Inner Light is a concept which many Quakers use to express their faith and beliefs. Each Quaker has a different idea of what they mean by Inner Light, and this also varies internationally between yearly meetings, but the idea is often taken to refer to God’s presence within a person, and to a direct and personal experience of God. Quakers believe that God speaks to everyone, and that in order to hear God’s voice, it helps to be still and actively listen for it.
They believe not only that individuals can be guided by this Inner Light, but that Friends might meet together and receive collective guidance from God by sharing the concerns and leadings that he gives to individuals. In a Friends meeting it is usually called “ministry” when a person shares aloud what the Inner Light is saying to him or her.
It is important to note that many Friends consider this divine guidance distinct both from impulses originating within oneself and from generally agreed-on moral guidelines. In fact, a person can be prompted to say something in meeting that is contrary to what he or she thinks. In other words, Friends do not usually consider the Inner Light the conscience or moral sensibility but something higher and deeper that informs and sometimes corrects these aspects of human nature.
Historically, Friends have been suspicious of formal creeds or religious philosophy that is not grounded in one’s own experience. Instead one must be guided by the Inward Teacher, the Inner Light. This is not, however, a release for Friends to decide and do whatever they want. It is incumbent upon Friends to consider the wisdom of other Friends, as one must listen for the Inner Light of others as well as their own. Friends have various established procedures for collectively discerning and following the Spirit while making decisions.
Friends are not in complete agreement on the importance of the Inner Light in relation to the Bible. Most Friends, especially in the past, have looked to the Bible as a source of wisdom and guidance. Many, if not most of them, have considered the Bible a book inspired by God. But Quakers have generally tended to regard present, personal direction from God more authoritative than the text of the Bible.
Early Quakers did not believe that promptings which were truly from the Spirit within would contradict the Bible. They did, however, believe that to correctly understand the Bible, one needed the Inner Light to clarify it and guide one in applying its teachings to current situations. In the United States in the nineteenth century some Friends concluded that others of their faith were using the concept of the Inner Light to justify unbiblical views. These “Orthodox” Friends held that the Bible was more authoritative than the Inner Light and should be used to test personal leadings. Friends remain formally, but usually respectfully, divided on the matter.