By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.

Systematic Theology 506: Christian Denominations, Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary (Spring 2006)

Note: The footnotes have been omitted, to facilite the conversion to a website format. However, all sources consulted are listed in the bibliography.


I. Introduction

Though the Quakers, or Society of Friends, suffered severe persecution during the years of their origin in the seventeenth century, and today have small and declining numbers, their beliefs have won general acceptance in mainstream American culture. This paper provides a two-fold overview of the Quaker religion. First, a historical section traces the origins of the Quakers amid persecutions in England and New England into a period of religious tolerance that emerged by about the year 1700. This portion of the paper will conclude with a brief mention of notable historical figures who affiliated with the Quaker religion and other significant legacies. The second portion of this paper focuses upon theology. After identifying the formal and material principles of the Quaker belief system, an exploration of how Quakers view themselves in relation to God, to one another, and to the wider society will culminate in the claim that, despite their status as a numerical minority, Quakers have in fact achieved cultural domination in American religious life.

II. History of the Society of Friends

A. Origins

The Quaker movement arose in England during the mid seventeenth century, a time of great social, political, and religious upheaval. Puritan reformers and stalwart Anglicans vied for control of Parliament, as Parliament also contested the balance of power between itself and the monarch. Meanwhile, a host of religious dissenters tried to fill the vacuum of authority: Baptists, Ranters, Seekers, and others. During the English Civil War (1642–1649), precipitated by a standoff between Parliament and King Charles I, a religious seeker named George Fox became convinced that none of the parties seeking ecclessiastical dominance had the proper approach. God would not be found in church mandated by the state, nor in the creeds agreed to by church councils, nor in the sacraments administered by ordained clergy, nor even primarily in the pages of Scripture itself. God would come individually to each person, through the experience of the Inward Light, which Fox believed to be a fulfillment of Jn 1:9.

Fox’s followers variously called themselves “Children of Truth,” “Children of Light,” and “Friends of Truth.” In 1652, they formally established the Religious Society of Friends, but their critics called them “Quakers.” This originally derogatory label has an uncertain origin. By one account, it referred to the quaking motion that adherents made at their worship meetings; by another account, a judge called them “Quakers” when Fox scolded the court to “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” Either way, the name “Quaker” serves as a reminder that the movement faced strong criticism, and even persecution, in its early decades.

B. Period of Persecution

The first two generations of Quakers suffered severe persecution in England, resulting from both laws and prevailing social prejudices. Quakers endured flogging, imprisonment, loss of property, and banishment; although none were sentenced to capital punishment in England, four were executed in colonial Massachusetts. Rather than stifle the movement, persecutions became absorbed into Quakerism as a confirmation of the individual’s relationship to God. John Perrot, an early Quaker missionary who, after setting out for Europe in 1657, was imprisoned in Rome, interpreted his sufferings thus:

I could not hope but that each sigh and groan
With ev’ry tear is dropt before God[’]s throne.

Raymond Ayoub has catalogued twenty distinct legal infractions for which English Quakers were persecuted. A few of these will be surveyed here, following Ayoub’s pattern of indicating the religious basis for the Quakers’ conscientious objection to each law and the punitive consequences that they commonly endured for its violation. It should be noted first, however, that Quakers generally respected the civil government; these examples of criminal violations represent a Quaker response to the civil authority’s perceived encroachments into English religious life, not a rejection of civil authority in its own right.

Quakers interpreted Mt 5:34–37 and Ja 5:12 as absolute prohibitions against oath-taking. English law, however, required that oaths be sworn in a variety of circumstances. Although Quakers could accept the content of the Oath of Abjuration (enacted in 1643 and expanded in 1655) and the Test Oath (enacted in 1672), which renounced the authority of the Roman Pope, they objected to the concept of swearing, and therefore were suspected by Protestants of being papal sympathizers. They faced imprisonment for the first refusal to take an oath; subsequent infractions could result in praemunire, or forfeiture of their property, both real and personal, to the king, whose prisoner the violator would remain. For their refusal to testify in court under oath, Quakers were generally convicted—not necessarily of the original charge brought against them, but rather of refusal to testify under oath. This, too, was cause for imprisonment. A 1692 revision of the Test Oath, which replaced the formula “so help me God” with “in the presence of Almighty God,” permitted some, but still not all, Quakers’ consciences to comply with the law, thus reducing the frequency of Quaker convictions.

Quakers also objected to “tithes,” or taxes assessed against the annual increase of their assets. From Mt 10:7–10 and 1 Co 2:12, they concluded that financial support for the work of the church should be voluntary; indeed, regular tithers were charged with hypocrisy in Mt 23. Moreover, since a substantial portion of the English tithes was allocated for the Church of England, Quakers refused to make any donation, whether coerced or voluntary. As a result, they faced imprisonment and the de excommunicato capiendo penalty, that is, confiscation of their property, up to three times the value of the tithe.

For their conscientious objection to the law, Quakers also were fined 12 pence for each Sunday that they failed to attend worship services in the Church of England, and up to 10 pounds each time they violated the Coventicle Act of 1664 by holding their own, separate religious meetings. Those who preached the Quaker message in the countryside could be convicted under vagrancy laws. Quaker weddings and funerals also were illegal, as were any publications lacking the government’s (and hence, the Church of England’s) sanction.

Though many of these laws later were revised or repealed in England and her colonies, Quakers continued to face challenges to their commitment to pacifism. George Washington, who generally regarded Quakers as model citizens, disapproved of their refusal to serve in the militia during the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin similarly thought highly of Quakers in general, but not of their hesitancy to allocate public funds in support for a war to defend their homeland. In England, Quakers had disobeyed both requirements of the 1661 Militia Act: serving in the armed forces oneself, or paying for a replacement if one did not. As punishment, the authorities confiscated and sold the Quakers’ property.

In addition to their violations of specific laws, Quakers also felt conscientiously opposed to particular social customs. George Fox objected, on the basis of a peculiar interpretation of Jn 5:44 and Dan 3:21, to removing his hat as a sign of giving honor to a superior. No law required this custom, but laws against blasphemy could be interpreted to require that due honor be given to God’s representatives, whether priests or magistrates. Once in court, it mattered little whether the accused Quaker had violated any law, since a conviction of refusal to testify under oath could be delivered summarily. Quakers encountered a parallel obstacle when they insisted upon using the familiar form of address, thee, with superiors, rather than the formal, you. In addition to being charged with blasphemy for these violations of social codes, Quakers also fell under criminal conviction for calling themselves sons of God and, in one case, for re-enacting Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Blasphemy was punishable with six months’ imprisonment for the first offense, and banishment for a subsequent offense.

C. Period of Toleration

By the late seventeenth century, prospects for Quakers had improved. In 1674, Charles II, whose differences with the Anglican Church soon became apparent, released some 500 Quakers from prison. In 1681, Charles repaid a political favor to William Penn, Lord of the Admiralty, who had assisted in the restoration of Charles to the throne following the Interregnum. Penn’s son, also named William, received title to a colony in America, which the king named Pennsylvania. By this time, about 10,000 Quakers had suffered imprisonment in England. Penn the younger was himself a Quaker. He envisioned his American colony as a “Holy Experiment,” offering religious toleration for the benefit of Quakers and other dissenters. Pennsylvania differed markedly from England’s other American colonies, such as Virginia, where the Anglican church was established, and Massachusetts, where the Puritan settlers banished Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams in the 1630s and formally outlawed the practices of the Anabaptist and Jesuit sects in 1644 and 1647.

Not only was Penn’s “experiment” a success for Quakers in the New World, but the situation for religious dissenters in England also soon relaxed. In 1688, the Protestant-dominated Parliament summoned William and Mary to replace Charles II, who had essentially converted to Roman Catholicism. Although Parliament restricted Catholics from holding office in 1689, religious liberty was extended in other aspects of civic life under the Act of Toleration that same year. By the close of the seventeenth century, persecution of Quakers, both legal and social, had essentially ceased. Tolerance legislation ended the legal persecution, and the Quakers’ own entrepreneurial success won them social respect as well.

D. Notable Quakers

Several notable historical figures ascribed to the Quaker religion. Thomas Paine, though eventually becoming an ardent deist, had a Quaker upbringing. Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and Revolutionary Era painter Benjamin West each were Quakers. Lucretia Mott, a mid-nineteenth-century reformer for temperance and women’s rights, also was a Quaker, as was her contemporary, Walt Whitman, whose poetry reinforced the transcendentalist movement. Joseph Lister, who discovered antiseptics, and Arthur Eddington, who confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity, demonstrated the role Quakers could have as scientists. Two American presidents—Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon—affiliated with the Society of Friends.

The three major Quaker denominations—Evangelical Friends International, Friends General Conference, and Friends United Meeting—together comprise only about 120,000 American members (data from 2002 and 2004). Scholars have noted that British membership (about 17,000 in 1998) is declining so rapidly that the Quakers are projected to become extinct by 2108. Nevertheless, the doctrinal legacies of Quakerism have fused powerfully with mainstream American culture, even to the extent that some of their ideas have become unquestionably dominant.

E. Legacies

Most notably, the early Quakers bequeathed the twin legacies of egalitarianism and toleration. A belief in the equality of all people motivated the Quakers of colonial Pennsylvania to lead the way in emancipating slaves. A simple and gentle humanitarian impulse flows naturally from the wholesome Quaker emphasis on universal brotherhood and manifests itself in memorable cultural icons, such the Quaker Oats breakfast cereal and the folk song, “Simple Gifts.” Written in 1848 by Joseph Brackett, a Shaker, “Simple Gifts” reflects the Shakers’ roots in Quakerism:

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Simplicity, freedom, equality, and love resonate harmoniously with another Quaker virtue, tolerance. Although one might suggest that the Quakers’ tolerant attitude toward diverse viewpoints arose from their prior victimization under the intolerant English regime, a more lasting source is to be found in their doctrine of the Inward Light and the subjective theory of knowledge that it necessitates.

III. Doctrine of the Society of Friends

A. Formal Principle: Inward Light

The formal principle, or source from which doctrine and practice flow, in Quakerism is the concept of the Inward Light. Dorothy White, a Quaker poet, expressed it this way in 1662: We must be subject unto Light within, Wherein is known the Cleansing from all Sin; Subject unto Christ, the Light alone, Unto the Lamb that sitteth on the Throne; To the Light within at first we were direct; The way to Life, Sin to reject: The True Light we must always obey, Christ the Life, the New and Living Way …

The Quakers’ emphasis on God’s immanence in each individual means that personal revelations take priority over Scripture, and that church creeds fall under the suspicion of being human inventions rather than testimonies of genuine experiences of the Inward Light. According to one recent survey, 80% of present-day British Quakers agree that “credal statements of belief may act to close off new religious experiences” and 83% agree that “bringing my failings into God’s light is more effective than joining in a formal confession of sin.”

Since each Quaker has a personal encounter with the Inward Light, statements of Quaker belief tend to be individualistic; corporate doctrinal claims, in so far as they are made at all, tend to be denials of non-Quaker doctrine rather than affirmations of Quaker doctrine. For example, Quakers distinguish themselves from most Christian denominations by rejecting creeds, ordained clergy, and sacraments—all of which diminish the authority of individual experience, and hence, of the Inward Light. Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678) focused on differences between Quakerism and Calvinism, rather than delineating the belief structure of Quakerism itself. Moreover, formalized theology requires an assumption Quakers are unwilling to make, namely, that divine realities can be expressed adequately in human language. Doubting this to be so, Quakers prefer personal experience over texts as a surer guide to knowing God.

B. Material Principle: Orthopraxy

The Quakers’ eschewal of positive theological claims necessarily correlates with doctrinal liberalism and diversity. Aside from the Inward Light experience, there can be few specific claims that a Quaker is required to believe. There are many behavioral codes, however, that Quakers have been required to follow. The material principle, or central dogma, of Quakerism is thus not orthodoxy, but orthopraxy. Right behavior, not right belief, distinguishes the Society of Friends from the society at large. Above all, behavior must be consistent with the Inward Light. The codification of orthopraxy in early Quaker writings served to preserve a clear identity for the Quaker movement, enabling it to outlast many of the other sects that had arisen along side it in mid-seventeenth-century England. Persecution journals, when published, established models for Quaker responses to the Established Church. Annually held regional meetings of the Friends, which initially focused on membership statistics, soon evolved into disciplinary sessions, as the members’ behaviors were evaluated and regulated. For example, if a Quaker went to a priest to get married, instead of announcing the marriage with his bride before the monthly meeting of Friends, the annual meeting might order that a condemnation be read against him at the next monthly meeting in his locale. The Book of Discipline (1738) codified such standards for behavior and the procedures for handling infractions. Thus, an orthopraxy emerged, even without any formal orthodoxy.

But, even as corporate standards emerged among the Quakers, the immanence of God in the life of each individual continued to orient their understanding of God, of their fellow Quakers, and of the larger society in ways that resisted codification.

C. The Friend’s Relation to God

As stated earlier, Quakers regard neither the Scriptures, the Sacraments, nor the clergy as proper intermediaries between God and the individual. God’s immanence is to be experienced as an Inward Light, which being thought to be so closely associated with Christ himself, is regarded as superior to any other means. The Scriptures, for example, are at most to be read as a testimony of other believers’ experiences with the Inward Light. Sacramental bread and wine do not, for the Quakers, even have the symbolic value that the Reformed churches attribute to them. Not surprisingly, 90% of Quakers responding to a recent survey regarded sacraments as “non essential to full religious experience.”

Given the authority of individual experience, Quakers have not held a consistent view of God’s nature. Some early Quakers accepted the doctrine of the Trinity. Others rejected it. Still others have taken an ambiguous position on the matter. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a schism emerged between Quakers who borrowed from the evangelical revivals of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley (to the point of requiring that Christ’s divinity be affirmed as an article of faith) and those Quakers who desired to remain open to alternative understandings of God. Even the most Trinitarian of Quakers have tended toward tri-modalism [God is one person with three “modes,” so the Spirit is merely a mode of the Father, etc.], rather than endorsing a three-person Godhead. A personal encounter with the Inward Light matters more than an understanding of that Light’s nature. Since Quakers regard human nature optimistically, they feel no strong need for a specific God to perform specific acts in order to rescue them from specific spiritual problems. Barclay taught that justification resulted not from God’s action on behalf of man, but rather consisted in man’s holy behavior in communion with an immanent God.

God’s immanence, it must be emphasized, does not result in a clear revelation of God’s nature, but rather in a personal encounter with the divine that words cannot express. God transcends human understanding and human language. Therefore, Quakers view formalized dogma with suspicion. “Theology is not true; only the experience it seeks to describe is.” The privileging of personal experiences over interpersonal verbalizations of the divine led early Quakers to replace the liturgical practices of English Protestantism with meetings that consist largely of silence. Even today, most Quakers agree that “Communion with God is best attained by silent worship in a gathered company.” Not surprisingly, psychologists of religion have concluded that Quakers tend to be more introverted than members of other religious denominations.

The celebration of the individual’s encounter with God carries a price for Quakers: since they must respect others’ experiences of the Inward Light, even when these vary from their own, they can never claim their own beliefs to be true universally. “Any one person [can] only have a partial measure of Truth.” Doubt, in fact, is regarded as part of belief, rather than a sign of unbelief, and Quakers define themselves more by their relationships with one another and with the larger society than by any specific teachings about God.

D. The Friend’s Relation to the Society of Friends

The seventeenth-century Quakers interpreted the Reformation doctrine of universal priesthood to mean, contrary to what both Lutherans and Calvinists asserted, that no ordained clergy was needed. Since the Inward Light could reveal itself to any man or woman, all people were equal in all things. Meetings of the Friends did not involve Bible reading (lest verbal formulations stifle the inexpressible, intuitive truths revealed by the Inward Light). Occasionally, a man or woman might share a revelation with the assembly, but only as an equal, and not as an official spokesperson for God (since ordination was not practiced). This form of worship has remained largely unchanged for 350 years.

As noted earlier, annual disciplinary meetings regulated Quaker behavior, even if Quaker beliefs were permitted great latitude. Diversity in belief, however, only increased over the centuries, as should be expected from any system that prioritizes individual experiences above all external authorities. “There is no need to conform,” remarks a present-day Quaker. “You can keep your own view of religion in its entirety.” As a result of the uncertainty of beliefs mentioned earlier, Quakers refrain from passing judgment on their peers for not sharing a common belief. The old Quaker adage had been “You can believe what you like,” and, in view of the epistemological limitations of subjectivism, it has now acquired an implicit qualification, “as long as you don’t think it is true.”

E. The Friend’s Relation to the Wider Society

Quakerism emerged as a protest against the prevailing religious culture in England. Early Quakers faced severe persecution for their counter-cultural behavioral codes and their rejection of the state-church concept to which England had become firmly committed. Early Quakers therefore saw themselves as God’s remnant in a corrupt society. They alone knew not to swear in court, not to pay taxes in support of established churches, not to address superiors with titles of deference, and not to look for God in pulpits, sacraments, or creeds.

Over the centuries, the wider society largely accommodated to Quaker views. Especially in America, individual religious liberty has become the expectation rather than the exception. Social relations have become increasingly egalitarian, even to the point that children regard their teachers as peers and their parents equals. Vietnam War protesters legitimated, in the eyes of many Americans, the Quaker tradition of pacifism, which today echoes also into debates concerning the War on Terrorism.

Quakers, too, have accommodated to the wider society. A recent survey of British Quakers reveals high rates of acceptance for divorce and remarriage (95%), homosexual marriages (66%), and abortion (67%). The Quaker who summarized his faith with the following statement could have spoken for many Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation: “The only thing I am intolerant of is intolerance.”

IV. Conclusion: The Achievement of Dominance

American historians formerly pointed to Puritan New England as the birthplace of the United States. Increasingly, however, the emphasis has shifted to Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” In introductory textbooks, America the Protestant nation has been remade into America the tolerant nation. Quakers have completed their transition from persecution through toleration to domination. Religious without being theological, and subject to no authority higher than individual experience, Quakers have made themselves American, and America has redefined its exemplar of citizenship essentially in the image of the postmodern Quaker.

From this transformation, confessional Lutherans may recognize the emergency of speaking against the tyranny of state-church alliances without endorsing the less obvious but equally pernicious tyranny of subjectivism. When the certainty of salvation rests neither on the individual’s intuitions of God nor the established church’s political authority, but on the Word and Sacraments that Christ himself bestowed; and when church and state are neither conjoined as one nor separated to the downfall of both, but permitted their proper roles of constructive interaction at the meeting point of God’s two kingdoms—only then can the alternative that was desperately needed in seventeenth-century England and remains desperately needed today be realized. It remains to be seen how effectively those who possess what has been lacking in both the Church of England and the Society of Friends will share this alternative vision with others.


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