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Religious Society of Friends
The Religious Society of Friends is a group of religious people, who have joined together because they have similar beliefs. People in the Society of Friends are called "Friends" or Quakers - both mean the same thing. Most Quakers are Christians but the religion today includes a few other people who are not Christian. They live all over the world, but the largest groups are in Bolivia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
The Society of Friends began in the 1600's in England. A man named George Fox went around preaching his ideas to people, including a large group on Pendle Hill. He told them they could talk to God themselves - that they did not need a priest or minister to do it for them. Many people liked this idea; they found it helped them feel close to God. Together they started the Society of Friends. The government of England did not like this new religion; at the time it was against the law not to belong to the Church of England. They put a lot of people in jail, or made them pay money as a punishment. At first, the word "Quaker" was a name used to make fun of people who belonged to the Society of Friends, but after a while those people came to like it and use it for themselves.
Because Quakers were being thrown in jail in England, some of them moved away, to places like America. A young Quaker named William Penn started a new colony there -- he got the land because the English king Charles II owed his father a lot of money. This new colony was called Pennsylvania, and it was made to be a place where anyone could be free to belong to any religion. Penn wanted people to be fair to each other, and he called the biggest city in his new colony Philadelphia, which means "The City of Brotherly Love." Soon there were many Quakers in America.
Today there are about 350,000 Quakers in the world. This number is very small compared to other religious groups. Even so, a lot of people have heard of the Quakers, because they are good at letting people know what they believe.
Quakers worship in "meetings for worship", and at other times these meetings also decide what Quakers should do - these meetings can be called "meetings for business", but other people call them "meetings for worship for business", because they include parts of both worship and business.
Anyone can go to a Quaker meeting, because most Quakers think that everyone is equal, and that this is a very important idea. There are two types of Quakers: "members" are definitely part of the Religious Society of Friends, and "attenders" might just be wondering whether Quakerism is right for them. In practice, both tend to be treated the same.
Usually, a meeting for worship lasts about an hour. It starts with everybody sitting quietly, often in a circle. This is because they are trying to listen to God. Sometimes, a Quaker will think that God wants him or her to say something. When this happens, the person stands up to tell everyone. Then they all sit quietly again. At some meetings, a large number of people will speak. At other meetings, nobody speaks. Quakers believe that a meeting for worship helps them to understand what God wants.
At these meetings, each Quaker will have a slightly different idea of what it means to them to "listen to God", and each Quaker will go about doing it in a different way.
Quakers also have meetings for worship for weddings and funerals -- when two people want to get married, or if someone dies. When two people get married, the meeting is about them and the life that they will have together. When someone has died, the meeting is about remembering good things about the person and the life they had.
Some Quakers in North America, South America, and Africa have a different kind of meeting. They often sing songs, or ask a pastor to talk about something interesting. They also have quiet times, but they do not last as long. These Quakers often have strong Christian beliefs.
Almost all Quakers share these beliefs:
- Everybody has an "inner light" that tells them what they should do. The inner light comes from God.
- Everybody should try to do what THEY wants.
- Quakers should try not to hurt other people.
- Quakers should listen to what other people say, even if they think something completely different.
- Quakers should tell the truth, and not lie.
- Quakers should not spend a lot of money on themselves, or wear clothes that make them look rich.
- To spend all their money on themselves not the children.
When Quakers say "inner light", they do not mean that there is really a light bulb inside them. They use the phrase "inner light" to mean something else, which they might find difficult to find words to explain. Other words that Quakers use to mean similar things include "God", "spirit" and "love".
Quakers think that the truth is very important. They believe that it is wrong to make an oath or promise. This is because they think people should tell the truth all the time. Making a promise shows that they are trying to be more truthful than normal. Instead, Quakers believe that they should simply say what they are going to do.
This is another idea that has caused problems. Governments often want people to promise that they will be loyal to the country. In a court, people have to promise that they will tell the truth. Quakers refuse to do these things. Several countries now say that Quakers do not have to make oaths, but in the past Quakers were put in prison for not making oaths.
Today, Quakers can sometimes make an "affirmation" instead. The word "affirm" hints that whatever is being affirmed has already been said, or thought. This means that they have to say out loud what they are going to do. For example, in court they might say "I affirm that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". Other people would have to say "I swear" instead of "I affirm". Many courts ask those testifying if they "swear or affirm to tell the truth," this covers Quakers as well as non-Quakers, because people who are not Quakers also believe some of the same things as Quakers.
Being a member
There are two types of people in the Religious Society of Friends - "members" and "attenders". Quakers believe that neither is better than the other, but there are some differences between the types. Quakers who are attenders are part of the Religious Society of Friends; they worship with Friends, and Quakers like them to be able to do everything that members can do. However, there are some important jobs - such as the people who look after the meeting's money - that Quakers prefer to be done by members.
Members have decided that they definitely want to be Quakers, and have asked their meeting to make them a member, to show that they think that Quakerism is right for them. Some people are made members by their parents, when they are still babies; other people go to Quaker meetings for a while before deciding they want to ask to be a member, and some people wait for up to twenty years (or more) before asking to be a member.