When the society of friends is mentioned two questions are usually raised: Who speaks for the Society of Friends? and What are Friends saying? It is the purpose of this article to provide some guidelines for the understanding of this religious group.

Several factors in the history and development of Quakerism have caused her public image to be ambiguous and sometimes blurred. One is the consistent decentralization of the society, which stems from the inherent principle of freedom of conscience and expression so dear to Friends. Another has been the aftermath of the “separation” that occurred in 1829 as a result of the ministry of Elias Hicks, a Friend of Long Island.

The Hicksite separation resulted from the desire of Friends on the Atlantic seaboard to keep the society free of the Unitarian teachings of Elias Hicks. Curiously, the Hicksite branch of Friends, though always a relatively small minority of the society as a whole, adopted the title “General Conference Friends,” thus giving the impression that this group, conservative in practice and liberal in theology, was the leading group. With the absorption of the General Conference Friends into groups of Friends formerly labled “orthodox,” this source of misunderstanding is disappearing. Whether this is worth the price is, of course, a separate question.

Historically, Friends have been noteworthy for several “testimonies,” notably against war, judicial oaths, and slavery. Some groups are unclear at the point of the root of these testimonies, which was originally profoundly spiritual. It is lamentable that the more liberal groups of Friends have been hesitant or unclear in proclaiming the spiritual dynamic of their witness.

A few basic spiritual principles underlie Friends’ distinctives: (1) the worth of human personality under God; (2) the unity of Truth, as revealed in the Scriptures and as embodied in the person of Jesus Christ; (3) the inherent simplicity of the Christian faith, indicating a similar bearing and manner of life among Christians; (4) the duty of Friends to be witnesses to the Truth.

The embodiment of these principles in practical and corporate life has produced a type of character among Friends and a dynamic to serve mankind that have almost universally won not only attention but also applause. Today, Friends are at a point at which their spiritual rootage is under fresh study. The major publication in which the reassessments are being made is Quaker Life, published at Richmond, Indiana, by the Five Years Meeting of Friends.

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A survey of recent issues reveals that three major problems are exercising Friends. The first is that of leadership, particularly in relation to theological training and the position of ministers. Historically, Friends in their origination in the seventeenth century avoided the pastoral system as a protest against what they termed the “hireling ministry” of Anglicanism and Puritanism. The unprogrammed meeting became typical of Friends, and only toward the end of the nineteenth century did some branches begin to refer to their meeting or societies as “churches” and to employ pastoral leadership.

Today Friends are in the midst of establishing a School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. Dean Wilmer A. Cooper wrote a penetrating article for Quaker Life, September, 1964, entitled “The Quaker Leadership Question”; although he avoids specific commitments about the pastoral system, he recognizes that today’s religious life demands a planned cultivation of persons who will assume direction of Friends meetings or churches.

The issue at stake in such a discussion is, to quote Cooper, whether such leadership can avoid the “authoritarianism which runs counter to Friends’ sense of religious freedom and an individual responsibility.” Dean Cooper recognizes the dominant role of the founder, George Fox, in bringing order and discipline into the early societies in England. Underlying his article is the view that it is God who ordains the minister; the church or society only recognizes and “records” this higher ordination. Thus it is that in place of ministerial ordination, Friends practice the recording of ministers.

But the question of leadership responsibility for units of Friends’ work is being pressed increasingly to the fore, mainly because of the mobility of our society (we are rapidly becoming a nation of civilized nomads!) which denudes many Friends meetings of members and which often brings Friends into communities where no Friends group exists. The problem of leadership enters deeply into Quaker thinking in this connection.

A second problem that increasingly concerns Friends is that of the relation of the society to historic Christian doctrine. In the years since the Hicksite separation, theological liberalism has taken a heavy toll within the orthodox wing of the society. It is therefore not surprising that today’s Friends are acutely concerned with the theological discussion.

Though the constituency of the Five Years Meeting of Friends is theologically diverse, evangelicals within the affiliated societies are increasingly alert and vocal. Quaker Life frequently contains articles devoted to historic Christian doctrines, such as T. Canby Jones’s recent one, “The Victory of the Lamb” (issue of December, 1964), the “Seed Thought” columns by T. Eugene Coffin, and D. Elton Trueblood’s “Plain Speech.” Such pronouncements have, of course, long been published in such periodicals as the Evangelical Friends (Ohio Yearly Meeting).

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The best recent single publication of this kind is, in the opinion of this writer, the pamphlet Remembering Our Heritage, by Charles S. Ball, pastor of the First Friends Church in Newburg, Oregon. Ball shows here that historically Friends are a part of the movement of Protestant evangelicalism. This means that the Friends’ historic witness has been theologically based.

The third question for renewed discussion among Friends is that of evangelism. For years the society has been divided between an emphasis upon “service” and an emphasis upon evangelism (and missions). In the August issue of Quaker Life, T. Eugene Coffin, executive secretary for evangelism and church extension for the Five Years Meeting of Friends, makes it clear that the decision of the major bodies of Friends is in favor of evangelism, both personal and pulpit.

While not all branches of Quakerism may fully agree, significant and often dominant groups in each yearly meeting (conference) feel the imperative to evangelize. This is being accepted as the indispensable motive for the “service” for which Friends have been historically and rightly famous. It is heartening to see a group earnestly seeking to rediscover a spiritual conditioning for its task.

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