Friends, Religious Society of

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Friends, Religious Society of

Religious Society of Friends, religious body originating in England in the middle of the 17th cent. under George Fox. The members are commonly called Quakers, originally a term of derision.

Origins and Early Years

Claiming that no theologically trained priest or outward rite is needed to establish communion between the soul and its God, Fox taught that everyone could receive whatever understanding and guidance in divine truth they might need from the "inward light," or "inner light," supplied in their own heart by the Holy Spirit. Many of his early converts were from among groups of separatists. Calling themselves Children of Light, Friends in the Truth, and Friends, they eventually agreed upon the name Religious Society of Friends.

The Friends regarded the sacraments of the church as nonessential to Christian life. They refused to attend worship in the established church and to pay tithes. They also resisted the requirement to take oaths and opposed war, refusing to bear arms. Believing in the equality of all men and women, Friends would not remove their hats before their alleged superiors. Consequently, they were subject to persecution until the passage of the Toleration Act of 1689.

The Friends in the United States

In colonial America the Friends often met with severe condemnation and some persecution, except in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where in 1682 William Penn settled his famous colony. As religious freedom grew, the Friends sent representatives to the Continent and to America, Asia, and Africa. Although for reasons of conscience Friends could not take an active part in the Revolutionary War, they were loyal in upholding the new national government. They subsequently found a wide field of activity in philanthropic movements, taking the lead in the effort to abolish slavery. Among noted American abolitionists were John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The Friends worked for prison reform (e.g., Elizabeth Fry), for improvement in insane asylums, for mitigation of the penal code (especially abolition of capital punishment), and for the betterment of common education.

In 1827 questions arising in connection with the preaching of Elias Hicks divided the American Friends into two groups, the "Hicksites," who placed emphasis upon the individual's belief as guided by revelation to his or her own spirit, and the "Orthodox," who gave to the elders the duty of decision as to soundness of doctrine. At the same time, under Joseph J. Gurney, there was an evangelical revival among Friends in the western states, with a tendency to discard many of the old forms and distinctions. Another break occurred in 1845 in New England, when the adherents of John Wilbur set up a new yearly meeting in protest against what they considered dangerous departures from the teachings and ways of the early Friends. Two superficial marks of the Friends generally disappeared—the plain language, in which they used "thee" to everyone as a mark of equality, and the plain gray dress, the broad-brimmed men's hats, and the women's bonnets.

The Service

Avoiding liturgies and all elaboration that might interfere with the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Friends often meet for worship without set form and frequently without stated leaders, in services known as "unprogrammed" meetings. Any member is at liberty to follow the impulse of the spirit in prayer, praise, or exhortation. A meeting may be spent entirely in silent receptivity and communion. A "programmed" meeting may have some form of ceremonial order. Ministers are not required to have special training; any man or woman who experiences the call to the work and gives evidence of sincerity and ability may be recorded as a minister. In more recent years, however, many of the Friends who seek the ministry have studied at theological schools.

The Organization of the Society

The organization of the Society includes meetings for worship and monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings. In the United States, the old lines of division between Orthodox, Hicksite, and Conservative (or Wilburite) Friends have grown considerably less, and there have been many signs of interest in reunion. The Religious Society of Friends is a member of the World Council of Churches. The Friends World Committee for Consultation is valuable to the international community of Friends, and the organization of the Wider Quaker Fellowship offers to non-Quakers, in sympathy with the Quaker spirit, a chance to aid in the work of the Friends. During the late 1990s, there were around 104,000 members in the United States and approximately 200,000 worldwide.

The Friends have long been workers in the cause of peace and international understanding. The accomplishments in overseas relief and reconstruction achieved by the American Friends Service Committee, organized in 1917, are widely recognized. This body and the Service Council of the British Society of Friends were jointly awarded the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize. Educational activity among the Friends has resulted in the establishment and support of a number of schools and colleges.

Bibliography

See R. M. Jones, The Faith and Practice of the Quakers (1927, repr. 1980); R. Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few (1984); B. Reay, The Quakers and the English Revolution (1985); E. D. Bonner and D. Fraser, ed., The Papers of William Penn (1986); R. S. and M. M. Dunn, ed., The World of William Penn (1987); H. L. Barbour and W. Frost, The Quakers (1988); M. H. Bacon, Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America (1989); J. Walvin, The Quakers: Money and Morals (1998).

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