Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Reflections  >  Quaker Alphabet Soup


to the world of Quaker Alphabet Soup!

The earliest Yearly Meetings in North America were purely geographical, based on the establishment of a new YM in each colony or other convenient area where there were enough Friends in Monthly Meetings to warrant doing so. The first YMs and MMs were 'set off' or established by London Yearly Meeting, then by the established Meetings in North America. (1)

The geographic size of a Meeting was determined by the distance a Friend would travel once a (month/quarter/year) to attend that meeting, in spite of some flowery language that occasionally gave all of some territory to a particular Meeting.

As Friends migrated westward, usually in company of fellow Friends from the same or nearby MMs, they established new settlements and petitioned their home Meetngs to set off new MMs. When enough Friends had settled in a territory, they petitioned an established YM to set off the new MMs as a new YM. Quarterly Meetings came into being both as gatherings of nearby MMs or as subunits of existing YMs. In the first case, the QMs functioned in place of YMs, until YMs were established. In the second they functioned as subunits of YMs.

The Great Separation of 1827 added to this geographic growth the new element of Meetings at all levels dividing within themselves. These divisions frequently separated families and destroyed lifelong relationships. Ownership of Meeting Houses and cemetaries was disputed, and sometimes ended in court suits. Yearly and Monthly Meetings of different branches now had authority over the same geography.

The Orthodox-Wilburite separation in 1850 had a similar effect, adding more fractures to the continuing geographic growth and organic multiplication occuring now in the trans-mississippi west.

From about 1850 to about 1875, many isolated groups of Friends in the Midwest and West came into contact with Protestant influences which were allowed to influence the forms of worship used by these Friends. Programmed meetings with piano playing and hymn singing were allowed. Itinerant preachers were welcomed and even asked to stay on as Pastors. Friends in the West adopted many Protestant beliefs and moved away from the old mystic experience.

After the Civil War, a wave of Revivalism swept across North America, and had its effect on Friends of all persuasions. This Revival emphasized, among other things, the Pastoral system. The pastoral system was adopted by many Meetings, even some that had not earlier come under Protestant influences. By the 1890's the Society in the United States was easily divided into three distinct groups:

Hicksites-- traditional, unprogramed, non-pastoral, decidedly non-Protestant, non-authoritarian, non-biblical, reject sanctification doctrine

Gurneyites-- the 'Orthodox' Friends, now usually pastoral, moderately Protestant, silent periods in the midst of programmed meetings, authoritarian (2), biblical, accept sanctification

Wilburites-- traditional, unprogrammed, strongly biblical, non-pastoral, reject sanctification, seek the primitive beliefs

[I have to note that 'Protestant' refers to their outward practices and to their beliefs, not to its original, anti-Papist meaning. The early Friends in England suffered for their beliefs alongside Catholics. This common suffering and mutual tradition of mystic belief has grown to a vast sympathy between many mystical Friends and their Catholic counterparts.]

Shortly after this period the Gurneyite branch underwent another schismatic period when 'Fundamentalist' Friends removed themselves. These fundamentalists, along with the Protestant-ized friends of the West eventually became today's Evangelical Friends. (3)

The period from 1895 to 1907 saw the entire Society again come under the influence of a large external movement -- this time the Modernist movement which emphasized rational thought and the application of scientific methods to all fields of study, even to religion. In protest to this, those who sought to cling to their mystical beliefs formed the basis of the Conservative movement, and of Conservative Meetings.

The 20th century seems to have three other periods of MM growth. The first of these was an outgrowth of Friends experience during WWI, when Friends of all persuasions came together to form the Friends Ambulance Corps which participated in medical and relief work in Europe during and after the war. This coming together resulted in the formation of several trans-YM groups including the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation). Other groups include the AFCIA (Associated Friends Committee on Indian Affairs), which established and continues to maintain 'missions' and other centers on reservations in Canada and the United States. Groups such as FUM (Friends United Meeting) and individual YMs have social and medical outreach programs in locations as diverse as Applacia and the Cabarrini-Green projects in Chicago.

Evangelical YMs and churches have reached out to eastern Africa, Mexico City, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as others I forget. It is because of their efforts that todays average Quaker is non-white and non-English speaking. [As a Hicksite Friend who by accident of geography lives in close proximity to several former Evangelical missionaries, let me say that I am in total awe of their accomplishments] (4)

The next-to-last period of Meeting building occured on college campuses after WWII. The influx of ex-GIs to the campuses in the Midwest was accompanied by the hiring of new faculty, largely from eastern Universites. A proportionate share of these faculty members were Friends. They were joined on campus by the children of local Friends, and by concientious objectors returning from alternative service assignments or (gasp) from the jails and prisons where the COs who refused any servce were held. This climate of Convincement and conviction was very strong, to say the least. Many of the Meetings that were formed during this period arose spontaneously, their members signing Minutes of Incorporaton or Founding Minutes. Practically (if not literally) all these Meetings were Hicksite in character, belief, and practice. A good number of them were formed as and remain independant meetings, not affiliated with any YM, while some of them have affiliated with the appropriate type/geographic YM.

This was also a period when Friends of both programmed and unprogrammed traditions were active on the Pacifc coast, and in Arizona. These Friends started new Meetings both by growth and setting off and by spontaneous formation. There are at least three Yearly Meetings today that trace their origins to ths period.

Which all brings us to the present. Friends today are for the most part as lively and dynamic as ever, despite declining numbers in some areas. In the Mississippi-to Rocky Mountain area I am personally familiar with, the number of unprogrammed MMs is increasing, while some Evangelical churches are being laid down. However, the remaining Churches seem to be growing, as the trend toward Community Friends Church continues.

In some areas, churches and meetings alike have recently sought dual affiliations, especially among the unprogrammed meetings. The corporate by-laws of the FGC (Friends General Conference) were recently changed to allow a MM to affiliate directly with FGC as opposed to the traditional practice of affiliation only through a YM. The gradual acceptance of Rationality and Pragmatism by all Friends, aided by the urbanization of the traditionally agrarian Conservatives, has led to a situation where an individual from one branch would almost always feel comfortable in a Meeting for Worship of the another Branch. There are also a growing number of Friends who feel that any Friend should feel comfortable with any other Friend, or with any other Believer; that we have become too caught up in creaturely trappings and political wrangling at the expense of our souls. (5)

Some recommended reading:

Friends for 300 Years, by Howard Brinton. Published by Pendle Hill Publications, Wallingford, PA, esp. chap. 9, "The Four Periods of Quaker History."

Quakerism--A Study Guide on the Religious Society of Friends, by Leonard S. Kenworthy. Published by Prnit Press, Dublin, OH, esp. chaps. 11 and 12.

Mike Hopkins
9th m 1st 1996

Mike adds:

Some of the replies to my original posting were critical of certain dates, but it was an "off the top..." kind of thing. I am sure that the general flow is correct, especially about the geographical relationships of early meetings.

Several years ago, when I was Recorder for the Missouri Valley Friends Conference, I learned from John Griffith, then Clerk of Iowa Yearly Meeting, Conservative, that there were three truths; that which happened, that which we remembered, and that which we recorded. Friends try to bridge the obvious gaps in these three by doing the recording at the time of the event so that what we record is what we remember and as true to what happened as we can make it. I am afraid that my memory may not be exactly what happened, but it is what I remembered of what I read!

Mike Hopkins
3rd m 28th 1997


provided by Bill Samuel:

Mike's post is long, containing a history of Friends in North America. It is very interesting, but at a few points I think there may be inaccuracies or over-generalizations. I will just comment on a couple of them.

I believe the first yearly meetings in North America were established on their own, not set off by London Yearly Meeting, which is actually not the first yearly meeting as currently dated.
Also, at one point, Baltimore Yearly Meeting included all territory west of the Alleghenies. Thus, almost all Friends yearly meetings west of that point can trace their organizational history back to Baltimore YM - sometimes through several intervening steps.
Authoritarian? I don't think any group of Friends would be considered anything close to authoritarian in structure compared to many other religious bodies.
The term fundamentalist can be very confusing. I think most people who strongly consider themselves fundamentalist would not consider Evangelical Friends to be fundamentalist. The terms fundamentalist and evangelical are often used by more liberal folks as almost synonymous, when in fact they are quite different in meaning.
This is too limiting if it refers to those Friends who have aligned themselves with Evangelical Friends International. Significant evangelical work has also been done by Gurneyite Friends.
There have never been very many dually affiliated monthly meetings. In very recent years, several of those that existed have lost one affiliation either through their own choice or the choice of a yearly meeting that felt the monthly meeting acted seriously in discord with that yearly meeting's Faith and Practice. In all cases of which I am aware, this left the monthly meeting a member only of an FGC (Hicksite) yearly meeting. This is indicative that in fact the differences among Friends are often quite great.
In many cases, Friends who strongly identify with Quakerism find themselves uncomfortable in some Meetings. For example, many strongly Christ-centered Friends feel uncomfortable in many liberal, unprogrammed Friends, and a good many have left such meetings, either formally or simply by absence. On the other side, many Friends from liberal, unprogrammed Friends find themselves uncomfortable in many pastoral meetings. There are indeed Friends who feel comfortable in meetings across a very wide spectrum, but there are also many who don't.
Bill Samuel, Landover Hills, MD, USA

[ ==> Bill Samuel's home page ]