In focusing our reflections on the Spirit’s will for us, we are enabled to grow and flourish as God’s children. We can become conformed to the image of Jesus, slowly being changed to become like him in our inner being, in our will, and in our actions. This might be a struggle, but persistence will bring inner transformation, making a new person.
The Quaker idea of “perfectibility” has much in common with Catholic mysticism, and some overlaps with the Holiness movement of Methodism, but is quite alien to the Protestantism of Calvinist theology.
Yet it these ideas, that of the “seed” and of “perfectibility”, that are the basis for Quakers today looking for “that of God” in each human being they encounter. They are also the basis for the the Quaker testimony of equality. Quakers not only believe that the other person is equal to them in their value before God, but that the other person also has something of God in their person that can be revealed in each encounter.
For Quakers, people have an inherent value that is sacred because of that of God in them. This is the basis for the Quaker testimony against war and all forms of violence – it is impossible to kill another person when that person has the presence of the sacred in them, reflecting God’s image.
Quirky Quaker practice
The flourishing of the light within is most clearly expressed collectively. It is to this light that Quakers turn during worship, seeking God’s guidance collectively. This is why Quakers in un-programmed meetings (those without the presence of an ordained minister) sit in silence during worship, focusing on listening to God’s will for the meeting. The silence is only broken by “ministry” – when a Quaker is led by the Spirit to speak God’s word on behalf of all those in the meeting. This ministry replaces the sermons of other congregations.
On occasion, no words are spoken. This silence is not always empty, however, and does not preclude a deep sense of worship descending on the meeting that makes the presence of God seem tangible and immediate – a mystical experience described as a “gathered meeting”. This sense is shared with several Catholic mystics, including Quietists.
This collective seeking of the guidance of God’s Spirit is also at the heart of Quaker decision making. Quaker meetings for church affairs, correctly called Meetings for Worship for Business, seek the guidance of the Spirit in making decisions on the most mundane of matters. Each person who speaks is expected to look to the light within for guidance. As such, it is usual practice to allow time between each contribution, so that the meeting can discern the truth in what has been said.
This practice underlines how the Quaker testimony to equality and the practice of worship intersect with and reinforce each other. Each person’s contribution in the business meeting is of potentially of the same worth as that of each other person. In this sense, all contributions are equal, whatever the individual expertise. No person can rightfully interrupt another. Nor can they pull “rank” by age or experience or qualifications. There are many tales of how it was that the youngest person, or the least likely, or the most disadvantaged, who showed the meeting the right way forward.
Nor are their “right answers” in the usual sense. The right answer, in Quaker practice, is for the meeting to have collectively discerned God’s will through the Spirit’s leading for the meeting. The outcome is “unity”, where all consent to the collective decision of the meeting. Sometimes decisions are arrived at quickly. Sometimes there is no decision. It is an odd practice if you are used to the quick decision-making of business. This is neither democracy nor socialism but something quite else – what might be called a quiet theocracy – led by the collective discernment of the Spirit’s guidance.
From the above account, it should be clear that Quakers have many distinctions from other church bodies in terms of their beliefs and practices. To understand why this is the case, it is useful to look at how they got to where they are today.
Quakers were initially known as Children of the Light or the Friends of Truth. Later they were known as the Society of Friends. Each of these names reveals some truth about Quaker practice.
The sobriquet Quaker was bestowed on them by others, initially in a derogatory sense, in reference to their quaking during worship. The term has stuck. Most Members of the Society of Friends today are quite content to be known as Quakers.
Quakerism arose out of the chaos of the Civil Wars and Cromwell’s Puritan revolution during the middle of the seventeenth century. As well as deep political divisions, the time was characterised by religious dissent on all sides. Radical Christian groups vied with ultra-conservative adherents, with every shade of religious belief in between. Religion, politics and culture were all deeply entangled, each mirroring the other, intersecting with it, and shaping it. There was no concept of “not being religious”. Everyone was Christian, though there was much disagreement on what this meant in practice.
During these years of confusion and intolerance, many wandered from church to church without a home among the numerous, disparate and competing strands of religious practice. Historians commonly call such people during this period Seekers, though it is unlikely that this is what they called themselves. It was from among these Seekers that Quakers sprang.
Quakerism’s roots are in the dissenting church. They spring from the same soil as the Baptists, Muggletonians, Diggers and Levellers – groups that were questioning Protestantism, pushing it to its logical conclusion.
All these groups in one way or another sought a return to primitive Christianity. Seekers questioned the notion of an ordained priesthood, believing that the Word of God was available to all without mediation. Some believed that they will living at the dawn of a new age, which God would reveal to them. Many Seekers wandered from one group to the other, some eventually becoming Quakers.
Most would today not challenge that Quakerism was founded by George Fox, whose Journal has become a foundational account of early Quakerism. Indeed, most Quakers would give Pentecost in the year 1652 as its starting date. This was the time when George Fox was led to climb to the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire. There God gave him a vision of “what places he had a great people to be gathered.” He became convinced there of the power of this message.
Others who also had an important role in shaping early Quakerism include Isaac and Mary Pennington, James Nayler, Richard Farnworth, Edward Burrough, William Dewsberry, Francis Howgill, and Margaret Fell. From its beginnings, Quakerism was not a one-man band.
Early Quakers differed from Baptists and other Puritans in several ways. These differences are defined most radically in how the view the Word of God. For Baptists and most other dissenters, this meant the Bible and, more particularly, the scriptures of the New Testament. For George Fox and his followers, however, the Word of God was Jesus, as made explicit at the start of the Gospel of John.
This difference in interpretation has had fundamental repercussions in the theology of Quakers. Quakers start from the point that the Word has given his Spirit at Pentecost to all those who believe. This means that not only is there no need for a priest to interpret the writings of the Bible, but that each person can be taught directly of God by the Spirit. “There is one, even Jesus, who can speak to my condition,” as George Fox said.
It is the Spirit that chides and guides. It is the Spirit that produces convincement – a Quaker term for where God breaks into a person’s life and convicts them of their wrong doing and the need for a way of life that rejects separation from God. This idea is at no great distance from the Puritan notion of “conviction of sin”. The difference is in what happens next.
Because Quakers believed that the promptings of the Spirit can be discerned directly by each person, the consequence of this belief is that the profession of Jesus as the Christ is not sufficient in itself – it needs to be readily evident in the life of the person, not just in what they say. (This notion is at the root of the Quaker testimony of truth and integrity – in the demand for total congruence between what one says and how one lives ones life.)
When George Fox confronted Margaret Fell and others with “What canst thou say?” he was challenging not just their beliefs but their experience. In other words. “What can you say of God from your experience?” Or, “What difference does the Spirit of Jesus the Christ make in your life?”
Actions speaking truth
The equality of all before God, seeking the leading of the Spirit, and speaking Truth are all mutually reinforcing for Quakers. This has often led Quakers to take action on issues of Peace, Justice and Inequality. These actions are motivated by the agency that comes from collective discernment of the Spirit’s leading.
George Fox’s words, “What is it that thou canst say?” are mirrored by “let your life speak;” both are at the heart of Quaker testimony – where words are insufficient, actions talk.