A Basic Quaker Q&A

The below outlines some themes common among Quakers primarily from the perspective of unprogrammed Friends.

Who are the Quakers?

Quakerism, also known as “The Religious Society of Friends”, is a worldwide religious organization that developed in England in the mid-17th century under the leadership of George Fox and the small group of religious and social activists surrounding him.

The name “Friends” came from the Gospel of John, 15:14: “… for I call you friends who do my commandments.” The name “Quakers” comes from the movement’s early days when the Society of Friends was subject to persecution – the name Quaker was used as an insult because some Quakers trembled or shook when they spoke in meeting. The names “Quakers” and “Friends” have become interchangeable.

Today, Quakers number around 400,000 worldwide, with just over 125,000 in the United States, another 50,000 in Europe, and the remaining in Africa and Latin American, and other parts of the world.

Two Forms of Quaker Worship

Quakerism is practiced in two distinct forms – those who practice unprogrammed worship and those who practice programmed worship – although there are other divisions and affiliations as well, these two styles of worship largely shape one’s view of being a Quaker.

About a quarter of the Quakers in the world engage in unprogrammed worship – essentially silence, punctuated by vocal ministry offered by those inspired to speak. Unprogrammed Quakers have no formal, paid clergy, and have no central doctrinal or theological authority.

Some, although not all, unprogrammed Quakers are Christian in nature. The primary focus of most groups is personal transformation and social action based on the values of peace, justice, community, equality, simplicity, and sustainability.

The vast majority of unprogrammed Quakers exist in the Northeastern United States, England, and Ireland, and many of the newer meetings in urban and academic communities.

The other three-quarters of Quakers engage in programmed worship (a set liturgy, teaching, and music) and support paid, formal clergy. This larger group of Quakers are overtly Christian and the theology generally resembles American Evangelicalism, with an emphasis on personal salvation, the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Bible as the Word of God.

The majority of programmed Quakers exist in the Midwestern and Western United States and Africa.

What is unprogrammed worship?

Unprogrammed worship means that there are no spoken prayers, music, sermons, or a formal liturgy. Friends consider the silence itself a form of worship.

The meeting begins when the first person settles into silence – and continues for an hour. The silence provides an opportunity to be open to communion with the Divine, however one understands it. For some, the time is spent in worship. For others, it’s a time for meditation and reflection. For most, the silence is a welcome sabbath from the activities, busyness, and rush of everyday life.

During the silent worship, some are led to speak, offering an insight, idea, reading, or story – this is called vocal ministry. Sharing should be focused, and is usually short. There is no commentary or discussion concerning the spoken offerings. If others are led to speak, a few moments of silence is maintained in between sharing. Sometimes a Meeting for Worship has no vocal ministry, but remains in the silence.

After the Meeting for Worship and fellowship, there usually is an activity. Many Monthly Meetings follow a routine similar to this: on the first Sunday of the month, there is a potluck meal. The second Sunday of the month might be used for a business meeting facilitated by the Clerk of the Meeting, and conducted as a worship meeting with attention to business. The third Sunday, would have a program, be it a sharing, activity, teaching, or workshop of some sort. The fourth Sunday might be for singing or informal fellowship.

Is a there a Quaker theology?

No definitive or exhaustive list of ‘Quaker testimonies’ can be made. The temptation is that such a list might be treated as outward standards to which Friends are required to subscribe, shifting the source of authority from a living encounter with the Spirit of Truth to a quasi-creedal code of expected behavior.
– New England Yearly Meeting Faith & Practice, 1984

Quakerism intentionally lacks any central religious authority, rejects any creedal formulations, and highly values the subjective experience and autonomy of the individual believer. Quakerism emphasizes personal communion with Spirit (however understood). As such, Quakerism affirms the notion of ongoing revelation.

The Quaker tradition strongly resists any attempt to stifle or restrict the movement of the Spirit. As part of this resistance, Quakerism has deemphasized rituals, liturgy, ordained clergy, and has also downplayed any strict sense of the authority of the scriptures. The Spirit, speaking freely through individual Quakers, within the context of communal discernment, has something of the last word.

For these reasons, Quaker theology, if such a thing exists, is different in nature and not just content from that of many other Christian groups and traditions. Friends do not write creeds or faith statements. Instead, they sometimes write queries (reflective questions) that help members ruminate on various issues. The Monthly Meeting (the local Quaker group that meets weekly) records these and passes a sense of them on the quarterly and yearly meetings (regional umbrella groups), who share the sense of the shared values and experiences in manuals entitled Faith & Practice.

In this light, any systematic Quaker theology is sometimes said to be nonstarter. Many Quakers would argue that any structured or formal theology works against the Quaker experiential spirit. Many Quakers simply aren’t that interested in academic theology, either. 

Yet as the Faith & Practice documents suggest, genuine community implies some sense of shared commitments, even among diversity. There is a sense of unified meaning to the term Quaker, even if that unified meaning acknowledges variations. 

There is a core commonality and set of background convictions that unite Quakers. The shared convictions that each human person has that of God within, that the Spirit will speak through the people, that silence is the optimum context for listening for the still, small voice, that Spirit may speak through anyone, and the subsequent spiritual equality of all people, and so on.

Further, there are shared Quaker values, expressed in the acronym SPICES – simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and sustainability. While these values are lived differently by each individual and each Meeting, the common list is cherished by most Quakers.

These parameters – shared convictions and values – provide a rough starting point for a Quaker theology of sorts.

What do many Quakers Believe?

As mentioned, the Society of Friends does not require of its members the acceptance of any formula of belief. The emphasis is on the priesthood of all believers and the rights of personal conscience – there no Quaker creeds, confessions, required teachings, or a central doctrinal authority.

Most Friends affirm a central Quaker teaching that an aspect of Divinity – that of God  is present in every human being, and every one who seeks to do so can commune directly with this inner (and outer) presence at any time and place, needing no clergy, rituals, or mediators.

How do Quakers define God?

Although Quakerism arises from within the Christian tradition, Quakerism does not define God. Many Quakers speak of the “inner light” or Spirit, others speak of a personal God.

In general, Quakers trust that God is revealed to an individual in the way that each can best understand through their own experience, the lives and love of others, through various religious traditions, through the beauty of nature, and through the arts and sciences.

What do Quakers think of Jesus?

Some unprogrammed Quakers consider themselves Christian, others do not. However, most Quakers hold Jesus in positive regard, as a teacher, prophet, sage, and reformer, welcoming his message of love, forgiveness, mercy, justice, care of the poor, and so on.

Some Friends regard Jesus as the Inner Light, other friends consider him a Divine figure, while still some simply honor him as an enlightened human being, someone who channelled Divine love. 

Some Quakers who regard Jesus as Divine in some sense, frame the subject from a Unitarian, rather than Trinitarian approach.

How do Quakers regard the Bible?

Quakers generally respect the Bible as a sacred text and major religious writing.

Most Quakers reject fundamentalism and literalism of all variants and kinds. For many Friends, the Bible is a human product, perhaps inspired, but not the dictated or direct word of God.

Many Quakers consider the Bible to be their primary religious text, yet they likely also read other religious writings, seeking to draw inspiration from all sources.

Do Friends believe in the sacraments?

Quaker tradition is sacramental in nature, yet given the strong emphasis on simplicity, and an aversion to over reliance on outward forms and rituals, Quakers understand the sacraments to occur inwardly, with a minimum of outward form.

Quakers are free to engage in whatever ritual forms they find meaningful. Indeed, Quakers regard every action and all life as sacramental.

What are Quaker views on Salvation and Life after Death?

Friends hold no doctrine as a group, and individual concepts differ widely from Friend to Friend.

What do Quakers teach about moral issues?

Again, Quaker thinking on an issue is never monolithic. Without a central religious authority, Quaker’s wrestle with their own experience, reason, and personal conscience to reach moral conclusions and social stances.

Each Meeting for Worship is free to consult with it’s members and reach consensus on pressing issues of the day, although such public statements and stances are not necessary.

In general, it would be fair to say that the vast majority of unprogrammed Quakers adopt what are usually called “liberal” or “progressive” moral stances and positions, although exceptions are common and tolerated.

How do Quakers get married?

Friends regard marriage as sacramental commitment between two individuals, which should be entered into soberly and carefully. Nearly all unprogrammed Meetings welcome and honor same-sex marriages.

To marry, A Quaker couple asks their local Monthly Meeting to accept the “care and oversight” of their wedding. The Meeting appoints a “clearness committee” which meets with them to review their readiness for marriage and discusses with them, and sometimes with their family or other loved ones, the plans for their wedding and their married life.

This committee reports back to the Meeting. If the Meeting agrees to take responsibility for oversight of the wedding, a special Meeting for Worship is arranged, to which the friends and families of the couple are invited. At that meeting, after silence has deepened, the couple exchange promises.

Later in the meeting some of those attending may be moved to speak, expressing joy in the marriage and wishes for its success. At the end of the meeting a certificate commemorating the event is signed by the couple, by those attending as witnesses, and by the Clerk (which satisfies the civil legal necessities).

What Is the status of women among Friends?

Within unprogrammed Quaker communities, women are usually treated equally to men in terms of leadership, teaching, and decision making. From this perspective, there is no distinction made concerning gender when it comes to participation in Meetings for Worship and Business, and in holding offices.

Some programmed Quaker groups, however, do not have women pastors.

Early Quakerism was ahead of its time in affirming the full equality of women. Many Quakers were pioneers in the British and American women’s suffrage movements, even as many now are active in feminism, gender inclusion, and equal rights efforts.

Are all friends pacifists?

Not all friends are pacifists, but most Friends have a deep and genuine commitment to peace that goes beyond mere wishful thinking. Quakerism has a history of pacifism and conscientious objection to war, militarism, all forms of violence, and capital punishment.

How are the Quakers organized?

The basic unit of the Society of Friends is the individual local Friends Meeting, called a “Monthly Meeting”. Persons become members of the Society by becoming members of a Monthly Meeting.

Several neighboring or regional Monthly meetings are usually associated in a Quarterly Meeting. As the name indicates these ordinarily have three or four gatherings during the year, at which representatives from the monthly meetings discuss matters of joint concern.

Monthly meetings within a larger area, sometimes covering several states, typically join in a Yearly Meeting. There are currently thirty of these in the United States and Canada. Some overlap geographically, allowing monthly meetings to group themselves with others which they feel are most similar in attitudes and practices. The Yearly gatherings not only are occasions for business but promote spiritual inspiration as well as sociability.

Many Yearly Meetings maintain a Faith & Practice document, which outlines a consensus on spirituality and organization for that group of Meetings. Faith & Practices are usually intended as advisory guides, not doctrinal statements or binding documents.

Most of the Yearly meetings are members of some national grouping such as Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, or the Evangelical Friends Association. Internationally there is a Friends World Committee for Consultation which ties together Quakers all over the world.

What about decision making and finances?

Decision making is done in the context of a Meeting for Worship. Those meetings with a business agenda are called Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. Therefore, decision making is done in the context of worshipful silence. Typically, the Clerk of Meeting facilitates the business meeting. He or she will work to discern a “sense of the Meeting” and ask for verification from those present if his or her discernment is accurate. Strictly speaking, this isn’t decision making by consensus, but it is quite similar.

Each local meeting has a budget, and members and regular attendees are encouraged to contribute according to their means. Local meetings pay toward the expenses of Quarterly and Yearly meetings as well.

How do Quakers view other churches and religions?

Friends do not believe that they have a monopoly on the truth. While content with their own beliefs and practices, they recognize that other people may seek and find God and truth in other ways.

Quakers have been known for their tolerance of other religious groups and traditions. Friends wish to work harmoniously with other religious groups, especially in promoting social improvements on a basis of conscience.

How does one become a member of the Society of Friends?

Formal “recorded” membership is not required in order to attend, worship, and be part of the life of a Quaker community.  Most Monthly meetings have regular attendees who are often referred to as associate members, seekers, or some other name.

If a person who has attended meetings for worship and other Quaker activities, has read in Quaker literature and become informed as to the faith and practice of Friends, and has decided that this is the orientation which he or she seems to hold, they may request, if so led, formal, recorded membership.

In this situation, the Monthly Meeting appoints a committee to consult with the person, helping them discern and understand the responsibilities of membership. If the clearness committee and the person feel so led, the Meeting then accepts that person as a member.

Children are often registered, at the request of their parents, to be junior members until they reach an age to decide whether they want to ask full adult membership status.

Friends living away from home sometimes are considered “sojourning members” in the meeting at their temporary location. Friends moving to a new permanent location are encouraged to transfer membership to a nearby meeting and become fully active in it.

No Quaker May Presume to Speak for Another

Quaker uneasiness with structured, formal theology stems from a strong emphasis on ongoing revelation, experientialism, and radical affirmation of religious liberty and religious subjectivity.

There is much merit in this approach. For any spirituality to be mature, it must be fully integrated into subjectivity. Every person must reach their own conclusions concerning the nature of deity, moral truth, and so on. As such, there must be (and is) ample room within Quakerism, for diversity of thought, variance in practice, and personal expression.

Why should any man have power over any other man’s faith, seeing Christ Himself is the author of it?
– George Fox

No one can force meaning onto another person. Despite the claims of some, no particular tradition or movement, regardless of how old or enduring, represents the one, ultimate manifestation of truth and meaning – Quakerism included. 

For these reasons, no Quaker may presume to speak for another, nor issue a theology that others must follow or affirm. 

Each person must prayerfully seek individual guidance and must follow the Light found within. Each will be helped by studying the developing interpretations of God in the Bible and the ideas of the great spiritual leaders of all faiths. Especially will help be found as one ponders the life and the teaching of Jesus.
– Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Faith & Practice, 2013

This analysis leads to the question of where does Quaker religious authority then reside? The Quaker tradition is clear concerning the answer to this question. First, with the individual who disposes themselves to listen to that of God within and follow the leadings of Spirit. But Quakerism doesn’t exhaust itself in a radical spiritual individualism. Quakers value community as well, and believe that discernment takes place within a communal context. Leadings may be given discerning support from the community. Therefore, for Quakers, religious authority resides in discerning individuals  within a communal context.


The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction – Ben Pink Dandelion, Oxford University Press, 2008

The Faith & Practice of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting

Friend’s General Conference

Quaker Information Center

Quakerism Wikipedia Page