The concept of the Inner Light is central to many versions of Quaker (or Religious Society of Friends) theology. It refers to God's presence within a person and to a direct and personal experience of God. Quakers believe that God speaks to everyone, but that in order to hear his voice, one must learn to be still and actively listen for it; what Paul Lacout called a "silence which is active."  They believe not only that individuals can be guided by this Inner Light, but that Friends should 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.
Related terms for Inner Light include "Light of God," "Light of Christ," "Spirit of God within us," "Light within", "Christ within" and Spirit of Christ. These are often used interchangeably by modern and arguably early Friends. Some people also identify it with the expression "that of God in everyone," which was first used by one of the co-founders of the Society of Friends, George Fox.
The related term Inward light appears in older Quaker writings but is not used as often now. Originally Inward Light was used much more often than Inner Light. This term evokes an image of people being illuminated by the light of God or Christ, rather than having a light of their own inside them. The terms are now often used interchangeably.
The Quaker belief that an Inner Light resides in each person is based in part on a passage from the John 1:9, which says, "That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." Friends emphasize the part of the verse that indicates that every person is born with the Light within him or her. Early Friends took this verse as one of their mottoes and often referred to themselves as "Children of the Light."
The principal founder of what became the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox, claimed that he had a direct experience of God. Having explored various sects and listened to an assortment of preachers, he finally concluded that none of them were adequate to be his ultimate guide. At that point he reported hearing a voice that told him, "There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition." He felt that God wanted him to teach others that they need not depend on human teachers or guides either, because each one of them could experience God directly and hear his voice within. He wrote in his journal, "I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God; even that divine Spirit which would lead them into all Truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any." Fox taught: that Christ, the Light, had come to teach his people himself; that "people had no need of any teacher but the Light that was in all men and women" (the anointing they had received); if people would be silent, waiting on God, the Light would teach them how to conduct their lives, teach them about Christ, show them the condition of their hearts; they loving the Light, it would rid them of the "cause of sin"; and soon after, Christ would return in his glory to establish his Kingdom in their hearts. Fox called the Light destroying sin within as the Cross of Christ, the Power of God.
Later, Robert Barclay, an apologist for the Society of Friends, wrote: "This most certain doctrine being then received, that there is an evangelical and saving Light and grace in all, the universality of the love and mercy of God towards mankind, both in the death of his beloved Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the manifestation of the Light in the heart, is established and confirmed, against all the objections of such as deny it." As the quotations demonstrate, both Barclay and Fox connected the Light not only with an experiential knowledge of God but with the grace and mercy that leads to salvation from sin and acceptance by God.
Based on the teachings of Fox, Barclay, and other respected leaders, the liberal branches of the Society of Friends subscribe, in one form or another, to Universalism. Some Friends today subscribe to Christian Universalism, which is the belief that all people are already saved from sin, or eventually will be saved from it, through the death of Jesus and the presence of His Spirit within. In other words, because the Light is within everyone, nobody will end up condemned to hell. Other Friends, such as the Quaker Universalist Group, go further and believe in Universalism in the broader sense. They believe that people need not acknowledge Jesus Christ at all--that people of any faith or even no faith are indwelt by the Light and therefore do not need to be saved. A third segment of the Society of Friends, Evangelical Friends,  are not universalists. They believe that all people have the Light within them and have the possibility of being saved, but that only those who avail themselves of the Light and accept the salvation provided by Jesus Christ actually are saved.
Contrast with other inner sources
It is important to note that many Friends consider this divine guidance (or "promptings" or "leadings of the Spirit") distinct both from impulses originating within oneself and from generally agreed-on moral guidelines. In fact, as Marianne McMullen pointed out, 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.
Contrast with rules and creeds
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 procedure is to collect together their best advice in a book of "Faith and Practice," which is revised gradually over time. Many or most books of Faith and Practice contain the following, which was originally attached to a list of "Advices" published in 1656, and illustrates Friends' emphasis on the Inner Light:
- Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
In the Bible
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, like George Fox and Robert Barclay, 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.
- Quotations about the Inner Light from the Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice
- Committees for Clearness in PYM Quaker Faith and Practice, page 29 (pdf page 14)
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- Quote by Paul Lacout, 1969
- Richard Vann. "Review of Rosemary Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, July, 2001.
- Quotes by George Fox in his journal
- Quotes by George Fox in his journal
- Quaker Universalist Group website
- Margaret Hope Bacon, 1986
- NY Yearly Meeting on Faith