So, who was George Fox and why wouldn’t he take off his hat?
George Fox is considered the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers). He was born in England in 1624, a time of great social turmoil, with religious, scientific, and political revolutions ongoing. At a young age he became increasingly dissatisfied with the church; by 19 he had quit attending. He left home and wandered the countryside for 4 years in search of answers to his religious questions. He found no one who could really help him. In his journal he wrote, “when all my hopes in men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, O 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.”
Fox experienced Christ as an “Inner Light” and present guide, and realized that no longer did one have to rely on a priest, written creed, or prescribed ritual, to learn the will of God. Rather, one needed to quiet down and pay attention long enough to discern that inner voice, or light. For the rest of his life he traveled through England and other countries preaching about finding this direct connection to God.
Through the early Quakers’ experience of the Spirit, they came to feel strongly about certain truths, such as the equality of all people, the importance of honesty, simplicity and nonviolence, and they put all of these beliefs into practice in their everyday living. The Quakers took a particular interest in the welfare of prisoners, equality for women, the care of the poor and aged, and the abolition of slavery, capital punishment and war.
While honesty, peace and equality now seem like admirable traits, in the 1600’s these beliefs got the Quakers into trouble. Quakers refused to serve in the military (nonviolence), swear oaths in court (implies a double standard of truthfulness), pay tithes for the support of the official church (an institution they felt was not leading people to God), doff their hats to others or use honorific titles (equality). These actions were perceived as threats to the state, the cultural status quo, and the church. Quakers also preached the possibility of perfection in this life by faithfully following the Inner Light. In spite of scriptural support (“Be perfect therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect…” Matt 5:48), this was considered blasphemy by most Christians. Early Quakers suffered persecution for their beliefs, including imprisonment, beatings, and even death. George Fox was imprisoned 8 times, for a total of 6 years. Between 1650 and 1689 more than 450 Quakers died in prison for their beliefs, and at least 15,000 spent some time in prison. In colonial America, many Quakers were executed for practicing their faith. With the strength of their convictions and their commitment to nonviolence, they persevered, and through these sufferings were instrumental in enacting many of the reforms and freedoms we now take for granted.
Why were they called “Quakers?” Originally intended as a derogatory term, there are two stories about its source. One story of George Fox recounts him being brought before a magistrate to answer for his radical religious views. Fox warned the judge that even he must tremble and quake at the Word of the Lord. The judge asked Fox if he were a quaker — and the name stuck. Another story indicates that early Friends were called “the persons called Quakers” because many of them trembled, or quaked, when moved by the Spirit within to speak or preach.
Are Quakers Christians, and do they believe in the Bible?
Friends are often asked: “Are Quakers Christians?” The movement is rooted in Christianity. Early Friends considered themselves Christians; they interpreted and justified their unique vision in Biblic.al and traditional Christian terms. However, from the beginning, the Quaker movement has offered critiques of many conventional Christian forms and practices, while at the same time showing tolerance and empathy towards other expressions of faith. Today, some Quakers are strongly Christ-centered, while others are more Universalist in their outlook.
For many Friends, the Judeo-Christian Bible is an interpretation of God’s revelation over many centuries and a rich and sustaining source of inspiration. While early Friends affirmed the inspiration of the scriptures, they made a distinction that has remained vital to this day. In Henry Cadbury’s words: “Divine revelation was not confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit that had inspired the scriptures in the past could inspire living believers centuries later …”
Traditional Testimonies of Quakers
As mentioned above, certain core truths flowed from the experience of the Inner Light. These are now called Testimonies, and they summarize the basic beliefs of Quakers about life and faith. Sometimes remembered using the acronym “SPICES”, they include:
- Peace and nonviolence
- Integrity and honesty
- Service and stewardship
The Light Within
The Light Within is central for Quakers. Seekers developed a way of practicing faith that turns away from religious or theological notions that are solely from books or sermons, and emphasize a real and direct experience of God (or the “Light”) revealed to persons in their own souls, in their own personal lives.
Quakers’ experience of the Inner Light (or, that of God within each person), both historically and in the present day, has led us to respect the worth and dignity of all. This simple understanding supports the spiritual framework of our organization and guides its work. Quakers strive to regard no person as our enemy. While we often oppose specific actions and abuses of power, we seek to address the goodness and truth in each individual. We assert the transforming power of love and nonviolence as a challenge to injustice and violence and as a force for peace and reconciliation.
Quaker Meetings and Styles of Worship
Fortunately today, at least in our country, Quaker worshippers do not have to worry about being thrown in jail. Although, not so many years ago, the Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting did have their meetinghouse bombed —the very meetinghouse where we worship today — because someone did not like the Quakers standing up for their peace testimony during a time of war (the Viet Nam war).
Meetings today generally follow one of two quite different worship styles: programmed and unprogrammed.
An unprogrammed meeting for worship waits in silence as the members attempt to listen for God’s voice, and for a feeling of spiritual unity with others. All who attend are listeners. Any listener may become a minister, and rise to speak if they believe they discern a leading from the Holy Spirit. There is no hired pastor, no order of service, no readings, no hymn singing (although sometimes someone will feel called to sing), no prepared sermon. You will sometimes hear unprogrammed meetings referred to as conservative, though some of their members may be politically liberal. Conservative in this case refers to “conserving” the early Quaker tradition of silent worship. In England, where Quakerism began, all Quaker meetings are unprogrammed. Des Moines Valley Friends is an unprogrammed meeting.
A programmed meeting or service is led by a minister, elder or pastor. This form of worship is practiced by a branch of Quakerism that formed in the 1800s under the influence of the evangelical revival that swept through America, and was a departure from the traditional unprogrammed approach. It contains elements found in many Christian Protestant church services, including readings, singing and prepared sermons. Quaker programmed services often include a period of silent worship, though it may be short. In many other parts of the world, Africa in particular, most meetings are programmed.
Seeking in the Silence
The challenge of silence
Silence is something many people are not that familiar with in our noisy and hectic society. We have less and less opportunity for silence, surrounded by people and cell phones, radios, televisions, talking computers. Silence is uncomfortable for many people, at least at first. We’re not used to silence — what is its purpose? Why aren’t we doing something? It’s boring!
Silent worship is not necessarily easy, even for many long-time Quakers. But it tends to get easier and more meaningful with practice. For some, silence is important to quiet our own inner noisiness and try to be still enough to listen for the leadings of God, Christ, or the Inner Light.
Speaking out of the silence
Sometimes during silent worship individuals may feel moved to share a message with the gathered group. Anyone can speak in meeting — youth and nonmembers included. But it is not something to take lightly. When one rises to speak, one is encouraged to have a sense of “being used” by the Spirit, of being spoken through, of delivering a message that comes from the Source. Quakers encourage worshippers not to use this time to share news or announcements or personal information or upsets. In most meetings, there is a separate time to share that kind of information. A message during the silence is meant as something special.
Growing In the Light, H.S./Adult Curriculum, Caldwell & Reichardt, 1998 Philadelphia YM;
The Ouaker Reader, J. West, 1992 Pendle Hill; The Ouakers, William Whalen, 1982 FGC.
For more information about the Religious Society of Friends
http://www.iymc.org/ – Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)
http://www.fgcquaker.org/ – Friends General Conference
https://www.desmoinesvalleyfriends.org/ – Des Moines Valley Friends
Prepared by Ann Robinson and Jean Sandstrom, Des Moines Valley Friends, 1/2012, rev. 3/2016