Are You a Liberal or Orthodox Quaker?

Many seekers have discovered Quakers through online quizzes like Beliefnet, but what do they mean by “Liberal” and “Orthodox” Quakers?

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Many seekers have discovered Quakers through online quizzes like Beliefnet, but what do they mean by “Liberal” and “Orthodox” Quakers?


One of my favorite experiences when I was teaching at Guilford College and working in campus ministry was an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi from Israel came to speak to our Jewish students and came into the campus ministry center and said, “Does Guilford have a religious affiliation?” And I said, “Yeah, we’re Quaker.” and he said, “Quaker! Do you know, I took a Beliefnet quiz and I came out Quaker!”

Are You a Liberal or Orthodox Quaker?

There are a number of online quizzes that people can take these days that can determine everything from “Were you born in the 1950’s/60’s”, “What music do you remember” to “What’s your religion?” Many people have taken these quizzes and have learned that they are Quaker. But there are two kinds of Quaker that are offered by some of these quizzes—which displays whoever has written these quizzes doesn’t really know their Quaker history.

The Great Quaker Separation of 1820

It’s important for a person who is exploring Quakerism to understand that there are a variety of Quakerisms, and they go back to social and theological historical movements in the late 1700s and early 1800s, especially here in the United States. There was a huge separation of the Quaker body in the 1820s into Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers. I won’t go into the sordid history of this, but Orthodox Quakers essentially represented an Evangelical Christian faith. They believed that Quakers ought to embrace the wider Christian world—especially the Evangelical Christian world—be engaged in missions, be engaged in social movements, reforming society in cooperation with other evangelical Christian groups.

Hicksite Quakers tended to take a more conservative (small “c”) approach to “we’re a remnant people. We need to protect our social boundaries as a distinctive, peculiar people and keep the world at arm’s length.”

The Branches of Modern Quakerism

In the oddity of how Quakerism has evolved, Orthodox Friends—who were the liberals of their time—became conservative (small “c”) Christians: theologically evangelical; socially and politically more conservative; adopted standard Protestant practices of settled, pastoral ministry, programmed worship, hymns, choirs, sermons; and look fairly Protestant by the end of the 20th century.

Hicksite Friends became liberal from their conservative beginnings, because they maintained unprogrammed worship, emphasis on the inward light, so they became more universalist, more politically progressive, socially progressive, more liberal.

What Do Online Quizzes Mean By “Liberal” and “Orthodox” Quaker?

So if you come out “liberal” Quaker, which is one of the options on these quizzes, you have probably said that you’re open to other denominations, other religious expressions, you’re ok with Muslims and Buddhists and Jews, you’re fairly politically active, you’re probably liberal in your political leanings, and that will—whatever the algorithms are for these things—identify you as a liberal Quaker.

Another option is “orthodox” Quaker and that would indicate that you’ve answered questions like you read the Bible regularly, you believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, you are conservative socially, perhaps even politically, you ascribe to the standard orthodoxies of mainstream Christianity.

Those are the only two options they give you, essentially, on those quizzes, but there are many other variations of Friends.

Finding the Right Quaker Meeting for You

So if you moved to Greensboro after taking the quiz, knowing that it’s “the center of Quakerism in America… I’m going to be in the Valhalla of Quakerism” and you had come out liberal Quaker and went to the Evangelical Friends Church—steeples, stained glass windows, backlit cross, organ, piano, drum set, electric keyboards and guitars, revivals, holy hands—you would have fled in terror halfway through the worship!

If you had taken that quiz and come out orthodox Quaker and went to another one of the meetings where someone rose out of the silence and said, “As I heard on NPR this week…” Buddhist expressions, Zen expressions, Jewish, Hindu expressions of faith—they would have fled in terror.
So it’s important that you take care of doing your research, look at the websites, see how they express their Quakerism, and match it with your own beliefs.


It has been an honor to serve Friends as the founder and director of QuakerSpeak. Now I am pleased to announce my next endeavor, a Quaker media project for the modern era. Find out more at

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