Are Quakers Christian, Non-Christian, or Both?

Photo Mircea Ruba
Photo Mircea Ruba

I am both a Christian and a Universalist Friend. I see no theological contradiction between Universalism and Christianity because the Gospel of John makes it clear that the Logos/Christ Spirit is present in everyone and everything. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1:3). Furthermore, “the true light [another name for the Logos] that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (1:9). This was the basis of early Friends’ belief that the Inward Light is universal, present in all people (though some ignore or turn away from it). If you look in the dictionary, you’ll see that the first definition of “Universalist” is a Christian who believes that God will save everyone.

There is no doubt that early Quakers saw themselves as Christian—in fact, they saw themselves as the only real Christians. Early Friends argued this in pamphlet wars, tracts, and longer works such as like Robert Barclay’s 1675 Apology for the True Christian Divinity. Around 1690, George Fox wrote an epistle to American Friends admonishing them to evangelize among the peoples there. Since this is not a passage you’re likely to see in your Faith and Practice, it’s worth quoting:

Dear Friends and brethren, ministers, exhorters, and admonishers that are gone into America and the Caribbean islands. Stir up the gift of God in you and the pure mind, and improve your talents; that you may be the light of the world, a city set upon a hill, that cannot be hidden. Let your light shine among the Indians, the blacks and the whites; that you may answer the truth in them, and bring them to the standard and ensign, that God has set up, Christ Jesus. For from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, God’s name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every temple, or sanctified heart, “incense shall be offered up to God’s name.” And have salt in yourselves, that you may be the salt of the earth, that you may salt it; that it may be preserved from corruption and putrefaction; so that all sacrifices offered up to the Lord may be seasoned, and be a good savor to God…. And Friends, be not negligent but keep up your negroes’ meetings and your family meetings; and have meetings with the Indian kings, and their councils and subjects everywhere, and with others. Bring them all to the baptizing and circumcising spirit, by which they may know God, and serve and worship him.

It is clear from passages like these that George Fox was not only a Christian, but an Evangelical who believed that Christ was the “way, the truth, and the life.”

Some prominent early Quakers embraced a more inclusive and tolerant view of other forms of Christianity, and even of other religions, as is evident in the writings of William Penn and Isaac Penington. Some 70 years after Fox’s epistle, John Woolman wrote:

There is a Principle which is pure, placed in the human Mind, which in different Places and Ages hath had different Names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep, and inward, confined to no Forms of Religion, nor excluded from any, where the Heart stands in perfect Sincerity. In whomsoever this takes Root and grows, of what Nation soever, they become Brethren.

When John Woolman felt led to go among the Native Americans, he didn’t feel a need to convert them. He simply wanted to share what he knew about God, and to learn from them.

William Penn also saw the Indians as having “that of God” and wrote about them with great sympathy. He was a (Christian) Universalist who believed that there was truth in all religions and in all people:

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the liveries they wear here make them strangers.

The issue of whether Quakerism should be inclusive or exclusive—conventionally Christian or faithful to the Inward Light—has long been a divisive one among American Quakers. In the 1820s, the split between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends was partly over power—rural Friends felt that wealthy Philadelphia Friends were lording it over them. Urban Friends felt that the rural Friends were out of touch with what was happening in the cities. The Orthodox wanted to become involved in Bible societies and other outreach efforts, like mainstream Christians. Followers of Elias Hicks, a rural Friend from Long Island, wanted to stick with traditional Quaker doctrines, such as the Inward Light, which seemed strange to mainstream Christians. Elias Hicks was an extremely charismatic and popular preacher who travelled all over the United States and drew huge crowds, including many non-Quakers. (The poet Walt Whitman was a big fan of Hicks and you can see glimpses of Hicksite Quakerism in Leaves of Grass.)

Perhaps the most controversial teaching of Hicks had to do with the Bible. Hicks totally disapproved of Bible societies and didn’t believe that they would do anything to advance “real Christianity.” In a controversial letter, Hicks argued that when the Bible was translated into English in the sixteenth century, and people finally had a chance to read it in their own language, it didn’t lead to more Christian love but to religious wars in which huge numbers of people were killed. Hicks argued that that it is the Holy Spirit, not the Bible, that makes you a “real Christian.”

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, an Evangelical revival swept through Friends in the Midwestern United States, bitterly dividing Friends into “real Christians” who were “saved” and the traditional, Inward Light Friends who didn’t ascribe to the methods and theology of revivalism, and were therefore “unsaved.”

This revival was a severe trial for Joel and Hannah Bean, weighty Friends who had served as clerks of Iowa Yearly Meeting in the 1860s and 70s. The Beans tried to mend fences between the camps, but finally retired to San Jose, California, where they founded a new Friends meeting. Iowa Yearly Meeting refused to approve the San Jose meeting, and stripped the Beans of their status as recorded ministers after they incorrectly answered theological questions on a written test.

A test of this sort had never been used by Quakers, nor had a recorded ministry status been taken away for doctrinal reasons. Because the Beans were internationally known and respected, this became a huge “issue.”

Hannah and Joel Bean then did something unprecedented among Friends: they declared San Jose an independent monthly meeting. This “Beanite” movement eventually grew into an independent association that spawned three independent yearly meetings in the Western United States.

Even broad-minded twentieth-century Liberal Friends like Howard Brinton used divisive language at times. In his memoir, Brinton refers to unprogrammed Quakers as “real” Quakers. In the 1940s and 50s Howard Brinton worked hard to bring Hicksite and Orthodox Friends together because both practiced unprogrammed worship, but he didn’t reach out to pastoral Friends and hardly mentions them in Friends for 300 Years because he felt that programmed worship was not Quakerly.

Given this history of divisiveness, I can see why Friends are wary about identifying themselves as Christian or non-Christian. It seems safer, and saner, to keep Christ and God talk to a minimum. I am glad that many Friends are willing to bring up these concerns, however. I think we can be better Quakers if we are honest and admit our differences and have respectful dialogues about theological issues. We can learn much from each other when we open up and share our beliefs and spiritual experiences. And I think we can communicate with those in the ecumenical and interfaith movement, as well as our neighbors of other faiths, when we feel comfortable talking about theology among ourselves in a Friendly, non-exclusive way.

Until the 1960s or so, most unprogrammed Quakers identified with being Christian, at least publicly. But many questioned the dogmas of traditional Christianity, and some were drawn to other religious practices, such as Buddhism. In the 1980s, the Quaker Universalist Fellowship was created for Friends who didn’t identify with Christianity per se. (I belong to this group and manage their blog at

This Universalist approach was controversial at first. Some feared it might create new divisions. But the Universalist perspective met a deeply felt need. It has served those who have come to Friends as “refugees” from Christian denominations in which they felt spiritually abused. Others have come from other faiths, such as Judaism and Buddhism, and are grateful to find a religious community that is non-dogmatic and welcoming; a growing number of Friends proclaim themselves non-theists.

This theological diversity has enriched Quakerism in many ways—indeed, there would probably be no Quakers in South America, Africa, and Asia if it were not for splits that led to Quaker missionary efforts—but this complex history has also led to questions that many Friends struggle with. Are Quakers Christian? If not, what binds us together? What makes Quakerism distinctive?

The majority of U.S. Quakers consider themselves Christian. One third belong to Friends United Meeting, and another third are Evangelicals. Worldwide, the vast majority of Friends living in Africa and Latin America are Evangelicals. Kenya alone has 133,000 Quakers, far more than the 50,000 unprogrammed Friends in the United States and Britain.

Two years ago, I felt a leading to reach out to Evangelical Quakers. This came about when I heard the theologian Marcus Borg speak at the Friends General Conference gathering. I asked him, “What is the biggest challenge for interfaith dialogue?” His response startled me. “The real challenge is not interfaith dialogue, but intra-faith dialogue.” He went on to say that some of the bitterest misunderstandings are among people within a faith tradition. That insight spoke to my condition. It was far easier for me as a liberal Quaker to reach out to Muslims than to Evangelical Quakers.

Something seemed wrong with this picture, so I offered to become a representative to Friends World Committee for Consultation, the umbrella group started by Rufus Jones in the 1930s to enable Friends of different theological persuasions to come together and dialogue.

One reason I believe that God has led me to this work is because eight months ago I met my wife at a Peace Parade that took place in Pasadena on Palm Sunday. I went to this parade because the main speaker was Jim Loney, a Christian Peace Team member who was kidnapped along with the Quaker Tom Fox, who was killed by his Iraqi captors. Tom is one of my heroes and I wanted to honor him.

Meeting Jill was a major turning point in my life. She is an Evangelical Christian who defies media stereotypes. She believes passionately in the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus Christ as her savior, and she also believes passionately in social justice and peace. She moved into a low-income neighborhood in Pasadena to be a good neighbor and serve the poor. She started tutoring programs, a gang prevention program, and works for affordable housing.

Jill opened me up to a world of Evangelical Christians who share many of our Quaker values. For example, Professor Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary has written powerful books arguing for “Just Peacemaking” and he is also a peace activist. (He went to a Quaker high school, and two of his children attended Quaker colleges.) He is part of an Evangelical group called the Matthew 5 project that advocates the abolition of nuclear weapons and the use of diplomacy rather than arms to resolve international conflicts. Jill also knows Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners—an ardent advocate for progressive social change. And finally, Jill introduced me to a young countercultural Evangelical named Shane Claiborne who believes that Jesus is a revolutionary who calls us to work for economic justice. Shane started an intentional community called “The Simple Way” in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. He was also asked to be the keynote speaker at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Jill has made me realize that many Evangelicals are open to many of our Quaker theological beliefs, as long as we can justify them biblically. Some, like Ron Mock, a professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at George Fox University, have a keen interest in the theory as well as practice of Christian peacemaking.

Other Evangelical Friends are taking active steps to promote peace. For example, Evangelical Friends in Rwanda founded Friends Peace House in 2000 because of the genocide that took place in 1994 in which an estimated 800,000 people, about 20 percent of the total population, were killed. The surviving Rwandese were traumatized and destabilized. The young Friends Church of Rwanda, founded only eight years previously, accepted the challenge this posed, and has taken an active part in the rehabilitation of Rwandese society ever since.

In Kenya, where I took part in a pre-Conference program organized by Judy Lumb and David Zarembka, Evangelical Friends are active in trying to insure that violence doesn’t break out during the next election. They are enlisting Friends to help do trainings in the Alternatives to Violence Project.

Ever since 2000, Evangelical and liberal Friends have been working together in the African Great Lakes Initiative to do a variety of peacemaking efforts: trauma healing, community organizing training, conflict resolution training, compassionate listening.

I was not only impressed by how Kenyan Friends live out the Quaker Peace Testimony, I was also intrigued by their theological understanding. In Early Christianity Revised in the Perspective of Friends in Kenya, Zablon Isaac Malenge, one of the leading theologians of Kenya and former General Secretary of Nairobi Yearly Meeting, had a remarkable take on missionaries and the universal basis of Quakerism:

I will tell you a mystery. Many people in this world are practicing Quakerism without being aware of it. Some have never heard of it and yet they are practicing it. Even our great-grandparents might have practiced Quakerism long before missionaries came here. Quakerism is a religion of the soul, the indwelling Spirit, the light within, the light of Christ, the Seed. Missionaries did not bring it to us, but the missionaries revealed it to us and said, ‘This is Quakerism.’

Malenge describes Quakerism as an “old practical religion” that preceded the arrival of Europeans to Africa. It is the religion similar to that of James, the practical apostle, whose letter was a favorite with Quakers. James wrote: “faith without works is dead” and “true religion means taking care of the widows and orphans, and remaining unspotted by the world.” Similarly, Malenge writes:

When Quaker Missionaries came to Africa, and revealed Quakerism to our people, many lesser-known individuals discovered that they had been Quakers long before they had heard of this new movement. They had been caring for one another with compassion, they had aided each other in times of need and trouble and they had been providing companionship in their small communities. They had elders in their communities who handled conflict resolution through dialogue and counseling. Those who were offended were encouraged to reconcile with their offenders and so they forgave one another, loved their neighbors and exercised fairness and justice in their societies.

Reading this passage, I wondered: If Friends cannot unite around theology, could we instead unite around practices like peacemaking and social justice? George Fox said we need to be “salt” and “light”; Jesus urged us to a “Light to the world.” How can we, as a world-wide community of Friends, show that we can indeed be a Light to the world, as well as a preservative that prevents the world from sinking into decay and corruption?

To be “salt and light,” we need to transcend our differences. We need to share our stories, listen to those we disagree with, and be open to a change of heart. We also need to seek common ground wherein we can put our faith into practice. One important lesson I have learned from my marriage to an Evangelical is we don’t have to agree about everything in order to love each other.

Anthony Manousos

Anthony Manousos, author of Quakers and the Interfaith Movement, attends Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., where he lives with his wife Jill Shook, author of Making Housing Happen, a book about faith-based affordable housing models. He is currently completing a book about Howard and Anna Brinton. His blog is

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