The Beginning of Friends
Friends, also called Quakers, had their origin in seventeenth-century England. As a young man, George Fox longed for a genuine faith which he did not find in the cold, legalistic church of his time. He looked in vain for human help, and studied the Bible so thoroughly that he learned much of it by memory. After four years of searching, he found inner peace through trusting Jesus Christ as his Savior. Soon he began to tell others about the Gospel of Christ as God’s way to free people from sin. As Fox shared the reality he had found, others responded and joined him in spreading the good news of salvation. Thus a movement of Christian renewal was born in 1647 which was to become known in time as the Friends Church, or Society of Friends. A rapid period of growth began in June, 1652, in northern England.
The Message of Friends
George Fox and early Quakers declared that salvation is a personal matter between the individual and God. No human mediator or outward ordinance is necessary. Therefore the Friends message with its clear, spiritual interpretation of the Gospel was a logical conclusion of the Protestant Reformation. With its emphasis on spiritual reality and without dependence on outward rites, Quakerism fulfilled the development of doctrine begun over a century earlier by Martin Luther.
Friends endeavored to rediscover New Testament doctrine in its threefold nature of knowing about Jesus Christ historically, knowing Him personally in religious experience, and following His pattern of life. They recognized the role of the Holy Spirit in revealing sin and leading people to new life in Christ. Rather than merely dispensing with all outward ordinances, they taught positively that true baptism is that of Christ’s Spirit within, and real communion takes place in fellowship with the Bread of life.
Friends as a Church
The dynamic message of Friends attracted thousands of people, and the early Quaker movement grew rapidly; some have called it an “explosion”. They are thought to have taken the name “Friends” from the statement of Jesus in John 15:14 that “Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you”. They also called themselves “Friends of Truth” or “Publishers of Truth”. The term “Quaker” was originally a derisive nickname. For legal reasons it became necessary in England to use the name “Society of Friends” as English law recognized only one established Church.
Many consider the word “church” belongs to the total invisible body of believers. Therefore some Friends hesitate to use the word to refer to any one part of the body of Christ (as a certain denomination) or to the building used as a place of worship. In a spiritual sense Fox and his followers did use “church” freely when referring to the group of believers to whom they ministered. Today, many Friends congregations call themselves the Friends Church. Others are careful to use the term “meeting” for a group of believers and “meetinghouse” for the place of worship.
The Living Witness of Friends
The beliefs of early Friends led them into practical action. Among ethical testimonies held by Friends were these: religious freedom, opposition to slavery and civil bondage, just treatment of minorities (especially American Indians), humane and remedial treatment of offenders, prison reform, compassionate care of the mentally ill, and aid to war victims and others in physical need. Friends taught and practiced peace as opposed to war, calling upon Christians to arm themselves with the Spirit rather than the weapons of this world. According to Christ’s command, they emphasized a single standard for truth. Consequently, many countries now accept the affirmation in place of a legal oath.
Because of the testimonies of early Friends there is more civil and religious liberty in the world. All have benefited greatly from the courage of Friends faithful to what they believed. They were often put in prison for refusing to comply with requirements which they felt were contrary to the Gospel of Christ. Some forfeited their property; others were beaten, or even killed, because they took a stand for justice and freedom.
Friends Around The World
Between 1654 and 1660 individual Friends from England had left a personal witness in more than 20 foreign countries. This antedated the modern missionary movement by more than a century. Outside of western Europe and the American colonies few, if any, Friends meetings continued from that era. In the latter half of the 19th century English and American Friends caught a vision of world need and since then have established missions in several lands. A number of those missions have now become indigenous churches. In 2000 the Friends World Committee reported there were organized groups of Friends in 43 countries, only 24 of which had more than 200 in their total membership. There are approximately 280,000 Friends in the world, but 90 percent of them live in the United States, Kenya, Bolivia, Guatemala, Great Britain, or Burundi.
Friends in America
The missionary vision of English Friends soon spread their witness in America. In 1661 New England Yearly Meeting was established in Rhode Island, where Friends were especially influential in government. Before 1700, other Yearly Meetings were set up in Baltimore, Virginia, Philadelphia, New York, and North Carolina for the English colonists. Overland travel was so difficult, separate Yearly Meetings were almost a necessity. William Penn’s colony (Pennsylvania) was an example of what Friends today call “church extension”. The numerical strength and influence of colonial Friends reached its peak about 1750. As more non-Quakers came to America, the peace testimony grew unpopular in the face of the French and Indian War. Also as Quietism increased among Friends, the Quaker influence diminished markedly during the latter half of the eighteenth century.
During the 19th century Friends experienced a quickening of spiritual life, and new Yearly Meetings were again set up. Baltimore established Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1813 for all Friends meetings west of the Allegheny Mountains. Growth was phenomenal and Ohio set up Indiana Yearly Meeting in 1821. Since then, twenty-six Yearly Meetings were formed in the remaining years of the 19th century, fourteen of which have ceased to exist or have merged with other Yearly Meetings. In the 20th century at least twelve new Yearly Meetings have been established.
Along with spiritual renewal came divisions among Friends. Due to disagreements in doctrine and church authority, and augmented by personality conflicts, the “Great Separation” took place in American Quakerism in 1827_28, with major splits occurring in four Yearly Meetings. Smaller divisions took place later in the century. Conferences about special concerns were held in Philadelphia in 1829, and in Baltimore in 1849. The first General Conference of the Yearly Meetings was held at Richmond, Indiana, in 1887. It was attended by delegates from London and Dublin Yearly Meetings, as well as from all those in America except Philadelphia and it was represented unofficially.
Afterwards it was decided to hold similar conferences of the American Yearly Meetings every five years (changed to triennial sessions after 1960). In 1897 it was decided that a uniform book of discipline and a closer union of the Yearly Meetings would be desirable. The resulting Constitution and Discipline was adopted by New England, Wilmington, Indiana, and Kansas in 1900, by California, New York, Western, and Baltimore in 1901, and by Oregon, North Carolina, and Iowa in 1902. The new organization was called the Five Years Meeting (officially changed to Friends United Meeting in 1966). Nebraska joined when it was organized in 1908. Canada Yearly Meeting was received into the organization in 1907 with the privilege of adapting the Discipline to its own needs. Later, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, and East Africa Yearly Meetings also affiliated with the Five Years Meeting. In 1983 the East Africa Yearly Meeting divided into three groups; since then two others have emerged, as that area has the largest concentration of Quakerism in the world. In 1986 California Yearly Meeting changed its name to Southwest, and then changed affiliation to Evangelical Friends International in 1995.
The Friends General Conference, composed of the “Hicksite” branches of Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Ohio, and Indiana Yearly Meetings, together with Genesee and Illinois, was organized in 1900. Indiana has changed its name to Ohio Valley. Six new Yearly Meetings later became affiliated with this group, Southeastern chose affiliation also with Friends United Meeting. In 1945 New England Yearly Meetings were united after the Gurneyite-Wilburite divisions of 1845. In 1955 various bodies in Canada joined to form Canadian Yearly Meeting. The two New York groups also united that year, as did the two Philadelphia bodies. Baltimore was not united until 1966. All of these except Philadelphia are affiliated with both the FGC and FUM. The five Yearly Meetings with dual membership in 2000 comprise 15.4% of the Friends in the United States and Canada.
The earlier unity achieved in the Five Years Meeting was shattered by the modern fundamentalist issue in American Protestantism. Numerous Friends across the country became concerned about the growing influence of so-called modern thought. The Quaker emphasis tended to be on either evangelism or humanitarianism but not both. Oregon Yearly Meeting withdrew from the Five Years Meeting in 1926. That same year some dissatisfied members in Indiana and Western Yearly Meetings organized Central Yearly Meeting. In 1937 Kansas Yearly Meeting also withdrew from the Five Years Meeting. Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting was set up in 1957 by a majority of monthly meetings from Nebraska Yearly Meeting.
Recent scholarship has focused attention upon the evangelical nature of early Quakerism; this led to greater cooperation among groups of evangelical Friends. The Association of Evangelical Friends began meeting triennially in 1947 to encourage Christ-centered faith among Friends. That organization was terminated in 1970. Meanwhile in 1962 the formation of an Evangelical Friends Alliance was planned; in 1965 its constitution was approved by Ohio (now Evangelical Friends Church – Eastern Region), Oregon (now Northwest), Rocky Mountain, and Kansas (now Evangelical Friends Church – Mid America) Yearly Meetings.
The purpose of EFA was to foster a clear evangelical witness, and to promote cooperation among evangelical Friends in Christian education, publications, youth work and missions. The Evangelical Friends Mission was initiated by it in 1978. Iowa and Alaska Yearly Meetings were associate members of EFM, Iowa supports work in Mexico City, and Alaska was being helped in training workers for her own missionary outreach in the north.
In 1989 the EFA was reorganized to become Evangelical Friends International. The purpose of this organization is an international alliance of Friends Churches that officially accept and communicate the evangelical doctrines of the Christian Faith as defined by its statement of faith. It is organized by geographical regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America. Evangelical Friends International – North America is composed of the following Yearly Meetings: Alaska, Evangelical Friends Church – Eastern Region, Evangelical Friends Church – Mid America Yearly Meeting, Friends Church – Southwest, Northwest Yearly Meeting, and Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting.