The Religious Society of Friends is a community of faith based on an experience of a transforming power named many ways: the Inner Light, the Spirit of Christ, the Guide, the Living God, the Divine Presence.
Membership includes openness to an ongoing relationship with God and willingness to live one’s life according to the leadings of the Spirit as affirmed by the community of faith. For generations of Friends, membership has been an outward sign of an inward experience of Christ, the “true light which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).
Friends have proclaimed from the beginning that every person is endowed with the capacity to enter directly, without mediator or mediation, into an empowering holy communion with God.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers have no dogma or officially mandated doctrine. We believe that continuing revelation is available to everyone.
However, we value certain principles known as testimonies. These include simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. Friends try to embody and live up to these testimonies in all aspects of our lives.
The Religious Society of Friends arose in England in the middle of the seventeenth century. This was a time of turbulence and change in both religion and politics. In the established Church of England, great emphasis was placed upon outward ceremony; there, and in such dissenting churches as the Baptists and Presbyterians, religious faith was also generally identified with the authority of the Bible or the acceptance of a formal creed. Many individuals, however, became increasingly dissatisfied with ceremonies and creeds and broke away from these churches. Singly or in small groups, they turned inward in search of a religion of personal experience and direct communion with God. They rejected, therefore, the assumption that this communion, which is essential to spiritual health, occurs primarily in the presence of designated persons in an established religious institution using sacred language and rituals.
In the Religious Society of Friends, continuing revelation comes from the Inner light or the light within. This light has traditionally been identified as the spirit of Christ or Christ within, although not all Friends associate the inner light with Christ. It is understood as the presence of God which provides illumination and guidance to the individual and through individuals to the group.
Because Friends believe that revelation is ongoing, we have no set creed or dogmas and we believe that new truth is revealed to us as we continue our spiritual journeys individually and with one another.
As early Friends listened to the inner light and endeavored to live accordingly, a common set of beliefs gradually emerged, which became known as Quaker testimonies. Although rooted in the immediate experience of the community of friends, these testimonies are based on what friends believe are verified in the Bible, especially the Gospels regarding the life and teachings of Jesus, and in our ongoing discernment of God’s desire for us to fulfill loving relationships with each other and the world.
PYM Quakers consider the inner light to be above and beyond the Bible and other formalistic, written dogmas We trust that the continuing revelation of the inner light speaks to us in our everyday lives.
The Light Within
In our meetings for worship and business and in our daily lives, Friends try to manifest our spiritual beliefs and common values.
While there is much diversity of belief among Quakers, we generally agree that there is “that of God” in every person. This is sometimes spoken of as the “inner light,” a guiding spirit that emanates from the Divine and resides in every person. It is our hope and prayer that every person has led to the truth by the power of our “inner light.”
Quakers also generally believe that revelation of Divine truth is continuous and we must hold ourselves open to the possibility of learning new truths as they are revealed to us and we are called to accept those new truths.
The Inward Light
The first definition brings us to the Quaker doctrine of the “Inward Light” or “Christ within” or “that of God in everyone.” According to this belief, God reveals God’s life, truth, and love to every human being of every race and religion, directly, without the requirement of any intermediary such as church, priest, or sacred book. This doctrine is not unique, but the Quakers carried it to a logical conclusion in their worship, their church government, and their relations with others.
In the middle of the seventeenth century in England, because of printing, the Bible was becoming widely known, and it appeared to many who read it that the early Christian church depended very little on ecclesiastical structure, elaborate ritual, and formal creeds, but that it depended greatly on the Spirit in the midst of the worshiping group and on prophetic utterances inspired by the Spirit. Puritans wished to “purify” the church of accretions since the early days of Christianity. The Anglicans, being the most conservative, took out a few of these elements, the Presbyterians a few more, the Congregationalists a few more, the Baptists a few more, and finally the Quakers, being the most radical of the new sects, took out everything except dependence on the Divine Spirit for guidance and power. Quakerism was, therefore, a new revival of the old prophetic religion. The Spirit was not for them the third person of a trinity but God revealed inwardly as God had been revealed outwardly through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the Word, Light, Life, Truth, and Love in the language of John and “the Spirit” and “the Christ in you” of Paul.
This is all-sufficient for salvation because salvation consists in being completely obedient to God or, to use the term of a different theology, “in union with God.” It is interesting to note how the process of conversion occurs, as told in the most typical Quaker journals or autobiographies, though the word “conversion” is seldom used. There is no effort to save one’s soul by accepting a theological formula, though convincement of Quaker principles is generally the first step in the process. The writers describe how, gradually, after alternate victories and defeats, they become at last fully obedient to the will of God as inwardly apprehended and center their lives in the light. Victory is never final and complete, but future lapses are rarer.
The Divine Spirit
This Divine Spirit, revealing itself in the depths of the soul, is thought of as a source of religious and moral knowledge, a source of power to act according to that knowledge, and a source of unity with others. Religious and moral knowledge, like the knowledge or appreciation of beauty, is not attained by a logical process of thought but by feeling. As some of our greatest psychologists have pointed out, a feeling is as much an organ of knowledge as thought. It reveals values rather than facts. Outward authorities such as the Bible and the tradition of the church are important but secondary sources of truth. They can be understood and applied only through the spirit which first produced them. Conscience, as the particular organ which discerns moral truth, must be obeyed, but it is a true guide only insofar as we permit God to speak through it. Obviously, conscience is often influenced by prejudices and conventionalities.
Such a doctrine might appear individualistic, but, as the Quakers applied it, this was far from being the case. As well as functioning in the individual, the Spirit also works through the group as a whole, and individual insights must be checked and tested in the light of the insight of the whole group and the teachings of Christ. Even so, there can be no claim to infallibility. We each must follow such light as we have, however dim, trusting that, if we are faithful in the use of our one talent, more will be given.
The Spirit is also a source of strength. In reading the Quaker journals, which are our best source of information since they portray the lives of what might be called “standard Friends,” it is surprising to find what extraordinary power has sometimes been given to very ordinary men and women, farmers, homemakers, merchants, and others, who, without any special education or training for the task, set out on long journeys to preach the message of Quakerism to all ranks from the very lowest to kings and potentates. Once convinced that they were doing the Lord’s work, they could be stopped by nothing.
Unity With All People
The Spirit is also the source of unity, both within the group and with all people everywhere. The same, identical infinite Spirit of truth exists in all of us, and the more truly we are united with it the nearer we come to one another. Friends, accordingly, do not vote in making decisions as a group, for since there is only one truth and this truth is, in the long run, accessible to all, a patient search for it will eventually lead to unity. This means that each person in the group is present, not to defend an opinion, but to join in a common search and a united finding. A group of scientists would not think of arriving at a scientific truth by voting. For the same reason, the Quakers do not believe that the truth of an opinion is dependent on the number of those who hold it. For this reason, also, the Quakers have not usually been seriously concerned about the smallness of their own numbers, though they recognize a responsibility to convince all people of truth. History shows that truth has generally appeared first in the possession of a small minority. This method of arriving at decisions reveals the basis of the Quakers’ peace principle, for which they are most widely known, perhaps because the peace principle is at present less generally accepted. Everyone today believes in peace, but a refusal to take any part in war or the preparation for war is an extreme to which few are willing to go. Yet if we believe that the divine light of truth is in every human being and that differences can be settled rightly and permanently only by an appeal to that light—what George Fox called “answering that of God in everyone”—then war is the wrong method. An appeal to peaceable methods is not always in the world’s eye successful. Therefore, anyone who uses this appeal must be prepared for loss and suffering. But this loss and suffering also accompany recourse to violence meeting as a whole.
Absence of Forms
We come now to the second meaning of the word “spiritual.” A religion is spiritual if every outward word and act is a genuine expression of an inward state. Such a religion avoids all forms which are routine and planned in advance, for such forms tend to become hollow and empty of content. For this reason, the Quakers abandoned the outward form of the sacraments even though these visible manifestations are often genuine evidence of inward states. The meeting for worship is as nearly without forms as possible in order that whatever occurs may be a true and spontaneous expression of the life within. A sermon prepared in advance might be a true expression of the feelings of the minister at the time of preparation, but it does not necessarily arise out of the life of the meeting as a fresh and living revelation through the Spirit in the meeting. Hymns are not sung in the meeting because they put into the mouth of the worshiper’s words which may not at the time truly express their spiritual state. The Bible is not usually read in a meeting, for even this can become an empty form. The worshipers sit in silence, each endeavoring to commune with the Divine Presence in the midst and ready to express to the meeting any message which may arise in the mind as being clearly intended for the meeting as a whole.
It can be said that silence itself is a form. This is true, but it is not a form which commits anyone to any insincere act or speech. Friends are not opposed to addresses or lectures on religious subjects announced in advance, to Bible reading or to hymn singing; but such exercises are not included in a meeting for worship. This is considered to be a special kind of spiritual exercise where every effort is made to attain spontaneity, sincerity, and a fresh facing of reality.
In the past Friends sometimes leaned over backward in efforts to attain complete honesty and sincerity in speech. Many humorous anecdotes are based on this peculiarity. Such titles as Mr. and Mrs. (meaning master and mistress), your honor, your majesty, and reverend were avoided not only as being untrue but as flattering the individual and ignoring the equality of all people before God. For the same reasons the plural pronoun “you,” formerly used to social superiors instead of the singular “thou,” was for a long time avoided as were taking off the hat, bowing, and other conventional manners. Closely allied with this effort to attain truth and sincerity was the testimony against every form of superfluity in dress, speech, and behavior. Simplicity is a form of genuineness. It means concentration upon that which is genuinely functional.
Quakerism is here described in terms of its ideals, not necessarily its attainments. In avoiding one form, Friends sometimes slip into another. Forms and creeds are inevitable. They have important uses, especially in education, where forms are used to show what ought to be their real content, and even, sometimes, to create the content. Our Christian religion would be weak and vague without the doctrines which undergird it. Quakerism does not aim at formlessness and undiluted mysticism. It is a peculiar and unusually stubborn effort to create a kind of religion in which the outward form expresses, as nearly as possible, the inward thought and life.