The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) arose in the north of England in the 1650s at a time of great religious turmoil. A young man named George Fox preached against the power of the clergy and the formal ritual of the established church. He said, "there is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to thy condition." He believed that each person can have direct knowledge of God without the need for intervention from clergy or the trappings of ritual and elaborate church buildings.
We are called Friends on the basis of John 15:14-15:
"You are my friends if you do what I command you… I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (New Revised Standard Version).
We received our popular name "Quaker" after George Fox told a Justice to tremble at the word of the Lord, and the Justice thereupon fixed the name "quaker" upon him.
The movement spread to America and became established when William Penn, an early Quaker, was given a land grant that he named Pennsylvania. The first Friends came to the Ohio Valley area in the early 19th century in a great migration from North Carolina. Today, although few in actual numbers, Quakers can be found in many countries around the world with relatively large concentrations in Kenya and Bolivia as a result of missions in these areas.
Distribution worldwide of Friends:
Total members 358,923 (U.S. 87,022)
Africa = 43%
North America = 30%
Caribbean and Latin America = 17%
Europe and Middle East = 6%
Asia-West Pacific = 4%
Friends have become known worldwide because of their humanitarian efforts springing from testimonies of equality, integrity and peace. In 1947 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Friends Service Council (of the UK and Ireland) and the American Friends Service Committee to recognize their relief work with refugees after World War II.
"A Friends Testimony is an outward expression of an inward leading of the spirit--or an outward sign of what Friends believe to be an inward revelation of truth."
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has since its foundation (1652/1654) held a testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ. Quakers believe that, in the words of the founder George Fox, they are called to "live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars."
"We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatever: this is our testimony to the whole world."
1660, part of the Declaration to Charles II
When newly convinced Friends accepted the dignity and worth of the individual, "that of God in everyone," it becomes impossible to take another's life. "Furthermore, weapons destroy more than two individuals—the soul of the perpetrator as well as the victim." (Little Quaker Sociology Book) The "Peace Testimony is not just a negative objection to participation in war; it is a positive attempt to establish the conditions of peace." (John Punshon) In addition to Friends' appeal for world peace, Friends emphasize the right rearing of children and using love and guidance rather than corporal punishment.
Equality was the earliest Friends' testimony as is evidenced in George Fox's first convert, Elizabeth Hooton, a woman. Early Quakers emphasized the Divine capacity in all peoples, choosing to use the familiar first person English pronoun reference for all (Thee and Thy) rather than the second person (You) popular at the time for royalty and government officials. Friends continue to be concerned about civil rights, affirmative action, Native American affairs, freedom of religious choice, rights of migrant workers, and with victims of war.
A first name that Friends chose for themselves was Friends of the Truth. Maintaining honesty in all issues is a sacrosanct to Quakerism. "Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay" (Matthew 5:34-37) Integrity includes living in a way consistent with the values one professes. "Let your life speak," we say.
The Quaker testimony of simplicity relates to integrity. The desire for simplicity of life style originated in early Quakers’ concern about the extravagant and ostentatious lives of the well-to-do. This life style contrasted dramatically with the life style available to lower classes. The testimony of simplicity continues to encourage avoidance of excessive materialism, to avoid excesses in personal habits, and to consider the right use of world resources. Many Quakers are keenly aware of how our life style choices affect others in the world. As a Quaker bumper sticker says, "Live simply so that others may simply live."
"Participation in the activities of a group is the oldest and most effective form of education" (Howard Brinton). Quaker concern for community includes family, church, the wider local, state, national, and international communities with an awareness for the interrelatedness of all, including the environment we create and need to protect for the good of all.