Who are the Quakers?
Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends (and are also called 'Friends'). We were called Quakers in scorn in the early days of our Society, and adopted the name as a sort of nickname. The Society of Friends began as a rather puritanical Protestant sect in the mid-seventeenth century in England, a time when many such sects began. However, the central idea of Quakerism is older than that; this is the idea that there is 'that of God' in everyone, and that therefore everyone is capable of direct experience of the Divine: you don't need priests, or special ceremonies, or special holy books, or music, or special dedicated buildings, or even a special day: everyone is a priest, everywhere and every day is capable of giving us access to the divine spirit, which is both within us and beyond us. We began, in the 1650s in England, in the Christian tradition, but this emphasis on everyone's access to the immediate knowledge of God is not unique to Christianity, nor to any particular period. It means that women, and even children, are equally capable of priesthood. The difficulties the older churches currently have about women priests or women bishops have never worried Quakers.
I use the term 'that of God', but many Quakers don't like the word God. However the word 'God' has been called 'a one-word poem'. It stands for many things, and is hard to avoid when you are trying to describe a Religious Society!
The founder of the Society of Friends was George Fox, a remarkable and charismatic preacher who attracted many converts in the mid-seventeenth Century, and attracted much hostility from the orthodox. In 1662 the English parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, which insisted on the Established Church of England being the only legitimate form of worship. However, Quakers insisted on holding their then-illegal Meetings in the open, and many, including Fox, were frequently imprisoned for defying the law. Later the law was changed, but Dissenters and Catholics still suffered many civil disabilities.
Quakers have often been in trouble for defying the law, especially laws requiring conscription into military service, for we are resolutely pacifist. If there is that of God in everyone, we must not kill them, nor train to kill them, nor in any way help others to do so. So throughout the twentieth century Quakers were often imprisoned as conscientious objectors. And we are still prominent in any peace movement; we cannot condone any war, even a war on terror. No evil can be conquered by violence, which is itself one of the greatest evils. In general, however, we respect the rule of law, especially international law. We always seek to find alternatives to violence.
Among the earliest Quakers was William Penn, who founded the State of Pennsylvania in what were then the American Colonies. Penn recognised the rights of the Native Americans, and instead of trying to overcome them by violence, as most other colonies then did, he treated with them as equals. Thus the citizens of Pennsylvania lived with the 'Indians' in peace and harmony. Later, American Quakers were the first to object to the practice of slavery.
Quakerism has spread in America, and there are now more Quakers in the United States than anywhere else, though there are currently growing numbers in Africa. There are a few Quaker meetings in Europe and Asia, but in general the Society is mainly found in English-speaking countries and Africa. There are about a thousand Quakers in Australia, with about a hundred active Quakers in South Australia. We are tolerant of other faiths, and we do not require anyone to profess a creed.
The practices in Quaker Meetings for Worship vary a good deal in different places, but in England and Australia they are very simple and informal. We sit down in silence. The silence may be interrupted if anyone present, man or woman, Quaker or visitor, is moved to speak; but quite often a whole hour passes in silence, and some of us prefer it that way!
One of George Fox's letters ended with the exhortation to all Friends to 'Walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.' That seems to be the best summing up of Quaker attitudes and beliefs. The Cheerfulness is important; we may have begun as a rather puritanical sect, but our beliefs in simplicity, truth and openness, and that there is indeed 'that of God' in everyone (though sometimes hard to find, sometimes eclipsed by that which is not of God) keep us cheerful. We are basically an optimistic lot.