This site contains an archive of articles on the subject of Quaker beliefs, concerns and experiences.

Quakerism: a fulfilling path in search of simplicity and stillness

by Fiona Murdoch

Fiona Murdoch is Communications Officer for Eco Congregation Ireland and author of Victor Bewley’s Memoirs, Able Lives and Everyday Heroes.   This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Rite and reason column in The Irish Times on 5th October 2010.

My son’s religion teacher looked gob-smacked when I told him recently that I’d been brought up a Quaker. Clearly, he thought Quakers had either long died out or that Quakerism had never existed in Ireland.

Certainly, there have never been very many of us. Current membership of the Religious Society of Friends (to use the proper title) in Ireland stands at 1,531; and that includes Northern Ireland.

Despite small numbers, Quakers have managed to make quite an impact on Irish society over the years – from running famine soup kitchens and establishing co-educational schools to, in more recent years, reconciliation initiatives in Northern Ireland and Alternatives to Violence workshops in prisons. Prominent Quaker business names over the years have included Jacob, Johnson, Pim, Lamb, Goodbody, Richardson and, my mother’s family name, Bewley.

Friends, as Quakers refer to themselves, opened the doors of their meeting houses in October to facilitate anyone who was curious to find out more. The intention was not to proselytise – Quakers would never dream of saying that theirs is the one true path; simply that they find it’s right for them. Rather, the aim was to give people an opportunity to find out something about this distinctive branch of Christianity.

Quakerism developed in England in the early 1650s. It was a time of religious and political upheaval and some people, who called themselves Friends of Truth, started to practise a simpler form of worship, based on silent waiting before God. They emphasised the importance of a direct relationship between God and individuals, with an inner experience of Christ leading to outward action.

The first regular meetings for worship in Ireland were held in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in 1654 in the home of William Edmundson. Rapid and widespread growth followed, largely due to Friends travelling the length and breadth of the country, holding meetings and spreading the message, despite persecution and banishment.

Then – and now – Friends believe that there is something of God in everyone and that colour, class or gender should not be a barrier to our discovering this in each other. We have testimonies to peace, equality, simplicity and justice, which we try to live up to in our daily lives. Meetings for worship involve all those gathered praying together in quiet dependence on God, the silence only being broken when someone feels moved by the Holy Spirit to speak – by reading from the Bible or another inspirational book, or by sharing an experience or an insight they have had.

As a child, I found it extremely difficult to describe Quakerism. My explanation always seemed to centre on what we didn’t do – “We don’t have clergy, we don’t have a creed, baptism or communion and we rarely sing hymns” – and invariably left the enquirer looking considerably baffled.

It’s only as an adult that I have begun to put words on it: Quakerism is an experiential way of life, with each person undertaking their own spiritual journey in search of Truth. Quakers believe in the sacredness of all life and members are encouraged to use their talents for the benefit of others. Children are an integral part of the meeting, with Sunday School sessions focussing on Quaker values, Bible teaching and social issues.

During my teenage years I started exploring other spiritual paths and in my mid-twenties I decided to resign my membership. Within 10 years, however, I found myself drawn back to my Quaker roots and finally beginning to appreciate the values with which I had been brought up. With life that much busier, juggling parenting, work and voluntary activities, I discovered that, for me, silence and stillness were essential components of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

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