Religious Society of Friends

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious movements, traditions and organizations

The Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) began in England in the 17th century by people who were dissatisfied with the existing denominations and sects of Christianity. Traditionally George Fox has been credited as the founder or the most important early figure. The Society of Friends is counted among the historic peace churches. Since its beginnings in England, Quakerism has spread to other countries, chiefly Bolivia, Guatemala, Kenya, Peru, Cuba and the United States. The number of Quakers is relatively small (approximately 350,000 worldwide), although there are places, such as Pennsylvania (particularly Philadelphia); Newberg, Oregon; Greenleaf, Idaho; Birmingham, England; and Greensboro, North Carolina in which Quaker influence is concentrated.

Unlike other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has tended toward little hierarchical structure, and no creeds.

The various branches have widely divergent beliefs and practices, but the central concept to many Friends may be the " Inner Light" or "that of God within" each of us. Accordingly, individual Quakers may develop individual religious beliefs arising from individual conscience and revelation coming from "God within"; further, Quakers are obliged to live by such individual religious beliefs and inner revelations.

Many Quakers feel their faith does not fit within traditional Christian categories of Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, but is an expression of another way of experiencing God.

Although Quakers throughout most of their history and in most parts of the world today consider Quakerism to be a Christian movement, some Friends (principally in the select Meetings in the United States and the United Kingdom) now consider themselves universalist, agnostic, atheist, pagan, or nontheist, or do not accept any religious label. This phenomenon has become increasingly evident during the latter half of the 20th century and the opening years of the 21st century, and is still controversial among Friends.

Beliefs and practices of Friends

Experiencing God

George Fox and the other early Quaker preachers believed that direct experience of God was available to all people, without mediation (e.g. through hired clergy, or through outward sacraments). Fox described this by writing that "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

Modern Friends often express this belief in many ways, including "that of God in Everyone", "the Inner light", "the inward Christ", "the spirit of Christ within." Early Friends more often used terms such as "Truth", "the Seed", and "the Pure Principle", expecting that each person would be transformed as Christ formed in them.

Since Friends believe that everyone contains "that of God" within, much of the Quaker perspective is based on trying to hear what God is saying and to allow the Spirit free action in the heart. Isaac Penington wrote in 1670: "It is not enough to hear of Christ, or read of Christ, but this is the thing - to feel him my root, my life, my foundation..."


Quakerism is often termed a mystical religion because of its emphasis on the personal experience of God rather than logic and reasoned theology. It differs from other mystical religions in at least two important ways.

First, Quaker mysticism is primarily group-oriented rather than focused on the individual. The Friends' traditional meeting for worship (see Unprogrammed worship below) may be considered an expression of that group mysticism, where all the members of the meeting together listen for the Spirit of God, speaking when the Spirit moves.

Second, Quaker mysticism includes a strong emphasis on its outwardly-directed witness. Rather than seeking withdrawal from the world, the Quaker mystic translates his or her mysticism into action. Action, in turn, leads to greater spiritual understanding — both by individuals and by the Meeting as a whole.

The Bible

Early Friends believed that Christ, instead of the Bible, is the Word of God; for example, Robert Barclay wrote in this Apology that the scriptures "are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners". Similarly, George Fox recounted an incident in his Journal in which a minister claimed that the scriptures were authoritative, Fox "...was commanded to tell them God did not dwell in temples made with hands. But I told them what it was, namely, the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions and judgements were to be tried; for it led into all Truth, and so gave the knowledge of all Truth".

Early Friends believed that Christ would never lead them in ways that contradicted the Bible, and so making the Bible subordinate to the spirit prevented conflicts between Friends' leadings and their understanding of the Bible.

As time passed, conflicts between what the Bible appeared to teach and how many Friends believed they were being led by the Spirit began to arise. Some Friends decided that in these cases the Bible should be authoritative; for example, the Richmond Declaration of 1887 declared, among other things, that any action "contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion". Today most Evangelical Friends believe the Bible is authoritative, for the Bible is the word of God inspired by God's Spirit. Many teach that if personal leadings are truly from God's Holy Spirit, they will not contradict what God's Spirit has already said in the Bible.

Other Friends, partly under the influence of movements such as liberal Protestantism, decided that it was possible to be truly led in ways contrary to scripture, and that in such cases scripture should give way. Still other Friends rejected (or neglected) the Bible altogether; hence in many liberal (usually unprogrammed) Friends meetings one might encounter non-Christian Friends or those who question some of the traditional doctrines of Christianity. In nearly all cases, modern Friends believe in the necessity of being continually guided by God. Divine revelation is therefore not restricted to the Bible, but rather continues even today; this doctrine is known as continuing revelation.

A common set of practices emerged which spoke of key principles and beliefs held by Friends. These are "Testimonies", for Friends believe these important principles and practices should be expressed (testified as truth) among Friends as well as to others, in both words and deeds. (see Testimonies for a list and description of several testimonies.) Rooted in the immediate experience of the community of Friends, these Testimonies are based on what Friends believe are verified in the Bible, especially as described in the Gospels regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.


Quakerism has generally had no creed. George Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists", and modern Quakers are generally less concerned with theology, and more concerned with acting in accord with the leading of the Spirit than are many other faiths. Quakers have historically expressed a preference for understanding coming from God's Spirit over the knowledge derived from objective logic or systematic theology. This lack of a single set of authoritative doctrines has resulted in the development of a broad range of doctrines and beliefs among Friends, ranging from fundamentalist Christian to universalist, or even to nontheist.

Most Friends believe a formal creed would be an obstacle — both to authentic listening and to the recognition of new insight. On the other hand, some Friends have enumerated and subscribed to a set of doctrines, such as the "Richmond Declaration" (a document composed by a conference of 95 mainly Orthodox Friends in 1887) or the "Beliefs of Friends" stated by Evangelical Friends International.


Early Friends did not believe in the reliance upon practice of the outward rites and sacraments, believing that holiness can exist in all the activities of one's life—all of life is sacred. They experienced baptism by the Holy Spirit as an inward, transforming experience and knew communion with Christ in the midst of gathered worship in the expectant silence. Thus they did not perform baptism as a rite of membership. Friends believe that any meal with others can be a form of communion and therefore have no such rite in their worship.

At various times some individuals or small groups of Friends have published corrective cautions against adopting the prohibition of some rite as itself being creedal. The focus should be upon God as Present Teacher, rather than on some human ritual, or the absence of a ritual. Most Friends therefore do not prohibit rites or ceremonies, but they do counsel against allowing these human inventions to take the place of direct experience and leading by God.


Friends have practiced "plainness" in their dress and outward appearance as well as in their speech.

Quakers traditionally wore plain clothes in order to address three concerns: the vanity and superiority associated with fanciness, the conformity associated with wearing the latest fashions, and the wastefulness of frequently buying new styles and other adornments. At one time this practice of plainness allowed other people to identify Friends easily. Many people are still familiar with the image of the Quaker man in a gray or brown suit with a flat broad-brimmed hat, and the Quaker woman in a plain dress and bonnet.

After time, as fashions changed, the Quaker ideal of plain dress started to stand out against modern clothing. What once was "plain" in previous generations has become visually antiquated in the present day. As a result, the traditional forms of this practice were dropped by most Friends when they came to feel that they had become vain about their dress despite their intentions. However, some Friends continue the plain tradition in clothing and some in speech. While contemporary Friends rarely wear the traditional grey dress, some dress in a plain manner, buy only the clothes they need, buy clothing that is not produced by oppressing others (such as in "sweatshops"), and avoiding expensive designer items.

Plainness in speech addressed other concerns: honesty, class distinction, and vestiges of paganism. These principles were put into practice by affirming rather than swearing oaths, setting fixed prices for goods, avoiding the use of honorific titles, using numbers rather than names for the days of the week and the months of the year, and using familiar forms for the second person pronoun.

Like many aspects of Quaker life, the practice of plainness has evolved over time, although it is based on principles that have been a lasting part of Quaker thought. These principles are now part of the testimonies of simplicity, equality, and integrity.


Quakers hold a strong sense of spiritual egalitarianism, including a belief in the spiritual equality of the sexes—which was remarkable for the mid-1600s. Both women and men were granted equal authority to speak in meetings for worship. George Fox's wife, Margaret Fell, was as vocal and literate as her husband, publishing several tracts in Quakerism's early days.

The Friends' attitude towards egalitarianism was also demonstrated by their refusal to practice "hat honor"; meaning that Quakers refused to take their hats off or bow to anyone regardless of title or rank, and refused to address anyone with honorifics such as "Sir," "Madam," "Your Honor," or "Your Majesty." This testified to the Friends' understanding that, in the eyes of God, there was no hierarchy based on birth, wealth, or political power - such honours they reserved only for God. This was not considered by Friends to be anti-authoritarian in nature, but instead as a rebuke against human pretense and ego.

Today, resistance to "hat honor" does not prevail as it once did--most hat customs are not practised in contemporary everyday life--and the individual Friend is left to decide whether or not to practice "hat honour" as a matter of conscience.


Friends favour education, as exemplified by their founding of many schools and colleges. Friends have often cautioned against the admission of education credentials as either a form of honoring humans instead of God or as a substitute for a relationship with God.

Thus Friends have typically not conducted "ordinations" based on the credentials of individuals from seminaries or universities, but rather have "recorded" the ministers that God has created. Friends' tradition of promoting universal education stands as evidence that Friends have not typically engaged in anti-intellectualism.

Oaths and fair-dealing

Early Friends believed that an important part of Jesus' message was how we treat our fellow human beings. They felt that honest dealing with others meant more than avoiding direct lies. Friends continue to believe that it is important not to mislead others, even if the words used are all technically truthful. Early Friends refused to swear oaths, even in courtrooms, believing that one must speak truth at all times, and the act of swearing to it implied different standards of truth with and without oaths. This doctrine is attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:34-37).

Some Friends have accepted the use of "affirmations" rather than oaths, believing that the problem with oaths is that by swearing an oath, you are admitting that you otherwise might not be expected to tell the truth.

This testimony appeared to conflict with other testimonies when Friends engaged in systematic law-breaking by participating in the "Underground Railroad" in the United States before the mid-nineteenth century. While the participation of Friends is widely celebrated, other Friends of the time held that they could not do anything that would mislead even a cruel slave owner seeking the return of an escaped slave. These Friends cautioned against deciding for ourselves what truth should be, rather than simply stating only what we know.

This conflict points to the role of testimonies as tools with which Friends may try their thoughts and actions rather than as creeds.

Quaker terminology

Though the practices of plain dress and speech made them known as a "peculiar people", for the most part modern Quakers dress and speak in a manner indistinguishable from others. Some Friends do retain the use of "thou" and "thee" with other Friends. Friends also use certain specialized terms when describing their theology and practices:

Birthright Friend
a historical term for those Friends born into families that are members of a Friends Meeting. (This is no longer officially recognized by most Friends.)
a process undergone to discern the true leading of the Spirit of God, especially in ambiguous or complicated situations. Friends often work with Clearness committees when struggling with a difficult issue.
Anyone may feel that they are called by God to serve in a special way. Friends consider carrying out a concern to be a form of ministry. Often there may be a meeting for clearness to test the concern after which the meeting may well support the person in their concern. Many well-known organisations, such as the American Friends Service Committee, Don't Make a Wave Committee (the predecessor organisation to Greenpeace), Oxfam and Amnesty International, have been founded by Friends ‘acting under concern’. Elizabeth Fry was acting under concern when she began her work in prison reform.
Convinced Friend
a historical term for those Friends who were not born into Quaker families, but who came to Friends because of the Truth of Quaker teaching and practice. The process of deciding to become a Friend is known as "convincement."
Gathered Meeting
A meeting for worship, where those present feel that they were particularly in tune with the leadings of the Spirit.
Facing Benches
Older meetinghouses often have benches on a raised platform which face the rest of the congregation where Weighty Friends who might be expected to speak would sit.
Hold in the Light
To recognize concern in one's self for another person or situation. This is often considered to be synonymous with praying for someone.
I hope so
(British term) during a meeting for worship for business, when the clerk asks those present if they agree with a minute, Friends will usually say “I hope so” rather than “yes”. It is meant in the sense of “I hope that this is the true guidance of the Holy Spirit”.
Lay down
the action properly taken upon a committee, meeting or ministry that is no longer needed, "to lay down" a meeting is to disband it.
a course of action, belief or conviction that a Friend feels is divinely inspired.
the act of speaking during a meeting for worship. (Many Friends use the term more broadly to mean living their testimonies in everyday life). "Vocal" or "proclamational" refer to ministries that are verbal.
An unfounded, unspiritual position. (Used by George Fox, often to refer to teachings or doctrines that were expressed but not fully understood or experienced)
Proceed as a Way Opens
to undertake a service or course of action without prior clarity about all the details but with confidence that divine guidance will make these apparent and assure an appropriate outcome.
Recorded minister
A person whose vocal ministry (spoken contribution in meeting) - or another spiritual gift - is recognised as helpful and probably faithful to Divine leading, by the body of Friends to which they belong and formally recorded by that body. Not all Friends' organisations record ministers. Other Friends have adopted a defined process prerequisite for "recording."
Right ordering
has to do with proper conduct of a meeting for business. The term is often used in the negative, that is, if someone senses that something about the conduct of the meeting is not proper, they may object that ‘this meeting is not in right ordering’.
Speaks to my condition or Friend speaks my mind
directly addresses my personal understanding, I agree.
That of God in everyone
the belief in the presence of God within all people. Also referred to as the Inner Light.
Weighty Friend
a Friend, respected for their experience and ability over their history of participation with Friends, whose opinion or ministry is especially valued.

Quaker worship

Friends Meeting House, Manchester.
Friends Meeting House, Manchester.

Friends treat all functions of the church as a form of worship, including business, marriage, and memorial services, in addition to regular meeting for worship. Quaker worship meetings are often referred to as "programmed" or "unprogrammed" meetings.

While the different styles of worship generally reflect the theological splits, with unprogrammed meetings generally being more theologically liberal and programmed Friends churches more theologically conservative, this is not a strict rule. Many meetings hold both programmed and unprogrammed services or other activities. Some "Conservative" meetings are unprogrammed yet would be generally considered to be theologically closer to most programmed than unprogrammed meetings.

Unprogrammed worship

Unprogrammed worship is the more traditional style of worship among Friends and remains the norm in Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and parts of the United States and Canada. During an unprogrammed meeting for worship, Friends gather together in "expectant waiting" for divine leadings. Sometimes a meeting is entirely silent, sometimes quite a few people speak. Meeting for Worship generally lasts about an hour.

A member will rise and share a message (give "ministry") with the gathered meeting when they feel they are led by the spirit. Typically, messages, testimonies, ministry, or other speech are unprepared, and members are expected by the community to discern the source of their inspiration—whether divine or self.

Unprogrammed worship is generally deemed to start as soon as the first participant is seated, the others entering the room in silence. The Meeting for Worship ends when one person (usually predetermined) shakes the hand of his or her neighbour. All the members of the assembly then shake hands with their neighbors, after which one member usually rises and extends greetings and makes announcements. Many meetings serve coffee or tea after meeting, which gives everyone an opportunity to catch up with friends and chat with visitors.

Programmed worship

Programmed worship arose among Friends in the United States in the 19th century in response to large numbers of converts to Quakerism during the national spiritual revivalism of the time. Worship at a Friends Church resembles a typical Protestant worship service in the United States. Typically there are readings from scripture, hymns, and a sermon from the pastor. A period of silence (similar in practice to that of unprogrammed meetings though obviously much shorter) is included in some Programmed Friends worship services. Most Friends in the southern and central United States worship in this way.

The Friends meetings started in Africa and Latin America were generally started by Friends from programmed elements of the society, therefore most African and Latin American Friends worship in a programmed style.

Some Friends also hold what is termed Semi-Programmed Worship, which brings programmed elements like hymns and scripture readings into an otherwise unprogrammed worship service.

Quaker weddings

Traditionally in a Friends Meeting when a couple decides to get married they declare their intentions to marry to the meeting. The meeting will typically form a "clearness committee" that meets with the couple to provide counsel and ascertain the clearness of their understanding and intent. Friends expect that those gathered will seek God's will and leading in the matter.

A traditional wedding ceremony in a Friends meeting is similar to any other unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, and therefore is often very different from the experience expected by non-Friends. There is no priest or high official to conduct the ceremony and sanction the union. The pair marry one another before God and gathered witnesses. After exchanging vows the meeting returns to open worship and guests are free to speak about the couple. At the rise of meeting all the witnesses, including the youngest children in attendance, are asked to sign the wedding certificate.

In recent years Friends in Australia, Britain and some meetings in North America have celebrated weddings between members of the same sex.

Decision making among Friends

A business meeting being held at Britain Yearly Meeting 2005 in York University
A business meeting being held at Britain Yearly Meeting 2005 in York University

Business decisions on a local level are conducted at a monthly "Meeting for Worship with a concern for business", or simply "Business Meeting". A business meeting is a form of worship, and all decisions are reached so that they are consistent with the guidance of the Spirit.

Instead of voting, the Meeting for (Worship for) Business attempts to gain a sense of God's will for the community. Each member of the meeting is expected to listen to that of God within themselves and, if led, to contribute it to the group for reflection and consideration. Each member listens to others' contributions carefully, in an attitude of seeking Truth rather than of attempting to prevail or to debate.

A decision is reached when the Meeting as a whole feels that the "way forward" has been discerned (also called "coming to unity"). Occasionally, some members of the Meeting will "stand aside" on an issue, meaning that these members do not share in the general sense of the meeting but are willing to allow the group to move forward.

Many Quakers describe the search for unity as the gathering of believers who "wait upon the Lord" to discover God's will. When seeking unity, Friends are not attempting to seek a position with which everyone is willing to live (as is often the case in consensual models) but in determining God's will. It is assumed that if everyone is listening to God's Spirit, everyone will hear similar messages and the way forward will become clear, for God's will is that the meeting should be united.

The business conducted "in the manner of Friends" can seem time-consuming and impractical. The process surely can be frustrating and slow yet at its best it works remarkably well, allowing the group to come to decisions even around the most difficult mattters. By the time a decision is recognized, the important issues have been worked out and the group supports the decision. There is no "losing" side, no one will benefit if problems emerge in implementing the decision. Participants who have come to trust the process, confident that there will be enough time and interest to hear each important concern are unlikely to bring up the topic time and time again. It is much less likely that participants will suffer hurt as a result of the decision making. It is far less likely that additional meetings will be needed later to "fix" the original decision.

Many who are unaware of the focus of Friends on "unity, not unanimity" express doubts as to whether this process of decision making can work in a large group. Many yearly meetings, however, have successfully employed this practice for years. Some Quaker-related organizations, such as Haverford College in Philadelphia, utilize traditional Quaker form practices of governance.

Coming to decisions by the sense of the meeting has been a centerpiece of the Religious Society of Friends for over 350 years, at times seeing them through extremely difficult decisions. Quaker-style decision making has been adapted for use in secular settings in recent years (see Consensus decision-making).

Memorial services

Traditional Quaker memorial services are also held as a form of worship. Friends gather for worship and offer remembrances about the person who has died. Memorial services often last over an hour, particularly if there are a large number of people in attendance. Memorial services give everyone a chance to remember the lost individual in their own way, thus bringing comfort to those present, and re-affirmation of the larger community of Friends.

Basic divisions and organization

Like many movements, the Religious Society of Friends has evolved, changed, and split into various smaller subgroups.

In Africa

Many may be surprised to learn that the highest concentration of Quakers is to be found in Africa. (43 percent of Quakers worldwide are found in Africa, versus 30 percent in North America, 17 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 percent in Europe, and 4 percent in Asia/West Pacific.) The Friends of East Africa were at one time part of a single East Africa Yearly Meeting, then the largest Yearly Meeting in the world. Today, this region is served by several distinct Yearly Meetings. Most of these are affiliated with the Friends United Meeting, practice programmed worship, and employ pastors. There are also Friends meetings in Rwanda and Burundi, as well as new work beginning in Morocco. For more information see Quakers in Kenya.

In Great Britain

Friends in Britain have maintained a high level of organizational unity throughout the history of the Society. The local Friends meetings are called preparative meetings. Several local meetings are part of a monthly meeting. Several monthly meetings are organized into a general meeting. Formerly, general meetings were called quarterly meetings, and, while they continue to meet up to three times per year, they usually play no direct role in Quaker structures. Monthly meetings are represented directly in Meeting for Sufferings, which meets in between Yearly meetings.

In the United States

Friends in the United States are more diverse in their practices, though united by many common bonds. Along with the division of worship style (see "Quaker Worship" above) come several differences of theology, vocabulary and practice.

A local congregation in the unprogrammed tradition is called a meeting, or a monthly meeting (e.g., Smalltown Meeting or Smalltown Monthly Meeting). Several local monthly meetings are often part of a regional group called a quarterly meeting, which is usually part of an even larger group called a yearly meeting.

In programmed traditions, the local congregations are often referred to as "Friends Churches".

In Australia

Considerable distances between the colonies, and a low immigration of Quakers, meant that the organization of Friends in Australia was quite dependent on London until the twentieth century. The Society has remained unprogrammed and is constituted as the Australia Yearly Meeting, with local organization around seven Regional Meetings: Canberra (which extends into southern New South Wales), New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia (which extends into Northern Territory), Tasmania, Victoria and West Australia. There is an annual meeting each January hosted by a different Regional Meeting over a seven year cycle, with a Standing Committee each July or August.


George Fox played an important part in founding the Religious Society of Friends
George Fox played an important part in founding the Religious Society of Friends

Various names have been used for the Friends movement and its adherents. These include:

  • Children of the light
  • Friends
  • Friends of the Truth
  • Quakers
  • Religious Society of Friends
  • Saints
  • Seekers
  • Society of Friends
  • Friends among friends
  • Publishers of Truth

In the first few years of the movement, Quakers thought of themselves as part of the restoration of the true Christian church after centuries of apostasy. For this reason, during this period they often referred to themselves as simply the "saints" or the "children of light". Another common name was "Friends of the Truth", reflecting the central importance in early Quaker theology of Christ as an Inner light that shows you your true condition.

The name "Quaker" was first used in 1650, when preacher George Fox was brought before Justice Bennet of Derby on a charge of blasphemy. According to Fox's journal, Bennet "called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God." Indeed, early Friends did tremble and shake at their meetings, and spent many pamphlets defending "quaking" as a biblical phenomenon. Some Friends (including Fox) disliked the name, but it began to stick nonetheless. There was apparently an attempt after a 1654 meeting in Leicestershire to become known as the "children of light", but this was not successful.

The name "Religious Society of Friends" came many years later, in the 18th century. This remains the official name to this day, although often "Quakers" is added in parentheses for the sake of clarity. Also, there are some Friends, usually in unprogrammed meetings, who object to the word "religious" and refer to themselves as part of the "Society of Friends". There are some monthly meetings that for this reason do not include "religious" in their name, while most larger Quaker organizations, such as yearly meetings, use the full name.


Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania
Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania

The Quakers began in England in 1648, as a Nonconformist breakaway movement from English Puritanism (Anglicanism as we know it today was officially suppressed during Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth of England). As the movement expanded, it faced opposition and persecution. Quakers were imprisoned and beaten in both the British Isles and the British colonies. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, Quakers were banished on pain of death—some Quakers (most famously Mary Dyer) were hanged in Boston Square for returning to preach their beliefs. Quakers were effectively banned from sitting in Parliament at Westminster from 1698-1833. The state of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith. Despite persecution, the movement grew steadily into a strong and united society.

During the 19th century Friends in Ireland and the United States suffered a number of separations.

Hicksite-Orthodox split

In 1827 a division occurred within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting when its members could not agree on a person to be named its clerk. The issue involved the visits and preaching of Elias Hicks in violation of the will of numerous elders of the yearly meeting; they claimed his views were universalist and contradicted the historical tradition of Friends. The same year, a number of Friends in sympathy with him separated to form a parallel system of yearly meetings in America, referred to as Hicksite; ultimately five yearly meetings divided. The Quakers who did not follow Hicks were called Orthodox.

Gurneyite-Wilburite split

The Orthodox Friends in America were exercised by a transatlantic dispute between Joseph John Gurney of England and John Wilbur of Rhode Island. Gurney emphasized scriptural authority and favored working closely with other Christian groups. Wilbur, in response, defended the authority of the Holy Spirit, as primary and worked to prevent what he saw as the dilution of Friends tradition of Spirit-led ministry. Wilbur was expelled from his yearly meeting in a questionable proceeding in 1842. Over the next several decades, a number of Wilburite-Gurneyite separations occurred.


Joel Bean was an Orthodox Friend who opposed the extreme evangelicalism that was creeping into his branch of Quakerism. He formed a new branch of Quakerism in the western part of the United States when his membership was terminated and his meeting was laid down by Iowa Yearly Meeting.

The "Beanite", or independent, Quakers resemble an amalgam of Hicksite and Wilburite Quakerism, some of them adopting the label "Christ-Centered Universalism".


Quaker testimonies are the traditional statements of Quaker belief. Testimonies are not formal static documents, but rather a shared collection or view of how Quakers relate to God and the world. Testimonies cannot easily be taken one at a time, as they are interrelated. As a philosophical system, they can be seen as coherent even outside of Christian theology. Friends have not always been consistent with their stated values, but these statements of belief have provided strong guidance to Friends through much of their history.

While the list of testimonies, like all aspects of Friends theology, is evolving, the following are common.

  • The Peace Testimony
  • The Testimony of Equality
  • The Testimony of Integrity
  • The Testimony of Simplicity

Some Friends also include other testimonies, such as Unity, Community, Compassion, and Stewardship. The acronym SPICE is used as well, which stands for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.

The Peace Testimony

The Peace Testimony is probably the best known testimony of Friends. The belief that violence is always wrong has persisted to this day, and many conscientious objectors, advocates of non-violence and anti-war activists are Friends. Because of the peace testimony, Friends are often considered as one of the historic peace churches. In 1947 Quakerism was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the prize was accepted by the American Friends Service Committee and Friends Service Council on behalf of all Friends. The Peace Testimony has not always been well received in the world; on many occasions Friends have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in military activities.

Some Friends today regard the Peace Testimony in even a broader sense, refusing to pay the "War Tax" that is a large portion of the income tax in the United States. Many Friends engage in various non-governmental organizations such as Christian Peacemaker Teams serving in some of the most violent areas of the world.

The Testimony of Equality

A female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London in the 18th century
A female Quaker preaches at a meeting in London in the 18th century

Friends believe that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. Since all people embody the same divine spark all people deserve equal treatment. Friends were some of the first to value women as important ministers and to campaign for women's rights, they became leaders in the anti-slavery movement, and were among the first to pioneer humane treatment for the mentally ill and for prisoners.

The Testimony of Integrity

Also known as the Testimony of Truth, or Truth Testimony, the essence of the Testimony of Integrity is placing God at the centre of one's life and refusing to place things other than God there—whether it be oneself, possessions, the regard of others, belief in principles or something else. To Friends integrity is in choosing to follow the leading of the Spirit despite the challenges and urges to do otherwise.

This testimony has led to Friends having a reputation for being honest and fair in their dealings with others. It has led them to give proper credit to others for their contributions and to accept responsibility for their own actions. Part of the reason early Quaker merchants did away with haggling over prices in favour of fixed prices was their belief that one should not ask a higher price than you expected to receive.

Among some early Friends this testimony led them to refuse to participate in drama, stating that to pretend you were someone else was to deny your integrity.

The Testimony of Simplicity

Simplicity to Friends has generally been a reference to material possessions and is often referred to as plainness. Friends traditionally limited their possessions to what they needed to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. Recently this testimony is often taken to have an ecological dimension: that Friends should not use more than their fair share of the Earth's resources.

This testimony is largely responsible for the tradition of plain walls and functional furniture in meetinghouses.

Quaker organizations

Throughout their history, Quakers have founded organizations for many causes they felt are in keeping with their faith. There are many schools around the world founded by Friends (for a list of such schools with links to other articles, see List of Friends Schools).

There are various organizations associated with Friends including: a US lobbying organization based in Washington, DC called the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL); several service organizations like the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quaker United Nations Offices, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, and the Friends Committee on Scouting.

Additionally Friends have founded organizations to help maintain order and communication within the society. Some yearly meetings belong to larger organizations, the three chief ones being Friends General Conference (FGC), Friends United Meeting (FUM), and Evangelical Friends International (EFI). (In each of these three groups, most member organizations are from the United States.) FGC is theologically the most liberal of the three groups, while EFI is the most conservative. FUM is the largest of the three. Some monthly meetings belong to more than one of these larger organizations, while others are independent, not belonging to any. Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) is the international Quaker organization which loosely unifies the diverse groups of Friends. FWCC brings together the largest variety of Friends in the world.

Several organizations centered on education have continued amongst Friends, including Friends Council on Education (FCE) an organization supporting Friends schools (typically primary through secondary, often boarding) and Friends Association for Higher Education (FAHE) which supports Friends post-secondary institutions and those who resonate with Friends' teaching and traditions who serve in higher education.

Recommended reading

  • Abbott, Margery, Mary Ellen Chijioke, Pink Dandelion, and John William Oliver, editors, Historical Dictionary of The Friends (Quakers) ISBN 0-8108-4483-4
  • Allen, David., There is a River: a Charismatic Church History in Outline ISBN 1-85078-564-3
  • Bacon, Margaret H., The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America ISBN 0-87574-935-6
  • Bill, J. Brent, Holy Silence ISBN 1-55725-420-6
  • Brinton, Howard H., Friends for 300 Years ISBN 0-87574-903-8
  • Birkel, Michael L., Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition ISBN 1-57075-518-3 (in the UK, ISBN 0-232-52448-3)
  • Cooper, Wilmer A., A Living Faith : An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. 2nd ed. ISBN 0-944350-53-4
  • Gillman, Harvey, A Light that is Shining: Introduction to the Quakers ISBN 0-85245-213-6
  • Hamm, Thomas D., The Quakers in America ISBN 0-231-12362-0
  • Hubbard, Geoffrey, Quaker by Convincement ISBN 0-85245-189-X and ISBN 0-14-021663-4
  • Ingle, H. Larry, First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism ISBN 0-19-507803-9 and ISBN 0-19-510117-0
  • Ingle, H. Larry, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation ISBN 0-87574-926-7
  • Moore, Rosemary, The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666 ISBN 0-271-01989-1
  • Mullet, Michael, editor, New Light on George Fox ISBN 1-85072-142-4
  • Punshon, John, Portrait in Grey : a short history of the Quakers ISBN 0-85245-180-6
  • Pym, Jim, Listening to the Light: How to Bring Quaker Simplicity and Integrity into our Lives. ISBN 0-7126-7020-3
  • Smith, Robert Lawrence, A Quaker Book of Wisdom ISBN 0-688-17233-4
  • West, Jessamyn, editor, The Quaker Reader ISBN 0-87574-916-X
  • Wilson, Lloyd Lee, Essays On The Quaker Vision Of Gospel Order ISBN 0-87574-925-9
  • Wilson, Lloyd Lee, Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition: Collected Public Witness, 1995-2004 ISBN 1-888305-36-4

Children's books

  • Turkle, Brinton. (Some are out of print, but can be found in libraries, used book stores, or online.)
    • The Adventures of Obadiah
    • Obadiah the Bold
    • Rachel and Obadiah
    • Thy Friend, Obadiah

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