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18th Century Quietism & 19th Century Schisms

The spread of the Religious Society of Friends to North America was originally motivated by a desire for religious liberty.  Within forty years of Quakerism’s beginnings, though, religious toleration had been granted in Britain and her colonies, and the original missionary zeal of Friends began to wane.  This new found tolerance, together with certain changes in the internal life of the Society, gave rise to what is now termed the "Quietistic Period" of 18th century Quakerism.  In this period, the Quaker movement began to assume a more definite organizational form, as its second generation of leadership became engrossed in perpetuating the life of their Society.  Even during the predominantly inward focus of the Quietistic Period, though, Friends continued to realize their Testimonies in the world at large.  This is reflected most clearly in the efforts of John Woolman (1720-1772) who agitated on principled grounds for granting freedom to slaves.  At the same time, the political constitution of the Pennsylvania colony came to most closely approximate the ideals of freedom, equality and religious tolerance that would come to exemplify the emerging nation of the United States of America as a whole.

If the 18th century is known as the Quietist Period of Quaker history, the 19th century might be best described as an era of schism.  Over the course of this turbulent century, several tragic separations occurred within the American branch of the Religious Society of Friends that have even yet to heal.  Simply put, these separations primarily revolved around differences of opinion over the religious authority to be granted the Bible versus that given to the Inner Light and leadings of the Spirit.  Some Friends tended to stress strict adherence to the teachings of the Gospels as the source of truth and life, while others tended to emphasize the importance of freedom of religious conscience and openness to emerging revelation.  (Fox, by contrast, would have disavowed the possibility of contradiction between these two sources of authority, correctly understood.)  In hindsight, the doctrinal schisms that arose among Friends in the 19th century may be seen to have stemmed from the increasing influence of other Christian traditions.  These divergent influences were further exacerbated by the geographical dispersal of Friends in this period, as large numbers of them migrated as pioneers to the interior of the American continent.

One of the most influential leaders among Friends who held the Light Within to be the primary source of religious authority was Elias Hicks (1748-1830).  Influenced by the "higher criticism" of the Bible then emerging in academic circles, Hicks’ followers pointed to the necessity of recognizing its historically bound nature.  The Bible says many things, a number of which can be shown to contradict one another if read too literally.  The only way to reconcile these competing expressions of truth, it was thought, was to understand the various books of the Bible in relation to the particular historical context in which they were written.  In contrast to those who took the Bible to be the final authority in religious matters, Hicks and his followers tended to emphasize the need for on-going revelation, stressing the primacy of the Inward Light over literal interpretation of Scripture as the true basis of sound religious doctrine.  This brewing conflict as to which provided the truer source of religious authority—the Bible or the Inward Light—led to the single most profound separation of Quakers in the first half of the 19th century, into Hicksite and Orthodox branches.

The liberal "Hicksite" interpretation of the Bible was quickly challenged by more evangelically minded Quakers.  One of the most prominent of these was Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847).  Articulate, Oxford educated (though denied a degree because of his Quaker beliefs) and fluent in both Greek and Hebrew, Gurney exercised wide influence among Orthodox Friends, eloquently elevating the authority of the Scriptures alongside the Light. Leadings of the Spirit, by contrast, began to assume a more supporting, interpretive role.  The ascendancy of Gurneyite orthodoxy also gradually led to the adoption of pastoral leadership among Friends and the formation of programmed meetings for worship (Cooper, A Living Faith, pg. 5).  Gurneyite Friends were receptive to the many traveling evangelists who formed part of the Great Revival movement then sweeping across America.  These more traditionally minded preachers brought God’s Word to many unchurched communities, especially along the American frontier.  Like the Gurneyites, they also tended to understand the Bible as the primary source of truth.

Gurneyite beliefs and practices were criticized by some leading Orthodox Friends, most notably John Wilbur (1774-1856).  While also not sympathetic to Hicksites, Wilber challenged the Gurneyite departure from silent worship and purely spirit led leadership.  Gurneyites constituted by far the larger group to emerge from the split that subsequently ensued, with 6,500 members, versus the 500 who became Wilberites.  Wilburites were later joined by other splits from the Gurneyite meetings in the late 19th century, though, composed of Conservatives and Independents who also lamented what they saw as the erosion of traditional Quakerism.  Despite these splits, pastoral leadership and programmed worship had, by the end of the 19th century, become the established norm in most Quaker meetings throughout the mid and far west.  Whereas most eastern Quakers retained unprogrammed forms of meeting for worship, more than seventy percent of American Quakers accepted pastoral leadership and programmed forms of worship composed of Bible readings, hymn singing, and a sermon.

While the Religious Society of Friends was riven by schism in the 19th century, at least in America, its members nevertheless continued to bear abundant fruit in terms of their work in the world.  Quaker advocates such as Elizabeth Fry (1780-1854) led successful efforts in prison reform and having the death penalty repealed.  Though Fry’s work was conducted primarily in England, she exercised considerable influence over parallel discussions occurring among American Friends.  The single most crucial contribution of American Quakers in the 19th century, though, was undoubtedly their central role in helping bring about the abolition of slavery.  Along with many other prominent Friends, advocates such as John Woolman and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) pressed for an end to slavery in America.  Levi Coffin (1798-1877) became especially well known for his role in organizing the Underground Railroad, which offered practical assistance and support to runaway slaves.  Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) not only engaged in anti-slavery work, but was also a prominent figure in the early beginnings of the feminist movement in America (Cooper, A Living Faith, pg. 128).  These prominent examples point to the fact that, even in the midst of profound disagreements over theological doctrine, Friends still retained sufficient consensus on practical matters to remain effective advocates for peace and justice in the world at large.