If you want a few small pamphlets or a book on various aspects of Quakerism, you can get them by emailing the Friends General Conference Bookstore or calling 800.966.4556 for orders or consultation. They can send you a catalog or help you select books. Our favorite materials are:
Favorite Book Picks
Faith & Practice: This is a 240-page book which describes the history of Quakerism and the current beliefs as practiced by Quakers in the Philadelphia area. It includes a glossary of commonly used Quaker terminology (words range from “affirmation” to “weighty Friend”) and extracts from the writings of Quakers.
A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith: This is a 1998 publication by a former head of a Quaker school. One George School religions teacher is using this in her Quakerism class. She thinks this is a very readable book which, as the book jacket says, “offers practical tools for leading a more meaningful life.”
Introduction from Quaker Spirituality by Douglas Steere: Another George School religions teacher uses this in her Quakerism class and regards it as an excellent overview of Quaker history, beliefs, practice, and ethos.
Portrait in Grey by John Punshon: This 293-page book describes the beginnings of the Religious Society of Friends in England and follows its expansion to America. This book is recommended by another George School religions teacher.
Quaker Meeting for Worship by Douglas Steere: A personal description of what a Quaker does in meeting for worship.
Quaker Peace Testimony by Mary Lou Leavitt: A concise explanation of the spiritual basis for the Friends historic peace testimony.
Friends Spiritual Message by Howard Brinton: On the relationship to God in its outward forms and inward thought and life.
Interpretation of Quakerism by Rufus Jones: On the Quaker concept of the Inward Light and the place of the Bible and Christ in the Quaker faith.
When Friends Attend to Business by Thomas Brown: Explanation of how Quakers handle business without voting or using Robert’s Rules of Order. Quakers utilize a voteless decision-making process that relies on reaching religious unity.
Becoming a Member by Jenifer Goetz: A straightforward description of the beliefs of the Society of Friends and the process of becoming a member.
Quakerism: A Religion Meaningful for Today’s World: This small booklet contains information about the history, belief, accomplishments, and practices of Quakers.
“For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.” —Robert Barclay
I was once asked by a woman about the Quaker approach to life, and I began to tell her what Quakers believed about the nature of men and their relation to God. But she cut me off abruptly with the assurance that she had heard a similar ideal theory expounded by every religious group she had ever met. “What I want to know,” she insisted, “is what you Quakers do!” What then, do we do in Quaker worship? I can only speak for myself as a member of the Society of Friends, and I shall put it very informally and very personally.
I attend a Meeting that usually has from sixty to ninety persons present. We meet together in an old meetinghouse each Sunday morning for an hour. I know many of the worshiping company. I think about this meeting for worship during the week. I think about the people whom I shall meet there. I often go out to visit one or two of them during the week. They come to visit my wife and me. We know one another as people, with personal problems, political views, with special “concerns,” and in the course of time we come to know the weaknesses and the strengths of one another in the affairs of this world. On Sunday we gather “to know one another in that which is Eternal.”
The little meetinghouse where I worship lies well out in the country. I get there just before eleven, enter in silence and sit down. There is no altar before me, no choir loft, no organ. Only three rows of “facing benches,” each of the back two being slightly elevated above the one in front of it. In former days, as in many Meetings still, certain older Friends and some “weighty” Friends who have often had insights to share with the group sat in these benches facing the Meeting.
Our meetings are made up of a group of people gathered together in silent prayer. The first thing that I do is close my eyes and then still my body in order to get it as far out of the way as I can. Then I still my mind and let it open to God in silent prayer, for the meeting, as we understand it, is the meeting place of the worshiper with God. I thank God inwardly for this occasion, for the week’s happenings, for what I have learned at God’s hand, for my family, and the work there is to do. I often pause to enjoy this presence. Under God’s gaze I search the week and feel the piercing twinge of remorse that comes at this, and this, and this. I ask forgiveness for my faithlessness and ask for strength to meet this matter when it arises again. There have been times when I had to re-weave a part of my life under this auspice.
I hold up persons before God in intercession, loving and seeing them under God’s eyes, longing for God’s healing and redeeming power to course through their lives. I hold up certain social situations, certain projects. At such a time I often see things that I may do in company with or that are related to this person or to this situation. I hold up the persons in the meeting and their needs, as I know them, to God.
But again and again before I get through this far in prayer my mind has been drawn away by some distraction. Someone has come in late. Two adorable little girls who are sitting on opposite sides of their mother are almost overcome by delight in something which is much too subtle to be comprehended by the adult mind. How noisy the cars are out on the highway today. The wind howls around the corner and rattles the old glass in the window sashes. Do these rude interruptions destroy the silent prayer? Well, there was a time when they did, and there are times still when they interfere somewhat, but for the most part I think they help. The latecomers stir me to a resolve to be more punctual myself (a fault I am all too well aware of) and I pass directly on in prayer, glad that they have come today. The little girls remind me of the undiscovered gaiety in every cell of life and they remind me too that a meeting for worship must be made to reach these active nine- and ten-year-olds, and I pass on. Sometimes I pray the distractions directly into the prayer.
When I have finished these inward prayers, I quietly resign myself to complete listening: letting go in the intimacy of this friendly company and in the intimacy of the Great Friend who is always near. At this point, one could use Robert Barclay’s words in describing our silent sitting together, “As our worship consisted not in words so neither in silences as silence, but in a holy dependence of the mind upon God; from which dependence silence necessarily follows in the first place until words can be brought forth which are from God’s spirit.” I do not know what takes place here. Often I am sure it is nothing at all. But there are times when a certain slowing-down takes place, a certain healing seems to go on, certain tendering, a certain “dependence of the mind upon God.” This, however, may come in at any point in my own directed prayers and take precedence over them. Someone asked another how long he ought to pray, and received the answer, “Long enough to forget time.” One might say of one’s own prayers that they ought to be persisted in only long enough to be superseded by something that takes a person beyond them. It is so much more important that we be prayed than that we pray. And yet the latter has been found to be a frequent preparation for the former.
When this tendering happens in a meeting, one feels knit very closely to one’s fellow worshipers, and a particular sense of our common ground in the Spirit and of our life in “holy obedience” to it often develops. With this we may be brought very low and into a realization of the condition of some group with which we stand out of unity, whether it be the suffering millions in India or neglected friendless senior citizens, or an underprivileged group in our own neighborhood.
Out of this leveling and this gathering of the meeting, some vocal ministry often develops. I said at the beginning that I often thought about the meeting during the week. Experiences of my own, things that I read, a verse of poetry, some insight that may come while on a walk or in the classroom or in a personal visit, some passage of Scripture that has come up in our daily family worship, these are always being directed toward the meeting. Since we have no minister, all of us have a responsibility. It is not the abolition of ministry but the abolition of the passive laity that the Society of Friends has striven for. One never brings anything to meeting with the certainty of giving it there, but one tries not to come empty. Under the influence of the quiet prayer and this sense of unity in the meeting, what light one brought is often completely set aside, or one feels that this should be reserved for another occasion, or it is made over, or new accents, new illustrations, new simplifications are effected. The mind is often drawn to an entirely fresh seed that unfolds itself there in the consciousness of the worshiper.
When I feel drawn to share something in the quiet meeting for worship, I simply rise and say it as briefly as I know how, seeking ever to keep close to the root and to avoid all vain and distracting ornamentation. The other worshipers often do not raise their heads or open their eyes. If they feel in unity with what I have shared and if it speaks to the condition of the meeting, out of which it sprang, then it becomes a seed for their meditation. If it does not, they pay little attention to it and continue in their own worship. If this or something given by one of the other members of the meeting interprets the common need and exercise of the meeting, it is often added to by others, and a common theme is developed that grips the mind of every participating worshiper who is present. I say “participating” worshiper, for it is possible to come to Friends meeting and just sit or perhaps wait and often wait in vain for someone to “say something.” Perhaps in no service of worship is so much left to the worshiper as in a Friends meeting. Those who must have music, responsive reading, Scripture reading, announcements, and professional speaking to keep them aroused would probably not be happy there. But the minister of Trinity Church, New York, must have had some persons in mind when he made his suggestion of a moratorium on preaching for a year or two so that those who desire to may worship in peace. Those persons would, I believe, find in the Quaker silent meeting a form of worship in which they could “participate.”
After about an hour someone in the meeting shakes hands with the person next to him or her, and the “rise” of the meeting has come. Most of us linger and talk with one another for fifteen or twenty minutes before we leave. One of our members leaves directly, and it is not her Sunday dinner that is responsible. She says that her cup is often so filled at meeting that she is not quite fit to talk about things in general at this point but feels that she must hold it full and get home as soon as possible to see what this means for her to do.
“Was thee faithful?” and “Did thee yield?” are not archaic echoes of personal queries Friends used to ask themselves centuries ago in the first flush of their discovery. More than one member has hurried off to do something on which the divine accent has settled in the meeting. Concerns for certain social situations have sprung out of the meeting. Few leave without some refreshment, some sensitizing, and without at least a tiny nosegay of those mountain flowers that Francis de Sales declared to be there on the heights waiting to be plucked by every true worshiper.
Ask anyone, Quaker or otherwise, about the essential beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends and chances are you will hear something about Friends historic peace testimony. “Quakers don’t fight in wars” is something specific that people can say about this peculiar sect, which steadfastly refuses to be defined by creed or dogma. Moreover, in a world where it is considered acceptable, indeed praiseworthy, to go to war and kill one another for the sake of peace or justice, in a world where we have learned to define successes, amass our fortunes or win our arguments at the expense of others like us who lose out, the perception that ‘Quakers are peacemakers’ sets Friends apart and makes them visible.
But Friends’ peace testimony is not a creed, in the sense of a statement of belief true for all time. Nor is it a code of behavior, a set of rules to which all Quakers individually and corporately must adhere. On the simplest level, “testimony” means “bearing witness” and Friends’ long heritage of witnessing to peace can be found in their refusal to bear arms in times of civil and international conflict, in acts of prophetic confrontation and of quiet, reconciling diplomacy. But these are merely outward and visible signs of inward conviction. This conviction springs from a living Spirit, mediated through the human experience of those trying to understand and follow its leadings. It grows afresh in every life, in every worshiping group, in every generation.
At the heart of this conviction is Friends’ experience that there is something of God, the seed of the Spirit, in all people. Quakers believe that more can be accomplished by appealing to this capacity for love and goodness, in ourselves and in others, than can be hoped for by threatening punishment or retaliation if people act badly. This is not to ignore the existence of evil. It is to recognize that there is no effective way to combat evil with weapons which harm or kill those through whom evil is working. We must turn instead, in the words of early Friends, to the “weapons of the spirit,” allowing God to reach out through us to that of God in those with whom we are in conflict. “Spiritual weapons”-love, truthsaying, nonviolence, imagination, laughter-are weapons that heal and don’t destroy.
All this sounds grand indeed; its consequences are for the most part very ordinary. The peace testimony is not something Quakers take down from a shelf and dust off only in wartime or in times of personal or political crisis. Living out a witness to peace has to do with everyday choices about the work we do, the relationships we build, what part we take in politics, what we buy, how we raise our children. It is a matter of fostering relationships and structures, from personal to international, which are strong and healthy enough to contain conflict when it arises and allow its creative resolution. It is a matter of withdrawing our cooperation from structures and relationships which are unjust and exploitative. It is a matter of finding creative ways of dealing with conflict when it does arise, with the aim of freeing all concerned to find a just and loving solution.
Like everyone else, Quakers live in the real world. Insights which are gloriously clear in the spirit translate into words or actions which seem muddled and imperfect. From time to time we fail, we fudge, we are hurt, we hurt others. To accept as a certainty the spiritual conviction which underlies the peace testimony is not to be certain of the outcome. We cannot guarantee that we will never kill, far less that we will never do violence to those with whom we share the earth. Nor can we, by refusing to do harm and seeking always for a creative response in conflict ensure our own personal safety or the triumph of the causes we support. We can only choose to live day by day as if it were possible always to defend what we value and to resolve conflict without deliberate harm, in such a way that if damage does occur, healing is possible.
If we choose to attempt this, we are not alone. Those who have lived and witnessed before us, by no means all of them Quakers, have left examples for us to find and follow. Those of us who are struggling with the same dilemmas can offer each other comfort, courage and support. And we are many. We are beginning to realize that security is common, indivisible, and cannot be assured by military means. To seek to live at such a time in that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars is no longer, if it ever was, a saintly, other-worldly alternative. It is now an urgent and practical imperative.
First Published 1989 by Quaker Home Service London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends reprinted with permission by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1515 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102.
Friends are known for expressing their religion through active involvement in the affairs of the world. This leaflet is designed to help those who know us primarily in that aspect to become acquainted with the spiritual roots that underlie our activism.
The Inward Light
The most basic Quaker doctrine is called the “Inward Light” or “Christ within” or “that of God in everyone.” According to this belief, God reveals God’s life, truth, and love to every human being of every race and religion, directly, without the requirement of any intermediary such as church, priest, or sacred book. This doctrine is not unique, but the Quakers carried it to a logical conclusion in their worship, their church government, and their relations with others.
In the middle of the seventeenth century in England, because of printing, the Bible was becoming widely known, and it appeared to many who read it that the early Christian church depended very little on ecclesiastical structure, elaborate ritual, and formal creeds, but that it depended greatly on the Spirit in the midst of the worshiping group and on prophetic utterances inspired by the Spirit. Puritans wished to “purify” the church of accretions since the early days of Christianity. The Anglicans, being the most conservative, took out a few of these elements, the Presbyterians a few more, the Congregationalists a few more, the Baptists a few more, and finally the Quakers, being the most radical of the new sects, took out everything except dependence on the Divine Spirit for guidance and power. Quakerism was therefore a new revival of the old prophetic religion. The Spirit was not for them the third person of a trinity but God revealed inwardly as God had been revealed outwardly through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the Word, Light, Life, Truth, and Love in the language of John and “the Spirit” and “the Christ in you” of Paul.
This is all-sufficient for salvation because salvation consists in being completely obedient to God or, to use the term of a different theology, “in union with God.” It is interesting to note how the process of conversion occurs, as told in the most typical Quaker journals or autobiographies, though the word “conversion” is seldom used. There is no effort to save one’s soul by accepting a theological formula, though convincement of Quaker principles is generally the first step in the process. The writers describe how, gradually, after alternate victories and defeats, they become at last fully obedient to the will of God as inwardly apprehended and center their life in the Light. Victory is never final and complete, but future lapses are more rare.
The Divine Spirit
This Divine Spirit, revealing itself in the depths of the soul, is thought of as a source of religious and moral knowledge, a source of power to act according to that knowledge, and a source of unity with others. Religious and moral knowledge, like the knowledge or appreciation of beauty, is not attained by a logical process of thought but by feeling. As some of our greatest psychologists have pointed out, feeling is as much an organ of knowledge as thought. It reveals values rather than facts. Outward authorities such as the Bible and the tradition of the church are important but secondary sources of truth. They can be understood and applied only through the spirit which first produced them. Conscience, as the particular organ which discerns moral truth, must be obeyed, but it is a true guide only insofar as we permit God to speak through it. Obviously, conscience is often influenced by prejudices and conventionalities.
Such a doctrine might appear individualistic, but, as the Quakers applied it, this was far from being the case. As well as functioning in the individual, the Spirit also works through the group as a whole, and individual insights must be checked and tested in the light of the insight of the whole group and the teachings of Christ. Even so, there can be no claim to infallibility. We each must follow such light as we have, however dim, trusting that, if we be faithful in the use of our one talent, more will be given.
The Spirit is also a source of strength. In reading the Quaker journals, which are our best source of information since they portray the lives of what might be called “standard Friends,” it is surprising to find what extraordinary power has sometimes been given to very ordinary men and women, farmers, homemakers, merchants, and others, who, without any special education or training for the task, set out on long journeys to preach the message of Quakerism to all ranks from the very lowest to kings and potentates. Once convinced that they were doing the Lord’s work, they could be stopped by nothing.
Unity With All People
The Spirit is also the source of unity, both within the group and with all people everywhere. The same, identical infinite Spirit of Truth exists in all of us, and the more truly we are united with it the nearer we come to one another. Friends, accordingly, do not vote in making decisions as a group, for since there is only one truth and this truth is, in the long run, accessible to all, a patient search for it will eventually lead to unity. This means that each person in the group is present, not to defend an opinion, but to join in a common search and a united finding. A group of scientists would not think of arriving at a scientific truth by voting. For the same reason, the Quakers do not believe that the truth of an opinion is dependent on the number of those who hold it. For this reason also, the Quakers have not usually been seriously concerned about the smallness of their own numbers, though they recognize a responsibility to convince all people of truth. History shows that truth has generally appeared first in the possession of a small minority.
This method of arriving at decisions reveals the basis of the Quakers’ peace principle, for which they are most widely known, perhaps because the peace principle is at present less generally accepted. Everyone today believes in peace, but a refusal to take any part in war or the preparation for war is an extreme to which few are willing to go. Yet if we believe that the divine light of truth is in every human being and that differences can be settled rightly and permanently only by an appeal to that Light- what George Fox called “answering that of God in everyone”-then war is the wrong method. An appeal to peaceable methods is not always in the world’s eye successful. Therefore, anyone who uses this appeal must be prepared for loss and suffering. But this loss and suffering also accompanies recourse to violence.
Absence of Forms
We come now to the second meaning of the word “spiritual.” A religion is spiritual if every outward word and act is a genuine expression of an inward state. Such a religion avoids all forms which are routine and planned in advance, for such forms tend to become hollow and empty of content. For this reason the Quakers abandoned the outward form of the sacraments even though these visible manifestations are often genuine evidence of inward states. The meeting for worship is as nearly without forms as possible in order that whatever occurs may be a true and spontaneous expression of the life within. A sermon prepared in advance might be a true expression of the feelings of the minister at the time of preparation, but it does not necessarily arise out of the life of the meeting as a fresh and living revelation through the Spirit in the meeting. Hymns are not sung in the meeting because they put into the mouth of the worshipers words which may not at the time truly express their spiritual state. The Bible is not usually read in a meeting, for even this can become an empty form. The worshipers sit in silence, each endeavoring to commune with the Divine Presence in the midst and ready to express to the meeting any message which may arise in the mind as being clearly intended for the meeting as a whole.
It can be said that silence itself is a form. This is true, but it is not a form which commits anyone to any insincere act or speech. Friends are not opposed to addresses or lectures on religious subjects announced in advance, to Bible reading or to hymn singing; but such exercises are not included in a meeting for worship. This is considered to be a special kind of spiritual exercise where every effort is made to attain spontaneity, sincerity, and a fresh facing of reality.
In the past Friends sometimes leaned over backward in efforts to attain complete honesty and sincerity in speech. Many humorous anecdotes are based on this peculiarity. Such titles as Mr. and Mrs. (meaning master and mistress), your honor, your majesty, and reverend were avoided not only as being untrue, but as flattering the individual and ignoring the equality of all people before God. For the same reasons the plural pronoun “you,” formerly used to social superiors instead of the singular “thou,” was for a long time avoided as were taking off the hat, bowing, and other conventional manners. Closely allied with this effort to attain truth and sincerity was the testimony against every form of superfluity in dress, speech, and behavior. Simplicity is a form of genuineness. It means concentration upon that which is genuinely functional.
Quakerism is here described in terms of its ideals, not necessarily its attainments. In avoiding one form, Friends sometimes slip into another. Forms and creeds are inevitable. They have important uses, especially in education, where forms are used to show what ought to be their real content, and even, sometimes, to create the content. Our Christian religion would be weak and vague without the doctrines which undergird it. Quakerism does not aim at formlessness and undiluted mysticism. It is a peculiar and unusually stubborn effort to create a kind of religion in which the outward form expresses, as nearly as possible, the inward thought and life.
This first appeared as an article in the Friends Journal of November 5, 1955. It was modified for the sake of gender-neutral language by the Publications Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1515 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102.
The Religious Society of Friends, whose members are known as Friends or Quakers, does not define itself by formal creedal statements. Instead, Quakers prefer to set down our religious experience in the form of testimonies, general statements about practices and beliefs on which most Friends can unite. These testimonies represent ideals by which we judge our lives. This compilation is based on the 1997 Faith & Practice of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.
- Equal treatment of women and men is accepted practice because Quakers believe all people have the potential to receive spiritual leadings and are equal in the eyes of God.
- Because Quakers believe in the common humanity of all races, race relations are an active concern of Friends in America.
- Quakers encourage participation of young people in all aspects of the life of our faith community as a form of nurture.
- Quakers aid the non-violent efforts of the exploited to attain self-determination and social, political and economic justice. This mission often requires persuading exploiters, some of whom may be Quakers, to change their ways, not only for the sake of the exploited, but also to strengthen their own goodness.
- We seek both to bring to light and to counteract or expunge structures, institutions, language and thought processes that subtly support discrimination and exploitation.
- We examine our own attitudes and practices to test whether we contribute as much as we ought to social, political and economic justice.
- We encourage others to adopt consensus decision-making that is Spirit-led.
- Quakers are sensitive to the spiritual as well as the material needs of those in prison.
- We recognize that the penal system often reflects the injustices in our society.
- We offer support services to the victims of crime as well as conflict resolution training for both offenders and prison employees.
- We act out of the conviction that redemption and restorative justice, not retribution, are the right tasks of the criminal justice system.
- We strongly oppose capital punishment.
- In a world torn by strife and violence, our peace testimony expresses Friends’ commitment to love and respect all persons and to overcome evil with good. We avoid not only physical violence, but also more subtle forms—psychological, economic, or institutional.
- In our own lives, Friends see conflict as an opportunity for loving engagement with those with whom we disagree. Love can be manifested by acknowledging the sincerity of the other, while forthrightly expressing our own convictions.
- We can reflect the peace testimony in our manner of living: our employment, our investments, our purchases, our payment of taxes.
- We should take care to avoid benefiting from the manufacture of arms and from business practices that do violence to employees, consumers, or the natural world.
- We support those who resist cooperation with the military draft or those who oppose war by performing peaceful service as conscientious objectors.
- We work as we are able to alleviate the suffering caused by war, and are troubled that nations use military forces rather than non-military units to engage in this work.
- Friends work to promote nonviolent resolution of conflict, from the kindergarten to the United Nations, and the conversion to peaceful uses of facilities built for war.
- Friends examine decisions about obtaining, holding and using money and other assets, to see whether we find in them the seeds of self-indulgence, injustice, conflict, or ecological disaster.
- We need to consider our roles as stewards of the earth, recognizing that we citizens of technologically advanced nations now contribute more to the problem than to the solution. We must not only change our lifestyles, but also give serious thought to the size of our families.
Integrity and Simplicity
- Friends seek wholeness and harmony in the various aspects of our lives. We strive to limit the material circumstances of our lives in order to open the way to divine leadings.
- Friends call for honesty in whatever we say and do. Friends do not swear judicial oaths, but rather affirm that our witnessing is truthful.
Friends seek to follow these testimonies but acknowledge that our practices are sometimes flawed. However, these testimonies remind us to be true to that of God within ourselves and to be mindful of carrying out these ideals in our lives.
For more information contact:
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
1515 Cherry Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102-1479