Though Quaker worship services are traditionally silent,
and not directed by a minister or other leaders, not all Quaker meetings are the same.
Types of Quaker Worship
“Unprogrammed” Quaker meetings follow the classic Quaker worship style of silent meditation during which Friends listen to the “still, small voice” of God within. It is not uncommon for entire meetings to go by with no one speaking, though if someone is moved to speak, she or he addresses the meeting briefly and then sits down again.
To those unfamiliar with Quaker worship, it’s often helpful to compare it to Zen meditation or yoga. Even so, a description of silent worship can still be a perplexing idea, leading to the question, “So…you just…uh…sit there?” from people unfamiliar with this style of worship.
The following description of silent worship from Douglas Steere of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting might be illuminating:
“The first thing that I do is close my eyes and then still my body…Then I still my mind and let it open to God in silent prayer, for the meeting, as we understand it, is the meeting place of the worshiper with God. I thank God inwardly for this occasion, for the week’s happenings…I hold up persons before God’s intercession, loving them and seeing them under God’s eyes…I quietly resign myself to complete listening, letting go in the intimacy of this friendly company and in the intimacy of the Great Friend who is always near…When I feel drawn to share something in the quiet meeting for worship, I simply rise and say it as briefly as I know how, seeking ever to…avoid all vain and distracting ornamentation….After about an hour someone in the meeting shakes hands with the person next to him or her, and the ‘rise’ of the meeting has come. Most of us linger and talk with one another for fifteen or twenty minutes before we leave…Few leave without some refreshment, some sensitizing, and without at least a tiny nosegay of those mountain flowers that Francis de Sales declared to be there on the heights waiting to be plucked by every true worshipper.”
As our worship consisted
not in words so neither in silences as silence,
but in a holy dependence of the mind upon God;
from which dependence silence necessarily follows in the first place
until words can be brought forth
which are from God’s spirit.
An evangelical, or “programmed,” Quaker meeting will bear greater resemblance to more mainstream Protestant worship service than to a traditional Quaker meeting. The movement toward evangelical worship that swept America in the 1800s resulted in this different approach to Quaker worship.
Like many Protestant services, these Quaker groups — who often call themselves Quaker “churches” as opposed to Quaker “meetings” — will celebrate with a preacher and choir and may include other ceremonies in their worship such as baptisms and communion, all of which traditional Quaker worship tends to eschew. However, in keeping with their traditionalist Quaker origins, the Evangelical Quakers often include moments of silence in their worship.
Traditional Quakers prefer not to evangelize or actively seek new members, but since the Evangelist Quakers obviously differ on this point (as their name suggests), this branch of the Society of Friends is well-represented worldwide where their missionary efforts have taken place very successfully.
Other Peace Churches
Formerly a member of the Society of Friends, Ann Lee founded the Shakers (short for “Shaking Quakers”) following her revelation that God was both Father and Mother. Her followers believed “Mother Ann” to be the feminine incarnation of Christ.
Like the Quakers, the Shakers believe in silent worship, in simplicity, in the equality of man and woman. They practiced celibacy and lived in communal societies where their elegantly beautiful craftsmanship and artisanry flourished, for Shakers were masters of an almost Zen-like simple perfection in their architecture, handiwork, and lives. As of a few years ago, when Ken Burns made his thoughtful documentary on the Shakers, “Hands to Work, Hearts to God” there were only a small handful of Shakers left in a community known as Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Before her death, Mother Ann predicted that the Shakers would dwindle to the number a child could count on the fingers of one hand and then rise once again.
“Then I cried to God and promised Him that if He would give me the same sense that I had before I slept,
I would labor all night. This I did many nights; and in the daytime I put my hands to work and my heart to God;
and when I felt weary and in need of rest I labored for the power of God,
and the refreshing operations of the power of God would release me, so that I would feel able to go to my work again….
And when I was brought through and born into the spiritual kingdom, I was like an infant just brought into the world. They see colors and objects but they know not what they see; and so it was with me when I was brought into the spiritual world. But before I was twenty-four hours old I saw and I knew what I saw.”–Mother Ann Lee, Founder of the Shakers
The Mennonites were one of the original Anabaptist groups that arose in Europe around the time of the Reformation, and like other Anabaptists such as the Amish, Mennonites believed that worshipers should not be baptized until they were old enough to comprehend their own faith and accept it with full knowledge of their commitment. The Mennonites took their name from Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest who joined the Anabaptist movement.
Like the Quakers, the Mennonites value peace, feeling that to act for peace is to follow the example of Christ. Mennonite churches, like Quaker meetings, place a high value on social service, for unlike the Amish, not all Mennonites hold themselves separate from the world. Other similarities such as a high value on plain speech and dress also link the Quakers with the Mennonites.
Though some Mennonite groups look very similar to the Amish with their long dresses, delicate white bonnets, and plain dress, not all Mennonites fit this image. Ironically, some conservative Mennonites can look more “Amish” to the English eye than members of the more liberal branches of the Amish faith.
The Amish, more than any other peace church, best exemplify this injunction in Romans to nonconformity. The commitment to be separate from the world has led to the Amish people’s distinctive mode of living, one that seems far closer to an older, simpler, and more peaceful existence than the one that most Americans find themselves all too familiar with now.
Originally an Anabaptist group, the Amish developed many ideas and practices that are comparable to both the Quakers and Mennonites. The Amish live simply and peacefully in communities that are defined not only by religion, but by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture to which many Amish belong. Governed by religious duties and the rule of the Ordnung (unwritten community tradition and practice), the Amish preserve a plain agrarian lifestyle that does evolve, albeit far more slowly than the “English” world. An excellent site for information is the webpage entitled Ask the Amish, a site maintained by worldly contacts among the Amish as a place where information can be exchanged and misconceptions dispelled.
“Be not conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind
that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable
and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)