What do Quakers believe? As an experiential religion with no creed, there isn’t always an easy answer. We asked 26 Quakers about belief, and the resulting conversations were powerful.
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George Lakey: I believe that there is a spirit that delights to do no evil. (laughs) A spirit that yearns for me to be happy and to be able to connect on deep levels with other people. A spirit that wants me to search and to find, and to act. A spirit that wants me to be responsible and at the same time to be bold and take risks.
What Do Quakers Believe?
Max Carter: Quakers describe themselves as a non-credal religious body. We don’t have our beliefs set out in formulaic expressions, like the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene creed. The experience of Friends is that religion and spirituality ought to be a direct, immediate experience of one’s own encounter with God.
Patricia McBee: George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, one of the earliest Friends, said that “You can say that Christ sayest this and the scriptures sayest that, but what canst thou say?” What do you know from your own experience?
“That of God in Everyone”
Jane Fernandes: Quakers see that of God in every person. I think that’s fundamental, and when you see that of God in everyone—that’s everyone—that changes everything.
Valerie Brown: The christ consciousness—the belief that each person has within them an energy that is unalterable of goodness—that is available to every single person, no matter your circumstance, no matter what you have done or not done or said or did or had or didn’t have. You don’t have to dress fancy on Sunday; you don’t have to speak a certain way; you don’t have to study a certain kind of text. Who a person is, by their very nature, we have that availability of God.
Mark Judkins Helpsmeet: So I would put that right at the core: this universal experience. And, that we’re usually distracted from that experience by something that grabs our attention, and our world is set up to distract us. So I think that at the center of Quaker belief, if you will, is this common-held knowledge, is that the way that you get to what’s real is that you clear off the distractions.
Lloyd Lee Wilson: For many folks coming into Quaker meeting for worship who aren’t already familiar with it, there aren’t many cues to indicate what’s going on, and it sometimes seems like we’re having worship based on silence but in fact something very different is going on. Sometimes this is called “expectant waiting;” in my yearly meeting, it’s more often called “waiting worship.”
Greg Williams: The uniqueness is that you’re sitting, waiting to be touched and to be moved. God is there, and God may not come to you in the way that you expect. If you’re centered, you can have a sense of that presence that’s within you.
Laura Goren: Through quieting ourselves, quieting our ego, quitting our racing mind, we can access that truth for ourselves and together as a community, that truth of where we are being led together. And that’s a mystical thing, I can’t explain that logically.
Kevin-Douglas Olive: When we come together in that reality, and we seek to be humble in that reality, we find ourselves connected in an intimate way. Sitting in silence with a group of people Sunday after Sunday, that’s as intimate as I can think of within a community like that.
We Are All Ministers
Ingrid Lakey: As a Quaker, I believe that we all have access to the divine, that spirit is available to us, there is God in everyone—including me—and that we don’t need an intermediary to be in contact with the divine. The divine is always with us.
Margaret Webb: Quakers believe that each person has a ministry, has a call, has something that the spirit is calling them to do, and because of that we believe that each of us has gifts, and that we each have a role in our meeting community. So we each minister to each other, within a Quaker community.
Deborah Suess: We believe that Christ is present, that Christ will speak directly to us, that you sure don’t need a pastor to do it for you.
Vanessa Julye: Each individual person has God within us, and each of us has a message or a gift from God to share, and we just have to be available to each other to be able to hear and to see those gifts that God has given us.
Mary Crauderueff: So, by extension, everyone can speak in meeting for worship and preach. In turn what this meant was that in unprogrammed Quakerism, we tend to think of it as that we don’t have clergy, but actually what early Quakers thought was: we have clergy. We don’t have laity. We are all the clergy.
Benign Sanchez-Eppler: The possibility that we don’t know who’s in charge, it’s very rich for me, because it’s a sign that the spirit may be in charge.
Inward Transformation, Outward Testimonies
Deborah Shaw: Quakers believe that through this interaction with God, with the Divine, with the Inward Christ—however we name that which we cannot name—through that interaction, we are transformed interiorly and through that inward transformation, that our outward lives will be joyful and of service, and there will be an integrity in our outward lives.
Max Carter: Quakers come out of a radical interpretation of Christianity, which means a desire to go back to the roots of Christianity, which means the Gospels, which means especially the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings and examples of Jesus. Out of that context comes an emphasis in Quaker belief on peace, nonviolence, simplicity and plainness, equality, integrity, a direct personal relationship to God, an openness to God’s leading and direction in one’s life. But Friends don’t have those ready creeds, so tend to talk about their beliefs as what “we testify to be true in our experience and in our community’s experience, and thus are expressed as “testimonies.”
Tom Hoopes: And so when we talk about our testimony on nonviolence, that is a direct natural outgrowth of my understanding that my life matters and, it turns out, other peoples’ lives matter, too. If I live in a world where there is a very clear message or even institutional expectation or rules or laws or practices that demean some people’s lives, I can say that that is a straight-up violation of my beliefs.
Anthony Smith: Faith is about your entire life, and my faith means that those principles hopefully should be reflected in the wider world. It’s not just about how I live my life, it’s about the world that we seek. If I can do things, without being sectarian, per se, to put my faith values into action, I think I have an obligation to do that.
Mackenzie Morgan: You’ll find that Quakers nowadays and even in the past have been really socially active in trying to help others. For modern Quakers, you see lots of anti-war protests because we believe that war is wrong, that God will never call us to kill another person. We also campaign for equal rights and human rights, and that’s a thing that’s been going on for the last 150 years or probably longer. If you look at women’s suffrage in the U.S. and the civil rights era and things like that, Quakers were involved in those things and nowadays, right now, the sanctuary movement is a thing that Quakers are getting involved in again.
Stephanie Crumley-Effinger: For me, the Bible is a really precious and important part of that seeking and guidance, and at the same time I want it to be used with great care because so often the Bible is used in ways that are not life giving, and that’s not its fault. It’s a library with the Holy Spirit inspiring but with fallible people writing, and it needs us to be listening for guidance as we approach it and make use of it, and wonderful gifts can come when we do so.
Deborah Suess: I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about heaven and hell, at least this Quaker doesn’t. I figure that’s up to God. Early Friends talked about the universal saving light of Christ and that was one of the things that first drew me to Quakers. It made no sense to me at all that good-hearted people who seek to follow God would be condemned to hell because they don’t know the name of Jesus or weren’t choosing to follow Jesus. And so when I started reading about the universal saving light of Christ, that people of faith who live lives of love have encountered the spirit of Christ whether they know the name of Jesus or not, that was one of the things that drew me straight into the arms of Quakers.
Chris Mohr: Sometimes I think that fundamental Quaker belief of everybody having access to the Divine makes us all happier, peaceful people because we have this basic reassurance that, “No really, it’s ok. The world is ok. We mess up, we screw up, we get dirty, we have to wipe away our tears. But in the end it’s ok. And it’s ok now, we don’t have to wait until we’re dead for it to be ok.” But Quakers are human, we don’t really live that moment to moment. We aren’t really praying without ceasing. If only we could, maybe we would be happier, more peaceful people. I think Quakers have touched that sense of heaven on Earth enough that we have hope that we can be there together.
Thomas Hamm: We need no intermediaries between God and ourselves to experience God, to understand God. I think you would find a general acceptance, moreover, that the best and most perfect way to do that is by living the experience of Christ. For some, that would mean accepting Jesus Christ as a personal savior. For others it would be seeing him as a model, a teacher, a savior who shows us the way.
Stephanie Crumley-Effinger: I come to ideas and phrases like, “Jesus has come to teach his people himself” drawn from Early Friends, and that that means holy availability and that our responsibility is to seek to be guided and led, to take time to pay attention for what that guidance and leading may be, and to try to be faithful to it.
Mary Crauderueff: So Quakers believe in this idea of continuing revelation, which means that God still speaks to us today. That didn’t end when the Bible was written, but even today even tomorrow, 50 years ago, 50 years from today, we still get to hear God’s message and have the ability to transform our theology and our love for each other based on those messages.
Vanessa Julye: One of the things for me within Quakerism is it feels, it’s alive and its alive because it can be responsive, that it’s not a religion that was set up and is stagnant.
Lina Blount: There is this possibility of spiritual connection and truth continuing to unfold in the world as we listen to it, as we act, as we’re prayerfully together in community, there is more being unfolded. I think that some take it specifically to the Bible, that the prophets are still walking among us or being spoken to now. For me, that’s a less compelling part to it as much as: things are still unfolding and God isn’t done talking.
Theological Diversity Among Friends
Doug Gwyn: The central paradox of Quakerism is the belief in a light that’s in each person’s conscience. Early and traditional Friends understood that to be the presence of Christ but they, from the very beginning also believed that that light was in everyone’s conscience beyond the realm of Christendom. So there’s this universal side, and then there’s this very Christ-centered understanding of the Light, and they exist in this dynamic tension that can generate a lot of good energy as well as a lot of argument and disagreement. But if we keep trying to come to the center of the paradox by trying to come closer to one another across that divide, good things will happen.
Patricia McBee: While I never had a period in my life where I didn’t believe in God, I have spent my entire adult life remodeling what it is I think God is or does. A blessing to me about being a Quaker is I don’t have to make excuses for that. I don’t have to recite a creed with which I may find myself unsure from time to time.
A.J. Mendoza: There’s no Quaker Pope, so there’s no one to say who is or is not Quaker and what that leads itself to is a huge breadth of belief that’s held under the Quaker umbrella. Everything from more non theistic Friends to very programmed, very evangelical conservative Friends, and I like that. I like that it can all be held and that we’re all Friends.
A Living Faith
Kevin-Douglas Olive: Here at Homewood and in the meetings I’ve been in across the spectrum of Friends, Friends have found something. We’re not just seeking. We seek and find. And what we’re finding is a living water. An endless stream of power. It’s quiet though. It’s not loud. And we can be loud: “No justice, no peace!” We’re not whispering it on the streets, but it’s a living faith that goes beyond belief. So what do Quakers believe? We believe in a living reality and we believe in possibility.
- How would you describe Quakerism theologically? What are the limitations of talking about it this way, and what are the opportunities?
- As a non-creedal religion, many Quakers feel that the forefront of their religious life is experience. So the concept of “belief” can be a challenging one for us. What do you say that you believe? How do you answer that question when other religious folks ask you?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.