Quakerism 101: A Very Basic Introduction with Suggested Readings

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Earlier this week there was a conversation on Twitter that pointed out two realities that we are seeing a lot within Western (and often more “liberal-Liberal”) Quakerism: a) that Quakerism is viewed primarily in the secular West as non-religious; and b) that even within Quaker meetings there is so little religious education that many do not get anything to help in framing the Quaker tradition differently Quakerism in any way other than a morally-based, secular practice.

As someone said on Twitter today, they always thought of it less as a religion and more of a flavor. This is not an uncommon view among many Quakers. I have witnessed the latter problem within Programmed and Evangelical Quaker meetings as well: the lack of Religious education – as it pertains to understanding and framing the Quaker tradition (history, theology and practice) both as it was understood and how it is made manifest within Quaker meetings today, worldwide.

Therefore, I wanted to offer a short reading list with some basic background to the Quaker tradition here in hopes of helping those who are getting started out and want to know more about the history, beliefs, and practice of the Religious Society of Friends. I hope that this list can be of use in folks’ quest to make their understanding and practice of Quakerism more rich, more full, and more critical. I believe that there is a push to make us lose our robust religious language in favor of a very safe religious language that will not challenge the imperial powers, that will not challenge the ego of self, that will not lay us open before Love or call truth to power. We have much to learn from and grow into. I hope what is offered can help give you but a taste.

Background

As always, the Wikipedia article on Quakers is a good and very accessible place to start.

Beyond that, let me begin with some (very) basic introductory points about the Quaker tradition:

  • It is often said that George Fox was the founder of Quakerism but that erases the incredibly essential role that Margaret Fell played in the origins, shaping, and administration of the movement. So they were both co-leaders of the movement and had plenty of help from others as well.

Read: Ben Pink Dandelion’s, “Quakers: A Very Short Introduction.”

Read: Thomas Hamm, “Quakers In America.”

Read: Margaret Hope Bacon, “Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America.”

  • The Quaker tradition is a branch of the Christian tradition. Its origins come out of 17th century Christianity in England and was very much an alternative Christian response to the institutionalize church/state apparatus of the time. They were active “empathetic” readers of the Bible, and saw themselves as embodying a “realized eschatology” in their time (that is, God’s Kingdom is here now).

Read: T. Vail Palmer, Jr., Face to Face: Early Quakers Encounter the Bible

Read: Douglas Gwyn, “Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Times of George Fox or Arthur Roberts, “Through Flaming Sword: The Life and Legacy of George Fox.”

  • Quakerism has been around long enough to have “cultural Quakers.” People who grew up around it but do not necessarily consider it their faith or religious practice. Earlier Friends made a distinction between those born into it (birthright) and those convinced by it as a faith (convincement).

Read: Lloyd Lee Wilson’s “Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.”

  • Understanding Quaker history is deeply important to the formation, and I would say apprenticeship, of Quakers today. Learning how to adapt and contextualize that history within the needs and troubles of today’s world is equally critical and can lead to Quaker renewal. Some Quakers call this “convergence” or convergent Friends.

Read: Robin Mohr’s blog post, “Quaker History as a Uniting Force.”

Read: Robin Mohr’s Blog post, “Convergent Friends.”

Read: An introduction to that Convergent that I have put together on my blog.

Read: Wess Daniels, “A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture.”

  • While Quakerism began in England and spread rapidly to the Colonies, Quakerism is no longer primarily white, nor Western. There are more African Quakers then there are Quakers in the United States, and while these Quakers may practice their faith differently they are as much inheritors of the tradition as a White Quakers.

See: Friends World Conference for Consultation for more on global Quakerism.

Read: Pink Dandelion’s “An Introduction to Quakerism.”

  • The Quaker history around slavery is very mixed and much less positive than Friends are often taught. There were many early Friends who enslaved people. There were a few early on like John Woolman and Anthony Benezet who were abolitionists but they were in the minority viewpoint. Later, there were some Quakers, like Vestal and Levi Coffin, helped to initiate the underground Railroad with the help of many African Americans and other Quakers spread out from North to South. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, there were Quakers who were abolitionists and those who opposed it. There were Quakers who believed in equal rights for all, and many who believed in abolition but were “separate but equal.” Many Quaker schools and college integrated later than you might expect. Quakerism in America today is still dogged by unfinished work around racial justice. Finally, there have been African American Quakers for a long time, and the focus on slavery and the underground railroad can easily keep the emphasis on what white Quakers did for people of color, rather than recognizing those already in our midst.

Read: Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel’s book, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice.

Read: Harold D. Weaver Jr., Paul Kriese, and Steven W. Angell, “Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights.”

Read: John D’Emilio, “The Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.”

Watch: This Quaker Speak video featuring Vanessa Julye.

Quakerism in Contemporary Society

  • Quakerism today is deeply diverse and pluralistic and this plurality is not necessarily a problem, but are in fact expressions of how the tradition has evolved over time. Quakers get in trouble when they play the purity game about who are the “real” Quakers. Quakerism is now is a state of hybridity and this adds to a state of deep richness among Friends.

Read: Brent Bill’s “Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker

Read: Peggy Senger Morrison’s “Miracle Motors: A Pert Near True Story

  • Quakers worship in different ways but worship still remains a central part of their experience as a community. There are Quakers who meet in silence without any clergy and Quakers who have pastors and worship through singing, prayers, preaching and more. Attempts at bringing these different kinds of Quakers together happens through various organizations like F.W.C.C. Section of the Americas; F.U.M.; F.A.H.E., Q.U.I.P., programs like the Way of the Spirit, and informal gatherings and many more opportunities. I should also mention here, Quakers love acronyms!
  • Today, there are Quakers who think Jesus is central to their faith, read the Bible, and otherwise identify as Christian. There are Quakers who are unsure of what they believe about Jesus, God, the Bible and more. And there are Quakers who reject the notion of God altogether. Quakerism is a very large umbrella that has many different kinds of beliefs and people represented within it.

Read: Margery Post Abbott’s, “To Be Broken and Tender.”

Read: “Spirit Rising: Your Quaker Voices” to give you an idea of the great diversity among young friends.

  • “Testimony” or what is often referred to today as “testimonies” or “S.P.I.C.E.S.,” reflects a lived approach to faith. When taught from a historical perspective, testimony is the consequence of one’s life lived out in obedience to God. When taught from a “S.P.I.C.E.S.” approach, these consequences are broken down into values or principles like “Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.” Quakerism is a faith that is a way of life. Rooted in the phrase from George Fox, “Let your lives preach,” it is important to Quakers everywhere to live out one’s faith in the world, to be witnesses or give testimony to the ways in which God has moved them.

Read Eric Moon’s article in Friends Journal, Categorically Not the Testimonies.

Read: Rachel Muers, “Testimony.”

Read: Phil Gulley’s, “Living the Quaker Way.”

  • While Quakerism is big enough for many different kinds of people to find themselves within it, it helps to know that Quakerism is a spiritual community and a religious tradition, and that knowing this will help you make the most sense possible of all that happens within a meeting. There are many books that delve into Quaker spirituality. Here are only a few:

Read: Thomas Kelly, “A Testament of Devotion

Read: Brent Bill, “The Sacred Compass.”

Read: Peggy Morrison, “Le Flambeau School of Driving

Read: Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life.

So where should you start?

I would say start with where you are most interested. But here are three books you should read if you just want to get started at the introductory level:

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are books I have used in teaching introductions to Quakerism. I hope you will find some of them helpful and if you have others to recommend please share them in the comments below.

 

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.