Purification and Isolation (1770-1870)
Discipline and Disownment a Time of Winnowing
The reform movement that seized New England Friends in The 1770's and 1780's engaged the most committed and energetic members of the Society, including Moses Brown in Providence, and at one time represented its greatest hope for survival. Undoubtedly there had been a need for reform. The Society's rapid growth during the eighteenth century had drawn in many whose understanding of the founding principles of the movement was often shallow at best. Even among those who had grown up in the Society, there were many that had gradually grown accustomed to the privileges of wealth and power. When John Pemberton and Mary Leaver traveled throughout New England in 1774, they were distressed to find backwardness and neglect and "the prevalency of the Spirit of the World" everywhere. Their report was echoed by many other itinerant ministers from England and the other American colonies.
Out of a desire to winnow out those who were lax in their conduct or negligent of their spiritual responsibilities, New England Yearly Meeting began in 1770 to encourage monthly meetings to disown offending members who had not responded to previous "dealings" Tolerance for unorthodox behavior diminished as the decade progressed, and the grounds for disownment grew increasingly numerous. By 1785, New England's first published discipline listed many pages of disownable offenses, including neglect of plain speech and dress, marrying out of meeting, drunkenness, gambling, sexual immorality, rendering military service, dancing, and even being inoculated for smallpox.
The reform movement, although it often dealt with offending individuals with tenderness and with a genuine hope they would return to the meeting, pursued its goal of purification and renewal with such severity and single-mindedness that membership in the Society declined precipitously in the following decades and scores of monthly meetings throughout New England were laid down or abandoned. Instead of remaining a major religious movement responsive to the changing times in which it lived, the Society of Friends became a remnant of its former self, a closed society whose "peculiar people," as they now thought of themselves, were set apart from "the world's people."
Quietism, the Inner Search
By focusing so intensely on its own internal discipline, the Society would for a time lower its evangelical voice and weaken its prophetic mission. In their stead would come a more mystical understanding of the spiritual encounter that still lay at the heart of the Quaker experience.
Introspective and acutely conscious of the moral corruption of human nature and of its fundamental unworthiness, the Quietist movement believed that only in the "silence of all flesh" could God make himself heard and the Divine prevail over the "creaturely activities" of reason, forethought, and imagination. "We must retire from all outward objects," said the influential manual of Quietist devotion prepared by William Backhouse and James Janson in 1813, "and silence all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind; that in this profound silence of the whole soul, we may hearken to the ineffable voice of the Divine Teacher. We must listen with an attentive ear; for it is a still small voice."
Quaker Education in New England
The reforming zeal of this period also sought to ensure the future of the Society's purity by providing its children with a guarded education; insulated from the ways and values of the world. At a time when the fervor of a revolutionary war against the British Crown was straining the pacifist convictions of Friends' testimony against all wars, the Yearly Meeting of 1779 encouraged each monthly meeting to establish its own school. Several did so, and in 1784 a Yearly Meeting school was started at Portsmouth, Rhode Island. In four years, however, it failed for lack of funds, as did most of the monthly meeting schools for the same reason.
Thus the reform that had purified the Society had also made it, in the judgment of Quaker historian Elbert Russell, "unsuited for great spiritual building, adventure, or conquest." Nowhere was this contradiction more evident than in the failure of the Quaker movement to nurture its future by establishing schools dedicated to its own principles. Not until 1819, more than thirty years after the collapse of the first effort, was the Yearly Meeting school reestablished in Providence as Friends Boarding School. It was renamed in 1904 the Moses Brown School and continues to this day under the joint care of the Yearly Meeting and an independent board.
The Visit of Joseph John Gurney (1838-1840)
After more than fifty years of decline in membership and of withdrawal from the affairs of the world, the Society of Friends in New England must have regarded with a mixture of interest and apprehension the vigorous currents of evangelical enthusiasm then affecting Protestant religious groups in England and the United States. Indeed, many Friends saw in the new evangelical movements an opportunity to refresh the spiritual vitality of the Society and to bring it more in line with what they felt were the growing spiritual forces of their own times.
One of the important catalysts for this change in outlook was the English Friend, Joseph John Gurney, the foremost Quaker thinker of his generation and a man who did more to shape modern Quakerism than any other single person. Gurney was a man of many parts, some said of contradictory tendencies. He was a biblical scholar and an advocate of Friends education, yet he believed all human learning to be valueless in the apprehension of religious truth. Although he did much to turn the attention of Friends to the need for a theological understanding of faith, he was himself guided by the leading of the Spirit in his own religious development. An inspiring speaker capable of arousing enthusiasm for his vision of a transformed Society, his love of silent worship nonetheless made him at one with the majority of Friends in New England. The Bible was his authority in doctrine, but like the Quietists he believed that the conduct of life and worship could be governed only by the Spirit.
These crosscurrents of thought and feeling, which Gurney believed represented a middle course in the sectarian disputes that were dividing the American Quaker movement outside New England, found a receptive audience among many New England Friends who were looking for a new opening out of the limitations of Quietist piety and introspection. Under Gurney's influence the Bible was rediscovered as a source of inspiration, and its avid study led to the founding of Bible schools by almost all meetings. His active participation in movements on behalf of slaves, prisoners, and American Indians gave young Friends a new ideal of Quaker personality and character. Finally, his effort to restate Quaker truths in the language of contemporary theology radically altered the focus of Quakerism in New England and elsewhere. Its final authority no longer rested primarily upon the inward working of the Spirit, but on the confirmation of the Scriptures and on a body of theological doctrines regarded as essential for a saving faith.
The Division of 1845
Gurney had no intention of starting another movement in America or of causing further divisions among the already divided Society of Friends, but, in hindsight, it seems that this would have been the unavoidable result of his vigorous reinterpretation of Quaker principles during his visit to America in 1838-1840. Even before Gurney came to America, his views had been opposed by John Wilbur, a Friend from Hopkinton, Rhode Island, whose commitment to the doctrine of the Inner Life and to the Quietist ways had been spelled out in a pamphlet published in 1832. Against Gurney's emphasis on the Bible and the outward knowledge of the historic Jesus, Wilbur stressed the Light Within and the inward workings of Christ's example. He objected to the lectures and courses of instruction on religious subjects advocated by Gurney and saw the critical study of the Bible as an inadequate and misleading substitute for direct illumination.
Wilbur's views would have found ready acceptance among an earlier generation of New England Friends; now they were regarded by New England Yearly Meeting as contentious and obstinate. When at the request of Yearly Meeting his own monthly meeting at South Kingstown refused to disown Wilbur, Yearly Meeting laid it down and joined it to another meeting, which promptly disowned him and his followers. The bitterness provoked by this high-handed proceeding finally led some 600 supporters of Wilbur in 1845 to separate from "the larger body" of about 8000 members. The smaller body retained the name of "New England Yearly Meeting of Friends," while the larger body adopted the name of "Yearly Meeting of Friends for New England." The Gurneyite-Wilburite division, as it was called, was to last a full century, and the hostility between the two groups remained a continuing reproach to the failure of love to work its way among Friends in New England.
The Enduring Testimonies
Despite their preoccupation with these internal matters so critical to the evolving character of modern Quakerism, Friends in New England were also being caught up in the great national issues of slavery and abolition and, by the late 1840's, in the growing danger of civil war.
The uncertain and reluctant stance of New England Friends o' the issue of abolition reveals as well as any issue could just how much the removal of Friends from the world's affairs hindered their ability to keep faith with one of their most enduring testimonies the dignity of all people as children of God. Although Friends in New England had worked for the abolition of the slave trade in the 1760's and had succeeded in freeing all slaves held by members of the Society by 1780, most Friends in the 1830's regarded the abolitionist position as an extremist view likely to do more harm than good. Friends accepted the goal of abolishing slavery throughout the United States, but not the uncompromising means of the abolitionist movement in achieving it. In 1841, New England Yearly Meeting at Newport denied the use of the Friends meeting house for any antislavery discussions, and he following year it advised Friends to avoid association with antislavery societies where they would encounter such un-Quakerly practices as arriving at decisions "by majorities, frequently after excited discussions." Instead they sought to abolish slavery by moral persuasion, appealing directly to the slave-owners of the South. Many Friends, however, doubted the effectiveness of such an approach and chose instead to work with the abolitionist movement.
The dilemma of how best to secure the freedom of slaves intensified as the prospect of a violent war over the question of abolition increased, for the issue now challenged another of the enduring testimonies of the Society the abhorrence of war and violence of all kinds and for whatever cause, however just. If justice for black slaves could be secured only by force and violence, as many abolitionists concluded, would the refusal of Friends to participate in a war of emancipation mean that they must compromise their testimony on human equality and dignity? As Abraham Lincoln wrote to Eliza P. Gurney, "You people the Friends have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other."
The Yearly Meeting bodies could not agree with the abolitionists that oppression could be opposed only by war and upheld the traditional testimony against all wars. Many individual Friends harbored runaway slaves passing through New England along the Underground Railroad on their way to freedom in Canada, but many others felt compelled to give up their pacifist views to fight for the freedom of black slaves.
To the Quaker women who had worked for abolition and for education and suffrage for blacks, their own restricted educational opportunities and lack of voting rights became painfully clear after the Civil War. As with the abolition movement, not all Friends in the 19th century supported suffrage and equal rights for women. However, New England-born Quakers were prominent from the first in the women's movement. Perhaps it was the sturdy self-reliance fostered by whaling villages and small farming towns, coupled with the enduring Quaker testimony of equality, that brought forth Lucretia Mott and Prudence Crandall. After the war, these and other Quaker women, shaped in their struggle to end slavery and to move blacks toward full citizenship, turned their energies and experience to securing the rights of women. They became models for others who took up their cause.
The Civil War drew Friends of all persuasions back into the affairs of the world in a way that fundamentally altered the character of the Society, just as the reforms prior to the war had brought Friends into touch with religious currents outside the Society. The period of isolation for New England Friends had come to a divided and perplexing end, testing their most fundamental and cherished beliefs and leaving them divided and more exposed than ever to the new currents of spiritual revival coursing through other religious organizations in America.