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Ministry and Money in the Experience of Earlier Friends

The connection between money and ministry is such a hot-button issue for many unprogrammed Friends. It might be useful to start a discussion by clarifying why early Friends were so opposed to what they characterized as “hireling ministry.”

First, we have to deal with the issue of tithes, which supported the hireling ministers. Tithing—giving one tenth of the produce and profits of the land to God—is rooted in the Mosaic law of the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen. 14:20, 28:22; Deut. 14:22; Lev. 27:30-32). But over the millennia it became corrupted.

By the 17th century, 40 percent of the tithes in England had been placed in the secular hands of local gentry. The continuing radicalization of the Reformation, the widespread abuses of inadequate clergy (especially in the north and west), and unsettled economic conditions led to protests focusing on tithes. Tithes were seen as the major support upholding a deceitful ecclesiastical structure, which, in turn, supported an unjust class system. In the 1640s (when George Fox was in his period of struggle and seeking), Fifth Monarchists, Anabaptists, some Seekers, and radicals within Parliament’s New Model Army were already vociferously opposing tithes.

Within the context of George Fox’s sounding “the day of the Lord” on top of Pendle Hill, with its references to the call for radical economic justice as preached by Jesus, tithes became a defining issue for early Friends. Friends’ understanding of God’s kingdom stood in stark opposition to the ecclesiastical, social, economic, and legal systems of their time. Compulsory tithes supported a church structure Friends found outside of God’s Life, with power and position given to men who, often as not, had no particular divine gift of ministry. Tithes often went to maintain younger sons of the gentry, thereby supporting an unjust class system. Tithes were forcibly collected from those at the lower end of the economic scale, while the wealthy often found ways to be exempted.

George Fox’s evangelical message was inextricably combined with an appeal to socioeconomic reform. God’s Gospel Order is just; Christ is come to teach his people himself how to live in God’s Kingdom here and now. Fox tapped into popular opposition to tithes and then clearly tied it to his religious message. He likened hireling priests and their tithes to the false prophets mentioned in the Bible. Quakerism was well received and took root in small towns that suffered under tithes and were poorly served by the established church.

Witnessing against participation in the unjust tithe system, by refusing to pay, quickly became a defining Quaker testimony. Robert Barclay’s “Proposition X” spelled it out quite clearly:

The obligation of those among whom God calls a minister, or to whom he sends one, to provide for his worldly necessities is freely acknowledged. . . . It is lawful for him to receive whatever is necessary or convenient. . . .

What we are opposed to is, first, that compensation should be fixed and compulsory. Second, that such recompense should be granted when it is superfluous and unnecessary, that it should be chargeable against a county or parish, or that it should involve large outlay or lavish expenditure. . . .

God has shown us the corruption and unchristian character of this ministry and called us from it. He has gathered us into his own power and life to be a people apart. We dare not join with or hear these anti-Christian hirelings or put food into their mouths.

In The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660, historian William C. Braithwaite summed it up: “Friends refused to pay tithes, as being forced payments for the maintenance of a professional ministry, but they approved a voluntary provision for the needs of those whose service prevented them from earning a livelihood.” (Italics added.) That second part seems too often forgotten by modern Friends. It is clear that Friends expected to contribute—and did—to the financial needs of Friends who traveled in the ministry.

Fox wrote in 1653, using his familiar word “carnal” to mean physical things such as food, money, and other practical assistance:

If any minister of Jesus Christ . . . who said, freely ye have received, freely give,—comes to our houses and minister[s] unto us spiritual things, we will set before him our carnal things: and he that soweth unto us spiritual things, it is the least that we minister unto him of our carnal things.

Fox clearly intended that traveling ministers should be given tangible assistance by those to whom they ministered. An appeal letter from Margaret Fell for the Kendal Fund in late 1654 stated:

So I knowing at this time that they are out of purse, I see in the eternal unchangeable light of God that all . . . who are of the body ought to . . . administer freely according to their abilities, as they have received of the Lord freely,
. . . therefore, that there may be some money in a stock for disbursing . . . either to Friends that go forth into the service or to prisoners’ necessities, I . . . am moved of the Lord to acquaint you with it, that in your several meetings . . . [funds] be gathered and sent . . . to be disbursed according as the Lord requires, and that the burden may not lie upon them more than on others.

Richard Hubberthorne wrote in 1659:

Let every one that will preach the Gospel live of the Gospel, and not upon any settled or State maintenance . . . for the cry of the honest and godly people of this nation is to have a free ministry and free maintenance, and are willing freely to maintain those that minister unto them the word and doctrine.

In other words, when Friends spoke of “free Gospel ministry” they did not mean there was no payment or cost, they meant that it was voluntary. It was free from state intervention and coercion. It was assumed that Friends would donate cash or in-kind contributions.

As their somewhat fluid movement developed the structures necessary for them to meet together to worship, and to carry out the ministry/evangelizing/work laid upon them by God, the Children of Light had to deal with the issue of financing the work. In 1660 in Skipton, a General Meeting approved a letter to the particular meetings that made a number of practical suggestions, among them appeals for funds. It directed that the monthly meeting (probably more like our present quarterly meeting in that it consisted of a number of local, particular meetings) “should supply the needs of Friends in the ministry among them, where necessary, and should relieve Friends who are in prison or suffering for Truth’s sake, making collections from time to time for these purposes.” Since money seems to bring up sticky issues (for us as well as for them), they specified that each meeting, whether particular, monthly, or general, should have full disposal of its own collections, “that as Friends according to their freedom do contribute, they may be also satisfied it is laid out by the power and in the wisdom of the body to whom they commit it.” The funds were carefully specified for the needs of the meetings in general, and not limited for those in the ministry, “who will be as much grieved as others offended to have a maintenance or hire raised on purpose for them.” So while it was clear Friends were not establishing a group of ministers whose sole support was through contributions paid into a fund for that single purpose, it is also clear that Friends did intend to offer their ministers some financial support as needed.

The final General Meeting in the north (before it was moved to London) was held at Kendal in 1661. Financial provision for the service of Truth occupied a large part of the agenda. Funds were particularly needed to pay transportation costs of Friends traveling in the ministry, spreading the word to Scotland, Ireland, and the continent. There were appeal letters and fundraising for the support of ministry and the needs of meetings. Obviously Friends were expected to pay.

In his Apology, Robert Barclay summed up Friends’ understanding:

Those who have received this holy and unspotted gift [of ministry] have received it without cost and should give it without charge (Matt. 10:8). They should certainly not use it as a trade to earn money. But, if God has called any of them from their regular employment, or the trade by which they earn their living, they should receive such worldly necessities as food and clothing. It is lawful for them to accept these as far as they feel allowed by the Lord, and as far as they are freely and cordially given by those with whom they have shared spiritual matters.

Barclay went on to admonish anyone against “making a bargain beforehand,” and against those who “will not preach to anyone until they are assured of so much a year.” He clarified: “Fixed remuneration is far from being something that a true minister should aim for or expect, but rather that being reduced to such a necessity that he desires it is a cross and a burden for him to bear.”

Barclay seemed to assume that most ministers would only need some support now and then; if a minister was wholly dependent on Friends’ support, it would be a cause of concern to the minister, since the minister would not want to be a burden on Friends and would be uneasy about receiving his or her sole support in exchange for the gifts of ministry God graciously had given him. The question then was not payment—it was assumed Friends would support ministry—but discerning who should receive payment, and under what circumstances. The issue for 17th-century Friends was to witness against the state-mandated “hireling” ministers that were paid by compulsory tithes extracted from everyone whether or not they attended that “corrupted” church.

Tithes and support of a state-established ministry have not been an issue in the United States since the adoption of the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of state religion. But questions remain for unprogrammed Friends around ministry and money.

In the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, payment to ministers as they traveled, or as they engaged in social action, was hardly ever mentioned in monthly meeting minutes. But that does not mean no assistance was given. There are enough folk memories and references unobtrusively gave cash to assist other Friends who were traveling in the ministry—both those going forth from their own meeting and visitors to their meeting.

However, as William Taber observed, it also was assumed that Friends who were ministers would have “a competence,” or as we might say, a “day job.” Like Paul of Tarsus with his tent-making, Friends expected all to support themselves, including ministers. They also understood that when a friend traveled in the ministry he or she might need additional support, as might a family left at home—and this help was provided.

In addition to voluntary contributions to traveling ministers, Friends were actively solicited for financial assistance to carry on projects, such as Anthony Benezet’s school for African Americans in the 18th century, and schools for freed slaves in the south after the Civil War. Monthly meetings collected money to help “necessitous Friends,” or those who suffered from a fire or other calamity. In the 18th century, subscriptions were raised, for example, to help those suffering from the Boston blockade in 1774: a piece of paper was passed around in the men’s meeting for business and individuals were invited to write down how much money they would contribute. Towards the end of the 19th century monthly meetings increasingly budgeted for social action and religious education projects and programs rather than passing a subscription paper for individual projects.

Before the separations of 1827-28, Sunderland P. Gardner wrote in his Memoirs, “When ministers from England, London Yearly Meeting, visited America, American Friends paid their expenses while here and vice versa, but this arrangement ceased at the time of the division.” His opinion then (1890) was that “if a monthly meeting thinks it is advisable to assist a member in his or her work by contributing of its substance, or if individuals feel this duty upon them, there is liberty; but being a spiritual affair, it should be felt after spiritually.” This seems to represent a subtle shift of emphasis from earlier language around the issue. The cause of the shift is embedded in the schisms of the 19th century.

It appears that our current theological difficulty with paying for ministry in any form stems from the 19th century, not the 17th. After the separations, Friends in each branch tended to define themselves in terms that differentiated them from those “others.” So when some Friends began active and enthusiastic evangelizing, others decided that “real” Friends (meaning “us”) don’t proselytize: never had, and never will. When some Friends paid pastors, others rediscovered the testimony against hireling ministers, deciding that Friends never paid anything for any form of ministry: never had, and never will. It is ironic that we remain trapped in the divisive language of our historical separations of the 19th century, and forget the example of earlier Friends who actively provided assistance where necessary.

The defining characteristic of the Religious Society of Friends is not whether we pay or do not pay ministers. Earlier Friends were drawn together to testify to what Christ was teaching them, inwardly. One of the things they were being taught was that a state-mandated church paid for through compulsory tithes was inimical to God’s Realm. A defining characteristic of Friends was their experience that God raised up ministers among them who would help them all live lives that witnessed to God’s Truth. Can we rediscover that we have been gathered together for the divine purpose of demonstrating through our daily lives together the kingdom that Jesus described as being among us?

It is time for us to lay aside our idols, and come with openness into God’s presence, together. Friends today need to open our hearts to see what God is teaching in regard to making it economically possible for a minister who is led to spiritual work that is recognized by his or her meeting to accomplish it. This is a critical piece of unfinished business for unprogrammed Friends. It is an opportunity for us to test again the experience of faithful Friends through the centuries that God will teach us and bring us into unity if we ask and listen.

Marty Grundy is a member of Cleveland Meeting, Lake Erie Yearly Meeting. She is a former clerk of Friends General Conference’s Traveling Ministries Committee.


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