“You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of light and hast walked in the Light, and that which thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
(George Fox, 1652)
Origins of Quakerism – Quaker Beliefs – Quaker Worship
The artist Benjamin West’s depiction of William Penn meeting with native Americans
“Quakers” is the name most generally used for members of the Religious Society of Friends – rather a mouthful, that, and normally only used for formal or official purposes. However although Quakerism can be treated for many practical purposes as a religion or a “Church”, the expression “religious society” is really a better way of describing what Quakers are about, as we shall see.
The Society arose in England during the 1650’s when Oliver Cromwell governed the country after executing King Charles and overthrowing the established political and religious order. It was a time of great unrest, not only in public life but also in terms of people’s values and beliefs. New and radical ideas were being floated – some of them surprisingly advanced even by today’s standards. Out of this atmosphere of enquiry and uncertainty emerged a Leicestershire man – George Fox – who as a young man had profound spiritual instincts but found that none of the existing Churches or religious systems were able to answer his needs. Then in 1647 out of the blue he had a “road to Damascus” experience of the presence of God, and realised that living in the awareness of God’s presence – or “living in the Light” as he expressed it – was all the spiritual guidance that one needed.
At that time many people were anticipating the imminent return to earth of Jesus Christ (some people still do!) but Fox now understood that Christ had in fact already returned – not in the way people expected, but in a spiritual sense, in the human heart. Fox declared that “Christ has come to teach his people himself”. There was no need to wait for the “Kingdom of God” to arrive: it was already here, for anyone who wanted it. If that were so of course then the whole apparatus of priests, rituals and theological systems which had been built up by the established Churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, were entirely superfluous. Fox, controversially for that time, declared that this spirit – the “light of Christ” – is to be found in every human being, not just Christians.
Fox was convinced that this was in fact how Christianity had been at the beginning and was always meant to be, but that over the ages vested interests and the ambitions of power-hungry individuals had corrupted the original simplicity of the Christian message and ossified the Church. The 20th century writer Reginald Reynolds says that “Quakerism began as a protest against dead letter religion” (in “John Woolman and the 20th century”). Similarly Henry Binns describes the early Quakers as “A people gathered from many sects into the freedom the Spirit” (in “Selections from the works of Isaac Penington”).
Overcome with joy at this revelation, Fox was anxious to spread the news and began to travel the country sharing his insights with anyone who would listen. He found many people – “seekers” as they were called – equally disillusioned with the state of things, who welcomed his message. In a very few years the scattered congregations of his followers that Fox left in his wake were organised into a network of “Meetings” (as congregations of Quakers are still called to this day). It was in 1652 that Fox’s message took on the nature of a mission, when he gained his first significant number of adherents during a visit to the Lake District and in particular the invaluable support and protection of the influential Fell family. Using their home as his centre of operations, Fox and his followers took their message around the country.
In those days, however, failing to conform to the established order – whether the King’s or Cromwell’s – led to persecution and imprisonment. The Quakers however refused to compromise and proved impossible to suppress, developing a technique of stubborn but non-violent resistance to the abuse of power, which has been an example to all the ages since. Soon Quakers were introducing their beliefs to lands beyond the British Isles, from Russia to Barbados. One intrepid Quaker woman even obtained an audience with the Sultan of the Turkish empire! William Penn went so far as to establish a Quaker state in Pennsylvania which, during the seventy years or so that Quakers were able to retain control of it, was a beacon of enlightenment compared with the narrow-minded intolerance that still marked most of the Puritan colonies of New England at that time. The French writer Voltaire said that William Penn’s pact with the native people was the only treaty made between the white settlers and the American Indians that was never sworn to, and the only one that was never broken.
The first thing to realise is that Quakerism is not about “faith” but about experience. Quakers are different from most other religions in having no “creed” – there is no list of beliefs that members must subscribe to. As far as we are concerned, issues such as the Trinity or the Virgin Birth are matters of opinion which you can believe or not as you please, but we tend to avoid fruitless speculation about things which nobody can know for certain. In any case these are not the matters we hold to be important: they do not affect our view of the world, or of our place and purpose in it. What matters to us is the sort of person you are, and the way you live your life.
The basis of Quakerism is simply that there is something within each of us which we call “that of God” or sometimes more simply, “The Light” or “The Spirit”. It is there in everyone, no matter how obscure it may appear, or difficult it may be to see it sometimes! We aim to find this in ourselves and act upon it, according to our highest vision, and also to remember always to look for it in others. The more we bring our lives consciously into the presence of the Light within us, the more we can experience the love and comfort, wisdom and guidance that comes with “living in The Light”. As Luke’s Gospel puts it, “the kingdom of God is within you”.
Quakers believe in a God who is available and accessible. Religion for us is not a question of having to believe things we are told by some Leader (there is no such person in the Religious Society of Friends) just because they say so, or because it is written in a book, although we do value wisdom and inspiration wherever we find it. However in the end it is a matter of what truth we ourselves discover on our own journeys of spiritual growth. Unlike some religions, Quakers do not claim to be the “one true Church” or to have all the right answers. We are more interested in asking the right questions, especially the difficult questions. Quakerism is simply, as we put it, a “way”. It is a way of approaching God, a way of approaching spirituality and a way of living.
Isaac Penington, one of the first generation of Quakers, explained that Quakers are not a group of people who get together because they happen to agree with each other: they agree with each other because they are all living in the Light, which as John’s gospel says, is “the one Light that enlightens everyone”. However we need to be prepared to test our own understanding of the Light against the insights of others, to check that we have properly considered and correctly interpreted what the Light appears to be revealing to us. Otherwise it would be too easy for some individual to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, and dash off out of control in completely the wrong direction – a danger that Quakers in the early days learned about through bitter experience! As the writer Reginald Reynolds once said, “All that we affirm in this doctrine of the Inner Light is the existence of Absolute Truth, and that its Light shines within us . . . it is our understanding, and not Truth itself, which is relative and finite.” (from “The Wisdom of John Woolman”, 1948)
Although the founders of Quakerism set it within the Christian tradition and culture of their time, Quakers always emphasised that The Light is to be found in everyone – not only among Quakers, and not only among Christians. In the words of John’s Gospel, “It is the true Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the World”. It cannot be contained or confined within creeds or religious dogmas. We do not for example insist that our Members take any specific view about the Bible or about Jesus Christ, although both are of great importance to our understanding of the world and of our purpose in it. Quakers consider that actions demonstrate better than words who are the real followers of Jesus (“by their fruits you shall know them”) and indeed it seems to us on any reading of the Gospels that Jesus himself was much more interested in the way people behaved to each other, rather than in what religious theories they held. The famous historian George Trevelyan, commenting on the Quakers in his seminal work “English Social History” hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the Quakers were more concerned with upholding Christian qualities rather than Christian dogmas.
Quakers therefore have abandoned much of the trappings of the historic Christian Churches: we have no liturgy, no clergy, no sacraments. However while Quakers have little time for abstract religious dogma, we do share certain basic and enduring values expressed in statements which we call “Testimonies”. These are not just things we say we believe in: it is the way we live. They record the things we have found work for good in the world, a way to express how our experience of God translates into action – for Quakerism is above all a practical religion which affects how we actually live and act day by day, not just a set of theories to be recollected on Sundays!
Probably the best known of the Quaker Testimonies is the “Peace Testimony” rejecting the use of violence, both on a personal level and by society collectively. God is Love, and God lives within people – all people. Fighting against other people takes us away from God. The early Quakers believed they were preparing the way for the Kingdom of Heaven (as they would have expressed it) , and in this new world there would be no place for war and violence. If we truly love our neighbours then it must be self-evident that we would not hurt or harm them. George Fox advised his followers to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” Nobody says this is easy: there are people in whom the Light of God seems obscure, if not invisible! Nevertheless however wrong some people seem to be, and however bad their actions may appear to us, the experience of Quakers is that violence never makes a problem better – as it says in the Epistle of James, “God’s righteousness is not served by the anger of men”.
On the other hand there is nothing “passive” about Quaker pacifism! Our peace testimony does not mean we should be silent and do nothing when faced with evil. Rather we seek to confront and speak out against evil, but reject the temptation of using evil means to overcome it. In times of war or crisis Quakers actively work to promote peace, and to find non-violent ways of resolving the problem, but in the meantime they will generally be found organising or supporting humanitarian relief work. During World War One, Quaker conscientious objectors founded the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, and Quakers are also prominent in many campaigning organisations such as Ploughshares, CND, the Campaign Against Arms Trade etc.
The principle that there is “that of God in everyone” leads to another obvious conclusion: that we are all equal in the sight of God. This is almost a truism, and of course most Churches pay lip-service to the idea. What made Quakers different from the very beginning is that they actually behaved as though they really meant it! This meant that Quakers refused to respect titles and the trappings of power; it is why Quakers were among the first to demand and to campaign for the abolition of slavery. It explains why Quakers never had any problem with the idea that women should have as great a part to play as men in their worship, and in the conduct of their Meetings. It is also the reason why Quakers have no priests or clergy: for the Light of Christ is in everyone, and is not just confined to “experts” or “professionals”.
In the early days of Quakerism, one way of demonstrating the testimony to equality was the Quakers’ refusal to comply with the elaborate social rituals which were expected of well brought-up people in those days. Many a Quaker got into hot water for refusing “hat honour” – that is, refusing to doff their hats – upon greeting people who were considered to be their equals or indeed their betters. However times change, and most people these days do not generally wear hats anyway. Nowadays, our way of expressing the Testimony to Equality is more likely to be in a concern for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, to try and ensure that those with wealth and position in the world do not take unfair advantage of their power.
“TRUTH AND INTEGRITY”
This leads on to the next Quaker testimony, which is the importance of complete honesty and personal integrity. We cannot claim to be seeking God in our lives if we have falsehood within us. Quakers therefore consciously strive to be faithful to the truth. To us, this means not just speaking the truth but living it. Quakerism is very much a practical religion, a guide for our day-to-day living, and we intend that the truth we have found in our spiritual journeys should show forth in our lives, so that the way we live is in harmony with what we know of ourselves, our fellow creatures and with God. The original meaning of “integrity” after all was “wholeness”.
When it comes to public issues, Quakers have a tradition of “speaking Truth to Power” – in other words, not being shy of telling our leaders where they are going wrong! In this context we find that a reputation for truthfulness gives our words that little extra weight, and an influence out of all proportion to our numbers.
This does have practical advantages: many Quaker businesses grew and flourished because their trading partners could be confident that a Quaker’s word could be relied upon. An interesting “by-product” of this Testimony is the Quakers’ refusal, ever since the earliest days, to take oaths in any formal proceedings, such as in a Court of Law. The Quakers argued that they do not have double-standards of honesty, and that they tell the truth all the time, not just when they are officially requested to do so! It does mean however that Quakers have little time for diplomatic evasions, and can be disconcertingly direct if asked to express an opinion!
Quakers have always emphasised the value of a life of simplicity and moderation. How this works in practice is something that varies from age to age depending on which particular excesses happen to be in vogue at the time. For us today, the main emphasis is on avoiding excessive “getting and spending” and the conspicuous consumerism which is such a feature of modern industrialised societies. There is constant pressure these on all of us these days to consume more all the time – or, to put it in more traditional terms, to be greedy. This is good no doubt for the profits of the companies who supply the shops and who pay for the advertisements, but it is not good for us. We cannot truly live in the Spirit if we are addicted to the desire for material possessions – or as Jesus put it more succinctly, “You cannot serve God and mammon”.
We saw the results of this kind of attitude all too clearly in the riots that took place in England’s cities in August 2011: people under a constant bombardment of advertisements for new consumer gadgets, tormented by the knowledge that they could not afford them and unable to see any other way of getting them, decided they would just go out and take them! The only surprising thing really is that this did not happen a lot sooner.
An ever-increasing list of wants and needs will not make us happier or more contented: quite the contrary the more so-called “needs” we create for ourselves, the more insecure we will be if we fear that we may not be able to get all these things we crave, or that they might be taken away from us. That is why you will read, in our “Advices and Queries” (a small booklet of 42 Quaker insights) that “A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength.”
The Quaker testimony to Simplicity also ties in closely here with our testimony to Equality, since only a few people can afford the kind of lifestyle that the fantasy-world of advertisements would have us aspire to, and those who can are doing it at the expense of those who have to go without. We therefore like to keep an eye on our own lifestyles and the implications of the decisions we make every day. When we go shopping for example, it is useful to consider where the goods we purchase have come from and how they are produced, rather than going unthinkingly for those which are cheapest, or which have been most persistently advertised. We need to consider whether we may be giving financial support to multi-national corporations which maintain sweatshops in their-world countries, or which are causing serious pollution, or destroying the rainforests.
Quaker simplicity is not to be confused with being dull or boring, though. In “Quaker Faith & Practice” (the Quaker “manual”, for want of a better word) we are exhorted to “live adventurously”, and the Quaker spirit of enquiry and involvement in the World led to many of them becoming well known pioneers in their various fields of activity – these include William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania; Jeremiah Dixon, one of the surveyors who drew the “Mason-Dixon line” in North America (and whose name still survives in the expression “Dixieland”); Abraham Darby, whose invention of the blast-furnace started the industrial revolution; Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer whose face appeared on the English £5 notes until 2016; George Cadbury the chocolate manufacturer, and Philip Noel-Baker, who as a young man won a silver medal in the 1920 Olympic Games, and 20 years later served as a minister in Clement Attlee’s post-war government, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959.
Quaker scientists have made notable contributions to the field of human knowledge, such as the chemist John Dalton who discovered the atomic structure of the elements; the astronomer Arthur Eddington whose observations of the sun validated Einstein’s theory of general relativity and who also correctly predicted the discovery that stars are fuelled by nuclear reactions; and Kathleen Lonsdale who pioneered the use of X-rays in crystallography and who had a rare form of diamond – called lonsdaleite – named after her.
More recently, well-known Quakers have included the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung; the musician Donald Swann (famous through his comic partnership with Michael Flanders); the broadcaster Gerald Priestland; the song-writer Sydney Carter (best known for “Lord of the Dance”); the children’s novelist Ian Serraillier (author of “The Silver Sword”), the actor Paul Eddington (who played the parts of Jerry in “The Good Life” and Jim Hacker in “Yes Minister”) the actresses Judi Dench and Sheila Hancock, and the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who discovered “pulsars” in 1967).
Anyone is welcome to come to a Quaker “Meeting for Worship” (as our services are called). It is not restricted to Members, and there is no need to obtain permission or make any special arrangement beforehand. We are used to people just coming along to see what it is like. People who are not Members but who come regularly to share our Meeting for Worship are called “Attenders”. If they wish, then once they feel ready to make a commitment to the Society and its values, Attenders may apply for Membership. However there is no pressure on them to do so, and some Attenders in fact worship with us for many years without ever feeling called to become Members of the Society at all.
Quaker worship is not quite like any other church service. There is no priest or minister to lead it, and no set form of words or prayers to follow. The Meeting is based around silence, in which we all seek to find the presence of God in our hearts and in the life of the Meeting. We sit in silence and wait to see what the Inward Light may show us. From time to time someone may feel moved by the Spirit to get up and say something to the Meeting. We call these utterances “Ministry”. They are listened to with respectful attention, and then the silence resumes unless and until further Ministry is given. It is quite possible for a Meeting to pass in complete silence, which can be a very profound experience. It is worth going to a Quaker wedding, too, if you are ever invited. The couple – who face the congregation rather than having their backs to them – make their declarations and marry themselves, without any priest or minister being involved.
Local Quaker Meetings are mainly responsible for running their own affairs, and usually once a month there is a Business Meeting which is run along similar principles to all other Quaker activities. Everyone present participates on an equal footing. There is no “leader” with authority to make or impose decisions, only a “Clerk” who conducts the Meeting and records the decisions that are made. It is central to the Quaker business method is that nothing is ever put to a vote. Voting means in practice that a victorious Majority over-rides and imposes its will upon a defeated Minority, who are expected to grin and bear it. This is not the way Quakers like to do things. We do not want to have “winners” and “losers”. Instead, everyone explores the issues and options together and seeks to discern the will of the Spirit as to the best way forward.
This idea of “discernment” is the key to the Quaker method. If necessary, decisions will be postponed to allow time for further reflection. It is not always the fastest way to reach a decision, but Quakers consider it more important to find a way forward that enables everyone to feel that their voice has been heard, and that their wishes and feelings are respected and valued even by those who may disagree with what they say.