Friday, March 25, 2011

A Query About Quakers

As new folks have begun following this blog through connections made on Twitter I have received numerous questions about student ministry and my advancing age.  People have been curious about my life and my ministry.  But lately, I seem to be getting lots of queries (inside Quaker joke) about my Quaker background.  And this week Jason Huffman just came right out and asked the question I have been dreading: "What's the deal with Quakers?" (OK- so that is how Seinfeld would have asked it, but you get the point).  There is no easy answer, but today (and Sunday) I will attempt to shed some light on the Society of Friends- the people called Quakers.

First of all, let me lay out my qualifications for even attempting this.  I was born a Quaker and attended Asheboro Friends Meeting my first 4 years of life, but I remember very little of that.  After a sojourn as a Methodist, I began attending youth group at New Garden Friends Meeting in 1972.  From that point on, I was very much a part of the Society of Friends.  I would eventually work 6 summers at a Quaker camp; serve three Friends Meetings (15 years) as a youth pastor, serve as the Yearly Meeting (conference wide) youth director for Quakers in New England and serve 5 years as the head of the conference youth activities committee in NC.  I was a speaker and music leader at a couple of national Quaker youth events.  I was also on national boards for camps and missions.  Although I last served with Quakers in 1994, I have been back to NC to speak at a number of camps and conferences.  It's fair to say I know my way around the Q's...

So then why is is this so difficult?  Because in reality, there is no one answer to any question about Quaker beliefs.  There is no orthodoxy among Friends.  It is an individual faith, based on leadings from the Holy Spirit.  The classic Quaker story that best sums up what it is like to make your way through the maze of differing beliefs and practices is this:  One Quaker says to another, "I fear everyone is a little odd except for me and thee, dear Friend.  And frankly, I'm a little worried about thee..."   So as you read my thoughts, do it knowing that there are many life-long Quakers who will disagree with almost everything I write.  Despite that, here we go...

Let's look at some basics first.  Quakers first appeared in England around 1652 when a man named George Fox had a spiritual conversion that led him to believe that it was Jesus, not the organized Church of England, that he should be following.  He wrote in his journal that heard a voice speak to him, saying "there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition."  He began to preach this "gospel" all over the countryside and it got him arrested.  Among the things he preached were the equality of all people.  He actually had the nerve to preach that all men were equal in the eyes of God- Kings and paupers alike!  These "friends of Jesus" (see John 15:14) refused to take off their hats for anyone but God. believing only God deserved that type of respect.  Fox believed that God could and would speak directly to each of us if we would only stop and listen.  Quakers got their name because as they would wait on God to speak to them they would "quake" in anticipation of that moment.  It was a derisive nickname meant to humiliate them, and it stuck.  Early Quakers came to believe that the sacraments and many other church traditions had lost their meaning and had become empty rituals.  They disliked symbolism.  The sought to strip Christianity down to the bare essentials- and the bare essential was Jesus.  They eventually came to USAmerica, where they encountered mixed results.  William Penn and the Philadelphia experiment was a good thing.  Having 4 of their number hung on Boston Commons- not so much.  Those hangings are still the only public executions for purely religious reasons in the history of our country, even though we weren't a country yet.  Go Quakers!  Quakers are not Amish, although we liked the same hats and shared a fashion sense for a period of time.  Quakers were instrumental in the Underground Railroad that helped end slavery; they were leaders in the equal rights movements and peace movements in most every generation of US history; and they have long been champions of higher education, with dozens of colleges scattered about the country.  It has been written that their contributions to our society have far outweighed their numbers.  You can find Friends Meetings in almost every state, but the largest concentrations are found in Pennsylvania, the Pacific northwest, North Carolina, New England, California and the midwest (Indiana, Ohio & Iowa).  Oh...and Kenya.  Yes, the one in Africa.  There are more Quakers in Kenya than in the rest of the world combined.  Don't ask.  At some point, for a period of time, evangelism was important to Quakers.

So there's some history- let's move on to some beliefs.  Based on what you just read, you know that Quakers are Christians.  Except for the ones who aren't.  There are places where Quakerism has become more eastern mysticism than Christianity.  There are places where you find Friends who have adopted a strictly social gospel, usually associated with working for peace.  They consider the historical Jesus (and his teachings on non-violence) to be important, but downplay the Messiah aspect.  There are other Friends who no longer wish to be associated with the traditional peace testimony of early Friends.  And somehow each of these contrary positions quote George Fox when defending their beliefs.  All of this diverse thinking has lead to all kinds of splits and confusion over the years, leaving most people with the guy on the oatmeal box as the only Quaker they know anything about.  It also has left us with many very confused Quakers.  For instance, many Friends believe that the denomination does not believe in baptism or communion.  This is wrong.  Most meetings and churches do not practice the outward symbols of those sacraments.  The belief is that we are baptised by the Holy Spirit (as Jesus said we would be) and that we should be in constant communion with God.  So most Q's believe but don't practice. Some don't believe. Others do practice.  Man, this is even more confusing than I thought...I think my brain is going to explode!

Quakers do believe in the divine inspiration of scripture.  Except for the ones who don't.  Friends meetings (the church is a building; the gathered body is a meeting for worship - but some still call themselves a church) have pastors, sermons, choirs and music.  Except for the ones who don't.  Some worship services are spent in contemplative silence, waiting on God to speak.  Others resemble traditional protestant worship.  I have met charismatic Quakers as well- and the Kenyan Q's will just blow your mind!  Pretty much any style, any belief or any practice you can think of, I know a Quaker who fits it.  And therein ( in my humble opinion) lies their greatest strength- and their biggest problem.  Sunday I will wrap this up with a look at my experience and how my time spent amongst Friends shaped my faith in so many ways.  Come back for the good stuff.

Because of Jesus,


  1. I was just sharing with my fourth graders a bit about the history of the Quakers. We were talking about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. It's tremendous how crucial their contribution was to 100's and even 1000's of slaves being about to escape to freedom. That's an amazing legacy in itself.

  2. You are so right Angie. Their historical contributions are undeniable in so many ways.

  3. Anonymous3/25/2011

    Awesome blog Carl! Lots of answers to so many Q's- i mean questions. <3

  4. Thanks Anonymous, glad to help. Wish I knew who you were. I am thinking of requiring fingerprints so I know who everyone is...

  5. Thanks for all the background info Carl!
    I always wondered about this...except when I wasn't glad your head didn't explode! It's hard to describe any group of individuals and it seems like in this case,an especially ambitious undertaking.

    For some reason I'm complelled to quote Todd's saying
    "I'll have the burger, without the burger"

  6. Thanks, Jocelyn! Who could make it through a day without a good Todd quote?

  7. Wow! Great job of explaining....or Just really have done a great job so far....can't wait to come back Sunday for the rest. Growing up, I always struggled explaining why I hadn't actually been "baptized" so to speak.....somehow my explanations, although I attempted to say the same thing you said here, always fell Now I know where to send future questioners. ;)

  8. Yes, Ann- send them all to me. And I will confuse them too! :)

  9. Anonymous3/25/2011

    I honestly confess I didn't know Quakers still existed. Thanks for the education!

  10. Carl, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I'm honored that my little Tweet sparked such an exposition of all things Quaker. Having studied church history in several classrooms, the name George Fox rang a bell, but a lot of that got lost in the shuffle once I passed some of those exams! I think the doctrines of silence and tolerance are things we can all learn from. I know I can. I know every time I begin to take pride in how open-minded I've become to the way other people worship and live out the Christian life, God has a way of reminding me that I"m still not there yet. Thank you so much, Carl. I also read today's (Sunday) post. Great stuff!


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