Among the historic divisions among Friends, none were more traumatic than the Hicksite-Orthodox separations, 1826-27. While New England and North Carolina were spared, most other American yearly meetings were torn in two. The reasons were deep and complicated – often along socio-economic and geographic lines. Subsistence versus commercial farming, artistan-craftsmen versus industrialists, rural versus urban, traditional versus forward-looking, tensions between having the polity of Friends lodged within the monthly meeting or at the yearly meeting level, even language itself, one holding to old expressions versus those wanting to embrace a new evangelical ecumenism.
We were not alone. The Puritan legacy, for instance, splintered into Congregationalists and Unitarians about the same time we Quakers split, theirs ostensibly over naming the president to head, first, Dartmouth College and then Harvard. The Dunkers (or German Baptist Brethren), meanwhile, managed to hold together, although their tensions would finally reappear in the 1880s, leading to a five-way split, producing the Church of the Brethren – about the same time many Friends began turning to pastor-led programmed worship. Curiously, the Brethren, laboring under a single yearly meeting, faced major tensions between the Eastern, old-fashioned members and the “Western” (west of the Appalachian Mountains) progressives – the same lineup that Friends would see in the quietist versus pastoral worship styles, with our Western Yearly Meetings going programmed and the Eastern ones largely holding to tradition.
These tensions were fueled by and reflected in many larger societal issues. In politics, the Jacksonians reflected the emergence of westward expansion. In religion, the Great Awakening first blazed through New England (sometimes as the New Lights movement) before igniting in Kentucky and the newly settled regions. In the economy, the industrial revolution was well under way.
For Quakers, the divisions essentially shut down the itinerant ministry from traveling Friends, which had kept the central messages of the faith and practice intact. That loss no doubt played into the emergence of the pastoral system in places where Friends were settling, rather than long settled. Another loss was a breakdown in the sharing of epistles and other written material. We no longer had a common vision to express or unite behind.
I reflect on these not so much as history but as a recognition that our larger society is in one of those watershed transitions – as our presentations and discussions on envisioning the future have suggested. How do we parlay what’s been entrusted to us into the future? Will Friends, as a whole, respond with radically new worship, organization, expression? Will we be sufficiently open to be led where we are needed? Of course, Israel under Roman occupation turned out to be another of those watershed moments, spreading both Judaism and the newly emerging Christianity across the empire. But that’s a much larger and more complicated story, except for the fact that we’re Friends as a consequence.
Or, as old Quakers would say, “Christ is come and coming.” It’s more than “Season’s Greetings,” after all.