Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
In a recent discussion with a couple of experienced Quakers, whose faith seeks to transcend conflict to arrive at peace, I found the seeds of dissension embedded deep within their hearts and minds.
In the 1820's or so, American Quakers underwent the first schism in the history of our Society. The foremost personalities in this split were a man named Wilbur and another man named Hicks and the American Society divided largely along urban-rural lines. Beyond this, I know few particulars of the split. I know only that it was bitter and that it's effects endure into the 21st century, nearly 200 years later. This saddens me.
I find that Friends still see others as divided by this feud, but rarely see themselves as either victims or perpetrators of this divide. It is important to remember that Quakers speak loudly and write voluminously about their desire to see peace in this world.
One Friend was particularly vociferous in his bemoaning the divisions between Wilburites and Hicksites, so I asked him how important it was for me to understand the controversy of 200 years ago. He was adamant that one must understand the actions of our fore bearers in order to heal the pain experienced by these long-dead members of our society. He also gave his highest recommendation to the writings of Elias Hicks.
I stated (roughly) ‘It seems to me that in order to forgive, one need simply forgive.’ To me, this means to listen intentionally, understand fully the other’s pain and my part in creating it, as well as the sensitivities arising from that pain. I consequently need to act in such a way as to honor both the pain and the Truth.
I then asked whether it was crucial that I read up on this split to be a functional member of the Society today. Several friends including the aforementioned man assured me it was indeed.
I here post this question openly. As an active participant of the Society for less than two years, is it essential that I understand the points of view of Hicks and Wilbur? Do I need to seek and give forgiveness with people today for actions committed two centuries ago? Can I take any steps toward that end by reading anything?
As I see it, I need to be in community with all Friends and all my neighbors in the here and now. Dedicating resources tantamount to a 200 level seminar on early 19th century American Quaker history on the eastern seaboard: while there are bombs dropping in Afghanistan, sabers rattling throughout the Mediterranean, stomachs grumbling in my own back yard, coffee farmers struggling in Nicaragua, minorities being oppressed in our own country and all because of decisions made using our tax dollars; seems an imprudent use of time.
I am an inexperienced Friend and welcome eldering on this matter, but as I said that morning, I am convinced that everything I need to read to sufficiently understand conflict and how to deal with it has been in writing since at least Matthew, Mark, Luke and John took up the pen. I look forward to the conversations going forward with all of you.
Love and thanks
Josh von Kuster
Multnomah Monthly Meeting
Northwest Pacific Yearly Meeting
As a nearly 30 year member of the Religious Society of Friends, and an avid reader all that time about Quaker history, I assure you Friend that it is NOT essential or even necessary in the slightest for you to spend your time investigating the schisms of long ago. You have obviously been drawn to your meeting for what it offers you spiritually. That's all you need to experience in order to be an active Quaker.
If you are curious about other branches of Quakers, then go for it. But it will tell you little more about the living faith you have embraced in the here and NOW, because you are experiencing it. What better teacher is there than experience?
I am assuming that your meeting is a descendant of the Hicksite branch (as is mine). That is likely why you have been given the opinion that it is a "better road". It is the branch that has the least uniformity of belief, while also having the most emphasis on the "Inner Light" as one's guide rather than any religious book or human leader. But then you've likely already noticed that.
The other branches have come to varying belief structures (doctrines) and reliance on the Bible to varying degrees (spoken by me like a "Hicksite"). The Hicksite branch (today referred to as "liberal Quakers") has essentially never had a schism (that lasted), while the other branches have had too many to list. Such is the result of insisting on conformity of thought.
I think that you have your history mixed up; it was Hicksites vs. Orthodox in the 1820s; Wilburites vs. Gurneyites in the 1840s and later. And some of what you wrote is oversimplified to the point of being inaccurate. The Hicksites and Orthodox did not divide neatly into rural and urban categories; rural Hicksites and urban Orthodox were primarily a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting phenomenon. And, in modern times, the Orthodox (including Gurneyites and Wilburites) tend to be non-urban, while the "liberal Friends" are heavily urban.
If you scratch the surface, the Hicksite Friends experienced major internal differences in the 19th Century, but the traditionalists lost out rather quickly. Their failure to split frequently does not mean that they were all happy campers as the anti-traditionalists took over!
The most important reason for understanding the history of Friends, including their differences and divisions, is to better grasp the state of the Society of Friends in our own time. One of the insights such understanding should foster is how limited one's own perspective is. Greater self-insight is a quality we should all strive for!
As a Friend for 25 years, but new to QuakerQuaker, I want to thank you for your question. It got me thinking about a few things I perhaps should pay more attention to. No, I don’t think it is "necessary" to understand or concern ourselves with the disputes and divisions of ancient Quaker history. The schisms of the past were not Friends’ finest moments. But neither are the schisms of the present. And perhaps that is where there might be some value in looking back to those times when the Society of Friends stumbled, and fell, and though wounded, got back up again.
I have often wondered if Quakers spend too much time concerned about what separates us instead of what unites us. This is true of the larger culture, of course, with the Culture Wars and what have you...but the outside world is not called specifically to be a Community drawn by God and held together in love. Would those things that divide and separate Friends seem as important or as significant if we remembered to ask ourselves the question, "How does this address our Call to be a Community drawn by God to be held together in love?".
Is this a difficult question for Friends to ask?
I feel drawn these days to think about the wide diversity in the Society of Friends as perhaps one of our most important witnesses to the world. Within our little Society can be found the whole spectrum of thoughts and beliefs and experiences of the Christian Church - AND beyond. Can we still be f/Friends?
What if our weaknesses were our strengths? What if our proclivity to splinter led us not to merely solidify our certainties, but to humbly face our brokenness? Perhaps if this was the lesson learned, our schisms past and present might be worth it.
I would have to agree with Friend William and Friend Randy both. Remember enough of the past not to have it repeat and re-repeat. . .
I am not well versed or able to speak to thee more than the above.
Your point is well taken. Yes, of course, the sometimes petty and insular historic squabbles of the Society of Friends pale when compared to the horrific pain and suffering of this world. So I agree - aren’t we being self-centred (not to mention self-absorbed and ineffective) when we focus on schisms of the past, or theological hair-splitting in the present, when there are so many more important things to do?
But, in my opinion, we as a Society DO exist in order to understand ourselves IN ORDER TO make an impact on the world at large. When did the Religious Society of Friends do this? Well, I would suggest, when Friends individually and collectively stood against slavery and other evils, and when Friends worked actively to alleviate suffering in war, to protect the rights of women and children and those in prison...as has often been pointed out, "far out of proportion to our numbers" in the larger culture. How did the Society of Friends do this? I believe it was when we were most centred on that of God in each other and in the larger society, when we were most open to God’s Spirit moving through us, when we were most willing to live life fully for each other and when we were "most excited to endeavor to mend" the world.
How else might this little Society of 100,000 or so impact on the overwhelming evils of the world?
Let me give you a personal experience which, for me, pointed a way that has only recently opened to me a truth I had not considered before. I have been to many marches and demonstrations over the years; I’ve written the letters, visited my Congressmen, testified at my State House...all the activist things. But during the first Gulf War, I joined a few dozen Friends on Boston Common standing silently in a vigil with a single sign that read, "Quaker Witness for Peace". No posters, no speeches, no angry shouts, no letters, no press releases. Why was that significant? Because we witnessed to A DIFFERENT WAY OF BEING IN THE WORLD. Not of violence, not of angry slogans, not of self-righteous blame casting, not of division.
So I think that whenever we can find a way to act with Love, we will have a valuable witness to the world. And maybe by looking at those times, past and present, when we have not always done that might lead us in repentance back to our Guide.
Josh von Kuster said:
My question is not about the particulars for this schism or that. While it may be useful to note that one side or another has fared better subsequently, and the reasons for that faring, my question remains whether we as a society exist in order to understand ourselves, or to make an impact on the world at large. I suggest that while we live in a country which bombs indiscriminately in Pakistan, which uses free trade agreements to oppress in central America and Asia, which refuses to uphold international norms such as the Kyoto protocol and the charter for the International Criminal Court; that our personal resources can be directed more effectively toward those areas than toward 200-year passed events relevant only to less than 100,000 people in this country.
Josh von Kuster wrote: "...my question remains whether we as a society exist in order to understand ourselves, or to make an impact on the world at large."
Josh's question takes us back to the issues of who we are as persons and as a church fellowship, of what our collective goals are, and of what the appropriate means are for pursuing them. There is really no way around the issues of identity and purpose.
Josh's comments assume answers to these questions, answers that many other Friends would question.
I've never been fond of either... or questions. I tend to believe that the truth lies in both..and.
We do need to be mindful of the current pain and brokenness as well as our part in its healing. I also believe that the past has something to teach us.
First is the myth in the righteousness of our own branch as "true" followers of Fox. Studying the divisions can show us what "our side" lost. Speaking as someone from the liberal branch, I begin to see how we've frequently throw out the baby with the bathwater.
As we try to heal the world today, do stay open to humanness of the "other"? Do we stop to question our own righteousness?
Second, it can help develop understanding and Friendship between the branches. By being part of a program, Way of the Spirit, which intentionally includes the liberals and evangelicals (we don't have conservative meeting in the northwest USA), I have found incredible enrichment in studying shared roots and how we live this in the world today.
If we can't cross our own boundaries, I don't think we have much of a peace testimony
Finally, I start to question what was behind the splits. The Old Discipline from Quaker Heritage Press reproduces 19th century books of faith and practice from all sides of the splits. In the introduction it notes "The Hicksite/Orthodox schism of 1827-28 had little effect on the the Discipline. Friends in both branches went on using the same books of discipline as before, to such an extent that only a student of the subject can distinguish a Hicksite from an Orthodox Discipline."
So I have to ask myself, if the Faith and Practice of both sides was unchanged, how much of our divisions then and now are really about the important doctinal issues? Do we need to search for deeper, darker influences on conflict within our own RSoF and in the wider world? How do we avoid the mistakes of the past?
Hello, Stephanie! Books of discipline are usually not good indicators of current thinking in many Quaker groups. Faith "on the street" often differs markedly from what's "on the books".
I think that there were significant doctrinal differences involved in the Hicksite/Orthodox splits, but it was also true that many other factors such as kinship and social ties were often involved. To illustrate, Samuel Levick was quite orthodox in theology, but he sided with the Hicksite because his family and friends were predominantly from that group. Interestingly, he was well received in Orthodox circles despite his Hicksite affiliation.
Even though Elias Hicks was the pivotal Hicksite figure in the Hicksite/Orthodox split, his own religious viewpoint was abandoned by the Hicksite intelligentsia, in favor of a more radically non-traditional theology.
You're right. There were very real theological differences. Even so, Marge Abbot's book A Different Kind of Perfection has writings from both sides of the various splits. Once again, it can be hard to tell who was in what camp.
I still suspect there was something more that cause peopled to behave in frequently unFriendly ways.
And you're correct about the Hicksite's abandoning Hicks' own viewpoint. "These scripture testimonies give a true and correct description of the gospel state, and no rational being can be a real Christian and true disciple of Christ until he comes to know all these things verified in his own experience" The Journal of Elias Hicks.
I hesitate to add anything, but I think the "Beanites," which Multnomah Meeting "belongs to," are a "branch" that hs not been mentioned. I also think the "Evangelical" branch which is quite evident in Oregon has not been mentioned too much. In some cases, the question of support for "patriotism," exclusion of "homosexuality," "literal" interpretation of the Bible, including "creationism" as the correct biological story, etc. are still relevant for today.
Also, one of the earliest "splits" in the Society occurred as early as 300+ years ago over the interpretatation of the Bible and the question of doctrinal correctness as being "Protestant" or not with GeorgeKeith at the center of a controversy.