Monday, September 26, 2005

What's Quakerism?

What a question! I find that over the years, as I've been asked so many times by so many people, my explanation has evolved and expanded. However, though, it's become a somewhat of a "textbook" explanation; it's so difficult to capture the spirit of Quakerism and form it into words.

In the last year or so, in an attempt to be thorough, I've tried to talk about basic testimonies or ideas or concepts that are present throughout Quakerism, such as direct "communication" or experiences of God (or the Spirit or whatever you call it), while explaining the diversity of Friends - liberal, unprogrammed through evangelical. This is quite a task; I've found myself calling it my "Quaker spiel". Sometimes it's difficult to know where to start.

I bring this up now because I just had a 30 minute conversation with an exchange student from Austria where I tried to describe Quakerism. I found this to be more of a challenge than usual; usually, people asking have at least heard of Quakerism or learned a little bit about it in their high school history courses, but this student from Austria had never heard of Quakers or Quakerism.

I tried to explain that it was founded in Christianity, I tried to explain a little bit about the testimonies, but first had to explain what the word "testimony" meant, which was a task in itself! (I believe I said they were like concepts or things to be followed - sort of; I feel that my description of them was inadequate, but the best I could do to continue.) I described a typical unprogrammed Meeting for Worship and a little bit about leadings. I was asked about Quaker weddings and membership, I was asked about whether there were rules (such as abstinence). I tried to touch on the diversity of Quakerism - that some attended Quaker churches or Friends churches.

I was asked about where the word "Quaker" came from - and spoke about George Fox and about early Friends being persecuted for being faithful Quakers, I spoke about trembling or shaking when feeling led and about how a Friend was called a "Quaker" in court once and somehow that became incorporated into the name or rather, an alternative name. I spoke about why Quaker Oats took the Quaker name, even though they have absolutely nothing to do with Quakerism.

It was very difficult to describe Quakerism in such a manner; somehow I felt that I couldn't just give my usual spiel because that spiel was given with the assumption that someone had at least heard of Quakerism and had at least a basic idea of what Quakerism is. Also, I was challenged to define words along the way that I wouldn't normally have to define (such as testimony).

I don't feel like I manage to necessarly capture the depth and spirit of Quakerism, but I'm not sure how to go about doing that without being confusing or assuming.

How do other Friends describe Quakerism? How might you respond to the question "What is Quakerism?"

I find that giving a complete answer is quite the challenge.

Love and Light


Blogger Liz Opp said...

When I have to describe Quakerism, I often start with what we don't do or don't have. I usually say, "Well, in the branch of Friends where I worship...," and then I make a parallel to Judaism about "branches."

I find that when I say less, the people I'm talking to will bring up their own questions, and then I can follow their lead.

More recently I have been ending the conversation by saying that you can read all you want about how to swim, but the truth is, you won't understand about swimming until you get into the water and try it for yourself.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

27/9/05 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


That can be an intimidating question, particularly for us relatively recently convinced Friends who are still exploring our own relationships to Quakerism. Recently I attended a Young Adult Friends meeting where a young man who had been raised Lutheran asked us to "explain what Quakers are all about." Within about 30 seconds the conversation had devolved into an analysis of the Hicksite-Orthodox split and how Gurneyites differ from Wilburites.

Fortunately, as Liz remarked, the questioner will often indicate the direction in which they wish to be led. After listening patiently for a couple of minutes, the young man broke in and said, "well, that's fine, that sort of thing happens in a lot of traditions, but my real question is, what draws *you* as individuals to Quaker practice?" That was a far more focused question, and the resulting sharing and discussion was amazingly rich.

The lesson I took from that was that it's sometimes better to be very personal and anecdotal when talking about my faith, and less analytical and academic about it, which is a trap that I fall into all too often. Of course, it's also important for me to have some sense of where the questioner is coming from, so I can try to answer in a way that speaks most directly to them.

27/9/05 2:15 PM  
Blogger Danny said...

hello Claire,

Recently, an RA invited us Friends to participate in a continuing interfaith discussion on their hall. Naturally participating requires explaining Quakerism to people. And I have doubted that we can do this --because, as you know, it's hard.

we couldn't get a rep to the first gathering --earlier this evening. But anywhoo, another young Friend didn't really see my problem with explaining Quakerism. Quaker faith is, simply put: to answer God in oneself and others. without all the speculative/dogmatic/ritualistic fluff.

I know that looks like an incomplete answer. But it also seems right to me somehow that the best explanation of Quakerism would be absurdly simple.

I don't have answers. :-)

28/9/05 12:02 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Claire,
Yes, what a tough question. I agree with Danny that it's actually a much simpler answer than we often want it to be. I think we're so wanting it to be so differentiated from other spiritual paths (even those in our own tradition) that we get into unnecessary details. Early Friends like Penn called it simple "primitive Christianity revived." They weren't trying to concoct a new religion, instead they were simply trying to reform the old faith by getting back to the essentials. I'm not sure I'd be able to give an easy answer. But I kind of think we're not really going to be faithful and be able to reach out to others until we're able to answer this.

By the way, in the Quakerism 101 class I led last fall I purposefully kept from talking about the Hicksites, Orthodox, etc., etc., until the third or fourth session. People kept asking but I kept begging off. The history is interesting. And there's very real issues involved in the schisms. But the reality of our faithfulness is not in those historical details.

28/9/05 1:18 PM  
Blogger Dave Carl said...

I'll try for a "short answer": Quakers are convinced that God is a spirit that directly manifests itself within each of us as an inward teacher, often referred to as "the light." The light shows us our errors and guides us into harmony with God's love.

I think that's the essence, and perhaps is something most of the of different branches could live with, although it wouldn't do for the nontheist Friends, obviously, and Evangelical & Conservative might prefer to specifically name Christ as "the light."

28/9/05 5:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Hi everyone,

I agree - it is incredibly difficult to describe quakerism. I have been an attender for just over a year now and i'm spending quite a bit of time at the moment struggling with the essence of quakerism! I do have a small yellow card in my wallet that i got from my local meeting which comes from Britain Yearly Meeting I think, and has the following written on it:

"What do Quakers say?

There is something sacred in all people

All people are equal before God

Religion is about the whole of life

We meet in stillness to discover a deeper sense of God's presence

True religion leads to respect for the earth and all life upon it

Each person is unique, precious, a child of God"

I find reading it helps. Trying to describe quakerism more concisely is such a challenge! I've got it down to "a peaceful, inclusive and spiritual way of life", but i don't know ...

Best Wishes


29/9/05 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Robin M. said...

I find I often have to start with, "well, it's my religion."

Then I can answer whatever seemed to be the real or original question.

At some point I usually call it Christianity distilled. Nothing really original, just the essence.

And then I give the points that are important to me, that for 350 years, Friends have believed in the equality of all people, including women, in non-violence, in simplicity and plainness of speech and living.

For folks who are confusing Quakers with the Amish, I usually say that Friends used to dress like that, but about 100 years ago, they decided that it no longer made them plain, it just made them peculiar and they gave it up.

29/9/05 11:09 PM  
Blogger Eastern Paranormal said...

I will be adding you to my links tomorrow.


30/9/05 1:33 AM  
Blogger Aj Schwanz said...

You know what's real fun? Having to explain what a Quaker is . . . at a Friends University: sigh. The best things I heard -

"I haven't seen any Quakers." "How do you know?" "Well, they can only wear black and no buttons and stuff."

"Don't guys and girls have to walk on opposite sides of the road?"

"How can Quakers come to school here? I mean, can they leave their reservations?"

Ugh: the ignorance of people is painful - amusing, but painful.

I love the idea of truths shining through the lens of culture to create different distinctives. Truths: Quakers seem to believe that the light of Christ is in all of us, and that the Kingdom of God is here. If I read the Bible about the Kingdom, it means that the poor and widowed are taken care of, that I clothe myself in compassion and kindness and mercy for the sake of others, that justice and love prevail.

Or you could just tell them to look on the back of a box of oatmeal. :)

2/10/05 10:37 PM  

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