Friends, also called Quakers, had their origin in seventeenth-century England. As a young man, George Fox (pictured) 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
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 (Society Of Friends)
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.
Nobel Peace Prize
In 1947, The Quakers were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. In the presentation speech given by the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, it was said of the Quakers:
The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.”
For more information on the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize and to read the rest of this speech, follow this link.
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.