Who Are the Quakers?

Explore the Religious Society of Friends

George Fox
George Fox (1624-1691), English founder of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Getty Images

The Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, was one of many religious groups sparked into existence by the English Puritan Revolution of the mid-17th century. Today, the Quakers include both liberal and conservative congregations. Even so, all Quakers believe in fostering peace, finding alternative solutions to problems, and seeking the "inner light" or internal guidance of God's Holy Spirit.

Quakers

  • Full Name: Religious Society of Friends
  • Also Known As: Quakers; Friends.
  • Known For: Quakers emphasize a belief in the “inner light,” a guiding illumination by the Holy Spirit. They reject clergy, sacraments, taking of oaths, military service, and war.
  • Founding: Founded in mid-17th-century England by George Fox (1624–1691).
  • Prominent Founders: George Fox, William Edmondson, James Nayler, William Penn.
  • Notable Quakers: Daniel Boone, Betsy Ross, Thomas Paine, Dolly Madison, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Annie Oakley, James Fennimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, James Michener, Hannah Whitall Smith, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Julian Bond, James Dean, Ben Kingsley, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez.
  • Worldwide Membership: An estimated 300,000.

Founding of the Quakers

As a movement, Quakerism traces back to 1652 when George Fox (1624-1691) stood atop Pendle Hill and received a vision of “a great people to be gathered” in Northwest England. Once established, the Friends' movement spread out from England, with missionaries carrying it to the rest of the world.

In the American colonies, Friends were persecuted by the established churches, with members being fined, whipped, imprisoned, and even hanged. William Penn (1644-1718) incorporated Quaker beliefs into the government of his land grant, which eventually became the colony of Pennsylvania. Between the Revolution and Civil War, Friends migrated into the Midwest states and beyond the Mississippi River.

Why Are They Called Quakers?

The term "Quaker" began as a slur, originally used in 1647 to describe a sect of women in England who reportedly shivered and shook in religious excitement. It was then used in 1650 to describe the Friends because they were also known to tremble and quake when they fell under the power of the Lord.

In 1877, the name "Quaker Oats" was registered as the first trademark for a breakfast cereal, because the company behind it (not affiliated with the church) believed the product met the Quaker values of honesty, integrity, purity, and strength. Contrary to popular belief, the man on the box is a generic Quaker, not William Penn.

Where Do Quakers Live?

Most Quakers live in the western hemisphere, in England and the United States. While difficult to ascertain an exact number given the lack of a centralized body, one calculation suggests an estimated 300,000 members worldwide. A little over 100,000 members in about 1,000 congregations reside in the United States, however, there is much theological diversity among these American Quakers:

  • The Evangelical Friends Alliance numbers around 25,500 members.
  • Friends General Conference, the "unprogrammed" and liberal wing of the Quakers, has about 17,000 members.
  • Friends United Meeting, which aligns most closely with mainline Protestant theology, includes around 43,000 members in the United States.
  • Approximately 7,000 American Quakers belong to congregations unaffiliated with any of these major bodies.
  • The Conservative Friends are the smallest group, comprising 1,670 members. 

Congregational Organization

Quakers have no single central governing body. The church is regarded as a body of disciples of Jesus Christ, with Christ himself as its very life and head. Within the different groups of Quakers, much liberty is often allowed to local meetings.

Quakers' Beliefs and Practices

Quakers believe in the priesthood of believers, that every individual has access to the Divine Light within. All persons are treated equally and respected. Quakers refuse to take oaths and commit to simple living, avoiding excess and practicing restraint.

While Quakers do not have a creed, they live out testimonies of honesty, equality, simplicity, chastity, and community. Quakers actively seek peace and try to resolve conflict by nonviolent means.

Friends' meetings may be unprogrammed or programmed. Unprogrammed meetings are a silent, communal seeking of internal guidance and communion with God, without songs, liturgy or a sermon. Individual members may speak if they feel led.

Programmed meetings, conducted in most of the U.S., Latin and South America and Africa, are much like Protestant worship services, with prayers, music, and a sermon. These are also called pastoral meetings since a man or woman serves as a leader or pastor.

Sources

  • Dictionary of Christianity in America.
  • "Society of Friends." Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. 6, p. 143).