Quakers and the Bible

To fully answer the question, “what do Quakers think about the Bible?” it’s important to acknowledge there are differences between Quakers.

There are generally two branches of Quakers:

  • Liberal Quakers
  • Orthodox Quakers

And within Orthodox Quakers there are two main sects, Gurneyites and Wilburites. (FWIW, Suvata Friends Church falls into neither of them. We’re something else entirely.)

The division came out of the Great Schism, which started to foment in 1826, was official in 1827, and had a massive impact on the Meetings in 1828. The split primarily revolved around theological and doctrinal differences among Quakers.

A New York-based Quaker minister named Elias Hicks was at the centre of the schism. He preached the importance of the inner light and direct communion with God and suggested Quakers put less emphasis on traditional Christian doctrines.

As a result of the split, two distinct branches of Quakerism emerged:

  1. Hicksite Quakers: Followers of Elias Hicks, who tended to be more liberal in their theology and often aligned with social reform movements. Hicksite Quakers are most commonly referred to as liberal or progressive Quakers.
  2. Orthodox Quakers: Those who adhered to more traditional Christian doctrines and practices. Orthodox Quakers maintained a more conservative stance on theology and worship.

Over time, both branches further diversified, and additional schisms and separations occurred within each group. However, many Quakers today identify as either Hicksite (liberal) or Orthodox (conservative), and both branches continue to exist as distinct traditions within the broader Quaker community.

Today in 2024, Liberal Quakers have a diverse range of beliefs, and there is no uniform stance on anything among them, including the Bible. Liberal Quakers were Hicksites in the schism, and they are open to all sorts of theological beliefs for the members. You can even be an atheist and a Liberal Quaker.

Some Liberal Quakers view the Bible as a valuable source of wisdom and inspiration but may not necessarily see it as the sole authoritative or infallible guide. For those who do think about the Bible at all, they will most likely prioritise direct communion with the divine and personal life experience over scripture.

Some Liberal Quakers may approach the Bible more critically. They may acknowledge its historical and cultural context while recognising that interpretations can vary. They emphasise the importance of reason, experience, and the Quaker testimonies in shaping their beliefs and practices.

If you have a leading that conflicts with the Bible, the approach is generally, “the Bible is wrong.” It may be that the human who wrote the Bible misunderstood, or there was a translation error, or that the message is out-of-date and no longer relevant.

Orthodox Quakers, however, tend to view the Bible with more reverence.

Yes, within the Orthodox Quaker community there are sects who approach the Bible differently than each other, but as opposed to Liberal Quakers, Orthodox Quakers acknowledge the spiritual importance of the Bible.

Within Orthodox Quakerism we have Gurneyites and Wilburites, and each has a slightly different approach when it comes to the Bible.

Gurneyites approach the Bible as a higher spiritual authority than the inner light. If you get a leading, and it conflicts with what the Bible says, the leading is rooted in your ego, your mortal desires, and it does not stem from the Holy Spirit.

Wilburites are similar in their approach but they add the caveat that if your leading conflicts with the Bible, you may need to re-read the Bible, read another passage, or just generally dive deeper into the scripture to get more clarity.

Hicksites believe if your leading conflicts with the Bible, the person who wrote that bit of the Bible may have been mistaken, or perhaps the translation is incorrect. The human experience, the leading, the inner light is always more divine than the Bible.

Here at Suvata Friends Church, we are more aligned with the Wilburites. We believe The Bible is the source of guidance and inspiration for Faith and Practise, but the Bible is not the end-all-be-all spoken words of God.

We believe yes, the scripture is divinely inspired, and God is in every bit of it. 

But we also believe He continues to speak. We believe in continuing revelation.

We do not believe he went, “ok, that’s it. I’m done” and shut up for 2,000 years. God continues to speak to His people. We feel Him. We seek Him. 

Because we believe The Lord continues to speak, we disavow Biblical inerrancy which distinguishes us from Gurneyites, but we don’t dismiss scripture out of hand like Hicksites.

We don’t ever say, “Well, what I think the Lord meant to say is…”

But when we feel conflict between our leadings and the Bible, we enter contemplative prayer and speak with The Lord. We dive deeper into the scripture to get more clarity, and we also examine the teachings of our Quaker fathers and mothers. 

While Liberal Quakers (Hicksites) generally feel the Inner Light is the only spiritual authority needed, we Orthodox Quakers believe we do not have all the answers. 

We do not have the capacity to have all the answers, and God, in all of his wondrous splendour cannot be fully known by any man. We, even with God’s divinity speaking within our hearts, have flawed mortal brains that misinterpret the messages. We look to scripture for guidance, clarity, and perspective.

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