It is my experience that good Quaker process helps us unite in finding God’s path forward and in building community, while poor process or misuse can tear us apart. The most painful schisms in Quaker history—the Hicksite-Orthodox split and the Gurneyite-Wilburite split—were marked by blatant misuse of Quaker process and unloving treatment of some Friends by other Friends.
In the controversies among American Friends in the early 1800s which coalesced around the theology and preferences of Elias Hicks and those who had unknowingly slipped into evangelical Christianity (“the Orthodox”), a mutual distrust developed. The Orthodox found themselves dismayed by the elderly minister’s emphasis on the primacy of the Inner Light over Scripture and individual conscience over traditional Quaker discipline, while Hicks’ friends were in turn dismayed by the spirited attacks on Hicks, his preaching, and himself. Calling themselves “tolerants,” they in turn attacked the Orthodox.
In a rather odd book, The Hicksite Separation: A Sociological Analysis of Religious Schism in Early Nineteenth Century America, Robert W. Doherty explains:
The tactics of the Orthodox leaders were also a source of alienation. Orthodox efforts to control and change the Society of Friends frequently took the form of personal attacks upon Friends who disagreed with them. Elias Hicks was the most important of the individuals subjected to these attacks, but was by no means the only one. To some extent, the word “attack” is too strong, for the Orthodox usually remained within traditions of privacy and brotherly love. On the other hand, they sometimes ignored these limitations and engaged in vindictive and insulting harangues upon other members of the Society, breaking with both propriety and tradition in doing so.
Early nineteenth century Quakerism represented a closely knit community. Business, friendship, and marriage all were circumscribed by the bounds of the Society. Thus an attack upon any single individual inevitably involved Friends who had no direct connection with the issues involved, but who were friends of the individual, friends of his relatives, relatives of his friends, and so on.
This complex network of personal relationships undoubtedly had a strong influence on the course of the Separation. For example, all the eventual Hicksite leaders were friends of Elias Hicks before the first attack was made upon him in 1819, but they did not all endorse his doctrinal opinions.
Thomas D. Hamm, who I consider the best contemporaory Quaker historian in America for his thorough scholarship, even-handed treatment of conflicting factions, and ability to tell it like it is, in his 1988 book on this period, The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800–1907, wrote this about the subsequent Wilburite-Gurneyite split:
During the 1820s, [John Wilbur] was one of the leading Orthodox Friends in New England, in the forefront of its battle against Hicksism. Already widely traveled in the United States, in 1832 Wilbur felt drawn to Europe. Long disturbed by [Joseph John] Gurney’s writings, Wilbur naturally gravitated toward Gurney’s conservative opponents in England. Wilbur vented his fears in a series of letters, later published, that attacked Gurney’s views. When Gurney came to New England in 1838, Wilbur privately attempted to acquaint Friends there with the Englishman’s “unsoundness.”
A majority of Friends in New England Yearly Meeting found Gurney’s ministry acceptable and considered Wilbur’s actions defamatory. In an unprecedented move, the yearly meeting appointed a committee packed with Gurneyites to silence Wilbur. When the monthly meeting to which Wilbur belonged refused to take action against the old minister, the Gurneyites dissolved it, attached its membership to another monthly meeting, and then used that monthly meeting to disown Wilbur in 1843.
Thomas D. Hamm continues the story:
Outraged, in 1845 Wilbur’s supporters separated from the larger body in New England Yearly Meeting, taking about 10 percent of the yearly meeting with them.
As I see it, Wilbur’s attempts to protest Gurney’s views were not in line with Friends’ practice. Quakers then and now take Jesus’ model in Matthew 18:15–17 for dealing with conflict within the community at its face value:
If your sister or brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If she or he listens to you, you have won a loved one back; if not, try again, but take one or two others with you, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses.
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
According to this accepted practice, Wilbur should have approached Gurney personally in private, or if distance didn’t permit that, at least to have written to him, and tried to work things out. Failing that, he should have involved one or two other Friends to be witnesses and intermediaries in trying to work things out. Failing that, he could legitimately have brought the matter to a body of Friends openly. Instead, he went behind Gurney’s back every time.
The response by New England Friends was, however, totally out of line. Rather than meeting with Wilbur in what would at that time have been a usual disciplinary process, a decision was made about him without any due process. Dissolving his monthly meeting for refusing to disown him was highly contentious. Assigning his membership, as well as those of the rest of the Friends in his meeting, to a more compliant meeting and then persuading that meeting to disown him was a blatant power play. As I see it, it was not so much the disagreement over mixing with “the world” (non-Quakers) and whether the Inner Christ or Scripture carries the greater authority that caused the parting of the ways as it was the bad treatment of one another, which each party felt to be inexcusable.
I have been a witness to a controversy in a monthly meeting in which differing parties held together in mutual concern and forbearing love, bringing Friends closer together while at the same time holding with integrity the tension of their disagreement. This is Quakerism done well.
Robert W. Doherty, The Hicksite Separation: A Sociological Analysis of Religious Schism in Early Nineteenth Century America, Rutgers University Press, 1967, p. 79
Thomas D. Hamm, The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800–1907, Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 28
Thomas D. Hamm, The Quakers in America, Columbia University Press, 2003, p. 49
Matthew 18:15–16, inclusive new testament by Priests for Equality
Matthew 18:17, New Revised Standard Version