L’s Rough Guide to Quakerism

It occured to me, while trying to articulate a particular dilemma in my head (and subsequently, after Flix’s comment on a previous entry), that it would probably be worth doing a sort of ‘Rough Guide to Quakerism’ on here. After all, the two most frequently commented upon associations that I have heard to do with Quakerism over the years are 2. silly hats, and 1. porridge oats. I hate to disappoint you, boys and girls, but while there is in fact a contextual link in the name, ‘Quaker Oats’ has absolutely nothing to do with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) whatsoever.

The following comes with a heavy disclaimer; namely that while this is a description of Quakerism as I understand it and approach it, my word is not gospel. There is a huge variety amongst the beliefs of those who term themselves ‘Quakers’, although I think that it’s fair to say that most would agree of certain central principles. The joke also goes that within a group of any twelve Quakers you will have at least thirteen opinions – and like many jokes, that does hold at least a grain of truth.

So, Quakerism. What do Quakers believe? A perfectly reasonable question, but not one that is particularly easy to answer. Because basically, you see (and this is very important), Quakerism has no creed. There is no all-encompassing statement of belief saying “I believe in one God, that Jesus was his Son” and so on and so forth. When George Fox founded the Society in 1652, his precise intention was to get away from being told what to believe, being told how to worship.

While all of the early Quakers (and indeed many of the more recent ones) based their faith in a traditional Christian theology, the emphasis has always been much more on the spiritual side of religion. Many (British) Quakers today would, I suspect, term themselves as agnostic. At the same time, though, most believe that there is something, even if they don’t feel that the word ‘God’ is quite appropriate (- a word that carries many connotations for most of us since the advent of large-scale organised religion).

Commonly referred to as ‘the Spirit’ or ‘the Light’ or ‘the Inner Light’, it is that force (if you like) that Quakers seek to reach within themselves and in the world around them, both during Meeting for Worship and in the daily course of their lives.

I guess that the closest thing that Quakers have to a creed are the testimonies – five principles by which one is encouraged to live. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Peace Testimony – indeed this is the only one of the five which is explicitely written out. The other four are Simplicity, Equality, Truth, and Care for the Environment. So far so standard, one might say, but what I like about Quakerism is that unlike in so many situations, these values are upheld and taken to their logical conclusion.

Take equality, for instance. If all are equal and everyone has that of God within them then what right has anyone to take charge? Thus business meetings are open to all, chaired by an elective clerk and decisions are based upon consensus. But it goes further than this. Quakers got in trouble for refusing to doff their hats to figures of authority in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they respected women as equals and were pioneers in bringing about an end to the slave trade. Thanks to a decision reached at British Yearly Meeting last year in York (and the passing of the relevant Equality Bill amendments in the rather timely pre-election wash-up this spring), Quaker Meetings are the only religious institutions in the country which will perform civil partnership ceremonies on the same (legal) terms as heterosexual marriage.

There’s a common misconception about Quakers – that we’re not allowed to do this or that, and are completely joyless Puritans who live a rigorous, disciplined life. And that is by no means the case. In fact, there are no rules whatsoever. What we do have, though, is a little book called ‘Advices and Queries’. It’s a very short text, with 42 simple paragraphs in, and each one advises you and queries you on how to live your life. Instead of saying “Don’t drink alcohol!”, number 40 reads,

“In view of the harm done by the use of alcohol, tobacco and other habit-forming drugs, consider whether you should limit your use of them or refrain from using them altogether. Remember that any use of alcohol or drugs may impair judgment and put both the user and others in danger.”

In other words, it’s your choice – and your responsibility. For the record, most Quakers I know do drink (in moderation or otherwise), and for those who don’t, it tends not to be on solely religious grounds (although I will admit that having a non-drinking culture and a handy excuse on hand can be useful).

It’s also not about being holier-than-thou. Being a Quaker doesn’t excuse one from life’s vices, just as it doesn’t solve every theological riddle either. It’s not about doing things because of being a Quaker – it’s doing things because they are the right thing to do. It’s just that sometimes, being a Quaker and worshipping amongst like-minded people helps give one that extra bit of inner strength to make the right decision when times are tough. But Quakers are still people and sometimes, people get it wrong. Advice number 17: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken”.

Indeed, one is constantly forced to confront one’s own beliefs. Meetings are held in silence; anyone who feels moved to speak may stand up and do so, and inevitably one’s train of thought is often influenced by this ‘ministry’. Because there are no steadfast conclusions to be reached or rituals to be followed, emphasis is placed on one’s own spiritual journey and the journies of those around you. Going to Meeting is a chance to enter that stillness of mind where one can reflect on life, and focus on the spiritual aspects that all too easily get passed over in the daily bustle. The aim, if you like, is that by opening up one’s mind, one is free to receive ‘divine guidance’, renewing both one’s faith and one’s sense of purpose.


I’ve no idea whether I’ve covered everything there, but that’s as comprehensive a starting point I can manage, I think. The official website of Quakers in Britain is a good place to go if you want more information, and I’m hoping that J might write an alternative perspective on here if I ask him nicely.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Flix
    Oct 23, 2010 @ 11:21:07

    Thank you for this insight. I have looked on the website previously (notably when told to check it out by a Quaker on the radio) but I frequently find it more interesting to learn about such things from a personal point of view.

    I am also intrigued to hear J’s perspective…


  2. maninahutch
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:59:26

    I’ll get round to writing a full thing soon but generally agree with Lu. I’ll quickly add to the comment about drink though. I was once asked about this by a cleaner at the Quaker conference centre in Birmingham where I volunteered for a short time. She asked whether Quakers were allowed to get drunk and I responded that it was personal choice but, as with most things, moderation was advised. But that I occassionaly get drunk – my interpretation of moderation!

    (I think the question arose because the centre was alcohol free. However, this wasn’t because of disaproval but because it sought to create a safe venue for all groups, including (amongst others) young people, AA meetings and survivors of abuse.)


  3. Kate
    Oct 30, 2010 @ 10:58:24

    ‘It’s not about doing things because of being a Quaker – it’s doing things because they are the right thing to do.’

    This is a rather narrow-minded interpretation of other religions. As a Christian, I do not kill, commit adultery or steal because it is in my moral code not to do this. This is nothing to do with my religion. Yes, my religion tells me quite clearly not to do it, but I also know that it is wrong – I follow my own ethics rather than my religion in this case, and to suggest as you seem to be that Quakers are the only ones who do this shows a great lack of understanding on your part.

    Also your argument in itself does not make sense. You say that you may do everything in moderation, that Quakerism allows you to make your own decisions. Does Quakerism therefore allow you to steal in moderation? Kill every so often? Of course not, but therefore there are rules, and there are teachings that you are expected to follow. They may not be as clearly set out as the 10 Commandments but to say they are not in existence is clearly incorrect.


  4. maninahutch
    Oct 30, 2010 @ 12:22:19

    Hi Kate,

    L will no doubt have her own things to say but I want to breifly leap to her defence if I may?

    I don’t think L implied, nor meant to imply, that Quakerism was different from other religions in respect of application of ethical teaching. She merely asserted that this is an aspect of Quakerism with no comment on whether this was an aspect of other religions or not.

    I would also challenge your assertion that your reluctance to steal or kill has nothing whatsoever to do with your religious faith. Surely if you hold religious faith you must examine the ethical teachings of that faith? Even if you then make a reasoned judgement of your own as to whether you should follow these or not, your religion holds some influence over your ethical choices. Even if you have never read the Bible, your ethical stucture will have been influenced by the prevailing culture – in the West (for better or worse) this is predominantly influenced by Christianity through it’s legal principles etc. Again, L makes no assertion that Quakers are immune from either of these processes.

    Whilst Ls comment about moderation was perhaps a sweeping generalisation that, taken to a logical extreme, seems unfortunate. However, her point, I believe, is that there is a great variety and nuance in ethical positions amongst Quakers. For example, the question as to whether it is ever right to steal (eg the standard ‘to feed my starving family’ test) will elicit different reactions from different Quakers. Likewise, the point at which killing becomes ethically excusable will also vary from Quaker to Quaker – self defence, self defence against an abusive partner, liberal interventionism, abortion, euthanasia, the list is endless. To characterise these questions as “thou shalt not kill” or “killing in moderation” glosses over a wide grey area.

    If you compare the fact that the Quakers have no fixed position on these ethical issues, in comparison, for example, with the Catholic Church which does have official positions, you can perhaps see what L is trying to express?


  5. Lucy
    Oct 31, 2010 @ 18:19:43

    I’m sorry you interpreted my post that way, Kate, because I really did not mean to imply that ethical behaviour was exclusive to Quakers. As for your ‘killing in moderation’ argument, I think that J has spoken for me with what I meant.

    Ah, it’s so difficult to put these things into words, isn’t it, such as to be completely unambiguous when they are such nebulous concepts to try and express!


  6. Trackback: A Quaker Wedding Ceremony – Part I « 2 Quakers, 1 wedding, 0 hats!

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