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HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

In seventeenth-century England, there arose many groups of Christans who were dissatisfied with the rigid forms of the Church of England and were seeking a more inwardly satisfying way of worship and of life. George Fox (1624 - 1691) went, as a young man, to many priests seeking inner peace and received only irrelevant answers. One day he heard a Voice saying, "There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." Joy filled his heart, and from this experience the central conviction of Friends was born - that the living Christ can speak directly to the need of every seeking soul.

 

As Fox went about speaking in churches, homes, and fields, great numbers of people were attracted to his powerful messages. At that time no church was permitted except the Church of England; hence, the followers of Fox first called themselves Friends of Jesus, and later, the Religious Society of Friends. Later, in derision, they were nicknamed Quakers. In more recent times, Friends of evangelical persuasion have used the term Friends Church.

 

The earliest Friends said they were restoring primitive Christianity. They met together to wait in silence for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and each one was expected to give public response in prayer, message, or exhortation as he or she felt led. In time some Friends came to put a premium on silence as a way of worship and felt that speaking, reading Scripture, and prayer were something of an intrusion. Since worship was regarded as having inward spiritual validity, all outward forms - including sacraments, music, formal preaching, and orders of service - were abandoned. During this period as well, Friends reacted against the weaknesses, vulgarities, and sins of the world and tried to follow Christ in a different life-style based on simplicity, moderation and modesty, total honesty and integrity, and plainness of speech. They refused to participate in war and violence, choosing rather to practice the love of God and share in the sufferings of Christ.

 

Since religious freedom was as yet unknown in England, the early Quakers were imprisoned in great numbers, under the foulest conditions. In spite of these sufferings, the numbers of Quakers multiplied greatly, and eventually they alone won, not only for themselves but also for us all, the Act of Toleration, which included guarantees of religious freedom.

 

George Fox was soon surrounded by a group of effective itinerant preachers who came to be known as "The Valiant Sixty." He himself traveled to America, where Quakers had settled, and many more people were convinced that Jesus Christ could meet their spiritual needs. Friends joined in the westward migrations and spread across the new nation. While many were simple, God-fearing people, there were some who became widely known. These include William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and peaceful negotiator with the Indians; Robert Barclay, Scottish gentleman, scholar, and theologian; John Woolman, best known for his anti-slavery work; John Greenleaf Whittier, poet; Stephen Grellet, French nobleman, who, escaping from the guillotine, became a vibrant Quaker evangelist in the remote parts of the United States; Elizabeth Fry, noted for prision reform in different parts of the world; and Joseph John Gurney, banker, scholar, theologian, and preacher who called the Society back from quietism to an evangelical position.

 

London Yearly Meeting, founded by George Fox, is the original organization from which all others have developed. While it boasts of never having had an official division, it has nevertheless changed over the years in ways which reflect some of the tensions which led to divisions in other parts of the Society of Friends. In the 19th century it was strongly evangelical, but in the 20th century it followed the trend of modern liberalism and became closely akin to General Conference Friends.

 

Currently there are five major groupings of Friends: Hicksite, Orthodox, Conservative, Evangelical, and the Independent Yearly Meetings. In their character they reflect major divisions which have occurred among Friends.

 

Friends General Conference (Hicksite) is a combination of Yearly Meetings which have their origins in the separation of 1828-29. The followers of Elias Hicks, who had been influenced by rationalism and unitarianism, separated from the Orthodox Friends. Today their meetings are united in keeping the tradition of unprogrammed meetings but are in serious tension between humanists on the one hand and those who in some sense want to be Christo-centric on the other.

 

Friends United Meeting (Orthodox) came into being at the turn of the 20th century and is a federation of yearly meetings of diverse character. On the one hand are a number who are predominately evangelical. On the other hand are a number of Yearly Meetings whose liberalism has made them very comfortable in reuniting the Hicksite and Orthodox brances of the Church.

 

Conservative Friends is a term applied to a group who has great cohesion without having a formal organization combining their Yearly Meetings. These have their roots in the teaching of John Wilbur, whose opposition to Joseph John Gurney led to separation in 1845. The difference was not so much doctrinal as it was a matter of older traditions concerning manner of worship in silence, Quaker garb, and other practices. Wilbur so emphasized the "Inner Light" that it sounded almost like infallibility. Gurney, on the other hand, laid great emphasis on the Scriptures as our guide.

 

There are several independent Yearly Meetings which are not affiliated with any grouping of Friends.

 

The Evangelical Friends Alliance in 1965 brought together four independent Yearly Meetings which were distinctly evangelical - Ohio (Damascus), Kansas, Rocky Mountain, and Oregon. Subsequently, Oregon took the name Northwest, and Ohio (Damascas) became the Evangelical Friends Church - Eastern Region. Kansas has become Mid-America Yearly Meeting. The roots of this group (as is true of many Yearly Meetings in the Friends United Meeting) are in the Orthodox, Gurneyite trend. It should be noted, however, that by Gurney's teaching the way was paved for developments which he did not forsee. In 1860 in the Yearly Meetings of Indiana and Ohio, there broke out almost spontaneous revival, and over the following fifteen years this spread into nearly all the Orthodox Yearly Meetings. It has beecome known as the "Great Revival" and eventuated in the pastoral system, the use of programmed worship services, and the use of music in worship. While there is debt here to Gurney, there was also influence coming from the evangelism of Finney and Moody. The emphasis on the Holy Spirit, always characteristic of Friends, made the Wesleyan-Arminian teaching on holiness congenial to these Friends also. These influences are reflected in the fact that the Evangelical Friends International/North America Region is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals and also the Christian Holiness Partnership.

 

There are many groups of Friends around the world who are the product of Evangelical Friends missionary work overseas. These include Yearly Meetings set off by their founding bodies and now independent - such as Kenya, Taiwan, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, and Alaska - who were represented at the 1987 International Friends Conference on Evangelism held in Guatemala. The Evangelical Friends Alliance has now approved the proposal to internationalize the organization and call it the Evangelical Friends International (EFI).

 

"HISTORICAL BACKGROUND" is taken from pages 3-6 of "Faith and Practice The Book of Discipline 2000 Revision" by The Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region.