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What are Quakers? - Definition, Beliefs & History

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Aaron Sullivan
This lesson explores the nature and history of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. We will review their core doctrinal beliefs, style of worship, and history. Finally, we will look at the three main Quaker traditions that exist today.

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.

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  • 0:00 What are Quakers?
  • 0:29 The Inner Light
  • 2:08 Origins and History
  • 3:05 Persecution
  • 4:42 Quaker Traditions
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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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.

Worship

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.

Persecution

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.

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