The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) are a movement within Christianity that began in 1650s England. Early Quaker co-founders were George Fox and Margaret Fell (who would years later get married) along with many other Christian dissenters and preachers like Elizabeth Hooton, Isaac and Mary Peninton, Thomas Ellwood, James Nayler, Richard Farnsworth, and many others.
The early Quakers were unhappy with institutionalized Christianity, which they saw as having lost its way by becoming too embedded in the state. Friends sought to revive “primitive Christianity” by going back to the roots of Christianity in Jesus’ teachings around nonviolence, simple living, God’s concern for the marginalized, the immediate and equal access to God’s Spirit.
Some of the practices that made early Friends stand out was their refusal to pay tithes (which were a required religious tax). They also refused to take oaths by swearing on the Bible, saying that doing so created a double-standard for truth. Instead, Christians should let their “yes be yes, and no be no.” Early Quaker worship was marked by an “expectant silence,” where there was an expectation that Christ who was present among them would lead individuals to share messages out of the silence. This allowed them to practice the “priesthood of all believers” in a way that clergy-led churches were never able to do. Finally, Friends opted to not take physical sacraments – abolishing the final two the Protestants hung onto – in favor of an inward communion and baptism. Moving from external to internal markers meant that Friends placed high priority on behavior and what became known as testimony: that is the public witness of God lived out in ones life.
Today, Friends are a worldwide, global faith community diverse in race, theology and practice. While Quakerism started in England and quickly spread the the American colonies, today the majority of Quakers are from Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boliva. In terms of theology and practice: there are Quakers (unprogrammed) who still worship in silence, with no clergy presiding over the service but instead, attenders wait for the Spirit to guide their worship. Other Quakers (programmed) have pastors, since songs, preach, offer public prayer, and have a time of silence in their worship. Some Friends no longer believe in God but instead participate because they like the silence and community, others are liberal socially and theologically, some are Evangelical in their theology, are there are Conservative Quakers as well, those seeking to maintain the old ways of Friends.
Despite the theological diversity among Friends, Quaker Scholar Pink Dandelion, suggests that they are held together by four common practices: direct access to God, nurturing the life of the spirit in worship, practicing discernment as a community, and living out our faith (testimony).
See reading list below to go deeper into these topics.
Here is a Quaker Speak video from Max Carter, retired Director of the Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College speaking on How Quakerism Began.
And here is a video put together by the youth of Richmond Friends Meeting in Richmond, VA.
Quakers Today on Being Quaker
Angell, Stephen W., and Pink Dandelion, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Birkel, Michael Lawrence. Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition. Edited by Philip Sheldrake. Second printing edition. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2004.
Dandelion, Pink. The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
McDaniel, Donna, and Vanessa D. Julye. Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. 1st edition. Philadelphia, Pa: QuakerPress of FGC, 2018.