Society of Friends: A Movement of Christian Renewal
- by Authur Roberts (1987, 1991, 2005)
- George Fox: Longings for Authentic Faith
- The Quaker Awakening: Challenging the Church
- The Presence of Christ: Confronting Culture
- A New Society: Quaker Organization
- Division in America: Biblical Authority vs Individual Conscience
- Friends in the World Today
- Friends in the Pacific Northwest
- The Work of Northwest Yearly Meeting
The Friends Church (Quaker) arose from a movement of Christian renewal that began in England during the seventeenth century. The major leader of this renewal was George Fox, who as a sensitive youth had been repulsed by cold formalism and power politics in the church and by empty pleasure-seeking outside the church. Young Fox studied the Bible and longed for an authentic faith to match its Christian message. This longing remained unfulfilled, even frustrated, by human counselors until he looked beyond them. Then he discovered One who could “speak to thy condition” as phrased in Fox’s Journal.
George Fox found this experience with the living Christ so compelling that he quickly told others about it. He shared the good news that Christ could free persons from the guilt and power of sin. To this message people responded eagerly. They were seekers, disillusioned by dry and formal religion, and they were attracted to the warm, evangelical message preached by this earnest young messenger. Scores of young men and women were “raised up of the Lord” for a ministry across England. Known as the “valiant sixty,” they proclaimed that Christ could be experienced in the present, not just read about in the Bible or remembered through ritual observance. This is how George Fox perceived his ministry:
Now I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus, for to as many as should receive him in his light, I saw that he would give power to become the sons of God, which I had obtained by receiving Christ. And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth. . . I was to turn them to the grace of God, and to the Truth in the heart, which came by Jesus, that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them into salvation….
-Journal, Nickalls edition, Cambridge, 1952, p. 34
George Fox explained grace in terms of the Light of Christ, using the terms found in the Gospel of John. By this inward light, said Fox, people can understand Jesus Christ as “their Saviour and Redeemer, who shed his blood and died for them, who is the way to God, the truth and life.” (Journal, pp. 225-226)
The Quaker Awakening constitutes one of the great revivals within Christianity. Particularly significant was its challenge to official religion. The first Friends believed that religious monopolies, whether Protestant or Catholic, weakened the Christian faith and fostered unspiritual, time-serving ministry. Therefore they urged freedom of religion, trusting the power of the Lord rather than civil coercion, to advance the Gospel. Friends were a people gathered to Christ, communing with God in vital worship and fellowship, witnessing the good news of Christ’s Kingdom in a world shattered by civil and religious conflict. Their message met resistance. Thousands suffered imprisonment and hundreds died for religious freedom.
These Christians first referred to themselves as “publishers of Truth,” children of the Light,” or “the camp of the Lord.” Gradually they came to prefer the term “Friends” in accordance with Jesus’ words “You are my friends if you do whatever I command” (John 15:12-15). Their critics dubbed these enthusiastic Christians “Quakers,” a nickname that has become a symbol of integrity rather than a term of derision.
Friends used the word “church” to describe the people of God, not the building in which the people met. “Meetinghouse” became their word for the building in which the church gathered to worship. About a century after the movement began, the term “Society of Friends” came into general use. The word “society” conveniently distinguished Friends and other legal but dissenting groups from the established Church of England. In the twentieth century “Friends Church” became the preferred term in some yearly meetings, including Northwest Yearly Meeting.
The Quaker Awakening constituted a fast-growing missionary movement during its earliest decades. People in England joined by the thousands. Within a few years Friends became a major force in Colonial America. People welcomed a Christianity freed from state authority and priestly ritual. They liked an emphasis upon Christ’s inward baptism with the Holy Spirit and the Quaker concern for practical holiness.
The Friends teaching about the real and sanctifying presence of Christ with His people resulted in strong ethical testimonies. These included support for religious and political freedom, opposition to slavery and civil bondage, just relationships with aboriginal and minority persons, honesty in business, humane and remedial treatment of offenders, compassionate care of the mentally ill, and aid to war victims and others in distress.
Friends opposed war and practiced peacemaking. They took their standards from the New Testament and from the example of Christian pacifism during the early Christian centuries. Quakers urged Christians to use the weapons of the Holy Spirit rather than the weapons of violence, believing such a choice to be both right and practical. They emphasized a single standard for truth, rejecting legal oaths out of faithfulness to the express command of Christ.
These ethical testimonies produced significant results. Religious freedom is now widely acknowledged as basic to the social good. Oppression by courts has diminished. The right to conscientious objection to war has been widely supported by religious bodies and honored in many nations. Over the years the Quakers have often served as the conscience of the Church. Such moral leadership has sometimes been a heavy burden. Friends have not always lived up to their reputation. Sometimes they became preoccupied with ethical concerns to the neglect of evangelistic proclamation. At other times, in reaction to this burden, or to their own legalism, they became preoccupied with evangelism to the neglect of social testimonies.
It is sometimes forgotten that early Friends had a vision to evangelize the world at a time when most Protestants had not awakened to missionary responsibility. The first Quaker efforts may have lacked organization, but they did display a global vision. This missionary vision was diminished during the decades of colonizing in the New World, although there was some outreach to the American Indian. In the nineteenth century the missionary expansion resumed.
Quakers first organized their local gatherings for worship into regional clusters called “yearly meetings.” In Europe the first yearly meetings were in England (London) and Ireland (Dublin). In the colonies, the yearly meetings of Philadelphia, New York, North Carolina, and New England came into being. With the westward migrations of the nineteenth century, new groups became established across America.
William Penn’s colony in the New World is the most widely known example of colonial Christian outreach. For seventy years the Quakers sought to make Pennsylvania a society embodying Christian values. The colony became a haven for oppressed persons and an example of respectful relationships with the Indian nations. But the French and Indian War brought such pressures to compromise their convictions that in 1755 the Quakers relinquished control of the colony.
A retreat from worldly affairs followed, marked by plain dress, silent worship, moral scrupulosity, and rigorous church discipline. Although their evangelistic outreach diminished, their social concerns did not. In their persistent and effective opposition to slavery, John Woolman of America and William Allen of England illustrate the period at its best.
In the westward migrations the colonizing tendency persisted until twentieth century urbanization changed the pattern. Quaker centers were reinforced by the establishment of schools, the preservation of a distinctive lifestyle, and a strong sense of community. These communities sustained ethical standards but tended to isolate members from spiritual renewals around them.
During the nineteenth century two major separations took place. The first caused serious divisions: the orthodox party emphasizing biblical authority and the historical aspects of salvation, and the liberal party (Hicksite) emphasizing individual conscience and the inward aspects of religion. Later in the century differences arose within the orthodox party concerning the appropriateness of planned worship and ministry. The Wilburites wanted to preserve the quietist tradition of immediate spiritual guidance; the Gurneyites wanted to acknowledge biblical and rational preparation for ministry under the Spirit’s guidance. The latter position proved to be more successful in accommodating Quakerism to a westward moving, pioneering America.
After the Civil War, touched by revivals that swept America, Friends rekindled their banked fires of evangelism and joined other Christians in new evangelistic forms. Revival meetings with singing and altar calls characterized the new mode. Traveling ministers became settled ministers; and thus arose the pastoral system soon to become dominant in American Quakerdom. Rapid growth occurred during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. To coordinate growth and to articulate Quaker faith and practice, several uniting conferences were held. Widely representative, these conferences led to programs of missionary outreach to Mexico, Africa, Alaska, the Caribbean, India, China, and Japan. Eleven American yearly meetings established a delegate organization, the Five Years Meeting, and affirmed their bonds of spiritual unity in a significant document, the 1887 Richmond Declaration of Faith.
This unity was broken by a modernist-fundamentalist rift in American Protestantism between World Wars I and II. Polarization developed between those who stressed evangelism and doctrinal essentials and those who stressed humanitarian concerns and doctrinal liberty. In 1926 Northwest Yearly Meeting (then called Oregon) withdrew from the Five Years Meeting (now called Friends United Meeting). In several other yearly meetings withdrawals occurred, or disaffected evangelicals formed association with fragmented Protestants (particularly Wesleyan). Loyalty to Quaker connections and testimonies became weakened as a result of these schisms. During these decades Protestant liberalism dominated Europe and America.
The evangelical-liberal polarities have continued, with the liberal theology dominant in Europe, Britain, and some parts of the Americas. But the pendulum has swung the other way for much of America and the world. For the last few decades evangelicalism has become dominant. Various theological movements following World War II helped Quakers regain a more central theology, with evangelical fervor and social concern becoming more often paired than polarized. Several movements for spiritual renewal are bearing fruit in membership gains, in the enrichment of spiritual life, and in doctrinal clarity. Scholarly research and writing have reasserted the Christ-centered, prophetic character of the early Quaker Awakening. Since 1959 the journal Quaker Religious Thought has provided a useful forum.
The Association of Evangelical Friends, meeting triennially from 1947 until 1970, restated the evangelical character of the Quaker beginnings. This movement gave rise to the Evangelical Friends Alliance (EFA), formed in 1965 by several independent yearly meetings, including Northwest Yearly Meeting. Regionalism has been reduced for these Friends as they have cooperated in missions, publications, education, social concerns, youth work, and evangelism. In 1989 EFA was instrumental in the formation of Evangelical Friends International which is made up of four regions: Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America.
National pastors conferences have brought together American ministers from both Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends (Alliance) International/NA Region. Various regional and world youth gatherings have strengthened Quaker identity. The All-Friends Conference at St. Louis in 1970 became a catalyst for renewal. The subsequent Faith and Life movement, with its various conferences and study materials, has had similar results. The publications and visiting ministry of the New Foundation movement has also brought spiritual renewal, especially to nonpastoral Friends. The Friends Educational Council and the Friends Association of Higher Education have facilitated spiritual concern for Friends schools. The Friends World Committee for Consultation, begun in 1937, has been used increasingly in recent years by the various yearly meetings for exchanging information and effecting dialogue. Its regional conferences, such as the Conference of Friends in the Americas in 1977, and its periodic world conferences have enhanced mutual understanding, clarified differences, reduced provincialism, deepened spirituality, and opened the way for a more global witness.
Tension points remain, however, for doctrinal differences range along the full theological spectrum, from fundamentalism to universalism, although often distinctions become blurred. In several yearly meetings there is a struggle to contain divergent beliefs and practices. Political differences often make spiritual unity difficult. This is particularly manifest in attitudes about public affairs agencies and social concerns. In some ways the older churches find healing from the younger Quaker groups in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which have encountered less polarity between doctrinal beliefs and social witness than those of Western civilization. As of 1987 half of the 300,000 Friends in the world are persons of non-European ethnic origin. Recently the greatest growth has occurred in Africa and Latin America.
In the United States most yearly meetings or associations belong to one of the following organizational structures: Friends United Meeting, the largest, encompassing a broadly orthodox range of theology; Friends General Conference, generally liberal in theology; Conservative, the smallest of the group, representing the quietist legacy; and the Evangelical Friends International, generally evangelical or fundamentalist in theology. Such characterizations are incomplete; they cannot fully measure the life of the Spirit within these groups. They cannot measure obedience to the Light. But they do map some ways Friends perceive themselves and act upon their Christian heritage.
Among the earliest Quakers to reach Oregon before the Civil War was the Lewelling family, who brought nursery stock to Milwaukie by oxen over the Oregon Trail in 1847. Other families settled in Ashland and the Willamette Valley. Robert and Sarah Lindsay, ministers from London, traveled to the Willamette Valley in 1859 to support the growing but scattered communities of Friends. Organizational direction, however, came in the 1870s through William Hobson, an Iowa Friend. His vision stimulated a major migration to the Chehalem Valley. Most families came from Iowa, which became the parent yearly meeting, although some, such as Jesse Edwards, came from Indiana. In 1893 the Quaker settlements in the Newberg and Salem, Oregon, area were constituted Oregon Yearly Meeting of Friends.
Irrigation projects brought Friends families to Idaho’s Boise Valley during the first decade of the twentieth century, with early settlements at Star, Riverside, and Greenleaf. Oregon Yearly Meeting soon included churches in Washington, as well as Idaho. Puget Sound Quarterly Meeting arose following Quaker migrations from Indiana. An anticipated yearly meeting in Washington never developed, and in 1945 Friends from this area united with Oregon Friends. In 1971 the Yearly Meeting changed its name to Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church.
As a result of evangelical resurgency following World War II, the National Association of Evangelicals was formed. Oregon Yearly Meeting joined this organization in 1945. At the present time membership is through the Evangelical Friends International.
Evangelism and outreach became major concerns in the Yearly Meeting because of opportunities afforded by a developing region and because of deep spiritual convictions. These concerns were often expressed through various modes, including revival meetings. By 1997 the membership numbered approximately 7,100.
Missionary work among the Aymara people of South America began in 1930 and has been strongly sustained since that time. Bolivia Yearly Meeting was established in 1975, and Peru Yearly Meeting was established in 1997. Northwest Yearly Meeting supplies assistance, particularly in education. The Yearly Meeting, through the Evangelical Friends International, also supports ministry in Mexico City, the Philippines, Rwanda, Taiwan, Burundi, and India; and has an interest in the Christian University of Bolivia and the Navajo people of Southwestern United States.
Northwest Yearly Meeting outreach also includes social programs. In faithfulness to the peace testimony many young persons have engaged in relief work as an alternative to military service. Members often serve with agencies devoted to the alleviation of economic and cultural disparity in America or abroad. Inner-city ministries, peace-making activities, and economic assistance to the needy receive local and Yearly Meeting direction. Yearly Meeting concern fostered construction of Friendsview Manor, a retirement home.
Interest in education is evidenced by the establishment at Newberg, Oregon, of Pacific Academy in 1885 and Pacific College in 1891 (renamed George Fox College in 1949). In 1996 with the merger of George Fox College and Western Evangelical Seminary, the college reached university status and thus became George Fox University. Greenleaf Academy in Idaho has been maintained by area Friends since 1908. These schools have contributed significantly to Quaker and Christian leadership in the Northwest and throughout the world. Recently several local churches have included schools and day-care centers in their ministry. The Yearly Meeting since 1918 has supported programs of camping and now has several conference centers. These presently include Twin Rocks on the Oregon coast, Quaker Hill and Twin Lakes in central and north Idaho, and Quaker Cove on the Puget Sound. Tilikum, a retreat center and day camp near Newberg, was established in 1970 as the result of a gift of property. It is an agency of George Fox University. These programs are widely used by the churches.
In its various missionary, educational, and outreach ministries, Northwest Yearly Meeting continues in the Christian tradition of Friends. Its interests and strengths vary from time to time. Sometimes the Yearly Meeting has misdirected its energies and misplaced its priorities; however, restoration to wholeness has also occurred, accompanied by unity and joy in the Lord.