About Us  -  who are the Quakers, and what do they stand for?

"To me, being a Christian is a particular way of life, not the unquestioning acceptance of a particular system of theology, not belief in the literal truth of the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection and Ascension, but being the kind of person that Jesus wanted his followers to be, and doing the things he told them to do."       (Katherine Lonsdale)


“Quakers” is the name we generally go by. Technically we are "The Religious Society of Friends" – a bit of a mouthful, that, and normally only used for formal or official purposes. However although Quakerism can be treated for many practical purposes as a religion or a “Church”, the expression “religious society” is in some ways a better way of describing what Quakers are about, as we shall see.

The Society arose in England during the 1650’s when Oliver Cromwell governed the country after executing King Charles and overthrowing the established political and religious order. It was a time of turmoil and unrest, not only in public life but also in terms of people’s values and beliefs. New and radical ideas were being floated – some of them surprisingly advanced even by today’s standards. Out of this atmosphere of enquiry and uncertainty emerged a Leicestershire man – George Fox – who as a young man had profound spiritual instincts but found that none of the existing Churches or religious systems were able to answer his needs. Then in 1647 out of the blue he had a “road to Damascus” experience of the presence of God, and realised that living in the awareness of God’s presence – or “living in the Light” as he expressed it – was all the spiritual guidance one needed.

At that time many people were anticipating the imminent return to earth of Jesus Christ (some people still do!) but Fox now felt that Christ had in fact already returned – not in the way people expected, but in a spiritual sense. Fox declared “Christ has come to teach his people himself”. There was no need to wait for the “Kingdom of God” to arrive: it was already here, for anyone who wanted it. It followed that the whole apparatus of priests, rituals and theological systems built up by the established Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, were superfluous. Fox also, controversially for that time, held that this spirit – the “light of Christ” – is to be found in every human heart, not just among Christians.

Fox was convinced that this was in fact how Christianity had been at the beginning and was always meant to be, but that over the ages vested interests and power-hungry individuals had corrupted the original simplicity of the Christian message and ossified the Church. As the 20th century writer Reginald Reynolds put it, “Quakerism began as a protest against dead letter religion” (in “John Woolman and the 20th century”). 

Fox was anxious to spread the message, and travelled the country sharing his insights. He found many sympathetic hearers among people – “seekers” as they were called – who were also feeling spiritually hungry, and disillusioned with organised religion. In a very few years the scattered congregations of followers that Fox left in his wake were organised into a network of “Meetings” (as congregations of Quakers are still called to this day). In 1652 Fox’s message took on the nature of a mission, when he gained a significant number of adherents during a visit to the Lake District and in particular the invaluable support and protection of the influential Fell family whose home at Swarthmoor Hall became the centre of operations, 

In those days, refusing to conform to the established order – whether the King’s or Cromwell’s – led to persecution and imprisonment. The Quakers however refused to compromise and proved impossible to suppress, developing a technique of stubborn but non-violent resistance to the abuse of power, which has been an example through the ages ever since. Soon Quakers were introducing their beliefs to lands beyond the British Isles, from Russia to the West Indies. William Penn even established a Quaker state in North America, called Pennsylvania, which during the seventy years or so that Quakers were able to retain control of it, was a beacon of enlightenment compared with the narrow-minded intolerance that characterised most of the Puritan colonies of New England at that time.



The first thing to realise is that Quakerism is not about “faith” in the crude sense of “blind belief in received dogma” but rather about the kind of faith which comes from trusting in the truth and validity of our shared experience. Quakers have no “creed” – there is no list of beliefs that members must subscribe to. As the Quaker writer John Lampen puts it, “The danger in holding a creed is that people begin to believe that its words can actually contain the truth, and that everything depends on getting them right. The creed itself becomes venerated, instead of the experience to which it points.”

So far as Quakers are concerned, issues such as the Trinity or the Virgin Birth are matters of opinion which you can believe or not as you please, but we tend to avoid fruitless speculation about things which nobody can possibly know for certain. In any case such questions do not affect our view of our place in the world, or our purpose in being here. What matters to us is the sort of person you are, and the way you live your life.

The basis of Quakerism is simply that there is something within each of us which we call “that of God” or sometimes more simply, “The Light” or “The Spirit”. It is in everyone, no matter how obscure it may appear, or difficult it may be to see it sometimes! The more we bring our lives consciously into the presence of this inward Light, the more we can experience the love and comfort, wisdom and guidance that comes with “living in The Light”. As Luke’s Gospel puts it, “the kingdom of God is within you”.

Quakers believe in a God who is available and accessible. Our faith does not come from having to believe things we are told by priests (there are no clergy in the Religious Society of Friends) or because it is written in a book, although we do value wisdom and inspiration wherever we may find it. In the end it is a matter of what truth we ourselves discover on our own journeys of spiritual growth. Quakers do not claim to be the “one true Church” or to have all the right answers. We are more interested in asking the right questions. Quakerism, rather, is a “way”. It is a way of approaching God, a way of approaching spirituality and a way of living.

Although the founders of Quakerism set it within the Christian tradition and culture of their time, Quakers always emphasised that The Light is to be found in everyone – not only among Quakers, and not only among Christians. In the words of John’s Gospel, “It is the true Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the World”. We do not for example insist that our Members take any specific view about the significance of Bible or about Jesus Christ.  We consider that actions demonstrate better than words who the real followers of Jesus are (“by their fruits you shall know them”) and indeed it would seem on any reading of the Gospels that Jesus himself was much more interested in the way people behaved to each other, rather than in what religious theories they held. The historian George Trevelyan, commenting on Quakers in his  seminal work “English Social History” hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the Quakers were concerned with upholding Christian qualities rather than Christian dogmas.

Quakers therefore have abandoned much of the trappings of the historic Christian Churches: we have no liturgy, no clergy, no sacraments. However while Quakers have little time for abstract religious dogma, we do share certain basic and enduring values expressed in statements which we call “Testimonies”. These are not just things we say we believe in: it is the way we live. They record the things we have found that work for good in the world, a way to express how our experience of God translates into action – for Quakerism is above all a practical religion which affects how we actually live and act day by day, not just a set of theories to be recollected on Sundays!

"You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Are thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and that which thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?"  (George Fox)




Probably the best known of the Quaker Testimonies is the “Peace Testimony” rejecting the use of violence, whether on a personal level or by society collectively. God is Love. Using violence against others takes us away from God. If we love our neighbours it must be self-evident that we would not hurt or harm them. George Fox advised his followers to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” Nobody says this is easy: there are people in whom the Light of God seems obscure, if not invisible! Nevertheless however wrong some people seem to be, and however bad their actions may appear to us, the experience of Quakers is that resorting to violence does not help to make a problem better. As it says in the Epistle of James, “God’s righteousness is not served by men’s anger”.

 On the other hand there is nothing “passive” about Quaker pacifism! Our peace testimony does not mean we should be silent and do nothing when faced with wrongdoing. Rather we seek to confront and speak out against evil, but reject the temptation of using evil means to overcome it. In times of war or crisis Quakers work to promote peace, and to find non-violent ways of resolving the problem, but in the meantime they will generally be found organising or supporting humanitarian relief work. During World War One, Quaker conscientious objectors founded the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, and Quakers are also prominent in many campaigning organisations such as Ploughshares, CND, the Campaign Against Arms Trade etc.



The principle that there is “that of God in everyone” leads to another obvious conclusion: that we are all equal in the sight of God. This is almost a truism, and most Churches do pay lip-service to the idea. What made Quakers different from the beginning is that they actually behaved as though they really meant it! So Quakers refused to respect titles and the trappings of power, and why Quakers were among the first to demand and to campaign for the abolition of slavery. It explains why Quakers never had a problem with women having as great a part to play as men in the conduct of their Meetings. It is also the reason why Quakers have no priests or clergy: for the Light of Christ is in everyone, and is not confined to “experts” or “professionals”.

In the early days of Quakerism, one way of demonstrating the testimony to equality was the Quakers’ refusal to comply with the elaborate social rituals which were expected of well brought-up people in those days. Many a Quaker got into trouble for refusing “hat honour” – that is, refusing to doff their hats – upon greeting people who were considered to be their betters. However times change, and most people these days do not generally wear hats anyway. Nowadays, our way of expressing the Testimony to Equality is more likely to be in a concern for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, to try and ensure that those with wealth and position in the world do not take unfair advantage of their power - though we still like to avoid the use of titles or honorifics in our speech.



This leads on to the next Quaker testimony, which is the importance of complete honesty and personal integrity. We cannot claim to be seeking God in our lives if we have falsehood within us. Quakers therefore consciously strive to be faithful to the truth. To us, this means not just speaking the truth but living it. Quakerism is very much a practical religion, a guide for day-to-day living.

When it comes to public issues, Quakers have a tradition of “speaking Truth to Power” – in other words, not being shy of telling our leaders where they are going wrong! In this context we find that a reputation for truthfulness gives our words an extra weight and an influence out of all proportion to our numbers.

 This does have practical advantages: many Quaker businesses grew and flourished because their trading partners could be confident that a Quaker’s word could be relied upon. An interesting “by-product” of this Testimony is the Quakers’ refusal, ever since the earliest days, to take oaths in any formal proceedings, such as in a Court of Law. The Quakers argued that they do not have double-standards of honesty, and that they tell the truth all the time, not just when they are officially asked to do so! It does mean however that Quakers have little time for diplomatic evasions, and can be disconcertingly direct if asked to express an opinion!



Quakers have always emphasised the value of a life of simplicity and moderation. How this works out in practice is something that varies from age to age depending which particular excesses happen to be in vogue at the time. For us today, the main emphasis is on avoiding excessive “getting and spending” and the conspicuous consumerism which is such a feature of modern industrialised societies. There is constant pressure these on all of us these days to consume more all the time – or, to put it in more traditional terms, to be greedy and acquisitive. This is good no doubt for the profits of the companies who pay for the advertisements, but it is not good for us. We cannot truly live in the Spirit if we are addicted to the desire for material possessions – or as Jesus put it more succinctly, “You cannot serve God and mammon”.

We saw the end results of this all too clearly in the riots that took place in England’s cities in August 2011: people under a constant bombardment of advertisements for new consumer gadgets, and tormented by the knowledge that they could not afford them and had no other way of getting them, decided they would just go out and take them! The only surprising thing really is that this does not happen more often.

An ever-increasing list of wants and needs will not make us happier or more contented: quite the contrary the more so-called “needs” we create for ourselves, the more insecure we will be if we fear that we may not get all the things we crave, or that we might lose them. That is why you will read, in our “Advices and Queries” (a small booklet of 42 Quaker insights) that “A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength.”

The Quaker testimony to Simplicity also ties in closely here with our testimony to Equality. Only the wealthy few can afford the kind of lifestyle that the fantasy-world of advertisements would have us aspire to, and those who can are doing it at the expense of those who have to go without. We therefore like to keep an eye on our own lifestyles and tink about the implications of the decisions we make. When we go shopping for example, it is useful to consider where the goods we purchase have come from and how they are produced, rather than unthinkingly choosing those which are cheapest, or those we have seen most persistently advertised. Are we giving financial support to multi-national corporations which maintain sweatshops in their-world countries, or which are polluting our environment, or destroying the rainforests? These are choices we make every day. 

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