The Religious Society of Friends began in the 17th century in England. Today, over 81,000 Quakers live and worship in the United States and Canada. We believe that every person is loved by the Divine Spirit. Quakers are of all ages, education backgrounds, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes. Everyone is welcome among Friends.
- Every person is known by God and can know God in a direct relationship.
- The Quaker faith has deep Christian roots. Many Quakers consider themselves Christians, and some do not. Many Quakers find meaning and value in the teachings of many faiths.
- Quakers strive to live lives that are guided by a direct encounter with the Divine, more than by teachings about the Divine. Quaker terms for the Holy include God, the Seed, the Light Within, and the Inward Teacher, among others.
- Testimonies are ways that Quakers have found to express our experience of the Divine in our lives. Some of the best recognized testimonies include simplicity, integrity, equality, community, and peace.
Quakers gather in the silence and wait expectantly to come into the presence of the Divine and to be guided by the still, small voice by which God speaks to us from within. During the silence, anyone may feel moved to offer a simple spoken message (vocal ministry) that is inspired by this holy encounter. Following the message, the silence resumes. A period of worship may include several messages or none.
There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, education, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes. You can find Quakers on all of the world’s continents. Approximately one-third live in the United States and Canada.
Frequently Asked Questions about Quakerism
We believe that every person is loved and guided by God. Broadly speaking, we affirm that “there is that of God in everyone.” Everyone is known by God and can know God in a direct relationship. We are called to attend to this relationship and to be guided by it. Quakers use many words to describe the Divine. Some of them include: God, the Light Within, Christ, Spirit, Seed, and Inward Teacher.
The Quaker way has deep Christian roots that form our understanding of God, our faith, and our practices. Many Quakers consider themselves Christian, and some do not. Many Quakers today draw spiritual nourishment from our Christian roots and strive to follow the example of Jesus. Many other Quakers draw spiritual sustenance from various religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the nature religions.
Quakers invite the word of God to be written in our hearts, rather than as words on paper—we have no creed. But we also believe that if we are sincerely open to the Divine Will, we will be guided by a Wisdom that is more compelling than our own more superficial thoughts and feelings. This can mean that we will find ourselves led in directions or receiving understandings that we may not have chosen just from personal preference. Following such guidance is not always easy. This is why community is important to Quakers, why we turn to each other for worshipful help in making important choices, and why we read the reflections of other Quakers who have lived faithful lives.
Quakers The emphasis of a Quaker’s life is on present time―on experiencing and following the leadings of the Light in our lives today. Individual Quakers hold a variety of beliefs about what follows our lives on earth.
The Bible is a book close to the hearts of many Friends. Many Quakers turn to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for inspiration, insight, and guidance. They are valued as a source of wisdom that has been sacred to many generations. Quakers are informed by Biblical scholarship that offers perspective on the creation of the Bible and the understanding we have of it today. Most Quakers do not consider the Bible to be the final authority or the only source of sacred wisdom. We read it in the context of other religious writings and sources of wisdom, including the Light Within and worshipful community discernment. Some Quakers have little interest in the Bible. For more on this topic, see the QuakerSpeak video How Quakers Read the Bible.
Yes! You are welcome to attend Quaker worship. There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes. All are welcome. You can find meetings in your area by using our Quaker Finder.
For Quakers, sacraments are understood as an inward, spiritual, experience. We don’t have a custom of performing sacramental ceremonies. For more on why not, see the QuakerSpeak video “Form without Substance.”
Quaker worship is based on silent waiting, where we expect to come into the presence of God. In this living silence, we listen for the still, small voice that comes from God through the Inward Light. Worshiping together in silence is a way for a community to be brought together in love and faithfulness.
During silent worship, anyone—adult or child—may feel inspired to give vocal ministry (speak out of the silence). After the person speaks the message, the silence resumes. Such messages may be offered several times during a meeting for worship, or the whole period of worship may be silent. Someone will signal the close of worship by shaking hands with another person, then everyone shakes hands with those seated nearby. For more on silent worship, see the QuakerSpeak video Quaker Silence.
Dress comfortably. In general, Quakers wear everyday clothes to meeting. This may range from what you would wear at work in an office to jeans and a t-shirt. You are welcome to join us for worship as you are!
Quakers Engaging with the World
Quakers find that attending to the Light Within influences the ways we act in our personal lives, as well as the changes we work for in the wider world. We have noticed that certain values seem to arise more or less consistently when we try to stay close to the guidance of the Inward Teacher, and we call these principles our “testimonies.” They are not so much rules that we try to obey as the outcomes of our efforts to live in harmony with the Holy Spirit. Some commonly recognized testimonies include peace, integrity, equality, simplicity, community, and care for the earth.
Peace has always been a very important expression of how Quakers are guided by the Spirit. We wrestle with our understanding of what God requires of us. We are asked to consider if we are called to be pacifists, but this determination is left to the individual as conscience dictates. For many, it has meant a commitment to nonviolence and conscientious objection to participating in war. Some Quakers, however, have served in the military. Quaker institutions, such as meetings, generally hold to a pacifist position. For more on Quaker pacifism, see the QuakerSpeak video The End of Violence?
Quakers find compatibility in our longing for spiritual understanding and in our desire to understand the workings of the natural world. Many Quakers have been leaders in science, including some who have won the Nobel Prize in a variety of fields. We understand that people evolved over millennia, and we stand in awe of the creation. Many Quakers feel called to help protect and heal the world that we are blessed to inhabit.
There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, education, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes. Modern Quakers generally “blend in” with the larger culture, rather than adopting the distinctive dress and patterns of speech associated with Quakers of earlier centuries.
Quakers try to live and act in ways that are consistent with the divine harmony that we seek in worship. Through this effort come our testimonies of peace, integrity, equality, community, simplicity, and care for the environment.
Once a month, the meeting (congregation) holds a “meeting for worship for business.” Anyone who is part of the meeting may attend. Decisions are made without voting. Instead, the participants discuss the matter and listen deeply for a sense of spiritual unity. When the clerk recognizes that unity has been reached, it is called the “sense of the meeting.” If those present agree with the clerk’s expression of that sense, then the decision is recorded in the minutes.
Quakers believe that we are all ministers and responsible for the care of our worship and community. Rather than employing a pastor, Quaker meetings function by appointing members to offices and committees, which take care of things like religious education for adults and children, visiting the sick, planning special events, having the meeting house roof repaired—all the many things that any congregation needs.
A member of the meeting is appointed as “clerk,” a volunteer office. The clerk chairs business meetings and handles communications. When the clerk’s term expires, a new clerk is appointed.
During a special meeting for worship, the couple stand and face each other, then make very simple promises, giving themselves and taking each other in marriage. They sign a special certificate of marriage containing the words of their promises, then after the close of the meeting for worship, everyone present signs the certificate as a witness. Most states make some kind of special allowance for legalizing a Quaker wedding when there is no pastor to “officiate.”
In modern times, most Quakers celebrate a low-key Christmas, and sometimes Easter, as part of our larger culture. However, traditionally, Quakers did not celebrate any religious holidays because all days are “holy days.”
You become a Quaker by joining a meeting. Quakers encourage newcomers to spend some time getting familiar with the Quaker way and with the community before making up their minds to formally join. You may spend anywhere from a few months to a few years as an “attender,” participating in worship and other meeting activities before you feel ready to make a commitment. (Some choose to be active attenders for a lifetime.) The first step toward membership is to write a letter to the clerk of the meeting expressing your wish to join formally. The clerk or a member of the appropriate meeting committee will be pleased to explain the membership process to you, but they may wait for you to take the first step, since Quakers are often reluctant to make someone feel pressured to join.
Quakers throughout the World
Quakers have evolved and diverged into several different varieties over our three and one-half centuries. The kind of Quaker belief and worship described here represents just one variety. Other branches of Quakers do have pastors and more structured worship, and have a more Bible-centered emphasis in their beliefs. In the United States, those branches are more likely to be affiliated with the umbrella organizations Friends United Meeting or Evangelical Friends Church International, rather than Friends General Conference (whose website you are on).
Friends who worship in silence are often called “unprogrammed” or “nonpastoral” Friends, while those who follow pastor-led worship are called “programmed” or “pastoral” Friends.
Unprogrammed Quakers (those which worship in silence) call their congregations “meetings.” Programmed Quakers (those which have a pastor-led service with a shorter amount of silence, or none) sometimes use the word “meeting” and sometimes call their congregation a “church.”
In 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world, with about 87,000 in the United States. This includes all the various branches of the Religious Society of Friends. All of the branches are represented in the United States. In other parts of the world, unprogrammed Friends (who practice silent worship and don’t have pastors) are most common in Europe and in former colonies of Britain; programmed Friends (with prepared worship services and pastors) are most common in Africa and South America.
You could say that it is everywhere and nowhere. There are many Quaker organizations with different functions and which relate to different parts of the larger Quaker movement. A few of the better known examples in the United States include: American Friends Service Committee (which puts Quaker values into action by operating service, development, and peace programs throughout the world), Friends Committee on National Legislation (which lobbies on behalf of Quaker values), Friends Council on Education (which works in support of Friends schools), and a great many others, including schools and colleges, peace and justice programs, retreat centers, services for the aging, and more. In Canada, the Canadian Friends Service Committee addresses the peace and social concerns of Friends. Each of these organizations is independent of the others, but there is much collaboration and interconnection.
Friends World Committee for Consultation is a worldwide organization, headquartered in London, that promotes fellowship among the various branches of Quakers, but it does not speak on behalf of all Quakers or have authority over them. Some of the Quaker branches have their own “umbrella organizations,” including Friends General Conference (that’s us), Friends United Meeting, and Evangelical Friends Church International.
Quaker congregations are affiliated in larger regional bodies called yearly meetings. There are 36 yearly meetings in the United States and Canada.
It began during a period of much religious upheaval in England during the mid-1600s, as people questioned the established church and sought new ways to understand Christianity. The emerging faith community gathered around the leadership of George Fox and others who encouraged people to be guided by a direct, firsthand encounter with the Spirit. These Quakers were seeking an authentic return to “primitive Christianity,” as practiced by the followers of Jesus in the first century. For more on early Quaker history, see the QuakerSpeak video How Quakerism Began.
The term “Quaker” arose as a popular nickname used to ridicule this new religious group when it emerged in seventeenth century England. Since the term was so widely recognized, members began using it informally, so people would know what they were talking about. Formally, we call ourselves the Religious Society of Friends. Today, we use “Friend” and “Quaker” interchangeably.
Quaker and Amish are both “peace churches,” but otherwise they are distinct and trace themselves to separate roots in England (Quakers) and Switzerland (Amish). Today, the majority of Quakers no longer practice “plain dress,” as do the Amish.
The primary overlap between Quakers and Shakers is that they have rhyming names. The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is a Quaker favorite.
No. Quaker Oats is just a brand name, like the motor oil and other products that carry the Quaker name.