Quakers and Sacrament

One of the main sets of questions that I get from friends who are part of liturgical traditions center on the practices of baptism and communion. This essay will, hopefully, help clear up some misunderstandings of Quakers and the sacraments. Disclaimer: I am a Christ-centered Quaker and this essay is written from that perspective.


The beginning of the Quaker movement in the mid-seventeenth century saw horrible violence directed at differing factions of the Christian faith within England. Right before the Battle of Worcester, Justice Bennet attempted to have the Quaker’s founder, George Fox, pressed into service in the commonwealth army. Fox had already been jailed for refusing a commission and replied to the judge and commissioners that he “was brought off from outward wars…that where envy and hatred is there is confusion.”(Fox Journal of George Fox 1976 130) The general atmosphere of religious violence, while ultimately being about which Christians got to rule the country, was triggered by arguments over doctrines and the correct methodologies for the administration of the sacraments. The most contentious arguments of the time were over the sacraments of communion and baptism, the very things that were thought to be the hallmarks of Christian unity and belonging. The early Quakers looked at the mess around them and went to the “present teacher” (Jesus) and the scriptures to find out where they should stand on these issues and discovered that their call was to live in communion every moment of every day and to continually be baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit, purifying their lives daily.

I will begin the exploration of Quaker sacramental living with a general Quaker understanding of sacraments, and then will examine Quaker perspectives on the individual sacraments of baptism and communion by examining second-generation Quaker Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity then modern Quaker understandings.

Quaker Views on Sacrament

It is a common misunderstanding to think that the Quakers do not practice the sacraments. While it is true that the rituals which are recognized as sacraments are not practiced (for the most part) by Quakers, we attempt to infuse our everyday lives with sacramental participation in the light and life of Christ. Sidney Lucas affirms this in his book The Quaker Message when he quotes the 1941 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Epistle: “We are called with a high calling to make every day of our lives a sacrament, that we may constantly live in that virtue and power that takes away the occasion, not only of war, but of the spirit of dissention and strife in every walk and area of life.”(Lucas The Quaker Message 1948 26) Through the recognition of God’s presence throughout the world, every moment is an encounter with the sacred… if we are paying attention. Anything that distracts us from this reality of God’s presence then becomes a hindrance. For the early Quakers the reliance on outward rituals that were mediated by a priest who was appointed by the government in a large building called a church hindered many from connecting their lives to the sacred reality of God’s presence outside of the ritual. Today, some Quakers in the Evangelical wings have shifted somewhat on liturgy since it is no longer being forced upon us as necessary prerequisites to participation in society.

Dry-Clean Only

In the Quaker community only one baptism is recognized as necessary for rebirth into the family of God, and that is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Barclay affirms that the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 is that of the Holy Spirit and focuses his understanding of baptism on the inward purification that no amount of water would ever suffice to cleanse. Barclay asks how cleansing can be achieved “if it is not through the purifying action of the Holy Spirit on the soul, and the cauterizing of our unrighteous nature by the fire of his judgment?”(Barclay and Freiday Barclay’s Apology 1991 308) In Friend’s theology, baptism is not mediated through human agency, but is a direct experience of the present Christ, born within through the Holy Spirit. This is especially important when dealing with the issues around child/infant baptism, if the child in question shows signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their life; they are considered a full member of the meeting. I have witnessed meetings for worship and business in which children spoke and it was obvious they were prompted by the Spirit to do so. The early Quakers, living into their testimony, experienced persecution and denials of their rights under law. That persecution did not stop the children of the Quakers however, when parents were arrested and sent to prison their children continued Meeting.

Communion After the Manner of Friends

To understand the Quaker practice of communion with God, it is important to recognize that we are Mystics. Carole Spencer in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism describes this part of our foundational structure as a call to perfection. This call “was born of mystical experience and a mystical consciousness. But it was not a private experience of initiation…or an absorption into God, but a theistic sense of being filled with God, reborn and transformed.” (Spencer Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism 2007 61) The way this transformation worked itself out was in the practice of waiting in silence, and listening for the voice of the Spirit in the context of a gathered group. Barclay articulates this process as “truly and really enjoyed as often as the soul withdraws into the light of the Lord and feels and partakes of the divine life by which the inward [person] is nourished. This may be witnessed at any time by the faithful, although it is especially so when they are assembled together to wait upon the Lord.”(Barclay and Freiday Barclay’s Apology 1991 333)

The times of silence that others may call meditation or prayer are, for Quakers, acts of communion with God, and when part (or the whole) of our weekly meetings, communion with the body of Christ: the church. In The Quakers, Pink Dandelion underscores the mystical and practical nature of this communion by saying: “Through silence…God could be best encountered and heard. This was the medium of approach to God, and the medium for experience of God…the use of silence ran throughout the devotional and practical aspects of church life.”(Dandelion The Quakers 2008 38) Communion with God then becomes focused on the actual experienced relationship with God and is no longer constricted to a symbolic gesture, and is freed to encompass all of life. Every person then, from the youngest child to the eldest senior can participate in the life of the church through the practice of silent waiting on the voice of God.

Current Quaker Views on Sacraments

As with many other movements the Quakers have fragmented and come to new understandings of various points in doctrine and the ways our relationship with God works out in real life. In his book A Living Faith Wilmer Cooper describes three current responses to the sacraments as performed in mainline churches. The first view holds to the George Fox’s understanding that the sacraments are impediments in the way of actual relationship with the living Christ.(Cooper A Living Faith 2001 113) The second view is a bit more nuanced in that it sees the sacraments as non-essentials. “The sacraments are not efficacious as a means of grace and therefore not necessary for worship or for personal reconciliation with God…their symbolic representations might be helpful to some in worship but are not necessary.”(Ibid.) This view would fit with Robert Barclay’s writing that those who do this in good conscience should be indulged. The last view is that we need to re-examine our understanding of the sacraments. There are three main schools of thought behind this call to re-examination:

1)      Baptism and communion are desired by some coming into our meetings from other denominations and have pointed out that there is nothing biblical against the practices.(Ibid. 114)

2)      “If Friends held too narrow a view on this issue it would only serve to impede ecumenical unity.”(Ibid.)

3)      Some Friends have communicated that occasional participation in liturgical worship services has been helpful to them. (Ibid.)

At this point in my journey I lean more towards the second view, that those who practice in good conscience should and those who feel a different call should not. The important piece for me in all of this discussion is to hold my understanding lightly and humbly, mainly because I am convinced that dogmatism is the opposite of communion.


Barclay, Robert and Dean Freiday. 1991. Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. Newberg, Or.: Barclay Press.

Cooper, Wilmer A. 2001. A Living Faith : An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press.

Dandelion, Pink. 2008. The Quakers : A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Fox, George. 1976. Journal of George Fox. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press.

Lucas, Sidney. 1948. The Quaker Message : Extracts from Quaker Writings Showing the Belief and Practice of Quakers and the Present Significance of Their Underlying Principles. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill.

Spencer, Carole Dale. 2007. Holiness : The Soul of Quakerism : An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.



6 responses to “Quakers and Sacrament

  1. It is interesting to note that in the discussions in respect to the first generation Quakers teaching on sacraments etc. The doctrine of the first generation of Friends are treated as ‘opinions’ rather than as Fox repeatedly testifies was divinely revealed.

    Likewise, was his call to one and all to come out of man created organizations the people had been beguiled into calling “the church” and leave off their carnal minded rituals etc.

    The concept of bending and blending the teaching in the name of ecumenalism that which Fox and Friend’s declared had been divinely revealed to them as to the will and teaching of the LIGHT makes clear that modern day Quakerism, be it so called “Christ centered” or otherwise is of, and led by, another ‘spirit’ entirely than that which led the George Fox and the first generations of Friends.

    Requiring the question to be asked, “Was the ministry and doctrine of George Fox and Friends from and by the will of the LIGHT DIVINE or of their human will and natural understanding?”

    If the answer is the doctrine came from”the LIGHT” the answers to all such questions as to man made rituals and coperial sacraments are obvious. If the answer is ‘no’ and the original Quaker doctrine “of man” then Quaker doctrine, Christ centered or otherwise, is solely a matter of natural men’s collective opinion and of no more value than any other man made intellectually created doctrines and practices.

    Quaker sacraments

    • I hear where you’re coming from. There are a couple of things that I would caution you against more in terms of tone than anything else. The issues faced by current generations are much different then the issues faced by George Fox, Robert Barclay, and Margaret Fell. One of the core values of Quakerism is that each person in each generation and each community must discern the calling that the light has placed within each person. It is important to note that George Fox did not claim to have the sole understanding of the light for all time. One of the things to remember, most especially, is that Fox did not force others who joined the Quaker movement to immediately conform to his ideas, but instead directed them to the spirit and the conviction that comes from listening to that spirit. Even on as crucial a Friend’s witness as peace, Fox directed William Penn to wear the sword as long as the spirit allowed him to. If we force others to adhere to the earliest Friends understanding with the “no true Scotsman” argument, we are guilty of the same dogmatism that Fox railed against. Even in the earliest Friends movement there was not complete disagreement with the sacrament of baptism or communion. In Robert Barclay’s apology for the true Christian divinity he treats those sacraments as matters of conscience rather than matters of dogma. The question then becomes not what did the previous generations of Friends say but what canst thou say?

  2. If I understand correctly you are saying that doctrine given by way Divine Revelation to the Christ, Apostles, Fox etc. are subject to change? Then, would it not follow that the ‘core’ If ‘core’ values are subject to change? Then, would it not follow that their ‘core’ doctrine they claimed to be revealed to them by Divine Revelation is relative, individualistic and subject to the variances of historical and social values?
    Or, are they certain ‘core’ values that are constant, and others which are not? And, if so which ones and who decides?
    For example, you claim that the ‘peace testimony’ is a ‘core’ or constant value of Quakerism when is not a core value but the result of a core value declared by both the Apostle Paul and teaching? Who both made it rather clear that (I paraphrase in the interest brevity) that any action, be it peace testimony or otherwise, that is not led directly by the Light, individual or collectively with the Love of God present in the doers, even to given a one’s body, the act utterly worthless in the eyes of God. So, would you have it that the core value of the divine leadership of the Creator’s Spirit, in real time, has been supplanted by a philosophical dogma of so called ‘A Quaker Peace Testimony’?

    Now, while you are correct that dear Friend George or Robie Barclay were tolerant and never required any to betray their conscious if they clung to water baptism, liturgies, ministers made by the way of academic schooling etc. did they not make also make it clear that such practices were non-scriptural, even repugnant to the CREATOR and in many places and pages declared these things to be superstitious or idolatrous and in some cases both? (And, as many of the first Friends have testified, those engaged in such practice who came to “rise above their own wills and chained down their thoughts and imaginations” while waiting upon the LIGHT would be shown their error of clinging to such superstitious practices.

    As for my ‘tone’ you mention one of the ‘core values’ of this old Quaker is plain speech free of ‘tone’ or embellishments. It was simply pointed out that if the teaching of Jesus, the primitive Christians and that which was re-proclaimed by George Fox and first Friends is of the Divine then the answer to the question as to rejoining that which they declared to “come out of” is simple. And, if not and the view is that their teaching was not of the Divine then the answer in respect to ecumenicalism and importing such practices is equally simple.
    To summarize my understanding your reply is that: that you are able to discern that the Apostles, George Fox and first friends only had a partial understanding of thee Divine Revelation and the doctrine the necessarily flows from that Revelation and, you are able to discern what is not appropriate for this time in history and what needs added. Therefore, concluding the only constant you are advocating for Quaker doctrine is constant change as times dictate. I

    Further, I understand you to be advocating the elimination of parts of original Quaker doctrine and adding in new doctrine to adjust to the current social, religious and ethical values of today. Thus, there is an absences of any original or constant benchmark to determine if individuals or the collective is/are being led by the same Light as the Apostles and first Friends. Or, if those currently claiming to be led by the LIGHT and claiming having the divine wisdom to discern and make such changes are in fact being led never changing Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent LIGHT rather than, as many would have it, are being led by their human intellect, traditions and group think.

    • Not quite, but you are getting closer to my intent. Simply put, the work of discerning what it means to live faithfully is never done. While the inward witness will not contradict itself, it might tell us to lay off on passing judgment on people with different understandings and allow their inward light to bring them into the truth. The Quaker movement is not a doctrinal/creedal movement, so we can speak to the truth we have without claiming to have a monopoly on all truth. We are still flawed and need to be open to correction from others when their light shines on our darkness. What I am saying is that at no point in time do we have the whole picture of the whole truth, so we need to hold what we have loosely and be ready to accept correction when the light within others and ourselves calls us to change. I by no means am an expert, the paper you are responding to was written in an academic context with academic constraints on language, and was part of an assigned task. If I would postulate a core doctrine that is the root of all others held by Friends, it would be that all persons have access to the inward light if they take the time to listen, as such we can never write someone off or devalue them, but must continuously seek out where the light is shining in them and us. In an effort to keep to plain speaking, I called peace a “witness” and not a value, there is a difference there.
      George Fox repeatedly says that he knew these things “experimentally” which to me says that experience of the Spirit does play a crucial role in arriving at our understandings of God. We can neither discard the teachings of Fox et all or accept them without examining them, holding them in the Light, and trying them out for ourselves. This is about being in relationship with the one that inspired the writings of the scriptures, the writings of those who came before us in our own tradition, and who extends their light to others who disagree with us. This doesn’t mean that the doctrines change, but I think our understanding must change in order for us to better reflect the light within, because, speaking for myself, our understanding is limited by our personal pasts and biases and are in constant need of conforming to the light within.
      I am a skeptical cynic that has difficulty accepting the idea that anyone’s expression of truth will be entirely untainted by self-interest or personal blindness, and have an inherent distrust for expressions of absolute trust in human understanding. (I trust my own understanding about as far as I can toss a baby grand piano, but that understanding is all I have to work with so it’s going to have to do until the light within burns another piece of my flawed vision away.) Peace.

    • PS> Sorry about the distance in replies, I had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands and overdid it during the holidays.

  3. No need to apologies for a belated reply, time is required both for healing of the hands, family and prayer.

    In having time to consider your reply I think the original issue is still the same which is: Was the teaching brought to us via the ministry of George Fox and the first generation of Friends to re-establish the teaching, principles and practices of the first generation of Christians as taught by the Apostles and therefore what should have been, and should be the constant teaching, principles and practices of Christians? Or, were those teachings, principles and practices ministered by George Fox and the first generation of Friends the result of conclusions they had reached by way of careful intellectual study and particular to the time and conditions of Christians in the social/political/religious temper of the times?

    Depending on the answer to that question clearly determines how those calling themselves Quakers proceed in matters such as how to regard ecumenicalism efforts in general and in particularly the embracing of physical sacraments and liturgical practices to forward the goal of ecumenicalism.

    The testimonies of George Fox, Robert Barclay, William Penn and the written witness of all first generation of Friends all declare the ministry, the principles and practices of the re-preaching of the original gospel was an act of God and George Fox his Messenger and therefore it was neither relative to the time or subject to change anymore than are the old and new testament scriptures.

    However, to reach a conclusion, either way, based on evaluating the written record or the history of Quakerism and reaching an intellectual conclusion based by way of the natural mind would be of no value. The natural mind evaluating matters of the LIGHT by its very nature can know nothing of the LIGHT and is enmity against the LIGHT. (Roms.8:7)

    And, the natural mind of men having often been most improperly employed in determining as to what is the will of the Lord for body of Christ in respect to all matters concerning principles, practices and teachings can result in nothing but the conclusions and decisions causing the road to the ‘narrow gate’ to be missed and the wide road to destruction becoming all the more crowded. (Math. 7:13)

    In short, without the direct and intimate leadership of the LIGHT (John 6:63) it is but a case of the blind deluding themselves into thinking they have sight, the death believing they can hear the will and way of the LIGHT. (Mark 4:10/13)

    It has been frequently asked and mused upon as to why are Quakers today are so devoid of that which illuminated, articulated and enlightened the first generation of Quakers and this subject makes the point.

    You asked me in your first email “What doth I say” rather than what the George Fox etc. say. In the interest of precision, for I am a plink and plunk two finger typist and far from precise in writing skills allow me to lift a concise and succinct phrase from Friend Barclay’s Proposition X1 on Worship, chapter V11 and use them as my own to answer that question and give contents to what I am saying overall about which we are speaking to each other about and in the most part in agreement.

    “Therefore, I shall dwell a little on this subject, as one who can speak from his own experience rather than hearsay. This wonderful and glorious dispensation has so much more of the wisdom and glory of God in it because it is contrary to the nature of man’s spirit, will, and wisdom. Nothing could be more unlike the natural will and wisdom of human beings than this silent waiting upon God. It can only be attained and correctly understood when man is able to set aside his own wisdom and will and is content to be completely subject to God.”

    The discipline requiring one to rise above one’s own thoughts, imaginations, concepts in order to establish true inner silence and be transformed by the Light began to erode within a very short period time after the passing George Fox and the first generation of Friends. And, as went the discipline, so declined Quakerism and the sacred, illuminating, transforming and empowering for the vast majority lost to generations of Quakers with few exceptions.

    All, but the tiniest remnant became part of just another religious tradition with “Quakerish” trappings becoming in essence what the first generation hard suffered so valiantly against. With a century become, for all intents and purposes a philosophical, ethics, social services association involved in good causes that sat in physical silence one day a week while engaged with their thoughts and imaginations for the duration of their silent service.

    They even ignored George Fox and later Margaret Fell who spoke clearly and firmly against Friend’s adopting uniform clothing code calling in a form of idolatry yet within a generation the majority took up wearing ‘traditional Quaker clothing’ and some, as you likely are aware, still do to this very day.

    Now, in this present day, the vast majority of those who have
    appropriated the name Quaker with twitching ears (2 Timothy 4:3-4) not only ignore Fox and Friends but are now preaching entirely another gospel, in fact denying the gospel and have created a religion of their own making. (Gal 1:4)

    The following generations, sincere and gentle folks without doubt but unwilling to face and overcome the devil’s two dragons that guard the gate to inner silence, namely ‘Boredom and Distraction’, they become spiritual impotent and took up the causes of the first generation but without the leadership and power of Light.
    It being a far easier thing to march a mile with a peace sign, endure the scorn of their fellow citizens, endure rigours of academia or acquire a Phd in religious studies than it is to daily pick up one’s cross, “chain down one’s thought and imaginations’ and wait upon the leadership of the Creators Love and LIght.

    Now, generations later, in this present day, the vast majority of those who have appropriated the name ‘Quaker’ have twitching ears (2 Timothy 4:3-4) not only ignoring Fox and first Friends but are now preaching entirely another gospel, in fact denying the gospel and have created a religion of their own making. (Gal 1:4)
    One lick of the LIGHT instantly reveals what those who presume to call themselves Quakers today are, i.e. blind, naked and know it not. (Rev 3:17)

    Whereas, a moment of the illuminating Light of God’s Christ instantly makes clear what rehearsed choirs, backward collared preachers, pointee hated priest swinging smoking pots of incense from chains while chanting doxologies are i.e., idolatry and superstitious nonsense. And, in the Light it becomes an absolute certainty that such is not of of the Light and no place amongst His Friends.

    Upon the good Seed in the heart of one being still and waiting upon the Light being quickened a true “Quaker” is born, a true Friend of the Light and son of the Father and a co-creator of love, life and joy.

    So you are right dear Friend when you say:
    “This is about being in relationship with the one that inspired the writings of the scriptures”.
    Without that immediate, intimate relationship we are but blind followers of blind professors listening to them postulating such things as “three schools of thought” in respect to what part of that what He, through his apostles, declared to be a stink in his nostrils we are too fellowship with.

    All the while, ignoring, what his apostles in the primitive church and his apostle in the sixteen hundreds declared He wanted us to be, that is, a testimony by example against such practices and a Light to those caught within the steeple houses that they might find their way out and up into His LIght.

    So, Friend, let us both pick up the cross and with the power of the Light press on for the high calling in Christ, Jesus and the Kingdom of God is revealed within. (Luke 17;21)


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