by Anna Braithwaite Thomas.

[Bulletin of Friends' Historical Society, (Philadelphia) Vol. IV, no. 2 (Third Month, 1912,) pages 70-81.]

This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.

The Beaconite Controversy took its name from a small book entitled "A Beacon to the Society of Friends," published in First month, 1835, by Isaac Crewdson, a minister belonging to Manchester Meeting, England. To quote from Joseph John Gurney's description, "This publication consisted of a running commentary on various passages in the sermons of the late Elias Hicks, of North America, who had been disowned by Friends in that country; and, with proofs, drawn from Scripture, of this preacher's perversions and delusions are mixed up many painful innuendos, trenching, in various degrees, on our well-known views of the spirituality of the Gospel of Christ. Indeed," says J. J. Gurney, "it is my deliberate judgment that the work, professing as it does to to defend sound Christianity, has an undeniable tendency to undermine the precious doctrine of the immediate teaching, guidance, and government of the Holy Spirit." Such was the Beacon itself in the eyes of one who sympathized fully with its author in his desire for pure evangelical teaching in the Society. The Controversy began in 1831, when a Tract Association in Manchester was broken up in consequence of doctrinal differences amongst the Friends interested, and culminated in the winter of 1836-1837 in the resignation of Isaac Crewdson and of 48 other members of the Manchester Meeting. This was followed in other parts of England by the resignation of about 250 Friends, many of the prominent members of the Society, making 300 in all who were lost to Friends through this lamentable schism. (1) Thus, roughly speaking, the Beacon Controversy was contemporary with the reign of William IV, i.e. 1830-1837, a period of such wonderful changes that it might truly be said that a new England was being born, not only politically and religiously but also in regard to material surroundings. The old methods of travel which had lasted unchanged for a thousand years were now giving way to the great revolutionary steam, with all the seething mass of changes in manufactures that were to follow. In politics the battle of parliamentary reform was being fought out and the anti-slavery struggle was at its height, and in the religious work the same spirit of unrest and change was at work. Barriers were giving way and the thoughts of outside minds were touching the Society as they had not done since the days of George Fox. The great separation of 1828 among Friends in America had not failed to have an important reflex action upon the Society in England, where the same sort of formal quietism had long prevailed and great stress had ben laid on the discipline and upon the external peculiarities of dress and address. Throughout the eighteenth century meetings were very often silent, but, in such ministry as there was, great emphasis was laid upon immediate inspiration; minister frequently declaring that they had come into the meeting with no idea as to what they might have to deliver. The notion prevailed that intellectual activity was inimical to this inspiration, hence much of the ministry was absolutely, as it professed to be, devoid of intellectual or even of rational thought. It consisted largely in exhortations to dwell deep, to turn away form all that was of human wisdom, to seek unto that light within, which, if followed, would lead to peace with God; or in warnings against worldliness and denunciations of those who trusted in wealth and human learning. With the opening of the nineteenth century a new era had begun. The British and Foreign bible Society was founded, and from the outset there were always one of two Friends upon its committee. Thus greater attention began to be directed to the Bible and more stress to be placed upon Scripture truth. Joseph John Gurney, Elizabeth Fry, Hannah Backhouse, Anna Braithwaite and others were gifted and eloquent ministers of this newer order whose clearer teaching was warmly welcomed and much appreciated by the young people who naturally craved something more interesting than the silent meetings or tedious generalities of the older preachers. At the same time, the philanthropic activities of the first third of the century were doing much to break down the barriers between Friends and other Christian people. Thus there were two very distinct schools of thought in the Society. John Barclay (father of the author of "The Inner Life," etc.), George and Ann Jones, Sarah Lynes Grubb and Thomas Shillitoe may be mentioned as exponents of the more mystical or introverted theology, whilst J.J. Gurney, Elizabeth Fry, Hannah Backhouse and Anna Braithwaite, with others less widely known, upheld the more evangelical standard. Some prominent ministers, such as John and Joseph Pease, Samuel Tuke and Stephen Grellet (then on a religious visit to Europe) appear to have occupied a middle position, being claimed sometimes by one and sometimes by the other party. The differences, though real, might have continued to exist side by side with good result to all concerned but for the actions of a group of very active and rather ultra individuals who came into prominence about this time. Chief among these may be mentioned Isaac Crewdson himself, the author of the Beacon. He was born at Kendal in 1780; hence at the time of the "Controversy" he was already well advanced in middle life. He was then residing at Ardwick Green, a suburb of Manchester, and was an acknowledged minister in the Society. He had been brought up in all the strictness of external Quakerism, and had early imbibed a strong attachment to its usages, but it was not until towards middle life that evangelical truth dawned upon his mind. "I remember," says J.J. Gurney in his autobiography, "telling my friend, Isaac Crewdson, nearly three years before the publication of the Beacon, that he and I had started in our race from opposite points, had met, and crossed on the road." (2) Isaac Crewdson was greatly beloved in his own meeting, and was moreover closely connected by ties of birth and marriage with an unusually large number of prominent Quaker families, at Kendal, Birmingham, Tottenham, Plymouth, etc. Associated with him in the evangelical movement at Manchester was his brother-in-law, William Boulton, an elder with some gift in the ministry, who as early as 1833 had opened his house for "Bible-studying" meetings. These gatherings wee at first very small, sometimes attended by only five or six persons, but they gave rise to great division of feeling and came to be the ground of an exception in the Answer to the Query on Love and Unity as sent up to the Yearly Meeting from Lancashire Quarterly Meeting. Another prominent Beaconite was John Wilkinson, a minster of Chesham, Bucks. He appears to had a somewhat lengthy gift and to have thought nothing of preaching for an hour or more at a time. In fact the leaders on both sides had a good deal of the gift of continuance, and meetings held far longer than they do now-a-days, each party in turn lamenting the "tediousness" of the others in rather an amusing way. John Wilkinson preached doctrinal of a somewhat Calvinistic type, but he was a man of peculiarly sensitive spirit, very gentle and affectionate. Through his wife, Esther Wilson, of Kendal, John Wilkinson was brought into close touch with the various Kendal Quaker clans and exercise a very strong influence especially upon the young people. Esther Wilkinson was quite a character; she was an ardent evangelical with an intense dislike for Quaker mysticism. Still another prominent actor in the Beacon movement was Luke Howard, {3} a man of decided and somewhat erratic opinions which he did not hesitate to put forward at all times, without much consideration for the feelings of his opponents. There were other public supporters of the Beacon, but the only one whom I shall name is Elisha Bates, a minister from Ohio Yearly Meeting, who visited England with a certificate in 1833-1834. Hodgson, in his "History of the Society of Friends in the Nineteenth Century," {4} says that he had been "an eloquent preacher and very serviceable while he abode in humility and the true fear of the Lord." He certainly was greatly beloved and admired during his first visit to England and exercised an important influence in favor of the new doctrines. But in 1834 there was already so much uneasiness felt with some of his teaching that the select meeting withheld a returning minute. Next year, however, John Hodgkin called the attention of the Yearly Meeting to this omission, and the expression of disapprobation was so strong that the Select Yearly Meeting was direct to reconsider its judgment. This was done, and, under the popular pressure, the meeting actually retracted its former action and sent a clear returning minute to America. Elisha Bates came again unexpectedly and without a minute in the spring of 1836, "professedly on the grounds of outward business." (Hodgson.) At this time he devoted himself to efforts to help forward the Beacon party. With that object, he commenced the publication in England of his "Miscellaneous Repository," (5) which became a vehicle for attacks on the ancient landmarks. (Hodgson.) It went through several numbers. Finally, in the autumn of 1836 he received water baptism at the hands of John Pye Smith, a London minister, probably the first instance in which one occupying at the time the station of a recorded minster in the Society had been baptized. He afterwards published several pamphlets in support of his position, and one in which he endeavored to destroy the religious standing of the early Friends. One his return to America he did not find much acceptance from his Friends at home for his new opinions, and shortly afterwards he joined the Methodists. the chief points in the controversy were connected with the doctrine of Justification by Faith, or, viewed for another standpoint, with the doctrine of the Inner Light. The Beaconite leaders had, so far as their own experience went, and some of them in comparatively advanced life, rediscovered the doctrine of Justification by Faith. Hence they were inclined to emphasize that exclusively and to undervalue, or it would be more correct to say, entirely to reject, the favorite doctrine of Quakerism regarding the work of Christ in the heart. they began to point out what seemed to them defects in Quakerism and to stigmatize the writings of early Friends as "unsound," "unscriptural," even "blasphemous." Hard words were used by both parties, women Friends such as Sarah Lynes Grubb, Ann Jones, and Abigail Dockray, of Manchester, would feel a concern to visit the men's meeting, and would then, making the most solemn claim to be immediately inspired at the time, deliver impassioned denunciations of "Babel builders who sought in their own strength and wisdom to build up a structure that would reach to heaven," etc., etc., etc. Manchester Meeting was the principal storm-center of the controversy, for it contained very active representatives of both sides, and it was there that the "Bible-studying meetings" so strongly object to by the more conservative members had been carried on at the house of one of the elders. It was here also that Isaac Crewdson exercised his very influential ministry. The meeting numbered about 400, and at least 100 of the active members sympathized with the new doctrines. In the winder of 1834-1835 Isaac Crewdson published the Beacon, and by Third month, 1835, it had reached its second edition. The copy in my possession was present to my father by the author, and is a thin cloth-bound 8vo book, of about 150 pages. It was ostensibly published to counteract the errors of "Hicksism," and consists of extracts form the sermons of Elias Hicks, together with passages of Scripture arranged to correct the errors. There are also some remarks by the author, but the Scripture passages form by far the largest part of the little volume. They are very carefully selected, and of course no fault can be found with them; in fact, being printed in full under the various heading, they exhibit in a very striking manner the Scripture teaching; but Isaac Crewdson, in his horror at "Hicksite" doctrine, and his disgust at recognizing in it certain favorite expressions of the introspective school, had violently attacked these without any explanation of the fact that Elias Hicks had used them in an entirely different sense. "The Inner Light" was one of these expressions. To Elias Hicks it meant the natural light of human reason; to the English Friends who made use of it, it signified the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit on the heart of man, and Isaac Crewdson afterwards admitted that he recognized the complete difference between the two uses of the term. (6) The book created an immense sensation, not only in the Society, but amongst other Christian people, for, contrary to the usual custom of Friends, Isaac Crewdson had it advertised very widely, so that it was reviewed in a number of religious papers, most of which took occasion to comment on the dangers to which the holding of such doctrines as those set forth in the extracts from Elias Hick's sermons exposed the Society, together their their great satisfaction that a body so excellent in many ways should now have recognized it errors and be about to reform them. All this was of course very trying to many Friends, and was felt that whatever might have been the original motive of the author, he had at any rate succeeded in casting a great deal of obloquy on the Society. The main practical difficulty with the Beacon was that such great emphasis was laid on the outward work of Christ and upon the written revelation of God's will as contained in the Scriptures, as to disparage the inward work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, The Beaconites contended that this was not the case and claimed that they fully believe in the Holy Spirit in all of His offices, yet in noting their later history, we find that a considerable number of them joined the Plymouth Brethren after leaving Friends, and did become extremely external in their notions. Many went so far as to confine the direct work of God upon the heart to the revelation contained in the Bible. {7} The custom of calling the Bible "The Word" or "the Word of God" was also very common amongst them. Following out the same general line of thought most of the prominent Beaconite leaders were "water-baptized" within a short time. I do not know that there had been any teaching in reference to water baptism previous to the appointment of the Yearly Meeting's committee in 1835, but it is evident form their correspondence that this tendency already existed and was known to members of the committee. The Beacon, as stated above, was published in the winter of 1834-35 and "was quickly followed," says Hodgson, "by a shower of pamphlets in the same direction, many of which were very crude and frothy, but all tending to raise a commotion and kindle unhallowed fire." (Hodgson, "History," etc., Vol. I, p. 247.) {See note 4} There were also a number of attempts to answer or refute the doctrines set forth in the Beacon, but none of them was officially endorsed by Friends. Among them may be mentioned Dr. Thomas Hancocks's "Defense of Immediate Revelation and Universal Saving Light'; a fiery and somewhat bitter and ill-judged attack on the Beacon, by a young man named Henry Martin, called "Truth Vindicated," and "A Lamp for the Beacon," by John Harrison, of Manchester, who showed by parallel passages from the writings of the early opponents of Quakerism that the Beaconite doctrines had bee long ago refuted by George Fox and other ancient Quaker worthies. Most of these pamphlets opened up fresh fields for controversy, and the strife was waxing more and more bitter. In the meantime, and as early as 1834 the attention of the Yearly Meeting had been officially called to the contest by an exception in the answer to the Query on Love and Unity as sent up from Lancashire Quarterly Meeting. The exception, as before mentioned, had arisen from a difference of view in reference to the "Bible-studying meetings" in Manchester Meeting. In 1835, when the contest over the Beacon was at its hottest, the exception to the Query again appeared, and after a long and heated discussion in the Yearly Meeting, a committee of thirteen was appointed to endeavor to assist Manchester Meeting in restoring unity. The committee included Samuel Tuke, then clerk of the Yearly Meeting; Josiah Forster, William Forster, William Allen, Dr. Edward Ash and, above all, Joseph John Gurney. (8) It was a strong one from the prominence and blameless Christian character of the men composing it, but weak in two aspects; first because there existed considerable divergence of opinion among them, and secondly because Dr. Ash and Joseph John Gurney had already published numerous essays on the subjects under discussion, and Joseph John Gurney at any rate was to some extend committed in the same directions as those whose errors he was supposed to be striving to correct. (8) The committee paid repeated visits to Manchester and laboured hard, gave much time and prayerful thought to the attempt to heal the breach. The present to Isaac Crewdson a series of objections to the Beacon, to which he replied seriatim, in most cases explaining that he had been misunderstood and had no intention of disregarding or attacking the beliefs referred to. Though professedly greatly relieve by these explanation, the committee still felt uneasy and advised "the Friend Isaac Crewdson to refrain from exercising his ministry." They also "felt bound to state their continued dissatisfaction with the manifest tendency of the Beacon, and thought it their duty under all the circumstances of the case, affectionately but earnestly to recommend him to suppress its further circulation. Isaac Crewdson did for a few months refrain form preaching, but he absolutely, and I think very naturally, refused to suppress the Beacon, contending that as the committee had expressed themselves relived by his explanations in regard to it, they had practically withdrawn their charges of doctrinal unsoundness. (9) Matters were in this unsatisfactory state when the lengthening days and the bright sunshine of May returned, bringing with them the Yearly Meeting of 1836. It was the last Time that London Yearly Meeting met as an undivided body, and it was also in other ways a very important gathering. Once more the Quaker suburbs of Tottenham and Winchmore Hill and Stoke Newington were gay with flowering lilacs and laburnum, humming with al the subdued hilarity of the great Quaker festival; and when the Meetings began the "Yard" and passages at Devonshire House (then just freshly remodeled and fitted up) overflowed with the unusually large numbers who were in attendance. The Men's Meeting in particular must have been a noteworthy sight when we remember that of the eight hundred to a thousand men who composed it nearly all would be clad in the distinctive Quaker garb, even those who were increasingly feeling their want of unity with the body rarely discarding the garb, so that to the casual observer there was no appearance of disunity. This was the Yearly Meeting at which Joseph John Gurney uttered his famous saying about the middle men: "On the subject which particularly agitated the Society at the present time, he did not hesitate to say that he was a middle man. (The Lord forbid that he should be any other.) And this not from indecision (as some asserted), but from a clear conviction that there was great danger, while they were avoiding Scylla, of falling into Charybdis. He would affectionately exhort his dear friends to take the middle course, for he believed it to be the right one; to chose the middle of the river Jordan, for that was the deepest. He would not compromise on jot of true Christianity, nor yet of sound Quakerism, for he asserted them to be [identical.] The distinguishing trust of the Society had always been the free and independent influence of the Holy Spirit; and to this he would always hold. The Society had compromised nothing that could not be found in Holy Scripture, and the expression, Christianity without Compromise, conveyed this notion of what Quakerism was. In conclusion, he repeated that he was confident the Society had always been quite sound in its estimation of Holy Scripture; but he did hope, before this Yearly Meeting was over, that for the relief of the minds of some Friends, it would again send forth a very decided and explicit statement on this important subject. J.J. Gurney's address had been called out by a minute from Westmoreland Quarterly Meeting asking the Yearly Meeting to define clearly what are "in its estimation, the authority, place, and office of the Holy Scriptures as the rule of faith and practice." The document finally adopted in response to this request stated that they "had always freely acknowledged that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by the inspiration of God, and that, therefore, their authority is the authority of God Himself, that they are the only divinely authorized record of all the doctrines which we are required to believe, and of all the moral principles which are to regulate out conduct; that from there is no appeal to any authority whatsoever, that whatsoever is not contained in them ought not to be required of any one to be believed as an article of faith; and that whatsoever any do under the pretence even of the immediate influences of the Holy Spirit that is contrary to the Scriptures, should be accounted a mere delusion; and that they should be diligently used." Kendal Meeting, which had sent up this request, was probably, next to Manchester, the one in which the new views had obtained the greatest hold. At this time it had about three hundred members, a large proportion of whom belonged to one great family connection. Wilsons, Whitwells, Bensons, Crewdsons, and Braithwaites had married and intermarried until it would puzzle any but a professional genealogist to unravel the relationships of the various families. As before noted, most of them were closely related to the author of the Beacon, to John Wilkinson and to other Beaconite leaders; Anna Braithwaite's evangelical ministry had also doubtless had a powerful influence on the meeting. She and her husband had passes through the "Hicksite" troubles in America and had ben deeply impressed with the danger of the "Hicksite" doctrines. They had been Elisha Bates's travelling companions on his first visit to England and had been closely bound to him by ties of friendship and sympathy. From all these causes it is not surprising that the intelligence earnest young people of this meeting were keenly interested in "the controversy" and were watching its progress with deepest sympathy. The proposition to the Yearly Meeting appears to have been a final effort to save the situation in Kendal for Quakerism. At fist it seem as though the desired result had been attained, but eventually at least a hundred of their brightest and best members left the Society and joined, some the Church of England, and some the Plymouth Brethren, and for a generation afterwards the stripped and saddened feeling remained, whilst those who had passed through the struggle could scarcely be persuaded to recur to it even in private conversation, so painful were the recollections awakened. And yet amongst all these Kendal people of both parties earnest religious feelings prevailed. Each had acted from conscientious motives, and I do not think there had been much, if any, of what is ordinarily spoke of as strife and bitterness. To return to Manchester: The Visiting Committee had been continued by the Yearly Meeting and was still laboring with the same earnestness, and the same total want of success as before, the heal the ever-widening breach. An attempt to revise the membership of the Select Meeting was strongly opposed. It was carried by the exertions of the committee, and evidently precipitated the climax which came in the late autumn of 1836, when Isaac Crewdson, William Boulton, with both their wives, who had been in the position of elders, and forty-six other Friends resigned their membership in the Society. The acceptance of these resignations closed the labors of the Yearly Meeting's committee in Manchester. The separated Friends kept up an organization, calling themselves "Evangelical Friends," the "Scripture-studying Meetings," attended in 1835-36, that is before the actual separation, by about one hundred persons (10) continuing to be their meetings for worship. About two hundred and fifty others who held the same views also left the Society in Bristol, Birmingham, Kendal, Tottenham, etc., and in 1837 they held a meeting in London, issuing an address after the manner of a Yearly Meeting epistle. Before long, however, most of them submitted to the rite of water baptism and joined the Episcopal Church or the Plymouth Brethren. In reviewing the history of this deplorable controversy it seems to me that both parties were wrong in opposing the favorite doctrines of the other side. The mistakes made by London Yearly Meeting arose from an unwillingness to admit any errors whatever in the writings of the early Friends and also from want of clearness and thoroughness in teaching the Bible. Their theological position on the Bible, on its inspiration, on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and on immediate revelation was undoubtedly right and the Evangelical Friends were wrong in rejecting it. In one sense we can scarcely lay too much stress upon the outward work of Christ for our redemption and yet we should lay an equal stress upon the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, without which the other blessed revelation remains unfruitful and ineffective. We must believe in and appreciate to the full the record of our Lord's life on earth, of His sufferings and death for us, but no less must we believe that the revelation has not ceased, that He is working still and will reveal Himself to the seeking, trusting soul.


Notes enclose in (parenthesis) are original in the text. Notes enclosed in {brackets} are mine. -pds.

(1) See J.S. Rowntree. "The Friend", London, vol. 40, p. 797.

(2) Life of J.J. Gurney, vol. 2, p. 15.

{3} For more of Luke Howard, see the essay by Job Scott and the responses to it on Larry Kuenning's home page. -pds

{4} Title aside, this book is not a reliable source and should not be confused with being a responsible history. It is basically a two volume attack on all of the figures except John Wilbur. -pds

(5) The "Miscellaneous Repository" was begun in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, in 1828, and continued semi-monthly until 1832. When in England Elisha Bates issued the last part of volume 5, numbers 23-28) at Kendal. It was permanently suspended Ninth month 1, 1836. The earlier volumes are largely taken up with the "Hicksite" controversy. - ED.

(6) See "Complete Correspondence," etc.

{7} This seems, to me, a very vague sentence and I am not sure what it is supposed to mean. The very same thing could be said of Barclay. -pds

(8) NOTE: J.J. Gurney himself object to his own appointment, but was overruled. - Editor. {Additional note: Gurney thought it best not to have a committee at all, thinking it would only create still more trouble and division. -pds}

(9) From a tract published two years late by Isaac Crewdson, called "The Trumpet Blown, we find that there were at least three important points on which he was at variance with the practices of Friends. He says (p. 39) "I did intend to have made some further observations, to show the errors of the Society, with regard to the preaching of the Gospel, prayer, and the Ordinances of Baptism and the Supper, have all sprung out of this unscriptural doctrine" (namely, the Inner Light.) William Boulton had also been recommended by the Committee to refrain from exercising his ministry, and there was much hard feeling among the sympathizes of both Friends on account of the attempt, as they considered it, to silence the sound preaching of the Gospel.

(10) Letter of Samuel Tuke.