Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation

By H. Larry Ingle

Pendle Hill, 1998 | ISBN 0-87574-926-7

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

"And what sort of religion is this?" So asked Jonathan Taylor, clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting, 1828, as he lay on the ground after tumbling out the door of the Mount Pleasant meeting house following a struggle with Hicksite reformers over physical possession of the clerk's desk. Needless to say, he lost the desk (it was literally pulled apart) and his usurper reconvened the meeting using the desk drawer as a table top. So it was that Quakers in Ohio split themselves (not unlike the clerk's desk) into two separate groups. Like the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting before it, this was a division that was repeated (although not always with the same energy) in New York, Indiana, Baltimore, New Jersey, and elsewhere in New England. Not until 1955, nearly three generations later, were any of these factions reconciled.

What led to this division? Who were the main players? What was at issue? How could this happen among Friends? These are important questions, and Ingle takes it upon himself to answer them all, at the same time arguing—persuasively, I think—that the religious reformation promulgated by the predominantly rural Hicksites was in no small part a response to the new world order brought by the explosion of industrial capitalism in the US. Indeed, how to live an authentic Christian life, how to live daily in the Spirit, how to share with our children our values, how to keep marriages together, how to avoid alienation, how to do this in a surly world of profit, pleasure, credit, and consumption—this is the legacy Christians must now struggle with every day. To see this all played out over a hundred and seventy years ago is both exciting and dispiriting, because we know how the story ends.

As this poignant narrative of Quakers in the nineteenth century unfolds, doctrinal divisions become more apparent. Orthodox Friends stress traditional Christian doctrine and often rely upon the Bible for guidance. The reformers, on the other hand, follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and place far less trust in the Bible as God's living word. Thus battle lines are drawn along doctrinal boundaries, although beneath this plain-looking surface is a surge of unrequited social tensions. And so continues a thrilling tale of things outlandish among our tradition: disrupted worship, hurled invectives, Bible-burning, threats of violence, mobs and gangs, broken communities.

Elias Hicks, who started the controversy, was a gifted Quaker minister with a theological position that rankled orthodox Friends for several years, and it brought him frequent censure from ruling elders. Sometimes his position is hard to find among the many other voices that took up his cause—especially in the pamphlet tug-of-war that preceded the splits—but Ingle does an admirable job of making it distinct. Ingle is equally successful in explicating the orthodox position, which he labels "evangelical," and is careful (as he does in a fine introductory chapter) to show how both attitudes are inherent in the very beginnings of Quaker religious thought.

In Ingle's treatment, Hicks and his reformers wanted to uproot a growing reliance upon scripture in the ministry, the adoption of a pastoral method common to other Protestant denominations, and the introduction into Quaker worship of the external trappings of orthodoxy, through creeds, rituals, and rules.

That the orthodox members were moving in this direction is perfectly clear from Ingle's solid study, as are other facts about orthodox Friends that made them suspicious in the eyes of the reformers: they were generally wealthy, socially powerful, some at times less than charitable in business dealings with others within their own faith communities, and authoritarian and reactionary in matters of religious belief. That these urban Quakers were also seen as eager in the pursuit of riches and honor, promoted Bible toting, missions, theological disputations, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and social progress could only make them seem like foreigners among rural Friends—especially since the principle of the Hicksite reformation stressed faithfulness to the light of Christ within each believer and faithfulness to God alone as the sovereign lord of conscience.

By the same token, the reformers (and Hicks especially) did champion tenets alien to historical Christianity and very clearly invited being cast as Unitarians, non-Christians, and Ranters, although these are charges they denied with as much verve as their orthodox accusers. Still, as we read them here, they even espouse beliefs that seem suspiciously like old, discredited heresies. Hicks himself appears unwilling to "test the spirits" [see 1 John 4:1-3], and must surely have appeared in the orthodox light as a false prophet.

In the end, the most significant issue rested on the true source of authority within the community of Christian believers. Each side here answered with a different voice, neither side being faithful—really, sadly—to the common tradition of Friends.

This second edition of Ingle's well-written study includes a new preface and lights on new scholarly material for further study.

Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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