among american quakers
breadth of vision that characterized the earliest Friends
required a precarious balance among seemingly paradoxical factors.
The tenderness of Penington and Penn, the passion and eloquence
of Fox, the dedication and sacrifices of Mary Dyer, Elizabeth Fry,
and Lucretia Mott revealed the variety of ways in which Friends’ convictions
shaped lives.While their backgrounds were in Christian tradition, Friends
were at the same time able to believe both in the
significance of Jesus and in the “Inner Light,” which they
had been and was still in every human being, whether or not they
had heard of Jesus. While believing in the immediate
communication between God and the individual, Friends also
revered and found wisdom in the Bible. Amidst the joy of their
mystical unity, they were also motivated to lead challenging lives
service beyond their own numbers. From time to time, one or
another of these elements became paramount even to the point of
jeopardizing the movement’s ‘wholeness.’
schisms arose among American Friends. The “
Great Separation” of 1827-1828 began in Philadelphia YearlyMeeting
when some tried to prevent Elias Hicks, a New York Quaker preacher,
from speaking. Hicks’ followers were mostly
country Friends who perceived urban Friends as worldly. Known as
Hicksites, they placed a greater reliance on the Inward Light as
guide to the individual conscience, while “Orthodox” Friends
tended to emphasize the Bible and Christian teaching as a guide.
The split was not purely doctrinal. It reflected tensions that had
been growing between the elders — who were mostly from the
cities— and Friends who lived farther away from major communities
and Meetings. Both groups continued as unprogrammed Meetings,
having no designated preacher, music or ritual.
this sad separation, which became bitterly hostile in some areas,
Friends continued to divide over differences in
discipline and dogma. Early Quakers had been both mystics and
evangelists. Following the emphasis on quietism, and confronted
with the burgeoning forces of revivalism, Friends were often unable
to retain the underlying unity of their heritage. Further splits
occurred in both types of American Yearly Meetings. Most
Orthodox Friends followed Joseph John Gurney, a British Friend,
whose teachings focused on the Bible as a basic guide. He led many
Friends to an increasingly evangelistic conviction. John Wilbur,
birthright Friend from New England, was disturbed by the
emphasis many British Friends placed on the Bible. He spoke
eloquently on behalf of the leadings of the Inner Light of Christ
the basis of faith. As the Gurneyites moved toward a pastoral and
programmed system, the Wilburites† saw this as a threat to
traditional Quakerism and generally either withdrew or were
expelled. They usually continued to hold unprogrammed worship.
A Wilburite-Gurneyite separation was evident in New England by
1845, and in Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1854. It later spread throughout
time of the American Revolution, Friends in America had been faced
with structural changes within the Religious Society
of Friends. The Civil War brought further challenges to both faith
and practice. Some Friends took up arms, while others would not.
Individual families found themselves divided over how abolition
was to be accomplished, and whether to help escaped slaves or obey
federal laws. Some Friends were active in the Underground
Railroad, and some were not.
Enlightenment, a new liberalism, and a thrust toward evangelical
renewal were lively forces in the greater society throughout
the 1800’s, particularly along the expanding American frontier.
Charismatic speakers and massive revival meetings brought throngs
of new adherents to many Protestant churches as the westward
movement swept on. Some groups of Friends in the new
communities held similar gatherings, thus gaining members who
were unfamiliar with the traditional unprogrammed framework.
were led to hire pastors to help with the influx of new members,
sometimes becoming almost indistinguishable from
traditional Protestant churches, with reading of scriptures, singing
of hymns, and prepared sermons. Once a pastoral system had been
accepted, it was difficult to relinquish. Indeed, many groups began
calling themselves “Friends Churches” rather than the
traditional “Friends Meetings.” These followed
the tenets of Joseph
John Gurney and were located mostly in the Midwest, although
some eastern Meetings were also affected.
1885, there were three distinct kinds of Quakers in America. The
Gurneyites (Orthodox) were evangelical and emphasized the
primacy of scripture. The Hicksites were inner-directed, relying
the guidance of the light within and traditional forms of Quaker
worship. The Conservatives fell in between the other two.With no
written creeds, distinctions in doctrine were not obvious, but
differences were evident in forms of worship, books of Discipline,
and ways of life. Friends have attempted definitions, but no single
statement of belief has ever successfully reflected the deep, often
passionate faith of Friends.
† The term “Wilburite” was
used prior to the Civil War in the United States;
after 1865 these were the “Conservative” branches.