My first attendance at a Quaker service consisted of sixteen of us sitting around in a circle. The sun shone across the room as we closed our eyes and settled our minds. Although I could hear traffic in the background, mingled with the sound of birds in the courtyard, this provided a soothing feeling of peacefulness rather than a distraction. For the next hour we sat in silent meditation which was only interrupted when somebody in the group read a spiritual passage from a book or shared a recollection of a recent experience which had impacted on their lives.
The ‘Quakers’ (whose official title is ‘The Religious Society of Friends’) was founded by George Fox, the son of a weaver, born in Leicestershire in 1624. The young Fox was a very religious man and at the age of 19 he became so radical in his beliefs that he set about travelling around England to preach the Bible to the masses. Here he told them he believed that God’s light was within each person, and everyone could tap into this without the help of a clergyman or scripture. He was a very powerful and passionate speaker, and built up a large following from those who sided with his convictions. However, the authorities failed to warm to his ideology, resulting in him being imprisoned several times for blasphemy. Each time after he was released from prison he continued his preaching, telling people to follow their own inner guide like Jesus had done. He advised everybody to be fearless but to tremble whenever the name of God was mentioned, which was the reason why his followers became known as ‘Quakers’ and he never wavered in this stance until his death in 1691 aged 66 years.
Quakers are classified as a religious organisation with Christian roots, and for some people it offers an alternative to the structure found in Christian churches. Its places of worship are not referred to as ‘churches’, rather ‘Friends’ Meeting Houses’. In contrast to Christian denominations it doesn’t have a leader, nor does it have any ministers or its own creed. However, for those who change over from other Christian denominations, special regard is paid to Saint John’s gospel because of its mystical and spiritual feel. It also features a core belief that each person’s uncreated light is God’s transcendence.
Quakers oppose war as a means of settling disputes and work for peace and alternatives to violence. One of the ladies I spoke to at the meeting described her religion as: “Quakers are communities of people who look at the whole of life as being sacred. We share a way of life rather than a set of beliefs. We try to understand our faith and seek to experience God within ourselves.” Quakers consider it important to maintain the five main testimonies that make up Quakerism; truth, equality, simplicity, peace and sustainability.
Quakers see God in everything and everyone. They firmly adhere to believing that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God and they must live in a way which reflects this. Quakers believe in forgiveness, and ask people not to overly concentrate on what somebody has done to hurt you, but instead to see God in them and pray for the person to prevent bitterness. In addition to being seen as an alternative to mainstream Christianity, Quakers are also well known for green and environmental issues and sustainability of the planet. It could also be said that Quakers, these days, are split into two groups – theists and non-theists – those who believe in God and those with a non-religious secular attitude towards the divine but who do not classify themselves as atheists. However, having said that, Quakers who identify as non-theist have attitudes increasingly like those of their theist counterparts.
Quakers are self-funded through private donations from its members and legacy funding. They come from all walks of life but tend to attract well-educated people. Quakers are very peaceful and broadminded people. The meaning of the word ‘neighbour’ to a Quaker is to accept those next to them whether they are homeless, Muslim, black, gay, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, atheist, disabled or the addicted. They live simple lives and are drawn to valuing people around them and find great solace and enjoyment in appreciating the natural world. Quakers seek to live simpler and be guided by the values of its testimonies. They try to influence governments and others to help transform Britain into a more sustainable low-carbon country.
Quakerism has undoubtedly changed since its inception in the eighteenth century and it might be fair to say George Fox would be disappointed that his emphasis on the teachings of the Bible has been diluted. However, its members still possess a common purpose of unity and togetherness. Ultimately, the Quakers’ lasting legacy will be peace and striving to combat social inequality by believing that every person is equal in the eyes of God – a value that has remained undiminished throughout its history.
Quakers firmly believe in the inner inward spirit that seeks peace amongst humankind and that killing another person through war is abhorrent. Quakers are good people who care about each other and maintain a cheerful and moral outlook towards the world which their founder advised in one of his earlier writings:
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach amongst all sorts of people, and to them, then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.¹
There are 1,600 Quakers in Ireland and 16,000 in the UK and around 380,000 worldwide. It is particularly popular in the United States and Canada. During the twentieth century, western Quakers who travelled to Africa increased membership and currently African friends make up 52% of international Quakers with a particularly large following in Kenya. Membership in recent decades has seen a decline in young people joining or staying – the current joining age is 43. But this should not be viewed as the beginning of the end. Quakerism has its place in the world and is likely to survive in the generations that follow us, albeit in a format that continues to evolve along with the world of its time.
¹ Quaker faith & practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (2013) Quaker Books; 5th Edition.