Quakerism 101: A Very Basic Introduction with Suggested Readings

Flickr image: Thomas Hawk

Here is a short reading list with some basic background to the Quaker tradition in hopes of helping those who are getting started out and/or 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 as people seek understanding and practice of Quakerism.

There is a push to make people of faith lose their robust religious language in favor of a very safe religious language that will not challenge the imperial powers, that will not challenge the ego, that will not lay us open before Love or call truth to power. We have much to learn and plenty to grow into. I hope this can be a partner on your journey.

Getting a Quick Start

Here are some great websites to start with:

Here are three books you should read if you just want to get started at the introductory level:

Getting More Advanced

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: 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.

Histories

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

Quakers and the Bible

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).

Theological Texts

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: Rhiannon Grant’s Telling the Truth about God: Quaker Approaches to Theology

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

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

Convergent Friends

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

Read: An introduction to Convergent Friends

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.

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

Watch: This Quaker Speak video featuring Vanessa Julye on Quakers and Racism

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

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

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

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

Worship

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.

Testimony

“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.”

Quaker Spirituality

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.

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 Daniels

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

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