What do Quakers and atheists have in common?

Charles 2 Comments

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

You’d think Quakers and atheists were poles apart but I’ve been pondering a similarity. On the surface, Quaker funerals are very different from humanist funerals, and that’s aside from faith in God. The former involves silent reflection and prayer, the latter tends to be dominated by words and music celebrating the life of the deceased. What they share in common is the emphasis on individuality.

Quaker founder George Fox was an earnest Leicestershire lad who rejected parental pressure to become a ‘hireling minister’, as neither the Church of England nor any of the dissenting sects of the 17th century matched his perception of how the Almighty should be worshipped and obeyed.

In response to a dream in which he was told to take a lonely journey in search of the light, he left home with nothing but his Bible, and wandered the country for a few years. Finding no consolations in organised religion, he began accepting his own idiosyncratic imaginings as revelations.

Founding his opinions on isolated Bible texts, he gradually evolved a system at variance with every existing form of Christianity. His central dogma was that of the ‘inner light’, communicated directly to the individual soul by Christ.

Creeds and churches, rites and sacraments were discarded as outward things. Carrying the Protestant doctrine of private judgment to its logical conclusion, even the Scriptures were to be interpreted by the inner light. Inconvenient passages, such as those establishing Baptism and the Eucharist, were interpreted in an allegorical sense, while other passages were insisted upon with a literalness previously unknown.

From the text ‘Swear not at all’, Fox drew the illicitness of oaths, even when demanded by the magistrate. War, even if defensive, was declared unlawful. Art, music, drama, sports, dancing and ornamental attire and interiors were rejected as unbecoming the gravity of a Christian.

As Fox began public preaching, his ideas gained numerous converts. The Society of Friends was born, later called Quakers as a derogatory term. As a growing army of missionaries spread Fox’s word around the world, they made enemies with the establishment and dissenters alike. During the reign of Charles II, thousands of ‘Quakers’ were imprisoned in England. They fared worse in the Puritan colonies in Massachusetts, where members were hanged for heresy.

Due to the excesses of some of his followers, Fox was later compelled to introduce a code of discipline to guide the ‘inner light’. The early Quakers, and those around today, often admit the so-called external, fundamental dogmas of Christianity, as expounded in the Apostle’s Creed. They may reject as non-Scriptural the term Trinity but they confess the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, plus the doctrine of the Redemption and salvation through Christ.

And though Fox dismissed ‘steeple-houses’, he was forced to gather his followers into congregations in meeting houses. They worship without liturgy and in silence until someone is moved by the Spirit to ‘give testimony’, the value of which is gauged by the common sense of the assembly.

In this respect, they certainly differ both from faiths using liturgy-based ceremony, and from secularists, whose services–though individualised–tend to rely on crafted scripts for their structure.  



  1. Charles

    My favourite Penn quote:
    For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.
    William Penn

    I was once thanked by a Quaker after a funeral, and she told me that she felt that there are words that need to be said, voices that need to be heard, emotions that need to be expressed and that farewells needed to be acknowledged, whilst allowing space for prayer and hope for those who need them. I had apparently provided her with these channels and she said: we’re evidently not doing it right and have much to learn from celebrants like you.
    Graciously given and received.

    Quakers seem to have a quiet, reflective spirit, one that looks to others and to harmony above all. We celebrants surely identify with those qualities?

    Isn’t the Catholic funeral liturgy also a crafted script?

  2. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    Hi Evelyn, Quakers seems good sorts in the philanthropic sense and their reflective services clearly suit them. I don’t know how I’d take to the silence or the spontaneous ‘testimony’.

    Yes, liturgy is pre-ordained. I used the term ‘crafted scripts’ for specially written, personalised eulogies – which are prevalent in most funerals, religious or otherwise.

    Judging by your comments here, I’m sure you write and deliver these with a sensitivity appreciated by those who witness them.

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