Friends General Conference

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Quaker Beliefs: A Short History and Explanation

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In 1647 Englishman George Fox began speaking in England against formalized religion, advocating direction by one's own "inner light." Although imprisoned repeatedly for his beliefs, Fox went on to found the Society of Friends, or Quakers, according to his ideals. The Religious Society of Friends is a large and diverse spiritual family with several branches that have evolved in different directions over the past three centuries. The challenge in understanding Quaker faith derives from our attitude toward creeds or other formal statements of faith. Friends do not make a written creedal statement the test of faith or the measure of suitability for membership.

The lack of a creed has sometimes led to the misconception that Friends do not have beliefs or that one can believe anything and be a Friends. Most Quakers, however, take the absence of a creed as an invitation and encouragement to exercise an extra measure of personal responsibility for the articulation of faith. 

We Friends who gather in silence of expectant waiting do not rely on priests or professional theologians to lead worship or provide spiritual lessons. Each believer is encouraged to take seriously the personal disciplines associated with spiritual growth. Out of lives of reflection, study, prayer, faithfulness, and service flow the statements of belief, both in word and in deed, which belong to Friends.

One central area of belief, which has received considerable attention over the years, is the relationship of Quakerism to Christianity. 

Whether one interprets the Quaker movement as a strand with Protestantism or as a third force distinct from Protestantism and Catholicism, the movement, both in its origin and in the various branches which have evolved, is rooted in Christianity. From its inception, however, it has offered both a critique of many accepted manifestations of Christianity and empathy with people of faith beyond the bounds of Christianity.

Some Friends have placed particular emphasis on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while others have found a more compelling universal perspective emphasizing the Divine Light enlightening every person. One of the lessons of our own history as a religious movement is that an excessive reliance on one or the other of these perspectives, neglecting the essential connection between the two, has been needlessly divisive and has drawn us away from the vitality of the Quaker vision at is best.

The concern of Friends is not that members affirm a particular verbal formulation of this faith but that it be instead a living and transforming power within their lives. Challenged by the words of Jesus as quoted in Matthew 7-21 – "It is not those who say to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven" – we do not place emphasis on the naming of God. 

John Woolman (1720 – 1722) used the phrase, "…to distinguish the language of the pure Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart." In the course of following this spiritual path, many Friends do come to find great depths of meaning in familiar Christian concepts and language, while others do not. Although sometimes perplexing to the casual observer, this paradox does not trouble most seasoned Friends who have discovered a deep unity with one another in the Spirit. They find the Bible to be a rich and sustaining source of inspiration and a record of God’s revelation over many centuries. 

The Quaker movement began at a time when the Bible had recently come into wide circulation in England, and Friends drew greatly from it. George Fox, founder of Quakerism in the 1650’s and his followers, knew the Bible well, studied it earnestly, and quoted it often. The inspiration of the scriptures was affirmed but a distinction, which has remained important to this day, was also emphasized by early Friends. In the words of Henry Cadbury, "Divine revelation was not confined to the past. 

The same Holy Spirit, which had inspired the Scriptures in the past, could inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the Spirit was essential" 

Thus, in emphasizing the Power which gave forth the scriptures and the accessibility of the same Power to us today, Friends have avoided making written records alone a final or infallible test. Instead we are invited to be drawn into the same Spirit which gave forth the Bible, both in order to understand its contents and to be led in a continual maturing discovery of the ways of God.

Such discovery is fostered through the study, contemplation, prayer and work of each individual, and these private acts of devotion and service in turn prepare us for the experience of corporate worship. 

Quaker worship in itself is a reflection of many of the cherished beliefs of Friends. For Friends of the unprogrammed tradition, it is set in silence and thus reflects the importance we give to stilling ourselves and being centered in the Divine Presence. Friends rise to speak in Meeting when they are led by this Divine Presence. When we are blessed with a sense of gatheredness, we often find the strength for approaching worshipfully the variety of tasks and challenges to which we return. Living worshipfully is an aim of recurring importance.

The absence of outward rites and ceremonies in Friends worship is a result of our emphasis on the reality of the inward experience. Desiring to avoid symbolism that may tend to supplant substance, we do not observe the traditional Christian sacraments such as baptism and communion. Instead, Friends seek to view all of life as sacramental. 

Other practices and important testimonies for Friends are simplicity, truth (integrity), equality, social justice, peace and others. These outward testimonies flow from our faith and are in a sense fruits of the Spirit. 

Our very name, The Religious Society of Friends, finds its source in Jesus’ statement to John 15: 14 – 15 that "You are my friends if you do what I command you. I shall not call you servants any more, because a servant does not know his master’s business. I call you friends because I have made know to you everything I have learnt from my Father." 

The inseparability of faith and practice is a truth which pervades both our past and our present.

Adapted from the book Faith and Practice of the North Pacific Yearly Meeting.