The Friends Church began more than three hundred years ago in England under the leadership of George Fox, a man who experienced a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and spent his life sharing this experience with others. The Quaker awakening and missionary movement that followed took the name “Friends” from Jesus’ words “You are my friends if you do whatever I command.” (John 15:12-15)
The Friends teaching about the presence of Christ with His people resulted in strong ethical testimonies. These included support for religious and political freedom (including women ministers), opposition to slavery, honesty in business, humane treatment of criminals, compassion for the mentally ill and aid to war victims and others in distress. Friends opposed war and practiced peacemaking. The name Quaker, originally an insult, became a symbol of integrity. These Friends met to worship without program, plan, or preacher, relying upon Spirit-led ministry from anyone in the congregation.
As the movement grew, it organized itself into “yearly meetings” (groups of Friends who met annually for business and worship). The first were in London and Dublin, then spreading to the English colonies in America. Later Quakers moved west as the frontier expanded.
During the nineteenth century, separations within the Church came as quite a blow to the American Friends community. The most severe, the Hicksite separation, reflected a drift away from biblical authority.
Touched by the revivals which swept America following the Civil War, Friends rekindled the fire of evangelism. Revival meetings with penitents kneeling in prayer were common during this period. Paid ministers were increasingly appointed to the pastoral care of the converts. There was rapid growth. Several unifying conferences were held around the last decade of that century. Missionaries were sent out to Africa, Cuba, Alaska, and elsewhere. A delegate body called the Five Years Meeting of Friends (later named Friends United Meeting) was established by eleven Yearly Meetings.
This unity, however was shattered by the modernist-fundamentalist rift which shook American Protestantism in the early 1900’s. Several Meetings withdrew form the Five Years Meeting.
Two of the Yearly Meetings which withdrew from Five Years Meeting in the early 1900’s formed a new evangelical alliance in the early 1960’s. This organization, Evangelical Friends International, is a worldwide movement with regions in North America, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This Christ-centered movement works hand in hand with Evangelical Friends Mission planting churches and carrying the gospel message around the world to participate in the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19 and 20).
The other two major groupings of Friends in the United States are Friends United Meeting, comprised of twelve or thirteen yearly meetings across the United States, and Friends General Conference.
Two organizations which at times attempt to speak for Friends are the American Friends Service Committee, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Both of these are unofficial and depend upon foundations for the bulk of their funding. For the most part, Evangelical Friends International does not participate in any of the activities of these two groups, primarily because we have basic and fundamental disagreements with them in both theological and political areas. In the area of theology, they would not agree with the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Friends Yearly meetings. In the past, Evangelical Friends have sent representatives to their meetings, and have been disappointed that they have not listened to, nor appreciated our concerns.
Today, there are at least four major branches of the Religious Society of Friends:
- Those who generally gather in meeting houses and practice unprogrammed, non-pastoral, silent worship within a broad theological continuum that includes folks who are very Universalist as well as some who are highly Christ-centered and scripturally based.
- Those who gather in meeting houses to practice the unprogrammed, non-pastoral, silent form of worship but are more Christ-centered theologically.
- Those who gather in either meeting houses or churches and are Christ-centered and have programmed, pastoral form of worship and may or may not be very evangelical
- Those who gather in churches and are very Christ-centered and very evangelical and have programmed, pastoral form of worship.