Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part V


Religious and Social Life of the Quakers





Religious Beliefs of the Quakers


             It is difficult to make a concise and satisfactory statement of the religious beliefs of the Quakers. Always mystical and individualistic in their worship, abhorrent of all religious formality, and protestant to the last degree, they have shown little liking for any catalogues statement of their tenets in the form of a creed, fearing that such might easily become a worship of the head rather than of the heart. It is true that in Fox’s letter of 1671 to the Governor of Barbadoes one finds something approaching a confession of faith, and in the declarations of the various Quaker sects published from time to time there appear statements closely resembling a religious creed. But, as in the case with the English Constitution, in no document nor in any one place is a complete declaration of the Quaker faith to be found. It is scattered through the writings of the founders of the order; it comes to light here and there in the schisms which have rent the Society; and above all, it manifests itself continuously in the daily manners and customs of the members, thus exemplifying the fact that it is in truth “the product of progressive history”. Therefore, to understand Quakerism it will be necessary to examine a few of the sources in which these religious beliefs are expressed.

             In his letter to the Governor of Barbadoes, Fox sets forth the elements of the Quaker faith in these words:

             Whereas many scandalous lies and slanders have been cast upon us, to render us odious; as that “We deny God, Christ Jesus, and the scriptures of truth,”…Yet, for your satisfaction, we now plainly and sincerely declare, That we own and believe in the only wise, Omnipotent, and Everlasting God, the Creator of all things in heaven and earth, and the Preserver of all that he hath made…And we own and believe in Jesus Christ, his beloved and only begotten Son…who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary; in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins…that he was crucified for us in the flesh, without the gates of Jerusalem; and that he was buried, and rose again the third day…and that he ascended up into heaven, and now sitteth at the right hand of God.

             Concerning the scriptures Fox continues: We believe they were given forth by the holy Spirit of God, who…’spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ We believe they are to be read, believed, and fulfilled”. (393) This declaration, with the varied interpretations placed upon it, stands to-day as the accepted belief of the Friends on the subjects of the fatherhood of God, the sonship, atonement, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible. But for other essential elements of Quakerism one must search elsewhere.

             “The one corner-stone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built”, says one writer, “is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits He has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of His own life; that He never leaves Himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man”.(394) On that same theme of the “inner light”, William Penn wrote:

             That which the people called Quakers lay down as a main fundamental in religion is this—That God, through Christ, hath placed a principle in every man, to inform him of his duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that live up to this principle are the people of God, and those that live in disobedience to it, are not God’s people, whatever name they may bear, or profession they may make of religion.(395)

             “This is that universal evangelical principle”, declares Robert Barclay, the noted Quaker apologist, “in and by which this salvation of Christ is exhibited to all men, both Jew and Gentile, Scythian and Barbarian, of whatsoever country or kindred he be”.(396)

             With this teaching of the “inner light” and the direct communion of the individual with God, it is not surprising that from the start the Quakers were led to reject any and all of those religious rites and ceremonies usually thought so necessary by other denominations. For them the ordinances of water baptism, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and the like, have no binding force; for to them all such are but symbols of that spiritual communion which forms the very center of their faith. Then, too, this same spiritual turn of their religious thinking led them directly into the teaching of justification and sanctification; for, says Barclay, “as many as resist not this light, but receive the same, it becomes in them an holy, pure, and spiritual birth, bringing forth holiness, righteousness, purity, and all those other blesses fruits which are acceptable to God”. And again the same writer declares that in those in whom “this pure and holy birth is fully brought forth, the body of death and sin comes to be crucified and removed….so as not to obey any suggestions or temptations of he evil one, but to be free from actual sinning and transgression of the law of God”.(397)

             Closely allied with these, the main tenets of the Quaker faith, are a number of precepts, or “testimonies” as they are called by the Friends, which are based on certain scriptural teaching. The two most important of these testimonies are opposition to war and refusal to take oath. (398) While the latter of these has given them little difficulty in Iowa, owing to the general exemption laws in force, their conscientious scruples against bearing arms proved to be a serious matter during the Civil War. When the military draft was issued the Quakers, together with the other noncombatant religionists of Iowa,(399) appealed to the Governor(400) and the General Assembly(401) for relief. The only reply was the obnoxious exemption fee of $300, or the furnishing of a substitute, in case of draft.(402)

             Such in broad outlines are the beliefs of the Quakers in Iowa—aside from the exceptions noted in the case of the Hicksite and Wilbur Friends. In 1912 the Conservative Friends in Iowa united with the other Yearly Meetings with which they correspond in adopting a restatement of their principles in the form of a brief synopsis, which, however, is but a reaffirmation of their ancient doctrines. In like manner the Orthodox Friends of America met in 1912 in their quinquennial conference at Indianapolis, Indiana, where they threshed out their differences on the questions of evangelism and higher criticism. At the close of the spirited discussion the Five Years Meeting united in reaffirming it acceptance of both Fox’s letter to the Governor of Barbadoes, and the “Richmond Declaration” of 1887,(403) but proposed to leave each Yearly Meeting free to interpret them as it saw fit. In consequence it may be said that the Orthodox body alone among the Iowa Quakers has taken the forward step of attempting to adjust themselves to the changing religious thought of modern times.




393- Fox’s Journal (Philadelphia), pp. 443, 444.

394- Stephen’s Quaker Strongholds (Philadelphia, 1891), p. 20.

395- Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived (edited by James M. Brown, Philadelphia, 1877), p. 9.

396- Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity: being an explanation and vindication of the Principles and Doctrines of the people called Quakers (Providence, 1856), p. 195.

397- Barclay’s Apology, pp. 196, 241.

398- The scriptural passages cited against war are numerous, among them being the following: Matthew V: 43, 44; Luke X: 27; Romans XII: 19, 20, 21. Likewise on the questions of oaths, the following Bible references are pointed out: Matthew V: 33, 34, 35, 36, 37; James V: 12.

399- At the extra session of the General Assembly of Iowa in 1862 the Mennonites, the Amana Inspirationists, and the German Baptists like wise petitioned for relief from military service. See Senate Journal, 1862 (extra session).

400- Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood in his message to the General Assembly on September 3, 1862, very strongly recommended that those “who cannot conscientiously render military duty, be exempted there-from in case of draft, upon the payment of a fixed sum of money to be paid to the State.”—Shambaugh’s Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa, Vol. II, pp. 316, 317.

401-Petitions to the General Assembly for relief from the military draft at this time came from Friends in the following Iowa counties: Dallas, Madison, Guthrie, Adair, Muscatine, Jefferson, Warren, Clarke, Jasper, Mahaska, Poweshiek, and Keokuk. See Senate Journal, 1862 (extra session), p. 11. The bill looking towards this relief was killed in the House after a most story career. See House Journal, 1862 (Extra session), pp. 41, 42, 43, 44, 67, 70.

402- Certain members of the Salem Monthly Meeting who were unable to pay the exemption money fell under the draft, and the Monthly Meeting borrowed the amount and assumed the obligation. See Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 1864, p. 14.

403- For the “Richmond Declaration of Faith” see The Constitution for the Society of Friends in America adopted by Iowa Yearly Meeting in 1902, pp. 12-46.



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