george fox
George Fox

Also known as: "The Religious Society of Friends" or "Friends"
Founded by: George Fox
Adherents worldwide: Approximately 400,000
Adherents in the United States: approximately 100,000
Famous people with Quaker roots: frontiersman Daniel Boone, actor James Dean, former U.S. presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, musician Dave Matthews, philanthropist Johns Hopkins, seamstress of the first American flag, Betsy Ross, and American poet, Walt Whitman

The Religious Society of Friends was founded by George Fox in England in the 1640's. Fox was a staunch critic of the Church of England's melding of faith and politics, especially as it related to war. By the 1660's, the Friends movement had organized and held meetings regularly. Their worship was characterized by silently and patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to move and speak to them.

As to the origin of their names, "Quakers" and "Friends," accounts differ. Some contend that Fox's early followers called themselves "Friends of Truth," which over time was shortened to just "Friends." In regards to "Quaker," one tradition teaches that sometimes adherents would shake as they sat waiting for the Holy Spirit to move and speak, which led others to label them "Quakers." Still another story says that once when Fox was brought before an English judge in 1650, he was mocked for encouraging the judge to "tremble" at the word of God and the group was nicknamed "Quakers" as a result.

As with other Christian denominations, there is diversity within the Society of Friends. The approximately 1,000 Quaker denominations in the United States can subdivided in the following manner:

  • Evangelical Friends International - 36,000 members
  • Friends General Conference - 32,000 members (liberal leanings)
  • Friends United Meeting - 40,000 members (closest to mainline Protestantism)
  • Unaffiliated Friends - 6,700
  • Conservative Friends - 1,500 members (has commonalities with Old Order Mennonites and Old German Baptists)

(Note: the General Conference and the United Meeting have overlapping members.)

Important Figures
Robert Barclay 1648-1690; Scottish; wrote An Apology for the True Christian Divinity
Richard Foster contemporary; American; wrote Celebration of Discipline
George Fox 1624-1691; Englishman; founded the Quaker denomination
Isaac Penington 1616-1679; Englishman; persuaded to Quakerism later in life; extensive writer
William Penn 1644-1718; Englishman; created "The Holy Experiment" in Pennsylvania
John Woolman 1720-1772; American; worked for the abolition of slavery


Important Doctrines
Inner Light Quakers believe "every man" has an inner light from God
Outward Sacraments Quakers traditionally don't observe water baptism or communion
Spontaneous Worship Quaker worship is known for their waiting on the Holy Spirit to move
Peace Testimony Quakers have a long history of refusing to engage in physical combat


Pocket Dictionary of North American Denominations. Edited by Drew Blankman and Tod Augustine. InterVarsity Press. 2004