Quaker Spirituality: How Can We Serve Unless We Listen?

We can give only what we have received. We receive by listening and assimilating. The Word to which we respond is the Word which is heard, not just with our ears, but more deeply: inside us, where love and will abide, where we decide what we will do.

Nineteen times in the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses the theme of giving and receiving. “The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father living in me who does his works” (John 14:10). In the next chapter, Jesus says it will be the same for all his followers: “Abide in me.  .  .  . Without me, you can do nothing” (15:4–5). Paul echoes a related thought in 1 Corinthians 7:12: “What have you that you have not received?”

This is the rationale of the Quaker habit of listening in the silence, pregnant with the active Word of God. There were times in early Quaker history when the presence of the Holy Spirit seemed so strong that their bodies “quaked” in response to that experience. Justice Bennett of Derby gave the Quakers their name when their founder, George Fox, had the impertinence to tell him to “tremble at the Word of God!”1

A spirituality of receptivity and response has been the heart of Quakerism since the Society of Friends was founded by George Fox in 1652. In this approach, one prays and “waits on the Lord” before one acts: Indeed, one might not act at all unless moved by the Spirit in prayer. The Society differs from many Christian denominations by insisting that no one needs a mediator to know, hear, or be guided by the Spirit. God, who made each heart, naturally speaks to it. God will be heard if one learns to listen. Christ, the Savior, has taught his people to listen and then to obey, to do and say—as he did—what the Spirit bids. Because the Spirit still speaks to those who listen, revelation has never ceased. While the Bible, God’s inspired Word, is cherished and quoted, God continues to speak personally, inspiring people of every generation. In fact, it may be that Scripture reading opens the mind and warms the heart to new revelation and greater courage to act in God’s name.2

For Quakers, spirituality is the basis for living. Though not discounting the importance of theology, they hold far more sacred the personal experience and commitment to love God and neighbor than to know doctrine. Thomas Kelly, author of A Testament of Devotion, commented: “Dogmas and creeds and the closed revelation of a completed canon have replaced the emphasis upon keeping close to the fresh upspringings of the Inner Life.”3 Quaker scholar Rufus Jones addressed that same point in remembering George Fox and his establishment of the founding principles of the Quakers, saying: “Fox passed beyond theories and doctrines, and demanded practical life results.”4



Disillusioned with the powerful religion of the day, George Fox was convinced that anyone could preach, that the established church was unnecessary, and a university qualification was irrelevant for a preacher. This, and his refusal to fight for the monarchy on grounds of pacifism, made him many vigorous enemies and earned him several terms of imprisonment.

George Fox and his followers left Britain’s established churches because ritual, hierarchy, and prevailing religious institutions were ineffective for them. They were persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, and run out of town for their resistance to state religion—and their sometimes loudly voiced vociferous objections to preachers’ sermons! Along with the Pilgrims, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Independents, they were people of simplicity. Art forms such as liturgy, organ music, vestments, paintings, grand architecture, and stained glass were a distraction for them, a barrier to God, rather than an entrance into the holy, unseen Presence. For them, that Presence was found in silence, in the Bible, and in each other. “There is that of God in everyone—an inner light,” they argue. From their early days, every person, Quaker or not, was addressed in the familiar “thee” and “thou” as fellow children of God. The recognition of divine light in all people lead logically to pacifism and conscientious objections to war. How could one harm another who was seen as a valuable child of God?5

Quaker Beginnings

The beginnings of the Quaker tradition are found in the 17th century. Born in 1624, George Fox was in his twenties when a boiling point in religious ferment was reached in Britain. This was the Commonwealth Period, between 1640 and 1660, when British consciousness was awakened to the spiritual, societal, and political issues of the times. It was an era of political turmoil. A strongly criticized monarchy found its power limited. Principles of self-government were instituted in tremendous constitutional changes. For the whole century, the burning questions among the populace concerned religion, as if a second Reformation was occurring. Religious groups such as the Anabaptists thought Luther did not go far enough to establish a “radical reformation.” Some went so far as to stage armed conflict to emphasize their point. Much of the population viewed the established Church as mired down in senseless tradition and stifling dogma, yet they found no group that freed the human spirit and also had a supportive, coherent structure. Some of the enthusiasm for God was of a dubious nature, including that of the Ranters, whom Fox claimed thought themselves to be God!

Captured by the New Testament Scriptures, Fox was on fire for most of his days, preaching the words and the story of Jesus and the Spirit who lived in him. Fox is an enigmatic figure who often spoke gently and lovingly—with a “tender” spirit—of people; yet, when God “moved” him to speak, he would pin individuals down intellectually, captivated by his piercing eyes and passionate speech. If necessary he spoke bitter truth to churches and to individuals alike. He was audacious for God, living a life of proclamation. He was persecuted, beaten by mobs, and imprisoned for that audacity, and nearly executed. On being released, the fire inside only increased. He went from town to town, like a biblical prophet, railing against what he considered to be false and pharisaical religion worn on the outside, while no commitment and no personal relationship with Christ lodged in the heart. He could be blunt, believing that it was imperative, indeed, it was the leading of God, to proclaim the truth as he knew it. Considering his many converts, there were times when he was exceedingly effective.

The “earthiness” and earnestness of Fox’s spirituality was centered in social problems. He fought for fairness in businesses which were exceedingly corrupt. Of course, he and fellow men and women Quakers personally experienced the terrible callousness, filth, and squalor of the prison system. At that time, Britain had two hundred laws requiring capital punishment. It was obvious to them that God was calling for reformation of prisons and of laws as well as churches. Fox was moved to take on those causes as well.

Early Thought and Leadership

Under Fox’s leadership, worship, stripped of every earthly distraction, was the heart of Quaker spirituality. Fox, and those who followed him, built churches with nothing in them but bare pews. There was no altar—no place of sacrifice—for “God himself had made the sacrifice for sin,”6 so a ritual built around sacrifice was inappropriate. There are no sacraments in traditional Quaker meetings, instead there is simply a waiting upon and attending to the presence of God’s Spirit. God’s commandment, promise, and claim are seen to be fulfilled by openness to God’s presence, the essence of all life, which is never missing. To a Quaker, God’s Spirit is received and then poured out again, echoing the teachings of Jesus on life as a disciple.

Service is a hallmark of the Quakers. What they see and hear in meditative prayer, they act upon with enormous courage and sacrifice. Across the world, representatives from the Friends World Service Committee are often some of the first to appear when a natural tragedy has occurred. The road to union with God is a road of release, of letting go of all that stands between God, others, and us. It is an “unselfing,” not in the sense of losing responsibility or response-ability, but in the sense of increasing love for God and service to others.

One of the most remarkable Quakers, known for his selfless love for all who suffered, was John Woolman, born in 1772, in the middle of the Quaker Golden Age in America. A pioneer in human rights, John Woolman was the first to sensitize other Quakers and through them the Western world to the agony of the slaves and the immorality of slave ownership. His legacy lives on in both church and state in figures such as Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.

Through a striking, life-changing experience about three years before he died, Woolman was “brought near the gates of death.” He saw himself inside a cloud of miserable human beings, and was told that he would always be mixed with them. He would never again be a separate soul. An angelic voice spoke, saying: “John Woolman is dead.” Yet he knew he was alive. The dream carried him to the mines where oppressed men were slaving for wealthy Christians and questioning how Christ could be good! As he woke, he asked who he was, having forgotten his own name. Upon being told that he was John Woolman, he realized the meaning of his experience, and said: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:2). He explained simply: “John Woolman is dead” meant the death of his own will. It was an unselfing.7

The mantle of leadership passed from the first to second generation of Quakers—from the brave love of George Fox to William Penn, the man who would write the book No Cross, No Crown. Penn, too, knew the cost of sacrificial love and of godly kenosis (the emptying out of life and love). This, he felt, was the calling of every human being. On North American land bartered from Charles II, who was indebted to Penn’s father, he established his “holy experiment.” Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love,” began in the south-east corner of his land named for his father and known as Pennsylvania or “Penn’s Woods.” There he attempted to bring to life a special city where love of God and others would grow through worshipful listening and looking for “that of God, the Inner Light” in each other. To this day Pennsylvania is known as the “Quaker state,” and is a center of Quaker life and thought.8 Pennsylvania stands as a testament to the Quaker ideal of integrating personal piety and civil life.

Quakerism Today

The Quaker legacy has grown and evolved over the years, becoming both increasingly academic and ecumenical. No people represent these qualities better than Rufus Jones and Douglas Steere. Rufus Jones was professor of philosophy at Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania, when he came to realize that mysticism was the very center of religion but was not recognized or understood. Mysticism, defined as union with the will of God and detachment from self-centered desires, is the pattern in all theistic mysticism according to Jones. He also realized that it had prepared the way for the birth of Quakerism. For sixteen years he wrote, as part of his life mission, about the influence of mysticism as it preceded and followed the beginning of the Society of Friends. The result was collaborating in the writing of a seventeen-volume series on mysticism and Quakerism.

Jones was followed in his philosophy appointment at Haverford by Douglas Steere. As a philosopher, Steere was a Kierkegaard scholar and the translator of Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart. Steere was also an ecumenist and pioneer in interfaith dialogue. Under his aegis, scholars from other religions were brought to the United States and to Haverford College so that interfaith understanding could be engendered. He developed two world conferences of religious leaders in the Far East. As chairman of the Friends’ World Committee for Consultation, he represented the Quakers at Vatican II, and was chosen to produce the volume Quaker Spirituality for the Classics of Western Spirituality series, a gift to Quakers and peoples of all faiths.

Quakers, or “Friends,” hold before themselves three central challenges: to listen to the Spirit, to love God and neighbor, and to risk whatever is necessary so to do. This is the legacy of Quaker spirituality, for those within the Friends tradition, and their gift and challenge to all Christians of all time. It is their lived response to Paul’s question, “What have you that you have not received?” that leads them to drink deeply from the well of God’s Spirit and serve passionately in imitation of Christ.

1. George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, edited, with an introduction by Rufus Jones; with an essay by Henry J. Cadbury. (New York: Capricorn Books. n.d.), 125.
2. Douglas V. Steere, Quaker Spirituality (Ramsey, NJ; Paulist, 1984), 5.
3. Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper & Row, 1941), 33. Kelly goes on to say, “The heart of the religious life is in commitment and worship, not in reflection and theory” (38).
4. Rufus Jones, introduction to Fox, Journal, 91.
5. Steere, Quaker Spirituality, 5.
6. Henry J. Cadbury, essay on the influence of “The Journal of George Fox,” in Fox, Journal, 42.
7. John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman, introduction by Frederick B. Tolles (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1972), 214–15.
8. Steere, Quaker Spirituality, 49.


This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2009, “Winds of the Spirit: Traditions of Christian Spirituality.”