« Early Quakers, Version III | Main | Nayler's shift »

A stable definition of Quakerism

Just before I left for vacation, Marshall Massey gave me something to contemplate:

As I see it, the world surrounding Quakerism changed, from the time of the Puritan upheavals to the Toleration Act 1689, and what Quakers did had to change accordingly. But this did not mean that Quakerism itself changed.

It would be convenient to discuss Quakerism as something stable, something that can be described once and reliably repeated. It is possible to develop a definition of Quakerism that holds from the beginning of Fox's ministry to the end of his life, and perhaps even to the present. William Penn gave it a try in 1696 in Primitive Christianity Revived:

That which the people call'd Quakers lay down, as a Main Fundamental in Religion, is this, That God, through Christ, hath placed a Principle in every Man, to inform him of his Duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that Live up to this Principle, are the People of God, and those that Live in Disobedience to it, are not God's People, whatever name they may bear, or Profession they may make of Religion. This is their Ancient, First, and Standing Testimony: With this they began, and this they bore, and do bear to the World. (Chapter 1)

Penn's definition does seem to hold from the origins of Quakerism, and holds for most Quakers today, though I'm sure there are exceptions. (Penn argued that his definition held from the origins of Christianity, a much broader conversation.)

That said, Penn's definition leaves out a tremendous collection of valuable aspects that are clearly Quaker as well, and includes many others. Penn's definition taken alone might well include many of the Spiritual Franciscans, the Familists, the Grindletonians, and a wide variety of other groups and individuals past and present.

It's possible to look for other definitions that define more of Quakerism, but as I'll write next time, many of Quakerism's distinctive features, including Meeting discipline and the Peace Testimony, developed after Quakerism had been around for a while. These affected more than "what Quakers did".


I stubbornly cling to my idiosyncratic definition of Quakers: People who want to live as close to Jesus as possible, and who organize to encourage each other in this goal and its ethical consequences.