Schism and Reform (1800-1900)

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Even before the opening of the nineteenth century, American Friends exhibited two divergent tendencies: on the one hand, an emphasis on continuing revelation; on the other, an emphasis on the Christian origins of Quakerism and the authority of the Bible. For instance, in the 1690s George Keith formed a separatist movement called the Christian Quakers which strongly emphasized the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. Keith–one of the earliest and most effective “publishers of Truth”–had emigrated to East Jersey in 1685, and then to Philadelphia in 1689, where he became the first headmaster of the Quaker school (from which both Friends Select and William Penn Charter claim descent). Though previously he had written some thirty books and tracts defending basic Quaker beliefs, he had increasing doubts about those beliefs and also about the structure of governance within Monthly Meetings. Accordingly, he began a campaign to establish deacons and elders as the guardians of the theological views of those who spoke in meetings for worship. He also proposed that all members be required to affirm a confession of faith or creed. After being rebuffed by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (and then by London Yearly Meeting as well), he established the Christian Quakers, with some fifteen meetings. This movement did not last very long; by 1700, it had all but disappeared, and Keith himself had returned to England and joined the Anglican Church. But it clearly anticipates one of the tendencies of American Friends in the nineteenth century, which has been labeled (or perhaps, mislabeled) the evangelical.

The other nineteenth-century tendency continued to emphasize the Inward Light, or immediate and continuing revelation, as the primary basis for religious faith and practice. The most eloquent and charismatic leader of this movement was Elias Hicks (1748-1830), a Quaker farmer from Long Island. Hicks personally believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but emphasized the primacy of the Inner Light, and deplored creedal statements. He urged Friends to live apart from the world, he opposed public education, he opposed the construction of the Erie Canal and a system of railroads. But he was a strong abolitionist, and criticized those Friends who used any products of slave labor. Accordingly, he exacerbated differences among Friends about how to respond to the issue of slavery. His opposition to the wealth and power of city Friends in such centers as Philadelphia drew support from many, though some leading Philadelphia Quakers believed that his remarks were intended to undermine their authority. Hicks became a catalyst for existing differences among members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Finally, in 1827, there was a formal schism within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting into “Orthodox” and “Hicksite” branches. Economic, geographic, kinship, and governance considerations were involved, in addition to theological differences. Many Orthodox Friends emphasized the importance of establishing a personal relationship with the biblical Christ; some evidenced the influence of John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement. Those who generally sympathized with the religious teachings of Elias Hicks became the Hicksite Yearly Meeting. Many Hicksite Friends believed that experience of the Inward Christ was more important than understanding the biblical Christ.

Orthodox Friends in Philadelphia met at the 4th and Arch Streets meetinghouse, while Philadelphia Hicksite Friends built a meetinghouse at 15th and Race Streets. To confuse matters further, each group continued to refer to itself as Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: that is, each assumed that it alone represented the authentic Quaker perspective and practice. Orthodox Friends were dominant in the city of Philadelphia; and Hicksite Friends, elsewhere in the region previously under the jurisdiction of a single Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. This split was soon followed by similar schisms in Baltimore, New York, New England, Ohio and Indiana Yearly Meetings.

Further schisms occurred subsequently, occasioned by disagreements among Friends regarding faith and practice, but clearly exacerbated by the strong personalities of the principal controversialists. An English Friend, Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847)–brother of Elizabeth Fry who was a well-known advocate of prison reform, also took an evangelical position, emphasizing the Bible and playing down the Inward Light. His teachings influenced the Orthodox Friends in America, and some of his followers in England separated from London Yearly Meeting in 1835. John Wilbur (1774-1856) attempted to establish a position that would reconcile differences–that is, he stressed Orthodox Quaker views but also acknowledged the importance of the Inward Light; some of his followers formed another separatist movement among Friends in 1845. Still, it was the basic schism between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends that largely defined Quaker experience in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for the remainder of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century.

Despite these divergent trends and conflicts, American Quakers made notable advances and contributions during the nineteenth century. Friends participated in the westward expansion, forming Monthly and Yearly Meetings wherever they settled–but especially in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and on the Pacific coast. Many of these meetings adopted a pastoral system. Friends established a number of Quaker schools and colleges during this period. Friends also worked for the abolition of slavery and war, for the welfare of African-Americans and Native Americans, for prison reform, for temperance, and for the rights of women. Some Quakers played a prominent role in the formation of the `underground railroad,’ giving aid and shelter to escaping slaves on their way to the Northern states or to Canada. And it is noteworthy that of the five women who organized the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, four were Quakers: Lucretia Mott; her sister, Martha Coffin Wright; Mary Ann McClintock and Jane Hunt. Such activities obviously placed members of the Religious Society of Friends in conflict with many in the larger society.

Next Page: Reconcilation (1900-1955)