Quaker Heritage Press > Historical Essays > Quaker Theologies in the 19th Century Separations
In 1827 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting split into two groups, calling each other "Hicksites" and "Orthodox."1 (The Hicksites were the only group polite enough to name their opponents for their aspirations and not for an individual leader.) The theological issue, very roughly stated, was that the Orthodox saw the Hicksites as tolerating deviation from certain basic Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Christ and the atonement, while the Hicksites saw the Orthodox as interpreting these doctrines in too Protestant a way, and as insisting that only their own interpretation was acceptable. Complicating factors included the Hicksite perception that some of the Orthodox were getting soft on slavery (by failing to boycott products of slave labor).2
As a result of the separation in Philadelphia, all of the other yearly meetings soon found themselves receiving not one but two versions of the annual epistle from Philadelphia. This immediately caused the parliamentary question of which one was to be read aloud during the recipient yearly meeting's business sessions. In four cases (New York, Baltimore, Ohio, and Indiana Yearly Meetings) the question could not be decided, producing immediate separations in those yearly meetings as well by 1828.3 The rest of the yearly meetings, including the prestigious one in London, did not split but simply recognized the Orthodox as the legitimate body.
The second separation, dividing the Orthodox into "Wilburite" and "Gurneyite" factions, began in New England Yearly Meeting in 1845.4 Joseph John Gurney, a British Quaker from a prominent family (and brother of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry), sought to bring Quakers into various pan-Protestant causes such as the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was a prolific theological writer, but some Orthodox Quakers felt he must not be waiting for the Spirit's guidance since he seemed willing to give away some Quaker distinctives. His most vocal opponent, John Wilbur of Rhode Island, was disowned for promoting contention in 1843, an event which triggered the 1845 New England separation.
This time the separation spread much more slowly. Most of the Orthodox yearly meetings simply recognized the New England Gurneyites, but Ohio Orthodox managed to sit on the fence, avoiding the inevitable until 1854, when Ohio's Gurneyites lost patience and seceded. This nearly prompted a split in Philadelphia Orthodox, but a clever delaying tactic was discovered (suspending all official correspondence with other yearly meetings) and was subsequently institutionalized, permanently avoiding local schism but weakening more distant relationships. Most of the Orthodox Yearly meetings turned Gurneyite by default, with here and there a later split-off by "Conservatives" who eventually gravitated to the Wilburite orbit. Philadelphia's semi-detached stance kept the separation from ever becoming complete.
The 20th century has seen more sweeping theological changes in all branches, which this paper will not deal with.
This paper will draw doctrinal statements only from 19th-century sources. My excuse for this is that modern historians are often wrong when they try to interpret Quaker theology. Take for instance Larry Ingle, the latest historian to write on the Hicksite/Orthodox separation. Seeking Hicksite roots in the 18th-century Quaker Job Scott, Ingle gives us the following quote:
The sufferings of the seed in that one specially prepared body, could do no more toward reconciling a soul to God, than the blood of bulls and goats toward the washing away of sin.5What Ingle does not tell us is that Scott's sentence does not end here; it goes on:
were it not that the promise is sure to all the seed; and that the seed is one in all; its sufferings one; its reigning and rejoicing one.6This presents a very different picture. (To decipher it we need to know that "seed" as a title for Christ in Quaker tradition is an amalgam of "the seed of the woman," "the seed of Abraham," and the seed in the parable of the sower, which is the Word of God; that "seed" can also mean all believers; and that the "prepared body" is derived from Heb. 10:5 as a term for the incarnation.) Ingle's version would give us a denial of the atonement in any and all forms. And it is true that Scott is trying to resist the inroads of some forms of Protestant orthodoxy into Quakerism. But he does this by affirming that Christ's death on the cross is effective for taking away sin, only that the benefit of it reaches the believer by way of a mystical union of being conformed to Christ in his suffering.
Scott is, in this, a particularly articulate exponent of the type of soteriology implicitly or explicitly held by Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Elsewhere he elaborates:
Some may call me an heretic when I confess unto them, that I expect no final benefit from the death of Jesus, in any other way than through fellowship with him in his sufferings. But after the way which they call heresy, worship I the God of my fathers, truly believing in the history of Christ's life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glory; and desiring more and more to "know him, and the fellowship of his sufferings," and to be made, not in part only, but fully "conformable to his death;" that I may like him, and with him, be put to death in the flesh, but quickened in and by the spirit.7But this very passage may be an indication that some Friends were beginning to call, or think, such doctrine heretical.
Both works assert the inspiration of the Bible, citing 2 Tim. 3:16, and both add the standard Quaker caution against calling the Bible the Word of God (since this means Christ), exalting it above the Spirit that inspired it, or trying to understand it without the Spirit. But only Tuke offers several pages answering various objections against the authenticity of Scripture, in which he includes a 1 1/2-page footnote on the textual criticism of 2 Tim. 3:16, and explicitly argues that God commanded Israel to fight certain wars.12 (This latter point had been acknowledged by so radical a pacifist as John Woolman in 1762,13 but in 1802 Hannah Barnard denied it, rejected biblical inerrancy, and was disowned.14)
Both works assert Christ's death for the sins of the whole world, his mediatorial office, and his resurrection. But only Tuke sets this in the context of the biblical history and explains it as God's response to the fall.15
Both repeat the traditional Quaker position that sanctification is the ground of justification. Interestingly, both of them modify this to the extent of distinguishing a sort of first stage of justification (forgiveness of past sins plus the possibility of salvation) which does not depend on experiential sanctification of the heart; Kersey grounds it in conviction of sin and repentance, while Tuke grounds it in the sacrificial death of Christ. Tuke tries to relate the whole problem to the faith/works problem in James and Paul.16
This small sampling from the two volumes suggests that two tendencies were already at work, one seeking to assimilate Quakerism toward a generic Protestant orthodoxy with an emphasis on experiential rebirth, and the other seeking to distance Quakerism from orthodoxy.
Hicks was accused of being an out-and-out rationalist. One of his contemporaries wrote:
But with all his pretensions to the guidance of the light of Christ ... he believed in nothing more than human reason; which was what he meant by the term he so often used -- "immediate revelation;" -- declaring, that without it, we should not know a tree from a horse, nor a horse from a man.18This, however, is impossible. Hicks may have believed that reason was one variety of revelation, or was grounded upon revelation; but he clearly believed in the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit on topics that could not be discerned by reason alone. This is shown by his disagreement with Anna Braithwaite about appointing Friends to committees or other services. Hicks maintained that if those who made the nominations were steadily attentive to the Spirit of Truth, no one would ever be appointed who was subsequently prevented by circumstances from attending; he for one had never nominated anyone who failed to attend.19
Hicks's reputation as a rationalist may have been based on his use of allegory. Quakers had always allegorized or spiritualized freely on texts of Scripture, but Hicks took the additional step of declaring certain historical narratives to be only allegories. The virgin birth, stated as a plain fact even in Kersey's Treatise,20 was one of many texts to receive this treatment from Hicks.21
Hicks's spiritualizing had its worst effects when it got into his Christology. In a sermon in Philadelphia in 1826, quoting 2 Cor. 13:5 ("Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates"), he explained:
Now we cannot suppose that the apostle meant that outward man, that walked about the streets of Jerusalem; because he is not in any of us.... He came to be a Saviour to that nation, and was limited to that nation.... But as he was a Saviour in the outward sense, so he was an outward shadow of good things to come; and so the work of the man, Jesus Christ, was a figure.... [Paul] meant by what he said, a Saviour is within you, the anointing of God is within you....22(Hicks either didn't know or didn't care that early Quakers had said Christ was in his saints as both God and man,23 prompting John Bunyan's reply that there wasn't room, Christ being "four or five feet long."24) Earlier in the same sermon he had explained (away) "the blood of the lamb": "It was his life ... inspired men used it as a simile.... The life of God in the soul is the blood of the soul, and the life of God is the blood of God; and so it was the life and blood of Jesus Christ his son."25
Hicks denied that the inward teacher of Quaker experience was the same as Jesus:
... there is such a pilot that will carry every individual of us safe to the celestial city....
... We read in the few expressions of Jesus of Nazareth, who the pilot is that can do this for us. He told his followers that he was not the one that could do it.... But if Jesus would go away he would give place to him....26
... our Society have always believed in the atonement, mediation, and intercession of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ....Other elders made similar statements in other meetings where Hicks spoke.29 This shows they felt they were facing an emergency, for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Rules of Discipline forbade such public rebuttals of acknowledged ministers during meeting for worship: "When any think they have aught against what is publicly delivered, they should speak to the party privately and orderly."30
Great efforts are making to make the people believe, that Jesus Christ was no more than a man; but we do not believe any such thing....
... and we therefore desire, that people may not suppose that we hold any such doctrines, or that we have any unity with them.28
Besides various organizational efforts to silence Hicks, the Philadelphia elders were trying other methods to ensure Quaker orthodoxy. A Delaware newspaper debate in 1821-23 between anonymous correspondents ("Paul," a Presbyterian, and "Amicus," a Friend)31 had generated fears that Quakerism was being presented in a form outside the limits of Protestant orthodoxy. To counteract such expressions, Meeting for Sufferings compiled a list of extracts from early Quaker writings, deliberately selected to present as orthodox an appearance as possible. This became one of many items objected to by Hicks's party.32 After the 1827 separation, the Orthodox yearly meeting included these extracts in its official justification of its position as against that of the Hicksites.33 Eventually one of these extracts, slightly rewritten, was inserted into the Orthodox yearly meeting's 1834 revision of the Rules of Discipline:
By the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ without us, he hath reconciled us to God, even while we are enemies; that is, he offers reconciliation unto us, and puts us into a capacity of being reconciled; and we, truly repenting of sins and transgressions that are past, as though they had never been committed: and by the mighty work of Christ within us, the power, nature and habits of sin, are destroyed; that as sin once reigned unto death, even so now grace reigneth through righteousness unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord.34Though certainly not Calvinist, this statement is within the limits of any version of Protestant orthodoxy broad enough to include Methodism. It would be hard to put traditional Quakerism more skillfully within orthodox terms.
The above paragraph, oddly, was inserted in a chapter entitled "Conduct and Conversation." The reason is that it was attached, as a further definition, to a paragraph making it a disownable offense to
blaspheme, or speak profanely of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, or the Holy Spirit ... or deny the divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit, or the authenticity of the Scriptures.....35That paragraph was also modified by inserting "mediation or atonement" after "divinity" and by forbidding the circulation of books "tending to lay waste a belief in these important Christian principles."36 The original form of the latter paragraph was retained by the Hicksite yearly meeting in its 1843 reprint of the Rules of Discipline,37 the Hicksites apparently feeling they could interpret it to suit their theology (or the various theologies among them).
Gurney's orthodox understanding of Quakerism can be seen in passages like the following:
Since Christ died for all men, and has thus placed within their reach the free gift of justification unto life; since such is the natural proneness of mankind to sin, that none can avail themselves of the benefits of the death of Christ, or receive the free gift of God, except through the influence of the Holy Spirit; and since it cannot, without great irreverence, be imagined that the mercy of God in Christ, thus freely offered, should in any instances be merely nominal, and nugatory in point of fact; I cannot but draw the conclusion, that a share of this influence of the Spirit is bestowed upon all men, by which they are enlightened, and by which they may be saved.39I confess I have read only one of Gurney's numerous books, his Observations on the Distinguishing Views and Practices of the Society of Friends (the revised edition of is Observations on the Religious Peculiarities of the Society of Friends).41 The following dialogue about it between two Orthodox leaders, Ann Branson and Jane Plummer, shows how polarized opinions of Gurney could be:
There is probably no body of Christians who have taken more pains than Friends have done, to enjoin upon their members a frequent perusal of the Scriptures of Truth. It is one of those duties which is annually brought home to us by a public inquiry addressed to all our inferior meetings.... Friends have always asserted that it was given by inspiration of God; and when our forefathers were defamed by their adversaries, and falsely accused of unsound principles, they always appealed to Scripture as the ONLY authoritative test by which their sentiments could be tried.40
Jane ... asserted that Joseph John Gurney's writings had done a great deal of good in the world. I told her that Benjamin W. Ladd ... had kept some of them locked up in his desk as unfit for his family to read. Jane remarked that the only objectionable publication put out by J.J. Gurney was the first edition of his peculiarities; that it contained a few sentiments that were somewhat objectionable, but the author was then young, and after that work was revised, and republished, it was considered sound and unobjectionable. The first edition of Gurney's Peculiarities, as I understand it, was the least objectionable of all his numerous publications, and when it was revised and enlarged, and the name of the book changed to Distinguishing Views, it contains more that is not in accord with Friends' views.42Gurney was accused of saying that only the Bible (and hence, without it, not Christ's universal presence as the Light that witnesses to the conscience) could give "an adequate notion of sin."43 This may have been a misreading of him, since it would contradict the first paragraph quoted above, or a passage like the following from Gurney:
Since, then, the Spirit of Christ, appearing in the soul of man, is light, it is plain that this Spirit makes manifest -- communicates an actual moral sense -- teaches what is right and what is wrong, in a perceptible or intelligible manner.44However, at least one of Gurney's followers was willing to defend the necessity of the Bible for "an adequate notion of sin" by referring "to the benighted state of the heathen, before they became acquainted with the Scriptures."45
Similarly, Gurney was accused of making the Bible, instead of the Spirit, "the only rule of faith and practice or guidance of Christians."46 Again, this would contradict such a passage as this from Gurney:
Any one, who impartially examines the two chapters from which these quotations are derived [Gal. 5 and Rom. 8], will easily perceive that the leading, of which Paul is here speaking, is not the instruction derived from inspired preaching, or from divinely authorized Scripture, but an internal work carried on by the Spirit in the soul of man. If, then, there be given to us an internal communication of the Spirit of Truth, by which we are to be led, it is surely very plain that such communication must be made manifest to our mental perception, or otherwise we could not follow it.47However, Gurney did go on to propose a test for distinguishing true guidance from false: "Scripture is a divinely authorized test, by which we must try not only all our sentiments on matters of doctrine; but all our notions and opinions respecting right and wrong."48
In theory none of these quotations from Gurney misrepresents early Quakerism, but some felt there was a significant difference of emphasis.
There are divers operations and effects of the spirit distinctly spoken of in the Scriptures of Truth, as being effectual to salvation, and they are severally alluded to by Christ and his apostles ... as if each was saving of itself ... that not one of these requisites, all of which are indispensable to our future well-being should be overlooked....Possibly due to having read only the "least objectionable" of Gurney's writings, I have not found Gurney denying any of these points. The Wilburites, however, believed they could detect a practical denial of sanctification by the Gurneyites. Thus a 19th-century editor of Wilbur's writings writes:
1st. That men are to be saved by the outward coming, sufferings, and death of Jesus Christ, through whom their souls are reconciled unto God.
2d. That men are to be saved by faith in God, and in his Son Jesus Christ.
3d. That men are to be saved by regeneration and baptism of the Spirit.
4th. That men are to be saved by Divine Grace.
5th. That men are to be saved by the Spirit of Christ or of God.
6th. That men are to be saved by the knowledge of God.
7th. That men are to be saved by obeying and keeping the commandments of God, and the Lord Jesus Christ.50
Instead of submitting, therefore, to die with Christ, and to abide the painful struggle of yielding up the will and wisdom of the flesh, these [Gurneyites] have moulded and fashioned to themselves a substitute, by professionally [=doctrinally] extolling and claiming the faith of Christ's incarnate sufferings and propitiatory sacrifice upon the Cross without the gates of Jerusalem, as the whole covenant of salvation, and by Him thus accomplished without them; and, consequently, it is feared are carnally believing and trusting in this alone for justification, without its essential concomitant, the true obedience of faith, and the work of sanctification wrought in the heart.51The Wilburites are here calling for the same kind of soteriology we found in Job Scott.
One may ask, however, how the Wilburites thought they knew the Gurneyites' inner attitude. The answer, I think, lies in ethics. The Gurneyites are said to
have taken offence at the law and the restraints of a meek and lowly Saviour, and so far imbibed the spirit of this world and of the age, as to despise the foolishness of the cross....52("The foolishness of the cross," to a Quaker, meant the apparent absurdity of punctilious obedience to Christ in the face of worldly opposition.) The basis for this generalization, essentially, is that the Gurneyites are showing signs of eagerness to drop various Quaker peculiarities, in spite of Gurney's having written a defense of Quaker distinctives as necessary implications of Christianity.53 The questioning naturally began with those Quaker customs that were most obscure and difficult to defend from Scripture, or that were seen as nit-picking. Wilbur in 1832 complained of "the many departures from the wholesome Christians' testimonies of simplicity and plainness,"54 terms which at this date had come to denote the various counter-cultural badges of Quakerism in such areas as clothing and speech. But by 1879 Wilbur's editors were able to say "we told you so" to a wide range of Gurneyite departures from Quaker tradition, culminating in a doctrinal declaration by the Gurneyite branch of Ohio Yearly Meeting: "We repudiate the so-called doctrine of the inner light or the gift of a portion of the Holy Spirit in the soul of every man, as dangerous, unsound, and unscriptural."55 This group was fast becoming more Wesleyan than Quaker.
2. H. Larry Ingle, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), p. 20; James Cockburn, A Review of the General and Particular Causes which have produced the late Disorders and Divisions in the Yearly Meeting of Friends, held in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: author, 1829), pp. 60-61.
3. Ingle, p. 225.
4. Jones covers the Wilburite/Gurneyite separation in chapter 13 (vol. 1, pp. 488-540).
5. Ingle, p. 8.
6. Job Scott, Works (Philadelphia: John Comly, 1831), vol. 1, p. 499.
7. Ibid., p. 221.
8. London, 1805; rpt. New York: New-York Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1837.
9. Philadelphia: Emmor Kimber, 1815.
10. Based on the tone of his comments in Jesse Kersey, A Narrative of the Early Life, Travels, and Gospel Labors of Jesse Kersey (Philadelphia: T. Ellwood Chapman, 1852), p. 86.
11. Tuke, p. iii; Kersey, Treatise, p. 9.
12. Tuke, pp. 17-36; Kersey, Treatise, pp. 20-22.
13. John Woolman, "Considerations on Keeping Negroes; Recommended to the Professors of Christianity, of every Denomination. Part Second" (Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1762), in Amelia Mott Gummere, ed., The Journal and Essays of John Woolman (Philadelphia: Friends' Book Store, 1922), pp. 335-356.
14. Peter Brock, Pioneers of the Peaceable Kingdom (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 255-258.
15. Tuke, pp. 37-43; Kersey, Treatise, pp. 11-12.
16. Tuke, pp. 45-46; Kersey, Treatise, pp. 58-61.
17. Ingle, p. 296.
18. From "a letter written by a much esteemed Friend of Philadelphia," quoted in an editorial footnote in Thomas Shillitoe, Journal of the Life, Labours and Travels of Thomas Shillitoe, in William Evans and Thomas Evans, eds., The Friends' Library, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Joseph Rakestraw, 1839), p. 353.
19. Anna Braithwaite, A Letter from Anna Braithwaite to Elias Hicks, on the Nature of his Doctrines, being a Reply to his Letter to Dr. Edwin A. Atlee: together with Notes and Observations (Philadelphia: "for the reader"!, 1825), p. 4.
20. Kersey, Treatise, p. 11.
21. As quoted by Braithwaite, p. 6.
22. Marcus T.C. Gould (stenographer), The Quaker, being a Series of Sermons by Members of the Society of Friends, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Marcus T.C. Gould, 1830), p. 68. (Like all Quaker ministers of that time, Hicks spoke extemporaneously. The text of some of his sermons is available only because the interest generated by the controversy made it worth Gould's while to take notes.)
23. E.g. James Nayler, in "Saul's Errand to Damascus" (1652), a pamphlet of composite authorship included in George Fox, Works (Philadelphia: Marcus T.C. Gould, 1831), p. 605.
24. John Bunyan, Some Gospel Truths Opened (1656), in Bunyan, Entire Works (London: Virtue & co., 1860?), p. 73.
25. The Quaker, p. 62.
26. Ibid., pp. 26-28.
27. Ingle, p. 18.
28. The Quaker, p. 72.
29. Ibid., pp. 99, 124-125.
30. Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, held in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, & Co., 1806), p. 63.
31. Letters of Paul and Amicus, originally published in The Christian Repository, a Weekly Newspaper, printed at Wilmington, Delaware (Wilmington: Robert Porter, 1823).
32. Originally published by the Meeting for Sufferings in 1823, it was reprinted by a Hicksite sympathizer in The Cabinet, or Works of Darkness Brought to Light (Philadelphia: "printed for the compiler"!, 1824), pp. 40-44.
33. "A Declaration of the Yearly Meeting of Friends," quoted in an editorial footnote in Shillitoe, Journal, Friends' Library, vol. 3, pp. 441-443.
34. Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends for Pennsylvania, New-Jersey, Delaware, and the Eastern Parts of Maryland: Revised and Adopted by the said Meeting, Held in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Joseph Rakestraw, 1834), p. 37.
35. Rules of Discipline (1806), p. 23.
36. Rules of Discipline (1834), p. 36.
37. Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: John Richards, 1843), pp. 23-24.
38. Jones, vol. 1, pp. 495-496.
39. Joseph John Gurney, Observations on the Distinguishing Views and Practices of the Society of Friends (New York: Mahlon Day & Co., 1840), pp. 18-19.
40. Ibid., pp. 7-8.
41. 1st ed., London, 1824; 7th rev. ed., London, 1834.
42. Ann Branson, Journal of Ann Branson, a Minister of the Gospel in the Society of Friends (Philadelphia: Wm. H. Pile's Sons, 1892), p. 274.
43. Ibid., p. 272.
44. Gurney, p. 53.
45. Branson, p. 272.
46. "Introductory Essay," in John Wilbur, Republication of the Letters of John Wilbur to George Crosfield; together with some Selections from his Correspondence and other Writings; with an Introductory Essay by the Meeting for Sufferings of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Providence: Continental Printing Co., 1895), p. 17.
47. Gurney, p. 54.
48. Ibid., p. 64.
49. Wilbur, pp. 39-50.
50. Ibid., p. 36.
51. Ibid., p. 75.
53. Gurney, p. 48, n. 1, describes his book in these terms.
54. Wilbur, p. 67.
55. Ibid., p. 6.
56. Cockburn, p. 279.