The Religious Society of Friends was founded in the 1650's and its members were originally known as "Children of Light" and "Friends of Truth." Friends seek to know God through the Inner Light present in each of us. The Religious Society of Friends teaches no official dogma and Quakers hold a wide range of convictions about God, Jesus, the afterlife, and many other issues. Quakers' individual way of seeking God within each of us seriously challenged the prevailing religious notions in England of the day. This resulted in persecution, and many Quakers moved to places in the Americas like Pennsylvania.
So what's in the name "Quaker"? When brought before a judge on account of his unorthodox beliefs, George Fox, the movement's founder, informed the judge he must "quake before the Word of the Lord." The judge apparently asked Fox if he were a quaker, and the name stuck.
Today there are about 100,000 Quakers within the US. Their lives are characterized by simplicity, pacifism, and a strong commitment to social justice and work building the Kingdom of God here on earth. Quakers, along with Mennonites and Church of the Brethren, are considered the three historic peace churches, and Quakers today are active in many non-violence and social justice movements. Their worship is characterized by silence. Members only speak when moved to do so.
I decided to attend an unprogrammed meeting for worship. I arrived about 15 minutes before the meeting began and, chatting with the Friends who had gathered (largely 60-somethings), we slowly drifted into the sanctuary. The sanctuary space was originally a Catholic church which had been sold to Lutherans and is now home to the Minneapolis Friends Meeting. The space was unadorned, with simple wooden ceiling, walls, and floor, and plain windows with no stained glass. There were no pews but common meeting room chairs arranged in a semi-circular-ish pattern. Two chairs were place facing the semi-circle. This formed the "facing bench" where the elders (spiritually respected community members, not ministers) who led the meeting sat. As we gathered there was some chatter as people found seats, but eventually everyone settled themselves and fell into silence and listened to the Inner Light.
I tried my best to do likewise, and found it incredibly difficult. I had attended "Mindfulness for Students" meetings semi-regularly for a while and half-expected the Quakers' meeting to feel like a meditation session. It did not. No one led the meeting. No one said "follow your breath" or "listen to the light within." No one was guiding us through the silence, we were listening to our own inner light in our way. No one announced the beginning of the meeting, or what was to happen. No hymns were sung. Nothing was read from the bible. No one said anything in fact. If so moved, those present are supposed to break the silence and share what insight they have received (but only after seriously considering whether they truly are being called to share their insight). I suppose either God wasn't calling anyone to speak that day, or perhaps everyone was saving their insights for the meeting for business which followed the unprogrammed meeting for worship.
The close of the meeting was signaled when two gentlemen, the elders leading the meeting, shook hands. We then all shook hands with those next to us, and greeted each other with "good morning" or "nice to meet you." We then each introduced ourselves to the other 30 or so in attendance, and that was that. The entire meeting lasted 45 minutes. I was struck by how this Christian experience featured no spoken or written references to God or any religious themes at all. The language used by the members at the end of the meeting was secular sounding. Perhaps there is no need for religious language when your life is infused by the Inner Light?
I left the meeting and went out into the world of everyday commotion. A world which seems so much more hectic, distracting, and noisy than the world of George Fox and William Penn. One might wonder how anyone today could listen to the Inner Light when everyone else is listening to Siri. But a tradition that has inspired the likes of Jane Adams, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Fry surely has a powerful message for today's injustices. Perhaps, if anything, the Quakers can help us learn the power of silence.