What is Quakerism?

Modern Friends try to live our testimonies of simplicity, peace, and stewardship. While many in the area have been Friends all their lives, others originally came from other religious backgrounds and have found a new spiritual home in Quakerism.

Who are the Quakers? Are they the same as the Friends?

Friends or Quakers – either name will do as they have the same meaning – are most easily described as those persons who belong to the Religious Society of Friends.

“Quaker” was originally a nickname for those Children of Light or Friends of Truth, as they thought of themselves, friends of Jesus (John 15:15). They were said to tremble or quake with religious zeal, and the nickname stuck. But in time they came to be known simply as “Friends”.

The Religious Society of Friends began in England about 1650 in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation when a youthful George Fox underwent a profound religious experience. Immediate, direct experience of God became the heart of his message and ministry, which inspired the Quaker movement.

It was a religious protest against the hollow formalism which, for many, made up the Established Church of that time. Seeking spiritual reality, these early Friends found that they could experience God directly in their lives without benefit of clergy or liturgy or steepled church.

What do Friends Believe? Do they have a Creed?

Quakers believe in an inward, immediate, and transforming experience of God which is central to their faith. They turn to an inner guide or teacher for continuing revelation and direction. Some Friends identify this “Inner Light”, “Seed Within,” or “Christ Within” (as it has been variously called) with the historic Jesus. Others conceive of the inward guide as a universal spirit which was in Jesus in abundant measure and is in everyone to some degree – “that of God in everyone,” as George Fox put it, “the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9)
Quakers do not have a creed, but each of the regional groups of Quakers or Yearly Meetings has its own Book of Discipline or Faith and Practice, which includes general statements of belief, testimonies or actions resulting from those beliefs, and the uniquely Quaker feature: Advices and/or Queries.

How does the faith of Friends show in their personal lives?

Love of God and love of neighbor find expression in the varied forms of Quaker worship; in Friends’ “witness” and historic “testimonies”; in their social attitudes and concerns, their mission and service outreach, their programs of education and action. For Friends, these are the fruits of their faith: the affirmation of the indwelling Spirit and redemptive love, spiritual realities that they feel they do share, and must share with others.

What form of worship is practiced by Newtown Friends Meeting?

Traditional “unprogrammed” Friends Meetings, including Newtown and those in the Philadelphia area, gather in silence and expectant waiting, without prearranged singing, Bible reading, prayers, or sermon. Their worship proceeds, rising above individual meditation to a sense of seeking as a gathered group, with spoken ministry only as Friends may feel led to share their insights and messages.

In other parts of the country and the world, some Quakers follow a more programmed form of worship practiced by Protestant and Evangelical churches including prayer and responsive reading, hymn singing and choral/organ music, Scripture, and sermon.

What are Newtown Friends’ attitudes toward sacraments and Scripture?

Friends in Newtown Meeting do not practice the sacraments in their outward forms – communion, and baptism as variously practiced in Christian churches. We strive, rather, for the inward reality and try to make all of life of a sacramental nature.

The Bible was very important to George Fox, but he saw clearly that to understand the Scriptures they must be read in the same Spirit that inspired those who wrote them. Another early Quaker leader, Robert Barclay, said that the Scriptures are only a declaration of the source and not the source itself. Many Newtown Quakers today would consider other sacred works, nature, music, art, and experiences with fellow seekers to also be instrumental in enabling one to commune with the divine.

What are the principal “concerns” and activities of Friends?

The belief that there is a potential for good in all persons – as indeed also the capacity for evil – makes Friends sensitive to human degradation, ignorance. superstition, suffering, injustice, exploitation. Under a sense of concern – inner prompting, divine obedience, urgency – Friends are drawn to humanitarian callings, to programs of education, and to projects of service and constructive action.

Early Friends went out with the Good News of their quickened faith to the American Colonies, and they bore their message of Truth to Czar, Sultan, and Pope. With changed perspectives, this witness continues in programs for sharing of human resources throughout the world; for more rapid social change by nonviolent means; for reform of the present system of criminal justice; for real equality of opportunity in employment, housing and education; and for elimination of prejudice and discrimination against minority groups and the underprivileged. The American Friends Service Committee plays an important part in furthering these Quaker concerns, which are indeed the continuing expression in action of historic Friends testimonies.

What are the historic and continuing Quaker “testimonies”?

The Quaker testimonies – what Friends have stood for publicly as a form of religious witness – derive from their central belief in the essential oneness and equality of all persons. This has found expression in simplicity of lifestyle, integrity in personal relations, and at times controversial stands on public issues. The Peace Testimony is perhaps the most widely known of these. Taken as a whole, the Society of Friends is strongly opposed to war and to conscription. It seeks to remove the causes of war; it tries to reconcile factions and nations; it ministers to suffering on both sides of conflicts; it helps to rebuild at war’s end. It witnesses creatively to the power of nonviolence in the movement toward social change. While there have indeed been fighting Quakers bearing arms in every American war, and some young Friends have accepted the draft, many declare themselves conscientious objectors and some are active draft resisters (refusing to register or in any way cooperate with

Another Friends testimony supports social justice. Quaker colonists in America were fair and friendly with their Indian neighbors, and they early advocated the abolition of slavery. Today Friends work actively for the rights of American Indians, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and other ethnic groups in the United States and Canada, and with indigenous peoples in Mexico and elsewhere throughout the world.

Most Philadelphia area Friends today are non-proselytizing, disinclined to actively recruit members for their religious community. Witnessing for their beliefs through social action and Friends testimonies, historically a vital part of Quakerism, continues to be the most public expression of Quaker beliefs. In recent years, however, there has been a new “open door” grass-roots movement, “Quaker Quest,” which started in England, to specifically invite the public to attend Friends Meetings and consider becoming members.

What is the meaning of “the Quaker Way” and “the manner of Friends”?

The Quaker Way is simply the way Friends at their best (and with all their differences) put into practice their deepest beliefs.

One example is the meeting for business conducted after the manner of Friends. Such a meeting proceeds in the spirit of worship and openness to divine leading. Questions are not decided by majority rule. The presiding clerk tries to be sensitive to the meeting’s search for truth and unity. Strongly opposed views are often reconciled through suggestion of a Third Way; or in a period of silent worship differences are quietly resolved, or decision is held over to a later meeting. awaiting further insight, information, understanding. No vote is taken. When the clerk sees clearly that unity has been reached, he phrases and rephrases what he believes to be the sense of the meeting – approval is voiced or apparent – the minute is recorded.

In ministry and service to others, however disadvantaged, the Quaker way is to identify with them, to share and work with them in dignity, to approach those who oppose them with openness and faith. When their witness and concern bring Friends face to face with illegal or repressive authority, nonviolence is an essential part of the way Friends approach the oppressors as persons.

How do people become members of the Society of Friends?

Each individual Friend holds membership in a particular Friends meeting or church and in this way belongs to the Society of Friends.

Children born into Quaker homes and brought up in a Friends meeting/church may in time be accepted as adult members. Other persons, who are attracted to membership by the faith, witness, or fellowship of Friends – who feel themselves ready to become members of a Friends meeting or church by “convincement” or conversion or by transfer from another religious body – are encouraged to apply for membership. There is such a wide range of conviction and belief within the Quaker framework that persons of quite dissimilar views may find somewhere within it their spiritual home, opportunity to worship and serve with others of the same persuasion. Speaking truth to each other in love, as Christian neighbors, would be the Quaker way for Friends – with all their variations – to feel themselves “members one of another” (Eph. 4:25).

Adapted from “What is Quakerism? Friendly Answers to questions about American Quakers”, Friends World Committee For Consultation.

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