Silence in Quaker Tradition

Quaker tradition evolved from the Reform movements of seventeenth-century England. Decentralization was the original theme of the Protestant Reformation, paralleled by social and economic changes tending in the same direction.

In the volatile seventeenth century, Quakerism may be seen as the last formal expression of institutional Christianity in a chronology of devolving social and religious sectarianism. Alternatively, Quakerism may be considered the last logical manifestation in an historical devolution that ends with secular movements in the following century dominated by science and politics.

From the Roman Catholic apex of sacraments, ritual, dogma and clerical hierarchy under Catholic monarchs to the pragmatic Anglican power, to the low church Calvinism of Oliver Cromwell's Presbyterianism, to the emergence of the splintered sectarianism of the so-called Non-conformists rejecting the semblance of ritual and dogma for a minimal statement of Christian belief -- such was the historical process of the lengthy second-half of seventeenth-century England.

The Quakers were among the last sects to appear in this historical movement, suffering criticism and persecution as the restoration of monarchy reasserted control up to the formal Acts of Toleration in 1689. By this time, many Quakers had emigrated to North America, where the tradition prospered for a time in William Penn's colony of Pennsylvania, later accommodating itself to a modest presence as the crown and the mainstream high church traditions reasserted their dominance in the North American colonies.

Quakerism is an evangelical expression of Christianity in the sense of basing spiritual authority on the New Testament gospels. Quakerism has produced no theologians like Aquinas or Suarez or commentators like Ulrich 1484-1531) or Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560), no charismatic preachers like John Wesley in the eighteenth century.

Excluding itself from circles of power, the trajectory of Quakerism has been the individual and community on the one hand and social service on the other, the latter not as charity or duty but as advocacy born of the fullness of conviction in the example and teachings of Jesus. The framework for individual and community is silence. As one modern Quaker writer puts it succinctly, "Silence and witness are two pillars of Quaker spirituality."

Quaker Silence: Overview

Silence in worship consists of participants (no longer necessarily Quakers today) sitting in a circle at a private home or agreed place in "meeting." There is no church, no minister, no ritual, liturgy, or recitation. Usually set for about an hour, anyone may speak if so moved, but the expectation is that any vocalization is not frivolous.

Quaker worship is an attenuated openness to the inspiration of God or the Spirit. If considered a form of meditation, it differs historically from other meditative forms in lacking a mantra as in Orthodox Christian or Hindu meditation, or a focal image as in Tibetan Buddhism. With regards to Buddhism, silent worship also differs from the concept of enlightenment in the professed openness of Quakerism to the inspiration of an objective if not circumscribed Spirit. Hence silent worship differs from shikantaza or "just sitting" of Zen Buddhism. In short, there is no comparable religious or spiritual phenomenon like Quaker worship.

In terms of outward practice, the predominance of silence in Quaker practice may be seen -- like Quakerism itself -- as the historical result of a devolution. As suggested above, the seventeenth-century English context shows a popular movement that separated religion from established state power, followed by a movement to separate religion from the culture and society controlled by the established church as well as state.

The result in Quakerism was a clear adherence to a spiritualized Christianity that harkened to the primitive or early communities of the New Testament, yet reconstructed on the experience of hardship and persecution in modern times. Even those elements of "breaking bread" and the establishing of ecclesiastical authority around charismatic figures in the Acts of the Apostles was essentially rejected by the earliest Quakers as interfering with the direct word and inspiration of God. Hence silence as an alternative to vocalization of authority over individuals may be an element contributing to this Quaker practice, even while traditionally being seen by Quakers as a positive discovery by Quaker founder George Fox (1624-91).

Besides silence in worship, Quaker tradition makes silence a spiritual component of individual personal practice. The overlap with silence as worship is intentional. The same theology guides the individual. The spirituality is immediately accessible and has no authority to consult or to grant validation.

Silence is apophatic and has more in common with the late medieval mystics such as medieval mystics Meister Eckhart and John Ruysbroeck and with later continental figures such as John of the Cross, Franรงois Fenelon, and Miguel de Molinos. All of these figures were nominally Catholic. The latter writers expressed a post-Reform spirituality that transcended sectarian Christian theology and ecclesiastical configurations.

The influential Quaker write Robert Barclay (1648-90) describes silent worshippers thusly:

Each made it their work to return inwardly to the measure of grace in themselves, and not being only silent as to words but even abstaining from all their own thoughts, imaginations and desires.

And the American Quaker Elias Hicks (1748-1830)states, echoing the train and style of Barclay:

Center down into abasement and nothingness. ... This is what I labored after: to be empty, to know nothing, to call for nothing, and to desire to do nothing.

Such words are not only more reminiscent of the Christian mystics and writers mentioned above but even of Eastern meditation. But Quaker silence differs from Eastern meditative practices in its goal. The Quaker waits to be filled with God's Spirit as a positive ordering of life based on the firm belief in the revelation of Scripture. It does not normally advocate unity of self and God beyond the practical goal of returning to service in the community, whether the immediate community or the world beyond.

Thus the Quaker writer John Woolman (1720-72), author of the influential Journal, perceived silence largely in terms of worship. To him, the evolution of the Reformation was itself a revelation of the "real spiritual worship," wherein worshippers "dwell under the Holy Anointing and feel Christ to be our Shepherd." In silent worship, "the best of Teachers ministers to the several conditions of his flock, and the soul receives immediately from the Divine Fountain that with which it is nourished."

Woolman outlined the goals of silence as attentiveness to ordinary life, rejection of false consolations of worship, and recognition of the will of God. Tellingly, he notes that the process means that "rather than renouncing power, wealth, and honor in a noble sacrifice, we simply discover that they no longer hold such interest for us." This via negativa (not Woolman's phrase) rids the self of worldly contrivance, resulting in true peace, what Woolman called "refreshment," leaving the self "heart-enlarged."

In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength, and as the mind by a humble resignation is united to him and we utter words from an inward knowledge that they arise from the heavenly spring, though our way may be difficult or require close attention to keep in it, and though the manner in which we may be led may tend to our own abasement, yet if we continue in patience and meekness, heavenly peace is the reward of our labors.

None of this is possible without work in silence.

Historically, Quakers have approached silence pragmatically as worship and as effective discipline. William Penn (1644-1718) saw silence as wisdom because it was "safe," while "Speaking is folly." Silence was preferable to speech, thought Penn, because "it saves the secret as well as the person's honor." He concludes: "True silence is ... to the Spirit what sleep is to the body: nourishment and refreshment."

In his Some Fruits of Solitude, a compendium of reflections on virtues which he calls an "enchiridion," Penn enumerates some sixty-eight virtues and vices ranging from knowledge and patience to pride and complacency -- all addressed and resolved by the pursuit of the Quaker tradition of silence, whether as worship or practice. Silence he calls generously "solitude."

The adherent to Quakerism has been called "introverted" in comparison to adherents of other forms of Christianity. Forms of worship suggest a group psychology, according to some observers, but the catalog of dangers experienced by Quakers refusing to renounce their faith during the persecutions in England, or their activism in North America as abolitionists, or their pacifism, especially since World War I, belie the facile label of introvert.

Silence is an abrogation of society and culture, of the premises of modern values falsely overlaid over religion and public life. What is the function of Christianity in conventional religion if it does not change the individual, if the dominant religious authorities never question the morality of institutions and powers? Silence is neither positive consent nor articulated dissent, only a pointer toward the spiritual potential of each person. Quaker silence intuitively fosters this path, even while avoiding a too garrulous description of what silence is.

Quaker Silence: Modern Thinkers

An extended commentary on Quaker silence is offered by Davide Melodia in his essay Il Signore del Silenzio , translated into English as The Lord of Silence by Simon Grant and George T. Peck. The essay locates silence in Christian spirituality while avoiding explicitly sectarian argument. Melodia's thoughts are not scholarly or theological but lyrical and personal.

Quaker silence, Melodia notes, is based on "the respect and love that Friends have for the Written Word -- the Bible -- by which they are inspired 99 times our of 100, seeking a direct link with the Spirit of God." Although Quakerism has no particular interpretation of Scripture, the authority of the Bible invariably invites the caveat that we know today from extensive exegesis that the Bible is a social, cultural, and anthropological product as much as a spiritual inspiration to many. This point leaves the content of revelation irresolvable as theology, with the exception of a strong sense of what the Quaker historian Hugh Barbour calls "moral purity" or integrity, in turn leading to a "self-consistency of the Spirit." In turn this is the seamless Quaker view of witness "flowing directly from the Spirit," inspiring at least portions of the Bible.

As contemporary commentator Michael L. Birkel states of George Fox, the tradition founder of Quakerism:

He learned that his efforts to separate himself from evil-doers were misguided in that the dividing line between good and evil ran through every human heart. Fleeing from sinners did not ensure his own moral purity, nor did it enable him to be in relationship with others. ... As a result of this experience he no longer ran away from people but instead found himself about to engage with them and minister to them.

We may perceive a tacit critique of the solitary model, based alternatively, perhaps, on the model of Jesus coming out of the desert and not resuming that state thereafter. The seventeenth-century English hermit Roger Crab (1621-80), who was already disposed to an eccentric Christianity as a virulent opponent of both high church and Cromwellian authority, was for a brief time a Quaker but left the Quakers to join the Behmenites, adherents of the German mystic Jakob Boehme (1525-1674), the founder of what would become theosophy.

Perhaps for Crab, the Behmenites were more tolerant of a hermit tradition linked to an explicitly mystical Christianity. Or perhaps even Quakerism could not coexist with such a radical social eccentricity as eremitism. Eremitism was left to eccentrics who remained a source of tension with the elements of duty found in Quakerism and all Christian sects. (This was not new, as the history of eremitism in the Middle Ages shows.) As one modern writer has said, "Meeting for worship is a corporate experience." Many hermits since then have reconciled themselves to the practice of Christian hermits who tolerate weekly worship as their "corporate" experience.

Despite its probable origins in monastic and mystic traditions, Quaker silence retains a pragmatic, even utilitarian, air as a preparation for external practice and social engagement. Modern Quakers tend to perceive solitude as loneliness and a form of spiritual and psychological alienation. Silence in the Quaker tradition addresses alienation without recommending physical solitude. Writes Melodia:

The silence of Quaker devotion is sought out to conquer solitude in all its negative forms -- above all that which makes a person feel abandoned by God in the wilderness, even when in a large boisterous crowd, amongst jolly companions, or in the most religious of religious communities.

Melodia points out that as a means or method, "maximum simplicity is reached ... with silent worship." Silent worship is not a programmed non-liturgy or anti-liturgy (these are not Melodia's terms) but is "vertical communication with the Spirit of God." Catholic worship risks removing the center of worship to the Church; Protestant worship risks moving it to Scripture alone. Of course, Quaker worship has risks also, Melodia points out, for silent worship -- like meditation in other traditions -- calls for a discipline at the same time as a flexibility and openness which creates a tension between individual and community. Ultimately, silence is a kairos or contingent gift that must be consciously used, applied, and cultivated.

With silence, writes Melodia,

problems appear in a less somber light, in their real dimensions, and seen wholly tractable. Daily worries lose their force, until they appear banal. Hurrying makes no sense. To where am I running, you ask yourself, and why am I running so? Anguish does not exist here any more. All is in its place and will be faced calmly, in good time. All of this, too, without a hint of mystical exaltation.

Thus Melodia breaks the suggested links to meditative and mystical traditions that modern Quakers might like to establish -- or reestablish. Yet he approvingly quotes the Hindu mystic Vivekanada, disciple of Ramakrishna:

Every soul is potentially Divine. The goal of life is to manifest this Divine within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or by psychic control, or philosophy, by one more or all of these -- and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines of dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temple, or forms are but secondary details.

Vivekanada's emphasis on discarding of formulas is compatible with Quaker thought. An emphasis on the search for the divine, the links to which must be renewed by every generation, recreates the Quaker historical experience and that of the first Christians.

Melodia recommends silence especially to sensitive souls cut off from self and from the perennial stream of values. Such people may be tired by the fruitless search for values in the world, and need to use silence to discover themselves, to confront their pains and fears. "Becoming aware of the psychological and spiritual darkness, in which one debates within oneself, far from God, is in itself a liberating event," writes Melodia.

Through silence and introspection, the anguished person can "return to living in the dynamic wave of life beyond the limits of pain, fear, and death."

For the Quaker, the ultimate source of light is "the divine light of truth and life ... revealed in Christ Jesus." As founder George Fox put it succinctly: "Every man [is] enlightened by the divine Light of Christ." And because the Light and Spirit were from before Scripture, the light can be perceived by everyone. "The meeting of divine Silence with our silence is religion," says Melodia.

The Quaker legacy of witness logically extended to society. This witness is unique among Christian denominations. Hence Melodia describes the Quaker as an "active mystic." Whether this external work is related to silence is not clear, but the militancy of earliest Quakers in a hostile social climate may account for what scholars call a "behavioral creed" distinct from its spiritual proclivity for silence which also was forged in the heat of persecution and rejection.

The modern Quaker writer Arthur O. Roberts succinctly outlines the characteristics of silence. Roberts shows silence not as formal worship but as private reflection that nurtures the individual in the recognition of solitude. In his Devotions on Silence, Roberts writes that silence

  1. fosters awe before the Almighty;
  2. indicates submission to God;
  3. provides a posture for worship;
  4. provides freedom from noise and distraction;
  5. condition for tranquility;
  6. sets the stage for prayer;
  7. signifies respect for others;
  8. renews wonder at the world;
  9. provides holy space;
10. prepares for effective social witness.

For Roberts, "tranquility means inner peace independent of circumstances." Finding oneself comfortable both alone and in the company of others is a goal not dependent on the advantages of silent worship but is fostered by the personal practice of silence. "To accept solitude," writes Roberts, "is the first step in achieving tranquility." He quotes Thomas Merton's Thoughts in Solitude extensively in showing that silence and solitude are not just the provenance of monks.


Quaker silence is part of the ongoing effort of humanity to identify the core of our striving for truth in the individual heart or soul and then finding a way of reconciling this truth with the world. Quaker silence is a unique phenomenon in the history of spirituality. It has the potential to nourish adherents to its faith as well as newcomers familiar with meditation and silence seeking a more traditional vocabulary without the urgency of refining doctrine or committing to a theological disposition.

Methodology is a necessity for all religious and spiritual traditions, and Quaker silence offers a fascinating example of that effort to identify methods for achieving that harmony of individual and society, of individual and universe. As a unique method leading to pressing social consciousness, Quaker silence has much to be recommended in reconciling thought and practice in the life of the solitary.


Based in part on Michael L. Birkel: Silence and Witness: the Quaker Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004) and primary sources. The Lord of Silence by Davide Melodia is available at