What do Quakers mean by  .  .  .

Quakers aspire to be plain and straightforward in their speech. However 350 years of tradition inevitably leave their mark, and there are some rather quaint historical remnants of bygone days in the way Quakers speak today, as well as some things we do in the course of our Meetings and activities that are unique to Quakers and simply have no names in everyday English. Here is a list of some of the terms and phrases you may hear Quakers using, with a guide to help you understand what they mean.

After the manner of Friends : means, basically, “the way Quakers do things”. Most generally used in the context of preparing for an event such as a marriage or memorial meeting, which people who are not Quakers are likely to attend, in order to explain to them what to expect.

Advices And Queries : In its present form, a pocket-sized booklet of questions, comments and suggestions currently numbering 42 altogether. They are described in the “Introduction” to the current edition as “a reminder of the insights of the Society”. They are periodically revised and up-dated: three major revisions were carried out during the 20th century, the latest being in 1994. They are also included in “Quaker Faith & Practice” (QV) comprising Chapter 1 of that book.

Area Meeting : Until recently known as “Monthly Meeting”, this term can refer either to the body of all the Quakers within a particular area, or more specifically to the periodic gathering of Friends from such a defined area of Local Quaker Meetings who meet (often though not necessarily on a monthly basis) in order to conduct business required to be dealt with at that level of decision-making. Matters relating to membership of the Religious Society of Friends are determined at Area Meeting since Quakers are always admitted to Membership of their Area, not to their Local Meeting nor to the Society as a whole. “Elders” (QV) and “Overseers” (QV) are officers of the Area Meeting and their appointments are made there. Moreover under charities law in the U.K. it is the Area Meeting which is the “unit” of organisation for legal purposes, so that Meeting Houses and other buildings or land owned by the Society are generally the legal property of the Area Meeting. Area Meetings have their own appointed officers, some of which correspond to those found at Local Meetings – e.g. a clerk and a treasurer.

Attender : someone who has been coming to Meeting for Worship with Friends sufficiently regularly to be considered “within the life of the Meeting” but who is not in Membership.

Birthright : formerly one way of attaining Membership of the Religious Society of Friends was simply to be born into a Quaker family, and Membership was effectively “inherited” without the need to go through the processes which are required of other applicants. Such Members are referred to as “Birthright Friends”. The term is obsolescent since birthright Membership was abolished in 1959, but this did not affect the Membership of currently existing Birthright Friends, many of whom are still alive.

Britain Yearly Meeting : this term can be either simply as a collective noun for all the Quakers in Britain, or more specifically to mean the annual Meeting (normally taking place in May over a weekend) which is open to all Quakers in Britain, to conduct business required to be dealt with at that level of decision-making e.g. revisions to official procedures relating to Membership or marriage, or the way in which the Society is structured, and consequent revisions that may be required to the text of “Quaker Faith & Practice” (QV).

Business Method : the unique Quaker way of coming to decisions on business or administration matters (QV "Meeting for Church Affairs"). The method is to treat “business meetings” as a form of Meeting for Worship, and to seek the will of God rather than just the majority view. There is no voting in Quaker meetings. Ideally a way forward can be discerned which has the support of everyone so that there is no victorious “majority” and no defeated “minority”. Where agreement cannot be reached initially, a decision may be postponed to see if this can be achieved on a future occasion after further reflection. In some instances a Friend who is out of step with everyone else may be expected to concede that a course which that Friend finds uncomfortable nevertheless appears to express the “sense of the Meeting” and that the Light is guiding the Meeting in that direction. (cf “Discernment”)

Christocentric : term for those Friends who wish to maintain the original position of Quakerism as a specifically Christian religion, while acknowledging that inspiration may also be found in other, non-Christian sources. In the past a distinction was often drawn between “Christocentric” and “Universalist” Quakers, but since even Christocentric Quakers always recognised the validity of inspiration from non-Christian sources ( e.g. as per “Advices & Queries” no.7) this was more a matter of emphasis rather than substance (cf “Universalist”).

Clerk : the official of a Local or Area Quaker Meeting who is responsible for the conduct of its Meetings for Business, and also usually for much of the paperwork and general administration.

“Clockwork” Ministry : this term refers to vocal Ministry (QV) during Meeting for Worship which a particular Friend delivers predictably on the same topic on virtually every occasion. Elders (QV) should be vigilant to discourage this.

Concern : term for a Quaker’s sense of being called by the Spirit to act on or to take forward some particular cause or principle – hence also the saying that a Friend who is committed to such a work is “acting under Concern”.

Convinced : one of those expressions which confusingly has a particular meaning among Quakers which is quite different from its meaning in ordinary English! It means that someone is persuaded of something – most often used when someone decides to join the Religious Society of Friends (for example in the title to Geoffrey Hubbard’s introductory book, “Quaker By Convincement”)  so in effect it means “converted” but, particularly, converted to Quakerism..

“Daffodil” Ministry : this term refers to vocal Ministry (QV) during Meeting for Worship, which is banal and more in the nature of “chat” than Ministry. If that is all it is, then it is clearly inappropriate. Care however needs to be taken before dismissing such Ministry too readily: words that may seem pointless or even irritating to some people can often carry a message of real benefit to others.

Discernment : The practice of seeking out the Will of God in any given situation, as distinct from the ideas or wishes of the people present (which is what makes it different from “consensus”, with which it is sometimes confused). In particular it isthe testing of “leadings” (QV) by the gathered Meeting so as to differentiate between those which arise genuinely from the Spirit and those which may be untrustworthy. This is the key to the Quaker “Business Method” (QV). It is not unknown for a decision to emerge from a Meeting which none of the participants had sought or even foreseen as a possibility previously. For this to work properly it is important for participants to be “open to new light” rather than to come to the Meeting already set on a specific result.

Elder : an officer of an Area Meeting, appointed for a term of three years at a time (cf “Triennium”) and responsible for upholding the spiritual life of the Local and Area Meetings where that officer worships. The specific duties and responsibilities of Elders are set out in detail in chapter 12 of “Quaker Faith & Practice”.

Fell, Margaret : 1614 – 1702  often referred to as “the mother of Quakerism” she was one of the earliest converts, after hearing George Fox preach in 1652. She was at that time the wife of Thomas Fell, an Assize Judge and the local Member of Parliament. While he remained alive his position protected her from the persecution visited on other Quakers at that time. She organised her home at Swarthmoor Hall (QV) as the effective centre of Quaker activity in England, and acted as unofficial secretary to the fledgling movement. With the death of Thomas Fell in 1658 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Margaret’s position as the widow of a prominent Puritan official was much less secure, and her Quaker activities led to repeated periods of imprisonment. She married George Fox in 1669 and survived him by 10 years despite being 10 years older.

Fox, George : 1624 – 1691  generally regarded as the founder of Quakerism. As a young man he became disillusioned with established forms of religion. After receiving a revelation he took to public preaching of radical and reductionist doctrines of simplicity, equality, pacifism, and a God who was directly accessible and could be experienced by everyone. He rejected the dogmas and forms that had built up over centuries around traditional Christianity. His conviction that every individual could have a personal relationship with God carried the connotation that there was no need for clergy to intercede for people or to administer sacraments to them. Clearly his views could not be accepted within the established Churches – whether Anglican or Puritan – so the Religious Society of Friends became a separate organisation with its strongholds initially in the north of England. Early on he attracted the support of Margaret Fell (QV) the mistress of Swarthmoor Hall (QV) whom he married in 1669. Fox was repeatedly imprisoned for breaches of the network of laws passed against non-conformists. He died in 1691.

Friend : term used to denote a Member of the Religious Society of Friends, also used as a form of address from one Friend to another

F/friend : a term recently evolved to denote a “Friend” (QV) in the Quaker sense, who is also a personal “friend” in the normal English meaning of the word.

Friends’ Ambulance Unit : organisation set up by Quakers who were conscientious objectors during the First World War to enable them to contribute to the welfare of their fellow-countrymen and ameliorate their sufferings without engaging in military activity. The FAU sent about 1,000 volunteers to work in France and Belgium during the First World War and was revived during the Second World War when some 1,300 volunteers worked abroad and in blitzed cities in Britain.

Friends’ House : Building at 173 Euston Road, London N.W. 1 which is the headquarters of Britain Yearly Meeting and therefore of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain. The book “Quaker Faith & Practice” (QV) as well as the magazine “The Friend” are published from there.

Gathered Meeting : a particularly fruitful Meeting for Worship where the presence of the Spirit has been especially palpable.

General Meeting : former name for Regional Meeting (QV), term now obsolete since 2007

Gospel Order : George Fox’s term for the system of organisation and government which he put in place for the Religious Society of Friends to assist its survival during the time of persecution, largely acknowledged to have been remarkably shrewd and successful.

Hat Honour : the habit of men removing their hats when greeting or addressing each other to acknowledge the other’s social status , which was considered good manners in 17th century Britain but was anathema to Quakers, who rejected the concept of “status” altogether. Quakers attracted much hostility for this. The refusal of “hat honour” was once one of the more public and obvious ways of telling who was a Quaker, but since the mid-twentieth century it has become less common for men routinely to wear hats in any case, so that this particular manner of expressing the Testimony to Equality has lost much of its former significance. The principle from which it arose however remains valid.

“Holding In The Light” : similar in a sense to “praying for” someone, but not like traditional “petitionary” prayer. Described well by David Saunders, a contemporary Quaker from Norfolk, as “a process of lifting people and situations up to God’s creative force, power and love.” Rex Ambler in his 2013  book on Quaker spirituality “The Quaker Way” says it is “taking notice, absorbing what is really going on, feeling the joy or pain of it.”

“I Hope So” : expression commonly used at a business meetings to indicate agreement with a proposal which has just been aired.

Leadings : guidance from the Spirit, sometimes developing into a “concern” (QV)

Liberal Quakerism : a change in emphasis adopted by Quakers in Britain at the end of the 19th century, turning away from the “evangelical” movement which had earlier swept over Quakerism following the success of the Methodist revival. The “liberal” approach arose partly out of the need for faith to come to terms with the advances being made in science, as it became untenable to continue regarding the Bible as an infallible source of authority, and also from a desire to shake off the crust of dogma that had begun to obscure the original message of the early Quakers. This form of Quakerism is not focussed on traditional Bible-based Christianity and is more open to different approaches, and to inspiration from other sources. Some have warned however that the emphasis on “open-mindedness” has led to the abandonment of all religious principles in favour of an attitude that “anything goes” and that the meaning of Quakerism is in danger of being submerged or devalued as a result.

“The Light” (also “Inner Light" / “inward Light” / “Light of Christ”) : terms used since the earliest days of Quakerism to describe the presence or the experience of God. It refers back to the metaphor of “the Light” in the opening verses of John’s gospel. Non-Quakers writing about Quakerism often describe this idea as “the Light Within” although the expression actually used by George Fox and the early Quakers was “the Inward Light”. Nowadays you will often hear Quakers use the similar but subtly different expression “inner Light”. Quakers also use the word “Spirit” to mean pretty much the same thing. (cf “That of God”)

Local Quaker Meeting : the worshipping community of Quakers based at a particular location

London Yearly Meeting : former name for Britain Yearly Meeting, term obsolete since 1995

Meeting for Church Affairs : also known as “Meeting for WOrship for Business” and previously referred to as “Preparative Meeting” (QV). Session for airing and resolving practical and administrative matters which require decisions to be made by a Local Quaker Meeting (QV). These are generally held monthly and chaired by the clerk to the Meeting. They are conducted in the same spirit as a Meeting for Worship, with the aim of seeking the guidance of the Inward Light (QV) and discerning the will of the Spirit It is at these sessions that the Quaker “Business Method” (QV) comes into play. 

Meeting For Clearness : procedure whereby a Quaker can arrange for some problem, dilemma or important decision to be considered by a group of Friends called together for this purpose, with a view to helping to achieve clarity about the situation and to perceive a way forward.

Meeting For Sufferings : body whose existence dates back to 1675 though its functions have changed over the centuries. Its name reflects the fact that its original purpose was to monitor the persecution of Quakers under the penal legislation passed in Charles II’s reign, and to work for the release of Friends in prison. Today it is more of a “think tank” whose aim is to galvanise the life and work of the Society and to seek new ways for it to express and to carry out its aims. The membership of Meeting for Sufferings includes representatives appointed from each Area Meeting in Britain.

Meeting For Worship : the act of gathering together to seek the presence of God in silent worship. Generally held on Sundays, not because Quakers regard that day as “holy” or distinct from other days, but simply because that is the day most people are free from other commitments and are available to attend. The larger Local Meetings have additional Meetings for Worship during the week, details of which can be found in the “Book of Meetings” (QV).

Meeting House :  term for buildings specifically used for holding Quaker Meetings for Worship (QV). Effectively the same as a church or chapel, but Quakers eschewed these labels since they wished to emphasise that the building as such is not “special” or important to the act of worship.

Ministry : one of the terms which Quakers use in a very different way from its meaning in everyday English. Most often it refers to spoken contributions made during Meeting for Worship. When appropriately given, these are held to be communications from The Spirit and the delivery of such messages is therefore a spiritual work. Similarly “Ministry” may also refer to some particular kind of task or calling taken up by a Quaker at the bidding of the Spirit e.g. a “Travelling” Ministry” or a “Healing Ministry”. In that sense it can be similar to the term “concern” (QV)

Monthly Meeting : former name for Area Meeting (QV), term obsolete since 2007

Openings : word used more commonly by the early Quakers (especially George Fox) to mean “insights” or “understanding”

“Our Friend Is Not Heard” : indicates a request for a Friend to speak louder

Overseer : term now obsolete, and replaced by "Pastoral Carer" (QV) or similar expression at the discretion of Area Meetings. .

Pastoral Carer : term for officers of an Area Meeting previously known as Overseers (QV) appointed for a term of three years (cf “Triennium”) and responsible for pastoral care and support of Friends in the Local and Area Meetings where that person worships. The specific duties and responsibilities attached to the post are set out in detail in chapter 12 of “Quaker Faith & Practice” (QV)

Penn, William : 1644 – 1718 converted to Quakerism at the age of 22, Penn was unusually well-connected for a Quaker: his father had been an admiral and a Member of Parliament. William himself was on friendly terms with James Duke of York, brother of King Charles II and later (briefly) King himself as James II. Penn became a close friend of George Fox and was the author of several Quaker pamphlets. He made legal history at his trial for unlawful assembly in 1670 when the jury – defying the bullying of the judge – refused to convict him, upon which the Judge sent Penn and all the jurors to prison together! This was transparently illegal, and in what became known as “Bushel’s case” (the name of the lading juror) the principle was enshrined in English law that a jury has the right to return the verdict they think appropriate, no matter what the judge’s opinion may be. Penn sealed his place in history with his “holy experiment” in founding of the American state of Pennsylvania following a gift of the land to him by King Charles II. Penn produced a constitution to govern Pennsylvania on Quaker principles of tolerance and enlightenment. However he was no businessman, and having sunk all his resources into this project he eventually died penniless.

Preparative Meeting :  obsolete since 2007, this term could rather confusingly be used interchangeably to mean either the Local Quaker worshipping community, now  known as the “Local Quaker Meeting” (QV) or else the Meeting for Church Affairs (QV).

Prevented : means that a Friend who was expected at some meeting or event has been unable to come. Unlike its meaning in normal English usage however it does not imply that the Friend has been somehow compelled by someone else to stay away, it is just a neutral way of saying that the person in question was not able to attend.

Programmed Meetings : during the 19th century Quakerism fell under the influence of the evangelical movement popular in mainstream Christianity, impressed by its drive and energy and no doubt also by its success. At the end of the century British Quakers largely abandoned this approach in favour of what is called “liberal Quakerism” (QV) but in the USA the evangelical movement had taken firmer roots and many Quaker Meetings still retain features of non-conformist Protestant practice in their worship including formal prayers, hymns, sermons, and even paid clergy. Meetings for Worship which include these features are described as “programmed”. To the eyes of British Quakers there seems little that is “Quaker” about such Meetings, which appear indistinguishable from Baptist or Methodist services. However due to the evangelising efforts of American Quakers, programmed Meetings are also now widespread among Quakers in Africa and South America. (cf “Unprogrammed Meetings”)

Quaker : a Member of the Religious Society of Friends (QV) founded by George Fox (QV) whose mission is usually dated from his visit to Pendle Hill in 1652 though it had been building up for some while before that. The name is said to derive from a mocking reference bestowed on Fox by judge Gervase Bennett at one of his many Court appearances, after Fox told the judge he should “tremble at the word of the Lord”. In fact the official name for early Quakers was “Friends of the Truth” but the name “Quakers” was so much more convenient and memorable that Members of the Society happily adopted it for themselves. The word “Friends” is also used among Quakers when referring or speaking to each other, though this may cause confusion if used in the hearing of non-Quakers (cf “Friend”).

Quaker Faith And Practice : the Quaker “manual” or “handbook” published from Friends House (QV) containing official information about procedures within the Society as well as excerpts of historical interest from the writings of Friends over the centuries, and matters of general interest that are considered to be helpful, illustrative or thought-provoking. It also includes the complete text of “Advices and Queries” (QV) though not the note on their historical background which is appended to the separately printed version. First published in one volume in 1959 as an amalgamation of two titles that were previously separate, it has undergone revisions at ever-decreasing intervals since then to take account of changes in practice, procedure and organisational structures.

Quaker Life : formerly known as “Quaker Home Service”, one of the standing “central committees” of Britain Yearly Meeting (QV) and responsible to its Trustees. It works to support and strengthen Local Meetings. Its membership includes representatives appointed by each Area Meeting in Britain.

Regional Meeting : formerly known as “General Meeting”. A gathering of Quakers from a local grouping of Area Meetings, traditionally held every 3 months. These Meetings no longer have any official standing or administrative functions, their activities being largely social and educational. In some places Regional Meetings no longer occur.

Religious Society Of Friends : the formal or official name for the world-wide Quaker organisation and its body of Membership. Founded by George Fox (QV) in or about 1652 in the north of England and originally styled by the even longer name “Religious Society of Friends of the Truth”. Penal legislation at that time made the Society in effect an illegal organisation until the Declaration of Indulgence issued by King James II in 1687.

Right Ordering : basically, the proper way of doing things, in accordance with agreed procedures.

Schedule :  odd name for the annual request made to Quakers for financial contributions towards their Meetings’ funds. These days this normally comes in the form of a pamphlet from Friends’ House which is circulated in bulk to Local Meeting treasurers who then distribute these among Members and the more regular Attenders. There is no particular amount specified or expected. Friends are simply asked to consider how much they feel they want to donate.

Separation : term often used to describe schims within the Quaker movement – e.g. the “Wilkinson-Story Separation” in 17th century England (which was quickly healed) or the “Gurneyite-Wilburite Separation”  in 19th century USA (which was not). 

Swarthmoor Hall : near Ulverston in Cumbria (previously in Lancashire) built by George Fell, a lawyer, in 1568 and inherited in due course by his son Thomas Fell who became a judge and an MP, and was an influential local supporter of Parliament during the civil war. His wife Margaret Fell (QV) was an early convert to Quakerism after hearing George Fox preach in 1652 and became one of his most active and enthusiastic supporters, turning her home into the effective centre of Quaker activities in England. It is now owned by the Religious Society of Friends and is used for courses, conferences and recreational activities for Quakers.

Testimony : literally, something which “attests” or witnesses to the truth. Quakers do not have religious dogmas, being more interested in the way people live and behave rather than in dissecting religious theories. The Quaker “Testimonies” are statements of principle by which Quakers live their lives, and which we “attest” we have found to be useful and effective. These comprise our “Peace” testimony, the testimony to honesty and integrity, the testimony to equality, and the testimony to simplicity. These are the means by which Quakers demonstrate their insights and values to the world. The word can also sometimes be used in a different sense  however, when a “testimony to the grace of God” in the life of a deceased Friend is requested or prepared, which is partly a tribute to that Friend’s qualities and achievements and partly a reminiscence about the Friend’s life journey, to be kept as a written record with the archives of the Local or Area Meeting that requested it.

“That Friend Speaks My Mind” : an economical way of expressing agreement with a previous comment without wasting time or words repeating a point that has already been made.

“That name would not have occurred to me” : diplomatic way of indicating doubt or dissent when a Friend is being proposed for some office or post of responsibility. It is a polite way of saying that the speaker does not consider the Friend in question to be suitable for the job.

“That Of God” : a “spark of the Divine” which exists in everyone. The phrase was famously used by George Fox in his letter from Launceston prison in 1656 instructing Quakers to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” This assumes of course that there is indeed “that of God” in everyone, regardless of nationality or religion. It is the same idea found in the opening verses of John’s gospel, that the Light “enlightens everyone who comes into the world”. This is the essential basis of the Quaker understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.

“That speaks to my condition” : way of expressing that a previous statement made by someone else has resonated with the hearer’s own experience, or that it was particularly helpful or valuable to the hearer. It comes from the account given by George Fox (QV) of his own experience of receiving a revelation when he heard the voice of the Spirit within him say “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”

Threshing Meeting :  “brainstorming” session where a group of Quakers get together to consider approaches or solutions to some issue or problem, often of a controversial nature, and perhaps something which may have led to a dispute arising within the Quaker Meeting. Conducted in an informal way, much less structured than a “Meeting for Clearness” (QV) in order to encourage the open expression of different opinions. A formal definition appears in “Quaker Faith & Practice” (QV) at paragraph 12.26

Triennium : a period of three years for which all officers of Local and Area Meetings are appointed to serve. Officers may be re-appointed at the end of a triennium, although it is considered good practice not to re-appoint the same officers to the same posts for more than two terms in succession. However local conditions may sometimes leave smaller Meetings with little alternative. Note that the start and end dates of service for officers appointed for the Local Meeting do not necessarily have to coincide with those for the Area Meeting.

Universalist : term for Quakers who particularly draw inspiration from various sources and traditions, rejecting the idea that Jesus Christ, or the heritage of Christianity, are inherently more important or more specifically relevant to Quakerism than other sources. In the past a distinction was often drawn between “Christocentric” and “Universalist” Quakers, but since Universalist Quakers always admitted the validity of inspiration from Christian as much as from non-Christian sources, this was more a matter of emphasis rather than substance. (cf “Christocentric”)

Unprogrammed Meetings : style of Meeting for Worship in use in Britain and Europe following the tradition established by George Fox and the early Quakers, which is based on silence and does not use pre-printed prayers or have clergy to lead or direct the Meeting (cf “Programmed Meetings”).

Visitors : used in the Quaker sense, “visitors” are Friends appointed by the Area Meeting (QV) to visit by pre-arranged appointment an applicant for Membership of the Religious Society of Friends. Following the visit they prepare a report that is presented to Area Meeting. The report should not specifically recommend either acceptance or rejection of the application, but should contain sufficient relevant information to enable Area Meeting to make that decision. Traditionally two visitors are appointed, one from the applicant’s own Local Quaker Meeting and one from a different Local Meeting within the same Area, so that Area Meeting has the benefit both of a “view from the inside” and also a more objective appraisal.

Weighty Friend : a Friend who is acknowledged by other Quakers to possess particular attributes of wisdom and understanding, or spirituality, or intelligence or experience, by virtue of which that Friend’s views or advice tend to be accorded particular weight or respect.

Woodbrooke : Quaker study centre in Birmingham originally donated to the Society by George Cadbury, where courses, conferences and other educational activities are held. Works closely with “Quaker Life” (QV).

Yearly Meeting : annual gathering of Quakers from a large territorial region or country. In Britain and other countries of modest size, the country itself is a convenient unit for a Yearly Meeting, but larger countries such as the USA may contain several. (cf Britain Yearly Meeting)


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