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Faith and Practice

Pacific Yearly Meeting

of the

Religious Society of Friends

a guide to quaker discipline in the experience of pacific yearly meeting of the religious society of friends.
published 2001

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i: Pacific Yearly Meeting In Context

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A Brief History of the Religious Society of Friends

pym in context
quaker faith & spiritual practice
testimony & experience of friends
organization of the society
activities & organization of the YM
sources of quotations
index of sources
subject index

We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Friends who have permitted us to use material for this Faith and Practice.


 schisms among american quakers

  The breadth of vision that characterized the earliest Friends required a precarious balance among seemingly paradoxical factors. The tenderness of Penington and Penn, the passion and eloquence of Fox, the dedication and sacrifices of Mary Dyer, Elizabeth Fry, and Lucretia Mott revealed the variety of ways in which Friends’ convictions shaped lives.While their backgrounds were in Christian tradition, Friends were at the same time able to believe both in the significance of Jesus and in the “Inner Light,” which they affirmed had been and was still in every human being, whether or not they had heard of Jesus. While believing in the immediate communication between God and the individual, Friends also revered and found wisdom in the Bible. Amidst the joy of their mystical unity, they were also motivated to lead challenging lives of service beyond their own numbers. From time to time, one or another of these elements became paramount even to the point of jeopardizing the movement’s ‘wholeness.’

 During the 1800’s, schisms arose among American Friends. The “ Great Separation” of 1827-1828 began in Philadelphia YearlyMeeting when some tried to prevent Elias Hicks, a New York Quaker preacher, from speaking. Hicks’ followers were mostly country Friends who perceived urban Friends as worldly. Known as Hicksites, they placed a greater reliance on the Inward Light as a guide to the individual conscience, while “Orthodox” Friends tended to emphasize the Bible and Christian teaching as a guide. The split was not purely doctrinal. It reflected tensions that had been growing between the elders — who were mostly from the cities— and Friends who lived farther away from major communities and Meetings. Both groups continued as unprogrammed Meetings, having no designated preacher, music or ritual.

 Following this sad separation, which became bitterly hostile in some areas, Friends continued to divide over differences in discipline and dogma. Early Quakers had been both mystics and evangelists. Following the emphasis on quietism, and confronted with the burgeoning forces of revivalism, Friends were often unable to retain the underlying unity of their heritage. Further splits occurred in both types of American Yearly Meetings. Most Orthodox Friends followed Joseph John Gurney, a British Friend, whose teachings focused on the Bible as a basic guide. He led many Friends to an increasingly evangelistic conviction. John Wilbur, a birthright Friend from New England, was disturbed by the emphasis many British Friends placed on the Bible. He spoke eloquently on behalf of the leadings of the Inner Light of Christ as the basis of faith. As the Gurneyites moved toward a pastoral and programmed system, the Wilburites† saw this as a threat to traditional Quakerism and generally either withdrew or were expelled. They usually continued to hold unprogrammed worship. A Wilburite-Gurneyite separation was evident in New England by 1845, and in Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1854. It later spread throughout the U.S.

 From the time of the American Revolution, Friends in America had been faced with structural changes within the Religious Society of Friends. The Civil War brought further challenges to both faith and practice. Some Friends took up arms, while others would not. Individual families found themselves divided over how abolition was to be accomplished, and whether to help escaped slaves or obey federal laws. Some Friends were active in the Underground Railroad, and some were not.

 The Enlightenment, a new liberalism, and a thrust toward evangelical renewal were lively forces in the greater society throughout the 1800’s, particularly along the expanding American frontier. Charismatic speakers and massive revival meetings brought throngs of new adherents to many Protestant churches as the westward movement swept on. Some groups of Friends in the new communities held similar gatherings, thus gaining members who were unfamiliar with the traditional unprogrammed framework.

 Many Meetings were led to hire pastors to help with the influx of new members, sometimes becoming almost indistinguishable from traditional Protestant churches, with reading of scriptures, singing of hymns, and prepared sermons. Once a pastoral system had been accepted, it was difficult to relinquish. Indeed, many groups began calling themselves “Friends Churches” rather than the more traditional “Friends Meetings.” These followed the tenets of Joseph John Gurney and were located mostly in the Midwest, although some eastern Meetings were also affected.

 By 1885, there were three distinct kinds of Quakers in America. The Gurneyites (Orthodox) were evangelical and emphasized the primacy of scripture. The Hicksites were inner-directed, relying on the guidance of the light within and traditional forms of Quaker worship. The Conservatives fell in between the other two.With no written creeds, distinctions in doctrine were not obvious, but differences were evident in forms of worship, books of Discipline, and ways of life. Friends have attempted definitions, but no single statement of belief has ever successfully reflected the deep, often passionate faith of Friends.

† The term “Wilburite” was used prior to the Civil War in the United States;
after 1865 these were the “Conservative” branches.