Quakerism was founded in 1652 by George Fox who preached a very simple but radical Christian message – he encouraged people to listen to the spirit in their hearts and obey its guidance in their daily lives. They called themselves ‘Friends of the Light’ but became known by the nickname Quakers, a name that was first conferred on George Fox by Justice Bennett in 1650 when Fox told him to tremble at the word of the Lord. This name is now synonymous with our formal name – the Religious Society of Friends. Fox taught that the spirit, which had inspired the writing of the scriptures, was still working and living in the hearts of men and women, ready to reveal fresh truths.
A Different Approach to Religion
Friends’ approach to religion was and still is very different from that of other religious groups. Perhaps the three most noticeable differences are that:
·Emphasis is not placed upon belief (Quakers have no Creed), but upon what we are within and how we live our lives. We rarely speak about our personal inner beliefs, preferring to act on George Fox’s words …..
Let your lives speak.
When we meet for worship we do so in silence. There is no formal service with hymns, prayer, lessons or a sermon from a minister. There is just silence, in which together as a group we try to nurture the ‘Light’ or ‘that of God’ within us all. It is our experience that silence brings peace, meaning and strength to our lives. As William Penn wrote in 1699 …..
True silence is to the spirit
what sleep is to the body,
nourishment and refreshment.
To read our Quaker Worship leaflet click here.
We have no ministers, but in our meetings someone may feel moved to share a deep inner thought – one that may appear profound and timely to others.
Some seek it in books,
some in learned men;
but what they seek is in themselves.
William Penn, 1694
Over the past three and a half centuries, this inner, mystical approach to religion has led to stream of spiritual insights which Quakers hold dear to their hearts, and we document them in our book ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’. Our peace testimony, our social witness and our willingness to draw inspiration from many sources, including the teachings of other faiths, all stem from such leadings of the spirit.
We also have a set of ‘Advices & Queries’ that offer guidance on the Quaker way of life. However, since Quakers place greater faith in the leadings of the spirit than in the written word, the ‘Advices and Queries’ are prefaced by the following short text written by a meeting of elders at Balby in 1656.
Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
A Misnomer – Many people believe that the Puritans were Quakers, but this was not the case. The Puritans were Christians, mainly Presbyterians, who believed that the Bible was the absolute and final word of God and lived by a very strict code based on ‘the letter’ of the Bible. In fact, Quakers in New England were persecuted by the Puritans for not accepting the Bible as the absolute and final word of God, and in 1659 three Quakers, two men and a woman, were hanged in Boston for their beliefs.
Quakers in Action : Pacifists not Passivists
Although Quakers take an inner, mystical approach to religion based upon prolonged silence, they do not just sit around living inactive lives of peace and tranquillity, for they believe, like William Penn in 1682, that:
True godliness does not turn men out of this world,
but enables them to live better in it
and excites their endeavours to mend it.
Quaker faith springs from the deeply held belief in living our lives according to our spiritual experience. Consequently, Quakers have been active in many spheres trying to make the world a better place for all to live in. Individually, we try to follow the promptings and leadings of the spirit deep within ourselves. This may lead some to become active campaigners for some worthy cause, whilst others may give much time to some some form of service to others, or simple concentrated on being good neighbours, employers or employees. In this way we hope to be leavens for good within society as a whole.
Since the early days of Quakerism, there have been certain leadings of the spirit that have been so commonly experience amongst Friends that they became the Quaker Testimonies. We call them testimonies because they are how we witness to the world about our corporate beliefs. These are briefly as follows.
Truth and Integrity – We try to live according to the deepest truth we know, which we believe comes from ‘that of God within’ (the inward Light, the Spirit). This means speaking the truth to all, including people in positions of power. Integrity is the guiding principle we set for ourselves and expect in public life.
Equality, Justice and Community – We recognise the equal worth and unique nature of every person. This means working to change the systems that cause injustice and hinder true community. It also means working with people who are suffering from injustice, such as prisoners and asylum seekers.
Quakers played a key role in the initiation and promotion of the anti-slavery campaign (See ‘Keeping it under their hats’ by Stephen Tomkins – author of William Wilberforce, a Biography)
Simplicity – We are concerned about the excesses and unfairness of our consumer society, and the unsustainable use natural resources. We try to live simply and give space for things that really matter: people around us, the natural world, our inner experience of God.
Peace – Perhaps Quakers are best known for our peace testimony. This derives from our conviction that love is at the heart of existence and all human beings are equal in the eyes of God, and that we must live in a way that reflects this. It has led Quakers to refuse to take up arms in military service, but many have provided battlefield ambulance and medical services for the wounded. Many others have become involved in a wide range of peace activities from practical work in areas affected by violent conflict to the development of alternatives to violence at all levels from the personal to international. Our peace testimony is not simple, and not all Quakers have the same understanding of what it will lead them to do in any given situation.
What others have said of Friends
The following quotations about Friends range from the early days to the present day:
When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.
Robert Barclay (1648 – 1690)
I have always loved the simplicity of manners of the Quakers; and observed that many a man was a Quaker without knowing it
James Boswell in ‘Life of Johnson’ (1776)
I was at my wits’ end when I stumbled in from the rain and sat down among those quiet people. … I knew I’d got as far as my mind could take me, but I’d rejected my body and hadn’t discovered my soul. I soon began to realise that I was a Quaker at heart, for there I found the notion that the Spirit was available to anybody, including me, just as I was. … I’ve spent so many years trying to fit the different bits of me together, and of all those bits I think the Quaker bit is most important.
Rabbi Lionel Blue – Interview: ‘The Friend’ (May 1998)
After a long period of feeling spiritually unsettled, I drove to Alnwick to find a Roman Catholic convent, where I joined in worship with a group of about 12 people. But these were not Roman Catholics but Quakers. Here were people quite uncaught up in ….the lumber of accumulated and no longer helpful ecclesiastical baggage. They were trying to walk in the world, responding to that of God in everyone. Without sacraments or “Special day”, they regarded all creation as sacred. And they felt called to try and resolve, not evade, conflict, wherever they encountered it in their every day lives. … I had come home.
Rosemary Hartill – Former BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent, in ‘Methodist Recorder’ (April 1998)