Conservative Friend

    An Outreach of Stillwater Monthly Meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends

Frequently Asked Questions

Ask a Quaker!

We have several sets of question-and-answer dialogs from our correspondence that come from very specific points of view.  Look them over as well:

The questions below are some of the ones that we hear frequently.  The answers here are necessarily too brief to be comprehensive, but most of the subjects are also discussed in other places on this site.  If there is something you want to know that isn't listed here, please ask us on our Guestbook or Contact Us pages.  Our experienced staff will try to answer it clearly and briefly here.


Q:    I thought all the Quakers had died out.

A:   No.  In fact, there are more now than there ever have been, but we are no longer obvious or distinct as we used to be.  There are some 300,000 people in the world today who would identify themselves as "Quakers," or "Friends."  We fall into three main groups:  the "Liberal," or mostly non-Christian unprogrammed branch, the "Pastoral," or programmed Christian branch, and the "Conservative," or the branch that is both Christian and unprogrammed.

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Q:   You mean some of you aren't Christian?

A:   The Friends originally considered themselves completely Christian, and in fact, explicitly regarded themselves as representing "primitive Christianity revived," or the restoration of the original Christian church after 1600 years of backsliding and apostasy.  This attitude made them unpopular with those who thought otherwise.

In the early 19th century, American Quakers divided over whether to emphasize the Christian heritage of Friends or the leading of the Inward Light.  Although the first Quakers had no trouble connecting the two, the Society split into an "Orthodox" wing maintaining an extreme interpretation of Biblical Quaker Christianity, and a "Hicksite" wing emphasizing an extreme interpretation of the Inward Light.  The two sides continued to diverge, and the endpoints are far apart today.

The Society in Britain never schismed, but evolved over time from the original form, through the "Orthodox" interpretation, into today's modern "Liberal" Britain Yearly Meeting.

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Q:   What do people mean by "Pastoral" and "unprogrammed?"

A:   The original Friends believed that God was accessible to all people without the need for intercessory priests, or in fact, any clergy at all.  They were especially disdainful of clergy who made a living by preaching for money, because they saw first-hand that the paycheck often influenced the preaching.  For the first two hundred years, the Society maintained a unified testimony against a paid professional clergy, but in the mid-19th century the new Othodox Christian branch divided.  It had manage to stay unified for twenty years only by a joint interest in opposing the Hicksites.  The Conservatives (or Wilburites) maintained the original witness that God was willing and able to minister to His people unassisted, while the new Pastorals (or Gurneyites) soon began hiring professional clergy.  Over time the two groups have also diverged, with the Pastoral bodies now often indistinguishable from modern non-denominational Protestant churches.

The vast majority of modern Friends worldwide are Pastoral, a tribute to that group's dedicated and effective missionary and outreach work, beginning in the 19th century and continuing today.

"Programmed" refers to a common style of worship in which a religious service is structured in advance, with pre-arranged sermons, songs, readings, and the like.  A good example of a "programmed" worship would be the typical Pastoral Quaker service, where almost everything is pre-aaranged, often to the very minute.  Conservative Friends believe that this sort of pre-planning doesn't give God the freedom in the process that being God should merit.  We prefer to  sit and listen to God, rather than to spend our time talking at Him.  The key is that we assume that God has something to say to us.  If we spend all our time chanting, singing, and preaching, then where do we leave time for God to speak?

I once attended a very busy Protestant service with my family.  After 40 minutes of songs, sermons, reciting written prayers, and such, I noticed my nine-year-old lying down on the bench.  "Sit up," I said, "Somebody's talking."  "Somebody's always talking," he answered.

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Q:   I don't understand.

A:   Modern Friends fall into three groups.  Two are Christian, one is mostly Universalist.  Two practice unprogrammed worship, one hires professionally trained clergy.

The Liberals:  Modern unprogrammed Friends, mostly in North America, with no particular emphasis on a Christian basis for their faith.  Extreme forms delete God entirely, calling themselves "non-theistic Friends."
The Pastorals:  Modern programmed Friends, mostly in East Africa, and Central and South America.  All Christian.  Many have allied themselves closely with Protestant organizations, and maintain only historical continuity with the faith and practice of the orginal Society. 
The Conservatives:  That's us.  We retained the original Christian witness when the emerging Liberals left us, but lost a great deal of creative energy.  We also maintained the original unprogrammed witness when the emerging Pastorals left us, but lost the evangelical emphasis on spreading the Gospel.  Both schisms broke apart the creative tensions that gave the original Society much of its strength and vision.

All the branches suffered from the loss of the others.  None of us retains the completeness of the original vision granted to the early Friends.

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Q:  Well, then how do these groups differ in terms of what they emphasize?

A:  Like this:

Pastoral/Evangelical Friends emphasize the evangelistic, missionary fervor of the original Quakers, as well as its Christian core. They de-emphasize individual direct contact with God, and they also de-emphasize social witness.

Liberal Friends emphasize social witness and the belief in individual direct contact with God of the original Quakers. They de-emphasize evangelistic mission and Christianity.

Conservative Friends emphasize individual direct contact with God and the Christian core of the original Quakers. We de-emphasize evangelistic mission and social witness.

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Q:   Back to Conservatives.  Who leads the services?

A:   Jesus.  We gather together somewhere and sit quietly.  After a while, some of us may be led to stand and speak a message.  Or sing.  Or just to pray.  We believe that the inner tension and motivation that impels us to speak is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, acting through His agency of the Inward Light.  Jesus Himself is present and is our leader, and if He is willing to step in and teach us, why in the world would we want to replace Him with a human being like ourselves?

It isn't always obvious, and sometimes some of us are so distracted that it simply doesn't work.  But at its best, we all share together in a gathered meeting, where we are all linked together spiritually into a functioning, sensitive unit that is bigger and closer to God than we normally achieve on our own.

After a while someone (who is generally delegated in advance) senses that the meeting is over, and reaches out to shake someone's hand.  Then we all shake hands, stretch, and decompress.

Sometimes nobody is led to speak.  These meetings can be just as rich as a verbal one, and often are better, as Jesus can impart messages individually and corporately without needing anybody to speak a word.

Friends' meetings with many people present often have so many messages delivered that there isn't enough time in between to digest and internalize what Jesus is trying to tell us.  These are called "popcorn" meetings, and are usually a sign that it is time for the meeting to divide into several smaller bodies.

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Q:   But who is in charge?

A:   See above.

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Q:   But how do you pay for things?  If you don't pass a collection plate, where does the money come from to fix the roof?

A:   Somebody writes a check.

We meet once a month to discuss these sorts of things, again in a meeting for worship.  It is a slow process where we try to give the Holy Spirit the maximum opportunity to lead us in the right directions.  We have committees and so forth to accomplish specific tasks, but since we don't have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to support a priest, our expenses are surprisingly low.

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Q:   What about the Shakers?

A:   There is no connection.  The Shakers were a group founded by a Mother Ann Lee, originating in England in the 1770's, over a hundred years after George Fox began organizing the Religious Society of Friends in the same region.  Mother Ann Lee attended a Quaker meeting in England briefly before emigrating to America.  They believed in strict celibacy, and essentially died out in the 19th century.  There are a dozen or so practitioners at present.

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Q:   What is your connection with the Amish and Mennonites?

A:   Again, there is no direct connection.  The Amish and Mennonites are Anabaptists, a Christian group that originated in what is now Switzerland and Germany, in the 16th century.  They were horribly persecuted in Europe, and were mostly killed off there.  William Penn invited them to emigrate to Pennsylvania, where they could practice their religion without being molested.

The other Anabaptists are the Hutterites, and the Brethren (or Dunkards, or Old German Baptists).  All believe in strict pacifism as a religious expectation, as do the Quakers, and so we are sometimes confused.  Traditionally, the Quakers do not consider themselves Protestants.  Neither do the Anabaptists, for that matter.

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Q:   Then what do you mean you aren't Protestant?  You're certainly not Roman Catholic.

A:   Christianity today is made up of five distinct branches.  There is the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Syriatic Orthodox Church, the Friends, and the Protestants.  The Protestants are actually too diverse to really lump together, but most unite around the belief that the Bible is the only sure foundation of Christian faith and practice.

Traditionally, Conservative Friends differ from Protestants in that we don't consider the Bible to be the primary foundation of religious knowledge or worship.  Protestants generally do.  The typical Protestant worship service is a lecture about God, where a paid professional teaches the congregation, usually on a topic from the Bible.  Quaker worship is actually more similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, because like them, we believe that the Holy Spirit physically enters the room and ministers to us.

The focus of Protestant worship is generally a human sermon.  The focus of Roman Catholic worship is the ritual of the Mass.  The focus of Quaker worship is the act of listening to God, and then going out to try to do what He said to do.

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Q:   What exactly do you believe about the Bible?

A:   Conservative Friends belief that the leadings and teaching of God Himself, through the agency of the Inward Light of Christ, are a more sure foundation of our Christian faith than the Bible, although we value it highly as a secondary and subordinate tool.  Different individuals within our body assign different roles to the Bible in their lives, and any extended discussion of Scripture is always lively.

But as Friends, we try to remember that we strive for unity, not uniformity, and the unity we look for is a congruence with the will of God.  Although God is singular, different individuals will have different perceptions of that will, and we recognize no creeds or forced orthodoxies.  It is God that provides the cement to hold us together, not memorized passages or tests of belief.

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Q:   Do Quakers practice baptism?  And communion?

A:   Yes, we do, but not in the same ritualistic sense that many people think to be essential.  We don't practice any sacramental ceremonies, not just no water baptism, but also no confirmation, no communion rites, no last unction, ordination, nothing like that.  We very definitely believe that a baptism with the Holy Spirit is a requirement for a true relationship with God, but we don't assign special importance to a physical, outward ceremony.  The true genuine baptism is by the Holy Spirit and continues throughout the life of the individual.  The water ceremony may accompany a genuine baptism, but the water does not ensure the baptism, and true baptism is common without the water.

Similarly for communion rites using bread and wine.  True communion with God--and with one another--is what Friends strive for during all worship, and ceremonies don't force it to happen.  Ultimately they can confuse people who substitute the symbol for the reality.

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Q:   Do Quakers use electricity and modern technology?

A:   Quakers invented some modern technology.  Because we were legally barred from much of 17th century legal and professional employment,  and generally considered education important, Quakers were over-represented among professional scientists.

The traditional Quaker plain witness in dress sometimes confuses people who associate us with the Amish, but most of us look more or less like you.  There are Quaker farmers, schoolteachers, business men and women, biologists, astonomers, urban reformers, and American presidents.  Joan Baez and James Michener are Quakers.  Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag, was a Quaker.   Even Daniel Boone started out as a Quaker.

Durig the 20th century, many American university towns started up Quaker meetings, so there is generally a Liberal unprogrammed meeting associated with universities.  They will have members comprising scientists, engineers, administrators, and students of many different backgrounds.  They are generally non-Christian, but maintain the Liberal Quaker tradition faithfully.


Q:  What about the funny Quaker talk?  Do you still do that?

A:  The original reason for using "thee and thou" speech was because in 17th century England, use of the "you" form to address another was grammatically limited to plurals and to social superiors (like Queen Victoria's royal "We are not amused.")  Quakers refused to accomodate to what they considered un-Christian behavior, although it was seen as normal good manners by the general public.

Quakers used the singular "thee" and "thou" to address single individuals, and used "you" only for addressing groups.  We spent much time being abused for this simple testimony, but considered it important because first, Quakers believed in equality of all people, and second, it was a grammatical error, and hence untruthful.

Today the public use of "thee and thou" has been abandoned, but some of us still use it among ourselves.  If thee wants more information to satisfy thy curiosity, visit our Contact Us page, and one of us will get back to thee promptly.

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Q:  So what about the funny clothes?  Do you dress like the Amish?

A:  Some Friends are led to adopt what Christians call the "plain witness."  This is a specific Christian discipline in which participants choose to separate themselves from the dominant culture in certain ways, and to adopt what is essentially a religious uniform in their clothing to make that separation obvious to others.  Among the conservative Amish and Mennonites, the plain witness in dress is a part of a much more comprehensive separation from the world that involves almost every aspect of their lives.  The dress serves as a short-cut means of establishing a specific Christian identity among these Anabaptist groups, in which they can instantly recognize kindred spirits and community members.

Friends in the 17th century carefully adopted simplified and undecorative styles of clothing, and were slow to change them, with the result that in just a few years Friends were instantly recognizeable wherever they went.  This was good, because we could spot each other if we needed assistance, and bad, because it made us especially visible to persecutors.  Although the dress changed slowly over the years, it always served as a means of helping Friends maintain cohesive communties, and of reminding us of who we professed to be.

Until the middle of the 19th century or so, Conservative Friends generally maintained a plain dress as part of the plain witness practiced by many members.  Most Books of Discipline or Faith and Practice recommended plain dress as an important means of keeping Friends a separate people.  But gradually the concern for plain dress began to diminish, as did the use of the "plain speech" (see above under "Funny Quaker talk.")  Today very few Friends still use the plain dress, although those that do generally believe it to be very, very important.

For men, it usually takes the form of a broad-brimmed felt or straw hat, trousers with suspenders instead of a belt, and muted colors in the fabrics:  blacks, whites, greys, browns.  Men sometimes also adopt aspects of the plain witness used by the Amish and Mennonites :  broad-fall trouser cuts and beards without a moustache (Quaker men were traditionally clean-shaven).  Women usually wear long-sleeved, long dresses, and a head-covering such as a scarf, bonnet, or cap.  There are infinite variations.

There are a number of websites devoted to plain dress among Friends, Anabaptists, or conservative Christians.  Two very good ones for Friends are QuakerJane and QuakerAnne, listed on our Related  Internet Sites page.

Was this answer too long?  There's lots more to say.


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