|William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania|
Some of the most known distinguishing characteristics of Quakers may be their clothes, especially the wide-brimmed hats, and the supposed trembling or quaking before the power of God. Others may know them for their contribution to breakfast cereals and chocolate (Cadbury is a Quaker trademark). Still others may confuse them with some of the other more traditional Christian denominations that have consciously turned their back to society or that breed within their own confines.
As with most Christian groups, the Quakers or Friends have also had their share of disagreements over the years and there are distinct parts and parties to Quakerdom. Although they mostly share the main Quaker tenets, there are still vital differences among them. I will discuss here what seems to me the most original aspects of the Quaker belief and lifestyle of its most liberal and, in my view, most influential branch.
Quakers generally believe that everybody has a bit of God within them, a Light that shines in and through each individual, regardless of creed, sex or race. As a result, their religion has been steeped in deep promises of democracy and is filled with humanitarian concerns.
The Quakers, for example, were the first to treat native Indians with kindness and not as barbarians or uncivilized heathens; they accepted and embraced the colored population and fought against slavery; they believed that women ought to have the same rights as men, while in modern times, most liberal-minded Quakers would support equal rights and treatment of people of different sexual orientations.
It is amazing that there is a Christian religious group that would advocate those beliefs consistently and vehemently, and to my knowledge, they are one of the few, maybe Unitarians excepted, that have constantly stood up both in words and deeds for equality and human rights.
Part of this reason may lie in the fact that they do not preach and that their own congregations are often marked by bouts of reflection and silence. Friends go to worship and sit in silence. Suddenly when one is moved to say something, that person stands up and shares his or her feelings and thoughts with the others.
Yet mostly their attention is focused inward, and they do not merely listen to the preachings of one person or pastor. There is the opportunity for all to speak and reflect in equal measure. They believe that in such moments the Holy Spirit visits and delves among them and often makes them utter some deep contemplations about life, thus unifying them in strength, purpose and belief.
I think it is through silence and private meditation that one can really be and exist in God. If you are compelled to listen to constant talking, you do not have time nor are you given the opportunity to absorb and internalize those ideas. And through such practices Quakers tend to feel more connected not only to their own members but in fact to all members of the human race.
Some of the other influences of Quakers has been their refusal to make oaths and to carry arms. They do not make oaths as it creates a double standard. You are supposed to say the truth in everyday life so why would your word not suffice? Why was it necessary to make another oath in order to ensure you are telling the truth? The word of an honest person shall suffice and the dishonest will lie anyway, whether they are under oath or not.
That belief or practice has gotten them into a lot of trouble, especially in court proceedings as well as political office. In addition, since they see everyone as equal, they would not remove their hats for others nor get up or rise for judges. According to the Quakers, these actions serve as outward appearances underscoring the difference and furthering inequality among people.
Their refusal to carry arms lies in their deep-seated belief that war is violence and always wrong. Any violence begets more violence even if it is done for the sake of later good. As such, Quakers generally avoid the draft because of conscientious reasons. During the Civil War, for example, many Quakers focused on helping slaves to escape to the North and supported them in many different ways, such as schooling and humanitarian aid.
Their conviction of nonviolence has had an impact on many important leaders. They are said to have influenced the thinking of Leo Tolstoy, who in return influenced Gandhi, who later had an impact on the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. Hence, Quaker thought may have shaped many of our ideas of nonviolence and resistance to war and violence. The fact that Quakers have avoided the war was not based on cowardice since in their tumultuous history they had to endure severe prosecution and in many cases deaths and executions for their strongly held, revolutionary beliefs.
In fact, I cannot but admire people and organizations who stand up for what is right regardless of public opinion. The Quakers had a hand in what is known as the Kindertransport, where the British government agreed to take in and sponsor over 10,000 Jewish children to escape prosecution from the Nazis. Quakers have consistently taken care of those who have become victims of war and often helped the supposed enemy during the Vietnam War and the Cold War.
When it comes to humanity and suffering, there are indeed no differences nor boundaries. And I am grateful that there are groups, both religious and secular that can see beyond the limits of their own zeitgeist and beliefs and reach out to embrace all of God's children.