The Religious Society of Friends was born in
Historians date the birth to 1652, when a young man in his late 20s brought a
message of hope—the promise of the immediate presence of God—to a community
waiting in silence. Frances Howgill, who was there, later wrote
. . . and God, out of his
great love and great mercy, sent one unto us, a man of God, one of ten
thousand, to instruct us in the way of God more perfectly; which testimony
reached unto all our consciences and entered into the inmost part of our
hearts, which drove us to a narrow search, and to a diligent inquisition
concerning our state, through the Light of Christ Jesus. The Lord of
Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand and, as we waited upon him in pure
silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our
assemblies, when there was not language, tongue nor speech from any creature.
The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all,
as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land.
George Fox, the “one of ten thousand,” was twenty-eight
years old. While England was
engaged in civil wars—wars
in which the rights of kings did battle with the rights of citizens and in
which the armies were driven by religious fervor—he had been traveling around England for
nine years. Fox left his family at the age of nineteen, searching . . . for
something. Today we would say he wanted a guru, but in his years of wandering,
he found many who had ideas about God, but no one who seemed to answer his
searching questions. Remembering this time in his life years later, he said
that he struggled with “a strong temptation to despair,” but the Spirit was continually teaching
him. He learned that education, institutions, books, pretty words, and experts
were not sufficient—in fact, he learned that he was not sufficient. He
described his turning point as follows:
As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the
separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people. For I
saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when
all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly
to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, O then, I heard a voice which
said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,”
and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why
there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely that I
might give him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in
unbelief, as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence, who
enlightens, and gives grace and faith and power. Thus when God doth work, who
shall let [prevent] it? And this I knew experimentally.
My desires after the Lord
grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God and of Christ alone,
without the help of any man, book, or writing. For though I read the
Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by
revelation, as he who hath the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me
to his Son by his spirit.
For the next five years, Fox roamed the country,
debating, convincing, offending, growing. In the churches of the time, a period
was often provided after the sermon for comment from the congregation. Fox was
not discreet. Blunt in his expression, he was often thrown out of the building
and beaten by some members of the congregation even while his message reached
others. He was arrested for the first time, and he refused a commission in the
army that would have gotten him out of prison. He met many who became leaders
in what became the Religious Society of Friends, among them Elizabeth Hooton,
James Nayler, William Dewsbury, and Richard Farnsworth. He was called a Quaker
for the first time, and he called the “tender” people he met “Friends.” Still, it was not until 1652 and his
meeting with the Seekers in the north of England that the society as we know
it began to take shape. It was there that his message was heard and taken to
heart by an entire community. This community already practiced worship in
silence, with the freedom to speak given to all whom the Spirit moved. It was
there that a message of individual authority—“you have an inward teacher”—found
a context and practice in which the Inward Teacher spoke to all and deepened
From their base in the north of England, convinced
Friends fanned out, first across England and then to the rest of the Western
world, leading to explosive growth on the part of the Society and suspicion on
the part of everyone else. It is impossible to have a feel for this time in our
history without having some understanding of early Quakers’ inner fire and the
consequences they bore. John Camm and John Audland evangelized Bristol, with meetings of
from 3,000 to 4,000 people attending regularly in a local orchard. John Camm
died, of tuberculosis, within two years of the start of his ministry, and John
Audland also died young, his health damaged by the rigors of his work.
Elizabeth Fletcher died at nineteen as a result of a beating by students
Richard Hubberthorne and Edward Burrough died in jail, having
imprisoned for preaching. Francis Howgill died after five and a half years
in jail for refusing to take a loyalty oath. William Dewsbury spent more
than nineteen years in prison for preaching. In 1660, Mary Fisher, a servant in
a Quaker household, took a message to the Sultan of Turkey in the midst of his
army and returned. Much of the journey was on foot, and many along the way
either refused to help her or tried to force her to turn back. Four years
earlier, she and Anne Austin had been jailed in Boston for five weeks. A local churchman paid
the jailer to feed them, or they would have starved. Massachusetts became rigidly punitive,
beating, banishing, and executing Quakers, until Charles II took away the
colony’s right to do so. William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, and Mary
Dyer stood together at the scaffold in 1659. Dyer got a reprieve at the
request of her son. Still under obedience to preach in Boston, she returned a year later, but this
time no reprieve was granted.
Friends had other problems besides those that arose from
opposing the established churches. Testimony was not allowed in court without an
oath, so Friends could be robbed with impunity. In many cases the robbers went
free while the Friends were jailed for refusing to swear. Later, the crown
gained the ability to confiscate property from anyone refusing to swear an oath
of loyalty, and Friends (including Margaret Fell and George Fox) were
hauled into court on various pretexts so that they could be put in the position
of having to take the oath.
These are just some examples of the sufferings of Quakers
endured for carrying out their testimonies in their lives. Nevertheless, by
1690 there were some 60,000 Friends in Britain.
Margaret Fell, mistress of Swarthmore Hall and at first
somewhat protected by her position as the wife of a judge, maintained
correspondence with many of the far-flung missionaries and managed the Kendal
Fund, which helped to support Friends’ evangelical work. The Valiant
Sixty traveled in pairs, meeting occasionally with others to plan missions
and spread the word. Over time, however, this personal network became insufficient
for dealing with the issues that arose as the result of the exploding
population of enthusiasts. There were a number of controversies—some religious
and some political—that could have harmed the Society. These led to the
development of a system of local and regional meetings for business and
discipline (see the Organization of the Society chapter for more details).
In the developments in the first fifty years, one can see
the seeds of our modern religious society planted—with all its diversity of
thought, conflict over the source of authority, and strong social testimonies.
Women were in evidence as strong leaders; as a matter of fact, early
attacks on Friends included the charge that their old men sat silently by while
serving girls preached. Use of plain speech and plain dress began during this
time, driven by a self-proclamation of honesty and a discipline of simplicity.
The denial of outward wars that became our peace testimony began when George
Fox refused to accept a commission in the army as a way out of jail and
developed through the end of the century as the Society defended itself against
charges of fomenting violent rebellion while individual Friends discovered
themselves unable to plan bombardments and quit their duties in the military. The first general advices were written at
Balby in 1656, along with an admonition to pay attention to the Spirit
behind the advices and not just the letter of them. Controversies over leadings by the Spirit
were resolved in favor of discernment within the community, this discernment
addressing the challenge of leaving all Friends open to the Spirit’s
possibility and at the same time checking rampant, egoistic individualism.
What the world knows today as civil disobedience, Friends
practiced by holding open meetings for worship in contradiction of the law and
suffering the consequences—eventually leading to the Act of Toleration and
acceptance of the idea that people within a nation could differ over spiritual
matters and remain good neighbors and loyal citizens. In his letter to the
governor of Barbados in 1671, George Fox argued for a familial
obligation for spiritual education between master and slave (mistaking
slavery for service), but only seventeen years later, four Friends in the
Germantown Meeting sent a minute to their business meeting challenging all who
associated with slavery to defend it.
(Unfortunately, we also find in this event evidence of other aspects of our
Society. The minute was passed from monthly meeting to quarterly meeting to
yearly meeting, where it was decided that the question was too complicated and
no action was taken. From the time of Fox’s Barbados letter, it took American yearly
meetings approximately 100 years to decide that involvement in any way with
slaveholding was an occasion for disownment. Curiously, this happened at about
the same time as the United States
declared its independence from Britain.
New England’s minute is dated 1773, Philadelphia’s
1774, and Baltimore’s
With the death of George Fox in 1691, leadership passed
to Steven Crisp and George Whitehead. Steven Crisp also died in 1691,
however, leaving George Whitehead alone to lead the Society into a new century.
The Act of Toleration gave Quakers freedom to worship, yet the Society had to learn to live together without
the charismatic leaders it had known, many of whom had died in prison.
Friends now clearly stood for a distinct emphasis
within Christianity which asserted that all people were possessed of the
light of Christ within, which was sufficient to save them if they obeyed
it and drew upon its power; that God’s saving grace is universal and not
confined to nominal, or outward Christians; that human beings are under an
obligation to seek perfection; and that God’s revelation of himself is not
limited to nature or the printed word, but continues directly down the
centuries, informing both individuals and the Church.
There is both a great deal and very little to say about
this period, which could arbitrarily be dated from the death of George
Fox through the great split that began in Philadelphia Yearly
Meeting in 1827. Friends became wealthy through industry, frugality, and
creativity, and then became uncomfortable with their wealth and the involvement
with the world that it brought. In what became the United
States, and especially in Pennsylvania,
Friends grew in political power until the skirmishes with the Indians and the
wars with the British in America
led them to withdraw for the sake of conscience. Friends began the period
uncomfortable with slavery, and pledged to divest themselves by the end.
(Although from one angle it looks as though the Society moved much faster than
their contemporaries in coming to understand the moral depravity inherent in
slavery, from another angle one sees the Society diverging from the world’s
opinion—climbing slowly out of the pit while their contemporaries dug ever
In their spiritual lives, Friends increasingly embraced a
kind of quietism. In mystical terms, quietism carries the sense of
self-annihilation in God or inactivity before God. For Friends, this meant
waiting for a strong, sure leading before engaging in spiritual activity. In
order to hold more strongly to inward, individual revelation of Truth, the
Society turned away from corporate teaching and tradition. Metaphorically, having
discovered that they couldn’t make the horse drink, Friends stopped trying to
lead the horse to water. The most they would say is that there was water around
Paradoxically, the lack of a statement of belief
led them to develop many statements of behavior. This became a period of
self-containment in which Friends removed themselves from active involvement in
the world around them even as they became successful merchants and
manufacturers. Acceptable styles of dress became more and more restricted.
Plain speech was mandated, with advices reminding Friends to use it at all
times and not to speak one way at home and another way in the world. Marrying
outside of the meeting became a cause for disownment. Meetings became more and
more silent as Friends worked to ensure that no vocal ministry was given but by
direct inspiration of the Spirit.
It is common to look at the Quietist Period (roughly
the eighteenth century) as a time when the Society became rigid and required
greater and greater conformity to those outward behaviors that made Friends a
“peculiar people,” but there were benefits to intense introspection as well. It
was his focus on self-abnegation in the face of God’s will that inspired the
efforts of John Woolman, “possibly the greatest Quaker of all and an adornment
of the period of quietism,”
to clear his conscience, and then his efforts to clear the society of slavery
in the face of intense economic pressure. Only a Society devoted to spiritual
clarity could actively listen to such a gadfly and change its own behavior.
Only a Society this disciplined could ban its members from any involvement in
slavery. In addition to grappling with the issue of slavery, this inward focus
made it possible for the Society to maintain the principle of the spiritual
equality of women, ultimately producing in America
a generation of strong female abolitionist and feminist leaders and supporting
the social activism of women like Elizabeth Gurney Fry in Britain.
There are a number of good histories of the Society of
Friends. John Punshon’s Portrait in Grey: A Short History of the
Quakers and Howard Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years (now with an
historical update and notes by Margaret Hope Bacon as Friends for 350
Years) are excellent, readable, and easily available. A Western Quaker
Reader, edited by Anthony Manousos, is a good resource for first-hand
information about the development of the three independent western yearly
meetings, of which Intermountain Yearly Meeting is one. In the interest of
brevity, this chapter will now touch briefly on five themes in Friends’ history
as they affect our way of being in the world.
There is a common switch in religious movements that base
their appeal on an inward change that is expected to be manifested in outward
behavior: the move from preaching the inward to judging the outward. The
unifying and transforming experience of the Spirit is lost. For Christians, the
problem is older than the letter of James: “But someone will say, ‘You have
faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my
works will show you my faith.”
According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “A sound tree cannot bear evil
fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
Even as Friends were clearing themselves of slavery, many
among them were becoming dissatisfied with uninspiring meetings and the worldly
entanglements of the wealthy and powerful in the Society. By the time Elias
Hicks became a flashpoint, one of the principal sources of irritation was
his attack on the wealth that many leaders in the society derived through trade
in slave goods. (It was as difficult to escape slave goods then as it is
today to be clear of military technology.) Today, unprogrammed Friends look at
Hicks—Long Island farmer, recorded minister, and indefatigable reformer—as the
defender of the Inner Light against the inroads of Biblical creedalism.
Hicks and reformers of his ilk believed the world was enticing the Society away
from the Inner Light. They struggled for a stricter observation of the outward
standards they thought had been eaten away by Revolutionary War fervor and the
American ideology of freedom. Their struggle for transformation of the Society
became a challenge to the power of the elders.
The institution of the elder has deep roots in the
Society. Although the model of Friends’ discernment gives final authority over
leadings to the community, in practice the voice of authority was given to
weighty Friends. This especially applied to vocal ministry. The gift of
inspiration in meeting for worship was closely watched.
And our advice to all our
ministers is, that they be frequent in reading the scriptures of the old and
new testaments; and if any in the course of their ministry, shall misapply, or
draw unsound inferences or wrong conclusions from the text, or shall misbehave
themselves in point of conduct or conversation, let them be admonished in love
and tenderness by the elders or overseers where they live, and if they prove
refractory and refuse to acknowledge their faults, let them be further dealt
with, in the wisdom of truth, as the case may require. —1723
The people most likely to be tweaked by Hicks’s preaching
against worldly entanglement were the powerful, who were also the ones most likely
to sit as elders. And it was the elders whose job it was to mind the orthodoxy
and behavior of the preachers. In keeping with the times, and in reaction to a
non-Christian deism common in society at large, this orthodoxy looked to
Protestant theology extracted from an absolutely authoritative Bible. The time
was passing when all Friends said the Bible was the words of God, but
only the Spirit of Christ was the Word of God.
The division, when it came, was driven by theology,
politics, power, and personality. It was ugly as only a family quarrel can be
ugly. Hicks’s movement was very attractive to the rural majority in
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which found itself passed over and ignored by the
citified merchants who had the time and opportunity to meet and lead the
Society. Without time to study, and more familiar with the seasons than with
theology, the country cousins were also naturally more comfortable using
behavior, rather than belief, to verify transformation. Comfortable with ideas
and books, comfortable with the idea of working with their “equals” in society
and the Society, and comfortably in charge, the elders were also comfortable
with applying these new but obviously correct standards of belief to the
preaching of their opponents. In 1827, the issues were decided in favor of
declaring one’s opponents not real Quakers. From Philadelphia,
the division spread to New York in 1828, and
then to Ohio, Indiana, and Baltimore Yearly meetings. New England, Virginia, North Carolina, and London
did not divide but aligned themselves with the orthodox yearly meetings. Within
the Orthodox branch there were further separations as the years went by;
these are beyond the scope of this chapter. In order to prevent further schism
within itself, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) simply stopped
corresponding with other meetings. It took almost 130 years before the
different branches began to recognize one another again as Quakers.
Friends can be proud of their place in the history of
The honor [of pioneering the antislavery movement]
belongs to the Quakers, for the Quakers were gentle people, living by the
precept of the golden rule, believing in the inherent dignity of man, the
freedom of the human will, and the equality of all men . . .
These Quakers abhorred all violence. They never spoke
in harsh language. They opposed slavery from first to last on moral and
religious grounds—as sin. They made tremendous financial sacrifices to rid
themselves of the contamination. They never asked anything for themselves by
way of profit—political, social, or economic—from their friendship for the
oppressed. Nevertheless, they were violently denounced, charged with inciting
rebellion, suppressed, and finally driven out of Barbados because they sought to
Christianize and educate their slaves. They were denied the poor privilege of
freeing their slaves in the Southern states, and in the early congresses of the
were accused of treason and incendiarism because they petitioned for
suppression of the African slave trade.
At the same time, the history of individual activism on the
part of Friends is full of disownments and departures. Once the Society itself
was clear of slave ownership, many Friends who worked aggressively to end
slavery in the United States
were seen by their meetings as getting too entangled in the world.
When Friends first testified to the equality of all
people, they were testifying to equality in God’s possibility. The Spirit was
no respecter of social position. To doff the hat was to offer to a person what
should only be offered to God. To call someone “master” out of politeness was
simply to lie. It was not an attack on social distinctions, per se. Quaker
households had servants, but the servants joined the families for meals, went
to meeting, and when led were released to follow the Spirit’s guidance (Mary
Fisher, for example). At first, slavery appeared to be one calling among many,
a different kind of service. George Fox, writing to calm the fears of
slave owners in Barbados, could speak of mutual obligations between owner
and property, obligations that went beyond care for the body to care for what
made a person human—the soul. However, as the world moved to put the power of
government and custom into the institution of property rights of one human
being in another, Friends moved in a different direction. In his essay “Some
Considerations on Keeping Negroes,” John Woolman argued that the golden
rule itself militated against slavery, because no slaveholder would ever wish
to be a slave and be treated as a slave was treated. Friends began to see that
slavery was not a calling, but an evil, and the Society moved to clear itself.
It must be noted that the movement was slowed by self-interest and that the
final minutes against slavery were written only after a generational change in
the leadership of the Society.
Quakers actively supported free and freed African Americans
in many ways, setting up schools for children and adults, providing relief for
escapees, and working with the Underground Railroad. They petitioned Congress
for changes to the laws until Congress reinterpreted the meaning of “petition”
in the First Amendment. They also assumed that their charges were not quite
suited for Friends’ style of worship and were happy when they found some other
church more in keeping with their character. There were special benches (at the
back for some reason) in meeting houses for any who might wander in. Once clear
of slavery as a Society, aid to the slave continued to be done on a
societal basis, but antislavery and abolition work was left to the individual.
After Woolman and Anthony Benezet, a Quaker school
teacher whose pamphlets were copied rather exactly by John Wesley when he
wrote Thoughts upon Slavery,
male leadership in the antislavery movement quickly moved beyond the Society,
especially following the Great Revival in 1825. Friends continued to be the
largest single source of women in antislavery leadership, including Lucretia
Mott, Abby Kelley, Angelina and Sarah Grimké (by convincement), and Susan
Of these five, only Lucretia Mott remained an active Friend for her whole life,
and it wasn’t easy for her. Abby Kelley resigned from her meeting because of
lack of support, after which she was disowned. The Grimké sisters were disowned
when Angelina married Theodore Weld and Sarah attended the wedding. Susan B.
Anthony chafed at the Society’s limited involvement with radical abolition and
the women’s movement and attended the Unitarian church after 1848, although she
remained a lifelong member of her meeting in Rochester, NY.
Men, Friends or not, found it easy to focus on freedom
for slaves alone. For the women in the movement, it quickly became obvious that
their position was remarkably similar to that of the group they were trying to
free. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, with its Declaration of Women’s Rights,
was planned over tea at the home of Jane Hunt. Hunt was joined by Lucretia
Coffin Mott and her sister Martha Coffin Wright; Mary Ann McLintock; and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia’s long-time friend, fellow antislavery activist,
and the only non-Friend present. Part of the impetus for the meeting and the
ensuing convention was a promise Mott and Cady Stanton had made to each other
when the World’s Antislavery Conference in London in 1840 refused to seat women
delegates accredited by American antislavery societies. The revolutionary tea
followed the 1848 Genesee Yearly Meeting, at which the Michigan Quarter had
been terminated for “demanding more freedom to engage in the antislavery cause,
less authority for the ministers and elders, and equal rights for women.”
There is a great deal of complexity to Friends’
involvement in societal transformation. Looking back, we see giants of human
endeavor speaking for equality and justice, leading the Society and society in
general to new ethical understandings. At the same time, we see others in the
Society who believed that involvement in a sinful world was probably wrong and
at least wasted effort. Friends’ business process is essentially conservative,
because change must be validated through unity; once achieved, however, that
unity has immense power. The value Friends place on individual conscience
allowed them to stand against the world on ethical issues. It also accustomed
them to difference, to the point where they were comfortable with not
making an effort to teach freed slaves how to be Quakers.
The Quaker movement was born in the midst of civil war.
Quakers quickly moved to disavow any inclination to go to war for any cause. In
their declaration to Charles II in 1660, they stated:
That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is
not so changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to
move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the
spirit of Christ which leads us into all Truth will never move us to fight
and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of
Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.
In 1938, Mao Tse Tung said, “Every Communist must grasp
the truth, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’” Friends suspect that, in their heart of
hearts, most political leaders agree with that proposition. To declare that we
would not use outward weapons against anyone for any cause was to make us, in
the eyes of kings and presidents, something less than loyal and less
understandable (even less dependable) than any traitor.
War is a flexible tool. It can be used for many purposes,
and it always makes sense to someone. For American Quakers, the French and
Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II each
presented special challenges to our testimony against war.
Quakers dominated the legislature in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian
Wars. The non-Quaker residents of western Pennsylvania suffered under the attacks by
Indians, and the crown demanded that the legislature enact a specific tax to
support the war. Friends had already determined that it was acceptable to pay
taxes that fed a general fund, even if some of that fund was used for military
purposes. This specific tax would not be acceptable, however, and Friends
would refuse to pay it. They believed that they could not in good conscience
authorize the tax when they knew that they would not pay it themselves; they
also knew that the legislature would lose its charter if they did not. It was
also one thing for an individual Quaker to say that he would not fight but
quite another for Quaker legislators to apply their principles to the acts of
government and not defend their western citizens. Friends resigned from the
government and never exercised real political power again.
The Revolutionary War represented a different trial. The
double-edge of the peace testimony made Friends a suspect population for both
revolutionaries and royalists. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting disowned more
than 1,200 members for their participation in the war, and the ideology of
liberty led many to depart the Society on their own. At the same time, the
colonies/states confiscated property to cover unpaid war taxes. When the war was over, American Friends
lived in a land where the question of government had become a personal issue.
They could never again say that a war belonged to a king and had nothing to do
People who don’t want the Civil War to be about slavery
will point to economic differences or states’ rights questions, but slavery
drove those issues. Others who don’t believe the war was necessary may say that
slavery was dying out and not economically viable, ignoring evidence that an
efficient market existed between the old slave states and the new cotton
states. Cotton work was so difficult that the slaves died before they could
reproduce. Though much is made of the underground railroad, and it was a
dangerous and marvelous undertaking, when comparing the number of slaves freed
to the total slave population, it was no more than a flea-bite on the body of slavery.
John Punshon puts the problem succinctly: “The Civil War (1861–1865) was a
grave challenge to the Quaker conscience, willing the end but being denied
approval of the means.”
The result of this dilemma is interesting. Friends became skilled in refugee
work. The Society did not go to war, but rather it began to work healing the
effects of war.
By the time of World War II, Friends seem to have come to
some kind of accommodation regarding the claims of conscience in relation to
particular wars. Disownment was no longer a common response to enlistment. In A
Quaker Book of Wisdom, Robert Smith points with some pride to his own
decision to fight in that war.
However, beginning with Friends’ work with displaced former slaves, and moving
through the founding of the various service committees during and following
World War I [American Friends Service Committee (1917); in Britain, the
Council of International Service (1918), which joined with another group in
1928 to become the Friends’ Service Council; and the Canadian Friends Service
Committee (1931)], Friends were able in an organizational way to work to heal
the world rather than harm it.
Although there is a place in law for conscientious
objection—a place where one can in theory remain a good citizen without having
to actively support one’s country’s military ambitions—the double edge of “will
not fight for x against y” still puts Friends’ opinions at odds with many in
government. The American Friends Service Committee was recently classified
as a “criminal extremist organization” by the police department in Denver, Colorado,
and people associated with it have been followed and interviewed by the FBI.
In the United
States, Friends colonized different areas.
These areas of colonization quickly developed yearly meetings: New England, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Virginia, and North Carolina. As the
population moved West, new yearly meetings formed: Ohio Yearly
Meeting spun off from Baltimore Yearly Meeting, for example, and Indiana
Yearly Meeting subsequently spun off from Ohio. The Midwestern meetings tended in the
orthodox and then evangelical vein, some eventually developing a pastoral
In the 1880s, from Iowa, one of these pastoral
yearly meetings, Hannah and Joel Bean set up a meeting in San Jose, California,
but they established it along unprogrammed lines. Iowa Yearly Meeting
eventually disowned the Beans and officially laid the meeting down. The Beans
and their meeting ignored this proceeding, however, and became an “independent”
meeting—a meeting founded and overseen by no prior yearly meeting. As
originally conceived, it was not to be a new yearly meeting but rather a place
where Friends from anywhere could worship in the unprogrammed manner and where
they would retain membership in their old meetings. Their College Park Association became
the nucleus of Pacific Yearly Meeting, which eventually divided into the
Pacific, North Pacific, and Intermountain Yearly Meetings.
As was the case with the Beans and the meeting they
started in San Jose,
other monthly meetings that were established in the West were composed of
Friends from various Quaker branches. The independent yearly meetings still
reflect this diversity.
The principle of science, the definition, almost, is
the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole
judge of scientific “truth.”
Until the Reformation, a European believer found his or her
faith reinforced at every turn: the Church blessed the culture along with the
crops, animals, children, and couples. The Church was woven into every aspect
of life, including death. After the Reformation, everything changed, and yet
nothing did. Everything: Culture and the institution of the Church were no
longer bound together. In order to criticize the institution, the authority of
tradition as embodied in the Church was discarded and replaced with an original
source—the Bible as reconstituted by Martin Luther. Nothing: Reality still
had an ultimate, single, creative source, a One Person who stood over against
His creation, loving it, judging it, and calling it to a perfection that He
best understood in His wisdom.
Early Friends knew the Bible backwards and forwards,
but reading the Bible wasn’t good enough. They, too, turned to an original
source: the Spirit of the Author Himself. From there, their experience of the
Spirit led them within the Bible to what was important. As we have already
seen, this set up a later conflict between the clarity of a visible and
culturally accepted interpretation of the written source and the invisible and
individual interpretation of the inward source.
Shortly before the turn of the nineteenth century, J.
Rendell Harris introduced his friend Rufus Jones to another friend of
his, John Wilhelm Rowntree. Out of this meeting came the “Rowntree Histories,”
ultimately penned by Jones and William Charles Braithwaite. Their purpose was
to identify Friends, especially Friends of the first generation, as a part of
the long tradition of Christian mystics. The project was a great success and
sparked a liberal Quaker renaissance.
It also moved the foundation of Quakerism from the Spirit to human experience of
the Spirit. The difference can be illustrated by posing a hypothetical question
to George Fox: “Are you part of a long tradition of Christian mystics?” Fox’s
answer would clearly be “No.” The early Friends believed they were the rebirth
of the apostolic church of the first Christian century, from which
Christianity had strayed, even been apostate, for 1,200 years. Although
they recognized that the Spirit had been present and could be seen in
individuals in history, their experience had a different quality. Rowntree,
Jones, and Braithwaite placed Friends in the mystical line, just as other
historians have placed Friends among the Puritans or as a “third way” between
Catholicism and Protestantism.
The base has widened even further. For early Friends,
their experience was normative—that is, it was the proper, true way to
relate to God. Even if God, in His mercy, had supported others in the past
despite their erroneous ideas and practices, and even though the Spirit made
itself available to all people in all times and places, there was a “best
practice,” and it was theirs. The next generation saw itself as peculiar—that
is, specially called by God, a light in the wilderness. When the Rowntree
historians placed Quakers in the mystical tradition, they claimed membership
for us in an ongoing spiritual movement, but in so doing reduced our claim to
originality. In the last fifty years, some branches of Friends have opened
themselves even further. What was once normative has become part of a broad
human possibility rather than the only path to union with the divine.
Intermountain Yearly Meeting stands on this new
foundation: The test of all spiritual knowledge is experience. It is not
the easiest basis upon which build a community. We have more than three
centuries of tradition and experience behind us as Friends, but we also have
several thousand years of other human experience that we can draw on. We are
open to the possibility that the Spirit leads us to inspiration using all of
human history. The tension between individual perception and community
acceptance continues as it did in the first Quaker century. Finding common
language is difficult because the words some find comforting can be experienced
by others as bludgeons. Yet, if we rely on personal experience as a shared
possibility instead of as an escape from mutual responsibility, we can move
beyond words to their source and join the stream.
According to Jesus of Nazareth, the primary principles of a properly ordered
life are to love God with one’s entire being and to love one’s neighbor as if
the neighbor and the lover were one and the same. The history of Friends is the
history of a people who have held these principles to be so intertwined that
one is neither more nor less than the flip side of the other. Historically,
Friends began by loving God, but they never found a time when that did not lead
them into concern for their neighbor—first to share the good news of God’s
intimate presence and then to express that caring in service to others. When
their neighbors did not choose to join them, Friends cared for them anyway.
Today, Friends’ care for others is the more visible of these two principles,
but inquirers who come into our meetings soon learn that loving our neighbors
doesn’t happen without the inward support and guidance of the Spirit.
The world is messy, and the means of loving God and
caring for our neighbors has not always been clear. Sometimes the love of God
has seemed to require being as clear of entanglements as possible, whereas at
other times love of neighbor has seemed to require every sacrifice—for some,
even going to war. Friends have been active in prison reform, against slavery,
for the rights of women, against war, for religious tolerance, and against
social distinctions. Friends have also been rigidly doctrinaire, sometimes
racist, and blind to situations close at hand. Friends have rocked the boat,
and they have disowned people for being too loud. Still, and always aware of
the contradictions in our past, we can say with our seventeenth century
forebears that this road of ours may be difficult and demanding, but it is
worth the effort of walking it.
Frances Howgill, quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice, The Yearly
Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 19.08.
In 1642, conflict between the Puritans in Parliament and King Charles I and his
supporters turned into war. The First Civil War ran from 1642 to 1646 and ended
with Charles’s surrender to the Scots. They turned him over to the English. The
Second Civil War (1647–1648) began almost immediately as royalist supporters
tried to free Charles and return him to the throne. Oliver Cromwell defeated an
invading Scottish army to “end” this war. Convinced that Charles’s very
existence was a danger, Cromwell allowed the army to put Charles on trial for
causing the civil wars. Charles was executed in 1649 and the Commonwealth
declared shortly after. A third civil war followed, which ended in September
1651 with the defeat of royalist forces under Charles II. Cromwell died in
1658, and the Commonwealth followed him to the grave soon after.
George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, rev. and ed. John L. Nickalls
(Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1995), p. 4.
To Fox, “tender” people were open to the Spirit and its possibilities.
“Friends” is a reference to Jesus’ statements in John 15:14: “Ye are my
friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you . . .” and John 15:15:
“I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of my Father I
have made known unto you.” The language is from the King James Version, which
Fox knew so well that even his enemies said that if the Bible were lost,
he could reproduce it.
Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England (New Haven and London,
Yale University Press, 1964), p. 121.
Quoted in full in Appendix 1.
Quoted in full, with business meeting responses attached, in Appendix 2.
Old Discipline: Nineteenth Century Friends’ Disciplines in America
(Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 1999). In addition to those of New
England, Philadelphia, and Baltimore,
disciplines from the New York,
North Carolina, and Virginia
Yearly Meetings are included in this publication, but their final
determinations on slavery are undated. All were first printed between 1800 and
1820, and all make involvement with slavery a disownable offense. North Carolina is a
special case. Because manumission was illegal there, when the yearly meeting
made ownership an offense all slaves were given to the yearly meeting, which
then let them live in freedom.
The Society of Friends: “ … the first recorded use of the phrase in the modern
sense seems only to date from 1793.” John Punshon, Portrait in Grey: A Short
History of the Quakers (London: Quaker Home Service, 1984), p. 71.
Punshon, Portrait in Gray, p. 103.
Punshon, Portrait in Gray, p. 119. Punshon’s succinct summary of
Woolman (pp. 118—119):
[John Woolman] is still admired—and imitated—by Friends
the world over for the way he testified to the power of his beliefs by the
quality of his personal life. He could not write a bill of sale for a slave.
When soldiers were billeted on him, he refused payment. Believing that the
light of Christ was in all, he sought and found it among the Indians, to
whom he made a special journey in the ministry. Devoted to the art of
persuasion rather than debate, he sought to move Friends to free their slaves
by enlisting their consent, again making special journeys in the ministry for
He avoided the temptations of wealth by avoiding wealth when it could have been
his, seeking holy sufficiency rather than holy poverty. He felt what we would
call the environmental damage of the dyeing industry, so he wore undyed clothes
as a personal testimony.
This section relies on the work of H. Larry Ingle in Quakers in
Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill
The Old Discipline, p. 74, from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Dwight Lowell Dumond, Anti-slavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America
(Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961), pp. 16–17.
This and the following paragraph lean on Mothers of Feminism: The Story of
Quaker Women in America by Margaret Hope Bacon (San Francisco:
Harper and Row, 1986). Abby Kelley Foster’s name is spelled
differently in different sources—sometimes Kelley and sometimes Kelly.
Bacon, Mothers of Feminism, p. 114.
Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith & Practice:The Book of Christian
Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends
(Quakers) in Britain,1994,
Ingle, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation, p. 4.
Punshon, Portrait in Gray, p. 181.
Robert Smith, A Quaker Book of Wisdom, pp. 64 ff.
This can be squared with Friends’ ancient testimony against the hireling
ministry by recognizing that a Quaker pastor is a released Friend—someone whose
leading in the world is recognized and supported by the monthly meeting.
Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew L. Sands, The Feynman
Lectures on Physics: Commemorative Issue, vol. 1 (Redwood City, CA:
Addison-Wesley, 1963, 1989), p. 1-1.
Punshon, Portrait in Gray, p. 221.
Mt 22:34–40, with slightly different versions in Mk. 12:28–31 and Lk. 10:25–28.
Jesus was not alone in this summation. Perhaps a generation before Jesus,
when challenged to teach a gentile the Torah while standing on one foot, Rabbi
Hillel the Great summarized it this way: “That which is hateful to you, do not
do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and
study it.” Jesus’s contemporary, Rabbi Akiba, said of Leviticus 19:18—“… you
shall love your neighbor as yourself …”—“This is the greatest principle in the