Questions Frequently Asked About Quakers

Though some of the information below is found elsewhere in our web site, we thought it would be helpful to provide this in-depth FAQ, or set of frequently asked questions (and answers), for those unfamiliar with the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers).

What do Quakers believe?

We believe that every person is loved and guided by God.  Broadly speaking, we affirm that “there is that of God in everyone.” Everyone is known by God and can know God in a direct relationship.  We are called to attend to this relationship and to be guided by it. Quakers use many words to describe the Divine.  Some of them include: God, the Light Within, Christ, Spirit, Seed, and Inward Teacher.

Are Quakers Christian?

The Quaker way has deep Christian roots that form our understanding of God, our faith, and our practices. Many Quakers consider themselves Christian,  and some do not.  Many Quakers today draw spiritual nourishment from our Christian roots and strive to follow the example of Jesus.  Many other Quakers draw spiritual sustenance from various religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the nature religions.

It sounds like Quakers can believe anything they like ?  Is that so?

Quakers invite the word of God to be written in our hearts, rather than as words on paper—we have no creed.  But we also believe that if we are sincerely open to the Divine Will, we will be guided by a Wisdom that is more compelling than our own more superficial thoughts and feelings.  This can mean that we will find ourselves led in directions or receiving understandings that we may not have chosen just from personal preference. Following such guidance is not always easy.  This is why community is important to Quakers, why we turn to each other for worshipful help in making important choices, and why we read the reflections of other Quakers who have lived faithful lives.

Do Quakers believe in heaven and hell?

The emphasis of a Quaker’s life is on the present, on experiencing and following the leadings of the Light in our lives today.  Individual Quakers hold a variety of beliefs about what follows our lives on earth.

Do Quakers read the Bible?

The Bible is a book close to the hearts of many Friends. Many Quakers turn to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for inspiration, insight, and guidance.  They are valued as a source of wisdom that has been sacred to many generations.  Quakers are informed by Biblical scholarship that offers perspective on the creation of the Bible and the understanding we have of it today.  Most Quakers do not consider the Bible to be the final authority or the only source of sacred wisdom.    We read it in the context of other religious writings and sources of wisdom, including the Light Within and worshipful community discernment. Some Quakers have little interest in the Bible.

What happens in Quaker worship — is it really silent?

Quaker worship is based on silent waiting, where we expect to come into the presence of God.  In this living silence, we listen for the still, small voice that comes from God through the Inward Light.  Worshiping together in silence is a way for a community to be brought together in love and faithfulness. During silent worship, anyone—man, woman, or child—may feel inspired to give vocal ministry (speak out of the silence).  After the person speaks the message, the silence resumes.  Such messages may be offered several times during a meeting for worship, or the whole period of worship may be silent.  Someone will signal the close of worship by shaking hands with another person, then everyone shakes hands with those seated nearby.

How do Quakers practice baptism and communion?

For Quakers, sacraments are understood as an inward, spiritual, experience.  We don’t have a custom of performing sacramental ceremonies.

May I attend Quaker meeting?

Yes!  You are welcome to attend Quaker worship.  There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes.  All are welcome.  And, of course, you are invited to attend the silent worship at Reno  Friends Meeting on Sunday mornings, beginning at 10 am. We are located at 497 Highland Avenue in Reno, just east of the campus of the University of Nevada Reno.

What should I wear to Quaker meeting?

Dress comfortably.  In general, Quakers wear everyday clothes to meeting.  This may range from what you would wear at work in an office to jeans and a t-shirt. You are welcome to join us for worship as you are!

What are Quaker testimonies?

Quakers find that attending to the Light Within influences the ways we act in our personal lives, as well as the changes we work for in the wider world. We have noticed that certain values seem to arise more or less consistently when we try to stay close to the guidance of the Inward Teacher, and we call these principles our “testimonies.”  They are not so much rules that we try to obey as the outcomes of our efforts to live in harmony with the Holy Spirit.  Some commonly recognized testimonies include peace, integrity, equality, simplicity, community, and care for the earth.

Do I have to be a pacifist to be a Quaker?

Peace has always been a very important expression of how Quakers are guided by the Spirit.  We wrestle with our understanding of what God requires of us.  We are asked to consider if we are called to be pacifists, but this determination is left to the individual and his or her conscience.   For many, it has meant a commitment to nonviolence and conscientious objection to participating in war. Some Quakers, however, have served in the military. Quaker institutions, such as meetings, generally hold to a pacifist position.

What do Quakers think about science?

Quakers find compatibility in our longing for spiritual understanding and in our desire to understand the workings of the natural world.  Many Quakers have been leaders in science, including some who have won the Nobel Prize in a variety of fields. We understand that people evolved over millennia, and we stand in awe of the creation.  Many Quakers feel called to help protect and heal the world that we are blessed to inhabit.

How do Quakers live today?

There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, education, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes.  Modern Quakers generally “blend in” with the larger culture, rather than adopting the distinctive dress and patterns of speech associated with Quakers of earlier centuries.

Quakers try to live and act in ways that are consistent with the divine harmony that we seek in worship.  Through this effort come our testimonies of peace, integrity, equality, community, simplicity, and care for the environment.

How do Quaker meetings make decisions?

Once a month, the meeting (congregation) holds a “meeting for worship for business.”  Anyone who is part of the meeting may attend.  Decisions are made without voting.  Instead, the participants discuss the matter and listen deeply for a sense of spiritual unity.  When the clerk recognizes that unity has been reached, it is called the “sense of the meeting.”  If those present agree with the clerk’s expression of that sense, then the decision is recorded in the minutes.

What does the pastor do?  How do Quakers get organized without a leader?

Quakers believe that we are all ministers and responsible for the care of our worship and community. Rather than employing a pastor, Quaker meetings function by appointing members to offices and committees, which take care of things like religious education for adults and children, visiting the sick, planning special events, having the meeting house roof repaired—all the many things that any congregation needs.

A man or woman is appointed as “clerk,” a volunteer office.  The clerk chairs business meetings and handles communications.  When the clerk’s term expires, a new clerk is appointed.

How do I become a member?

You become a Quaker by joining a meeting.  Quakers encourage newcomers to spend some time getting familiar with the Quaker way and with the community before making up their minds to formally join.  You may spend anywhere from a few months to a few years as an “attender,” participating in worship and other meeting activities before you feel ready to make a commitment. (Some choose to be active attenders for a lifetime.) The first step toward membership is to write a letter to the clerk of the meeting expressing your wish to join formally.  The clerk or a member of the appropriate meeting committee will be pleased to explain the membership process to you, but they may wait for you to take the first step, since Quakers are often reluctant to make someone feel pressured to join.

Are all Quakers alike?

Quakers have evolved into several different varieties over our three and one-half centuries.  The kind of Quaker belief and worship described here represents just one variety.  Other branches of Quakers do have pastors and more structured worship, and have a more Bible-centered emphasis in their beliefs. 

Friends who worship in silence are often called “unprogrammed” or “nonpastoral” Friends, while those who follow pastor-led worship are called “programmed” or “pastoral” Friends.

What’s the difference between a Quaker meeting and Quaker church?

Unprogrammed Quakers (those which worship in silence) call their congregations “meetings.”  Programmed Quakers (those which have a pastor-led service with a shorter amount of silence, or none) sometimes use the word “meeting” and sometimes call their congregation a “church.”

How many Quakers are there?

In 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world, with about 87,000 in the United States.  This includes all the various branches of the Religious Society of Friends.  All of the branches are represented in the United States.  In other parts of the world, unprogrammed Friends (who practice silent worship and don’t have pastors) are most common in Europe and in former colonies of Britain; programmed Friends (with prepared worship services and pastors) are most common in Africa and South America.

Where is the Quaker “central office”?

You could say that it is everywhere and nowhere.  There are many Quaker organizations with different functions and which relate to different parts of the larger Quaker movement.  Check out our list of Quaker Resources Online to get an idea of the breadth of Quaker organizations. Each of these organizations is independent of the others, but there is much collaboration and interconnection.

Quaker congregations are affiliated in larger regional bodies called yearly meetings.  There are 34 yearly meetings in the United States and Canada.

How did the Quaker movement begin?

It began during a period of much religious upheaval in England during the mid-1600s, as people questioned the established church and sought new ways to understand Christianity.   The emerging faith community gathered around the leadership of George Fox and others who encouraged people to be guided by a direct, firsthand encounter with the Spirit.  These Quakers were seeking an authentic return to “primitive Christianity,” as practiced by the followers of Jesus in the first century.

Why are you called “Quakers”?

The term “Quaker” arose as a popular nickname used to ridicule this new religious group when it emerged in seventeenth century England.  Since the term was so widely recognized, members began using it informally, so people would know what they were talking about.  Formally, we call ourselves the Religious Society of Friends.  Today, we use “Friend” and “Quaker” interchangeably.

Are Quakers the same as the Amish?  As Shakers?

Quaker and Amish are both “peace churches,” but otherwise they are distinct and trace themselves to separate roots in England (Quakers) and Switzerland (Amish).  Today, the majority of Quakers no longer practice “plain dress,” as do the Amish.

The primary overlap between Quakers and Shakers is that they have rhyming names.  The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is a Quaker favorite.

Adapted from an FAQ available in full on the web site of the Friends General Conference .