It’s so good to have you all with us on World Quaker Day! All over the world just now, on different continents and in different time zones, Quakers are gathering together and celebrating and sharing the essence of the growing faith that animates and unfolds our lives. If you are new to Quakerism, you might wonder what ideas we hold dear and how what we do relates to other Christian denominations you may be familiar with. Today I’ll share a little about how the Friends tradition began, explore ideas that are important for us, and give you a sense of the worldwide community of Friends you’re worshipping with as part of the loving family of God where we all belong.
In preparation for World Quaker Day, Friends World Committee on Consultation, an international non-profit that works to build connection among Friends throughout the world, offered this idea:
“Imagine the sun rising…proceeding hour by hour through every time zone, shining on Friends coming together in worship, connecting us across the expanse of a day. Imagine our family of Friends, in the unity of God’s loving spirit, bringing each other into our collective awareness. Imagine this loving presence hugging the world, healing the world, loving the world—through our collective spirit-filled lives.”
What a lovely hope and intention that is, that through our gathering here today, as we simply think and care about other Friends across the globe, we are bringing more of God’s light and love into the world, helping people everywhere perhaps feel the nearness of God’s loving presence. That, in a nutshell, is an example of what we Friends believe. That our faith brings good to the world. That our belief flows into our actions—maybe the simplest of actions, like thinking kindly about someone—and that through those love-inspired efforts, we play a small but important part in God’s work of love, bringing light, truth, goodness, and compassion, wherever we are. We Friends value above all staying close to our guide—the Light of Christ—and everything else flows from that. That’s just the psalmist said in our Old Testament reading today: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” And so the world can appear to us, we Friends believe, when we let Spirit guide our seeing.
The Beginning of Friends
The world in which the Religious Society of Friends began was not so different from our own. The time was the mid-1600s, and there was considerable unrest and division in England in the years following the English Civil War. The Church of England was the church of state at the time, in the Anglican tradition, and there were many dissenting Protestant groups arising and breaking away from the established church.
Although there were many new ideas developing in this fertile and exploring time, it was never the intention of George Fox—the founder of the Religious Society of Friends—to start a new religious group. Instead, he felt, after a transforming experience with Christ, that he had simply been shown the way of true connection with God. And it was a way that everyone—no matter what their tradition—could follow, if what they wanted was to know God in spirit and in truth. Fox started out in life as a serious and Godly minded young man, raised in a Puritan village where his father was a successful weaver and churchwarden (an elected position that made him a guardian of the church). George Fox wrote later in his Journal that,
“When I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness; for while I was a child, I was taught how to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things, and to act faithfully two ways: inwardly to God, and outwardly to man.”
As a young man he apprenticed to a shoemaker and worked as a shepherd, a lifestyle that taught him to appreciate simplicity and care in all things. As he grew toward adulthood, he began to feel a growing discomfort with the way he saw people living out a “professed” life of faith. They said they believed, but he saw little evidence of a real relationship with God; and their choices rarely lined up with what he had come to know as the virtues of a faithful life. One day when he was 19, after work he and two friends went to a tavern at the end of the workday, and his friends began making bets on who could drink the most, which resulted in behavior which Fox found deeply unsettling. He couldn’t grasp what was motivating these two friends to act this way if what they sought was a faithful, well-lived life. Fox left them and went and prayed about it and then had an inward sense that he was being set apart from these vain pursuits for a reason.
That realization began a painful season of searching in George Fox’s life as he read and prayed, searched the scriptures, and talked to all the priests and educated people he could find, trying to find a deeper, truer faith than the one he saw lived out around him each day. His search went on for several years but no one had an answer that gave him peace.
The pivotal moment for Fox—and the one in which the Religious Society of Friends was born—unfolded like this, as Fox later wrote in his Journal:
“As I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘ There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in disbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence that enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall [prevent] it? And this I knew experimentally.”
This moment of transformation continues to be the seed at the heart of all we Friends know is possible when we worship with true hearts and quiet minds: God teaches each of us lovingly, purposefully, intentionally. God is always near, always reachable and knowable, always close. This singular idea—which Fox directly experienced in that unforgettable moment is the pattern for a faith that begins and ends and has its daily life in the reality of God’s presence.
Through a series of amazing and gutsy and passionate experiences, Fox was led to take this new, revealed truth of Spirit to the churches and groups of his day. His intention, as I said, wasn’t to create a new church but to turn people toward this good news the earliest Christians knew—God is among us, leading and loving and guiding us day by day. Fox’s methods were what we might consider a bit rough and rude today; he interrupted priests as they gave their sermons, he publicly called people hypocrites and challenged them in what he saw as mistaken ideas of faith. He was thrown out of congregations and jailed numerous times for what leaders heard as heretical claims and saw as disrespectful action.
But people heard Fox and something rang true, and within a few short years, the small and growing group had spread throughout England and a set of devoted people known as the Valiant Sixty—comprised of both men and women right from the start—began to travel the world, taking the good news of God-with-us wherever Spirit led.
Ideas Important to Friends
In the introduction to his book, Living the Quaker Way, Phil Gulley mentioned that a few years ago several new attenders started coming to his Quaker meeting because they took a “What Religion Am I?” quiz on Beliefnet.com and the results said they would feel at home among Friends. At first he worried that this might be a passing fad, but then he realized that it was our key values, called our testimonies, that was striking such a chord with people. He explained the attraction this way:
“…they have found [Friends] focus on the inner life to be an antidote to the complexities and challenges of modern life. The Quaker values, what we call testimonies—simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality—offer an ethical and spiritual platform upon which people can happily build their lives.”
Many of the ideas that Friends hold dear today grow directly from the roots of George Fox’s earliest experience of God’s presence with us. Because “Christ comes to teach his people himself,” Fox saw that there was “that of God in everyone,” which means that God loves and guides and is truly with each of us, everywhere, as we go about our daily lives. That is the basis for Friend’s dedication to respect and care, dignity and equality for all. That of God in us. We’ve got to respect that. It is also the heart of our peace testimony, in which we work to resolve the causes of conflict instead of taking up arms or positions against each other.
The belief that there is “that of God in everyone,” also is a great leveler of power, meaning that each person has God’s love and a spark of the divine in them, so one person is not set above another or more deserving than someone else. Every person deserves care and good treatment, and exploitation and oppression are seen as evils—insults to the reality of God-with-us. And those wrongs will be dissolved in the light of truth as Spirit leads. This drew Friends to get involved with humanitarian causes, which led to great Quaker involvement in the abolition of slavery, a Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for feeding hungry children in Germany after World War II, many improvements in prisons and mental hospitals, and ongoing efforts in peace, legislative, and environmental work today.
Another blossom from “that of God in everyone” leads to the way our Friends meetings are organized and managed. Because the Light helps us discern the way we should go, we are gathered together as a people by the promptings of love within, not by adherence to rules without. So among Friends meetings you’ll find a respect for individual leadings and even on matters of conscience—like whether to enlist in the military—Friends do their best to withhold judgment of another’s actions and prayerfully support each other as they discern the way God is leading them.
In the Civil War era, some Friends took up arms and some didn’t; some served in World War II while others conscientiously objected. The same was true of the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and more. Friends listened and prayed and acted as they felt led. Because Quakers don’t have a creed that everyone agrees to or a platform we all espouse on the big issues of the day, we are free to listen to the leading of Spirit in our hearts, doing our best to act in accord with the truth we feel unfolding in our lives. In the meantime, even with widely divergent views, we hold to the bedrock of respect and civil treatment that every child of God deserves.
When we need to make decisions as a group, the focus isn’t on our individual opinions or desires but on what God may be doing among us and how God might be leading us to meet a problem or serve a need in our community. Our monthly business meetings are led this way, in a spirit of worship. We recently had a big decision to make about whether to sell our parsonage and we experienced how the Quaker approach—listening for God and treating one another with respect as we discerned the next steps—brought about a good result, God’s way.
Some people are curious about the fact that Quakers don’t practice outward sacraments like other Christian churches do: For example, we don’t baptize with water and we don’t take communion by ingesting bread and grape juice or wine. This doesn’t mean we don’t observe those sacraments; we do. It simply means we don’t feel the outward symbolic gestures are needed. Quakers believe that all of life is a sacrament, and that we are washed clean by the Spirit of God each time we turn God’s way, and we enjoy communion with God in the quiet of our hearts whenever we gather in the stillness together.
And that leads us to silence, which is an important component in our worship and our faith because it is only when we can press pause on our thoughts and plans for a moment that we make room for God to speak. There is a listening and a waiting on God that is both humbling and connecting at the same time. In some Quaker meetings, the entire worship service is held in silence. These are known unprogrammed meetings, and Friends sit in the stillness together listening for God and speak only when they feel led by Spirit to share something that is arising in them. Other Friends meetings are known as programmed, meaning they have a kind of traditional Protestant liturgy with hymns and prayers and a message. Here in our meeting we are what’s known as a semi-programmed meeting because we have both elements of a traditional worship and a time of shared silence for the leading of Spirit.
Today there are roughly 400,000 Quakers all over the world, on every continent. Kenyan Quakers are the largest group today, comprising just under 50 percent of the total. It was Kenyan Friends that chose the New Testament scripture for today, Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”
We have seen this light and have been heartened recently by the on-going faithful and courageous gathering of Quakers in Ukraine as well as the Quakers in Russia, and there are Quaker groups large and small that meet in homes and meetinghouses urban and rural in just about every landscape you can imagine. Among the Friends who gather, there is a great variety of belief and tradition, with the uniqueness of their worship arising out of the need and hearts of their people and the leading of Spirit in their group. In the early 2000s I went to seminary with a young man from Rwanda; it was only five years or so after the genocide in his country, and he told me that their Quaker meetings always begin with dancing and the singing of praise songs. I said, “That’s so different from what we do here—we start with silence.” And he answered, “Yes, but we need to dance and praise God to heal our heartbreak and thank God for being with us.”
What George Fox discovered hundreds of years ago on that hillside in England is still the unfolding story of our tradition and our experiences in the world today, whether we live in Rwanda or Kenya, England or India or America. It is not about a religious denomination but a way of life that arises from the true and present experience of never-ending Love. This is the story of God-with-us, every day, in every circumstance, individually and as a group. It’s a daily walk, a choice-by-choice faith. And all along the way, we listen, we grow, maybe we dance a little, and we deeply thank God– for life, for love, for community, and for the opportunity to find and know and love God more truly each day.
- OT Psalm 36: 9
- NT Matthew 5:14
- Beliefnet.com. What Religion Am I? https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/quizzes/beliefomatic.aspx
- Gulley, Philip. Living the Quaker Way. https://www.amazon.com/Living-Quaker-Way-Timeless-Wisdom/dp/0307955788