It appears that Friends are again at a point of questioning whether institutions that have served well for centuries have finally become obsolete. Part of the problem may be that we are using structures that past generations of Friends created for very different purposes.
From the beginning of the Quaker movement, Friends have made decisions about acceptable conduct. The Epistle from the Elders at Balby is the best-known example of this. By the eighteenth century, these rules and advices were collected in what Friends referred to as the Discipline. Friends created rules and structures “for the exercise of a Christian care over each other for the preservation of all in unity of faith and practice” and “as an exterior hedge of preservation to us, against the many temptations and dangers to which we are exposed.” Today, my sense is that only a minority of Friends—mainly pastoral Friends and those in Ohio Yearly Meeting—are concerned with the “unity of faith and practice” that our structures were intended to uphold.
Until the late nineteenth century, it was understood that to be a Friend meant to live according to the Discipline. Some of its strictures, against dishonesty, drunkenness, and other forms of immoral behavior, would have been embraced by believers of all kinds. Others expressed distinctive Quaker beliefs, such as the prohibition on oath taking. Still others, founded on Quaker understandings of Truth, served as part of the “hedge,” most notably plainness of dress and address. Finally, Friends created a hierarchy of meetings, similar to a Presbyterian system, to maintain ties and order.
Before the mid-nineteenth century, few Friends questioned this hierarchy of Quaker business organization. It was understood that preparative meetings were subordinate to monthly meetings, monthly meetings were subordinate to quarterly meetings, and that yearly meetings represented the highest level of authority among Friends. In turn, American Friends deferred to London Yearly Meeting as “the good old mother yearly meeting,” and regarded visiting English Friends as especially favored guides.
The theological diversity that appeared among Friends after 1820 produced the first challenges to this consensus. When Orthodox Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting tried to silence Elias Hicks, Hicks and his supporters perceived a clear abuse of power. It finally led them to conclude that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had become so corrupt that a complete reorganization was necessary to return it to a sound basis. Once reorganized, however, they made only minor changes in the Discipline. They reinterpreted certain aspects of Quaker business practice, determining, for example, that a yearly meeting could not transfer a monthly meeting from one quarterly meeting to another without its consent. What distinguished Hicksites from Orthodox was the emerging Hicksite consensus that purely theological views were a matter of individual science and thus not a matter for church Discipline or disownment.
The only truly radical challenge to customary ways came in the 1840s and 1850s, when Hicksites who had embraced radical reform causes like women’s rights and nonresistance broke away, or (in their own view) were forced out to form groups of what they called Congregational or Progressive Friends. Committed to the utmost spiritual and political liberty, they effectively abolished the Discipline, ceased appointing elders or recording ministers, and regarded anyone as a member who wished to attend their meetings. Some see the Progressive Friends as forerunners of modern liberal Quakerism, although their organizations proved short-lived.
By the late nineteenth century, Hicksite Friends, while maintaining their long-standing organizational structure, had ceased to see the Discipline and the plain life as hedges against the world. Only flagrant moral failures, such as being convicted of a felony, brought disownment. By far the most common reason for loss of membership was effectively resigning it by nonattendance or joining another church. Hicksites found a new vision of religious life through forming a religious community based on commitment to the Inner Light as the highest form of religious authority and bringing the message of Christ to reality through philanthropic and humanitarian work. Thus Friends General Conference (FGC) began as Friends Union for Philanthropic Labor. Similarly, the schools under their control ceased to be “select,” limited to Quaker students and staff. By the 1910s, a few meetings were finding it desirable to employ a meeting secretary to coördinate the varied committees that meetings saw as necessary to the life of the meeting. Over the past century, meetings in FGC and independent yearly meetings, such as Pacific, have shown considerable creativity in adapting older structures. Clearness committees are a prime example.
Meanwhile, Orthodox Friends were passing through a different set of changes, which ultimately brought them, however, to a similar conclusion. They also experienced stresses in the 1840s and 1850s. Most drew closer to the larger religious culture of the United States, becoming explicitly evangelical in faith and forming links through reform and humanitarian work, ranging from antislavery to missionary societies to Sunday schools, with non-Quaker evangelicals. They became known as Gurneyites, after Joseph John Gurney, the English minister who was an articulate advocate of this vision. The minority who saw such ties as endangering Quaker peculiarity and distinctiveness became known as Wilburites. The result was another series of separations. After 1870, most Gurneyites transformed even more radically, eventually embracing pastoral ministry and a programmed form of worship. Those who could not accept such changes left to join the older Wilburite groups, forming what became known as Conservative Friends. Conservative Friends held to traditional understandings of the Discipline long after other bodies of Friends had given up on them.
Pastoral Friends mostly embraced what became in 1902 the Five Years Meeting of Friends (now Friends United Meeting). They had revised their Disciplines after 1870 to reflect their ceasing to enforce older standards of Quaker plainness and separation from “the world.” Many attempted, however, to preserve the Discipline for use against moral and theological deviations. Selling alcoholic beverages, for example, meant forfeiting one’s membership. And to challenge what were seen as fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the authority of Scripture or the Atonement, still brought disownment. But pastoral Friends were more lax on other matters. They maintained traditional statements concerning war, for example, but did not see military service as a matter for disciplinary labor but rather of individual conscience.
Over the course of the twentieth century, this drift away from organizational and disciplinary uniformity continued. One of the foundations of the Five Years Meeting had been a Uniform Discipline for its member yearly meetings. In 1950, however, diversity had become so great the Five Years Meeting gave up on a uniform doctrinal statement, and since then its yearly meetings have given up any coördination.
Still, some few Conservative Friends and many evangelical Friends (both those in Evangelical Friends International and Friends United Meeting) have continued to see yearly meetings as final guarantors of faith and practice, with the power to bring the erring into line, both for their own well-being and for maintaining a consistent Christian witness to the world. Such Friends, however, generally distinguish between essential and nonessential matters. A good example can be found in Indiana Yearly Meeting in the past decade. Some of its churches decided to allow what they called “liberty of conscience” on the matter of outward sacraments, permitting their use in their worship. This brought protests from others in the yearly meeting, but the yearly meeting was never able to agree on a response. On the other hand, when one meeting adopted a “welcoming and affirming” statement on same-sex relationships, churches where outward sacraments were used were among the most vocal in demanding sanctions from the yearly meeting. The difference proved so intractable that it led to what became known as “reconfiguration.” The meetings that desired an organization in which the yearly meeting did not have oversight powers left to form the New Association of Friends. The 15 meetings who chose thus are theologically diverse but are united in desiring maximum local autonomy. Meetings with dual affiliations feel such tensions acutely. Western Yearly Meeting is a good example. Beginning in the 1980s, meetings also affiliated with Ohio Valley or Illinois yearly meetings decided to bless same-sex unions. For Ohio Valley and Illinois, such decisions were a local matter. But for Western, they were fundamental matters of faith and practice not to be done before the yearly meeting had reached unity. The response of some Friends is to affirm diversity as a good. For others, it is to challenge the very viability of dual affiliation.
For over a century, Friends have adapted traditional structures to contemporary needs. But the breaking point may have been reached. The next decade may well show whether Friends will be able to continue.