The Old Discipline

Edited by Licia Kuenning

Quaker Heritage Press, 1999

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

Quaker Heritage Press keeps a low profile, and Licia Kuenning does not even identify herself as the editor of this fine piece of scholarship, but "The Old Discipline" can only help to call attention to the good work of this small academic press.

This book reproduces the 19th-century books of discipline of the eight oldest yearly meetings in America: Baltimore, Indiana, New England, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Philadelphia, and Virginia. Each is presented in an early 19th-century book for that meeting, with later versions expressed in notes. These were chosen because they were extant prior to the great separation of 1827-28. All used, in some form or another, a common source in the 1783 (and the later 1802) publication of the minutes and epistles of the London Yearly Meeting, giving to each a striking similarity in organization and content. Only New York's meeting arranged the topics by subject matter; all others placed them alphabetically.

The rules of discipline set forth guidelines for the proper conduct of members of the Religious Society of Friends, but also supplied customs for the expression of faith and worship. It was here that one could find what was corporately acceptable in the event of births or burials, our duty to civil government, the admission of convinced Friends, the issue of hireling ministers, marriages and the exchange of vows (including the marriage certificate to be used), moderation and temperance, uttering oaths, plainness in speech and dress, slavery and the keeping of slaves, sleeping during meetings, membership in secret societies, our relationship to taverns and distilled spirituous liquors, trade, war, and disownment—among the extraordinary wealth of topics addressed.

As Kuenning explains in the introduction (and also in preambles to each meeting's discipline book), these underwent several printings and changes, but even after the Hicksite/Orthodox split the same books continue to be used; after Wilburite/Gurneyite schisms, though, additions and reorganizations significantly alter the Old Discipline. Wilburites in New England used the same book of discipline until 1930, although the latest version of the Old Discipline form is the 1907 edition, as used by Philadelphia's Orthodox branch. Kuenning is meticulous in identifying changes made by Hicksites, Orthodox, Wilburites, Gurneyites, and Conservatives, where such separations have been recorded.

Rarely before has our heritage been so vividly exhibited. Kuenning has produced an exceptional document, rich in information about our first traditions. This is an uncommon book, fascinating reading even apart from its scholarly value, and well worth adding to one's collection of Quaker history.

Quaker Books: "The Old Discipline" |
Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved