Friends: A Short History
The Religious Society of Friends has its beginnings in 17th century England during a time of political upheaval. At the time, the government controlled the Church of England, and membership was automatic/required when someone was born. People were required to pay tithes, and the whole church system was corrupt. People were forced to take communion and to be baptized into the Church of England, even though neither of these actions held any spiritual meaning.
The Bible was just being printed in English and becoming more accessible to the common person. People began asking questions and seeking a genuine faith in and relationship with God. It was during this period of time that several denominations emerged: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Friends (Quakers).
George Fox is considered the founder of The Religious Society. He was searching for a deeper understanding of God and had a life-changing experience when he heard God say to him, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” He did not set out to start a new Christian denomination, but he and other early Friends sought to return to true Christianity — the simplicity and beliefs of the early church during the time of Jesus’ disciples.
The nickname “Quakers” was initially given by a judge as a derogatory name because as Friends gathered to worship and the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would quake. Friends soon embraced the nickname “Quakers.”
Early Friends were persecuted by the British government from around 1650-1687. At the time, there was no religious tolerance for anything outside the Church of England. Friends were often arrested for simply gathering to worship. Some Friends traveled to the New World (America), but often faced persecution there as well. Two men and one woman (Mary Dyer) were hanged on Boston Commons for the crime of preaching. Friends who were arrested and imprisoned — both in England and America — soon discovered how deplorable prison conditions were at the time, so Friends began working on prison reform to improve the conditions.
William Penn is a well-known Quaker. His father was an admiral in the British navy. William Penn bought a tract of land in America, which he named “Penns Woods” or Pennsylvania. He created what he called a “holy experiment,” and Pennsylvania was established with religious toleration and separation of church and state. He was instrumental in making and keeping peace with Native Americans.
Friends were opposed to slavery, and were leaders and active participants in the Underground Railroad. Levi and Catharine Coffin were “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, and their home is now a part of an Indiana historical site in Fountain City.
Friends came to understand baptism and communion in a way that was Biblically-based and authentic. Friends believe in baptism and communion; we just have a different perspective. We believe that each of us have the potential to be baptized in the Holy Spirit each day and that our time of worship is communion with God. We also believe that all of life has the potential to be a time of communion with God and others — each meal, each conversation.
Friends are well-known for their Testimonies: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality (SPICE). These are hallmarks of our Christian faith, and they emerge from our relationship with God and are a “testimony” to our belief in God.
In 1947, Friends were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the work that was done following World Wars I and II in Germany and throughout all of Europe. They fed and cared for thousands of people every day regardless of what country they were citizens.