Our main sacrament, the Quaker Meeting for Worship, has also changed considerably over the centuries, in accord with changes of doctrine and the balance between individual initiative and group dominance.
Most people, including most Quakers, would probably not think we had what other Christians call sacraments, but this terminology does help compare our practice to theirs. Along with the basic 'meeting for worship', I would include meetings for occasions such as marriage, death, or business -- while Dan Snyder titled a recent pamphlet (published by our study center at Pendle Hill) 'Quaker Witness As Sacrament' (ie political activism as a religious practice that can help connect and align us with God.)
The Quaker meeting for business has been traced to the customs of village government in northern England -- while the first meetings for worship were apparently those of people called 'Seekers' active in that same area.
These Seekers were one of several Christian sects who'd abandoned all church ceremonies except silently waiting for God (to clarify which practices He truly wanted of them.) How and when they'd begun this, how much they'd combined with prayer and discussion, was not recorded. People accused of being 'Seekers' had been subject to governmental persecution until Cromwell's reign, and some mob violence even then. But George Fox found himself at home among them. Some Friends in Nottingham wrote later that: "We never heard the name of the Children of Light given to us before the coming of George Fox amongst us," but had felt a "blessed fellowship" with him and those of that name ever since "George Fox preached the Light of Christ unto us as the Guide to eternal life from whence it came, to all that was willing to follow it..."
The first regular Quaker meeting in London was at the Bull and Mouth Tavern -- probably because this was a site open to religious debate, while people of the time (Fox included) drank ale as a matter of course. [Quaker attitudes toward alcohol changed considerably by the 19th Century, when Stephen Grellet resolved to hold a Quaker Meeting in every pub in Dublin.] Normally the first Meetings in a town might take place anywhere a travelling preacher was expected, or [if not expected] could arrange. He or (sometimes) she would wait silently, sometimes a considerable period, before speaking at all, and then might continue talking for hours afterwards.
If enough people were 'convinced', they would begin meeting together on a regular basis, probably in the home of a sympathetic local worthy. When the first Quaker meeting houses were constructed, they were built for a program in which certain people would be most likely to speak while others were expected to listen; the bulk of the group sat on benches facing forward while the 'facing benches' for recognized 'ministers' were built up like small bleachers.
A wooden partition could be drawn down the center of the room to separate the men's side of the room from the women's. This was not done in meetings for worship -- but to separate men's and women's meetings for business. Fox had insisted on instituting such women's meetings, against considerable opposition -- which women supporters responded to, on at least one occasion, with mooing & clucking sounds. (It was not until the late 19th Century that the partition was taken down in London Yearly Meeting, followed a few years later by the selection of their first woman Clerk.) Women's meetings typically undertook different sorts of business... but with fairly equivalent degrees of importance, responsibility, expenditures involved.
Upstairs there would typically be galleries where children would be decorously parked for the duration. There's a traditional rhyme I first heard from a 7th Day Adventist, a former Pennsylvania resident:
"Quaker meeting has begun:
No more laughter, no more fun."
We have a more favorable account from Rufus Jones, raised in a rural Quaker community in 19th Century Maine: " “Very often in these meetings for Worship, there were long periods of silence … I do not think that anyone ever told me what the silence was for. It does not seem necessary to explain Quaker silence to children. They feel what it means …
“Sometimes a real spiritual wave would sweep over the Meeting in these silent hushes, which made me feel very solemn and which carried me – careless boy that I was – down into something deeper than my own thoughts, gave me a momentary sense of that Spirit who has been the life and light of people in all ages and in all lands.”
But generally, passing a parent's religious fervour on to the children, who have grown up in entirely different circumstances, where different ideas are in fashion -- children to whom those convincing first hand experiences are merely hearsay -- has been as difficult for us as it was for the Puritans, and continues so to this day.
The earliest Quaker meetings were accused of being loud and emotional, with new converts literally groaning with remorse as they saw their ways and their conventional religious foundations undermined. Margaret Fell's account, of the effects of Fox's preaching when she first encountered it in her church: "And so he went on, and said, 'That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,' &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, "The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord': and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, "Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;" but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, 'We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.'"
But when the monarchy returned to power, while persecutions increased and the hopes of universal spiritual awakening diminished, Friends underwent a significant shift of emphasis. Preaching addressed to The World diminished; while more and more Friends were striving merely to live and worship together in separation from its ways.
The resulting Quaker orientation has been called 'Quietism', after a contemporary spiritual movement among contemplative Catholics, the best known of these being Fenelon and Madame Guyon. Their books became popular among Quakers, who shared their distrust of the natural human will -- but that distrust had also been a prominent element in Puritan theology and the Quaker doctrines that developed from it.
Robert Barclay (for many of us still The Authority on traditional Quaker theology) in Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 1678:
"All Adam's posterity (or mankind), both Jews and Gentiles, as to the first Adam (or earthly man), is fallen, degenerated, and dead; deprived of the sensation (or feeling) of this inward testimony or seed of God; and is subject unto the power, nature, and seed of the serpent, which he soweth in men's hearts, while they abide in this natural and corrupted estate: from whence it comes that not only their words and deeds but all their imaginations are evil perpetually in the sight of God, as proceeding from this depraved and wicked seed. Man therefore, as he is in this state, can know nothing aright; yea his thoughts and conceptions concerning God and things spiritual, until he be disjoined from this evil seed and united to the Divine Light, are unprofitable both to himself and others... " [Barclay included an elaborate argument in disagreement with the Calvinists, as to whether babies were born damned. He insisted that they would first need to commit some actual sin – but given those carnal little natures, such transgressions were all too likely.]
John Woolman, the best-known 18th Century Quaker (far better admired than Fox, these days) was engaged in life-long struggle against taking any action or decision "in his own will." During a crucial yearly meeting session: "I was deeply engaged in inward cries to the Lord for help, that I might stand wholly resigned, and move only as He might be pleased to lead me."
Later, coming out of a fever, he "heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to the other angels; the words were, 'John Woolman is dead.' " This, he gratefully concluded, "meant no more than the death of my own will."
But Woolman was only one of many 'Quietist' Friends actively engaged in reforming social conditions in the 18th and 19th Centuries. (His particular contribution was persuading American Quakers to give up slave-owning, which they did in the mid 1770's.)
The significant change was that The Light, for most Friends, had stopped being an experience and had become a doctrine.
The consequence was an increasing reliance on outward signs and practices. If a sacrament can be an outward sign of a spiritual reality -- Then that outward sign can easily be done in the absence of what it's meant to show -- a fact that had prompted the whole Puritan upheaval in the first place, and led the first Quakers to reject the various Puritan alternatives as well.
When Samuel Bownas was growing up as one of the first Quakers born into an existing Meeting, he says he "had little consideration of religion, nor any taste thereof." But one day "A young woman named Anne Wilson was there and preached; she was very zealous, and fixing her eye upon me, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power, 'A traditional Quaker: Thou comest to meeting as thou went from it (the last time) and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?'" Overwhelmed, Bownas went on to become a traveling preacher himself, and was imprisoned for this half a year in the American colonies.
When he returned, Bownas was puzzled to sense a new deadness in Meetings there, an obstacle to his own preaching. "I found it very hard work in many places, and in some meetings was quite shut up, but where the people who did not profess with us came in plentifully it was not so, there being an open door." He asked another Friend "why it seemed more dead amongst Friends in this nation now, than in some other places. He gave this as a reason, that ‘the professors of truth in that nation were very strict and exact in some things, and placed much in outward appearance, but too much neglected the reformation and change of the mind, and having the inside thoroughly cleansed from pride and iniquity, for thou knowest,' said he, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees was always hurtful to the life of religion in all shapes.'"
The doctrine that Christ's followers can and should be "perfect", that any contrary, 'reasonable' position was merely "preaching up sin", soon brought all Friends under the relentless discipline of their Meeting overseers -- who were necessarily limited to regulating outward behavior.
Backsliding was a fact of life, and overseers were typically patient and forgiving -- after sincere repentance, public confession, and the return to life in accord with Friends' principles. These were strictly upheld, sometimes at considerable cost and suffering, sometimes to great advantage, often with strange and ironic consequences.
When Quaker merchants first refused to ask for more money than seemed fair, it initially cost them business from people accustomed to friendly dickering. And then it brought increased business, people grateful not to worry about being cheated. Denied access to respectable professions, Quakers turned to banking, and prospered. Reluctant to deal in hard liquor, some got rich selling chocolate.
The witness against established, compulsorily public-supported clergy -- was popular, and no doubt facilitated the initial spread of the Quaker movement. It also demanded a principled resistance to paying tithes -- leading to widespread imprisonment and looting of Quaker possessions. Steadfast Quaker resistance then led to reluctant public admiration and trust. But this witness also contributed to Quaker isolation, since marrying outside the group implied accepting clerical services. From an online local history: "One problem which continued to plague Third Haven Friends throughout the colonial period was the 'temptation' offered by the presence of Anglican ministers, especially where the youth were concerned. From time to time young Quakers would run to the priest to be married, especially those who were too young, those who did not have their parent’s approval, and those who were first cousins and therefore too closely related to receive Quaker permission to wed. James Clayland, the Anglican minister at St.Michaels, and others from time to time, seemed to encourage the children of Quakers to come along for a quick marriage."
This was by far the most common of the many deviations that could lead to Friends being 'disowned.' A geneological site lists: "fiddling, dancing, drinking intoxicating liquor to excess, serving in the militia or other armed forces, using profane language, fighting, failure to meet financial obligations, marrying contrary to the order used by Friends, deviation from plainness in apparel or speech, joining another religious society, etc." Another site: "It would be necessary to make amends in writing to the satisfaction of a committee of members of the monthly meeting if they wished to remain Quakers. Sometimes the spouse adopted the Quaker faith and was received by request. If the Quakers were unwilling to make amends for their actions they would be dismissed from the monthly meeting." If they really couldn't regret their action, this would be hard to do honestly, and by the mid 1850's British Friends noticed that disowning young members for marriage was causing a significant long-term decline in numbers. In 1859 they abandoned it, an example soon followed by yearly meetings elsewhere.
The Free Quakers, a splinter group of Quakers disowned for participating in the Revolutionary War, dissipated over several decades as members died off and/or returned to their original Meetings. In the Civil War, some southern Quakers died in prison for refusing to fight, while many northern Friends enlisted in what they considered a necessary war against slavery. After the war, they were generally welcomed home without censure; and since then Quakers have largely left such decisions to the individual conscience, a significant number of us being conscientious objectors and a significant number fighting.
The witness against slavery -- first led to the most fervent advocates being disowned for stirring up dissention in Meeting. When the Society of Friends did renounce slavery, those in the southern United States often became estranged from their neighbors; and significant numbers migrated northwest into Ohio and Indiana. There, isolated from larger Quaker organizations, heavily influenced by Methodist neighbors and the tent meetings of travelling preachers, they often adopted worship practices -- even the hiring of pastors -- typical of Protestant Christianity.
But the schisms that eventually split the American Quaker bodies reflected a different conflict: between rural congregations focused on traditional practices, vs those same evangelical movements at work among the increasingly wealthy leadership of the major bodies. [A large, cluttered wall chart of the resulting branches is available for anyone who wants the full story.] Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's history site observes that: "No definitive account nor interpretation [of the schisms] has gained universal assent among Friends even today," precisely because the differences that produced them remain, as any reader of Quaker websites and mailing lists can confirm.
Online, you'll find that most Friends today are pretty traditional Christians -- even in the United States. Outside of a few heavily-Quaker areas, however, the typical practice will be silent meetings for worship, everyone on chairs facing the same forward direction, or else facing inward in a square or round arrangement, for roughly an hour.
This is apparently typical of modern Conservative Friends as well, although they do keep up the traditional practice of "recording ministers" -- officially recognizing individuals unusually gifted in preaching, seeking to train them in distinguishing and giving true messages, while (so far as possible) restraining any erratic personal impulses that might seem briefly plausible. In rural communities, in past centuries, says Lloyd Lee Wilson: "Friends used to attend two meetings for worship on First Day, each considerably longer than an hour, and gathered as well on Fifth Day mornings... Beyond this, daily devotions including reading the Bible and waiting worship were the standard practice in every household."
It's pretty clear that one hour a week isn't enough to achieve ongoing intimacy with God. It's also clear that studying the scriptures, or maintaining traditional Quaker practices, or taking part in church services won't necessarily do it either. God has provided 'sacraments', 'yogas' -- practices that can make it possible -- but what people typically want instead is far too modest: to find dependable, safe ways to control the universe as if it were an insensate, mechanical object. Magic was one way of doing this; science is another. Religious movements start when a few people encounter the universe as a living, conscious Being -- but each such movement so far has soon ossified into what Walter Wink called 'methodolatry'. Friends and our practices have followed that pattern all too well, and now, like many other contemporary religious groups we stand in serious need of renewal. Many of us are yearning and striving for that; many others just want (as John Rowntree once put it) to have Christ "leave me alone in this life, and save me in the next." Only God can bring hope to this situation -- but God keeps right on working on us.