Who Are The Quakers?

This page gives you an introduction to Quakerism and what to expect if you are attending a Quaker Meeting for the first time. For information about how Abingdon Meeting is organised, please visit About Abingdon Meeting.

A popular reaction to the question ‘Who are the Quakers?’ is: ‘Don’t they wear funny hats like the man on the Quaker Oats box?’

Of course, there is far more to Quakers (or the Religious Society of Friends) than this amusing image. From their radical beginnings nearly 400 years ago, for which they were often prosecuted as heretics, Quakers (Friends) have continued to put their faith into action, working for peace and to change the systems that cause injustice and conflict.  

Indeed, you may be familiar with famous Quakers from history, such as William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania; Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer; and the Cadburys and Rowntrees, chocolate entrepreneurs who were passionate about social reform. You may also have learned about the Quaker conscientious objectors, many of whom worked behind the lines in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit during the two World Wars.

But what is that faith?

Quakerism is a way of life rather than a specific creed or set of beliefs. However, Quakers do try to maintain the core belief that ‘there is something of God’ in all human beings. Our unity is based on shared understanding and a shared practice of silent worship: a gathered stillness through which the circle of Friends seek to experience God directly – internally, and in relationships with others.  Some prefer to think of ‘God’ as ‘the Light,’ ‘the Spirit’ or ‘Love.’

Since the experience of God is personal and direct, Quakers in Britain do not feel a need for elaborate ritual or for priests to interpret the word of God on behalf of the congregation. Instead, we appoint a small group of Friends to look after the spiritual needs of individuals, as well as the Meeting as a whole (see About Abingdon Meeting).

The Quaker testimonies

Quakers try to live with honesty and integrity according to a shared set of interrelated values called testimonies. These are:

  • Equality and justice. Rooted in the conviction that all people are of equal spiritual worth, this testimony covers matters such as social inclusion, ethical investment, racial justice and empathy among all faiths.
  • Peace. For centuries, Quakers have felt called ‘to live in the life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.’ We believe it is important to show that human affairs can be conducted differently and that conflicts can be resolved non-violently.
  • Truth and integrity. Quakers consider truth and integrity to be fundamental guiding principles, both in our own lives and in public affairs (where these values can easily be lost to sight).
  • Simplicity and sustainability. Simplicity involves challenging the way we live and what our true needs are. Sustainability calls us to a creative responsibility towards the earth and its resources.

What happens in a Meeting for Worship?

A Meeting for Worship involves simply sitting peaceably, sharing silence: ‘a  gathered stillness’ so that all may feel the spiritual power of love drawing the group together. Free from formalities, people of widely differing views find an underlying unity without being called upon to accept what they cannot affirm.  

The interior of a traditional Meeting House: Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire

Every Meeting for Worship is different, but at the heart of all silent Meetings in silence is a quiet, peaceful hour of reflection that deepens our awareness of the Spirit and brings a unity to the group. The silence may be broken if someone present feels called on to say something that will deepen and enrich the worship, in response to the prompting of the Spirit. The silence is broken for the moment, but the stillness is not interrupted.

The Meeting proper closes when Elders, followed by all those present, have shaken hands. (During the Coronavirus pandemic we have been making the ‘namaste’ gesture instead.)

In Abingdon Meeting, our worship continues in a short period that we call Afterwords. This is an opportunity to share with Friends any thoughts and insights that have come to us during the silence, or other matters that we have on our minds, which may not have led to spoken ministry during the main Meeting for Worship.

Notices, from the Clerk and other Friends, are followed by tea and coffee.

Finding out more…

Online resources

Quakers in Britain, the website of Britain Yearly Meeting, has a number of very informative pages designed specifically for newcomers. We suggest that you visit:

Quaker Faith and Practice (QfP for short) describes what it means to be a Quaker in Britain through extracts from the writings of Quakers through the ages. It offers thoughts, reflections and advice on the different stages of life and the challenges one may encounter, including relationships, aspects of faith and service to the community. QfP also explains how the Society of Friends is structured and how to conduct procedures such as marriages and funerals.

QfP includes the Advices & Queries: short paragraphs which serve as reminders of the insights of the Society. In Abingdon an Advice & Query is read out in Meeting for Worship once a month.

Quaker Faith & Practice is also available as printed book (hardback and paperback).

Books

The following titles are short and very readable:

  • What do Quakers Believe? by Geoffrey Durham (2019)
  • Living our beliefs: An exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers, developed and edited by Young Quakers with Graham Ralph (2nd ed. 2018)
  • Quakers do What! Why? by Rhiannon Grant (2020); available as a paperback or in e-book format from John Hunt Publishing.

All these books – and many more – can be purchased through the Quaker Bookshop.

Abingdon Meeting has a very small library of books on Quaker history and spirituality for loan. [Information on how to access the catalogue and borrow a book will follow in due course.]

Courses on Quakerism

Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham, offers a wide variety of short residential and online courses. Topics include Quaker tradition and history, personal spiritual growth, interfaith issues, biblical studies, and working for peace and social justice.

FutureLearn offers Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers, a short, free online course which you can study at your own pace.


Image credits from top to bottom: CC BY NC-ND John Hall via Flickr; CC BY John Hall via Flickr; media library, Oxford Quakers website; CC BY-SA 4.0 MHM55 via Wikimedia Commons