Quaker Universalist Conversations

Answering “The Question”

Many Friends share mutual bemusement over what they call The Question, namely: “What do Quakers believe?”

In his “Among Friends” column for the January 2012 issue of Friends Journal, Gabriel Ehri describes how he learned not to preface her answer with “a set of disclaimers [about not speaking for all Quakers]…kind of like the endless legalese licensing agreements we click past when we install a new piece of software.”

As an undergraduate Gabriel realized that, for his new friends, he was “the Quaker,” the only one they knew. “I didn’t get to decide whether I was going to speak for Quakers,” he writes. “My new friends were going to get some answers from me.”

Neopithecops zalmora zalmora (The Quaker), near Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Singapore, by Frederick Ho

The crucial thing to consider in answering The Question, Gabriel learned, is that “Exactitude is not the point. Introduction is the point.”

More importantly, your answer must be “something you are willing to live.”

In that light, here is what Gabriel calls his version of “Quakerism in 60 seconds or less and free of disclaimers”:

Quakers believe that every person can have a direct, unintermediated relationship with the Divine Spirit, and we seek to establish and nourish that relationship through listening worship together.

If we listen deeply enough, we find sometimes that we are led, from within, to speak. These messages are our ministry.

A set of strongly held beliefs follows from our understanding of each person as possessing something of God in them. These include the importance of peace, integrity, and equality.

Quakers seek to conduct our business in a manner that tries to follow Spirit’s leading, in a way that respects that each of us is a part of that leading.

Gabriel acknowledges that this statement “does not capture all the nuance of what I feel it means to be a Quaker,” and he does not expect all Friends to agree with him. He simply offers us the challenge of creating our own 60-second invitations to Quakerism.

How would you frame your own statement?


I agree with Gabriel that explaining Quakers to a newcomer starting with disclaimers. When I have done this, I think I have confused both the person asking and myself! Now I find myself saying something short such as “Quakers believe that everyone can have their own experience of God or Spirit, however they name it, and can listen for this experience in silent meditation and worship. Sometimes people are moved to speak or even sing during this time.” I know this leaves out a fuller sense of Quaker worship; sometimes the person asking asks more questions, and other times they seem to just be curious that Quakers still exist. Maybe I am being too brief?
Thanks, Gail. Here is my own latest attempt: "Quakerism is not so much a set of beliefs as a form of spiritual practice. We sit silently, putting aside our personal or social or political or religious concerns, and wait. Perhaps we notice a greater unity which lies beneath these partial truths. Perhaps we share this greater awareness out loud. More often we simply do our best to live from that awareness in the world at large."
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