Finally Breaking Down the Hedge?

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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 coordinate 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 coordination.

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.

Thomas Hamm

Thomas D. Hamm is professor of history and director of Special Collections at Earlham College and a member of West Richmond (Ind.) Meeting in the New Association of Friends.

12 thoughts on “Finally Breaking Down the Hedge?

  1. “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. ”

    And I find this absolutely bizarre. It seems to me Hicks’ name should’ve been thrown out by that point, given how positively adamant he was that plainness was of extreme importance, and how concerned he was to ensure that Nine Partners was a “select” (no non-Quaker kids or teachers around to be bad influences on the Quaker kids) Friends school. His faith was big-tent (but still decidedly Christian, of course — he sounds downright Born Again when he gets going on “crucify the old man”), but his practice was not. And then the Progressive Friends happen and…poof! “Faith? Sure, Spiritualism’s fine! Practice? Eh, we’re sitting quietly. Isn’t that enough for you? Sheesh, some people…”

  2. My father who had been Supt. of Indiana YM and Jamaica YM as well as a pastor in several YM and a missionary in Jamaica and Kenya, was “prophetic,” at least in my mind, when in 1946 or 47 he cautioned against the admittance of non-Quakers as pastors or at least with out major education in Friends Faith and Practice. I would interpret this as a “hedge” against non-Quaker influence which seemed to just increase in the latter half of the 20th century. Another aspect of his “prophetic nature” was when his pastoral and, even more critical, “missionary” work was seen as working himself out of a job. On the mission field this meant teaching and training the local individuals to take over all aspects of the “mission.” I personally can attest that this was not only not understood but was actually opposed by the “powers that be.” At the local Meeting level it meant that “church” congregations should be led to to recognize and develop the ministry of every member so that the pastor might become a “servant leader” rather then anything more. This too was opposed by many of the “powers” and by many Friends ministers who preferred to be identified as “Rev.”
    His feelings became so great that in the last few years of his death, at age 57 in 1976, he came to the point that he commented that he believed that the “pastoral SYSTEM”” (my emphasis added) had ruined Quakerism. He also was developing an article in which he was suggesting that Yes (at least NC where he was) should consider disbanding and having the individual churches decide which denomination they more closely identified with with possibly a few remaining as individual Friends Meetings.
    In my own feelings, I would suggest that in the last 50+ years his warnings that the “hedge” (not his word but I suspect he would have agreed) was already dying out only became much clearer. I would also suggest that the “other wing” of Friends similarly has lost much of its “Friends” identity.

  3. The Jefferson Airplane had a good song called “Lather”. Conceived in the open classroom of California, aided by drugs as the mood inclined, it pictures a person struggling with an absence of identity.

    This is a problem of contemporary Quakerism. An absence of identity. As we discussed at one Ministry and Counsel meeting: yes, its great that everyone at the Meeting believe different things; but, what do we all believe different? extended silence. eventually someone said “we are all seekers”. more slience.

    All individuals and institutions struggle with the tension between innovation and tradition. The Disciplines helped channel this tension. Such an ambitious religion needs some limits, some boundaries.

    Lather was thirty years old today,
    They took away all of his toys.
    His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
    About his friends who had stopped being boys.
    There was Howard C. Green, just turned thirty-three,
    His leather chair waits at the bank.
    And Sergeant Dow Jones, twenty-seven years old,
    Commanding his very own tank.
    But Lather still finds it a nice thing to do,
    To lie about nude in the sand,
    Drawing pictures of mountains that look like bumps
    And thrashing the air with his hands.

    But wait, ol’ Lather’s productive you know,
    He produces the finest of sound,
    Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose,
    Snorting the best licks in town,

    But that’s all over…

    Lather was thirty years old today
    And lather came foam from his tongue.
    He looked at me, eyes wide, and plainly say,
    “Is it true that I’m no longer young?”
    And the children call him famous,
    What the old men call insane.
    And sometimes, he’s so nameless,
    That he hardly knows his own name, what game to play,
    Which words to say.

    Read more: Jefferson Airplane – Lather Lyrics | MetroLyrics

  4. Thanks Tom for this very good article which treats all modern branches. The “myth” that Hicksites were followers of Elias Hicks still persists. Those who separated in Philadelphia YM were defenders of his right to speak and the established leaders role in disrespected Elias Hicks who was not as Mackenzie points out a liberal.

  5. I think this is an extreme concluding statement in this article:

    “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.”

    There is no doubt that Quakers in all four branches: Pastoral, Conservative, Evangelical, and liberal – are in transition. Yet, I see no “breaking point”. I see new horizons as all of these Friends seek Light in their lives and their church/meeting spiritual communities. The result may well be a “convergence” rather than a “breaking point”.

    ‘Transitions’ are times of uncertainty until those who are transitioning find their bearings as they face new challenges due to a changing world.

    Just some changes happening in the Quaker world that I’ve observed that will be just fine once clarity emerges:

    – liberal Yearly Meeting structures are under pressure to simplify so their constituent monthly meetings are not burdened with huge apportionments placed on them by their yearly meetings. Newly created liberal Yearly Meetings are utilizing modern structures like the internet to either eliminate apportionments or reduce them greatly. Older liberal Yearly Meetings need to follow suit, and also eliminate administrative overhead. The need for burdensome overhead is minimized in this modern age where everyone utilizes social media to carry-out common interests, and socialize among Friends instead of physically traveling. Many liberal meetings are now just opting-out of paying the high apportionment assigned to them by their Yearly Meetings.

    – Conservative Friends (with perhaps the exception of Ohio Yearly Meeting-Conservative) are fast abandoning the old Conservative Quaker ways and are looking more like liberal Quakers in their thinking and openness to non-Christian spirituality. This is especially true as liberal Quaker meetings are doing the reverse: re-embracing the teachings of Jesus as a respected and valued spiritual path in their meetings’ universal spirituality.

    – Many Pastoral Quaker meetings/churches (Programmed and semi-Programmed) are finding they have more in common with liberal unprogrammed meetings than they do with many other Pastoral Quaker meetings; and they are associating (as individuals or congregations) with FGC.

    – Of late Evangelical and liberal Quaker meetings/churches are finding common ground on their view of church (Quaker) structures. While dedicated to unprogrammed worship, many liberal Quaker meetings are now valuing the leadings of the Spirit over expected Quaker traditions like using Quakerees in official records and documents, and assuming official (recorded) membership for positions in the meeting (including even clerk of meeting). Personal commitment and a personal life in the Spirit is viewed as essential, while recorded membership is viewed as a legacy of the past.

    – liberal Quakers are re-examining their meeting’s burdensome operational structure that rotates at set intervals the hard-wired committee positions they use to operate their meetings. They are “breaking all the rules” with this century-old structure because it is wearing their Friends down. Many are turning to a simpler arrangement that was actually used by the first century followers of Jesus (before the label ‘Christian’ was even used). (for more information about this refer to this analysis of Quaker meeting structures I presented; you may have to copy and paste into your browser):

  6. I judge all things by a simple standard: does it bring me closer to God?
    I found this article did not .
    I am curious, does anyone else use this standard?
    How did the article affect them?

  7. Thanks,Friend Tom, for a great article that is not only an interesting account of Quaker history in America but also
    a prophetic warning about the inevitable disintegration of any community that seeks to coerce with rules and “law” where it cannot convince with love and respect. It is a very erudite expression of the challenges facing modern Friends. Our worship group here in Oklahoma has had to manage for many years without much help or any encouragement from the traditional Yearly Meeting structure. We tried for years to establish a connection with the larger organizational structure and were continually met with obstacles, incompetence, and generally a sense of incomprehension on the part of the TWO different Yearly Meetings we tried to engage with. In the end we decided that while some Friends whose thinking is embedded in organizational structures may feel they own the word “meeting” or “friend” no one owns our Quaker Faith and that where “two or more are gathered” in His name God is present. Every time we set ourselves up as little Vaticans we pay a price in schism and broken hearts.

  8. If one believes to Walk in Spirit, there virtually is no need for rules. People know how to treat one another or one must say something in Love to another and reach understanding.
    Our Gathering is no longer a Meeting…take the formalities out. We gather In Nature or sometimes a Friend’s home in Inclement weather or a special occasion, but prefer to Silently Worship and Break Bread in the Creator’s Creation Of Wonder and Beauty. To be a Community, act like a Community and Simply Care about One Another. We are split in Hawaii due to a lack of respect toward the local Asian Polynesian and local Culture, so We, Friends of Color, all Colors with Open Minds,have pointed this out to other Quakers here. For example, Over 10 Years, Some Mainland Proud Quakers expect you to come to their Gig or Meeting but refuse to join yours. Where is the Equalty, the Community, and the Love in that Attitude? It’s a continuance of the Dominant Eurocentric Attitude that prevails. Bottom line. We will continue to grow our Gathering of Love!
    We are the Volcano Friends for Truth and Peace. Proud to associated with the Ohio Valley Meeting, historically is First Gathering Of Radical and Mystic Right On Quakers and some our First Abolitionists in Waynesville, Ohio. My hometown is next door, Bellbrook, Ohio.

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