Author’s note: Throughout this article, the terms "Gurneyite" and "Wilburite" will be used to refer to two groups of Friends, although they may well have rejected these names. Each would have claimed for itself the title "Friends" and, after they separated from each other, denied that the other group had any right to use it. A third group, called "Hicksites," from whom most of today’s Friends General Conference meetings are descended, likewise called themselves "Friends" and viewed both groups as separatists.
In the fall of 1854, readers of The Friend (a predecessor of Friends Journal) may have been surprised by an article on the Ohio Yearly Meeting. It appeared that a dispute over the choice of clerk and assistant clerk had escalated into a split in the meeting. As fantastic as that may have seemed, the full story was even more amazing.
The difficulty in naming a clerk was not a new one—Ohio Yearly Meeting representatives had been unable to agree on a clerk since 1846. A year before that, New England Yearly Meeting had suffered a separation, and each of the resulting bodies sent an epistle to the other yearly meetings. Reading an epistle from another yearly meeting was seen as recognizing the legitimacy of that meeting, and Ohio Yearly Meeting was split between those who sympathized with what was called the "Larger Body" (Gurneyite) and the "Smaller Body" (Wilburite)—both of which claimed to be New England Yearly Meeting.
Benjamin Hoyle, who had first become clerk in 1838, and a majority of the members of Ohio Yearly Meeting favored the "Smaller Body," but a substantial minority (perhaps one-third of the membership) considered this group to be renegades from the Religious Society of Friends. For six years, Benjamin Hoyle’s support of the New England Wilburites had made him just barely acceptable as clerk to the Ohio Yearly Meeting Gurneyites. He had remained in that position because, when the representatives were unable to agree on another candidate, the practice was for the current clerk to continue in office.
In 1854, the presence of a visitor at the yearly meeting sessions made Benjamin Hoyle’s continued service intolerable to the Gurneyites. The visitor was Thomas Gould, clerk of the "Smaller Body" in New England. Arriving for the opening session, he took a seat in the ministers’ gallery of the meetinghouse—behind the clerks’ table, where all could see him. To the Gurneyites, his presence in a place of honor could not be allowed. From the floor of the meeting, they challenged his right to the seat and demanded that Benjamin Hoyle, in his official capacity as clerk, instruct him to leave. Although this issue took up most of the opening session, you will notice that neither the request, nor Benjamin Hoyle’s demurral, is even mentioned in The Friend (see sidebar). In the eyes of the Gurneyites, Benjamin Hoyle was derelict in his duties and unfit to remain as clerk. That evening, in the meeting of the yearly meeting representatives, they tried once more to replace him, without success.
Much is missing from the account of the next day’s events. As described in the article, two reports came forward early in the business session. The first, from a Gurneyite, proposed Jonathan Binns as clerk and James Bruff as assistant clerk. This was met with shouts of "I approve." Before these had died down, the second (Wilburite) report was presented, in essence asking the current clerks to continue to serve. This was followed, no doubt, by its own chorus of "I approve." In response, Benjamin Hoyle quickly wrote and read a minute stating that the representatives were unable to unite and that he and William Bates would remain in their current positions—certainly bringing forth yet another round of approvals. For about two hours, discussion (undoubtedly heated) continued, peppered by repeated calls from the floor that Jonathan Binns and James Bruff take their seats at the clerks’ table. Eventually, and reluctantly, they did so. Since William Bates was a Gurneyite, he had not taken his seat. Jonathan Binns sat down in the empty chair next to Benjamin Hoyle.
At this point, Jonathan Binns offered a minute naming himself as clerk and James Bruff as assistant. From the floor, Wilburites cried out that no minute had been read by a legitimate clerk, so there was no need to object to its approval. As a result, the proposed minute was met with numerous cries of "I approve," and very few objections. For the next several hours, two men attempted to clerk two meetings in the same room.
Various attempts at reconciliation were offered from the floor, but each failed. Both sides were convinced of their own righteousness. Each side declared the other to be separatists.
The spectacle finally ended at four o’clock, six hours after it had begun, when Benjamin Hoyle proposed that the meeting adjourn for the day. This minute was approved by the Wilburites, who shook hands with each other, and left. The Gurneyites remained behind and conducted their own business session for two more hours before adjourning.
Something had been learned by Ohio Yearly Meeting since the raucous separation from the Hicksites in 1828. That meeting had progressed from yelling to shoving to biting; the clerks’ table had been pulled to pieces in an attempt by the Hicksites to wrest away that symbol of authority; and the session had ended with a panicked evacuation when someone in the balcony snapped a piece of wood and a young man yelled, "O Lord! The Galleries are coming down!"
The two sides in 1854 quickly found ways to accommodate each other. For the rest of the week, they carefully arranged to hold their business meetings at different times. Remarkably, at the usual time on Thursday morning, those attending both sets of business sessions could be found sitting together in the regular midweek meeting for worship. For some years afterwards, both bodies (as well as the Hicksite yearly meeting) conducted their annual business sessions in the Mount Pleasant Meetinghouse and every Sunday morning three meetings for worship were held: one for Gurneyites at 8 a.m., a second for Wilburites at 10, and a third for Hicksites at 11.
Freed from the influence of the other body, each group developed in its own unique way. The Wilburites (known today as Ohio Yearly Meeting, Conservative) preserved an explicitly Christian faith while following the traditional Quaker practices. They maintained the "peculiarities"—plain clothes, plain speech, and separation from "the world’s people"—long after other Friends had abandoned them, and held on to silent, waiting worship when most Gurneyite meetings gave it up.
New England and the other Wilburite yearly meetings have disappeared. New England and Philadelphia reunited with those from whom they had separated, while the rest slowly declined in numbers and were laid down, leaving Ohio Yearly Meeting (later joined by other kinds of conservative Friends) to carry on an important element of our society.
Ohio’s Gurneyites (now the Evangelical Friends Church—Eastern Region) moved in a very different direction, embracing evangelical Christianity and holding up the practice of early Friends by actively spreading the word of God. They formed the core of what is now Evangelical Friends International, a body with thousands of members in North and South America, Africa, and Asia.
How different—and how much blander, perhaps—the Religious Society of Friends would be today if cooler heads had prevailed on Third-day, the 5th of Ninth month, 1854.