Quakerism: The Basics

By Margery Post Abbott and Carl Abbott. Routledge, 2021. 208 pages. $115/hardcover; $22.95/paperback; $24.95/eBook.

Friends are blessed with a number of good books on Quaker basics. Margery Post Abbott and Carl Abbott have produced a new entry that deserves to be on the top of the pile. What they have written can be used to open the beliefs, practices, and history of Friends to those who are new to our meetings and churches. It can equally provide a new richness of understanding to those of us who have been around for a while. I learned a lot from this book.

Their approach is established in the opening sentences of the first chapter: “The Religious Society of Friends values both inward spiritual life and its outward expression in the world. . . . They seek to listen for the inward guidance of the Light of Christ not only in worship but also in their day-to-day lives.” The Abbotts then sketch a set of principles common to all contemporary branches of the society and show how these have grown naturally out of a spiritual understanding that dates back to our earliest days.

The middle chapters of Quakerism: The Basics provide a concise but thorough overview of Quaker history and theology. This overview starts with the first Friends, but rather than focusing on the stories of our English and North American forebears and then petering out as it moves through the nineteenth century, the history presented by the Abbotts carries the story through the twentieth century and up to the present. This provides a rich context for exploring the wide varieties of Friends beyond our North Atlantic homelands, diving into the diversity of twenty-first-century Quakers in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. 

In setting forth the patterns of relationships among different contemporary groups, the renewing and transforming actions of the Holy Spirit are given precedence. As the authors describe it, today’s Religious Society of Friends may be better characterized as a luxuriant, flowering bush growing out of a common root than as a tree with a single trunk and a handful of discrete branches. The unfolding of this diversity is guided by continuing revelation. Their concise descriptions of core beliefs held by one set of Friends or another are particularly helpful.

A final chapter spotlights points of contention among contemporary Friends. Religious bodies self-defined by the purity of their beliefs suffer internal tensions that, in the case of our Society, have too often led to separations. This seems at odds with Friends’ cherished standard of conducting business as a search for unity under Divine Guidance. Surely we should be a model of solving difficult problems and resolving disagreements. The Abbotts ask:

In this time of intolerance and separation among Friends the question arises whether decision-making is truly grounded in the Spirit. To what degree have Friends been unwilling to wait in the Light together long enough to find unity rather than responding to the divisive pressures of secular society?. . . At their best, Friends seek ways to worship together as well as to work together to live out a vision of God’s kingdom. They look to a world where all speak with integrity, settle differences non-violently, live with a spirit of generosity, eschewing greed, building a community based on respect and just treatment of all, and caring for the whole of this planet that sustains us. 

For further exploration, each chapter ends with a selection of additional readings. These are drawn together and supplemented with other suggestions in a six-page bibliography (including websites) found at the back. An extra treat is an appendix, “Quakers in fiction,” with a short description of each work listed.

I have used a number of books to teach classes in Quakerism for newcomers and for longtime attenders. The next time I am asked, I plan to use Quakerism: The Basics.

Paul Buckley is a member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. When possible, he travels in the ministry urging spiritual renewal among Friends. His most recent book is Primitive Quakerism Revived: Living as Friends in the Twenty-First Century.

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