Who are the Quakers?
Quakerism's 17th century English founders envisioned it as the restoration of original Christianity, and like the first Christians, were imprisoned, tortured, and executed for their beliefs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of Friends emigrated to the American Quaker colonies, where they formed prosperous settlements in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
During the 19th century, American Friends schismed into three groups that still exist: Liberal, Pastoral, and Conservative Quakers. The unprogrammed Liberal Quakers maintain the traditional practice of meetings based on expectant silence, but most have abandoned Christianity to pursue various universalist philosophies. The neo-Protestant Pastoral Quakers introduced hired priests and programmed (pre-planned) worship services. They are very similar in look, practice, and belief to typical Protestant churches. The unprogrammed Conservative Quakers rejected both departures from the original vision and still retain the Christian beliefs and the waiting worship practiced by the original Friends. None of the surviving groups retain the wholeness of the original Quaker witness, which was a balance between relying on the Inward Light, identitifying the historical Jesus as the eternal Christ, committing to social activism, and focusing on Quaker--not just Christian-- evangelizing. Each of the traditions left out something important.
The vast majority of the 300,000 Friends today are Pastoral, and about half live in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Kenya. About 90,000 Liberal and Pastoral Quakers live in North America. Perhaps 400 practicing Conservative Friends live in Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina, mostly in the same rural areas we have occupied for 200 years. Some additional Conservative meetings exist around the world.
What do we believe?
Quakerism, as Conservative Quakers practice it, is Christianity cleaned and polished down to its very essence, stripped of the theological corrosion and doctrinal encrustations added over the last 1700 years. Like the earliest Christians, we believe that God is accessible to everyone-- now, today, here--and that Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word of God, the Inward Light, is willing to teach us individually how to come to Him and how to live our lives. We believe that because the Holy Spirit is willing to speak to us, personally, that it is our highest duty to listen. It is then our immediate obligation to act in accordance with His will.
As Christians, Conservative Quakers identify the Light as both the historical, living Jesus, and as the Grace of God extended to people that simultaneously makes us conscious of our sins, forgives them, and gives us the strength and the will to overcome them. The Light might be explained as the outpouring of the loving influence of God, extended to all people as the means of their potential salvation. We also see the Light as "That of God in every man," that measure of the Holy Spirit given to us that is sufficient to work our soul's salvation, if we do not resist it.
Because all people-- Quaker or not-- have always had direct and immediate access to God, we believe that all other sources of religious understanding are inessential and subordinate, including scriptures, church authority, tradition, reason, and formal religious education. Scripture in particular can provide significant insights and is helpful for testing a person's understanding of God's will. However, its value is not primary, but arises out of the inspiration of the Spirit of God in His people. It is the Spirit Himself who is the first authority of truth, not the writings of His human interpreters, however faithful. If not resisted, the same Spirit will guide all of us individually, and will provide a personal relationship with God based on direct experience of His presence, guidance, and love.
Conservative Quakers believe in complete integrity in worship and in life. All of life is sacramental, every day is holy, and the details are important. Because they are unnecessary to God and historically have distracted people from genuine communion with Him, we dispense with rites and ceremonies, ritualized sacraments, sacred books and buildings, creeds, clergy, and holy days. Our manner of daily living is an expression of worship in everything we do, and we are directed to seek divine guidance for our everyday activities. Simplicity and absolute honesty are religious expectations.
Conservative Quaker beliefs are more similar to historical Quakerism than either contemporary Liberal or Pastoral Quakerism. Our theology and doctrine is quite specific and has clear premises and conclusions about God and His relationship with all people. It was and still is sufficiently distinct from Protestant and Catholic Christianity to have resulted in the trial and execution of Quakers for heresy by misguided Christians both in Rome and in New England.
What do we do?
In formal waiting worship, Conservative Friends meet together and sit quietly, "waiting upon the Lord," and serving Him by being receptive and submissive to His will. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will encourage someone to rise and speak, and will supply a message. Sometimes a Friend is called to offer a prayer or a song. Sometimes no one speaks for the entire meeting, although Jesus may have ministered quietly or offered insights to some of those present. Sometimes not much seems to happen. Sometimes not much does. We wait in expectant obedience anyway.
Friends are sensitive to what we call "leadings," where we believe God calls us to perform certain work or tasks, sometimes without any clear understanding of the reason, and without regard to the likelihood of success. Some larger Quaker projects of this nature have included prison reform, the Underground Railroad, Women's Suffrage, Prohibition, the United Nations, and peace witness.
A very few Friends are led to adopt the older Quaker "plain" witness in dress, livelihood, and lifestyle, in which they withdraw from the world in certain significant ways, while continuing to work in it or through it in others. Plain clothing resembles that worn by Friends a century or more ago, or by the modern Amish. They may adhere to older Quaker testimonies such as the plain speech of "thee and thou," or the refusal to take oaths or remove their hats in a courtroom. This can get them in trouble with authorities today, just as it did 350 years ago.