My Quaker Experience: Intense Silence, Warm Friendship, and Vague Answers

The Quaker movement sprang out of the Puritan landscape of 17th century England. George Fox, an ardent Christian, believed he received insight from Christ that:

  • The church had become much too institutionalized and regimented.
  • People need not meet in churches as God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands.
  • People don’t need priests as all believers have the spirit within, the body of Christ is a priesthood of believers.
  • If people wait silently the spirit will give insights.

Living in Pennsylvania I have always had an interest in Quakerism because William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania was a Quaker, and resolved to make it a welcome place for this sect. Quakers reportedly are called quakers because:

George Fox was arrested in Derby in October 1650 and charged with blasphemy. The magistrates who tried him were Gervase Bennett and Colonel Nathaniel Barton. George Fox was questioned intermittently over an eight hour period, during which at one point George Fox told the magistrates “Tremble at the word of the Lord”. It was Justice Bennett who coined the name “Quakers” for the followers of George Fox.[1]

All of the historical references to Christianity show it as an ardent Christian sect.

After learning some of these things I determined to visit a meeting. I arrived about ten minutes early. I was greeted warmly at the door by a nice older woman named Martha, and led to the meeting hall. Along the way I noticed bulletin boards and pamphlet racks with headlines that talked about securing peace, living green, and building community. I sat down in the meeting room and looked around. A few people were sitting quietly, mostly with their heads bowed. The meeting room was different in that all chairs faced the center. There was no podium, no speaker stand, no altar, or any of the trappings usually associated with religious service meetings. At different times I prayed, meditated, and just listened and observed

The silence was intense. No one spoke for about a half an hour at which point one lady stood and shared how she had been mentored in Quakerism. One women gently suggested over years she attend a seminar about Quakerism and finally she had and found it very rewarding. That lady passed away the week before and the speaker sat down with tears and gentle sobs.

The silence remained. Then oddly I started to feel some shaking, â??quakingâ? if you will, disturb the silence, but it was the thumping of many, mostly young ones, coming down the stairs to join the meeting. I soon recognized that there must have been a â??First dayâ? school which was just let out. Quakers use First Day, First Month for the days and months. The historical data was that this was because day and month names were named after pagan gods, for example, Thor for thursday. One person I talked to said the reason was to show that all days are holy, not just Sunday.

The silence after that was not quite the same as youngsters fidgeted around the room for a few minutes. Then suddenly, and almost simultaneously, everyone was chattering hellos and ‘how are you’s, and the â??meetingâ? was over. Then a man introduced himself as the clerk, and read some â??queriesâ?. These were focus questions that everyone was to ask themselves. â??Do we participate as fully as we can in the meeting community and accept our share of responsibility for carrying out its work?” “Do we widen our circle of friendship within the meeting and welcome newcomers?” There were others and people just listened quietly and reflectively. Then it was on to announcements. There was a focus on the word “friends.” Did any “friend” have any news about a “friend?” Yes, this “friend” was moving somewhere, and that “friend” was having a gathering about such and such. There was also a focus on “the light.” “Are meetings for business held in expectant waiting for the guidance of the Light?” Friends are to be guided by “the Light” in all they do. The point of all their process is waiting for the movement, the inspiration if you will, of “the Light.” There were many announcements and the group seem to get livelier as they were given.

Finally it was announced it was time for fellowship and light refreshments. I munched on half a bagel, and a piece of pita bread with hummus while talking with several people. They all asked me how I had discovered their meeting. I told them I was studying Christianity starting with original Christianity and the movements that developed and was looking at this one. I asked them about Quakerism. I especially wanted to know if they considered themselves “Christians”. Their response was vague. “Some people who come from Christian backgrounds believe that is true,” was one response. I asked if there believe system was similar to Unitarian Universalism. “Oh, no, we are nothing like Unitarian Universalists.” No would you say that you’re like then? “Well, that would depend on who you ask, different people will give you different responses.” Almost all of my questions where answered in the same vague manner.

Without fail everyone was upbeat, warm, and friendly. Everyone I talked to welcomed me and invited me to come back. I got the distinct impression that people there were not only friendly, but at least some of them were genuine â??friends”. They seemed committed to their process. These were nice, likable people. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the Christian background of this movement was decidedly pushed into the background, that there were no references to Christ by anyone, and questions about Christ were answered vaguely. As a Christian myself, the last question I had, which I only asked myself, was, “What is Christian about this?” I could see the parallels between references to “the light” and Christ , but I couldn’t justify not talking about Christ in a meeting of a group started by a man who said Christ told him to go in the direction that led to this group.


(c) copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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