Friends, also called Quakers, had their origin in seventeenth-century England. As a young man, George Fox longed for a genuine faith which he did not find in the cold, legalistic church of his time. He looked in vain for human help, and studied the Bible so thoroughly that he learned much of it by memory. After four years of searching, he found inner peace through trusting Jesus Christ as his Savior. Soon he began to tell others about the Gospel of Christ as God’s way to free people from sin. As Fox shared the reality he had found, others responded and joined him in spreading the good news of salvation. Thus a movement of Christian renewal was born in 1647 which was to become known in time as the Friends Church, or Society of Friends. A rapid period of growth began in June, 1652, in northern England.
The Message of Friends
George Fox and early Quakers declared that salvation is a personal matter between the individual and God. No human mediator or outward ordinance is necessary. Therefore the Friends message with its clear, spiritual interpretation of the Gospel was a logical conclusion of the Protestant Reformation. With its emphasis on spiritual reality and without dependence on outward rites, Quakerism fulfilled the development of doctrine begun over a century earlier by Martin Luther.
Friends endeavored to rediscover New Testament doctrine in its threefold nature of knowing about Jesus Christ historically, knowing Him personally in religious experience, and following His pattern of life. They recognized the role of the Holy Spirit in revealing sin and leading people to new life in Christ. Rather than merely dispensing with all outward ordinances, they taught positively that true baptism is that of Christ’s Spirit within, and real communion takes place in fellowship with the Bread of life.
Friends as a Church
The dynamic message of Friends attracted thousands of people, and the early Quaker movement grew rapidly; some have called it an “explosion”. They are thought to have taken the name “Friends” from the statement of Jesus in John 15:14 that “Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you”. The term “Quaker” was originally a derisive nickname.
Many consider the word “church” belongs to the total invisible body of believers. Therefore some Friends hesitate to use the word to refer to any one part of the body of Christ (as a certain denomination) or to the building used as a place of worship. Today, many Friends congregations call themselves the Friends Church. Others are careful to use the term “meeting” for a group of believers and “meetinghouse” for the place of worship.
The Living Witness of Friends
The beliefs of early Friends led them into practical action. Among ethical testimonies held by Friends were these: religious freedom, opposition to slavery and civil bondage, just treatment of minorities (especially American Indians), humane and remedial treatment of offenders, prison reform, compassionate care of the mentally ill, and aid to war victims and others in physical need. Friends taught and practiced peace as opposed to war, calling upon Christians to arm themselves with the Spirit rather than the weapons of this world. According to Christ’s command, they emphasized a single standard for truth. Consequently, many countries now accept the affirmation in place of a legal oath.
Friends Around The World
Between 1654 and 1660 individual Friends from England had left a personal witness in more than 20 foreign countries. This antedated the modern missionary movement by more than a century. Outside of western Europe and the American colonies few, if any, Friends meetings continued from that era. In the latter half of the 19th century English and American world_mapFriends caught a vision of world need and since then have established missions in several lands. A number of those missions have now become indigenous churches. In 2000 the Friends World Committee reported there were organized groups of Friends in 43 countries, only 24 of which had more than 200 in their total membership. There are approximately 280,000 Friends in the world, but 90 percent of them live in the United States, Kenya, Bolivia, Guatemala, Great Britain, or Burundi.
Friends in America
The missionary vision of English Friends soon spread their witness in America. In 1661 New England Yearly Meeting was established in Rhode Island, where Friends were especially influential in government. Before 1700, other Yearly Meetings were set up in Baltimore, Virginia, Philadelphia, New York, and North Carolina for the English colonists. Overland travel was so difficult, separate Yearly Meetings were almost a necessity. William Penn’s colony (Pennsylvania) was an example of what Friends today call “church extension”. The numerical strength and influence of colonial Friends reached its peak about 1750. As more non-Quakers came to America, the peace testimony grew unpopular in the face of the French and Indian War. Also as Quietism increased among Friends, the Quaker influence diminished markedly during the latter half of the eighteenth century.
During the 19th century Friends experienced a quickening of spiritual life, and new Yearly Meetings were again set up. Baltimore established Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1813 for all Friends meetings west of the Allegheny Mountains. Growth was phenomenal and Ohio set up Indiana Yearly Meeting in 1821. Since then, twenty-six Yearly Meetings were formed in the remaining years of the 19th century, fourteen of which have ceased to exist or have merged with other Yearly Meetings. In the 20th century at least twelve new Yearly Meetings have been established.
First Friends Church is part of the Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting within Evangelical Friends International. Evangelical Friends International is an international alliance of Friends Churches that officially accept and communicate the evangelical doctrines of the Christian Faith as defined by its statement of faith. It is organized by geographical regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America. Evangelical Friends International – North America is composed of the following Yearly Meetings: Alaska, Evangelical Friends Church – Eastern Region, Evangelical Friends Church – Mid America Yearly Meeting, Friends Church – Southwest, Northwest Yearly Meeting, and Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting.
For more information, visit the Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting website.