Friday, May 28, 2010

The Religious Society of Friends

The Religious Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers, are a religious sect of Christendom founded in England by George Fox in the mid 17th Century. Some modern groups of Quakers object to the word "Religious" in the title, and so the name is rendered simply "The Society of Friends."

The Quakers believe in a concept of "inward light." Fox was of the belief that everyone could feel the presence of God without intervention from a preacher. Among key Quaker beliefs now are (from the BBC):

  • God is love
  • the light of God is in every single person
  • a person who lets their life be guided by that light will achieve a full relationship with God
  • everyone can have a direct, personal relationship with God without involving a priest or minister
  • redemption and the Kingdom of Heaven are to be experienced now, in this world
In regards to their name, the official moniker is "The Society of Friends" or "The Religious Society of Friends." The name "Quaker" came about when George Fox was dragged into court on a charge of blasphemy. According to Wikipedia: "... Fox's journal, (Judge) Bennet 'called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God.'"

The Quakers played a significant role in United States and British history from their founding on. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania (which, literally translated, means "Penn's Woods"), was a Quaker who founded the colony to give his brethren freedom of worship.

Because Quakers value equality of all humanity, they are strong proponents of human rights even today. During the 19th Century, they were prominent abolitionists, and in later years would become ardent pacifists as well. Their membership actually shrank until about 1860, when the practice of disowning Friends who married non-Friends ended. on Faith and Practice:
Unlike other Christians, Quakers do not have a creed, but they answer in quarterly meetings a set of Queries concerning their faith and practice. (Five editions of the Friends' Book of Discipline record the changes made during the Victorian period.) Queries of particular relevance to Victorian Quakers included those regarding opposition to paying church rates, bearing arms, smuggling, and slavery. Though John Bright resigned his cabinet post in 1882 in protest of the British attack on Alexandria (having opposed British policy in the Crimea three decades earlier), the peace testimony associated with twentieth-century Friends was not a prominent cause for Victorian Quakers.
Elizabeth Gurney Fry was by far the most famous British Quaker of the Victorian period. An interesting point of reference though, is that she actually stopped much of her philanthropic and charity work soon after Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. From the time Fry first visited the women prisoners of Newgate in 1813, to her death in 1845, she gained an international celebrity for her widespread charitable works. To the Victorians, she was an icon of philanthropic work and the later evangelism that swept the Quakers altered this only slightly.

Today, nearly four centuries after the religion's founding, there are 280,000 Quakers around the world. They're still prominent in human rights causes, extending to civil rights for any and all marginalized groups depending on their particular version of Quakerism. And there are different versions -- it's not nearly as stark as other Christian denominations (some Quakers may not consider themselves Christians except in a historical sense), but there are differences.

NOTE: If there are any Quakers reading this, please feel free to correct any incorrect assumptions I've made. I'm merely an interested outsider, and I want to give you folks the best treatment I can.


Rick Daley said...

That was interesting, thanks for putting it together.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I'm a Quaker--well, technically I'm a Fighting Quaker...which is the official mascot of the University of Pennsylvania.
As an alumni of that prestigious university I can proudly say that I am a oxymoronic Fighting Quaker.
Hmm...some of my Steampunk novel takes place in a proto-Nazi Pennsylvania...the antithesis of Quakers...maybe I need to add some Fighting Quakers to my novel as insurgents or something....

L. T. Host said...

I can't even imagine how much work these posts take. I had NO idea the Quakers were still around!

dolorah said...

Wow, an interesting bit of history. I like how you integrated the Victorian Age into the synopsis.

I like learning about other cultures, and I appreciate the work you put into your very informative, interesting posts.

Thanks for sharing your research.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I have a friend who is a Quaker, but I didn't know until we had been friends for some time- they are private folk, which I respect. AND ... she's from Pennsylvania, where she grew up with her Quaker parents on a farm. I don't know much about thier practices, but I wonder how many Quakers we have for neighbors and never guess?