Friendly Answers to your questions about Quakers*

You meet people called Quakers, or you worship with Friends in their church or meeting, or you join in a service project or witness sponsored by Friends. Naturally you ask, Who are these people? What do they believe? How do their beliefs affect their lives and activities? And you seek answers.

The Questions

Who are “the Quakers”? Are the same as “The Friends”?

Friends or Quakers–either name will do as they have the same meaning–are most easily described as those persons who belong to Friends meetings and Friends churches. These make up the religious bodies that as a group are known as the Society of Friends–called by some the Religious Society of Friends, by others the Friends Church.

What do Friends believe? Do they have a creed?

Quakers do not have a creed. No single statement of religious doctrine is accepted by all the overlapping regional bodies of Friends that together make up the larger Society. Each of the so-called Yearly-Meetings, however, has its own Book of Discipline or Faith and Practice, which includes statements of belief or doctrine and the uniquely Quaker feature: Advices and Queries.

How can Friends differ so widely in their religious beliefs?

Respect for the individual man, woman, child–as each may respond to the Holy Spirit, to the Light Within–has been the basis for a good measure of tolerance among Friends. But their sense of individual divine guidance has also led to sharp differences and continuing tensions between Quakers of widely divergent views and “leadings.” In the 19th century, American Quakerism was split by repeated Separations that divided many Friends meetings and yearly meetings, but 20th century reunions have mended some of these breaches.

How does the faith of Friends show in their personal lives?

Love of God and love of neighbor–the overriding Christian commandments–find expression in the varied forms of Quaker worship; in Friends’ “witness” and historic “testimonies”; in their social attitudes and concerns, their mission and service outreach, their programs of education and action. For Friends, these are the fruits of their faith; the affirmation of the indwelling Spirit and redemptive Love spiritual realities that they feel they do share and must share with others.

What forms of worship are practiced by American Friends?

Two rather different forms of worship characterize American Quakers.

Some groups of Friends gather in silence and expectant waiting, without
prearranged singing, Bible reading, prayers, or sermon. Their worship proceeds,
rising above individual meditation to a sense of seeking as a gathered group,
with spoken ministry only as Friends may feel led to share their insights and
messages. Such unprogrammed worship is the usual practice in both the more
liberal and the more traditionalist Friends meetings, and it continues in some
measure the Quaker way of earlier times. Other congregations of Friends follow
the form of worship practiced by Protestant and Evangelical churches generally,
and adopted by many Friends meetings during the nineteenth century, at time of
revival and renewal in American Protestantism.

What are Friends’ attitudes toward sacraments and Scripture?

Most Friends reject the sacraments in their outward forms–communion and
baptism as variously practiced in Christian churches. They are seekers, rather,
for the inward reality. For them, all great human experiences are of a
sacramental nature.

The Bible was very precious to George Fox [the founder of Quakerism], but he saw clearly that to understand the Scriptures they must be read in the same Spirit that inspired those who wrote them. Another early Quaker leader, Robert Barclay, said that the Scriptures are only a declaration of the source and not the source itself.

What is the religious basis for Friends’ activities?

The belief that there is a potential for good in all persons–as indeed also the capacity for evil!–makes Friends sensitive to human degradation, ignorance, superstition, suffering, injustice, exploitation. Under a sense of concern–inner prompting, divine obedience, urgency–Friends are drawn to humanitarian callings and to programs of education and evangelism, to projects of service and constructive action.

What are the historic and continuing Quaker “testimonies”?

The Peace Testimony is perhaps the most widely known of these. Taken as a whole, the Society of Friends is strongly opposed to war and to conscription. It seeks to remove the causes of war; it tries to reconcile factions and nations; it ministers to suffering on both sides of conflicts; it helps to rebuild at war’s end. It witnesses creatively to the power of nonviolence in the movement toward social change.

Another Friends testimony supports social justice. Quaker colonists in American were fair and friendly with their Indian neighbors, and they early advocated the abolition of slavery.

Many Friends today are non-proselytizing, disinclined to witness verbally for their central religious beliefs.

What is the meaning of “the Quaker Way” and “the manner of Friends”?

The Quaker Way is simply the way Friends at their best (and with all their differences) put in practice their deepest beliefs. One example is the meeting for business conducted after the manner of Friends. Such a meeting proceeds in the spirit of worship and openness to divine leading. Questions are not decided by majority rule. The presiding clerk tries to be sensitive to the meeting’s search for truth and unity. Strongly opposed views are often reconciled through suggestion of a Third Way; or in a period of silent worship differences are quietly resolved; or decision is held over to a later meeting, awaiting further insight, information, understanding. No vote is taken.

How do people become members of the Society of Friends?

[Persons] who are attracted to membership by the faith, witness, or fellowship of Friends, who feel themselves ready to become members of a Friends meeting or church…are encouraged to apply for membership.


*These questions and answers have been adapted from the pamphlet What is Quakerism? Friendly Answers to Questions About American Quakers (Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, 1506 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102 USA). The pamphlet does not appear to be available on the web, but an unattributed web-based version can be found here.