Who are the Quakers?
`Quakers' started as a nickname - our real name is the Religious Society of Friends - but we are quite happy to be called either Friends or Quakers.
The Religious Society of Friends is a small group (about 23,000 members and attenders in Britain, much larger numbers in the Americas and Africa) with a special view of what religion means, and of Christianity in particular. Anybody can attend the local Quaker Meeting for Worship. After a while, if they find they share Friends' outlook, they can become a member and take a bigger part in the Society's life.
Quakerism started in England in the 1650s, the time of the Commonwealth, when George Fox gathered groups of 'seekers' or dissidents together. They felt that the Churches over the centuries had led people right away from the real aims of Christianity, and got bogged down with traditions and ritual and power politics.
Quakers were trying to lead a renewal - to see how they could live life more simply and truthfully, following Jesus' example more closely. So there's no doubt that Quakerism is rooted in Christianity, and many Quakers centre their faith on Jesus. On the other hand, some Quakers find that traditional religious language doesn't describe their inner experiences, and look both within Christianity and beyond. The Society appears very different from any other Christian group, without the usual priests, services, creeds and church buildings.
Quakers have always questioned anything they were told to believe, but we do feel there is ‘something of God’ in everyone.
We aim to find that ‘something’ in all our dealings, and take this to be the meaning of ‘love God and love one another’.Quakers try to live a fairly simple life and not lose sight of what is really important. This is part of our 'seeking for truth', in the old phrase. It is based on the experience that there is a real and direct relationship between each person and God - though Quakers will use a variety of words and ways to try to do the impossible in describing 'God'. Ultimately, though, all individuals have to find their own way to religious truth, being aware of God in their own lives, learning from the wisdom of the past as expressed in a variety of religious writings, and comparing their experiences with others in the Meeting.
If there is something of God in every person - and every time and place and thing - then there is no need for special feast days, ceremonies and sacraments such as baptism or holy communion. In the same way, the Meeting House is not a consecrated building like a church: it can just as well be used for music, eating, discussion or fun as for worship. For Quakers there should be no split between religion and daily life. Everything, including joy and suffering and the good and the bad things we do, are part of living and growing and learning. But the effect of Quaker worship was described by an early Friend: 'I felt the evil weakening in me and the good raised up'.
Perhaps this is why Quakers are generally very tolerant and hopeful.
You may be thinking, 'Where does Jesus come in?' Quakers don't spend much time discussing theology - for instance, whether Jesus was the 'son of God'. We would say the important thing is to learn from Jesus' teaching and way of life - and get on with it.
In Britain, most Friends regard the Bible as by far the greatest printed source of inspiration, but not the only one; reading it along with all the other books, old and new, which can guide us in life.But we are not among those who take any 'holy' book as being literally the 'Word of God' - we see too many puzzling contradictions. We find modern scholarship very useful in getting to grips with the Bible and other great books.
Quakers have many beliefs and attitudes in common, but you can't list them in a formula, or use them as a test of membership. Friends like to talk of an 'Inner Light' within every human being. Some would call this 'conscience' or 'moral sense', but Friends feel it is something more: part of spiritual and religious experience, which gives you a sense of direction in your search for the right way to live.
Quakers feel that unless you have experienced a belief inwardly, as true and valuable, you won't let it rule your life: and if it doesn't do that, what use is a belief? It's no good having a faith if you don't put it into practice.
Quakers have always tried to be honest at work (which for many Quaker businesses has proved to be the best policy). We aim at truthfulness at all times, which is why, for example, a Quaker won't swear an oath in court - it would suggest that the rest of the time you can have different standards of truth.
From the start, Quakers have felt strong concerns to improve social conditions and the environment. Help for slaves, prisoners, mental patients, refugees, old people, war casualties - quite a few charities and campaigns for reform have started as the concern of a Quaker.
Above all, Quakers say that if you follow the teaching and life of Jesus, you must rule out war and violence as a way of solving problems. We try never to give up on getting in touch with that of God in every person. So Friends have always worked for peace, refusing to contribute to war and military action. There are Quaker Centres bringing diplomats into contact in various cities around the world, and international projects that bring young people together.
William Penn, the founder of a state that lasted for 75 years without a military force, said that true godliness shouldn't turn people out of this world, but should make them more able to live in it. Is this an impossible aim? Quakers believe it is possible - and in today's situation, vital.
To find out more about what Quakers are and what Quakers do, consider following these links.
- The Home Page for Quakers in Britain is at http://www.quaker.org.uk/ It provides comprehensive information about Quakers in this country.
- Quaker Faith & Practice is our 'core publication', with extracts from Friends' writings. It is available online at http://qfp.quaker.org.uk/ Or it may be purchased (hardback, paperback or large print) from the Friends' Bookshop.
- Quakers have no creed as such, but generally share principles of peace, equality, simplicity and truth. Colchester Quakers have produced one version of these "Testimonies".
- What happens at a Quaker Meeting for Worship? See our page on "First Time in Meeting".
- The Quaker Forum: forum.quaker.org.uk
- To find a Quaker Meeting anywhere in the UK go to http://www.quaker.org.uk/meetings
- Voltaire on Quakers’ attitudes to Baptism, Oaths and War. >>
- Quaker glossary
- Who Quakers are not. >>
These links will tell you more about the early days. But please don’t imagine that Quakers are stuck in the past.
- A brief Quaker History (on Wikipedia) >>.
- 'Quakers in Brief' from 1650 to 1990 >>
- Read about and listen to (45 mins) In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg on George Fox and Quakers (Thu 5 April at 9.00am, BBC Radio 4).>>
- History of Quakers in Devon and Cornwall (on this site)