This prophetic-mystical movement developed in England around George Fox (1624-91) and his teaching and preaching. His followers first called themselves “children of the light” or simply “friends” – based on Jesus’ words to his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14) – and later corporately took the name of the “Religious Society of Friends”. “Quakers” was an early derisive nickname, associated with the tremblings of the Friends at their meetings. No longer considered derisive, this title is now also used by Friends of themselves.

Fox was convinced that the church* had become apostate, and even reformation “in root and branch” could not re-capture the authentic Christian community of the 1st century. So beginning again on early apostolic beliefs, Fox erected a church. It would depend directly on the risen Lord, and its members would function equally without mediation or rite and clergy but with the biblical gifts of the Spirit and the “inward light of Christ” – men and women equally under the direct headship of Christ. Friends’ meetings for worship or for business held the holy expectancy that Christ would be in the midst wherever “two or three are gathered” in his name (Matt. 18:20), inspiring them to speak, enabling life to be transformed and empowering ministries to the world with the same self-giving love that he bore on the cross.

In 1676, Robert Barclay published (in Latin) Apology for the True Christian Divinity , which has never been displaced as the standard systematic treatment of Quaker theology.

The Quakers’ early resistance in England to civil laws of religion that included oaths and marks of civil deference and to military service made the Friends targets of legal and popular oppression and imprisonment; more than 400 died from the lack of sanitation. Many fled to the American colonies. The majority sought refuge in Pennsylvania under William Penn (1644-1718), himself a Quaker. Elsewhere several Friends were persecuted; four were hung for religious dissension in Boston, 1659-61.

Social action is characteristic of the Friends. They “have been more concerned with the here and now than with the hereafter. They have sought in many different ways to improve the societies in which they live – locally, nationally, and internationally.” They look to the time when God’s kingdom will come and his will be done; meanwhile, they are summoned “to exhibit to the world a kingdom mind-set, kingdom values and a kingdom life-style”. They are to be “the authentic counter-culture of a better way, the only way that holds true hope and the promise of life for humankind”. And they feel “the terrible pull of the unlimited liability for one another which the New Testament ethic lays upon them” (Douglas Steere).

Few Friends have dramatic stories of unusual witness. Most live humbly, barely noticed. Among outstanding role models are some who worked against slavery: John Woolman (1720-72), Anthony Benezet (1713-84), and in the later abolitionist phase Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). Mott was also active in women’s suffrage, along with Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). In prison reform Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) still excels; and in the humane treatment of the mentally ill William Tuke (1732-1822), his wife and grandson initiated a number of reforms. In the 20th century Alice Paul was the author of the Equal Rights (for women) Amendment to the US constitution, which failed ratification by only one state.

Friends have worked consistently towards the elimination of war and its root causes in militarism, injustice and economic imperialism. Two Friends have received the Nobel peace prize: Emily Greene Balch, leader of the international women’s movement for peace, in 1946, and Philip J. Noel-Baker, for his 53 years of participation in every international disarmament conference, in 1959; in addition, the Nobel peace prize in 1947 recognized the humanitarian and reconstruction efforts of the (British) Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee.

For authenticity in all these areas, Friends test “leadings” or “concerns” in a process of group “discernment”. One may be way ahead of his or her meeting; the reverse may be true; or there may be a number of correct solutions. Real transformation of society does not come from a programme or an ideology, but from exemplary discipleship. The light, grace, truth or spirit of Christ are the real inspiration and the agent of transformation, moulding groups and individuals. Quakers follow spiritual disciplines, especially in prayer; a number of their writings have become spiritual classics for Christians.

From the beginning women have had an equal role in all aspects of the Quaker movement. Fox used a whole panoply of biblical texts to support the thesis that “souls have no sex”, and that men and women are meant to be “help-meets” (Gen. 2:18, King James) rather than antagonists. And Gal. 3:27-28 became the charter not only for equal treatment of women but for the open acceptance of other races and peoples.

Quakers of two varieties (there are four in all, now cooperating closely) were founding members of the WCC. They had accredited observers at Vatican II* (1962-65) and two delegates to the Faith and Order world conferences in 1963 and 1993. Quakers participate in the F&O commission of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, USA. Evangelical Friends are active in the World’s Evangelical Alliance* and other evangelical groupings. Most other Quakers participate in local ministerial associations, or in state and national councils.

By May 1999 Quakers in 43 countries totalled 281,860: 92,672 in Kenya, 92,263 in the USA, 31,000 Aymara Indians in Bolivia, 17,189 in Britain, 4000 in Taiwan, 2500 Eskimos in Alaska, 46,500 in the rest of Latin America; there are very small numbers of Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Middle Easterners, Indians and French-speaking people.

By and large their impulse to serve still comes from first-hand contact with the resurrected Christ, who is with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The basic thrust of all Quaker structure and activities hinges on George Fox’s central dictum, which states (without ruling out Christ’s final coming in judgment) that “Christ has come” again – as he did again and again to the early church – “to teach his people himself”.




n H.H. Brinton, Friends for 300 Years , New York, Harper, 1952 n E. Potts Brown & S. Mosher Stuard eds, Witnesses for Change: Quaker Women over Three Centuries , New Brunswick NJ, Rutgers UP, 1989 n D. Freiday, “The Early Quakers and the Doctrine of Authority”, Quaker Religious Thought , 15, l, 1973 n D. Freiday, “Quakers, Ecumenism and the WCC”, ER , 46, 4, 1994 n M. Garman et al. Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings, 1650-1700 , Wallingford PA, Pendle Hill, 1996 n D.V. Steere ed., Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings , New York, Paulist, 1984.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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