Conservative Friends refers to members of a certain branch of the Yearly Meetings-- Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and Ohio Yearly Meeting.
Characteristics of Conservative Friends Edit
Conservative Friends are often seen as occupying a middle ground between the theologically liberal wing and the theologically conservative wing of the Society of Friends. They were originally part of the reaction against so-called unorthodox doctrines that some Friends adopted. But they held on to a centrist position when some Friends swung far to the Evangelical side. It is confusing to outsiders that they are called conservative, considering that they are the theological moderates among Friends. They are called "conservative" Friends because they seek to "conserve" the traditional emphases of Quakerism.
One way in which the term conservative might be said to fit these Friends is in their practice. They have tended to follow the customs of plain speech and dress (see Testimony of Integrity and Testimony of Simplicity) more than other branches of the Society of Friends. While a minority of Conservative Friends wear traditional plain dress (it is not mandated), they are often associated with that traditional Quaker folkway. Conservative Friends also maintain the type of business meeting which was in use among all branches of Friends until the middle of the twentieth century.
Each Yearly Meeting publishes a small book called The Discipline which includes the polity and beliefs of the body. This book is called by the more progressive members "Faith and Practice," following the late-twentieth century example of another branch of Friends. The Discipline includes provisions for business organization; the naming of ministers, elders, and overseers; marriage procedures; and the Advices and Queries. The Queries are read on the local level, with the next higher levels (Quarterly and Yearly Meetings) summarizing the answers from the subordinate meetings.
Roots Within the Orthodox Friends Edit
Friends in the United States became divided during the early years of the nineteenth century. At that time, the ministers and elders were placing additional emphasis upon the writings of the earliest Friends (called at the time the "primitive" Friends). Other Friends were becoming influenced by the growing Evangelical movement, in particular a group of British ministers associated to varying degrees with Isaac Crewdson and the Beacon movement in England.
In the mid-1820s, many leading Friends began to express disunity with the ministry of Elias Hicks, a minister from Long Island, NY. Two leading Friends ministers (Joseph Hoag and Stephen Grellet) spoke with him about statements made in ministry which suggested that portions of the Bible were not accurate, particularly the virgin birth. Hicks always maintained that he spoke the words given him by God. He would not verify his statements, even when an itinerant printer began to print the text of his sermons. When the Methodist-influenced British ministers travelled through the United States, they were particularly critical of Hicks. As a result, a series of divisions began in 1827, ending on Nantucket Island in 1830. The division resulted in most yearly meetings dividing into Hicksite and Orthodox bodies.
Second Separation Edit
Within a decade, a rift was beginning to divide the Orthodox coalition. The ministers and elders who emphasized the "primitive" Friends were themselves coming to be increasingly uneasy with the growing Evangelically-oriented ministry. The first official action in the movement took place when Elisha Bates, a former Clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting, travelled to England without the official credentials (an endorsed travelling minute). On this trip, Bates participated in a baptism ceremony. When he returned to Ohio, he was not only "read out of meeting" (stripped of his membership), he was disowned by the Friends (a public declaration of removal from membership). One of the evangelical English ministers, Joseph John Gurney, travelled to America to support Bates and to meet with Hicksite Friends.
Instead of healing the wounds, Gurney's visit exacerbated the growing rift among the Orthodox Friends. Gurney believed that the position of the scriptures had been lowered too much among Friends; although he did not totally discount the influence or necessity of the Holy Spirit, Gurney placed the two as separate influences. He encouraged Friends to participate in government, including voting in elections (at the time, most Friends did not participate in politics). Gurney decided as a young man not to wear the traditional Quaker clothing, stating once that he only wore a broad brimmed hat one day of his life. He was a powerful minister and a prolific writer. Travelling among Orthodox Friends at a time when ministers were considered to be examples for the youth, he provided an example which was troubling to those Friends who were interested in the "primitive" movement.
During Gurney's visit to North America in 1837-1838, opposition to his ministry was found throughout the Orthodox yearly meetings. A minister-schoolteacher in Rhode Island, John Wilbur, objected to Gurney's use of the early Wesleyan understanding of sanctification, which did not include the continual and daily interaction with the Holy Spirit for a growth in grace. Wilbur wrote an anonymous article setting forth the ancient Quaker understanding. Another Friend from Newport RI (Thomas B. Gould) spoke with Gurney during his visit and outlined where his views departed from those of the early Friends. Other opposition to Gurney was based in the two yearly meetings already known for their stand on the importance of an inward transformation (Ohio and Philadelphia).
The first division between the so-called Wilburite and Gurneyite Friends took place in Rhode Island in 1842. When the pro-Gurney majority of the yearly meeting objected to Wilbur's writings about Gurney, they re-organized the structure of Friends meetings in western Rhode Island and stripped Wilbur of his membership. When Wilbur appealed his disownment, his quarterly meeting divided. New England Yearly Meeting was unable to decide which quarterly meeting to recognize, which precipitated a division throughout all of New England.
The Wilbur-Gurney divisions continued for 15 years. New York Yearly Meeting divided in 1847, and a Wilbur-influenced body was formed in Indiana. The major event in the divisions, however, was the division in Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1854. This event led to divisions in Baltimore and Iowa later in 1854.
Conservative Friends in the Twentieth Century Edit
By 1905 there were seven Yearly Meetings in the Conservative Friends movement in the United States and in Canada. Of these, two have been laid down (Kansas and Western Yearly Meeting) and two have reunited with Gurneyite and Hicksite yearly meetings (Canada and New England). In addition, Primitive Friends communities at the beginning of the century in New York, New England, and Pennsylvania had all merged into other bodies by 1955.
Today three Yearly Meetings remain as distinct Conservative bodies (Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina Yearly Meetings), though a small Conservative tradition continues in a muted form in some of the united yearly meetings.
- Cooper, Wilmer. Growing Up Plain Among Conservative Wilburite Quakers: The Journey of a Public Friend. Friends United Press, 1991. ISBN 0-944350-44-5
- A Short History of Conservative Friends
- A Short Fractured History of Friends in America
- Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)
- North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)
- Ohio Yearly Meeting
- The Conservative Friend: An Outreach of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends
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