Back to OWR Homepage Back to Christianity Flowchart

Back to
English Speaking Protestantism

Society of Friends

Doctrines The Society of Friends has no set creed, liturgy or sacraments, but derives from the Protestant tradition of: a belief in salvation by faith, the trinity, a priesthood of all believers and scripture as the sole spiritual authority. Friends emphasise that true religion comes from a personal encounter with God and following Christian ideals in everyday life, and not through observing sacraments or ceremony. Their meetings originally consisted of silence until a person of either sex felt moved to speak. Today such meetings are known as "unprogrammed" and can be contrasted to the "programmed" meetings of some American Friends' groups which have a more formal service with hymns, prayers and a sermon.

History The Society was formed in England in the 1640s mainly through the work of one man, George Fox. In the spiritual ferment of Commonwealth England Fox had become convinced that divinity lay within everyone and that people should follow their individual "Inward Light". The Society he formed was revolutionary in its members' refusal to accept any set ministry, adopt any sacraments, recognise class distinctions, pay tithes, or to take oaths to the authorities and in their recognition of sexual equality in worship. In early meetings many adherents trembled which lead to their popular nickname of "Quakers". Early Friends were radical in their zeal to spread the truth, travelling great distances at home and abroad, and suffering heavy persecution. In 1667 a formal organisation, which the Society still follows, was set up which consisted of a local Monthly meeting, a regional Quarterly meeting, and a national Yearly meeting. The persecution in Britain meant that when in 1682 William Penn, a prominent Friend, founded Pennsylvania many Friends migrated to participate in his "Holy Experiment" where they played a leading role for many years.
The 1689 Toleration Act ended the persecution of the Friends, but by then the Friends had adopted a far more pacific approach and had ceased to proselytise. They became increasingly sectarian and former customs settled into rules such as adopting plain dress and speech, avoiding worldly pleasures like music, drink and art, and not marrying outside the Society. Because they were still outside the British establishment many Friends became prominent in business, founding many famous firms. They were also pioneers in many moral crusades and philanthropic enterprises in which they continue to play a large part today. Friends were prominent in the movements for anti-slavery, temperance, prison reform, pacifism, missionary work and disaster relief. In America, where the Friends were far more numerous, they faced a number of breakaway movements during the 19th century, including some which were influenced by evangelicalism and decided to adopt a set service. Today the Friends continue to have a world-wide religious and social influence which far outweighs their numbers.

Symbols Friends traditionally demonstrated their spiritual concerns by a symbolic refusal to follow the ways of the world in matters such as dress and speech. By wearing plain clothes they showed a distinctive group identity which can also be seen in simple austerity of their meeting houses. Modern Friends, however, have generally abandoned their traditional forms of dress and speech.

Adherents About 213,800 world-wide in 64 countries including 19,000 in Great Britain and Ireland and 109, 771 in the United States. (Whitaker, 1995, 427; World Almanac, 1995, 729)

Main Centre
 Great Britain Friends' House, Euston Road, London, NWI 2BJ, Great Britain