What are Quakers?
Quakers are followers of a religious movement that began as an offshoot of Christianity in 17th century England. The movement emphasizes equal, inward access to God for all people. Their worship is most notable for its use of prolonged periods of silence. There were approximately 340,000 Quakers worldwide as of 2008. Notable Quakers include American presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.
The Inner Light
The essential doctrine of Quakerism is the inner light, or the belief that all people are able to directly encounter God or Truth inwardly and so have direct access to revelation. Other key doctrines common to all Quakers flow from this central belief.
Because all have direct inward access to God, Quakers believe in spiritual equality for everyone: no race, gender, class or other group has privileged or exclusive access to divine revelation. This belief in equality and their inward focus also leads most Quakers to embrace the peace testimony, or pacifism, which is a rejection of violence and warfare. Quaker gatherings reject voting as a means for making decisions and instead rely on consensus, since everyone has access to the same truth.
Quaker worship is built around providing opportunities for those present to commune inwardly with God and access the inner light. Most commonly, this involves long or regular periods of silence as a means of limiting external distractions. Because of their belief in spiritual equality, Friends have no special clergy to serve as mediators between God and humanity and generally anyone can share their revelations with the group. In their early years, Quakers shocked their contemporaries by allowing women to speak freely during their meetings.
Quakers believe that common Christian sacraments, such as communion or the Lord's Supper and baptism, should take place inwardly rather than externally. The periods of silent worship are often emotional, and the name Quaker comes from an insult hurled at early Friends who sometimes visibly shook during their meetings.
Origins and History
Quakerism began with George Fox, a 17th century Englishman who lived from 1624 to 1691. Fox spent his early years seeking religious truth and contact with God, but grew dissatisfied with both the priests of the established Church of England and the radical preachers of other denominations. In 1647, he claimed to have a direct encounter with God and came away believing that true revelation must come not from external teachers, who were themselves sinners and thus imperfect, but directly from God speaking inwardly to each individual.
Fox claimed no special authority for himself, but taught that every person could have the same immediate access to God, regardless of who they were. Notably, Fox believed that, because it came directly from God rather than through sinful human mediators, the guidance of this inner light was superior to the teachings and traditions of the church and to Holy Scripture, though Fox also claimed that scripture regularly confirmed what God revealed to him inwardly.
Quakerism spread rapidly after its inception. By the 1680s, there were well over 50,000 Friends in Britain, and the Quaker message was spreading across the ocean. As the movement grew, it attracted considerable persecution from other Christians. Quakers rejected many religious norms of their society, and their claims of directly communing with God struck many as arrogant and blasphemous.
Quakers refused to pay church tithes or swear oaths when in court, usually citing the book of Matthew 5:34. They refused to use the pagan derived names for days and months, numbering them instead; Sunday became First Day, Monday became Second Day, etc. Their inward focus encouraged Quakers to adopt plain and simple clothing and behavior. They refused to engage in outward niceties such was bowing, curtsying, or removing their hats when inside. This non-conformity, combined with the Friends' unorthodox theology, led to the arrest and imprisonment of numerous Quakers in Britain and Puritan New England. Some were even executed for their beliefs.
The persecution of Quakers in England and the early Anglo-American colonies encouraged one powerful English Friend, William Penn, to establish a colony in the New World which would provide a safe haven for Quakers and other dissenters. Penn's colony, Pennsylvania, became a holy experiment in Quaker government and was distinctive for its religious tolerance and good relations with Native Americans. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Quakers became early opponents of slavery, citing the spiritual equality of Africans and the corrupting influence of slavery as an institution.
Quakerism's tolerance, belief in the inner light, and rejection of an established clergy led to the emergence of several distinct Quaker traditions. These may be loosely categorized as Conservative, Evangelical, and Liberal.
The Conservative Tradition most closely maintains the beliefs and practices of 17th century Quakerism. Their worship services emphasize silence and direct encounter with God. As of 2008, there were approximately 1,500 Quakers of the Conservative Tradition. Most of them are found in North America.
The Evangelical Tradition arose in the mid-19th century. Quakers of this tradition are the most likely to have pastors, and include times of singing as well as silence and speaking, in their meetings. The evangelical tradition is the largest of the three and includes nearly 300,000 Quakers, the majority of whom live in Africa.
The Liberal Tradition is the most recent of the three, having formed in the late 19th century. Liberal Quakers focus closely on experience and are generally permissive with regard to beliefs and theology. Liberal Quakers include many non-Christians, and even non-theists. Some 50,000 Quakers hail from the liberal tradition, mostly in Europe and Asia.
Quakerism is a religious movement begun by George Fox in the 17th century. Quakers believe that all people have access to the inner light of direct communion with God. They believe in the spiritual equality of all people, pacifism, consensus, and simplicity. Today, Quaker traditions can be classified as Conservative, Evangelical, or Liberal.
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