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Quakers and the Bible in Early America

American Quakers’ unique approach to the Bible in Early America differed from other Christians.

Thomas Rowlandson, Auguste Charles Pugin, and Joseph Constantine Stadler, Quakers Meeting (detail), 1809, etching and aquatint, 23.8 x 28.8 cm. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, began as a radical religion in seventeenth-century England. Founded by George Fox, Friends employed the Bible for spiritual insight, but their use and conception of it changed over time.

What did early American Quakers believe?

Early Quakers considered themselves Christian, but they rejected all forms of ritual, such as communion and baptism as well as written sermons and formal prayers. Instead, they emphasized a personal relationship with God by accessing what they called “The Inner Light and Truth.” Through mindfulness and silence, a believer could access the Holy Spirit through “direct revelation.” As radical Protestants, Friends believed that intermediaries of any kind were unnecessary.

Did early American Quakers read the Bible?

Anti-Quaker critics claimed Friends did not own Bibles or rely on them for guidance. This criticism arose out of the unique way Quakers used the Bible. For Friends, the holy book was a tool that enhanced the revelations they gained through looking inward. It was not a guidebook for life. However, Quakers did read the Bible. Biblical references permeated The Religious Society of Friends. The word “Friend” (Prov 17:17 “a friend loveth at all times”) as well as the phrase “the Children of Light” (Ephes 5:8 “walk as children of light”) were both taken from the Bible and were common phrases used by believers. In addition, early Quaker publications justified their theology with scriptural references. Indeed, Quakers approached any religious reading, especially the Bible, with reverence. Readers were advised to pray for guidance to ensure they gained spiritual benefits from biblical learning. This method aimed to cultivate not only learning about God, but also generate encounters with him.  

Friends’ approach to the Bible changed in the late eighteenth century with the emerging influence of rationalism and evangelicalism. First, Quakers began to question the consistency of some aspects of the Bible, especially incidents that defied logic. Second, evangelical religion privileged the authority of the Bible over everything else. This led evangelical Friends to form Bible study groups as well as a Bible Society in 1816. Some Quakers established Sunday Schools at this time to teach young children that the Bible was the ultimate doctrinal authority. The more American Friends endorsed evangelicalism during the nineteenth century, the more important the Bible became to their religious practice. By the end of century, for the majority of Quakers, the Bible had surpassed other Quaker writings in theological importance.

  • Dr. Janet Moore Lindman is Professor and Chair of the History Department of Rowan University. She is the author of Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America (University of Pennsylvania 2008) and of A Vivifying Spirit: Quaker Practice and Reform in Antebellum America (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2022).