New England Yearly Meeting

A community of Quakers and Quaker meetings across New England.

The Evangelical Movement (1870–1945)

Impact of the Evangelical Movement

The most striking evidence that the period of isolation for New England Friends had come to an end in the years following the Civil War was the degree to which they responded to developments in the Quaker movement in other parts of the United States. Although traditional New England reserve slowed and often, tempered the adoption of the radical innovations of the great revival movement that first appeared in the Midwest in the 1860's, within a decade these innovations had begun to transform the character of Friends' worship in most New England Gurneyite meetings and had introduced a style of organization and activity that was virtually unknown a generation earlier. At the same time, American Quakers were everywhere directly affected by rapid changes in American society and by such causes as temperance, peace, and the rights of blacks, Indians, and women. From The 1870's on, therefore, the history of Quakerism in New England became increasingly a part of a national movement, influenced by forces within and without the Society of Friends.

The new evangelical enthusiasm of the 1870's had a much greater impact on Quaker forms of worship and community than did the earlier evangelical enthusiasm inspired by Joseph John Gurney. Although Gurney and his followers had prepared the way for these radical transformations, these changes went beyond anything he had advocated. Prepared messages, reading of the Scriptures, the singing of hymns and, after some years of hesitation, the use of musical instruments became elements of the meeting for worship. The new evangelists enriched the silent worship of meetings with public testimony and vocal prayer, often of a confessional character. Gradually, the old customs of plain speech and dress, rising during prayer, and the wearing of hats by men in meetings were discontinued by both yearly meetings in New England.

The labor of evangelical revival was primarily the product of a younger generation of Friends, most of whom came to the Society as the result of conversion experiences. As the control of the established elders and overseers weakened, active participation in meeting for worship was broadened, and the conduct of business was made more democratic. Young people were encouraged to take an active part in the life of the meeting, and the separation of men and women into their own business meetings, which at one time served a useful function by guaranteeing that a women's forum would have equal standing with a men's, was now abolished in favor of the more integrated participation of women in all aspects of the meeting's affairs. With broader and more egalitarian participation in the life of the meeting came an expansion of the work of Friends in national Quaker organizations engaged in a wide variety of causes, especially in the establishment of foreign missions and in the promotion of peace and reconciliation.

Another major consequence of the Great Revival for the Gurneyite yearly meeting in the late nineteenth century was the employment of pastors who had responsibility for the pastoral care of the meeting and for a prescribed role in the meeting for worship. The need for such pastoral leadership was understandable given that many of these meetings had grown rapidly and now ran sizeable Bible Schools, evening and mid-week worship groups, Christian fellowship meetings for younger Friends, and women's service groups, and in addition supported an increasing variety of social causes.

Not all Friends in New England adopted these innovations. The Wilburite meetings had always maintained unprogrammed worship, and from the 1920's, newly established meetings in New England met in unprogrammed worship.

National Quaker Organizations

The Great Revival also gave to Friends in New England a broader sense of their own identity than they had had for generations. As did other denominations during this period, Friends developed national organizations in order to support and expand their work in a wide variety of causes. They were especially concerned for the promotion of peace and reconciliation and, in the Yearly Meeting of Friends for New England, for the establishment of foreign missions.

For the Gurneyite yearly meeting, the most important of these organizations was the Five Years Meeting. Most of the orthodox yearly meetings joined in a series of conferences, first at Richmond, Indiana, in 1887, and subsequently at Indianapolis in 1892 and 1897. Their principal objective was to check the growing tendency among the more evangelical meetings to introduce such outward rites as baptism and communion. Although the attempt to adopt a common Declaration of Faith was not entirely successful, a common book of discipline was eventually accepted by eleven yearly meetings, including New England in 1901. The final outcome of these conferences was the founding in 1902 of a national organization, the Five Years Meeting of Friends, to promote greater unity among Gurneyite Friends. Rufus M. Jones from China, Maine, was one of its most influential leaders. By 1912, the Five Years Meeting had established Boards of Publication, Social Service, Bible Schools, and Young Friends Activities, with a central office in Richmond, Indiana, headed by a general secretary. The Yearly Meeting of Friends for New England was one of the original members, and the reunited yearly meeting remains a member to this day of what is now called Friends United Meeting.

New England Yearly Meeting has also been a member of Friends General Conference since 1959. The General Conference was formed in 1900 and held its first biennial meeting in 1902 for the purpose of bringing together Friends from Hicksite meetings who had been engaged in four areas of work: First Day schools, philanthropic labor, education, and the advancement of Friends' principles. Work with young Friends was also recognized as a department of the Conference at the 1902 meeting. In keeping with the individualistic tendencies of its Hicksite members, the conference made no attempt to create a unified national organization or a super-yearly meeting, but it did establish an office in Philadelphia and appointed a central executive committee and a general secretary to coordinate the activities of its constituent members.

One of the great benefits of a national organization was its ability to bring Friends together in a common undertaking that individual meetings and even yearly meetings could not have undertaken alone. This benefit was often illustrated in the area of foreign missions in the first decades of the twentieth century. One of the earliest of Friends' missions was the result of a trip to Syria and Palestine by Eli and Sybil Jones of Maine. As a result of their interest and the commitment of New England and British Friends, a school for girls was founded at Ramallah in 1869, and several years later a Friends meeting and a boys' school were started up at Brummana. New England Friends supported these missions until 1920, when this responsibility was transferred to the American Friends Board of Foreign Missions under the auspices of the Five Years Meeting. New England Friends also took an active part in missionary work among American Indians, especially among the Kickapoo and Modoc tribes in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

The First World War shifted the attention of a new generation of Friends to the work of post-war relief and reconstruction. In 1917, shortly after the United States entered the war, the American Friends Service Committee was founded in Philadelphia to train Quaker conscientious objectors for reconstruction and relief work in Europe. Once again New Englanders played a prominent part. Rufus Jones was made chairman of the Committee, and Wilbur K. Thomas, who had been serving as pastor to the meeting in Boston, was its executive secretary for ten years, directing it through the critical period of European relief following the war.

The Search for Unity

The founding of the American Friends Service Committee in 1917 provided an unexpected opportunity for Friends in New England to explore possibilities for unity. The relief activities of the Service Committee in Europe had drawn support from Quakers all over the region and had for the first time given Friends of different persuasions a chance to work together in a common endeavor. This spirit of cooperation continued when the Service Committee decided in 1925 to become more than a temporary relief organization. The Service Committee's branch in New England sought to find ways in which Friends could expand their collaboration and create the conditions necessary for a more determined search for unity.

Over the next decade and a half, the two yearly meetings in New England explored the possibilities of reunion with an understandable mixture of reticence and eagerness. The growing sentiment for union was most boldly pursued, however, by newly formed independent meetings of Friends in New England who wished to join neither of these traditional branches of the Society nor to be labeled "evangelical," "conservative," or "liberal." These independent groups maintained that such divisions no longer corresponded to the realities of modern Quakerism and that at least some Friends' organizations in New England should demonstrate the spirit of unity that they and many others already felt.

It was for these reasons that in 1935 Friends meetings at Hartford, New Haven, and in various smaller towns in the Connecticut Valley joined together to form the independent Connecticut Valley Association of Friends. This Association and the independent, meetings of Cambridge and Providence did much to encourage other Friends in the divided Yearly Meetings to find their ways toward the unity that so many were now seeking.

New England Yearly Meeting of Friends

901 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602

(508) 754-6760 - [email protected]