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George Fox, one of the early founders of the Society of Friends in seventeenth century England, had as a youth suffered great anguish as he sought an answer to his spiritual quest. His answer came, after much reading of the Scriptures and visits to many ministers and counselors, when he heard a voice within him which said: "There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." "And when I heard it," he later reported, "my heart did leap for joy." He had found God directly without the aid of ritual or clergy, and henceforth his distinctive message was: Christ speaks directly to each human heart who seeks Him; listen to the teacher within; He placed His light within each of us, and as we follow the way He directs we shall be led into life and Truth.
The first names for the new movement were Children of the Light and Friends of Truth. William Penn thought of it as "primitive Christianity revived."
Since those early beginnings, Friends have continued to hold that their faith is one of first-hand experience of God in their lives. Spiritual life, they say, does not depend upon the acceptance of certain doctrines, nor the observance of certain rites, but comes as persons are obedient to the light of Christ within them. They feel free to reject much of the ecclesiastical structure of the times, including priests, church dogmas, outward sacraments, and external authority in religion, because they feel that for them these do not serve the life of the spirit.
This has not been a solitary faith. From the beginning, the Quaker faith has flourished in a group, in a society, in a beloved fellowship. While God may be found in one's inmost life, one is always conscious of being part of a larger group of persons who are likewise joyously following the inward way and seeking to be obedient to the light of Christ within. They seek to be obedient not only in the quiet gathering for worship together, or in their meeting for settling practical affairs, but also as they are led as a group to be concerned for those about them, particularly those suffering injustices or inequities. While Friends had great respect for the individual person, the real unit in the Society of Friends has always been the Meeting.
Friends traditionally allow great freedom in
describing their own religious life and experience. They have no
formal creed. They try to weave their faith into life. Are they
seriously trying to follow their inward guide? Does the Sermon on
the Mount come alive for them as setting standards for Christian
action? Are they endeavoring to live by Quaker testimonies of
integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, and community? In other
words, one can often tell Quakers not so much by what they say as
by the way they live.
from Faith & Practice of New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 53
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The meeting for worship is the heart of every Friends' Meeting. It is based on faith that men and women can enter into direct communion with God.
In the excitement of their discovery that Christ was alive and had "come to teach His people Himself", early Friends gathered for worship fully expecting the Spirit to be present, and out of their hushed expectancy they entered into a fellowship with God that changed their lives. In the course of such worship came new revelations of Truth and a force that drove Friends out into the world to spread the news and to serve humanity.
Friends in New England try in their meetings for worship to capture the same spirit, a sense of God's presence in the midst, and to be open to new revelation. Some New England Friends gather in silent waiting upon God without designated leadership or program. Some are led in worship by a pastor whose function is to encourage and cultivate the ministry of each individual. In either case, for the meeting to be successful, all must share and respond.
Preparation for worship is essential. Preparation is a continual process of prayer, of reading the Bible and other religious literature, of learning from human experiences, and of daily practicing the presence of God. Some come on Sunday morning expecting to receive God's revelation with no previous effort on their part. For the cup to overflow on Sunday, however, it must be filled up all through the week. Early Friends came to worship with their cup overflowing, and it was then that the power was given to go out and to share the Truth that had come to them.
In the unprogrammed meeting, as the worship proceeds, out of communion with God a message may come to one of the worshipping individuals. Sometimes the message is purely personal; at other times it seems to belong to the meeting. The worshipper is then under divine compulsion to share it with fellow seekers, to contribute to the vocal service of the meeting, however haltingly.
In the meetings with pastoral leadership, the pastor may prepare a message and an order of service during the week, but the pastor is only a worshipper among worshippers, and the life of the pastoral worship depends on the response of the group. Ideally the prepared message arises not just from the pastor's own spiritual resources, but from the worship of the group.
Not all meetings, whether pastoral or based on
silence, achieve a high level. Yet God does break through the
crust of apathy, of worldly preoccupations or lack of
preparation. We are humble learners in the school of Christ, and
our weaknesses and failures should not deter us. When a meeting
for worship gathers in active expectancy of God's presence with
complete openness of heart and mind, the power to change lives
from Faith & Practice of New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 95
Page last updated Monday, December 2, 2013. It is maintained by the NEYM staff; click to send email.