The Religious Society of Friends is a Christian denomination that was founded in 17th century England by a group of people who were no longer satisfied with traditional denominations and Christian sects of the time. The most important figure in the early Quaker society was George Fox, whom historians usually credit with founding the group. Fox and other early society members believed that God speaks directly to people without the need for meditation or an intercessor. In his writings, Fox clarified this belief by saying that Christ came to teach Himself to people directly.
There are various branches of the Quaker society, each of which has its own practices and beliefs, but each is centered around the concept of a personal revelation and inner conscience that comes from God dwelling within a person. They develop their own religious credos and feel compelled to abide by them in every facet of their lives. Most of them do not believe their faith holds to the traditional Christian denominations of Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox; they believe it is a unique and separate way to experience the love of God. Quakerism is considered by some to be a 'mystical' religion, but it is different from others in some important ways. The mysticism involved in Quakerism is usually group-oriented, not individually focused. For example, the traditional worship meeting of Friends consists of all members of the group listening together for God to speak to them, and one speaks aloud to the group only when the Spirit moves them to do so.
Some people consider the Quakers to be a religious order, similar to Franciscan monks, living a mystical and monastic lifestyle in their own way according to their own traditions. Mysticism developed after the late 1800s strongly emphasizes a witness toward others, which in turn leads to greater spiritual growth by individuals and the entire group. Early Quakers did not agree with the mainstream concept Protestants had of the Bible being God's only written word; they believed instead that Christ is the true Word of God, and the Scriptures were only declarations of the nature of Christ. Over time, different groups began to have differing opinions about the teachings of the Bible and the members who felt that they were being led by the Spirit. Some of them believed that the Bible should be the definitive arbiter in such situations. Others decided that a person could be directed to live in contrast to scriptural teachings, and in such cases the scriptures should be set aside. Other groups of Friends rejected the Bible scriptures altogether.
The Friends traditionally do not follow the church calendar observed by other Christian denominations. They do not celebrate religious holidays such as Lent, Christmas, or Easter on specific days; rather, they believe that the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ should be remembered each day of the year, not just on particular days. Many Friends believe that it is hypocritical to fast during Lent and then eat excessively during the rest of the year. Therefore, many Quakers choose to live simply all year. By the same token, Quakers usually believe that every day of the week is the Lord's day, and it is not required to hold their worship meeting on a Sunday. Worship meetings are usually held on Sundays, but this is for convenience rather than believing Sunday is the Sabbath day. Many groups of Friends hold their worship meetings on other days of the week.
Quakers are characterized by holding fast to core lifestyle concepts such as plainness, equality, and dealing fairly with people. By wearing plain clothes, there is no social inequality and everyone worships on a level playing field without competition or judgment. Buying new clothes and discarding clothes that are still useful is considered to be wasteful and egotistical, whereas Friends aim to focus their lives on simplicity and the more important issues in life. Like many aspects of most religions, Quakerism's practice of living plainly has evolved through the years and is not as rigid as in years past. However, modern Quakers still hold true to the basic concept of not calling focusing inwardly by purchasing plainer versions of modern-day clothing, such as clothes that do not carry designer labels or logos.
Quakers believe that both sexes are spiritual equals, and both men and women have the authority to speak in worship meetings. Friends do not take their hats off to others or bow to anyone else, and they do not use titles such as Mr., Mrs., Dr., Sir, etc. Instead, they call everyone by simply their first and last name, believing that in the eyes of God there is no hierarchy among people. This belief is not practices out of rebellion against authority; rather, it is intended to discourage human pretentiousness and egoism. Modern-day Quakers are not as rigid about these customs as they were in years past, but each individual person can decide which custom they choose to follow, based on their conscience and individual beliefs.
Quakerism has spread around the world since its beginnings in England, even to non-Christian countries including Kenya, Rwanda, Taiwan, Burundi, South Africa, and Uganda. Although there are only about 360,000 Quakers worldwide, there are several places in the United States where Quaker congregations are concentrated, including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Greenleaf, Idaho; Richmond, Indiana; Newberg, Oregon; Friendswood, Texas; and Greensboro, North Carolina.