Swarthmore Friends Meeting
Friends and the Bible
Friends consider that true religion cannot be learned from books or set prayers, words or rituals, which George Fox called 'empty forms.' When Quakerism began in England, the Bible had only just come into common circulation in English translation and was widely read and quoted. Most Protestant groups attributed a great finality and infallibility to it. The common desire for an external authoritative standard was very strong. In religious controversies, each group tried to find support somewhere in the wording of scripture.
At times, Friends fell into the same habit. But they also believed in the contemporary revelation of God's will, parallel to what was described in the Bible. George Fox once said: "You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from the God?"
Friends refuse to make the Bible the final test of right conduct and true doctrine. Divine revelation is not confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit which has inspired the scriptures in the past can inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the same Spirit is essential. Friends believe that, by the Inner Light, God provides everyone with access to spiritual truth for today.
Creeds and Theology
The attitude of Friends to formal creeds and theological dogma is different from that of most Christians. Creeds do not form the basis for association in their fellowship. Friends are aware of the limitations of words to express one's deepest experiences. Friends also realize that words may suitably express the personal convictions of someone at one time, but that they will almost certainly be unsuitable for the same person later in life. It is even more difficult to define the religious conviction of a group of people. Words and phrases often lend themselves to very different interpretations.
The absence of creeds does not mean that Friends feel that it does not matter what a person believes. They recognize that personal beliefs vitally affect behavior. Friends are people of strong religious views, but they are quite clear that these views must be tested by the way in which they are expressed in action. Many Friends have hesitations about the value of theology, fearing that it too easily leads to speculation and argument. But all would agree that humans, as rational beings, must think about the nature of their religious experiences. Friends are encouraged to seek for truth in all the opportunities that life presents to them. They are further encouraged to seek new light from whatever source it may arise. Their questing and open attitude to life has certainly contributed to the tolerance with which Friends try to approach people and problems of faith and conduct.
This may make it easier to understand how the Religious Society of Friends can accommodate such a range of religious outlooks among its members. Pretty well every color in the religious spectrum seems to be reflected in the views of Friends. There are Friends whose faith is most sincerely expressed in the traditional language of orthodox Christianity. Other Friends could justly be described as religious humanists.
Sacraments and Liturgy
Friends believe that prayer and the love of God are of primary importance. This erases an artificial division between the secular and the religious, and makes all of life, when lived in the Spirit, sacramental. Friends reject traditional, outward ceremonies and sacraments, sometimes characterized as 'empty forms,' but without rejecting the spiritual reality they symbolize. Baptism, for example, means an inward or spiritual experience, not a ritual act. Communion is also of the Spirit, a conscious openness to, a communication with the Divine. Although Friends may differ in their ways of observing the Sabbath and Christian festivals, these days are not regarded more holy than weekdays.
Quakers and the After-life
Friends do not consider a life after death as a reward for virtue, or as a compensation for the suffering in their lives on Earth. Neither has the fear or threat of damnation been used to induce Friends to live better lives. The Quaker view of what happens beyond death is firmly rooted in the experience of this life. Friends believe that life is good, and that an essential clue to its real nature is to be glimpsed in the love that people have for one another.
There is always an element of mystery about love which people cannot fully penetrate, but Friends are convinced that it has a timeless quality. Love cannot be destroyed by death and cannot be limited by time and space. This conviction is underlined by the experience of Quaker worship, and by the awareness that the personality of Jesus was not diminished by his death. His life was based on his profound trust that God is love. Friends respond to this love. They experience heaven here and now, and believe that whatever lies beyond death must be for our good.
Friends do not dogmatize about what happens after death. There are Friends who are convinced that there is an after-life, and those who are convinced that there is not. But all Friends feel that it is more important to get on with living this life, and seek to improve the conditions of humanity in this world, than to engage in speculations about the next.
The books, brochures and leaflets listed in the Bibliography were used to edit the text of this publication. Most of these titles are still available from the Friends Book Centre and the FWCC World Office in London or Friends General Conference in Philadelphia