For the first several generations of the Quaker movement there was no such thing as formal membership. Persons were known as Quakers if they participated in gathered meetings and were prepared to witness in public to their beliefs. Over the years since then, Friends have developed a variety of standards for membership in the different yearly meetings, but these standards have all begun with the understanding that membership is founded on the experience of God's presence in our own lives.
Quakers endeavor to live their daily lives in keeping with the spirit of Christ. Membership may be thought of, therefore, not as a bestowal of a gift by a group, but rather as a mutual recognition by applicant and meeting that they are joined in their commitment to that way of life.
The spiritual preparation for membership', can take as many paths as there are lives to lead, for it is out of one's own experiences that the spiritual life is developed and focussed. Friends have always recognized, moreover, that the reading of devotional literature, above all the study of the Bible, can help develop a fuller spiritual life. Ever since the publication of the first Quaker journals at the end of the seventeenth century, Friends have also found inspiration and guidance from the testimonies of earlier Friends. The reading of these testimonies, combined with a knowledge of the history of the Society of Friends, has been found to be helpful in preparing for a commitment to membership.
Most of all, however, a potential Friend discovers the testimonies of Friends and their meaning for the twentieth century by participating in the life of a monthly meeting. Because membership in a meeting means membership in a community, one of the tests of membership is compatibility with that community. Applicants need to feel in harmony with the community they are joining. They should be able to accept the diversity of Friends, both locally and at the national and world levels. An applicant considering membership should feel a sincere responsibility for the group and be prepared to enter wholeheartedly into its spiritual and corporate activities. Service on committees or in other work of the monthly meeting or of the quarterly or yearly meetings should be considered with the same sense of concern as service in more dramatic ways. Membership also includes a financial responsibility to the meeting.
Prospective members should have attended meeting for some time and have developed an appreciation for Friends' forms of worship and business. The appropriate time to apply for membership will vary from person to person. One indication that the time to apply may be approaching is the recognition that meeting for worship has become a central part of one's life. Applicants are not expected to state their religious beliefs in any prescribed fashion, but may assume that their own search for an understanding of the Truth will be valued by other "seekers and humble learners in the school of Christ."
The Experience of Richard Claridge, about 1697
This was the way that Friends used with me, when I was convinced of truth, they came oftentimes to visit me; and sate and waited upon the Lord in silence with me; and as the Lord opened our understandings and mouths, so we had very sweet and comfortable seasons together. They did not ask me questions about this or the other creed, or about this or the other controversie in religion; but they waited to feel that living Power to quicken me, which raised up Jesus from the dead. And it pleased God so in his wisdom to direct, that all the great truths of the Christian religion were occasionally spoken to. Now this was Friends way with me, a way far beyond all rules or methods established by the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness with God: And this is their way with others that are convinced of the truth.
Lux evangelica attestata, 1701, p. x.
Membership in a Community
As membership in the meeting is membership in a community, the test of membership is compatibility with the meeting community. Members are either born into the meeting or join it because they desire to fit into the pattern of behavior peculiar to the meeting and find themselves able to do so. The test of membership is not a particular kind of religious experience, nor acceptance of any particular religious, social or economic creed. Sincere religious experience and right religious belief are both important, but they develop in the course of participation in the activities of the meeting. Anyone who can become so integrated with a meeting that he helps the whole and the whole helps him is qualified to become a member.
Howard H. Brinton: Friends for 300 years, 1952, p. 127
Membership Not Based on Worthiness
Our membership of this, or any other Christian fellowship, is never based upon worthiness. We none of us are members because we have attained a certain standard of goodness, but rather because, in this matter, we still are all humble learners in the school of Christ. Our membership is of no importance whatever unless it signifies that we are committed to something of far greater and more lasting significance than can adequately be conveyed by the closest association with any movement or organization.
Our membership of the Society of Friends should commit us to the discipleship of the living Christ. When we have made that choice and come under that high compulsion, our membership will have endorsed it.
Edgar G. Dunstan: Quakers and the religious quest (Swarthmore lecture), 1.95h, p. 68.
Suitability of an Applicant
To enable the Monthly Meeting to come to a right judgement as to the suitability of an applicant for membership the chief conditions to be looked for are that he is a humble learner in the school of Christ, that his face is set towards the light and that he is able to find spiritual help and teaching in our meetings for worship notwithstanding the absence of outward form. If it seems clear that an experience of the reality and power of God is being manifested in him he should be warmly welcomed into association with us. We believe that habitual dependence on the unseen Guide and Teacher, aided by the help the Church can give, will lead him forward on the path of spiritual and practical Christianity.
London Y. M.: Christian discipline, Pt. 3, 1951, p. 14.
Membership in the Whole Society
Other Christians are very conscious of being a part of the whole church. The newly admitted Friend also joins not only a local meeting but also the whole Society and soon becomes conscious of it as he assumes his privilege in taking part in many kinds of meetings and committees and finds that he is welcome in meeting houses in many parts of the world.
The Society has shown itself in experience and in action to be in a very full sense corporate; and its foundation principle is in fact not in the sanctity of human personality but in the joint call of a group of children of the Light, of Friends of Truth, of men and women subject to corporate guidance. From the beginning it was a deeply religious fellowship. George Fox, who, though not a law-giver for the Society, said many things that command respect, urged those around him to know one another in God. A. Neave Brayshaw, typical perhaps in his deep sense of membership, continually urged the young Friends by whom he was surrounded to plumb the depth of the phrase, "One another," and he did so in a quite definitely Christian context.
Whether the Society is to be regarded as a company of lay folk or a society of ministers and both views are tenable our membership one of another is a foundation fact of Quaker religious experience.
Percy W. Bartlett: Quakers and the Christian church, 1941, p. 20. Faith and Order Commission, London Y. M.