Meeting the Spirit
- 1. Basic Quaker beliefs
- 2. Quaker meetings
- 3. Quaker testimonies
- 4. Quaker structures
- 5. World family of Friends
- 6. Life and development of small worship groups
- 7. Bibliography
1. Basic Quaker Beliefs
Quaker beginnings in George Fox
Friends began their radical redefinition of Christian Truth in England in the 17th century. George Fox was the great driving force of the early years. He was born in 1624 the son of a reasonably prosperous weaver and an intensely religious mother. A serious, introspective, physically powerful youth, he was at an early stage drawn to religious concerns. But he was genuinely shocked by the failure of the ‘professors’, the professing Christians, to live their beliefs.
At the age of 19, George left home on a spiritual quest. He sought out and challenged religious leaders everywhere to answer his questions. His searching and wandering lasted four years, but no one seemed to understand him and no one accepted the reality of his inner conflict. Gradually his conviction grew that God had given him the answer within himself. In 1647, he heard a voice which said, “there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition”. This experience changed his life, his religious conceptions, and his view of the human-divine relationship. He devoted the rest of his life to sharing this new understanding.
George Fox was imprisoned eight times for spreading his religious beliefs and for drawing the radical consequences from them. He suffered cruel beatings, great strain and deprivation. He proved to be a heroic and resolute person and a true religious genius. His Journal and other writings continue to be basic works of the Religious Society of Friends, of which he is generally accepted to be the founder. He knew the Bible so well that most of his writings draw on biblical sources.
George Fox never intended to found a new religious sect. He believed that his discovery was universal, that he had rediscovered original Christianity. Embracing this insight went far beyond the institutional limits of the Christian Church. The sense of joyful release that he discovered has been echoed down the Quaker history up to the present. It strengthened Friends in their conviction that people can find new understanding if they trust in and respond to the life that Jesus lived.
Friends and God
At the very centre of the Quaker faith lies the concept of the Inner Light. This principle states that in every human soul there is implanted a certain element of God’s own Spirit and divine energy. This element, known to early Friends as “that of God in everyone”, “the seed of Christ”, or “the seed of Light”, means to Friends, in the words of John 1:9, “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world”.
Friends generally believe that first-hand knowledge of God is only possible through that which is experienced, or inwardly revealed to the individual human being through the working of God’s quickening Spirit. This explains the attitude of Friends towards many things, including the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, the scriptures, the establishment and authority of the church, its use of ceremonies, symbols and sacraments, and especially the obligations felt by each individual.
Broadly speaking, the concept of the Inner Light is twofold. Firstly, the Inner Light discerns between good and evil. It reveals the presence of both in human beings, and through its guidance, offers the alternative of choice. Secondly, the Inner Light opens the unity of all human beings to our consciousness. Friends believe that the potential for good, as well as evil, are latent in everyone.
George Fox acknowledged that there is “an ocean of darkness and death” over the world. But he also saw that “an ocean of light and of love” flows over this ocean of darkness, revealing the infinite love of God. Friends believe that the power of God to overcome evil is available in the nature of anyone who truly wants to do the will of God. To a great extent, we are the arbiter of our own destiny, having the power of choice. Salvation, in the Quaker sense, lies in our power to ‘become’ children of God.
Although the Inner Light or the Divine Spirit has always been available, Friends generally accept that the fullness of God’s divine revelation is made manifest in the life of Jesus Christ – “made flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth”.
Responding to God’s call
The rediscovery by ordinary men and women of a sense of the immediacy of God is one of the most distinctive aspects of Quakerism. The writings of early Friends are full of stories of “meetings with God” and of “being led by the Holy Spirit”. Sometimes these experiences helped their understanding. Sometimes it was an awareness of something that had to be done as part of God’s purpose on this earth. Friends began to use the term ‘concern’ to describe the experience of Friends who believe that God might be saying to them: “this is what needs to be done – and you are to help do it”.
This type of direct experience of God is not unique to Friends. It is common to both Judaism and Christianity. But the Religious Society of Friends is unusual in the way it tries to support its members in obedience to such calls. Friends have always encouraged in one another an approach to Christian discipline that stresses the need to be open to the Holy Spirit and the call of God.
Friends and the Bible
Friends consider that true religion cannot be learned from books or set prayers, words or rituals, which George Fox called ‘empty forms’. When Quakerism began in England, the Bible had only just come into common circulation in English translation and was widely read and quoted. Most Protestant groups attributed a great finality and infallibility to it. The common desire for an external authoritative standard was very strong. In religious controversies, each group tried to find support somewhere in the wording of scripture.
At times, Friends fell into the same habit. But they also believed in the contemporary revelation of God’s will, parallel to what was described in the Bible. George Fox once said: “You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from the God?”
Friends refuse to make the Bible the final test of right conduct and true doctrine. Divine revelation is not confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit which has inspired the scriptures in the past can inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the same Spirit is essential. Friends believe that, by the Inner Light, God provides everyone with access to spiritual truth for today.
Creeds and theology
The attitude of Friends to formal creeds and theological dogma is different from that of most Christians. Creeds do not form the basis for association in their fellowship. Friends are aware of the limitations of words to express one’s deepest experiences. Friends also realise that words may suitably express the personal convictions of someone at one time, but that they will almost certainly be unsuitable for the same person later in life. It is even more difficult to define the religious conviction of a group of people. Words and phrases often lend themselves to very different interpretations.
The absence of creeds does not mean that Friends feel that it does not matter what a person believes. They recognise that personal beliefs vitally affect behaviour. Friends are people of strong religious views, but they are quite clear that these views must be tested by the way in which they are expressed in action. Many Friends have hesitations about the value of theology, fearing that it too easily leads to speculation and argument. But all would agree that humans, as rational beings, must think about the nature of their religious experiences. Friends are encouraged to seek for truth in all the opportunities that life presents to them. They are further encouraged to seek new light from whatever source it may arise. Their questing and open attitude to life has certainly contributed to the tolerance with which Friends try to approach people and problems of faith and conduct.
This may make it easier to understand how the Religious Society of Friends can accommodate such a range of religious outlooks among its members. Pretty well every colour in the religious spectrum seems to be reflected in the views of Friends. There are Friends whose faith is most sincerely expressed in the traditional language of orthodox Christianity. Other Friends could justly be described as religious humanists.
Sacraments and liturgy
Friends believe that prayer and the love of God are of primary importance. This erases an artificial division between the secular and the religious, and makes all of life, when lived in the Spirit, sacramental. Friends reject traditional, outward ceremonies and sacraments, sometimes characterised as ‘empty forms’, but without rejecting the spiritual reality they symbolise. Baptism, for example, means an inward or spiritual experience, not a ritual act. Communion is also of the Spirit, a conscious openness to, a communication with the Divine. Although Friends may differ in their ways of observing the Sabbath and Christian festivals, these days are not regarded more holy than weekdays.
Quakers and the after-life
Friends do not consider a life after death as a reward for virtue, or as a compensation for the suffering in their lives on earth. Neither has the fear or threat of damnation been used to induce Friends to live better lives. The Quaker view of what happens beyond death is firmly rooted in the experience of this life. Friends believe that life is good, and that an essential clue to its real nature is to be glimpsed in the love that people have for one another.
There is always an element of mystery about love which people cannot fully penetrate, but Friends are convinced that it has a timeless quality. Love cannot be destroyed by death and cannot be limited by time and space. This conviction is underlined by the experience of Quaker worship, and by the awareness that the personality of Jesus was not diminished by his death. His life was based on his profound trust that God is love. Friends respond to this love. They experience heaven here and now, and believe that whatever lies beyond death must be for our good.
Friends do not dogmatise about what happens after death. There are Friends who are convinced that there is an after-life, and those who are convinced that there is not. But all Friends feel that it is more important to get on with living this life, and seek to improve the conditions of humanity in this world, than to engage in speculations about the next.