These Frequently Asked Questions are based on content originally published online by Friends General Conference (link is external).
Quakers Engaging with the World
How do Quakers live today?
How do Quaker meetings make decisions?
What does the pastor do in a Quaker meeting? When there isn't a pastor, how do Quakers get organized without a formal leader?
How do Quakers get married?
How do Quakers celebrate Christmas?
How do I become a member?
Quakers Throughout the World
We believe that every person is loved and can be guided by God. Broadly speaking, we affirm that "there is that of God in everyone." Everyone is known by God and can know God in a direct relationship. We are called to attend to this relationship and to be guided by it. Quakers use many names and metaphors to describe the Divine. Some of them include: God, the Light, Christ, Spirit, the Guide, the Seed, the Life, and the Inward Teacher. [back to top]
The Quaker way has deep Christian roots that form our understanding of God, our faith, and our practices. Many Quakers in New England consider themselves Christian, and some do not identify in that way. Today, we draw spiritual nourishment from our Christian roots and strive to follow the example of Jesus. Many Quakers also draw spiritual sustenance from wisdom reflected in the diversity of our world's religious traditions. [back to top]
Quakers invite the Word of God to be written on our hearts, rather than as words on paper—and so we have no formal creed as a test for belonging. This does not mean we have no theology. Indeed, many Friends are actively engaged in theological exploration, both in academia and the wider world. As in the first years of our movement, today we affirm the danger that written words can become lifeless and harmful if misinterpreted or applied outside of the Spirit that inspired them. We also believe that if we are sincerely open to the Divine Will, we will be guided by a Wisdom that is more compelling than our own more superficial thoughts and feelings. This may mean that we find ourselves led in directions or receiving understandings that we may not have chosen. Following such guidance is not always easy. This is why being an active part of a faith community is essential to Quakers, why we turn to each other for worshipful help in making important choices, and why we value deeply the reflections and stories of Friends who have lived faithful lives before us. [back to top]
The emphasis of a Quaker’s life is on the presence of the sacred in present time―on experiencing and following the leadings of the Light in our lives today. "Hell" is a present reality for so many in our world, and "Heaven" is in this place, every day. Quakers believe that the world of justice, love, and joy we yearn for is available here and now, and also still being born. We are called to participate in helping this world arrive. [back to top]
Quakers in New England have long turned to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for inspiration, insight, and guidance. These texts offer moving testimony to the search to know God and live faithful lives throughout millennia. For generations, Quakers have found in the Bible a shared vocabulary for the inward landscape, a way of communicating their spiritual journey and experience. Friends are informed by Biblical scholarship that offers perspective on the creation of the Bible and the understanding we have of it today. We believe that consistency with our understanding of the witness of Scripture offers a helpful guide as we seek to discern and test our leadings today. We seek to read scripture in the spirit of worship, seeking the deeper Truth and fresh guidance the stories might hold for our lives together today, trusting always that we can be led by the Spirit into new understandings. We also value the religious writings of many traditions, and are nourished by other sources of wisdom, including personal prayer, worshipful community discernment, and the lived witness of faithful people, past and present. [back to top]
The most common practice of Quaker worship in New England is based on silent waiting, where we expect to come into the presence of God. Often we refer to this practice as waiting worship. In the living silence, we listen for the still, small voice that comes from God through the Inward Light. Worshiping together in this expectation brings the community together in love and faithfulness, and can lead to lives transformed.
During waiting worship, any person—of any age or background—may feel inspired to give vocal ministry (speak out of the silence). After the person speaks the message, the silence resumes. Such messages may be offered several times during a meeting for worship, or the whole period of worship may be silent. Someone will signal the close of worship by shaking hands with another person, then everyone shakes hands with those seated nearby. [back to top]
For Quakers, sacraments are traditionally understood as inward, spiritual experiences. Friends have described entering into the spiritual reality of communion with God in the experience of meeting for worship, and of baptism in the Holy Spirit. We don’t have a custom of performing outward sacramental ceremonies. [back to top]
Yes! You are welcome to attend Quaker meetings for worship. There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes. All who come seeking to share this journey are welcome. [back to top]
Dress comfortably. In general, Quakers wear everyday clothes to meeting. This may range from what you would wear at work in an office to jeans and a t-shirt. You are welcome to join us for worship as you are! [back to top]
Quakers find that attending to the Light Within influences the ways we act in our personal lives, as well as the world we seek to help build. Some Friends will refer to the Quaker "testimonies" associated with the relatively modern acronym SPICE (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality). This may have a place in teaching and describes some broad categories into which our beliefs find expression; however, they may more accurately be called witness. Our one Testimony is to the transforming power of God at work in our lives. [back to top]
Seeking to live in peace has always been a very important sign of how Quakers are guided by the Spirit. We all wrestle with our understanding of what God requires of us. We are asked to consider if we are called to be pacifists, but this determination is left to the individual and his or her conscience. For many, it has meant a commitment to nonviolence and conscientious objection to participating in war. Some Quakers, however, have served in the military. Quaker institutions, such as local meetings (congregations), generally hold to a pacifist position as a group. [back to top]
Friends in New England find great compatibility in our longing for spiritual understanding and in our desire to understand the workings of the natural world. Many Quakers have been leaders in science, including some whose contributions have been recognized with the Nobel Prize in their field. We celebrate the wonder of evolution, and we stand in awe of the diversity and complexity of Creation. We believe that scientific and technological endeavors must be guided by ethics and responsibility to humanity and all life, and grounded in humility and love. Many Friends feel called to help protect and heal the world that we are blessed to inhabit. [back to top]
There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, education, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes. Modern Quakers generally blend in with the larger culture, rather than adopting the distinctive dress and patterns of speech associated with Quakers of earlier centuries.
Quakers try to live and act in ways that are consistent with the divine harmony that we seek in worship. Whatever our employment, activities or circumstances, we hope that our lives demonstrate an authenticity and integrity between word and action. [back to top]
The local meeting (congregation) regularly (often monthly) holds a meeting for worship with attention to business. This is also sometimes referred to as corporate discernment. Anyone who is part of the meeting may attend. Decisions are made without voting; instead, the participants consider the matter together, offer perspectives arising from prayer and reflection, and listen deeply for a sense of spiritual unity. When the clerk recognizes that unity has been reached, it is called the sense of the meeting. If those present agree with the clerk’s expression of that sense, then the decision is recorded in the minutes. [back to top]
What does a pastor do a Quaker meeting? When there isn't a pastor, how do Quakers get organized without a formal leader?
Quakers believe that we all share responsibility for the practical spiritual work of caring for our faith community. Some of our meetings employ a pastor to support the sharing of the spiritual gifts given through each one of us. A pastor may sometimes bring a prepared message as part of worship, help organize religious education, and may regularly visit those in need of special care or counsel. Quaker meetings function by appointing members to offices (volunteer positions) and committees, which take care of things like religious education for adults and children, visiting the sick, planning special events, having the meeting house roof repaired—all the many things that any congregation needs.
A person is appointed as clerk, a volunteer office responsible for helping the meeting discern how the Spirit is leading us as a community. The clerk chairs business meetings and handles many communications. When the clerk’s term expires, a new clerk is appointed. [back to top]
During a special meeting for worship, the couple stand and face each other, then make very simple promises, giving themselves and taking each other in marriage. Marriage is understood as a spiritual covenant, affirmed by the couple in the presence of God and witnessed by all those gathered. The couple signs a special certificate of marriage containing the words of their promises, then after the close of the meeting for worship, everyone present signs the certificate as a witness. Often the clerk or a pastor signs the legal marriage license. [back to top]
In modern times, most Quakers celebrate a low-key Christmas, and sometimes Easter, as part of our larger culture. However, traditionally, Quakers did not celebrate any religious holidays out of a desire to live as if every day is a “holy day.” [back to top]
You become a member by joining a local meeting. Quakers encourage newcomers to spend some time getting familiar with the Quaker tradition and with the community before making up their minds to formally join. You may spend anywhere from a few months to a few years as an attender, participating in worship and other meeting activities before you feel ready to make a commitment. The first step toward membership is to write a letter to the clerk of the meeting expressing your wish to join formally. The clerk or a member of the appropriate meeting committee will be pleased to explain the membership process to you, but they may wait for you to take the first step, since Quakers place great respect in the motivation to join coming from the person seeking membership. Once you are welcomed into membership in your monthly (local) meeting, you are also considered a member of your quarterly (regional) meeting, of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, and all organizations with which NEYM is affiliated. [back to top]
The Quaker movement has grown and diverged into several different branches over more than three and one-half centuries. Friends in New England reflect this diversity, being the first yearly meeting in the world and being connected to fellowships of Friends worldwide. In some groups of Quakers globally, pastors are much more common, worship is more structured, beliefs are more theologically conservative (in a traditional Protestant sense) and place greater emphasis on the authority of the Bible relative to the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit. In others, worldview and theology are more liberal, worship is grounded in silent waiting and greater emphasis is placed on individual experience. A third stream seeks to conserve and steward the tradition of earlier generations of Friends, with expectant waiting worship, Christ-centered theology, an emphasis on the nurture and exercise of spiritual gifts, and a deep commitment to the discernment of the community as primary. New England Yearly Meeting embraces much of the diversity described above. We are affiliated with three umbrella organizations, Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting (link is external), and Friends World Committee for Consultation (link is external), each of which encompasses significant diversity of theology, practice, and geography. [back to top]
We traditionally call our congregations meetings. It is also common, especially in congregations served by a pastor, to hear a local meeting also referred to as a church. [back to top]
In 2012 there were approximately 377,055 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world, with about 87,000 in the United States. This includes all the various branches of the Religious Society of Friends. All of the branches are represented in the United States. In other parts of the world, Friends who practice silent worship (and rarely have pastors) are most common in Europe and in former colonies of Britain; Friends with prepared worship services (and frequently pastors) are most common in Africa and South America. [back to top]
You could say that it is everywhere and nowhere. There are many Quaker organizations with different functions and which relate to different parts of the larger Quaker movement. A few of the better known examples in the United States include: American Friends Service Committee (link is external) (which puts Quaker values into action by operating advocacy, development, and peacebuilding programs throughout the world), Friends Committee on National Legislation (link is external) (which lobbies in Washington, D.C. on behalf of Quaker values and in the public interest), Friends Council on Education (link is external) (which works in support of Friends schools), Quaker Voluntary Service (link is external) (which offers year-long service opportunities for young adults in a Quaker context) and a great many others, including schools and colleges, peace and justice programs, retreat centers, services for the aging, and more. Each of these is an independent organization, but there is much collaboration and interconnection.
Friends World Committee for Consultation (link is external) is a worldwide organization, headquartered in London, that promotes fellowship and interchange among the various branches of Quakers, but it does not speak on behalf of all Quakers or have authority over them. Some of the Quaker branches have their own “umbrella organizations,” including Friends General Conference (link is external), Friends United Meeting (link is external), and Evangelical Friends Church International (link is external).
Quaker congregations are affiliated in larger regional bodies called yearly meetings, which serve as the highest denominational body which engages in corporate discernment with authority over constituent congregations. There are 33 yearly meetings in the United States. New England Yearly Meeting of Friends was the first yearly meeting in the world, having been gathered for business in 1661. [back to top]
It began during a period of much religious upheaval in England during the mid-1600s, as people questioned the established church and sought new ways to understand Christianity. The emerging faith community gathered around the leadership of George Fox and others who encouraged people to be guided by a direct, firsthand encounter with the Spirit. These Quakers were seeking an authentic return to “primitive Christianity,” as practiced by the followers of Jesus in the first century. [back to top]
The term “Quaker” arose as a popular nickname used to ridicule this new religious group when it emerged in 17th-century England. It arose from the perception that, when experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit, some Friends physically shook and trembled in meeting for worship. Since the term was so widely recognized, some of us began using it informally, so people would know what we were talking about.
The term "Friend" was taken by the leaders of the early Quaker movement to reflect their aspiration to seek and follow divine guidance, drawing on Jesus' words in John 15:15: "You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servants do not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
Formally, we call ourselves the Religious Society of Friends. Today, we use “Friend” and “Quaker” interchangeably. [back to top]
Quaker and Amish are both traditional peace churches, drawing their guidance from the nonviolent teachings of Jesus. While we have historically supported one another, we are otherwise distinct and trace our origins to separate roots in England (Quakers) and Switzerland (Amish). Today, the majority of Friends no longer practice “plain dress,” as do the Amish.
The primary overlap between Quakers and Shakers is that they have rhyming names. The Shaker hymn Simple Gifts is a Quaker favorite. [back to top]
No. Quaker Oats is simply a brand name, like the motor oil and other products that carry the Quaker name. The use of the word "Quaker" is based on traditional perceptions of Quakers as responsible and trustworthy, a reputation we hope may be borne out in our lives today. [back to top]