The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, began when people within the Church of England saw corruption and false doctrine rise in that body in the 1650s. With Puritanism also came a type of Phariseeism driven by personal pride and doctrinal divisiveness. A non-conformist movement was started by those who sought to distance themselves from Puritanism. The earliest dissenters went about seeking others of like mind and practice and were thus called “Seekers.” When they met together, it was not to formally pray or preach, but simply to wait together for God to speak to them. Other dissenters, such as the Ranters, embraced extreme doctrines. The Ranters believed that whatever might have been sinful before faith in Christ was no longer sinful because of the grace of God. The Ranter’s antinomianism contradicts the clear teaching of Romans 6:1–2.
Seeing the problems among the Ranters, other dissenters sought “the right way to peace with God” and turned to “the light of Jesus Christ within them,” according to William Penn. The Quakers viewed the traditional Christian as “conceited of himself, and strong in his own will and righteousness, overcome with blind zeal and passion.” George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said the name “Quaker” was first used as a derogatory term in court, “because we bid them tremble at the Word of God.” Quakers were persecuted widely in England and the American Colonies and were often imprisoned or put to death for their beliefs. Because of this widespread persecution, William Penn founded the Pennsylvania Colony to provide a safe haven for Quakers.
The practical emphases of Quaker doctrine have always been 1) reliance on the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, 2) love for one another, 3) love for enemies (pacifism), and 4) the sufficiency of truth-speaking (not taking any oaths). With their emphasis on “the inner light” and the movement of the Spirit, Quakers typically shun systematic theology and doctrinal creeds. Most Quakers hold to evangelical doctrines, but a small minority holds to liberal theology and universalism. Some support a traditional view of marriage, while others affirm and support gay marriage.
One of the distinctives of Quakerism is the practice of “group spiritual discernment,” whereby the Friends wait on God to lead them in whatever business is at hand. This sensitivity to the Spirit’s moving is indeed valuable and often lacking in other churches. On the other hand, if the people in the group have not sufficiently studied the Scriptures for God’s revealed will, the group may “feel led” to something that violates Scripture. This is why the apostle John commanded us to “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). Historically, the Quakers have always tried to emphasize the social aspects of the gospel. They were involved in ending slavery and increasing the rights of women and minorities. One of Amnesty International’s founders was a Quaker, and the Quakers have been strong supporters of that organization ever since.