What Quakers Believe

Access - The core belief of Quakers is that everyone has direct access to God. A common Quaker saying is that "There is that of God in everyone." This saying does not refer to a pantheistic belief-system but rather to the idea that God is working within each and every person on earth. Two common Quaker metaphors are Seed and Light. Quakers believe that we can experience God, but it begins like a Seed planted within each person which, if nourished, will grow and blossom into a full awareness of God. God's Light shines into our innermost being. To the extent that we open ourselves to it, the Light illuminates our sin and gives us clarity, leading, peace, rest and a deep awareness of God's love for us. The 18th century Quaker John Woolman succinctly described this with a different metaphor when he wrote "The true felicity [joy] of man in this life and in that which is to come, is in being inwardly united to the Fountain of universal love and bliss." This inward, direct access to God is available to all--there is no need for intermediaries such as priests, rituals or sacred texts in order to encounter God in a real and experiential way.

Empowerment - Quakers believe that as we encounter and experience God, we are changed from the inside (this is essentially the same concept as the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis or union with God). The transformation that occurs deep inside of us gradually manifests in our outward behaviors; sin is overcome in our lives—not by trying harder or by surrendering to the fatalism of total depravity, but by being changed inwardly.  Quakers believe that God gives us the ability to overcome evil not only in our own lives but also in the world around us. The Quaker William Penn wrote "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." This empowerment comes from God working within us—from the "inside-out."

Community - Quaker faith must be lived out in community. We are interdependent. Although we can individually encounter God, we rely upon one another for guidance, discernment, edification and balance. Each person is given certain spiritual gifts (such as wisdom or generosity or the ability to teach or prophetic insight). In community, our gifts build one another up. Together, we form the Body of Christ. When Quakers meet together to worship in silent waiting, any member may be prompted by God to offer ministry to the group. This ministry may take the form of speaking a prayer, or giving a word of encouragement, or sharing a teaching, or reciting a Bible verse, or singing a song, or telling a story, etc. Quakers seek to experience what they call a "gathered meeting", which is when Christ becomes manifest in their midst and they are drawn together into His presence. It is a very powerful experience. In addition to this highly communal form of worship, Quakers value day-to-day community life, transparency with one another and mutual accountability.

Another example of this emphasis on community is the ad hoc Quaker "Clearness Committee." A Quaker who is facing a difficult decision or feels in need of clarity and guidance from God about a specific matter will gather with other Quakers to listen together. The responsibility of those gathered is not to offer advice, but to listen (and sometimes ask probing questions); seeking to discern together what God's leading for the person is.

Quaker's conduct their business meetings in a similar fashion. In fact, Quakers refer to their business meetings as "Meeting for Worship for the Purpose of Business" (often abbreviated to "Meeting for Business"). The congregation will gather together in silent waiting, listening for how the Spirit leads. Business is brought before the meeting in an open and transparent manner and no one (it is hoped) tries to push their own agenda.  It is sometimes said that Quakers make decisions by consensus.  This is not accurate.  Rather, Quakers listen deeply to one another and to God until they reach unity about what the Spirit is speaking to them.  This sense of corporate unity is sometimes referred to as “the sense of the meeting.”

George Fox instructed the original Quakers, "All Friends everywhere meet together, and in the measure of God's spirit wait, that with it all your minds may be guided up to God and to receive wisdom from God." This Quaker practice of interdependent, communal discernment is quite unique and effective.  It is also faith-building to see God as work in the midst of the community.

Sacraments - Quakers view all of life as sacramental. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Sacrament, in its broadest acceptation, may be defined as an external sign of something sacred." Sacraments are generally viewed in Christendom as external symbols which convey grace or sanctification. Quakers believe that since God can be encountered directly and experientially—by anyone, anywhere—there is no need for symbols. Why employ a symbol when you have access to the real thing which the symbol points to? This is why Quakers do not practice sacramental rituals such as baptism and the Eucharist. Quakers don’t oppose the use of sacraments; they just see them as superfluous in light of the spiritual realities that are a constant lived reality.


These four central beliefs—Access, Empowerment, Community and that all of life is Sacramental—affect every aspect of a Quaker's life. They result in values and behaviors which are commonly referred to as testimonies. Quaker testimonies have been described as "beliefs in action." They are outward values and behaviors which grow from deeply held internal convictions. The most common Quaker testimonies are Equality, Peace, Simplicity and Integrity.


Equality - If God is at work in every person, then God loves and values every person. If God loves and values every person, then so should we. All people can experience God, and be used by God, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, social status or other classifications. The agape love of God, as demonstrated by Jesus Christ, is not directed towards persons because those persons have achieved some type of special value or favor through accomplishments or status or ethnicity or any other criteria.  Rather, it is the agape love of God itself that causes each person to have value. True agape love creates value. All people are to be loved and valued because God loves and values all people.

 The Quaker testimony of Equality has been made manifest in many practical ways throughout the history of the Religious Society of Friends. Women were leaders and ministers alongside men from the beginning of the Quaker movement in the 1600's. Quakers were at the forefront of the struggles to abolish slavery in England and the U.S. (it was Quakers who approached William Wilberforce and convinced him to take up the cause of abolition). Quakers are notable for their good relations with Native Americans throughout U.S. history. They played key roles in the Underground Railroad, the women's suffrage movement, prison reform, reforms to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill, education of African-American children, food to the Irish during the Great Potato Famine, the American Civil Rights movement and global Human Rights initiatives. Quakers fed the starving population of Germany after WWI, evacuated and found homes for Jewish children from Europe at the onset of WWII and returned to Germany again to provide relief after WWII. Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 in recognition of their long and consistent history of compassionate action. Oxfam, Greenpeace and Amnesty International were all co-founded by Quakers.

The other side of the Quaker Equality testimony is a stubborn egalitarianism. Early Quakers were often beaten or jailed for not showing "proper" respect--such as removing the hat, bowing and using honorifics--towards authorities and those considered superior in the social pecking order. Quakers continue to be staunchly anti-hierarchical.

Peace - The Quaker Peace testimony is very closely linked to the Equality testimony. If all people are equally loved and valued by God, then it is obvious that we ought to work towards peace—shalom—between all people. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, was once offered a captainship in Oliver Cromwell's army (he was in prison at the time for his Quaker teachings, and his voluntary enlistment would have enabled him to be released).  He declined the offer, stating that he "lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars" and that he had "come into the covenant of peace, which was before all wars and strife."  Quakers, in general, have opposed all wars ever since.  History has proven them to be right in the belief that war is usually unnecessary and almost always creates more problems than it solves.

Of course, peace means more than the mere absence of war and strife. Peace means addressing the underlying issues that lead to war and strife, such as inequality and poverty and corruption and ignorance and fear.

Simplicity - Quakerism is a mystical belief system—one which seeks to experience union with God. As we encounter God—deep within—we become less and less attached to and enamored by the things of this world. George Fox wrote of "the one Spirit, which draws off and weans you from all things that are created and external, up to God, the fountain of life, and head of all things…" This is not a forced asceticism or a denial of the joys of life. Far from it. Rather, one becomes less attached and distracted; freed from the tyranny of worldly concerns. John Woolman described in his journal a conscious decision to pare down the size of his business in order to simplify his life: "My mind, through the power of truth, was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences, that were not costly, so that a way of life free from much entanglement appeared best for me, though the income might be small. I had several offers of business that appeared profitable, but I did not see my way clear to accept of them, believing they would be attended with more outward care and cumber than was required of me to engage in. I saw that a humble man, with the blessing of the Lord, might live on a little, and that, where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving; but that commonly, with an increase of wealth, the desire of wealth increased. There was a care on my mind so to pass my time, that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the true Shepherd."

In the past, Quakers were recognizable for their “plain dress,” which resembled the apparel of modern-day Amish folk.  The purpose of plain dress was to avoid ostentation and seek simplicity and humility in attire.  Nowadays most Quakers pretty much dress like everyone else, though a few still dress in the traditional garb.  Quakers were also known for “plain speech.”  In England in the 1600’s (where the Religious Society of Friends had its beginning) the pronouns “you” and “your” where used when addressing someone formally, while “thee” and “thou” were used for informal conversation.  Quakers simply used “thee” and “thou” to speak to everyone.  Eventually, “you” and “your” became normative for all conversation and “thee” and “thou” became archaic.  Sometimes Quakers will still address one another as “thee” and “thou” if they wish to convey a special sense of tenderness (“Friend, I notice that thee seems troubled.  What can I do to help?”).  Plain speech also meant speaking frankly; avoiding flowery, flattering and obfuscatory language.  Quakers still practice this.

Integrity - Integrity can be understood in three ways: Wholeness, soundness and truth. Wholeness means not living life in a compartmentalized way (as the old blues song puts it, "Saturday night I go out to play, but Sunday I go to church and pray"), but rather being genuine and consistent in all aspects of one's life. Soundness means stability--not being swayed to and fro by external forces but instead standing firm on one's convictions, no matter the cost. Truth, of course, means honesty. The Light shines in the deepest recesses of our innermost being, bringing us to a state of transparency and truthfulness before God. It then becomes extremely difficult and uncomfortable to be dishonest with other people. Quakers seek to always be honest, not as an outward rule they attempt to conform to, but as the result of a deep inner conviction.

The Quaker testimony of Integrity manifests in many ways: Quakers do not swear oaths (even in a court of law), believing that—as Jesus said—our "yes" should mean yes and our "no" should mean no (Matthew 5:34-37). To swear an oath to tell the truth implies that, while under oath, one is using a higher standard of truth-telling than at other times. Quakers already endeavor to tell the truth, at all times. Historically, Quakers became renowned for their commitment to honesty. It is said that Quaker merchants were the first in England to set fixed prices on their goods. Prior to that, one had to haggle when purchasing items. Quakers felt it was unfair and dishonest to charge different prices to different customers for the same item, depending on the customer's ability to negotiate. It came to be said that a child could be sent to a Quaker merchant to buy goods without fear of being taken advantage of. Because of the reputation Quakers developed for integrity in business, many became very successful. English firms such as Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry and Terry's (all chocolate manufacturers); Barclays Bank; Lloyd's Bank; Carr's Biscuits; Clark's Shoes; Coalbrookdale Iron; Huntsman Steel; the Inman Shipping Line and Waterford-Wedgwood, were founded by Quakers. Interestingly, the Quaker Oats Company was not founded or run by Quakers. The name Quaker Oats was chosen by founding partner Henry Seymour in a conscious attempt to associate his product with qualities that Quakers had become known for: integrity and purity.

A Final Thought - It was Quakers who originally coined the saying "Speak truth to power." This little phrase encapsulates the Quaker testimonies well: To Speak implies action and engagement with the world. To speak Truth implies sincerity and a drawing forth from a deep well of internal conviction. To speak truth to Power implies a willingness to confront injustice and not be cowed by man-made hierarchies and systems of domination. Like the Quakers themselves, the phrase is simple, profound, challenging and inspiring.

By Danny Coleman, 2011 (Note: The structure of this categorization of Quaker beliefs is based on one provided by Wilmer Cooper in his book A Living Faith, An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs (pp. 198-200).)