Schism and Reform: Circa 1800-1900

Even before the nineteenth century, American Friends exhibited two divergent tendencies: on the one hand, emphasizing the primary authority of the Inward Light; and on the other, emphasizing such Christian tenets as atonement and bodily resurrection and also the authority of the Bible. Regarding the latter tendency, George Keith (1638-1716), one of the earliest Quaker leaders in England, formed a separatist movement in Pennsylvania in the 1690s called the Christian Quakers. This group strongly emphasized the life and teachings of the historical Jesus and attempted to change the structure of governance within monthly meetings by requiring an affirmation of faith and establishing deacons and elders to monitor the theological views of those who spoke in meetings for worship. After being rebuffed by both Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and London Yearly Meeting, this movement disappeared. Keith’s efforts in the late 17th century clearly anticipate one of the tendencies in nineteenth century American Quakerism. Nor were Friends immune to the Great Awakening of the 18th century or the evangelical movement in the 19th century.

The other tendency emphasized the Inward Light as the primary basis for religious faith and practice. Elias Hicks (1748-1830), a Quaker farmer from Long Island, became the focal point of criticism from more evangelical Quakers. He was a strong abolitionist and challenged wealthy Friends and the use of any products of slave labor. Hicks emphasized the primacy of the Inward Guide and deplored creedal statements. He urged Friends to live apart from the world and opposed public education as well as the construction of the Erie Canal and a system of railroads. Elias Hicks was not leading a movement but rather represented traditional Quaker values and commitments and was attempting to recall Friends to their roots. His opposition to the wealth and power of Friends in such cities as Philadelphia drew support from many, though some leading Philadelphia Quakers believed that his intent was to undermine their power and authority.

Hicks’ traveling ministry led to a schism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827. Each group claimed to represent authentic Quaker faith and practice; they were identified as “Orthodox” and “Hicksite”. Economic, geographic, kinship and governance differences were involved in this conflict, in addition to the theological issues.

Orthodox Friends in Philadelphia continued to hold their yearly meetings at the 4th and Arch Street meetinghouse (now known as Arch Street Meeting House), while Philadelphia Hicksite Friends met elsewhere. The 1827 schism was followed by similar splits in Baltimore, New York, Ohio and Indiana Yearly Meetings; and the situation was soon complicated by other strong personalities, such as Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) and John Wilbur (1774-1856), and by other schisms. The Orthodox/Hicksite schism was further reinforced by London Yearly Meeting’s attempt to establish itself as a more evangelical Christian denomination and its rejection of Hicksite yearly meetings in North America.

Despite these differences, American Quakers made notable contributions during the nineteenth century. Friends were among those who participated in the settling of the western frontier before and after the Civil War. As holiness revivals began to occur there, many meetings hired a pastor and introduced an order of worship, including music. Primary and secondary education, always a major Quaker concern, was promoted by the establishment of a number of Quaker schools and, overcoming a long distrust of higher education, several colleges. Friends also worked for the abolition of slavery and war, for the welfare of African-Americans and Native Americans, for prison reform, for temperance, for the mentally ill, and for the rights of women. Some Quakers played a prominent role in the formation of the “underground railroad,” giving aid and shelter to people escaping slavery as they fled to northern states or Canada. And it is noteworthy that most of the organizers and officers of the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 were Quakers or former Quakers. Such activities placed members of the Religious Society of Friends in conflict with many in the larger society.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, Friends from the two branches met to explore approaches to education, peace and other issues. Hicksite Friends formed the Friends General Conference to nurture and unify that branch of American Quakerism.