What Are Quakers?

Quakers are members of the group known as the “Religious Society of Friends”. This group is a religion that emerged as a new Christian denomination in England during a period of religious turmoil in the middle 1600s, and is still practiced today, in a variety of forms around the world. To members of this religion, the words “Quaker”and “Friend” are interchangeable.

It would be difficult to write a description of Friends’ beliefs that would be acceptable to all the Quakers in the entire world. Quakers all share common roots in Christianity, specifically in the movement that arose in England in the middle of the 17th Century, but today it is only true that Friends adhere to certain essential principles — a belief in the possibility of “direct, unmediated communion with the Divine” (famously expressed by George Fox in the statement, “Christ is come to teach his people himself”), and a commitment to living lives that show an outward expression of this inward commitment. These terms may seem vague — and they are — but this is for a reason. As with any large group of spiritually like minded people, Friends hold many varying beliefs.

Nowhere in the world are these differences more obvious than in the Quaker groups of the United States, which contains four distinct branches of Friends — Liberal, Pastoral, Conservative, and Evangelical.

Liberal Friends

Liberal Friends meetings practice unprogrammed or silent worship. They concentrate on the authority of something called “the Inward Light”, and their membership contains people identify themselves as Christians and those who identify themselves as “universalists” — believers in God, but unsure of that God’s identity. They are often active in service work, but not in missionary or evangelical activities like some Christian groups. Many liberal meetings are affiliated with a group called the Friends General Conference, while many are independent groups supported by their members.

Conservative Friends


Conservative Friends are also sometimes called “Wilburites.” The meetings of Wilburites adhere to unprogrammed worship, and some members continue to practice traditional “plainness” of dress and speech. They acknowledge the authority of Christ Within and also of the Christian scripture. They have no affiliated body and are independently operated. This is perhaps the least common of the four American “types” of Friends.

Evangelical Friends

Evangelical Friends churches are similar to other Evagelical Christian bodies, with a strong emphasis on the authority of Christian scripture. These Friends practice programmed worship and are more likely to call their congregation a “church” rather than a “meeting.” Like other Christian groups, they are active in missionary, evangelical and service work, and share an affiliation with a group called the Evangelical Friends Church International. This is the most “traditionally Christian” of all Quaker groups, though Pastoral Friends are similar.

Pastoral Friends

Pastoral Friends meetings practice “programmed” worship services guided by clergy. Like Evangelical Friends, this branch has traditionally emphasized the authority of Christian scripture. They are active in service and missionary work as are many Christian denominations. Most pastoral Friends meetings are affiliated through a group called Friends United Meeting.

For many Friends (especially the unprogrammed, “liberal” branch) it is not important that we all have similar beliefs. These Friends would say that is not one’s beliefs that make one a Quaker. Rather, it is participation in Friends community, the deep search for Divine Guidance, and the attempt to live faithfully in harmony with that Guidance that make a person a Quaker.

In worship, some Friends still practice uniqe “silent” meetings with no formal minister or religious text, while other Quakers now have programmed services led by a pastor, similar to many Protestant denominations. In belief, some Friends place most emphasis on the teachings of Christian Scripture, while others give greater emphasis to the more New Age belief in the importance of the “Inward Teacher”, allowing for a wide range of religious perspectives. In many ways, these groups of Friends are similar to Unitarians — another unique branch of Christianity.

General Beliefs of Quakers

Quakers are pacifists, commited to non violence and anti war activities. Contrary to popular beliefs, Quakers are allowed to drink alcohol, but as with Christians are warned against drinking “to excess”. Quakers are generally ‘anti-Clerical’, believe that God and an understanding of God comes best from within and not from the teachings of a spiritual leader. Some extreme followers of Quakerism are commited to what is known as “plainness” in dress and speech — preferrinng simple colors and styles of clothing, usually handmade, and remaining reserved in speech and temperament. Besides these few core beliefs, there is not much “binding” Quakers together besides their identity as Friends.

Famous Quakers

  • Herbert Hoover – 31st president of the United States
  • Richard Nixon – 37st president of the United States
  • Daniel Boone – frontiersman and early organizer of Kentucky
  • Betsy Ross – sewed the first American flag
  • Thomas Paine – author and American revolutionary (raised as a Quaker)
  • Dolley Madison – First Lady, wife of President James Madison
  • Susan B. Anthony – woman’s suffragist (lapsed)
  • Jane Adams – author and activist in urban social conditions in the late 19th century
  • Julian Bond – legislator, civil rights activist
  • David Lean – film director (Lawrence of Arabia; The Bridge On the River Kwai; Doctor Zhivago)
  • James Dean – American actor; pop icon
  • Jack Larson – actor best known for playing Superman’s pal “Jimmy Olsen” in the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series
  • Judi Dench – British actress (Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love; nominations for Iris; Chocolat; Mrs. Brown); “M” in James Bond movies since 1995
  • Ben Kingsley – actor, received Best Actor Academy Award for Gandhi (1982)
  • Paul Eddington (1927-1995) – British film and television actor (“The Good Life”, “Yes, Prime Minister”, etc.)
  • Don Porter – actor; starred as “Prof. Russell Lawrence” on “Gidget” TV series (1965-1966); films include “The Candidate” (1972), “Mame”
  • Bonnie Raitt – popular singer, guitarist, songwriter – blues, rock, etc. (raised as a Quaker)
  • Joan Baez – singer and activist (lapsed)
  • David Byrne – singer, composer
  • Annie Oakley – entertainer in Wild West shows
  • Edward R. Murrow – famous news broadcaster
  • James Fennimore Cooper – writer famous for adventure stories in early America
  • Walt Whitman – American poet (Leaves of Grass, etc.), humanist
  • James Michener – novelist (lapsed)
  • Jorge Luis Borges – poet, essayist

What are Quakers? As you can see, Quakers (or Friends) are a difficult group to ‘pin down’. To better understand Quakers and Quakerism, you may want to attend a “meeting” or “service”. To find one near you, visit Quaker Finder.