Friends lived ‘under discipline’ as a means to avoid disorder

Quakers have always faced an inherent conflict in trying to uphold a community of faith predicated on a personal experience of the Divine. How do you know you’re not being deluded or misled? You have to turn to others. (I’d say this is a great value in marriage, as well!)

This is further complicated by the profession of embodying an eternally unchanging Truth while acknowledging shortcomings in our human comprehension and changing social conditions.

I’m convinced that when the Friends movement first burst forth in Britain, anti-blasphemy laws precluded them from fully articulating the scope of their theological vision. They couched some of that by referring to the Light rather than Christ, and focused on daily conduct, or “walking in the Light.” And, no, it was never “Inner Light,” not until the late 1800s, but rather “Inward Light” or some variant. Light pouring into oneself, like a lighthouse beacon. Well, that’s the thrust of my pamphlet Revolutionary Light, available as a free download at my Thistle Finch site.


BY THE END OF THE 1600S, Quaker leadership had resolved to push away from theological correctness in favor of right daily practice – orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.

The choice has come back to bite us repeatedly.

What we did inherit was a system of unique decision-making.

First is the organization of Meetings designated by the frequency of their decision-making sessions.

The local body is called a Monthly Meeting, and this is where memberships are “held” or recorded. A Monthly Meeting likely encompassed smaller neighborhood bodies of worship within it, such as Preparative Meetings (so called because they might “prepare” items for the monthly business session) or Indulged Meetings or, nowadays, a Worship Group.

Thus, Dover Monthly Meeting over time included Sunday and midweek worshiping bodies on Dover Neck and Cochecho Village, as well as in Kittery/Eliot, Berwick, Rochester, Lee, Barrington, New Durham, Wolfeboro, and Sandwich. In time, those that survived were set off as their own Monthly Meetings and then included in Dover Quarterly Meeting.

Which leads us to the way neighboring Monthly Meetings joined four times in a Quarterly Meeting, for mutual nurture and the resolution of lingering issues. These could be a kind of holiday that Friends and family spent together. I’m told that the local meetinghouses were closed on these occasions, because everyone was away, together.

And once a year, a regional Yearly Meeting gathered, essentially uniting a common discipline and practice for the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings within it. For Dover, this was New England Yearly Meeting, which gathered in the haven of Newport, Rhode Island. And those present were largely representatives who could afford to be away for a week.


SECOND, AND UNIQUELY, Friends developed sets of Queries and Advices to guide practice. At each Monthly Meeting, a few questions would be pondered, personally and then collectively, and a written response would be drafted and sent to the Quarterly Meeting, which would then draft a summary to be considered at the Yearly Meeting.

Until the late 1800s, business was done by the men’s “side of the Meeting” and by the women’s – the meetinghouse had interior dividing shutters that could be opened for worship and closed for business – and each half had its own responsibilities. If there were problems in a marriage, for instance, the man had to report to the women’s Meeting. Or at least, more privately, to its elders.

The Quaker marriage process reflected the faith’s discernment and discipline, as I explain in my new book.


THIRD, FROM THE DUTCH MENNONITES, via the General Baptists they influenced in England, was our recognition of ministers and elders (aka bishops within a Meeting) and, by extension, overseers.

Through them, we also gain our peace testimony, Plainness, even anti-slavery plank.


AND, YES, WE’VE COME TO APPRECIATE “continuing Revelation.” That is, an awareness of our own human fallibilities combined with some flexibility.

If only that had come more fully into Quaker awareness earlier. Instead, at times, we’ve fallen under a deadly legalism.


Check out my new book, Quaking Dover, available in your choice of ebook platforms at

Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.

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