The Quakers, formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, or simply Friends, traces its beginnings in seventeenth century England. It was during this time that George Fox (1625-1691) questioned the prevailing Christian beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. According to the Quaker pamphlet Facts About Friends by Ted Hoare, Fox believed that, in his search for an alternative, the practice of Christianity should return to what it had been during the days of the early Church and the Apostles. Specifically, Fox was looking for a faith in Jesus Christ that did not depend on a formal clerical or institutional structure for preaching the message of the Gospel and carrying out the work of the church.
As the Society grew in numbers, and spread to areas outside of England over time, there developed differences and similarities among the various congregations of Friends. This was especially true as the Quakers established themselves in America. Pennsylvania was established as a settlement for Quakers and others escaping religious persecution and harassment from other areas of Europe, and the American colony, in the 1701 Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, according to the Quaker Information Center.
The pamphlet Friendly Answers to Your Questions About Quakers issued by the Orange County (CA) Friends, explains that the Society does not have a single creed or statement of beliefs. However, there are core beliefs that are common to the faith and practices of Quakers throughout the world. According to Hoare and the Orange County Friends, these include:
– The belief that everyone can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that it is not necessary for a priest or minister to serve as an intermediary for such a relationship. Fox’s original teaching was that everyone in the church is responsible for ministry and communication with God, not just a select few.
– The belief that the Bible is an important resource for believers, but that it is not the final revelation from God. Quaker leaders as Fox and Robert Barclay (1648-1690) held that while the Bible was written by men under the direction of the Holy Spirit. These men taught that the words of the Bible specially speak to individuals at different and appropriate times, pertinent to the spiritual journey of the reader.
– The belief that everyone is a child of God, and as such, all have inherited powers from God. Fox taught that everyone has some degree of this power, also referred to as light within from Jesus Christ. Fox explained that Christ is the source of all and unlimited power and light, and that the more it is used, the more that will be given to a believer.
– The belief that when waiting silently, God will speak to the hearts of believers. This can be individually, or on a corporate environment of Friends gathered together. For American Quakers, this can be a meeting where people silenty wait upon God to speak to them through an inner voice, which is then shared with others in the group. This can a congregational style of worship similar to that of other Protestant and Evangelical churches, with a more structured program of music, Scripture reading, and a formal sermon.
– The belief that men and women are equal before God. The Orange County Friends explain that this is a testimony, a Christian witness, that is expressed to the world at large in such things as the practice of a simple life style, integrity in personal interactions with others, and involvement in social causes such as the abolition of slavery in the US, as well as school and prison reform. Probably the best known of these is the Peace Testimony, the opposition to war and conscription, which is based on the belief that it is a contradiction for children of God to take up arms against each other.
The term “Quaker” was first given to the group by a judge, a Justice Bennet of Derby, during a court proceeding involving a charge of blasphemy against George Fox in 1650. As recounted in George Fox – An Autobiography, during the trial, Fox explained in his defense that for all of the problems that the court officials were experiencing regarding the prosecution of his faith and, subsequent imprisonment, the judge should “tremble at the word of the Lord.” In reply to this statement, Fox was called a “Quaker.” This name has been linked to the Religious Society of Friends since that time.
Ted Hoare, Facts About Friends, Quaker Electronic Archive
William Penn, 1701 Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, Quaker Information Center
Religious Society of Friends, Friendly Answers to Your Questions About Quakers, Orange County Quakers
Rufus M. Jones M.A., Litt.D., George Fox – An Autobiography, Street Corner Society