Who are the Friends (Quakers) and what do they have to do with marriage?

 Dr. Robert Stauffer, 2/18/99

    There are different groups of Friends today; some are very close to your average Protestant church, while some others are very similar to evangelical Christian groups. The notes here, however, refer to the early Quakers and their descendants who are found in the member congregations of the London Yearly Meeting in Great Britain, the Friends General Conference in the U.S., and like-minded congregations around the world.

    The Friends were founded in the mid-1600s in Great Britain. Their beliefs are similar to the Amish or Mennonites (sometimes also known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch") , which grew out of similar circumstances around the German-speaking area of Switzerland. An early Quaker, William Penn, inherited what is now Pennsylvania and thus there is much Friendly history there. Penn, in turn, invited the Amish and Mennonites to his colony (they were called "Dutch" for Deutsche, meaning German), and thus the three groups are associated together in the minds of many Americans.

    The Friends arose during the revolutionary times of the mid-1600s in Great Britain where, for a decade, England had no throne or royalty. The Quaker founders were generally working class, not highly educated, somewhat fundamentalist, and mystical.

    They took their name from the Bible, where the book of John, the 15th verse of the 15th chapter, quotes Jesus of Nazareth declaring that his followers are no longer slaves (some translations translate the original Greek as "servants") to him but his friends. Quakers never refer to their denomination as a "church" but instead call themselves a "religious society" of people (the Religious Society of Friends). Their physical structures are referred to as meeting houses instead of churches. Their individual congregations are called monthly meetings (referring to how often they meet in worship to conduct their business affairs) and their regional associations are called quarterly or yearly meetings.

    Friends feel that women should be equal. They had female leaders from the start, some three centuries before other denominations saw the light. It is not an accident that nearly all of the early Feminist leaders were Friends, as the Quakers provided perhaps the only portion of 19th-century American or British life where women were routinely allowed to become accomplished articulate leaders.

    Because of their controversial practices – they refused to recognize the Established Church after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, they refused to join the army when drafted, they refused to take their hats off in front of a gentleman, judge, or member of the royalty, they insisted in a direct personal relationship with the Divine instead of relying on priests or the educated theologians at Oxford – their marriages were not recognized by the government.

    Their response was to go ahead and get married anyway, and began a tradition of distrust of governmental laws regarding marriage which remains with Friends to this day. Even now, when Quaker marriages are recognized by most governments, Quaker congregations insist that their marriages should be properly done and recognized by their own society first. Any action of having the marriage additionally recognized by the government -- by filling out governmental forms or whatever -- is always secondary and voluntary. That is, whether a couple wishes to have their Quaker marriage recognized by the government is always a voluntary thing with Friends’ congregations.

    In the days of the Established Church in Great Britain, church laws became governmental laws. And the Church of England decreed that marriages would be legal only if there was a 30-day license gotten ahead of time, followed by a ritual performed by a government-licensed priest, with the couple consisting of a man and a woman. These church laws stayed on the books even in America where revolutionary leaders, particularly Jefferson and Madison, prohibited a national established church. (Few Americans know, however, that the individual states were allowed to have established churches until the 1860s. In 1776, ten of the thirteen colonies had established churches and only the three colonies with strong Quaker influences did not. Massachusetts, for example, had an established church with a tax on all citizens which was paid to that church, until the 1830's, long after the close of the Revolutionary War. The Massachusetts church were the Puritans who, though they had experienced their own persecution, had practiced persecution on Quakers in the 1600s, ordering them banned from the colony and executing four Friends because of their faith, including one female Quaker preacher who refused to leave.)

    Because of the old Established Church marriage law which is now enforced by most governments in the English-speaking world, Friends have had to lobby for marriage-law amendments because they’ve never had priests. Hawai`i’s law, amended only around 1970, is typical: it allows the required marriage ritual to be performed by a either a government-licensed priest or "society".

    A second part of the church marriage law which governments enforce is of questionable constitutionality: the requirement that the government have a licensed priesthood to perform its licensed religious rituals. (While judges can volunteer to become licensed to perform marriages, they make up just 1% of this governmental priesthood.)

    A third part of the church law is just silly. When you go down to get your business partnership licensed, do you first pick up a 30-day license to form a partnership and later come back to get a separate permanent certificate, as is done with our marriage laws? Of course not. No other governmental permit or license involves this two-stage process. The outdated marriage law traces to an ancient church rule that there should be two marriage stages regulated by the church authorities and church courts.

    But it is the fourth and final part of this church law, enforced by government, which is today under the microscope: the provision that marriage be limited to a man and a woman. Indeed, at the time of the Bible and for a thousand years afterwards, the church did not license or regulate marriages. When the church began to do so, it quickly ran up against the prevalent practice of same-gender sexual relationships amongst priests and nuns, and had to issue a detailed explanation why such unions should not be granted the new church marriage licenses.

    Stripped of all the rhetoric and bigotry, this law regulating the gender of the partners in the government-recognized marriage partnership is nothing more and nothing less than a church law. Both its strengths and its weaknesses derive from its genesis in councils of the church. For there is an unbroken and undisputed historical record that shows such laws go back, usually verbatim (with translations from Latin along the way) to their canonical (church) source about 450 years ago.

    Not surprisingly, Friends’ congregations were some of the first to discuss marrying same-gender couples; in doing so they would say they were "opening to the Light." The Friends do not have chairpersons for committees or congregations. The chairperson is the Light (the Holy Spirit or the Wisdom of God, which, for Friends, is pointedly is not male). The human assistant who is the nominal leader of a business meeting or worship session is at most only a scribe (called a "clerk").

    For those who prefer a priest-led service with a sermon and printed program, fine. Friends exult however in their form of worship, which traces in turn to a group of Biblical verses which are the only place in the New Testament that discusses how to hold a church service (from the First Letter to the Corinthians, verses 26-31 of chapter 14): "What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged."

    In practice, this means that Friends worship and hold all their meetings in silence. Sometimes the silence is not broken throughout a meeting. At other times, and supposedly only when the Light moves a person, that person will rise and relay the message from the Light. Messages, in turn, may be "a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation." Hearing "I" is supposed to be rare or nonexistent, reflecting the otherworldly source of the messages and prophesy. Still, in the midst of such a lack of worldly structure, certain traditions do exist with the Quakers.

    One tradition is a favorite early Biblical verse (from the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, verse 6 of chapter 3): God "... made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." As such, the Friends have never been big on laws or the nearly endless prohibitions of the old testament. They instead look to the Light for guidance.

    Another favorite verse is taken from the book of John, verse 9 of chapter 1: "That was the true Light, which lighteth every man [person] that cometh into the world." This idea that all people are endowed by the Light helps explain the Quaker belief in equality for women. It also explains why the Quakers were often the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, and also their role in efforts for friendly relations with Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians. And it explains why gays and lesbians often find a home in Quaker congregations.

    Yet a third verse is from the Letter to the Galatians, verse 28 of chapter 3: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." If a congregation calls for gender-blindness just as it calls for color-blindness, how can that congregation then discriminate when two men or two women come to get married?

    A Quaker marriage is a wonderful thing. In most other churches, the couple approaches the priest for initial consultation and counseling. Having no priesthood, the Friends instead hold a silent meeting (a "meeting for worship at which business is conducted") and are led by the Light in the appointing of a committee to meet with the couple. After a process of consulting and counseling, the committee and couple ask the full congregation (at another silent business meeting) for approval to get married. When approved, the full congregation, again led by the Light, appoints an arrangements committee to work with the couple on preparations for the marriage ceremony.

    Another silent meeting (this time "a meeting for worship for the celebration of marriage") is then held by the congregation. Worship meetings usually have a designated clerk, as with business or committee meetings. That person usually has one job: by turning to his or her neighbor and shaking their hand, they signify the close of the meeting. At a meeting for worship for the celebration of marriage, the designated clerk will also sometimes make a few comments at the start to explain things to non-Quakers in attendance, and perhaps name the couple being married. The wonder and magic of the Light moving through all present and the Spirit-led messages coming, from time to time, from the lips of seasoned Friends and visitors alike, which occurs at such a meeting, is a miracle that must be witnessed and experienced to be understood. A common tradition is to also have a sheet of paper – sometimes quite large with nice calligraphy – attesting to the marriage which is then signed by everyone present after the close of the meeting. For the marriage is official for Friends because of it having been carried out before the witness of the Light and those assembled, not because of any governmental regulation, and the signed paper is therefore the official marriage certificate for the couple, in the eyes of the Society of Friends. If a couple then seeks governmental licensing of their union, that can be accommodated, but it is secondary and voluntary.

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