..The Intuitive Times
Spiritual Practices


The Quakers

by Margaret Springer

Back | Next | Contents | Home

"A day will come when a canon will be exhibited in public museums, just as an instrument of torture is now, and people will be astonished at how such a thing could have been." Victor Hugo, 1849

The following was written by Margaret Springer of Waterloo, Ontario, and was originally printed at the Argenta Friends Press, Argenta, British Columbia, V0G 1B0, August 1978. Rev. 1992 & 1996.

It is the fall of 1972. We've already driven around the block, but now we're sure this is the right house. There are other cars pulling up outside, and people talking on the lawn. As we get out, someone comes to us with hand outstretched and introduces himself. We all walk around to the back, the children clinging. I notice with some relief that people are dressed rather casually. We settle ourselves into an assortment of garden furniture, arranged amid wobbles and squeaks in a circle. And then we sit silently together.

At first I am most aware of the beauty of this place. The warmth and sunshine of a glorious fall day; the dappled shade in which we sit. I hear the rustle of leaves, the sound of neighbours discussing their garden, a screen door banging, and the far-off shouts of children at play. But gradually the silence deepens. I am less aware of my surroundings. I hardly notice when someone rises and beckons to the children. A shuffle of feet on the grass. A murmur of voices. Time seems suspended.

Then, someone speaks, about looking for God in our lives. Again there is silence. Sometimes I sense a feeling of deep peace and timelessness, and catch a glimpse of a profoundly moving religious experience, of God in our midst. At other times I am too aware of the distractions, and of the length of the silence. Another person speaks, about what being in this group has meant to him. More silence. Then suddenly the hour has passed. We are all shaking hands with those on each side of us, introducing ourselves, talking, stretching, collecting the children, or going to the kitchen to start lunch. The spell has broken. My first Quaker Meeting for Worship is over.

If you've already been to a Quaker Meeting, much of this will be familiar to you. You might have been indoors instead of out, or at a Meeting House instead of a home, but I suspect that the emotional impact of that first experience was similar, and has stayed with you as it has stayed with me. If you have not experienced a Quaker Meeting, perhaps this has given you some idea of how it might feel.

Who are the Quakers? What do they stand for? How do they operate? Officially we are called the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Unofficially, we call ourselves either Quakers or Friends. To begin with, we are a religious society.

Stephen Leacock once wrote wryly: 'Anybody can start a movement by beginning with himself.' George Fox did just that. His place and time was England in the mid-17th century. He grew up surrounded by social and political ferment, and besieged within by religious unrest. He was a deeply committed Christian, who did not intend to start a movement, a sect, or a church. But he attracted followers as other seekers heard of his ideas.

What were those ideas? Simple but radical. A human being can have direct communion with God, without the intervention of another human being (a minister), an institution (the church), or a book (the Bible). Ordinary people sit together anywhere in silent worship, without clergy, liturgy, or sacraments (all of life is sacred). There we can feel a Presence and listen for the voice of God in our own lives. We are seekers of Truth, and that Truth is based on direct experience. Each of us has 'that of God' within us - the indwelling spirit of Christ, the Light within - which links us to God and to each other. Rank, race, religion, political persuasion, all these things become unimportant. We are equal, and can speak to 'that of God' in others.

All of this led George Fox and his friends into a lot of trouble. The implications of these ideas were - and still are - far-reaching. The concept of 'that of God within' for example, meant that Friends would not bear arms against another person, or pay tithes to help support armies. George Fox once wrote that he 'lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.' The early Quakers acted on the premise that love will work as a way of life, and championed the cause of the less fortunate. Their sensitivity to the plight of the poor, imprisoned and oppressed made them tireless workers for justice and equality.

Equality was an important issue. In those days the custom was to take off one's hat, and bow, and use the respectful 'you' instead of the familiar 'thee/thou' with those of higher social rank. This Quakers refused to do. Nor would they use titles in addressing or referring to others. Rich, poor, old, young, men, women, educated, uneducated, privileged, oppressed - all were treated equally and simply called by their full or first names. There was an emphasis on simplicity and plainness of speech and dress, which became rigidly entrenched as time went on.

Not only did early Quakers reject the established church and ministry, they also actively stirred people against it, and were often arrested for interrupting sermons or causing disturbances in village squares. When brought to court, they refused to swear oaths on the Bible, stating firmly that there are not two standards of truth, and following literally the biblical commandment to 'swear not at all.'

It is hardly surprising, then, that the authorities considered Quakers dangerous heretics, and imprisoned many of them. George Fox himself was in prison many times. But always on his release he travelled around the country again with his fervour undiminished. He even visited friends in Barbados, Jamaica, and the American colonies late in his life.

Today the 'testimonies' of those early Friends are still at the centre of Quaker work and witness. To begin with, the tradition of pacifism remains. In times of war, some Friends have taken non-combative roles such as in Friends' Ambulance Units, and others have gone to jail for refusing to accept the draft. In peacetime, many are refusing to pay the military portion of their income tax.

In our social concerns we have continued to work with unpopular causes. Whether sending medical aid to all sides during the Vietnam War, taking a stand against capital punishment, working toward the abolition of prisons, seeking the spiritual roots of the environmental crisis or championing the rights of native people, we find as much to commit ourselves to now as 300 years ago. And these actions arise from the same religious convictions.

We still do not use titles. We still espouse simplicity, though we no longer dress differently than anyone else. We 'affirm' rather than take an oath in court. But perhaps we have mellowed, and the authorities have mellowed, for we no longer seem to be so often put in jail.

Today Friends co-operate with other religious groups, especially in working on common social concerns, and we hold membership in the Canadian Council of Churches. We in Canadian Yearly Meeting still do not go to church or have a paid ministry. But we do pay attention to the ministry of others, to the teachings of other religious groups, and to recorded religious experiences, biblical or otherwise. Our own experience is basic, but in our search for Truth we accept insights from many sources.

A Bit about Quaker History in Canada

The first Quakers in Canada came from the American colonies in the late 18th century. They settled in the Maritimes, and in many of the counties of what is now southern and south-eastern Ontario. More Friends came from Britain in the 19th century, and by the 1870s there were 7,000 Quakers in Canada, mostly in rural areas of Ontario. Then our numbers declined. We were weakened by schisms that divided rival Quaker groups, by evangelical revivals that wooed many away, and by the fact that the close pioneer communities began to be diffused as the shift to urban centres began.

In this century, Friends have tended to be urban, educated, and middle class. Most of our members are 'convinced' Friends (added by request), rather than 'birthright' Friends (born to Quaker parents). Since World War II, Quakers have come to Canada from many countries, especially the United States and Britain. New groups have appeared in Western and Eastern centres. During the Vietnam War we welcomed some American Friends who left their home-land in their anguish over the U.S. involvement in South-East Asia.

In December 1995, there were 1,129 Quakers in Canada and twenty-two different Meetings (or Groups.) Monthly Meetings in Canada are also constituent parts of a Half-Yearly Meeting or Regional Gathering, and of Canadian Yearly Meeting. Once every spring and fall, for example, my Meeting (Kitchener Area) gets together with three other Meetings in Ontario to meet as Pelham Half-Yearly Meeting. There is worship, business, some sort of programme, and Friendly fellowship. Then, in summer, we all have the opportunity to meet with Friends from across Canada for the week-long sessions of Canadian Yearly Meeting, the location varying each year. Canadian Yearly Meeting maintains a year-round office, which provides the thread that links our Meeting beads together.

On Prince Edward Island, a Quaker Meeting Group has been operating continuously since 1991 meeting every Sunday for worship. To learn more about the Quakers in PEI, contact Daphne Harker Davey at 675-3501 or visit their website at www3.pei.sympatico.ca/john.clement/quaker.htm.

You can also visit the Canadian Quaker site at: www.quaker.ca

Peace Testimonyof the Religious Society of Friends ( Quakers )

We actively oppose all that leads to violence among people and nations, and violence to other species and to our planet. Refusal to fight with weapons is not Surrender. We are not passive when threatened by the greedy, the cruel, the tyrant, the unjust. We will struggle to remove the causes of impasse and confrontation by every means of nonviolent resistance available. We must start with our own hearts and minds. Together, let us reject the clamour of fear and listen to the whisperings of hope.

From A Statement on Peace
issued by New Zealand Quakers, 1987

Sixth in a series of seven quotations from Quaker corporate statements.

Back | Next | Contents | Home