Known best for their long-standing commitment to social activism, pacifism, fair treatment for Native Americans, and equality for women, the Quakers have influenced American thought and society far out of proportion to their relatively small numbers. Whether in the foreign policy arena (the American Friends Service Committee), in education (the Friends schools), or in the arts (prominent Quakers profiled in this book include James Turrell, Bonnie Raitt, and James Michener), Quakers have left a lasting imprint on American life. This multifaceted book is a concise history of the Religious Society of Friends; an introduction to its beliefs and practices; and a vivid picture of the culture and controversies of the Friends today.
The book opens with lively vignettes of Conservative, Evangelical, Friends General Conference, and Friends United meetings that illuminate basic Quaker concepts and theology and reflect the group's diversity in the wake of the sectarian splintering of the nineteenth century. Yet the book also examines commonalities among American Friends that demonstrate a fundamental unity within the religion: their commitments to worship, the ministry of all believers, decision making based on seeking spiritual consensus rather than voting, a simple lifestyle, and education. Thomas Hamm shows that Quaker culture encompasses a rich tradition of practice even as believers continue to debate a number of central questions: Is Quakerism necessarily Christian? Where should religious authority reside? Is the self sacred? How does one transmit faith to children? How do gender and sexuality shape religious belief and behavior? Hamm's analysis of these debates reveals a vital religion that prizes both unity and diversity.