Quaker Life

Allan H. Harvey

When I joined First Presbyterian Church recently, I couldn't help thinking about my last church: Rose Drive Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California. For three years, until I moved to Colorado, God used that church to meet my spiritual needs. For those who don't know, the Friends are the Christian denomination commonly known as the Quakers. I should say "denominations," because today churches that use that name range from some that have strayed from orthodox Christianity to others (like where I was) that are much like other evangelical churches. The Quakers have some doctrines and practices that seem odd to those outside the tradition. But, in retrospect, I learned a lot from those differences. Those lessons will, if I can be true to them, make me a better Christian and therefore a better member of First Pres.

One lesson was the value of silence before God. In some branches of the tradition, they still have "silent meetings" where the quiet of worship is interrupted only occasionally by those to whom God has given a particular Scripture passage or insight to share. Even in my more "modern" church, there was much opportunity for silent prayer. It was refreshing. Our culture is so busy and verbal that we tend to view time as wasted if nobody is saying anything. But the purpose of prayer is to allow God to say things and to change our hearts. Being silent before God can allow Him to draw nearer to us.

Another strong message is the importance of integrity - living out your beliefs even if society makes that unpopular. Quakers were instrumental in the abolition of England's slave trade and in the underground railroad in the U.S. Many have historically taken a position of Christian pacifism and refused military service, which (whether or not you agree with it) is a courageous and unpopular stand, especially in the U.S. where militaristic patriotism is often exalted. Also, Quakers traditionally do not swear oaths in court (rather than "So help me God," they say something like "I so affirm."). The reason is that the Bible says "let your 'Yes' be yes and your 'No' be no" (James 5:12). Why should there be any extra truthfulness to what I say just because I repeat certain words or have my hand on a Bible? My life should be of such integrity that my honesty is a "given" under all circumstances.

Finally, I admire their focus on the believer's personal relationship with God. The emphasis on this central relationship has taken forms unusual to many of us. For instance, many Quakers reject the use of the phrase "Word of God" to refer to the Bible, on the grounds that the title (according to the Bible itself) belongs to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit, and that to apply it to a book (no matter how special) is to flirt with idolatry. Also, whereas most of the churches that arose from the Protestant Reformation cut the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church down to two (baptism and communion), the Quakers eliminated those two as well. While I don't entirely agree with them on that one, the point they are emphasizing is important: Jesus Christ is completely sufficient for us. Rituals have no meaning in and of themselves, and putting too much stock in them can detract from a personal relationship with Christ.

I'm happy now to be a Presbyterian. But different churches emphasize different things, and some of the lessons God taught me as a temporary Quaker would have been difficult to find elsewhere. While we shouldn't just uncritically accept everything any church (including ours) teaches, Christians of different traditions do have much to learn from each other. I hope we can all be open to God teaching us through such unexpected avenues.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally written for "Crossings" newsletter of Bridges ministry, First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, 1996.
Page last modified September 9, 2000