The Society of Friends is a branch of the Christian faith with strong ties to both British and American history. Within Quakerism are six different denominations ranging from conservative to liberal, and holiness to evangelical. These include the Friends United meeting, which is the largest in size, and a group called the Conservative Friends; both have a presence in the Charlotte area. Other denominations are Evangelical Friends International, The Central Yearly Meeting of Friends, Friends General Conference, and Beanite Quakerism. There is also a Quaker University in Greensboro.
The Quaker movement began in the mid 1600s during the English Civil War. This was a time of religious turbulence when England’s official religion shifted from Catholicism to Anglican and back again. Dissenting Christian groups emerged during this period of time with hopes of returning the faith to the people. Some wished to purify the church, others thought separation was necessary.
During this time a young man named George Fox came to believe that clergy who answered to the English government could not adequately serve as representatives of God who served no government. After a four year search, George Fox had a vision and understood the truth could only discovered through the inner voice of Jesus Christ. This inner voice came because God’s spirit is implanted within each person, and this spirit he called the “inner light.” John 1:9 says, Jesus is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
George Fox began to share his vision. He preached powerfully not only in England, but he also traveled to the Netherlands and to Barbados. People began to receive the message and became followers. In time others began teaching also. Most of the followers were ordinary farmers and tradesmen, several of them were women, and most were uneducated. Early followers, laymen who proclaimed the message came to be known as the Valiant Sixty. The group called itself the Society of Friends.
George Fox and his followers stood against church structure in place in England and because of this they were arrested, imprisoned and punished. George Fox himself was brought before the magistrates, Gervase Bennet and Nathaniel Barton in 1650. During the trial he roared the words of Ezra 9:4, “Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away; and I sat astonied until the evening sacrifice.” Magistrate Bennett responded by calling Fox and his followers Quakers.
Although persecution followed the Quakers, the movement spread, and crossed the Atlantic into America. Some settled in Virginia south of the James River, where they found protection from Richard Bennett, a wealthy planter and governor of Virginia from 1652-1655. William Penn, an English real estate entrepreneur and who became a Quaker at the age of 15 was founder of the Pennsylvania colony. He welcomed Quakers and other religious dissenters in his colony. In time many of the Quakers migrated down the Great Wagon Road in search of land; this led them into North Carolina.
Quakers remain strong in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and have spread to Ohio and further west. Persecution in England and also in the Anglican South caused this group of people to be determined to keep their faith distinctive.
Quakers have four core beliefs which include: every man and woman has direct access to God; no priestly class or “steeple houses” (church) is needed; every person: male or female, slave or free is of equal worth; there elaborate ceremonies, rituals, creeds, dogma, or other “empty forms” are unneeded; and following the inward light would lead to spiritual development and towards individual perfection.
Quaker practice is built upon personal experiences and shared convictions rather than doctrinal creeds. Friends desire to know God personally rather than through a priest, church or a set of lessons or books. Worship services are led by the spirit. To the Quaker that means they are unplanned by humans. The tradition of Quakers is to meet together and wait for the Spirit to share a message in the communal silence. When the still small inner voice is heard the recipient shares a vocal prayer, a testimony or an exhortation.
Quakers believe man is basically good. Although sin exists in the world, it is imposed over a background of light and goodness. Quakers believe sin and evil are destroyed by concern; therefore Quakers have concern for various social, economic and political issues. George Fox to a group of Friends the concept of original sin overemphasizes the power of evil; even when man has fallen, he still belongs to God who continues to appeal to the goodness within him.
Quakers who desire an inward faith rather than rites, sacraments and clergy understand baptism and communion to be primarily inward, spiritual realities, rather than outward rites. Each week in their service a time of silence and open worship (typically 15-20 minutes) is often identified as “communion in the manner of Friends”.
Quaker marriages take place in the presence of God during their meetings. Before the wedding the families of the bride and groom obtain permission in a monthly meeting. The meeting where the marriage occurs is called a passing meeting. During the meeting the bride and groom repeat vows to each other. Prayer may be offered, poetry recited, a message given when suitable, and silence is also offered. The families and friends are witnesses and sign the marriage license, for many Quaker meetings do not recognize any clergy.
Governance is accomplished through a monthly meeting. This meeting does not take place on Sunday, but on another day of the week. Any business necessary is talked about in this meeting, with the group either coming to consensus or voting democratically. Records are kept of all meetings which sum up the discussions and news of the community. For genealogists the records of these meetings are a great source of family information.
District meetings of Quakers are held quarterly and regional meetings are held annually. Yearly meetings are times for Friends from a wide geographical area to come together to worship and to seek God’s guidance on decisions and on issues facing Friends in that region. Yearly meetings publish guiding principles, organizational processes, and collected expressions of faith of the constituent Friends. There are about thirty yearly meetings in the United States.
Quakers believe the right to life is the most basic of all human entitlements, because of this they refuse to destroy life in times of war and they are opposed to the death penalty. In times of war Friends can serve in other roles of the military, such as medics. Quakers played a huge role in the American Revolution. A part of dissidents called the Regulators defiantly refused to pay fees, terrorized those who administered the law, disrupted court proceedings, supplied resources to the army, and served as part of the mob turning at least the army of Gen. Hugh Waddell to turn around. An outdoor drama in Snow Camp, NC documents this episode in our history.
Many would desire to ask questions about Quaker dress. They often choose to dress plainly because their faith encourages them to be plain and simple people. In earlier years Friends refused to remove their hats except in times of prayer as a sign of honor to God. A story is told of William Penn who on his first visit to King Charles II kept his hat on his head (which created a stir in the court). King Charles removed his own hat with a smile, whereupon Penn asked, “Friend Charles, wherefore dost thou uncover thyself?” King Charles replied, “Friend Penn, it is the custom of this place for only one man to wear a hat at a time.”
Quaker Oats Company which originated in Ravenna, Ohio choose their name and logo because the Quaker faith projected the values of honesty, integrity, purity and strength. At first the logo was identified as William Penn. Later this identification was removed. In 1957, Haddon Sundblom designed a logo using fellow Coca-Cola artist Harold W. McCauley as the model. The logo continues to undergo changes, In 2012 Saul Bass, was asked to make the Quaker man look younger.
So, who are are the Society of Friends? One student wrote in a paper, “The Quakers are a peculiar people invented by Oliver Cromwell. They are a quiet people who do not fight, and never answer back. My father is a Quaker. My mother is not!”