The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has no set creed or dogma; this means that we do not have any declared statements which you have to believe to be a Quaker. There are, however, some commonly held views which unite us, and these are reflected in our writings.
One accepted view is that there is ‘that of God’ in all people and that each human being is of unique worth. This shared belief leads Quakers to try to value all people and to oppose anything that harms or threatens them. This, in turn, leads Quakers to have what we call a ‘concern’ about the things that stop people from living full lives. As a result Quakers are active in the fields of peace, justice, world development, education, homelessness, prison reform and working to challenge prejudice in whatever form it occurs. In the past, for example, Quakers campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Today we work to achieve human rights for all, which includes ending forms of slavery that still exist and challenging racism.
Believing each person is unique and worthy of respect means that in our daily life we have to try to understand the other people we meet and to be accepting of their differences. We try to be tolerant and trusting, looking for ‘that of God’ in the other person, even if they are doing something that we do not like. It is not always fashionable or popular to insist that murderers or dictators have that of God in them, but Quakers have always tried to see the criminal or the oppressor as a person in need, too. Sometimes this can mean arguing against authority, maybe against local and national government.
Some Quakers get involved in working for political change. Others prefer to concentrate in the area of their personal and local relationships.
An American Quaker, John Woolman (1720-1772), is remembered as an early campaigner against slavery but he was also concerned about any distress and suffering that he encountered amongst people and animals. At one stage in his life there was great hostility between the people of his area and the native American Indians. John Woolman cannot have been very popular when he set off to go and meet with the Indians. After some thought, he wrote that:
“Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life, and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.”
One of the early Quakers, William Penn (1644-1718), once said that:
“Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”
In the lives of Woolman and Penn we can see that the emphasis in Quakerism is always on the practical side. Love is not just an abstract idea but leads to action. Not everybody will be called to major acts of social reform but we can all try to put love into action in our lives.
“We are called to obedient love even though we may not be feeling very loving. Often it is through the performance of loving acts that loving feelings can be built up in us. We may start with small, perhaps very tiny steps. It is only as we begin to allow Christ’s love to act in and through us that it can become an art in us.”
From their early days to now, many Quakers have felt led by the Spirit to challenge racism, prejudice and discrimination. some Quakers in Britain and America played a significant role in the abolition of the trade and ownership of slaves, but the unified approach of the Delaware Valley Quakers that emerged in the mid 18th century in America took many decades to develop. It was not until 1776 that Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting prohibited Quakers from owning slaves. A gentle but persistent voice in this process of change was that of John Woolman, who spoke directly and personally with Quaker slave owners, helping them to understand the ways in which they were strengthening the forces of oppression and thereby acting contrary to the will of God. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), an American Quaker who was an ardent campaigner to abolish slavery, worked with her husband to withdraw their business from a profitable aspect of cotton manufacture. She could not approve any link with the exploitative labour and slave conditions of cotton production.
Racism has also been embedded in colonial and imperial structures of the past two hundred or more years. Some Quakers have been active in enabling people to realise political freedom for their own people. For example, the Indian freedom struggle, led by Mahatma Gandhi and others, was supported by the Quakers Horace Alexander and Muriel Lester. It was another Quaker, Reginald Reynolds, who carried a message from Gandhi to the British Viceroy in India announcing the ‘Salt March’, a major act of civil disobedience. More recently, Quakers have also played roles as supporters and channels of communication for Black leaders in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa in their attempts to ensure that the Black majorities become fully accepted human beings, with a right to decide their own destinies.
Quakers, writing in 1952, recognised that:
“the roots of racial prejudice lie deep within us, and in seeking a solution to the evil results of racial tensions we need to search our own hearts. Our belief in the significance of every individual in the sight of God and their need for an abundant life can guide us even when we shrink before the vastness of the problem.”
Quakers believe that every person is potentially capable of understanding the will of God, and helping others to reach God. This is true of women, men, children and adults, so in our silent worship anyone who feels moved to speak may do so, and in our business meetings any member may hold office.
The ordination of women is not an issue for us in the way that it is in some other churches, because we do not have ordained priests. Quakers believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (an idea that comes from the Bible, in I Peter ch 2 v 9) which means that all members have the responsibility to support the life of the meeting in the way that a priest would. However, we do need people to carry out all the tasks of leadership and ministry so both women and men are appointed to particular duties, usually for a limited period of time. We look for gifts and talents and skills, and recognize that as people grow and change, different gifts may develop. Since the beginning of our history, Quaker women have preached, taught, traveled in the ministry and given spiritual leadership and guidance equally with men.