What do Quakers believe? How do we practice our faith? The best place to look for the answers might be in a book of faith and practice. Here’s what they are and how they evolved over time.
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At a minimum, the book of faith and practice sets down the rules that Friends are expected to follow in their business procedures. So to some extent, books of faith and practice are rather legalistic documents.
What is a Quaker Book of Faith and Practice?
I am Tom Hamm. I am a resident of Richmond, Indiana, a member of West Richmond Friends Meeting in the New Association of Friends, and I am a professor of history and director of special collections at Earlham College.
The History of Faith and Practice
Books of Quaker faith and practice originated in the 17th century when yearly meetings (the highest authority among Friends) began making decisions about what was acceptable Quaker behavior. Some of these decisions were rules that just about all churches at the time would have embraced: it’s unacceptable to get drunk, it’s unacceptable to commit adultery, it’s unacceptable to steal something from someone else.
Early Quaker Testimonies
Others of these decisions or rulings reflected Quaker peculiarities: things that distinguished Friends from other religious groups, even other Protestants. So for example, here in the books of discipline you would find recorded that Friends have a testimony against oath-taking, that Friends have a testimony against bearing arms, Friends have a testimony for plainness and simplicity and moderation. Friends are expected to use the plain language of “thee” and “thy” to a single person. Meetings are to take care that engraved tombstones are not found in their burying grounds.
Books of Faith and Practice Through History
Originally these decisions and rulings were simply recorded in manuscript form. Beginning in the late 18th century, yearly meetings began to put them into print, and by the 19th century every yearly meeting has its own printed discipline. In the 20th century, the general tendency was away from referring to these as “books of discipline” and instead referring to them as books of faith and practice, because the latter term was seen as more descriptive of what they were.
Almost every yearly meeting of Friends in the world today has a book of faith and practice. As friends around the world today are diverse, you will find considerable diversity in books of faith and practice.
Faith and Practice Among Orthodox Friends
For Friends who come out of the Orthodox tradition in American Quakerism, that which in doctrine is closer to evangelical Protestantism, the book of faith and practice is not only a book of business guidelines, but it also contains a number of statements about what Friends believe, statements that it is expected you are accepting as a statement of your personal belief when you become a part of that yearly meeting.
Faith and Practice Among Liberal Friends
On the other hand, Friends in Friends General Conference, Friends in many independent yearly meetings who come out of the Hicksite tradition that began in the 1820s, look with considerable skepticism on any authority—even their own meeting—telling them what they are expected to believe. So if you look at the book of faith and practice of, say, Philadelphia or North Pacific Yearly Meeting today, what you are most likely to find are a collection of excerpts and quotations from Quaker writings presenting a variety of different viewpoints on a variety of topics and issues. Implicit in that is the expectation that you will find what speaks most powerfully to you.
- Have you read your yearly meeting’s book of faith and practice? What stood out to you about it?
- Does your yearly meeting’s book of faith and practice include statements of belief? How are the business practices of the yearly meeting defined?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.