Quakers Ask: What Do We Believe, and Why?

(RNS) About 300 years ago in the Delaware River valley, a group of Christian idealists banded together to create a family-based agricultural society that valued individuals equally, regardless of race, gender or religion.

In doing so, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, essentially created America, according to syndicated columnist David Yount, author of the recently published book "How the Quakers Invented America."

"The liberty that Americans take for granted originated not in the minds of secular Enlightenment thinkers but from the application of the Quakers' Christian faith," writes Yount, himself a Quaker. As much as Quakers changed America, however, America changed Quakers, according to contemporary Friends.

And William Penn, who founded the Pennsylvania commonwealth, might be bewildered by the variety of people practicing his faith today.

Consider the following examples of contemporary Quakers:

-- Isabel Penraeth, 36, of Denver, a conservative who wears traditional Quaker garb and believes "Christ is the light of every person born in the world."

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-- Valerie Brown, 51, of New Jersey, who is both a Friend and a Zen Buddhist. "The Quaker belief of seeing God in everyone certainly resonates with Buddhist principles," Brown says.

-- James Healton, pastor of the evangelical Friends Community Church in Sacramento, Calif., for 25 years, who dislikes fellow Quakers' "free and easy attitude to Christianity."

-- Pagan-Quakers Peter Bishop and Cat Chapin-Bishop, 47, of Western Massachusetts. "I thought you had to be Christian (to be a Quaker)," she said. "... Plenty of people disabused me of that notion."

-- Catherine Whitmire of Washington, a Quaker author who says the tradition's devotion to simplicity, integrity, peace and equality can unite contemporary Quakers.

"Friends over the centuries have gone in so many different directions, there's hardly anything but some history that ties them all together," said Bill Samuel, 59, who left Quakerism after 50 years because he couldn't find a Christian meeting near his home in Maryland.

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