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The Quakers: Children of the Light An Introduction

Beginnings in England
Friends in the New World
Western Migration
Origins of Friends United Meeting
Some Basic Beliefs and Practices
Structure and Organization
Role of Ministers and Pastors
Friends United Meeting Today


“And when all my hopes in men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is One, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.” George Fox

George Fox, born in 1624, experienced several years of intense spiritual conflict looking for an authentic faith. He wandered through England searching the Scriptures and seeking help from priests, professing believers in the established church and dissenters but seemed to find no satisfying answers.

Then, when he had just about given up any hope of getting help from others, he discovered the living Christ to be his contemporary. In June of 1652, in the northwest of England, he climbed a high hill and had a vision of a great people to be gathered in the power of the Lord.

From that time on he preached with great authority and by his death in 1691 some fifty to sixty thousand persons in England were firmly convinced Friends. The Seekers who responded to the message that Fox proclaimed found Christ to be a living presence in the depth of their own experience. They had met with God face to face and the encounter had left them changed persons.

Their all-consuming passion was to live lives of holy obedience. Jesus’ words, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14) took on great meaning for them and became the basis for using “Friends” as their identification. The label, “Quaker,” was first used as a derogatory nickname because early Friends had urged those who heard their message to tremble in the face of the power of the Lord.

Eventually they were glad to take the name themselves. Their lives had been shaken to the core by the power of God. The hearts of the first Friends were set ablaze by the fire of the Spirit and they sought to share their experience with others.

About seventy men and women in the Northwest of England felt a call to declare the Truth that Friends had discovered. They traveled, mostly two-by-two, throughout the British Isles and wherever an English sailing ship could carry them. It was a youth movement from the start. Most were under thirty years of age. If their message had been concentrated in a single sentence, it would have been “Christ is here today to teach His people Himself.” They came to be called “The Valiant Sixty.” They ministered to all who would listen-beggars, peasants, tradespeople, merchants, scholars, nobility and royalty.

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Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were the first Quaker messengers to the mainland of North America. They landed at Boston in 1656 and were immediately seized by the authorities, imprisoned, then sent back to their point of departure. Those who followed them were often banished, fined, whipped, imprisoned, and some of their number, including Mary Dyer, the first woman to die for her faith on these shores, were hanged on Boston Common between 1659 and 1661. But like the Apostles of an earlier age, they could not be restrained. “If God calls us,” they exclaimed, “woe to us if we come not.”

Rhode Island was the earliest Quaker beachhead. The Friends message was received so widely there that at one point half of the population was Quaker and the colony elected ten Quaker governors to 35 terms

In 1672 George Fox and William Edmondson were the first bearers of the Christian gospel to the settlers of North Carolina. They presided at the first service of Christian worship ever held within that colony’s border. Later, the gifted John Archdale became the Quaker governor of the Carolinas, and half of the representatives of the legislature were Friends.

Because of disorders and religious persecution in England, Friends began to immigrate to the New World. Quaker settlements were established in many colonies. The first colonies to receive the practical interest of Friends were the Jerseys which, through the complication of trade, came into Quaker hands.

In 1681, William Penn accepted the grant of land that became Pennsylvania as payment of a debt which King Charles II owed his father. The colony was Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” his attempt to apply Quaker principles to the practical business of government. Under Quaker leadership the colony flourished and prospered for decades.

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The provision of 1787, which declared that the Northwest Territory was to be a land forever free of slavery, grasped the imaginations of Friends living in the South. They saw an opportunity for themselves and their children to escape an oppressive slave environment. Clusters of families from Friends communities and entire Meetings migrated west of the Appalachian Mountains. In a very real sense a “Quaker Exodus” took place between the latter part of the 1700s and the Civil War as Friends poured into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan and overflowed into the states beyond the Mississippi.

The momentum of migration surged forward again following the war and soon there were Quaker settlers on the rim of the Pacific. As various regions were settled new Yearly Meetings were established. At the dawn of the nineteenth century Friends in the United States were all concentrated in the narrow strip between the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean; by its conclusion they had spread over 3,000 miles from sea to shining sea.

The broad geographic dispersion kept the various Yearly Meetings somewhat isolated from one another and a diversity of practice began to develop.

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A conference of representatives from all of the Yearly Meetings in official correspondence with London Yearly Meeting was called to meet in Richmond, Indiana, in October of 1887. (Link to the “Declaration of Faith” issued by the Richmond Conference.)

When the delegates met together they found that they shared many common concerns such as peace, evangelism, legislation, foreign missions, education, Bible schools, the welfare of minorities, and publications. It became clear that the Quaker witness might be more effective if some of these concerns were undertaken together instead of separately.

In 1902, after two more conferences held at five-year intervals, a formal organization was established by Friends gathered in session in Indianapolis, Indiana, to be known as Five Years Meeting of Friends in America. In 1963 the name was changed to Friends United Meeting (FUM) after the decision to meet triennially (every three years).

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“For you are all the children of light and children of the day.” I Thessalonians 5:5

Friends seek to be “Children of Light” in both personal and social morality. Like the Early Church, Friends begin with the experience of the presence and the power of the living Christ; the Christ who makes His will known and guides and directs.

Christians are those who have been transformed by Him, who have passed from darkness into His glorious light. “Walking in the Light,” Friends have tried to:

  • follow Christ’s way of peacemaking in a world gone mad with war, [Guide for Friends on War and Conscientious Objection to the military service (Revised 10/01).]
  • maintain the highest integrity in the midst of a society that practices deceit and exaggeration,
  • adjust one’s lifestyle to the simple basics on a globe with limited resources in spite of the prevailing theme of “Acquire, acquire,”
  • seek God’s justice for all and exploit no one,
  • recognize the full equality of men and women, and of all people regardless of race,
  • and make decisions within our community of faith based on unity under Christ’s leading rather than by factions and majority rule.

Quaker worship, whether unprogrammed (based on silent waiting and prophetic speaking out of the silence) or programmed (with a simple order of service and usually including a period of silent waiting), is a group experience of communion with Christ who is present in the midst of His gathered people.

The Church is the company of the people in whom Christ dwells. Outward sacraments are not necessary since Christians follow Him who baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), and who is Himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35). The primary authority for Friends is the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures. The Inspirer is greater than the inspired, but all leadings of the Spirit are to be checked with the Scriptures. Leadings are also to be checked with the community of faith.

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Friends believe that the call to follow Christ is a call to ministry. Each person is a minister utilizing gifts in the service of Christ’s cause and the Kingdom of God. Friends abolished the laity and became a fellowship of ministers.

Friends have always recognized that some of their number are more gifted for public ministry than others. These are persons, both men and women, whose gifts of speaking, visitation, and uplifting counsel under the leading of the Spirit, stir up and encourage others in their ministry. Over the years Friends have “recorded” the gifts of such persons.

In addition to ministering helpfully in their local Meetings, recorded Friends ministers have often traveled far and wide in ministry among Quakers and to others. In the latter 1800s, as new converts came into the Quaker fold, several Friends Meetings in North America began to ask recorded ministers to carry out duties comparable to those of Protestant pastors.

The task of the minister serving as pastor was to orient the new converts to the Quaker way of life. Today pastors serve a large number of Friends Meetings in the United States. Their primary responsibility is to energize and equip others for ministry. In unprogrammed meetings, such leadership is exercised by the elders (or Ministry and Counsel committee) of each local meeting.

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Local congregations are called “Monthly Meetings” because the members generally meet monthly to conduct church business. Among both programmed and unprogrammed meetings, the presiding officers of the monthly meetings are known as clerks.

Several Monthly Meetings may comprise a Quarterly Meeting. A group of Quarterly Meetings comprises a Yearly Meeting, which is the autonomous and authoritative body. In North America there are 31 Yearly Meetings, 11 of which join together in cooperative ministries through Friends United Meeting. Friends General Conference (FGC), established in 1900, has fourteen Yearly Meetings, five of which hold membership jointly in Friends United Meeting.

Organized in 1966, Evangelical Friends International (EFI) has six Yearly Meetings in North America. Three Yearly Meetings are members of the Conservative group and seven Yearly Meetings are unaffiliated.

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Friends United Meeting is composed of 30 Yearly Meetings with a membership of about 45,000 in the United States and Canada; an estimated 150,000 in East Africa; and 800 in Jamaica, Belize, Cuba, the West Bank and Mexico. This represents about half of the Friends in the world.

According to FUM’s Purpose Statement, “Friends United Meeting commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.”

Those interested in going deeper into the Quaker experience can find resources in the Friends Meeting nearest them and from the Quaker Hill Bookstore (1-800-537-8838), which has the largest collection of Quaker material available for purchase in the world.

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