Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is Quaker Spirituality? (Part 1)

I am the Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Earlham School of Religion, a Christian Quaker seminary where students can choose a spirituality emphasis. When people ask me what I teach I am always a bit reluctant to say “spirituality.” It sounds so self-righteous and superior! I continually wonder if it is even possible to “teach” spirituality, and on a more fundamental level, what it is that I am actually teaching. Spirituality is a slippery word that can mean practically anything, and is notoriously difficult to pin down to a simple definition that can be universally agreed upon. 

All spirituality is contextual. That is a postmodern axiom, true for all spiritual traditions, and emphatically so for Quaker spirituality which has always been contextual to the core, developing in reaction to, as well as accord with, its historical circumstances. When I teach Christian spirituality I bring to my classes a broad background of a lifetime of immersion in Protestant Christianity, as well as scholarly study of the diversity of Christian traditions. I also bring the experiences of my own spiritual journey and its grounding in the context of a particular Quaker tradition with its own unique history and development.

If I were to ask ten Quaker students at ESR to define and describe Quaker spirituality I would be certain to receive ten different descriptions each shaped by that student’s particular context and life experience. Granted there might be some commonality, but also wide divergence.

Knowing it is virtually impossible to summarize Quaker spirituality in a way that would be acceptable or recognizable to all within the diverse body called Quakers, it takes some boldness and even chutzpah to attempt such a task in 850 words or less. Yet this was my challenge when asked to write an entry on Quaker spirituality for the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, recently published by Zondervan. So I offer it not as an authoritative description, but merely as a place to begin a conversation around the question, what is Quaker spirituality?

Quakerism began as an experiential faith with a strong mystical interiority, yet a mysticism that was not primarily individual but oriented toward the creation of an alternative community and mission in the world.  Being theoretically non-creedal and non-sacramental, its spiritual expression became highly malleable to historical trends and conditions.

Although we rarely think of Quaker spirituality today as puritan it was originally molded by its emergence in a Puritan/Calvinist context, and subsequently shaped in turn by forces of Quietism, evangelicalism, revivalism, modernism, pluralism, and secularism. In each new context, divergent forms of Quaker spirituality developed, conserving some elements of the tradition and secularizing others.

The first Quakers called themselves “Children of Light” and “Publishers of Truth” but were derisively called “Quakers” because they trembled when they spoke through the inspiration of the Spirit. Quakers today rarely tremble, and the spirituality of its various contemporary branches ranges from conservative evangelical to non-theist.

Quakers are uniquely divided by two forms of worship, “unprogrammed” Friends, meet in silence, without clergy, music or visible sacraments; and “programmed” or pastoral Friends follow a set order of worship, with hymns, scripture, sermons, and prayers. Early Quaker worship was both contemplative (based in silence and surrender) and charismatic. After a long period of silent waiting, messages would be delivered spontaneously through the inspiration of the Spirit.

Quakers of all types continue to be connected by a strong sense of history, as well as a few unique elements such as a consensus decision-making, a testimony to peace and gender equality, and an appreciation for the spiritual value of silence. The basis of all Quaker spirituality is a direct, unmediated experience of God. This may happen individually in the process of conversion and prayer, and communally in the experience of worship.

Carole SpencerCarole Spencer serves as Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Earlham School of Religion. She is a recorded minister in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

This text is excerpted from the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Ed. Glen G. Scorgie.


  1. Is the unprogrammed service akin to what Paul spoke of in 1 Cor. 12-14 regarding the gift of prophecy?
    Is there similarities to what some refer to as the 'anointing?'
    How would you be sure this is 'a word from God?'
    Thanks for any input in these areas.

  2. Yes, I would say that historically Quaker worship was akin to what Paul describes in I Cor 12-14 as prophecy and when individuals spoke out of the silence it would be equivalent to what some refer to as anointing by the Spirit. Early Quaker worship was charismatic--spirit-led and spirit-filled, including “singing in the spirit.”
    I’m not sure contemporary unprogrammed meetings would be generally of that type and in that same spirit, though at some times and places they could be.
    As to how to be sure this is a “word from God” that is always the most difficult question. Early Quaker journals often describe the agonizing angst that people felt in trying to discern if their word from God was meant for others to be shared publically. They often waited months to speak in meeting until they were certain.
    After the scandal of the Nayler incident when James Nayler felt led to ride into Bristol in imitation of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, Quakers created some “safeguards” for discernment of individual leadings, such as “the sense of the meeting,” group affirmation, congruence with scripture, with Quaker “tradition”—doctrines, principles and values. Jesus said “you will know them by their fruits,” which seems to imply you know after the fact, and by the congruence of one’s “words from God” with a holy and fruitful life.